The Magic of Surface Detail

Originally published 03 Aug 2010


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 virtual 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 lustre 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. 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.


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. I remember hearing Pixar’s Dr. Michael B. Johnson speak about the process of making a Pixar film at a UX conference I attended in London.  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 became a full devotee of Pixar when an icy breeze rustled the tips of Sully’s turquoise fur in Monsters, Inc.

Monsters, Inc (2002)

Pixar is continuing to find ways to crunch more data with its investment in distributed processing. Tractor™ was released early in 2010, and is a cloud processing solution for RenderMan (Pixar’s rendering Tool, now an industry standard).  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 ( 2010) is superlative.


Crysis 2, 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 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 hyper-realism only leave us wanting more, fuelling a desire 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.


Archived Comments


Matt Ratcliffe 04 Aug 2010 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” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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 empathise 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.
Kalyanii 17 Aug 2010 Great post! Very interesting observations.I agree that there is sometimes a sense of over abundance 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 completely hooked.
Michael Alves 25 Aug 2010 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.
Rupert Jones 18 Oct 2010 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’ http://bit.ly/ceyunH breathes life into stone which makes Bellini’s Doge seem cardboard in comparison.
Joe 15 Aug 2011 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 object 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!
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