This first appeared on December 7, 2009, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.
Dear TV and Movie Producer Person,
I realize that you receive letters all the time complaining about the gratuitous sex and violence on television and in movies. This is not one of those letters. In a sense, I want more sex and violence. Let me explain.
It is worth reminding ourselves why we watch TV and movies. First and foremost, we watch to be entertained. And, secondly, we watch because we get to watch. That is, we watch TV and movies because the visual modality of the experience brings an evocativeness of its own, one that we seem to like. Sure, we like the dialog and the plot twists, but we could have dialog and plot twists via reading or listening to books. We watch TV and movies because, in addition, we get that visual evocativeness.
And one of the best ways to be visually evocative is to show us the characters in the story expressing their emotions. There are a variety of ways to see the emotions in the characters, and gestures and facial expressions are two of the most obvious. But a third avenue for visually communicating the emotions of the characters is the color of the skin, whether on the face or other bare spots. These color signals are especially primal and evocative, and although one is not always consciously aware of sensing these color signals, our color vision is highly optimized for sensing the blood modulations in the skin underlying the color changes.
I want to see these color signals on TV and in movies. I want to see the anger spread over the bad guy’s face when his bomb is found and disarmed. I want to see the subtle blush on the female lead when she’s engaged in frothy banter. I want to see the ashen face of the zombie. And I want to see the veins in the neck of the victim just before the vampire chomps.
But here is the problem, TV and movie producer person: You don’t show us these visually evocative color signals on the skin of your characters. I want movies that don’t merely show skin, but show the emotion on the shown skin. Without this, your shows and movies are emotionally flat, and could be severely enriched.
But instead of aiming to raise the emotionality of our viewing experience to the emotional-3D, you bring us more pixels. Is the greater resolution of HD-TV giving us a truly more evocative experience? The visual detail is indeed impressive, and the educational and sports uses of TV probably benefit from this. But for what I take to be the mainstay of TV and movies – the stories, with actors – I doubt HD-TV makes any difference. In fact, I tend to wear contact lenses that are several years behind the actual needs of my ever-declining eyes. I can hardly read the volume-readout on the screen of my television, much less see the two-million-pixel detail in my expensive HD-TV. But, believe me, I get plenty of evocativeness from the bodies of the humans around me in my life. (Mostly, alas, just my kids’ emotions.) Color signals on bodies, you see, are not in HD.
What we really want is skin-TV, not HD-TV.
TV and movies do give us skin-TV, but only in cartoons. For example, Disney cartoons have long used color modulations on the faces of their characters to bring the emotion to life. Nevermind that many of these characters are furry-faced mammals, or are sponges that don’t even have blood. Cartoonists know how to be evocative, and liberally color signal. Yet you TV and movie people won’t give us this level of evocativeness when real people are on the screen.
There’s a reason you won’t give us skin-TV. It’s that you can’t. Television and movie projection can show these color signals, which is why Spongebob can be seen to blush. The problem is that the cameras used in TV and movies cannot pick up these skin color signals. Cameras have color filters that are very different from the sensitivities of the cones in our eyes. Whereas our cone sensitivities are optimized for sensing the underlying physiological modulations of blood in the skin (they are, in essence, oximeters), cameras are designed to be general-purpose three-filter spectrometers, and can’t detect these skin color changes.
The color dimension that we primates have, but other mammals do not, is the red-green one, and this color dimension is optimized for sensing modulations of oxygenation of the hemoglobin in the skin. Red-green modulations are about the emotions associated with these modulations in oxygenation. The color cameras are able to record modulations in red and green, of course, but not in the one place where it appears to matter most for the evolution of this color sense: on skin. Color television and movies are, in a sense, then, not in color at all. The red-green modulations are found in all the non-skin places, but not on the skin where our eyes evolved to see it. That’s what would have to be fixed in order to raise the level of evocativeness of TV and movies to the emotional-3D.
But designing cameras to let us see skin on screen as our eyes see it in person turns out to be a difficult engineering problem, and I have no insights on how to solve it. My aim with this open letter is to provide new motivation for trying harder to solve it. Lacking the appropriate technology does not merely result in perceptions of the screen that differ from what it would look like in person. Rather, it results in a difference where it matters most: on the skin, and the resulting signaled emotion. If camera technology is not the route to solving this problem, then the other route is to use advances in CGI to add color signals to the bare skin of the characters. …to bring more sex and violence to television and movies, Disney style.