Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reality vs Special Effects: The Case of the Deepwater Horizon

One of my favorite photographs of a catastrophe of all time is this photograph of the Deepwater Horizon blowing up in April of 2010.

Boom !

It is part of a series of photographs taken by an individual on a nearby boat, one of the boats which picked up survivors from this clusterfuck of environmental destruction caused by the shallow greed and criminal stupidity of large corporations.

Few photographs are of this quality and drama. It has spectacle, it has detail, it has scope, it has exotic technology. It elicits a sense of awe and wonder at the magnitude of the disaster caught in an instant by the photographer. It ranks with the great images of its type, such as that of the Hindenberg disaster.

When I first saw it, it looked fake to me.   

In fact, it looked so fake, I wondered why the usual suspects did not discuss in public the obvious implications that the event was planned by the CIA / Illuminati / Rothschild organization in order to raise oil prices, declare martial law, and put everyone in a concentration camp underground before Jesus returned and we left with the space aliens.

Here is why the image looks like a visual effect from a movie:

1. The perfect and dramatic point of view and timing

Rarely do we get to see a disaster from a perfect point of view at the moment of disaster. Generally when such things happen and there is a photographic record of it, the disaster itself is a distance away, or the timing is not quite right, or the photograph suffers from technical flaws due to the unexpected nature of the event. It might be shot through a window, or have someone in the frame that obscures part of what is going on, or there is significant camera shake. A beautiful example of this was the Russian "dash cam" view of the meteor through the window of the automobile.

2. The exquisite detail in part of the photograph

For reasons that probably have to do with the unusual lighting, combined with post processing in photoshop, we have here amazing detail of a large civil engineering artifact. Just look at the detail on the side of this contraption... its completely fabulous. I suspect that some variable contrast enhancement and unsharp masking has been applied. It has that look to it. I also happens to look like a painting on glass, as I discuss in the next item. The actual photograph was taken, I suspect, with a tripod and/or with an image stabilization lens. There is no camera shake worth noting.

3. The composition of the photograph appears to be layered.

Visual effects is generally a photomontage of different elements. Those elements might be photography on a stage, model photography, 2D painted elements and 3D synthetic elements. In the history of visual effects some of the most interesting matte paintings consisted of what was called "paintings on glass" where a painting had transparent areas where live action could be composited.

The probable layers front to back are: foreground water, with glint animation, painting of the Horizon leaning at an angle, first smoke layer, fire layer, second smoke layer, background sky layer, for a total of six layers.

4. The appearance of serious image processing.

Lots and lots of sharpening and probable variable contrast and lots and lots of screwing with the color curves has gone on here.

So whats the moral of this story ?   Seeing is not believing, and photography is easier than ever to fake, but sometimes even things that look fake may not be.



For those who care about what actually happened here, not the photograph but the disaster, the best article I have found was in the NY TImes Magazine and can be read here:

The story makes the point that most people assume that once the blowout happened that the destruction of the Horizon was inevitable. The article explains what happened and why it was not inevitable that the Horizon would have been destroyed.   The Horizon, it turns out, was filled with all sorts of mechanisms that would have allowed it (in all probability) to have survived the blowout without destruction or loss of life.  (In other words, the blowout underwater would still have happened, and with it the oil leak, but the Horizon would not have exploded as a result of it).

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