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For use with Chapter 17
Reflection and Refraction

The Devil Is in the Details
Posted March 16th, 2000

Life is not perfect. In fact, we are so used to seeing imperfections in everything we see that if something looks too perfect, it just doesn't look real. Visual effects artists in Hollywood are constantly working to make their effects look as real as possible.

A short 10 years ago, when most special effects were achieved with models, imperfections naturally occurred because the models were real. Today, many films use computers to generate virtual "models," and visual effects artists constantly struggle to add the imperfections to the "perfect" computer images.

The most noticeable examples of computer generated "perfection" occur in the 1995 film Toy Story. This was the first full-length feature completely animated with computers. The images in Toy Story appear so smooth and perfect that it is obvious they are computer generated.

When Disney and Pixar produced the blockbuster's sequel, Toy Story 2, they added some imperfections in various places - scuffs, dirt marks, and corrosion. The problem is that this process is extremely time consuming and expensive.

The reason we see these imperfections is a result of the interaction of light reflecting off and refracting through an object's surface. Two techniques, known as "ray tracing" and "radiosity," allow artists to play with the lighting of the virtual model to increase realism. While these techniques are becoming increasingly realistic, they still don't produce total realism.

Today, programmers are developing specialized computer software that will allow artists to "paint" pre-designed imperfections onto computer models. Artists will soon be able to recreate various textures and imperfections, from organic images like skin and fur to solid features like crumbling stones and corrosion.

These new techniques are giving virtual model makers a new way to produce realistic images. This technology is not only used by Hollywood for special effects blockbusters, however. Corporations, such as Boeing, is beginning to use such software to make their training videos all the more realistic.

 

Activity
Watch several movies that contain computer-generated visual effects. Then write a an entry in your science journal explaining whether these effects looked realistic or not. Be sure to explain how they looked unrealistic, if you do not feel they were.

References

 


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