The Perception of Children in a CG World

2 February, 2012 at 8:27 am
Real Steel - Atom

"I'm not a real robot, but I play one on TV."

Children have always been given to flights of imagination. They love a good story, a well-spun fairy tale, a dash off into the woods to fight with unseen, ethereal foes.

But now, perhaps more than ever, Children are unable to grow up with a solid grasp of reality. Movies create such a convincing fiction in the young and inexperienced mind, that’s it’s impossible to distinguish the latest product of Industrial Light and Magic from every other mystery they have yet to experience in the larger world.

I was talking to my 5-year-old son Ivan about robots. About how it would be fun to build one, even though I don’t know how. I saw a look coming into his eyes, and it occurred to me to offer a disclaimer.

“We couldn’t make a robot like in the robot boxing movie,” I said, referencing Real Steel, which we just recently watched. “Robots like that don’t exist.”

“Why not?” He asked.

“Because they’re too advanced. People don’t know how to make them.”

“Why not?”

“They just can’t. The robots you see in movies like that, or in Transformers, they’re made on a computer. Like a video game. It’s not real. They’re not really there with the people.”

As I struggled to explain this, I realized that it was so hard simply because the suspension of disbelief presented in films in the era of photo-realistic CG is total and complete when encountered by a developing mind. This is, I think, both a good thing – it fuels the imagination and presents limitless possibilities as realities – and a bad thing – it confuses the real with the imagined in ways that confound the apprehension of the real.

Those of us who grew up in an age before Photoshop and rendering farms remember the cheesy attempts at computer-altered reality just a decade or so ago, and how hard it was to really fake something. (I remember when this is what passed for really good robot CG.) But now, even the photographs in news stories are sometimes faked, and unless you are tuned in to that sort of thing, you’re not going to see it coming. The seamless integration of dinosaurs, aliens, or 30-foot-tall robots with real actors in films makes early attempts at blending live action and animation (like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) seem silly by comparison. For adults who suffered through Gremlins, Star Trek, The Dark Crystal, and even the Lucas-man-child-unaltered version of the original Star Wars trilogy remember making the effort to believe that what we were watching was real until we made it real. Go back, though, and watch Arnold Toht melting after looking at the Lost Ark, or Doug Quaid exploding from a space suit air leak on the surface of Total Recall’s Mars, and I challenge you not to think of the California Raisins, or even Jason and the Argonauts. There was a time when claymation was solid-state FX work.

I wonder how this will effect our kids? Their imaginations, their grasp of the possible and impossible, their disappointment when they find out that there are far fewer fantastic creatures in this world than they were led to believe.

And how will it effect their consumption of media? Their ability to be critical viewers? Will it make them more cynical as they come to realize the feast of visual lies they’ve been fed, or will they be filled with wonder, and create things we’ve never seen before?

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