RenŽ Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928Ð29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz

The Treachery of 3D Graphics Images, by Rene Magritte. The text translates as “This is not a pipe.”

When you go to the movies these days, you expect to see impossible things (Star Wars, X-Men, that sort of thing) in full 3D Graphics color, looking perfectly real and convincing. We’ve gotten used to seeing anything and everything on the big screen. White House destroyed by aliens? Seen it. A man grows younger as he ages? Been there. Titanic sinks? Old news. We know it’s all done through the magic of CGI (computer-generated imagery), and so we aren’t fooled into thinking this is actual film footage. The movies have always been about fantasy and illusion, and we’re okay with that.

Likewise when it comes to ads in magazines we see 3D Graphics. We know that the model has been retouched. We assume that the bottle of liquor looks perfect because it was digitally enhanced somehow, just as years ago we knew it had been “airbrushed.” Everyone knows what “photoshopped” means, even if they don’t know the origin of the word.

What you may not realize is that, in many cases, you’re not looking at a photograph that’s been through Photoshop; you’re looking at a 3D render. The reason it looks better than real is because it isn’t real at all! Let me give you some examples, all of which have one thing in common: not one of them is a photograph. Don’t believe me? Read on.

3D Graphics iPod
This is not an iPod. It’s not a photograph of an iPod, either.
3D Graphics of bottle of tomato sauces
Those aren’t tomatoes.
3D Graphics of commercial products
Not a photo. Fooled you, eh?

Take a look at the following to get an idea how these images were created. The lower image shows the wireframe 3D construction used in making the top image of cosmetics. No camera (digital or otherwise) was used.

3D Graphics of Clinique Product
Virtual product photography starts out like the image on the bottom, known as a wireframe, using a 3D imaging program such as Maya, Cinema 4D, or Lightwave.

Magritte knew what he was talking about when he named his painting (top) “The Treachery of Images.” Images are sneaky things. They can fool us. How? They can alter our perception of the real item represented by the image. When you see an image like this automobile (below), you naturally assume that a real car exists somewhere like that and you can buy it. This is pretty sneaky, if not downright treacherous.

3D Graphics Cinema Porshe
No real car could possibly look this perfect. Is this deceptive advertising?

Back in the early days of color magazines, it was easy to tell a photograph from an illustration. But as technology advanced, the line between photo and art has blurred. For an example of this, let’s take Popular Science magazine (and it’s near-identical twin, Popular Mechanics). In its early days, the magazine cover was an illustration, usually of some new invention that was hot off the drawing board. Readers felt they were getting a glimpse of the future. The magazine, of course, tended to show outlandish–even silly–designs with little likelihood of ever being built, since this is what sold magazines. In this cover from 1940, the implication is that, in two years, the car pictured would be for sale. Most intelligent people, I imagine, would realize that the cover was just an artist’s conception. It was plainly a painting.

3D Graphics of Popular Science cover
Did we say two years? Oops! We meant two hundred.

Beginning in the 1950’s, photographs began to adorn the cover of the magazine. Actual working inventions were shown. These inventions were still unlikely to ever be available to the general public, but now they were real. See? There’s a photograph. It must exist.

3D graphics of covers of popular science
A recurring theme: the personal flying machine for the everyman.

As the magazine entered the 21st century, illustrations again began to appear on the cover, but now they looked just like photographs. This next cover, seems to pretty clearly indicate that a real Iron Man, as shown, exists. That’s a photograph of one, isn’t it?

3D Graphics Popular Science Iron Man
Wow, look, Dad! It’s Iron Man!

This is the same bait-and-switch trick that Popular Science has always played, yet now it’s not obvious to anyone that the cover isn’t a photograph. In fact, it’s a 3D rendering by Nick Kaloterakis. To his credit, editor Mark Jannot does fess up, in his opening “From The Editor” comments. “I have a confession to make,” he says. “There is nothing real about that ‘photo’ of the high-tech soldier poised for action. It is a near future extrapolation of current technology.” Jannot then makes an interesting admission: “When your mission is to offer dazzling visions of the discoveries readers can expect to be coming around the chronological corner, it can be a bit of a challenge to deliver the photographs. That’s where Nick comes in.”

Perhaps this is innocent, and perhaps it’s not. Popular Science has been showing us highly implausible gadgetry since the late 19th century, and month after month, people eat it up. Who can blame them for using digital imagery to sell magazines? The problem I have with it is this: very few readers know that they’re not looking at photographs. Even the supposedly tech-savvy are fooled. Here’s a short article from the hugely-popular blog Gizmodo. Note the last line, giving a “photo credit” to Popular Science’s illustrator Nick Kaloterakis. No great harm done here, but as you can see, Gizmodo isn’t sure if the chair exists or is just a “concept.” In reality, the chair does not exist.

3D Graphics Aeron Killer

Here’s a link to that Gizmodo article.

In time, people will become more sophisticated about what digital imagery can do. But we are still in the early days. One of the first motion pictures, “Arrival of a Train” (1898) showed a train coming towards the camera. The audience fled the theater in panic. We’ve come a long way since then. When we go to the movies, we know that it’s all made up, and that’s why we go: to be entertained. To make believe. To dream. I’m glad that everyone knows how the movies are made. It means they’re watching them with their eyes wide open. The same cannot be said of advertising and anyone who uses images to make money. As I write here in Digital Image Magazine about the craft of this new technology, I thought it fitting to consider how, like all powerful things, it can be misused. Just something to think about. I welcome your thoughts and comments, as always.

For further reading

Is It Live, or Is It CGI? – This piece in Photo District News discusses how computers are replacing cameras for product photography. Interesting stuff.