The Magic of Surface Detail

Surface detail is core to the achievement of visual verisimilitude, or the convincing representation of reality.  The classical philosophers including Plato considered verisimilitude to be an indispensable feature of powerful art and literature – in that verisimilitude was the medium in which to suspend disbelief.

Renaissance painters embraced this principle.   In an age before photography, realistic paintings created a sensory experience that must have felt so enchanting, much like 3D VR experiences feel to us today.

The Arnolfini Portrait 1434, Jan van Eyck, The National Gallery, London

Jan van Eyck  focused on surface detail with an intensity and a mastery that pierces through centuries, still capable of inspiring awe.  He is truly the grandfather of hyper-realism, the artist who set the gold standard for convincing detail in paint for centuries of artists who followed.  Gold surfaces incidentally, were particularly admired by art lovers of the early Renaissance if rendered convincingly in paint rather than gold leaf.  This was seen to be achieving something more artful – to create the illusion of luster out of pigment rather than metal itself.

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 captivates with its convincing velvet drapery and fur textures, evoking a sense of tactile familiarity.  The brass chandelier and mirror subtly reinforce the illusion of reality by balancing the soft and the touchable with the reflective and the gleaming.  This is a world where light meets every surface and knows what to do. We peer into the mirror, in search of the artist with such conjuring powers.   The impact of Jan van Eyck’s realism spread throughout Europe, as his contemporaries and successors struggled to emulate his detail, inspiring a transition from egg tempura and gold leaf to oil painting mediums and techniques across Europe, notably Italy.

Doge Leonardo Loredan 1501-2, Giovanni Bellini, The National Gallery, London

This influence can be seen very clearly in Giovanni Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan of 1501.  It is said that Bellini appreciated the work of Antonello da Messina (d 1479), an Italian painter with strong Flemish connections.

This portrait, with its miraculous depiction of age weathered skin cloaked in wondrous silk brocade, presents a man we immediately relate to, as if we can stare into his eyes and learn something about his humanity. Both of these works achieve their transcendence through surface detail.

In Film

Just as oil painting medium was the breakthrough method underpinning the advances in Renaissance realism, rendering power is the breakthrough technology driving  hyper-detailed 3D surfaces.  Recently I attended a UX conference in London where Pixar’s Dr. Michael B. Johnson  spoke about the process of making a Pixar film.  He said that he was often asked how much faster each frame of film is rendered now as compared to 1995 when Toy Story was released. He said that it takes exactly the same amount of time to render each frame.  It’s just that there is thirty times the power in that rendering interval.  The resulting image is that much denser with visual information.

It is this accurate density which at once simulates the surface of reality yet also strives to surpass it with its artificial beauty.   It was walking home from the cinema after seeing UP 3D, that I first began reflecting on the parallel experiences of 3D animation and Renaissance art.  For those living in Bruges in 1479, it must have been a cinematic experience to be present whilst Hans Memling’s St John Altarpiece was opened on special religious occasions.  The impossibly but beautifully light saturated colours transfix as the expressive story unfolds.  Fast forward to Pixar, and it’s the too bright colours combined with tactile surfaces that initially grabs me, and keeps me visually hooked as the story unfolds.

I was very impressed with Pixar in the 90s but I became a full devotee with the release of Monsters Inc. An icy breeze rustled the tips of Sully’s turquoise fur and I felt a chill up my spine.

Pixar is continuing to find ways to crunch more data with its investment in distributed processing. Tractor™ was released early in 2010, which is a cloud processing solution both for RenderMan (Pixar’s rendering Tool, now an industry standard) but also for other 3D rendering tools in the future.  Users can tap into amplified rendering power via a distributed network, and ramp up or ramp down capacity as required.

In Games

Quake, released by ID Software in 1996 offered consumers the first truly 3D computer game, and this advance  helped drive the demand for PCs equipped with enough processing power and graphics acceleration to cope.  Since then it’s been a dance between games publishers striving to achieve ever higher standards of fidelity, and hardware makers racing to cash in on this market.

Quake, 1996

Surface detail plays a central role in this delivery of high fidelity, and ultimately, immersion.  Contemporary gamers require nothing less than cinematic detail, and the visual experience alone in games such as Crysis 2 (to be released late 2010 by EA) promises to be stunning.

Crysis 2, to be released 2010

Crysis 2, to be released 2010

The current generation of gamers wouldn’t settle for the stretched and tiled bitmaps of Quake.  It would diminish rather than enhance the experience of immersion now that the bar has been raised so high.

As there is a limit to how much detail is required to simulate reality, one wonders how this will evolve.  An overabundance of detail is a possible direction, and one gets the sensation of this watching certain scenes in the Lord of the Rings films and Pixar’s WALL-E.  Of course the human brain and eye is only capable of processing so much detail at once.

Home 3D cinematic effects appear likely join up with the new gestural game platforms (Microsoft Kinect and Sony PlayStation Move) to  bring a whole new depth to the experience of sensory immersion.  The thought of spacial immersion in rich simulated detail is really quite a prospect.

It’s certain that surface detail continues to bewitch modern consumers in search of experience, and if anything, this quest is accelerating.   But does simulated detail only leave us wanting  more, fueling this trend for ever greater fidelity?  Or does it offer a satisfying moment?  Perhaps both.  But it’s certain that this collective desire is going to result in some very interesting and creative art and technology.

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6 Responses to “The Magic of Surface Detail”

  1. Great post. Agree with pretty much all of it. There is one problem the 3D and SFX industry have yet solve and that is the “uncanny valley”

    It is why (in my opinion) Pixar keep a level of characterisation in their films. It’s easier for, some bizarre reason, for humans to empathaise with slightly abstracted character, be it a giant blue monster or a toy cowboy rather than a photorealistic human (i.e final fantasy , beowulf). I also think this is why James Cameron shot live action for the humans to dodge the uncanny valley that would have detracted from the films SFX.

  2. Great post! Very interesting observations.

    I agree that there is sometimes a sense of overabundence in the likes of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. With moving imagery the extent of detail can be hard to take in. It certainly is amazing though! That’s why I’m staying away from video games – the virtual reality created in today’s games are so advanced, I know I’d get completey hooked.

  3. The more “R” they put in VR is fine by me. I don’t think there’s a limit. And if there is, we certainly haven’t come close to it yet.

  4. Nice article. One thing I was thinking whilst reading it was that surface detail, applied correctly, is also the gateway into understanding what lies beneath. Take, for example, the details of the flowing fabric sculpted into the Phidias’ ‘Elgin marbles’ breathes life into stone which makes Bellini’s Doge seem cardboard in comparison.

    • That’s a really interesting thought. Thanks Rupert. I’m going to to keep that thought running for a while, and maybe do a post on it when it’s fermented a bit.

  5. As with film and games, so with digital photography which now provides a level of detail that could only previously be achieved through the use of expensive specialised equipment. This has led to hyperreal images that some onject to on ascetic grounds, but it seems to me better to now have that option rather than not.

    I agree with Kalyanii’s post that the games are looking much too enticing these days!