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Emotional Response to Computer Generated Special Effects:realism Revisited

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Emotional Response to Computer Generated Special Effects:Realism Revisited

The art of visual effects in motion pictures is an art of illusion. For over 100 years, film audiences have experienced cinematic illusions, some more believable than others. When a film grosses millions of dollars during its first week of national release, it is likely that it has had a large pre-release budget, that it has opened in a large number of theaters, and is entertaining, perhaps boasting the latest in computer-generated special effects. Before the 1990s, motion picture special effects were created by photographic process, choreographed before the camera during the production phase of the film. Today, the computer-generated special effect flourishes in modern motion picture production, particularly in the horror and science fiction film genres, as an alternative to filmed special effects.

Computer-generated special effects have become more technically mature, resulting in their greater use by filmmakers, and film spectators have given them a positive reception (see Morse, 1995). It has been argued that as the technology improves, its emotional impact on the viewer will increase, resulting in a greater emotional connection to the motion picture (Weiss, Imrich, & Wilson, 1993), along with increased believability of the filmed image (Anzovin, 1993; Rayl, 1990). Some investigators have even proposed that the film viewer may soon be unable to distinguish between filmed and computer-generated images (Anzovin, 1993, Rayl, 1990).

Although audience reaction to filmic special effects has been studied (Hill, 1998, Hoffner, 1995, Johnston, 1995, Zillman & Gibson, 1996), little is known about audience response to computer-generated special effects. Some obvious questions arise: Do viewers perceive computer-generated special effects to be as realistic as filmed effects? Do viewers respond to computer-generated special effects with the same emotional intensity as filmed special effects? Is the degree

of realism of special effects related to the viewer's emotional response? In other words, to what extent does the realism of special effects drive the emotional intensity of the viewer's response? For a given set of images, can viewers distinguish between filmed images and computer-generated images, and can they distinguish between unstaged filmed images and staged film images?

In the provocative, but largely unscientific literature of film studies the issue of the importance of realism in motion pictures has been hotly debated. The French film journalist and theorist Andre Bazin (1973) eloquently argued that realism brings the viewer into a closer relationship with the world of the film, that it brings the viewer into a relationship more like the relationship the viewer enjoys with reality itself. In her writings on photography, Susan Sontag lays out the difficulty: She states "Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we are shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what is in the picture." Extending these notions a bit, one might expect that if viewers perceive a filmed effect as more realistic than a computer generated effect, they might also be expected to find it more emotionally intense. I decided to test this notion in the form of the following hypotheses:

(H1) The degree of realism perceived by the viewer will be greater with noncomputer-generated special effects (live film footage) than with computer-generated special effects.

(H2) Emotional response to exposure to graphic violence will be greater with noncomputer- generated special effects (live film footage) than with computer-generated special effects.

(H3) There is a positive relationship between the viewer's perceived realism and the viewer's experienced emotional intensity when watching film footage of graphic violence.


Participants were 65 undergraduate students in communication at Georgia State University (female=34; male=31), ranging from 19 to 51 years of age, with a mean age of 23 years. The Perception Analyzer, a new device designed to measure response in film viewers, was used. The Perception Analyzer consists of a computer linked to wireless control modules to be managed by participants in a study. Each participant was given a wireless control module with a dial set at the

midway point and instructed that 0 (far left) was lowest and 100 (far right) was highest. Participants were given five warm-up questions with which to practice using the device, and proficiency was confirmed by the administrators.

Two videotapes of film clips containing graphic violence were prepared, each tape containing eight 30 second clips in three catagories, computer-generated special effects (C); filmic special effects (F; live, staged); and, documentary footage (D; live, unstaged), for a total of 24 film clips per tape. Both tapes contained the same film clips, but in a different order to minimize order effect. The first videotape (Videotape 1) was used to obtain the participants' ratings of emotional intensity to the clips, and the second (Videotape 2) to record the extent to which the participants perceived each clip as real. The participants viewed Videotape 1, and during the viewing , reported on emotional intensity of each film clip by turning the dial. The participants did the same with Videotape 2, but this time, reported their perception of the realism of the film clips. After viewing each film clip, the participants' dials were returned to midway position. The readings from the Perception Analyzer modules were collectively recorded on computer for analysis.


The mean scores for each type of footage, computer-generated special effects (C ), filmic special effects (F; live, staged), and, documentary footage (D; live, unstaged), support the first hypothesis, that viewers perceived the film clips with noncomputer-generated special effects (F and D) as more real than film clips with computer-generated special effects (C) (see Table 1). The mean scores for each type of footage support the second hypothesis, that film clips with noncomputer-generated special effects (F and D) would receive higher ratings of emotional intensity than film clips with computer-generated special effects (C). Preliminary analyses of the data indicate support for the third hypothesis: There is a significant positive



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