What is Virtual Light?

Cathryn Vasseleu
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia


Abstract: This essay considers the production of 3D animation using digitally simulated lighting effects, and in particular the use of photorealistic light rendering techniques in the Academy Award-winning computer-animated short film, Bunny (dir. Chris Wedge, 1998). The essay proposes that the algorithmic formulation of the actions of optical phenomena and the development of software that allows their automatic translation into a virtual image entails a change in thinking about the role of lighting in relation to the making of images. The essay discusses our contemporary regard for the optical and electromagnetic properties of light with reference to some historical precedents — namely the basic principles of film lighting, the place of simulation in Enlightenment cosmology, and the use of geometric optics in the quattrocento pictorial representation of space. In the process, the light of synthetic realism is distinguished from the "reality effects" of both natural and artificial illumination. The essay also engages critically with Paul Virilio's characterization of geometrics as an optics of dwindling importance, outdone as geometric perspective is replaced with a machine oriented "opto-electronic" perspective (where the speed of light conditions the perception of duration and spatial phenomena). It argues that if anything, the algorithmic refinement of geometric optics has acquired a new significance in photorealistic digital lighting, where light is reduced to an algorithmically formulated illuminant that participates in defining experience spatiotemporally.

About the Presenter: Cathryn Vasseleu has a five-year Australian Research Council fellowship at the University of Technology, Sydney, writing on digital imaging technologies that involve animation. She is the author of Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty (London: Routledge, 1998).