The Digital Representation of Reality

Typical video game style graphics from the first fight scene of 'Scott Pilgrim' (Google images).

As I was attempting to absorb the video-game style fight scenes, hyper-coloured graphics and fast-paced editing of the new film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World last week, it occurred to me that I was bearing witness to the start of a revolution in filmmaking.

I admit that might be an overstatement. But there is no denying that the film opens up possibilities for representation due to its decidedly postmodern sensibility and experimental nature.

The film is an adaptation of a popular graphic novel series about the adventures of Canadian slacker Scott Pilgrim as he fights (in a series of video-game style battles with evil exes) for the girl of his dreams.

The film deviates from other comic book adaptations because the source text is quite ‘meta’, in that it is self aware of its nature as a comic. It is also playful, inserting video game conventions and popular culture references. The multiple layers of meaning that can be found within the text are translated surprisingly well to a film format, due to its innovative mash-up of live action, comic-book style animation and digital effects.

The use of digital photography and computer-generated effects complicates the notion that photography is a system that has the authority to capture an accurate representation of reality. Batchen suggests that computer-generated images do not need to refer to something with an external existence in reality, stating that “digital images are not so much signs but signs of signs. They are representations of what is already perceived to be a series of representations” (1997, p.213).

So what is the implication when digital images are mixed with real images of actors whose real emotions are captured and convey an accurate reflection of their experiences of reality?

A possible solution is to take on Tagg’s (1998) assertion that there is no overarching identity for photography; that it’s meaning is contingent on the context it is produced in. Predictions about the ‘death of photography’, as explored by Batchen (1997) feel premature, because they presuppose its replacement with a new form, a linear step in the evolution of technologies. But the significance of photography is in fact prolonged by its ability to adapt to emerging forms; to grow and become more versatile by virtue of its merging with technological developments.

In light of this, Scott Pilgrim can be seen to capture the zeitgeist of an era in which digital photography can in fact claim to deliver a meaningful experience to its audience who are well versed in the type of reality it represents, even if its version of reality is grounded in a fictional universe in which the protagonist is the star of his own video game.

Further Reading:

Batchen, G. (1997) ‘Epitaph’ in Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 206-216

Tagg, J. (1988) ‘Evidence, Truth and Order: Photographic Records and the Growth of the State’ in J. Tagg (1993) The Burden of Representation: Essays oon Photographies and Histories, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 60-65

Trailer for ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’

A list of all the video game references in the film

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50 Responses to The Digital Representation of Reality

  1. Interesting post. Definitely something to think about.

  2. denouement32 says:

    In other words: This movie is one-of-a-kind, will revolutionize the format of movies similar to (but a close Second to) “The Matrix” trilogy, and is a damn good film to watch!

  3. Video game style in film is nothing new, but Scott Pilgrim has taken it to another level. I dig the academic nature of your post.

  4. Rio says:

    All artists are constantly trying to represent not only what we perceive but how we perceive. We have so many visual references now we are almost unaware that they constructs. When we reference various content and media in other media we are just doing what we do as consumers, when we see ourselves in the fun house mirror we laugh.

    In the end we are all looking for meaning and regardless of the media, that is what endures, even if the meaning is “there is no meaning”.

    I thought the film was fun.

  5. CrystalSpins says:

    Okay, my ideas about this are not as deep as this authors — this movie ROCKS my face off. It was incredible. And amazing experience and beautiful to look at too boot. Ever since I saw it I have been telling more people to go!


  6. I’ve been wanting to see this movie, thanks for the post 🙂

  7. I really appreciate all the feedback! It is a fantastic film, and its great to read all the discussion about it on the net.

    Also, this blog is a required part of a course I am currently doing, called ‘Exploring Digital Cultures’, hence the academic tone 🙂

  8. Todd Pack says:

    I loved the movie. I don’t know that it’s so much revolutionary as evolutionary — Batman (the series) did comic-book style graphics 40 years ago, and the comic book-style labels on things reminded me a little of Fight Club — but it’s a brilliant movie, and this is a nifty blog!

  9. lichanos says:

    Haven’t seen the flick, but the image reminds me of the Batman TV show, circa 1967. Absolutely the same idea. So much for the revolutionary statement of this film.

    A possible solution is to take on Tagg’s (1998) assertion that there is no overarching identity for photography; that it’s meaning is contingent on the context it is produced in.

    Is there any form of art produced by human beings about which we could NOT say this? Could we not say this about virtually all communication in human culture?

  10. amybeth1 says:

    Thanks fir the post, I look forward to seeing it

  11. adob21blog says:

    Great post…haven’t seen the movie but I sure will now 🙂 And wish you all the best with the course

  12. teknophilia says:

    Using these effects isn’t exactly new, although the large audience will probably have the power to make/break the chances of these “effects” being used in more movies. The comic-book-style is fun, but I hope that not every movie begins using them (like the whole 3D gimmick started by Avatar).

    • I agree, the use of the visual effects isn’t new.

      But I think that for this particular film, they are specifically used to reflect the style of the original comic books, and are done in a way that hasn’t really been utilised before. It would be a shame if this became a gimmick.

  13. gaby says:

    I want to see this! Usually I’m turned off by CGI or 3D effects, such as Avatar (yawwwn) they’ve always been boring to me, but it sounds like this movie humanizes the effects and makes it secondary to the characters instead of the main event.
    I’m not familiar with the comic book, but hopefully that shouldn’t matter. Cool good post.

  14. cwashin55 says:

    I just got back from watching the movie. I was definitely amazed at how well the effects were used in making the movie feel like a live action comic. I’m definitely getting my friends to watch this.

  15. There is no death of anything in most cases. It is just the passing on of what people have come to know and expect from something. People have a hard time letting go of what they have always known. They forget that what they now know was not always the way it has been and that nothing is without change. It’s a metamorphosis into something new. This usage is new within the context of the genre. We’re not talking Who Framed Roger Rabbit here. Mixed media film and 3D technology are not gimmicks anymore than saying that new FX developed for something like Star Wars were gimmicks. It’s a trend and movement in a different direction that will likely affect movies for years to come.

  16. sayitinasong says:

    How cool!

  17. Wow…i’m actually a fan of both the comic and the film, however I really did’nt think about that way. For me, the references were supposed to work as an anchoring point of emotions, for the readers/viewers to relate to and help better comprehend whats happening in the story.

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  19. natinanorton says:

    Congrats on Freshly Pressed!

    To be honest, after seeing the trailer for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World about a million times, I still have no interest in seeing this film. That’s not a slight against graphic novels or graphics and special effects – which do look amazing. What I’m not sold on is the story being any good. Of course I’d have to SEE IT to be sure, but all the same, the ad for me was selling something the entertainment industry seems to be WAY too focused on right now – style over substances. And I’m not buying.

    Avatar and the Transformers franchise are excellent examples of this (both of which I HAVE seen), where at least 20-30 minutes of special effects, which in NO WAY contribute anything vital to the story, could have been cut to give the movies an overall more digestible run time. Avatar also went above and beyond, wasting an assload of time and money trying to master the latest trend of 3D technology which resulted in admittedly one or two pretty effects, but nothing worth getting all that excited about.

    Fancy graphics and digital effects are cool, as long as they’re background to a good, well-developed narrative. And these days in Hollywood, for this one dedicated movie goer, that trend is severely lacking.


  20. mrdanbaird says:

    I’ve not yet been to see the film but I’m not sure I’d agree that it is as revolutionary as you’re letting on.

    In terms of multi-layered meanings within a text, there’s countless films that have done this before. The immediate example that comes to mind is the movie Adaptation. The movie is written by Charlie Kaufman and it’s about himself attempting to write a movie, into which he writes himself. Very self-involved.

    In terms of visual style the film is also nothing new, it has just been pushed to the Nth degree. Sin City was almost a direct translation of the comic, at times using the comic as a storyboard. Visual motifs to comic books have been used in countless movies and I thought Ang Lee’s underrated The Hulk pulled it off well.

  21. well have not seen the movie…but want to see it so badly…it has action, humor and some cute ass actors that play their role pretty fantastic…

  22. knownever says:

    The swedish film Let The Right One In used digital effects in a way that i think illustrates your point very clearly because while something like scott pilgrim mixes digital effects into live action in an obvious way, let the right one in uses them in a very very understated way. so subtle that if you’re not paying close attention you could miss them. this is interesting because film makers are using digital effects in ways that erode photography/film’s claim to verisimilitude while still appearing to maintain the veneer of realism. not that photography has not always done that (turn of the century photos of seances/ghosts/auras anyone?)

  23. semboroproxy says:

    Great post…haven’t seen the movie but I sure will now 🙂 And wish you all the best with the course

  24. Everyone makes their own reality and it’s being re-interpreted as we advance through time.

  25. Stefano Magliole says:

    Very intererting post. I haven’t seen the movie – and I don’t think I will, honestly – but I’d love to share ideas about the nature and the future of photography. When I first read Roland Barthes’ book on photography (Camera Lucida, 1977 if I don’t remember bad), my path was brightened up. I was not so close to photography at that time but the book gave me a new perspective of looking at pictures and movies. Barthes says that the real meaning of phototography is in showing “what has ceased to be”. His idea was that the importance of photography doesn’t lay in showing the reality, but in the process of showing something that was not anymore. The real value of photography is time. But, on the other side, here we are talking about photography within the idea of a movie… What does it change? Is it still valid what Barthes said? I have always been fascinated by the futuristic idea of rapresentation of movement. People used to think og a movie as “photography in movement” but futuristic proved them wrong; futurists painters (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni) thought that a movie is just a series of static pictures, rolling so fast to SEEM in movement.
    Now if we put together these concepts together, is it possible to forecast future of photography?

  26. missderrie says:

    This was an intriguing post 🙂 The other day I saw this advertised on the TV; the trailer. My sister and I burst out laughing when it had finished because we just thought it looked like a ‘rubbish’, effortless film. We thought the title itself was unadventurous. It reminded me of ‘Percy Jackson and the lightening thief which I saw and despised. However, after reading your post you have changed my mind of this new movie. I hadn’t appreciated the new style it was using. You say it is aware of what it is portraying, comic-style, cartoony and videogame-like and now I take back the bad things I have said about it. If I had opened my mind I may have seen this, or if I researched it further. It is a new thing which is why I didn’t understand it and immediately wrote it off as bad.

    I shall watch this film now 🙂

    Plus, I like the way you have spoken about something you’re studying. It helps you because sharing is the best form of teaching yourself, yet it helps others because it is a field they may not be that educated in, like myself. I started blogging for this reason but with Psychology which I cannot wait to start as a degree in two weeks!

    Anyway, great article!

  27. Rodger says:

    I’ve always been a fan of Edgar Wright’s style of heavy sound effects and quick cuts of the little actions people do. And to me out of all his films this fitted very naturally too!

    For me it’s gotta be one of the most original and creative style of filmmaking to fit the feel of the original story.

    Also brings me back to my geeky childhood/teenage memories 🙂

  28. soe says:

    it’s cool i never seen like this before. I hope you can share the technique

  29. jenmagbanua says:

    I do love what you said in the conclusion. This post makes me anticipate more on seeing the movie. 🙂

  30. This movie looks awesome! Movies have really benefited from advancements in technology.

  31. Thanks for the great possible. I will be delighted to see thing by my self. Hopefully I will …

  32. thejourneywithnoend says:

    I haven’t seen the movie. I am intrigued….

  33. very nice site. Thanks Admin !

  34. chris says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but trailor for Scott Pilgrim reminds me of nothing so much as the old Batman tv show. Which was am amalgam of graphic comic book conventions and the typical 60’s campy tv show. The video game references have been a staple of many action movies so I don’t see where the alleged meta comes in here since SP is just derivative of previous conventions. I think one of the more interesting uses of the video game narrative was in the Hong Kong movie, “Full Time Killer” where the protaganists agree to battle in a warehouse according to specifics of their favorite video game. This was embedded in the action without any reference other than in their actions for finding weapons and tools. No crazy graphics or anything added.

    As for the photographic reference I think the real problem with photo theory is the idea that photography has been anything other than a pack of lies its entire history. Since photography contextualizes a complete scene by cropping with the camera and has a long history of manipulation via dodging, burning and collage and rephotographing and even painting over. Pretty much been photoshopping itself since it was invented. However it’s meme has always been indexical since it was predicated on capturing an image of something. With digital I think the problem is semantics since we continue to call it photography but it’s not when its not indexical. It’s actually more like painting now since you can create something out of nothing. Call it digital imaging and it sounds more like what it is. It can be indexical if it wants (and there is an entire history of painting basing itself on photographs and photographic techniques) but doesn’t need it. You could call it’s indexical side digital photography or just give up on it and move on. And yes, the “photography is dead” narratives are just so much hyperbole to generate discussion, site hits, and grist for the business of academic publishing, museum visits, gaining tenure etc….

    As for the “meaningful experience” part of your post, I’m not sure that that would be. He gets the girl? Or that some pseudo-meta youtube nonsense with a little nudge-nudge wink-wink and CGI qualifies as meaningful because a large number of people spend their time reading comic books and playing video games? I think the movie looks like a lot of fun(and as soon as it’s out on dvd I will rent it) but to me it looks like nothing so much as more of the same that’s going on now.

  35. rajeev says:

    Nice introduction to the movie.

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  38. joshsuds says:

    Looking forward to seeing it!

  39. Des says:

    I thought that same thing when I saw Scott Pilgrim the other day…this is the start of a new way of cinema. I feel that movies that come out in the future will feature these same special effects.
    Though, I’m not so certain they will be as successful as Scott Pilgrim was. Everything in Scott Pilgrim was done so well. I feel a lot of movies will try this out and fail.
    We’ll see. It will be very interesting to watch this kind of development in movies to come.

  40. video games says:

    Your thoughts do create your reality.

  41. Shirley says:

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  43. John says:

    hey, nice blog…really like it and added to bookmarks. keep up with good work

  44. Fred says:

    This site is very informative. Good share by the way.

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