Showing Abstraction versus Showing Reality

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2014


This topic started as a personal mystery: Why are the monsters in CGI movies so boring to watch? CGI is, in theory, animation on steroids. It should be producing visual wonders beyond those of ordinary animation. But in practice it is much more constrained. It does much less "wonder" than ordinary animation. What's going on here? Why do Barnacle Bill the Sailor and Steamboat Willie, black and white animations from around 1930, show lots more imagination in what their characters can do and become than the CGI monsters in 2014's Godzilla or Transformers? I find contemporary CGI monsters to be deadly monotonous -- they all look the same, roar the same, and move the same. At times, I would swear just one person has made every CGI monster in movie existence!

Why is this? The answer is a difference in aspiration of the designers. The early animators are showing off their ability to portray abstraction while the contemporary CGI designers are showing off their ability to portray reality. That difference in aspiration is the topic of this essay.

Communicate Realism or Abstraction?

Communication is the art of moving information from one person to another. As human communication abilities have improved, the styles available have expanded and the range of what can be communicated has grown enormously.

What deeply excites human communication inventors all through the ages is when they find a new way to portray reality faster, better and more cheaply. But portraying reality is, in fact, only half the battle: The other half is portraying good abstractions faster, better and cheaper. To give one example of this difference in aspiration between reality and abstract consider painting. In the 1600's the breakthrough graphic artists were the Dutch Masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. They got much better at portraying reality than their predecessors. They aspired to portray realism and made significant breakthroughs in painting technology that let them make a lot of progress in doing so. The converse is the Impressionists of the 1800's such as Monet and van Gogh. These artists were all about doing good abstract, not good realism.

This pendulum swings back and forth. My personal experience with the swinging is in watching the evolution of movies and computer games. In the movies of 2014 the neat portrayal of abstract was The Grand Budapest Hotel. I felt like I was watching a Surrealist painting as I watched this. In computer games the early PC games -- those of the late 70's and early 80's -- were abstract. They had to be. The computing power wasn't there to handle both realism and motion in real time. But the game designers aspired to realism, and as the computing capabilities steadily increased, most of the change in computer game design was to make the games more realistic. The result: tons of sequels in which each sequel had more realistic visual portrayals than the predecessor. That side flowered mightily, but, alas, only a handful of new game concepts appeared. This drying up of new game concepts bugged me deeply, and I steadily lost interest in mainstream PC gaming. With the advent of smart phones abstract came to the fore again, briefly, because the processing power on those was limited. Sadly, only briefly.

Where is communicating abstract important?

The CGI movie and computer gaming industries are deeply caught up in realism. Is there anywhere that is deeply caught up in abstraction?


Those human activities that involve fast and important decision making love abstract. Some examples of these are the business world, the military and disaster response.

So, what forms of abstract communication do people use in these activities?

Charts and graphs are two traditional favorites, and Power Point-style presentations are a new variant. In charts and graphs, real world information is getting deeply abstracted. In the process it is getting refined so that which is relevant to making choices is portrayed in a format that is quick to digest. This a great aid when users want to make quick and good decisions. In these environments the goal of abstraction is to reduce distraction.

Real and abstract learning styles

It is interesting that some people hate charts and graphs. Show them a graph and they start yawning -- this is not something they want to see and they won't take much away from it. Conversely, there are people like me, who start yawning at CGI monsters.

How we want our information presented is subject to personal taste. This is why when we are educating, informing and entertaining we must be aware that people have different communicating preferences and each will pick up information more quickly in different ways.