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VFX as a Violation of Reality

by Jeremy Butler

“In a medium whose very essence is the ability to reproduce the look of everyday reality, one of the surest ways of attracting the viewer’s attention is to violate that reality,” contends Paul Messaris. What intrigues him is advertising’s use of distorted imagery to make a viewer notice a product. Studies in cognitive psychology show that this distortion is most effective when it varies only slightly from a familiar object. As Messaris explains, “if the discrepancy between the unfamiliar shape and some preexisting one is only partial, the mental task of fitting in the new shape becomes more complicated. As a result, such partially strange shapes can cause us to pay closer attention.” If an object is wholly different from what you are familiar with, you may ignore it completely or place it in a new visual category; but if it is partially similar, then your cognitive processes work overtime trying to figure out whether or not it is a familiar object.

Messaris cites digital morphing as a prime example of this principle. A morph takes two dissimilar objects and creates a seamless transition from one to the other. In so doing, it creates a strange, reality-violating hybrid of two familiar objects. Morphing first came to viewers’ attention in the films Willow (1988) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), where humans morph into various shapes (tvcrit.com/find/willow, tvcrit.com/find/terminator), but it found its widest exposure in Michael Jackson’s Black or White music video and television commercials in the 1990s (tvcrit.com/find/blackorwhite). Notably, a Schick Tracer razor commercial morphs between a variety of faces—effectively communicating the idea that the Tracer will fit any shaped face and simultaneously getting viewers to concentrate on the ad by violating the reality of human physiognomy—as when a white man transforms into a black one (tvcrit.com/find/schick).

See: Paul Messaris, Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997).

The New Technology of Morphing... In 1991

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Judd Rose files a report on what was then cutting-edge technology: morphing.

from ABC News (1991)
Creator: ABC
Distributor: none
Posted by Jeremy Butler
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