I’m cheating a little with this particular Meteorological Misanthropy because I’m not talking about any real explosions. I’m not even talking about any real fires. (Other than the fire sale on Wall Street, I guess!?)
Heck, I’m not even talking about any real lightning.
I’m talking about CGI lightning. Very unrealistic CGI lightning at that.
At least to me. Did I ever mention that lightning storms at night might be the only decent thing about Hell? I have stared intently at enough lightning storms as a form of self-soothing in my life to apparently have pretty good pattern recognition for how they behave in real life. (I’ve also lived through a couple of memorable 2000s and early 2010s West Coast wildfire years, evacuated because of a fire at work within my first few months at each of my jobs to date, and had to evacuate my complex the night before I left for my annual overseas travel extravaganza twice because nearby apartments were on fire. So, just in case you hadn’t started doubting whether my story was plausible yet, I think I might also have a claim to knowing how fires, both controlled and uncontrolled, behave in real life as well.)
I recently got a new phone. This is the first time in about three years that I have had a current model phone, though I’ve had to replace my phone every year. I am one of the few people in the world for whom phone insurance is a good deal because I drop everything eventually.
Unfortunately, phone insurance replaces your phone with exactly the same model, so with each “replacement,” mine had gradually become more and more out of date. I finally sprung for the extra to simultaneously upgrade when I submitted my most recent claim.
I didn’t think much about it when my phone’s YouTube app asked if I would like to “enhance my video experience.” I unthinkingly hit yes, and then immediately regretted it. Apparently, “enhanced” video means weird filtering effects that make everything look permanently blue or orange to me. It took me a while to figure out how to “un-enhance” my experience again.
It turns out that I am perfectly comfortable living permanently in the world of late-nineties video special effects, thank you. I have had to see enough orange already for the past almost four years.** I’d like a little less of it when I’m watching escapist special-effects-heavy YouTube videos or the latest big-budget disaster movie, please!
I’m not even (just) making a Trump joke here. I’d also like to experience the full range of available colors on the light spectrum, pretty please, because it really does visually bother me. The washed-out seemingly permanent blue/orange filters that are omnipresent in post-2010 disaster movies have bothered me for years, though it is only now, after my YouTube “enhancement” frustration, that I have finally done the research to explain technically why I have been bothered about it for years.
Why do all videos nowadays have to have filters applied? When did “reality” cease being “real” enough? Is there really anyone out there who goes, “Yes, please, let’s make the grass the dinosaurs are running through look so alienly blue that the pyroclastic cloud those same dinosaurs absolutely should not be outrunning in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom because it travels at 80-400 mph seems like the most realistic thing about that movie?” (My Partner’s response, btw, to my complaining about that scene when we watched that movie this week was, “orange is the new ash!” But, he agreed with me about the filters. He also prefers standard definition to high definition television because the excessive visual editing is easier to ignore in SD.)
I’m a fan of disaster movies. I inevitably use them as a pleasant escapist alternative when my reality itself gets a little too disastrous – or when the media constantly plays up how we are experiencing the “politics of fear” and/or other humans in the real world start hoarding like we’re about to live through a disaster movie of our very own.
But, I do actually know what lightning looks like. And, if I’m watching disaster movies to ignore politics I can no longer change, I’d very much like a little more reality in my unreality in the form of at least a few stock footage shots of real storms that I can say look “right.”
Unfortunately, the more prevalent CGI gets, the more it replaces old-fashioned location shots in movies. Through the early 2000s, a movie like Call of the Wild would have been filmed, if not in Alaska, at least in some equally cold country that vaguely looked like Alaska. In the 2020s, almost the entirety of its scenery is green-screen. It’s cheaper to CGI Alaska than to fly there now.
And, because it is so much cheaper, movies no longer have those little touches – like lightning that behaves like lightning – that filming on location or using stock footage did for older disaster movies when CGI was too expensive to use for everything.
The more heavily CGIed the movie, the worse its lightning inevitably looks to me. I’m willing to suspend disbelief enough to accept (ok, “mock ceaselessly with a generous helping of salty popcorn mixed with sweet m&ms”) the “outrunning a pyroclastic flow” trope in disaster movies. But, I require at least five solid minutes of generic stock footage of lightning to accompany my “F-6” tornadoes before I’m willing to gloss over the fact that modern disaster movies think that calling something an “F-6” makes it better in the first place.
The weird blue-tinted grass in the fields that the dinosaurs are running over as they outrun a pyroclastic flow was just one disbelief too far for me this week. Give me the original Jurassic Park over Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom any day, even though it doesn’t even have a volcano! It at least has dinosaurs running over greenish grass that vaguely looks like it could be on an island off Costa Rica. I’ve been to Costa Rica, and it wasn’t blue. (I’ve also been to countries that could at least substitute for Alaska on location, so I won’t be seeing Call of the Wild in theaters, either.)
I have wanted so badly to use terrible ScyFy disaster movies with names like Space Twister (seriously, look it up!) as a replacement for sleeping-while-triggered this past week. Humans behaving badly out of “fear” is triggering for a girl who remembers why she found lightning less “fearful” than most people growing up in Hell. I want more grounding in my fictional meteorological realities when I’m struggling with the continued lack of grounding of other people, from our POTUS down to my most recent uber driver. “Fearful” humans are something to fear. (No. Just no. Boris Johnson, it isn’t cool to suggest that your constituents should just “take it on the chin” and play Social Darwinist with your immuno-compromised population. No. Just no. Global citizens, it doesn’t matter how much hand sanitizer you personally hoard if everyone around you is out of soap!)
While tornadoes that blow debris the wrong way in late-90s disaster movies like Twister are “good enough,” modern CGI lightning hits me right in the Uncanny Valley. Humans are very good at pattern matching for things we know well. For most people, that’s only people. This is why CGI humanoids are one of the very few remaining risky domains for movie makers.
I, apparently, experience Uncanny Valley for lightning. I know what it’s supposed to look like, so I’m permanently discomfited by things that don’t fit the pattern. It just looks wrong. Wrong enough that I may have gone down a rabbit hole this past week that started with googling “why does CGI lightning look so bad?” and ended up*** with having the vocabulary to articulate why the grass in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom also looks wrong to me, and to now be so additionally aware of mass distortions in CGI that I have probably doomed my ability to suspend disbelief whenever superheroes throw hunks of buildings at the villain.
The short answer(s):
- CGI is so cheap now that it’s easy for even small-budget studios to hire teams of CGI designers with a very limited sense of the physics of how real objects move in space and have them just design something that “looks impressive.” Before, CGI was so expensive that studios hired actual physics consultants to make sure they maximized the impact of their CGI show-off scenes.
- Most people’s sense of what is physically “real” is sufficiently underdeveloped that they don’t notice obvious mass distortions in how objects move or heavy filtering. Thus, it makes sense to “enhance” big-budget effects like explosions by applying orange/blue filtering to make the fire stand out more against the background and “pop,” even though real lava or fires would have a broader sub-spectrum. Ironically, this sometimes leads to people finding real explosions, if they have the misfortune to see one, “unrealistic” looking!
During this same multi-hour research rabbit hole, I found some qualitative evidence that individuals who self-identify as neurodiverse are more likely to notice – and be bothered by – visual “enhancements” such as blue/orange filters.
We may, however, also be more easily able to anthropomorphize completely non-human objects as humans. (So, if the Singularity ever happens, we’ll probably be on the robot rights side? And, hopefully, they’ll spare us when they inevitably rise up because everyone else treated them like humans treat other humans when they are afraid, while we were nice?!)
Does anyone else (neurodiverse or NT) even notice movie effects like blue/orange filters overlaid on scenes with explosions?
If so, is that orange filter as bothersome to you in a fictional world as it is bothersome in our “real” world? Or, do you think it actually makes visual effects “pop” like it is supposed to?
**I will vote for whoever runs against Trump. Of course, I will. I grew up in Hell, though, and I’ve lived in more Red states than just it since then. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m a little “fearful” that we won’t actually see our “Blue” wave if we fall back into the rhetoric of 2016. The election of 2016 was too focused on being against Trump and never gave disengaged voters in key electoral college states enough reason to come out for something concrete. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t personally wish we’d try for something more than just a return to “status quo” with our blue-tinted nominee. I very much want to see a truly Progressive slate of candidates and a major party that coalesces behind universal healthcare (instead of a public option for those who “want it”) and that supports substantive policies to slow out-of-control income inequalities in America. I don’t personally feel like I’m going to see that in the way I dream of (after growing up in a Republican social service wasteland) if Biden is the ultimate nominee. But, I’ll do everything I can to turn our reality’s current “Orange” filter “Blue” in November no matter who is the nominee. I’m often disillusioned with what passes for America’s “Blue,” but I won’t concede America to shades of “Orange” or “Red” without a fight! And, I’ll keep advocating for a broader “spectrum” of Progressive policy options long after November.
***I may also have ended up reading about the unique geochemical signatures of volcanoes, how they affect the color of pyroclasts, and how those geochemical signatures might be used to date the causes of the potentially worst year to be alive in human history (AKA 536 AD) during that same research binge. I’m neurodiverse and hyperfocus is a thing! But, now I have at least a theoretical sense of what an actual pyroclastic flow would look like without any visual “enhancements.” This makes me happy. And, it makes me want to go to Hawaii the next time a safer touristy volcano is erupting. Because I’m weird. And because – whatever else may happen with Hell or otherwise in the nearish future – I will now be able to at least make dismal-science style gallows humor jokes about, “Well, at least it isn’t quite 536 AD yet!”
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms.