Lovely Noise

Post-processing can be, and often is, a pretty muddled place when it comes to the realm of creative imagining. Consider, for example, the people who are new to Photoshop, how they tend to apply every effect and filter there is into the image only because they can. Later on, hopefully, it comes clear that not every photo needs a massive amount of lens-flares and other Photoshop trademarks to justify its existence. What’s worse, the extensive use of filters, especially the gimmicky ones, is oftentimes carried through to mask the deficiencies of the original imagery, which is, of course, misguided and abusive behavior towards any visual piece.

Not always, though. If there’s one post-processing effect I’m okay with that’s suitable for the job described above, it’s noise, or film grain, if you will. I really find noise as an visual effect extremely fascinating and eye-pleasing in the real-time context as long as there’s at least some kind of rationale behind the effect and a certain subtlety to it, which applies obviously to post-processing in general.

One example of such is Mass Effect 2 (2010) that shows us how simple noise can be elegant and yet powerful a post-processing effect at the same time. The noise disrupts quite nicely the otherwise clean and sterile surface that we have come to expect from a modern synthetic image, and it’s in fact something of an antithesis for the digital medium that is generally free from such phenomena, in contrast to film, for instance. And, like said, the subtle noise in ME 2 hides, or rather distracts from, the minor problems in the image, like those related to filtering, anti-aliasing and such. In addition, the noise makes the visuals in a way more lively and coherent to an extent.

On the other hand, if more games used the effect in question, I probably wouldn’t care that much of it. I believe it’s indeed in part the curiosity of the effect that fascinates me, especially for the fact that that type of pixel-sharp noise is virtually absent in modern digital imagery at large, specifically when it comes to video. This is due to the compression algorithms involved, such as MPEG, that often get rid off the subtle noise the original, uncompressed imagery may have had. Funnily enough, the high-resolution, 60 frames per second noise of ME 2 registers for that reason something of luxury to me, even though noise is generally perceived as an unwanted visual artifact.

Only thing that bothers me with the ME 2 noise is that BioWare didn’t have the balls to fully embrace the effect as a genuine artistic decision, ending up making it optional. Furthermore, in Mass Effect 3 (2012), the noise was just gone, so I guess in the end people didn’t like it that much.

Well, I did.