The Digital Transformation of Visual Media: 5 Key Developments

I was recently looking at old syllabuses from my introductory graduate course on visual communication, and I noticed an interesting trend: the rate of change from one year’s syllabus to the next one’s has been much more rapid in recent years than in the past. The major reason for this trend is that visual media themselves have been changing so rapidly in recent years as a result of digitization. Moreover, to a considerable extent these changes have entailed genuine innovations in the forms and functions of visual media. In other words, while some developments in digital media are mainly concerned with doing a better job in tasks that older, analog media were not very good at (for example, 3D movies), digitization has also enabled visual media to do some things that analog media couldn’t do at all.

What are the most significant developments in the digital transformation of visual media? Opinions undoubtedly differ, depending partly on one’s time-frame. In the 1990s, when Photoshop was still new, the manipulation of photographic truth was a major focus of research in visual communication. Today, photo-manipulation software is a mature technology, and, while the concerns it gave rise to have by no means gone away, the most eye-catching changes in the visual media landscape seem to be happening elsewhere.

Digital Composite WITH GAPS 12 percent

From my perspective, there are at least five big developments whose impact is still very uncertain – and, therefore, very deserving of closer scrutiny. In my view, these five developments will need to figure very prominently in the future work of visual communication researchers if our field is to keep up with the explosively rapid evolution of digital media.

For more than a decade, digital animators have been working towards the attainment of two major milestones in the development of visual media: first, the achievement of “perfect photorealism” – i.e., the ability to mimic not just the momentary appearance of visual reality (as in present-day digital images) but also its appearance over time (without relying on motion capture, which is essentially a relic of traditional cinematography); second, the ability to simulate the appearance (over time) of actual people, such as deceased actors. These developments have received some attention from media scholars, but it may be fair to say that, for now, the most promising lines of inquiry actually come from outside of communication, in studies of people’s responses to humanoid robots and visual displays. Research on the much-discussed but little-understood “uncanny valley” phenomenon is a good example of this area of scholarship


As computers and, hence, digital media have become cheaper, aspects of image creation that previously required substantial resources have become increasingly affordable and accessible, resulting in a democratization of visual production. This development is evident not only in the ubiquity of photographic and video devices, but also in the increasing ease with which photographs and video can be manipulated. (The emergence of consumer-level editing software in the late 1990s was a particularly noteworthy innovation for anyone who had previously had the extremely cumbersome experience of editing in celluloid-based film.) While there is a growing body of good scholarly writing about the dissemination of nonprofessional images (which I will refer to further in the next paragraph), there is surprisingly little systematic research on everyday people’s manipulation of images.

As I have implied above, I think it is useful to distinguish the democratization of visual distribution, for which, of course, we can thank the Web, from the democratization of production. The radical transformation in the distribution of new visual media is one of two items (out of my list of five topics) that have already been written about quite widely by media scholars. There are several books about YouTube, and a growing number of studies of Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and other platforms.

The fourth item on my list (although, chronologically, it is actually the first) has to do with the emergence of videogames as a major visual medium. This phenomenon can be seen as part of a broader evolution in audiovisual technology, allowing the users of that technology (gamers, etc.) to project a controllable visual avatar of themselves into a virtual environment. In contrast to the previous two items on my list, the emergence of this type of avatar represents a qualitative (i.e, not just quantitative) break with the past. There is nothing in previous visual media that can give the user the same experience of an externally viewable but internally controlled projection of one’s self. Research on the visual aspects of avatars suggests that they can have profound implications. For example, they can have enduring effects on gamers’ or VR users’ aggressiveness, sociality, and attitudes towards people who are demographically different from their real selves.

The final item on my list is also related to games and other media that provide their users with the experience of interactive virtual environments. The ability to affect a virtual environment through one’s own actions represents another significant break with the past history of visual media. The purposive use of virtual environments as means of low-consequence training for high-consequence real-world activities (e.g., flight simulation, practice surgery) has been studied quite extensively by researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, including communication. Moreover, communications researchers have also devoted considerable attention to the more nebulous cultural consequences that may flow from people’s experiences in virtual worlds. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that to date we have barely glimpsed what lies ahead in this area of visual media. Perhaps more than in any of the other areas on this list, the technology and the social practices associated with this area seem to be changing more rapidly than our projections. PM

Ariana Grande shows Audiences how to “Break Free” by Utilizing Visual Components


Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” music video uses computer generated images and effects to draw audience attention to the absurdities of the science fiction genre, while also utilizing associative montage to link Grande’s music and sexy nature with the ability to escape from reality. The music video begins with a scrolling introduction that sets the science fiction tone for the video, alluding to the Star Wars’ introductions. The voice over reading that the following is “authentic” coupled with the unauthentic background, and eerie sounds illustrates the power that visuals and sounds have over text. In other words, when the actual music begins and a desert-like, extraterrestrial landscape with a large, hovering moon is shown, there is no doubt that the following visuals have been manipulated. The landscape has a red tinge to it, which is interesting to note due to the fact that according to Palmer who wrote on the “Ecological Valence Theory of Human Preference,” people prefer the color blue because they associate it with useful and positive objects such as clean water. Additionally, according to Falk’s “Evolutionary Influence in Human Landscape Preference”, people prefer savanna-like landscapes to all other kinds of landscapes (including desert).  Knowing viewers’ landscape and color preferences, the video designers strategically utilized a dessert-like landscape and warm colors to insinuate that this fictional world is one run by “bad guys” and one that “good guys,” like Ariana Grande, should want to escape from. Viewers are soon introduced to the monsters that are keeping Grande’s friends captive in this extraterrestrial world. The monsters have large eyes, a crucial element of neoteny, which also includes baby-face features like a round head. As supported by University of Tokyo’s Jun’ichiro Seyama’s findings, the video effectively uses the monsters’ neotenous eyes, because audiences prefer neotenous elements on characters that are more unrealistic like monsters compared to characters that are more realistic like human beings. Other unrealistic elements like the computer-generated flying robot and the post-production effect of rockets shooting out of Grande’s chest, mock the absurdity of the science fiction genre. Absurdity has been proven to help audience recall and since Grande is a relatively new pop artist, the makers of the video want viewers to remember her, her music, and her sex appeal. There is an element of cause and effect montage here, as the video insinuates that Grande’s sexiness can defeat a large monster and later allows her to break from chains that bind her to defeat the bad guys. The slow motion effect in conjunction with the overhead angle of shots showing her undressing and dancing alone illustrates this theme of sexiness. Thanks to Grande’s sex appeal, she is able to defeat the monsters, rescue her friends, and get beamed up into a space shuttle. The Beats product placement also benefits from associative montage, as the brand is linked to Grande’s appealing physicality and supernatural power. Grande’s creative team utilized visual principles related to landscape, special effects, and computer generated imaging to play within the science fiction genre and associate Grande’s sexy appeal and pop music with her ability to ultimately “Break Free.”


FKA twigs – “Water Me” Post-humanist Aesthetic Spellbinds Viewers

The one-take music video for “Water Me” by FKA twigs mesmerizes with little onscreen action to compensate for the lack of cuts by employing a post-humanist aesthetic, thus hypnotizing spectators through a series of deviations from known human movement and form.

The digitally manipulated appearance of the subject, FKA twigs, and insertion into a digital world transform her into an avatar-like being or an object representing real human form. She delivers the song deadpan in direct address against a solid sea-foam green backdrop. It’s especially important to pay attention to the increasing neotony, baby features on an adult person, throughout the video. Her nose shrinks and her eyes enlarge to the point where they look like they may pop.

The unrealistic computerized movements in this video are the result of animation of a real person. While traditional filmmaking tries to seamlessly disguise technique, the desire to decode how this was made is what grabs attention. Her timely head bobs, unable to achieve without CGI assistance, simplify rhythm perception through movement rather than cuts. And because the entire beat is matched to movement and slightly offset, with the image coming first, we subconsciously anticipate sound.

The gigantic iridescent CGI tear that rolls down FKA twigs’s perfectly airbrushed cheek mid-video opens a dialogue that comments unfavorably on pop culture’s constant deviation from reality. The eerily illusory image of the artist becomes increasingly unrecognizable as the video progresses, making a statement that instructs viewers to only participate in this deceptive digital trend if they are aware that it is inherently separate from the real.


3D Visual Illusion and Game

My final project was about 3D visual illusion and its application in game. I made a concept game using Unity3D.

I included description of the project in the video.


Merry Christmas to everyone.

Good luck!

BTW, I just wonder how can I post video. I once did that but then it disappeared.


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