University of California Irvine Week 8 Film and Media Theory Discussion


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Class: Film and Media Theory
Course Description
Within two decades of the invention of film in 1895, filmmakers and theorists
engaged in debates over the nature of this new medium. What are its basic
properties? What are its possibilities as an art form? By the early twentieth
century, film theorists had converged around two basic arguments: realist
theorists argued that, because it is based on photography, film should focus on its
special relationship to the physical world; formalist theorists argued that because it
is based on the illusion of movement, film should focus on creating new worlds and
ideas. In this class, we will examine these approaches to understanding film
aesthetics and consider how and whether the emergence of digital film has
changed the very nature of the medium.
Discussions: At the beginning of the quarter, you will be assigned to a
team with whom you will discuss the weekly readings and prompts. You will
hold these discussions on a shared discussion board. If a team member does
not contribute consistently to these discussions, they will be removed
from your team.
Week 8 Module
Please answer all the questions.
I also uploaded the reading.
Please follow the guidelines very very carefully and answer correctly.
If you have any questions please ask me.
Thank you.
True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory
Author(s): Stephen Prince
Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Spring, 1996), pp. 27-37
Published by: University of California Press
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Copyright by the University of California Press. Prince, S. (1996). True lies – perceptual realism, digital images, and
film theory. Film Quarterly, 49(3), 27-37. doi: 10.1525/fq.1996.49.3.04a00040
Stephen Prince
Digital compositingin Forrest Gump
Digital imaging technologies are rapidly
transforming nearly all phases of contemporary film
production. Film-makers today storyboard, shoot, and
edit their films in conjunction with the computer manipulation of images. For the general public, the most
visible application of these technologies lies in the
new wave of computer-generated and -enhanced special effects that are producing images-the watery
creature in The Abyss (1989) or the shimmering,
shape-shifting Terminator 2 (1991)-unlike any seen
The rapid nature of these changes is creating problems for film theory. Because the digital manipulation
of images is so novel and the creative possibilities it
offers are so unprecedented, its effects on cinematic
representation and the viewer’s response are poorly
understood. Film theory has not yet come to terms
with these issues. What are the implications of computer-generated imagery for representation in cinema,
particularly for concepts of photographically based
realism? How might theory adapt to an era of digital
Initial applications of special-effects digital imagin
ing feature films began more than a decade ago in
productions like Tron (1982), Star Trek II: The Wrath
of Khan (1982), and The Last Starfighter (1984). The
higher-profile successes of Terminator 2, Jurassic
Park (1993), and Forrest Gump (1994), however,
dramatically demonstrated the creative and remunerative possibilities of computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Currently, two broad categories of digital imaging
exist. Digital-image processing covers applications
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like removing unwanted elements from the framehiding the wires supporting the stunt performers in
Cliffhanger (1994), or erasing the Harrier jet from
shots in True Lies (1994) where it accidentally appears. CGI proper refers to building models and animating them in the computer. Don Shay, editor of
Cinefex, a journal that tracks and discusses specialeffects work in cinema, emphasizes these distinctions
between the categories.’
As a consequence of digital imaging, Forrest
Gump viewers saw photographic images of actor Gary
Sinise, playing Gump’s amputee friend and fellow
Vietnam veteran, being lifted by a nurse from a hospital bed and carried, legless, through three-dimensional
space. The film viewer is startled to realize that the
representation does not depend on such old-fashioned
methods as tucking or tieing the actor’s limbs behind
his body and concealing this with a loose-fitting costume. Instead, Sinise’s legs had been digitally erased
from the shot by computer.
Elsewhere in the same film, viewers saw photographic images of President Kennedy speaking to actor Tom Hanks, with dialogue scripted by the film’s
writers. In the most widely publicized applications of
CGI, viewers of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park
watched photographic images of moving, breathing,
and chomping dinosaurs, images which have no basis
in any photographable reality but which nevertheless
seemed realistic. In what follows, I will be assuming
that viewers routinely make assessments about the
perceived realism of a film’s images or characters,
even when these are obviously fictionalized or otherwise impossible. Spielberg’s dinosaurs made such a
huge impact on viewers in part because they seemed
far more life-like than the miniature models and stopmotion animation of previous generations of film.
The obvious paradox here-creating
photophotographic images things
graphed-and the computer-imaging capabilities
which lie behind it challenge some of the traditional
assumptions about realism and the cinema which are
embodied in film theory. This essay first explores the
challenge posed by CGI to photographically based
notions of cinematic realism. Next, it examines some
of the problems and challenges of creating computer
imagery in motion pictures by drawing on interviews
with computer-imaging artists. Finally, it develops an
alternate model, based on perceptual and social correspondences, of how the cinema communicates and is
intelligible to viewers. This model may produce a
better integration of the tensions between realism and
formalism in film theory. As we will see, theory has
construed realism solely as a matter of reference rather
than as a matter of perception as well. It has neglected
what I will term in this essay “perceptual realism.”
This neglect has prevented theory from understanding
some of the fundamental ways in which cinema works
and is judged credible by viewers.
Assumptions about realism in the cinema
are frequently tied to concepts of indexicality prevailing between the photographic image and its referent.
These, in turn, constitute part of the bifurcation between realism and formalism in film theory. In order
to understand how theories about the nature of cinematic images may change in the era of digital-imaging practices, this bifurcation and these notions of an
indexically based film realism need to be examined.
This approach to film realism-and it is, perhaps,
the most basic theoretical understanding of film realism-is rooted in the view that photographic images,
unlike paintings or line drawings, are indexical signs:
they are causally or existentially connected to their
referents. Charles S. Peirce, who devised the triadic
model of indexical, iconic, and symbolic signs, noted
that “Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that in
certain respects they are exactly like the objects they
represent . . . they . . . correspond point by point to
nature. In that respect then, they belong to the second
class of signs, those by physical connection.” 2
In his analysis of photography, Roland Barthes
noted that photographs, unlike every other type of
image, can never be divorced from their referents.
Photograph and referent “are glued together.”3 For
Barthes, photographs are causally connected to their
referents. The former testifies to the presence of the
latter. “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the
necessarily real thing which has been placed before
the lens without which there would be no photograph.”4 For Barthes, “Every photograph is a certificate of presence.”5
Because cinema is a photographic medium, theorists of cinema developed concepts of realism in connection with the indexical status of the photographic
sign. Most famously, Andre Bazin based his realist
aesthetic on what he regarded as the “objective” nature of photography, which bears the mechanical trace
of its referents. In a well-known passage, he wrote,
“The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space which
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govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the
image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process
of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is
the reproduction; it is the model.”6
Other important theorists of film realism emphasized the essential attribute cinema shares with photography of being a recording medium. Siegfried
Kracauer noted that his theory of cinema, which he
subtitled “the redemption of physical reality,” “rests
upon the assumption that film is essentially an extension of photography and therefore shares with that
began as a wireframe model in the computer, no
profilmic referent existed to ground the indexicality of
its image. Nevertheless, digital imaging can anchor
pictured objects, like this watery creature, in apparent
photographic reality by employing realistic lighting
(shadows, highlights, reflections) and surface texture
detail (the creature’s rippling responses to the touch of
one of the film’s live actors). At the same time, digital
imaging can bend, twist, stretch, and contort physical
objects in cartoonlike ways that mock indexicalized
referentiality. In an Exxon ad, an automobile morphs
into a tiger, and in a spot for Listerine, the CGI bottle
Jurassic Park:
not the real T. Rex
medium a marked affinity for the visible world around
us. Films come into their own when they record and
reveal physical reality.”7 Like Bazin, Stanley Cavell
emphasized that cinema is the screening or projection
of reality because of the way that photography,
whether still or in motion, mechanically (that is, automatically) reproduces the world before the lens.8
For reasons that are alternately obvious and
subtle, digital imaging in its dual modes of image
processing and CGI challenges indexically based notions of photographic realism. As Bill Nichols has
noted, a digitally designed or created image can be
subject to infinite manipulation.9 Its reality is a function of complex algorithms stored in computer
memory rather than a necessary mechanical resemblance to a referent. In cases like the slithery underwater creature in James Cameron’s The Abyss, which
of mouthwash jiggles, expands, and contracts in an
excited display of enthusiasm for its new formula.?1
In these obvious ways, digital imaging operates
according to a different ontology than do indexical
photographs. But in less obvious ways, as well, digital
imaging can depart from photographically coded realism. Objects can be co-present in computer space but
not in the physical 3D space which photography
records. When computer-animated objects move
around in a simulated space, they can intersect one
another. This is one reason why computer animators
start with wireframe models which they can rotate and
see through in order to determine whether the model is
intersecting other points in the simulated space. Computer-simulated environments, therefore, have to be
programmed to deal with the issues of collision detection and collision response.”
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The animators who created the herd of gallimimus
that chases actor Sam Neill and two children in Jurassic Park were careful to animate the twenty-four gallis
so they would look like they might collide and were
reacting to that possibility.l2 First, they had to ensure
that no gallis actually did pass into and through one
another, and then they had to simulate the collision
responses in the creatures’ behaviors as if they were
corporeal beings subject to Newtonian space.
As moving photographic
images, Spielberg’sdinosaurs
are referentially
In other subtle ways, digital imaging can fail to
perform Kracauer’s redemption of physical reality.
Lights simulated in the computer don’t need sources,
and shadows can be painted in irrespective of the
position of existing lights. Lighting, which in photography is responsible for creating the exposure and the
resulting image, is, for computer images, strictly a
matter of painting, of changing the brightness and
coloration of individual pixels. As a result, lighting in
computer imagery need not obey the rather fixed and
rigid physical conditions which must prevail in order
for photographs to be created.
One of the more spectacular digital images in
True Lies is a long shot of a chateau nestled beside a
lake and surrounded by the Swiss Alps. The image is
a digital composite, blending a mansion from Newport, Rhode Island, water shot in Nevada, and a digital
matte painting of the Alps.’3 The compositing was
done by Digital Domain, a state-of-the-art effects
house created by the film’s director, James Cameron.
The shot is visually stunning-crisply resolved, richly
saturated with color, and brightly illuminated across
Alps, lake, and chateau.
Kevin Mack, a digital effects supervisor at Digital
Domain who worked on True Lies as well as Interview
with the Vampire, points out that the image is unnaturally luminant.’4 Too much light is distributed across
the shot. If a photographer exposed for the lights in the
chateau, the Alps would film too dark, and, conversely, if one exposed for the Alps in, say, bright
moonlight, the lights in the chateau would bur out.
The chateau and the Alps could not be lit so they’d
both expose as brightly as they do in the image. Mack
points out that the painted light effects in the shot are
a digital manipulation so subtle that most viewers
probably do not notice the trickery.
Like lighting, the rendering of motion can be accomplished by computer painting. President Kennedy
speaking to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump resulted
from two-dimensional painting, made to look like 3D,
according to Pat Byrne, Technical Director at Post
Effects, a Chicago effects house that specializes in
digital imaging.’5 The archival footage of Kennedy,
once digitized, was repainted with the proper phonetic
mouth movements to match the scripted dialogue and
with highlights on his face to simulate the corresponding jaw and muscle changes. Morphs were used to
smooth out the different painted configurations of
mouth and face.’6
When animating motion via computer, special
adjustments must be made precisely because of the
differences between photographically captured reality
and the synthetic realities engineered with CGI. Credible computer animation requires the addition of motion blur to simulate the look of a photographic image.
The ping-pong ball swatted around by Forrest Gump
and his Chinese opponents was animated on the computer from a digitally scanned photographic model of
a ping-pong ball and was subsequently composited
into the live-action footage of the game (the game
itself was shot without any ball). The CGI ball seemed
credible because, among other reasons, the animators
were careful to add motion blur, which a real, rapidly
moving object passing in front of a camera will possess (as seen by the camera which freezes the action as
a series of still frames), but which a key-framed computer animated object does not.
In these ways, both macro and micro, digital imaging possesses a flexibility that frees it from the
indexicality of photography’s relationship with its referent.’7 Does this mean, then, that digital-imaging capabilities ought not be grouped under the rubric of a
realist film theory? If not, what are the alternatives?
What kind of realism, if any, do these images possess?
In traditional film theory, only one alternative is
available: the perspective formulated in opposition to
the positions staked out by realists like Kracauer,
Bazin, and Cavell. This position, which might be
termed the formalist outlook, stresses cinema’ s capacity for reorganizing, and even countering and falsifying, physical reality. Early exponents of such a
position include Rudolf Arheim, Dziga Vertov, and
Sergei Eisenstein. In his discussion of classical film
theory, Noel Carroll has pointed out this bifurcation
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between the camps of realism and formalism and
linkedit to an essentializingtendencywithin theory,a
predilection of theorists to focus on either the
cinema’s capabilityto photographicallycopy physical
reality or to stylistically transcendthat reality.’8
This tension in classical theorybetween stressing
the ways film either recordsor reorganizesprofilmic
reality continues in contemporarytheory, with the
classical formalist emphasis upon the artificialityof
cinema structurebeing absorbedinto theories of the
apparatus,of psychoanalysis, or of ideology as applied to the cinema. In these cases, cinematic realism
is seen as an effect produced by the apparatus or by
spectatorspositioned within the LacanianImaginary.
Cinematicrealism is viewed as a discourse coded for
transparency such that the indexicality of photographicrealism is replacedby a view of the “realityeffect” producedby codes and discourse. Jean-Louis
Baudrysuggests that”Between ‘objectivereality’ and
the camera, site of inscription, and between the inscriptionandthe projectionare situatedcertainoperations, a work which has as its result a finished
product.”19Writing about the principles of realism,
Colin McCabe stresses that film is “constitutedby a
set of discourseswhich… producea certainreality.”20
Summarizing these views, Dudley Andrew explains, “Thediscovery that resemblanceis coded and
thereforelearnedwas a tremendousandhard-wonvictory for semiotics over those upholding a notion of
naive perception in cinema.”21Where classical film
theorywas organizedby a dichotomybetween realism
and formalism, contemporarytheory has preserved
the dichotomy even while recasting one set of its
terms. Today, indexically based notions of cinema
realism exist in tension with a semiotic view of the
cinema as discourse and of realism as one discourse
among others.
In some of the ways just discussed, digital imaging is inconsistent with indexically based notions of
film realism.Given the tensions in contemporaryfilm
theory, should we then conclude that digital-imaging
technologies are necessarily illusionistic, that they
constructa reality-effect which is merely discursive?
They do, in fact, permitfilm artiststo create synthetic
realitiesthatcan look just like photographicrealities.
As Pat Byrne noted, “The line between real and notreal will become more and more blurred.”22How
shouldwe understanddigital imaging in theory?How
should we build theory around it? When faced with
digitized images, will we need to discardentirelynotions of realism in the cinema?
The tensions within film theory can be surmountedby avoiding an essentializing conception of
the cinema stressingunique,fundamentalproperties23
and by employing, in place of indexically based notions of film realism, a correspondence-basedmodel
of cinematicrepresentation.Such a model will enable
us to talk and think about both photographicimages
and computer-generatedimages and about the ways
that cinema can create images that seem alternately
real and unreal.To develop this approach,it will be
necessary to indicate, first, what is meantby a correspondence-basedmodel and, then, how digital imaging fits within it.
An extensive body of evidence indicates
the many ways in which film spectatorshipbuilds on
correspondencesbetween selected featuresof the cinematic display and a viewer’s real-worldvisual and
social experience.24These include iconic and noniconic visual and social cues which are structuredinto
cinematic images in ways that facilitate comprehension and invite interpretationand evaluationby viewers based on the salience of representedcues or patterneddeviations from them. At a visual level, these
cues include the ways that photographicimages and
edited sequences are isomorphic with their corresponding real-world displays (e.g., through replication of edge and contourinformationand of monocular distance codes; in the case of moving pictures,
replicationof motion parallax;and in the case of continuityediting,the creationof a screengeographywith
coherentcoordinatesthroughthe projectivegeometry
of successive camera positions). Under such conditions, empiricalevidence indicatesthatnaive viewers
readily recognize experientiallyfamiliarpicturedobjects and can comprehendfilmed sequences, and that
continuityediting enhances such comprehension.25
At the level of social experience, the evidence
indicates that viewers draw from a common stock of
moral constructsand interpersonalcues and percepts
when evaluating both people in real life and represented charactersin the media. Socially derived assumptionsaboutmotive, intent,andproperrole-based
behavior are employed when respondingto real and
As communication scholarsElizabethPerse and Rebecca Rubin
have pointed out, “‘people’ constitutes a construct
domainthatmay be sufficiently permeableto include
both interpersonaland [media] contexts.”27
Recognizing that cinematic representationoper31
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ates significantly, though not exclusively, in terms of
structured correspondences between the audiovisual
display and a viewer’s extra-filmic visual and social
experience enables us to ask about the range of cues or
correspondences within the image or film, how they
are structured, and the ways a given film patterns its
represented fictionalized reality around these cues.
What kind of transformations does a given film carry
out upon the correspondences it employs with viewers’ visual and social experience? Attributions of realism, or the lack thereof, by viewers will inhere in the
ways these correspondences are structured into and/or
transformed by the image and film. Instead of asking
refer to creatures that once existed, but as moving
photographic images they are referentially fictional.
No dinosaurs now live which could be filmed doing
things the fictionalized creatures do in Jurassic Park.
By contrast, referentially realistic images bear indexical and iconic homologies with their referents. They
resemble the referent, which, in turn, stands in a
causal, existential relationship to the image.28
A perceptually realistic image is one which structurally corresponds to the viewer’s audiovisual experience of three-dimensional space. Perceptually
realistic images correspond to this experience because
film-makers build them to do so. Such images display
Forrest Gump:
whether a film is realistic or formalistic, we can ask
about the kinds of linkages that connect the represented fictionalized reality of a given film to the visual
and social coordinates of our own three-dimensional
world, and this can be done for both “realist” and
“fantasy” films alike. Such a focus need not reinstate
indexicality as the ground of realism, since it can emphasize falsified correspondences and transformation
of cues. Nor need such a focus turn everything about
the cinema back into discourse, into an arbitrarily
coded reorganization of experience. As we will see,
even unreal images can be perceptually realistic. Unreal images are those which are referentially fictional.
The Terminator is a represented fictional character
that lacks reference to any category of being existing
outside the fiction. Spielberg’s dinosaurs obviously
a nested hierarchy of cues which organize the display
of light, color, texture, movement, and sound in ways
that correspond with the viewer’s own understanding
of these phenomena in daily life. Perceptual realism,
therefore, designates a relationship between the image
or film and the spectator, and it can encompass both
unreal images and those which are referentially realistic. Because of this, unreal images may be referentially fictional but perceptually realistic.
We should now return to, and connect this discussion back to, the issue of digital imaging. When lighting a scene becomes a matter of painting pixels, and
capturing movement is a function of employing the
correct algorithms for mass, inertia, torque, and speed
(with the appropriate motion blur added as part of the
mix), indexical referencing is no longer required for
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the appearance of photographic realism in the digital
image. Instead, Gump’s ping-pong ball and
Spielberg’s dinosaurs look like convincing photographic realities because of the complex sets of perceptual correspondences that have been built into
these images. These correspondences, which anchor
the computer-generated image in apparent three-dimensional space, routinely include such variables as
surface texture, color, light, shadow, reflectance, motion speed and direction.
Embedding or compositing computer imagery
into live action, as occurs when Tom Hanks as Gump
“hits” the CG ping-pong ball or when Sam Neill is
“chased” by the CG gallimimus herd, requires matching both environments. The physical properties and
coordinates of the computer-generated scene components must be made to correspond with those of the
live-action scene. Doing this requires precise and
time-consuming creation and manipulation of multiple 3D perceptual cues. Kevin Mack, at Digital Domain, and Chris Voellmann, a digital modeller and
animator at Century III Universal Studios, point out
that light, texture, and movement are among the most
important cues to be manipulated in order to create a
synthetic reality that looks as real as possible.29
To simulate light properties that match both environments, a digital animator may employ scan-line
algorithms that calculate pixel coloration one scan
line at a time, ray tracing methods that calculate the
passage of light rays through a modelled environment,
or radiosity formulations that can account for diffuse,
indirect illumination by analyzing the energy transfer
between surfaces.30Such techniques enable a successful rendering31 of perceptual information that can
work to match live-action and computer environments
and lend credence and a sense of reality to the
composited image such that its computerized components seem to fulfill the indexicalized conditions of
photographic realism. When the velociraptors hunt
the children inside the park’s kitchen in the climax of
Jurassic Park, the film’s viewer sees their movements
reflected on the gleaming metal surfaces of tables and
cookware. These reflections anchor the creatures inside Cartesian space and perceptual reality and provide
a bridge between live-action and computer-generated
environments. In the opening sequence of Forrest
Gump, as a CG feather drifts and tumbles through
space, its physical reality is enhanced by the addition
of a digitally painted reflection on an automobile
To complete this anchoring process, the provision
of information about surface texture and movement is
extremely important and quite difficult, because the
information provided must seem credible. Currently,
many of the algorithms needed for convincing movement either do not exist or are prohibitively expensive
to run on today’s computers. The animators and renderers at Industrial Light and Magic used innovative
software to texture-map32skin and wrinkles onto their
dinosaurs and calibrated variations in skin jostling and
wrinkling with particular movements of the creatures.
However, while bone and joint rotation are successfully visualized, complex information about the
movement of muscles and tendons below the skin
surface is lacking.
Kevin Mack describes this limit in present rendering abilities as the “human hurdle”33-that is, the
present inability of computers to fully capture the
complexities of movement by living organisms. Hair,
for example, is extremely difficult to render because
of the complexities of mathematically simulating
properties of mass and inertia for finely detailed
strands.34 Chris Voellmann points out that today’s
software can create flexors and rotators but cannot yet
control veins or muscles.
Multiple levels of information capture must be
successfully executed to convincingly animate and
render living movement because the viewer’s eye is
adept at perceiving inaccurate information.35 These
levels include locomotor mechanics-the specification of forces, torques, and joint rotations. In addition,
“gait-specific rules”36 must be specified. The Jurassic
Park animators, for example, derived gait-specific
rules for their dinosaurs by studying the movements of
elephants, rhinos, komodo dragons, and ostriches and
then making some intelligent extrapolations. Beyond
these two levels of information control is the most
difficult one-capturing the expressive properties of
movement. Human and animal movement cannot look
mechanical and be convincing; it must be expressive
of mood and affect.
As the foregoing discussion indicates, available
software and the speed and economics of present computational abilities are placing limits on the complexities of digitally rendered 3D cues used to integrate
synthetic and live-action objects and environments.
But the more important point is that present abilities to
digitally simulate perceptual cues about surface texture, reflectance, coloration, motion, and distance provide an extremely powerful means of “gluing”
together synthetic and live-action environments and
of furnishing the viewer with an internally unified and
coherent set of cues that establish correspondences
with the properties of physical space and living sys33
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tems in daily life. These correspondences in turn establish some of the most important criteria by which
viewers can judge the apparent realism or credibility
possessed by the digital image.
Digitalimaging exposes the
enduring dichotomy in film
theory as a false boundary
Obvious paradoxes arise from these judgements.
No one has seen a living dinosaur. Even paleontologists can only hazard guesses about how such creatures might have moved and how swiftly. Yet the
dinosaurs created at ILM have a palpable reality about
them, and this is due to the extremely detailed texturemapping, motion animation, and integration with live
action carried out via digital imaging. Indexicality
cannot furnish us with the basis for understanding this
apparent photographic realism, but a correspondencebased approach can. Because the computer-generated
images have been rendered with such attention to 3D
spatial information, they acquire a very powerful perceptual realism, despite the

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