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The Onslaught of Photorealism 72

Posted by Zonk
from the stabbing-me-in-the-eye dept.
Ant writes "Shacknews mentioned an article entitled 'Videogame Aesthetics: We're All Going to Die!'. In it, the author considers the pros and cons of the neverending push toward absolute reality in video game graphics (or at least the weird plastic look that people get confused with reality), and comes to the conclusion that all in all it's probably worthwhile. In the process, the author takes a look at several games that employ unique visual styles that are extremely successful without attempting any sort of photorealism." From the article: "The photo-real push is obviously important to many people within and surrounding the game industry, as demonstrated not only by the persistent trend in commercial development, but also by work such as the System Shock 2 mod Rebirth, which replaced some of the models with curvier versions, designed for more powerful machines than the original game."
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The Onslaught of Photorealism

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  • Sign me up, that will be ral enough.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 09, 2005 @05:24PM (#13752461)
    Personally, I'm not that interested in photorealism in games; for me it seems to detract from the entirely fake world that game developers have created. I also think that what is starting to seperate the good game developers from the worse ones is their unique artistic style, and I have noticed that the more realistic games look the more generic they look. I think that you can add a lot of stlye to a game by adopting a nontraditional art style. As an example of what I mean, consider the works of Blizzard and Free Radical; neither company really pushes the latest and greatest in photorealistic technologies, but through the use of unique art direction have produced very interesting and beautiful games.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Maybe if all applicable and feasbile games soon become photo realistic and it becomes just damn impossible to produce a better graphically immersing environment recognizable by any human sensory system, and we actually manage to resist the urge to whip out those brain stem interfaces, developers might just, maybe, possibly, one day, start putting as much investment into game play, style, challenge and originality as they have been trying to get as many polygons as possible on screen into their products...

      LO
    • by thegrassyknowl (762218) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @07:40PM (#13753204)

      and I have noticed that the more realistic games look the more generic they look

      I have noticed that the more realistic games look, the more the same as other crap games they tend to become. Game programmers must think we're really really stupid. They're repackaging the same old shit week after week and adding "better" graphics (where better is subjective).

      Their push for "better" graphics means that those of us who cannot afford to or don't want to upgrade our PCs to the latest and greatest (WTF? I just want to look at pr0n, download my email and compile a few small applications; my current PC is already overkill for that) can't play the games in all their glory anyways.

      I think new laws should be passed to force game makers to either:

      * Innovate and make something new
      or
      * Fuck off and die

      Rather than wasting our time with remakes and rehashes of old, tired themes with nothing better than "photorealism" to add.

      • Or we could just keep the existing laws where you don't have to buy a game if you don't want it.
      • by Moraelin (679338) on Monday October 10, 2005 @02:22AM (#13754679) Journal
        "I have noticed that the more realistic games look, the more the same as other crap games they tend to become. Game programmers must think we're really really stupid. They're repackaging the same old shit week after week and adding "better" graphics (where better is subjective)."

        I think you're severely mistaken if you think anyone asked a programmer at all at most companies. (Well, other than at ID, but then their games are just tech demos anyway to sell their graphics engines.)

        The days when one or two programmers could make a game just as good as anyone else's in their spare time, and proclaim it a big success if they sold 1000 copies and made $20,000 out of it are long gone. Nowadays, partially _because_ of the photorealism, game budgets are in the millions range, so you need a publisher.

        And the publisher isn't evil or anything either, but they're risking millions on each game. And it's pretty much like a lottery there: most games actually don't make a profit. In fact, most games actually make a loss, and the publisher covers their losses from the profits from those that did sell well. (E.g., EA pretty much uses their sports games cash-cow to subsidize most of the other stuff they make.) And then some don't just make a loss, but are complete duds and sell 800 copies total, and noone is sure exactly why. And then some don't even get finished. (E.g., Jowood paid 5.5 million Euro to develop a game, and after many delays had to just scrap the project because the result was crap.)

        Publishers go bankrupt, or get bought for pennies just for the brand name, all the time.

        So the short story is that the publisher tries to minimize their risks. That tends to mean making more of whatever sold well last year.
        • So the short story is that the publisher tries to minimize their risks. That tends to mean making more of whatever sold well last year.

          This just further proves my point - they release the same old crap over and over again.

          As I said, do they really think I am that stupid? You occasionally see some real gems of games but most is just shit. The days when innovation and good ideas ruled the (most) industries are long gone. The dot bomb era is the reason for it becasue every moron with a computer wanted

          • "This just further proves my point - they release the same old crap over and over again."

            Well, I never said you didn't have a point there. Just that it's not the programmers who are to blame for it.

            "As I said, do they really think I am that stupid?"

            There's a lot of thinking just that in this industry, yes. Or at least wishing that if they tried really really hard to believe something, it would become true. There's a whole bunch of myths getting repeated over and over, in the hope that they'll become reality
            • Well, I never said you didn't have a point there. Just that it's not the programmers who are to blame for it.

              I'll take your point there; I won't (and I don't believe I originally did) blame the programmers directly.

              The management are to blame for thinking in pure dollar terms. This is yet another thing that rings true of the fundamentalist capatilism that America is trying to spread to the world (fuck this democracy shit, they just don't want communism becase then the people at the top of the US would

              • I share your sentiments.

                After years upon years of not buying a PS2 I finally gave in and bought one. Why? Because I wanted to play Katamari Damacy (and its happy colourful sequel). Just for that one game, yes. Because everything else is crap that's repeated over and over again. I don't care for photorealism at all, and frankly most 3D environment games make me dizzy--I just want something fun.

                Unfortunately my idea of "fun" isn't pretend-sports or FPS or racing car games or Shoot-random-things or any of

        • The days when one or two programmers could make a game just as good as anyone else's in their spare time, and proclaim it a big success if they sold 1000 copies and made $20,000 out of it are long gone. Nowadays, partially _because_ of the photorealism, game budgets are in the millions range, so you need a publisher.

          The little guys aren't dead yet! Every once in a while there's a game developed by a small company that either sells like crazy, or gets a lot of industry buzz. In fact, because these companies
    • by bigman2003 (671309) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @08:10PM (#13753321) Homepage
      I think that photorealism and reality are different. Yes of course 'photorealism' has 'realism' in it, but that doesn't mean it has to portray real things, just LOOK real.

      What about a completely realistic looking planet, that isn't our own. It has totally different animals, plants, geology...but it all looks like it could be real.

      The closer to 'real' looking that racing games get, the more real I want them to look.

      And don't forget...there is one thing that people never tire of looking at: people.
    • Personally, I'm not that interested in photorealism in games; for me it seems to detract from the entirely fake world that game developers have created. I also think that what is starting to seperate the good game developers from the worse ones is their unique artistic style, and I have noticed that the more realistic games look the more generic they look.

      I think overall it's just a phase in the evolution of computer graphics. Once photo realism is achieved easily then there is really nothing else to do bu
  • by Compuser (14899)
    I guess we know what rtfa stands for: read the fine articel :)
  • by SharpFang (651121) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @05:48PM (#13752623) Homepage Journal
    Thing is, quite often the choice is not between "realistic" and "unrealistic" but "nice" and "ugly". Pixellated textures break the immersion. Squarish hair make girls unattractive. Plain Phong shading makes fake plastic effect instead of nice metal. The problem is that what could be solved with better concept art and design, is often solved by push towards more polygons per model or normal maps on the walls. Authors look at the screen and say "Ick, that's ugly!" and go about fixing that - not by scrapping the ugly design but by adding details, trying to make it less ugly.
    Good games are art. Bad games are showbusiness.
    • by patternjuggler (738978) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @07:47PM (#13753225) Homepage
      The problem is that what could be solved with better concept art and design, is often solved by push towards more polygons per model or normal maps on the walls.

      I'm always a little suspect of solutions that suggest trading the quantifiable and readily obtainable to the more abstract. It's usually a false dichotomy anyway: good art design is going to benefit you at any level of detail.

      More polygons and normal maps make the characters and surfaces look more realistic under a wider range of lighting and viewing conditions- where previously that information was encoded more statically, it looked okay at first but then the illusion fails as soon as the light changes or you walk around an object or get close-up and it gets a lot less convincing. The inadequacies of phong shading are solved by reprogramming the GPU, not better concept art and design.
      • The problem is that the more details you put into something, the more people notice when those details are wrong, and what other details are missing. E.g., one of the common complaints about EQ2 is that the graphics are detailed but "sterile". And having played both EQ2 and WoW, I can tell you that EQ2 has much higher polygon counts than WoW, it has high resolution textures, it uses shaders for everything including details on your armour, and it attempts to model the physics even for your character's hair
        • When you're led to expect a certain level of detail, you start noticing (even subconsciously) all the places where it's missing.

          I think you're talking about the uncanny valley [arclight.net]. It's a problem, but it's not insurmountable- there's no reason why we can't push through to positive reaction side. You're sort of right, EQ2 could avoid the problem by going for a more stylized approach, but that doesn't necessarily mean it needs less detail, less shaders, etc- you can have high detail and not go for absolute re
          • Hmm... Thanks for that link, that was most definitely worth a read. I didn't know about that theory, but yes, at least the dip downwards matches just what I was talking about.

            Still, even then, now we're only starting on the slope downwards into that valley. We're barely at the peak where it starts sorta provoking some empathy (enough to deliver a story anyway) but not enough to be taken for real. And we have a helluva chasm in front of us, seein' as even the Final Fantasy movie, with its _insane_ polygon co
            • I.e., even without Moore's law slowing down (and it does), we're talking about another century or more worth of valley in front of us.

              _If_ that theory is correct, then rying to push straight through it the hard way is IMHO suicide for the industry.


              I've never seen the uncanny valley discussed in such apocalyptic terms, but I think the market will take care of it as your comment about EQ2 hints at: customers will avoid the uncanny and go for the stylized- but they will still be attracted by more sophisticated
              • "I've never seen the uncanny valley discussed in such apocalyptic terms"

                Well, the part that makes me worry in that graph is the dip below zero. I don't know if that theory is true or not, but _if_ it is, there ought to be a point ahead where more "realism" would actually be repulsive, as in worse than not playing a game at all. That's how I read that graph and that less than zero situation. (E.g., see the examples there: you could play with a toy robot or doll, but a zombie or a corpse is something you'd wa
                • _If_ there is a point at which you can actually mistake them for a human, could you still do those things and look yourself in the mirror in the morning? Some grown men have been known to cry at Aeris's death in FF7. What would happen if that scene happened in a Star Trek holodeck setting that's indistinguishable from reality? Could you bear being mind-controlled, gutting her like sardine and watching her bleed on the floor in that realistic a setting? I suspect a lot of people would get permanent psycholog
      • I'm always a little suspect of solutions that suggest trading the quantifiable and readily obtainable to the more abstract.

        I don't see why, that's art. Quantifiable is good, but it's ALWAYS secondary to "Abstract" concepts when it comes to art. If you gave a monkey a dual CPU G5 with Photoshop and gave a charcoal briquette to Picasso, I'm putting my money on Picasso, who gives a crap about the medium. Now what you'd be saying here is, give the G5 to Picasso. What the OP is saying is, you don't have Picasso,
        • If you gave a monkey a dual CPU G5 with Photoshop and gave a charcoal briquette to Picasso, I'm putting my money on Picasso, who gives a crap about the medium. Now what you'd be saying here is, give the G5 to Picasso. What the OP is saying is, you don't have Picasso, you have a monkey. We all want the Picasso plus the G5, but we got the monkey.

          Either way you're still better off with the G5- part of my point is that you don't necessarily know what your dealing with on the monkey-picasso spectrum, but the h
  • Human Realism (Score:4, Interesting)

    by patternjuggler (738978) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @07:29PM (#13753151) Homepage
    I believe that the more human-seeming the characters in games become, the more accessible and emotionally involving the games may become. Graphics are a significant component of this, though increasingly important is facial and bodily expression- and the interactivity is key, cut-scenes don't count and also canned animations etc. within the game get old once they are seen too many times (remember lame canned death animations before rag-doll physics?). The more nuanced and detailed and subtle a character can be, the more compelling they can be- one side effect is that games may no longer have to hit you over the head with over-the-top violence and skimpy outfits.

    It's going to take increasing amounts of money and artists to handle all that extra detail though, I don't see any way around that, except through simplified scanning-in of real world objects and people.
    • One way of attaining very detailed content, while keeping costs down is to use object libraries.

      By re-using existing content, game developers can save a huge amount of time and money, especially when it comes to producing game ports, sequels where so much content can be re-used.

      Some frown upon this recycling of objects, stating that games will look samey - but if you treat the "stock" objects as a virtual props department, you can achieve a great deal of aesthetic variety through lighting, environment desig
      • Some frown upon this recycling of objects, stating that games will look samey - but if you treat the "stock" objects as a virtual props department, you can achieve a great deal of aesthetic variety through lighting, environment design, animation, oh, and of course the game itself - which should be the real focus of any title.

        I agree, but we're only now reaching the stage where you can differentiate a game through lighting and the amount of props in a scene. When a room could only have a handful of objects,
    • I'll agree with your main point, but I think you're looking at it in the wrong light. While it is true that the more we connect with the characters in the game, the more we become emotionally wrapped up with that game, I don't think it has a lot to do with graphics. Take the Final Fantasy series for instance. I absolutely enjoyed the sixth game in the series and cared about what happened to the characters and how their lives turned out even though they were nothing more than little sprites. Now consider F
    • Remember Aeris? The video game character people actually cried over? How many polygons were in that model? How involved were her facial expressions and her body movements?

      Digital or no, there's only one thing that will always make a good character: compelling writing. If you've seen an amateur production of a famous play, you know what I'm talking about. Words make the characters what they are, and as long as those words are conveyed faithfully, the character comes through. True, a really brilliant ac
      • Remember Aeris? The video game character people actually cried over? How many polygons were in that model? How involved were her facial expressions and her body movements?

        For the pre-rendered cut-scenes (which includes the scene that people cried over), her polygon count was probably pretty respectable.

        Digital or no, there's only one thing that will always make a good character: compelling writing.

        I agree, but 'good writing' isn't very interesting to me as a technology (unless we're talking about computer
  • by FFFish (7567) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @08:21PM (#13753361) Homepage
    Aural realism is more important. That's the one thing that has made the great games great: the use of audio cues and audio environment to enhance the gaming experience. From Doom through System Shock through Thief, it's always come down to audio, not photorealism.
    • This is a great point. I don't play photorealistic games, for the most part - see my sig, I'm a Mario and Zelda girl. But even when you're going for brightly-colored cartoons in the graphics, realistic sounds can make the experience much more immersive.
    • Aural realism is more important.

      Yes, anal realism is necessary for a compelling experience.
    • Hear, Hear!!!

      Literally... I've been addicted to Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow since I picked it up last week. The sound is simply amazing. The music isn't perfect, but that's to be expected and that's no problem (I turn it down a bit to hear the effects of what's going on anyway). The effects are wonderfull. You'll need to put on a pair of headphones to hear it correctly, but you can hear the bones rattling when you destroy a skeleton, or the blood splatter when you kill a zombie. Fires off to the left a

    • Aural realism is more important. That's the one thing that has made the great games great: the use of audio cues and audio environment to enhance the gaming experience.

      This could be difficult...

      While there are standards such as EAX, it doesn't feel as if it's implementation is standard. In some sound cards, it is not supported on half of the games - while other sound cards supports it in that half, but the other half stops working. In addition, there is distortion with some incorrect implementations (wh

    • It bothers me that Creative is going pretty much uncontested in the market for gaming audio cards. There isn't as much incentive for them to spend money on R&D to improve audio quality since they're the only ones focused on gaming audio in particular. They're the only ones to buy from. Also they have less incentive to give quality product support for previous generations of their cards, there's no competitor to compare stability with except the newest iteration of Creative cards.

      I think we'll only see i
  • by ForteMaster (844937) on Sunday October 09, 2005 @11:14PM (#13754043)
    I don't care about increased polygon counts, vector shading, whatever they're using in the Lost Coast thingy for Half-Life 2. Okay, I DO, but mostly from a technical standpoint and an "oh wow" factor.

    I've said it time and time again. I'd rather play a game with beautiful hand-drawn sprites rather than crappy (but beautifully rendered) 3D characters. That said, I'm also a realist-if you can make something that looks bad in 2D better in 3D, then do so. There's also the limitation of genre. Most adventure genres don't need 3D rendering (and a few fringe subgenres absoulutely DEMAND hand-drawn art). However, racers and FPSes just don't look as good with Mode 7. Of course, there's always games that can only work in 3D but look crappy because of tech (read: Starfox). I could go on all day about it, but I won't.

    That said, I believe that environments, done well enough, look far better in fully interactive 3D. Or maybe that's just me :P

    For those who want good art direction AND visuals, pick up a GBA and get some of the higher-rated titles (and Sigma Star Saga, because it's underrated), and virtually every half-decent RPG. Almost all of the best GBA games have stunning art direction, and pixel-pushed goodness.
    • ### Of course, there's always games that can only work in 3D but look crappy because of tech (read: Starfox).

      Interesting that you mention it, I consider the original StarFox(SNES) still to be the best looking game of the series, the enemy design is cool especially because the 3d power was extremly limited in that day. They created some great looking extremly-low polygon models there. The other games in the series on the other side with their more realistic models just can't keep up with the originality of t
  • by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Monday October 10, 2005 @12:19AM (#13754294) Homepage Journal
    Photorealism is good for certain types of games, but will never replace more stylized art. It will just add another choice to those telling the stories. Take the analogy of cartoons - there are stories you can tell with modern animation techniques that would have been far less effective when the animation medium was in its infancy. Try to picture a "Ghost in the Shell," "Lion King," or "Ice Age" produced at the technical level of "Steamboat Willie." Or compare games to films. (Stop groaning and let me finish, dammit.) Film as a popular medium has only been around for a little over a century. Video gmes as we know them have only had about a third of that time to evolve, but in both cases as the medium advances, so does the choices of ways in which it can be used to tell a story. There will always be a place for black-and-white films, video without CGI effects, 2D cartoons, and games in which the characters don't look like a photograph.
    • I heard Pixar was going to do a 2D movie to show it's not about the technology - it's about the story. I think this mode of thinking applies to games as well - graphics should be tailored to the gameplay - form follows function.
  • by DingerX (847589) on Monday October 10, 2005 @02:56AM (#13754769) Journal
    The article features this in the concluding paragraph:

    The saleability of such fruits in game form is a complex and erratic proposition, but it seems scarcely relevant

    No offense, but it reads a bit like an undergraduate essay; perhaps an honors project, complete with a "hall of fame" for various aesthetic styles.

    The point (as I understand it) is that visual representation and the drive towards "realism" detracts from the exploration of the wide range of visual styles available for game development. The author uses many examples, a few from film, but mostly from comics for his argument.

    The problem with the article (besides its rather pretentious linguistic exuberance) lies in the incomplete realization of a very interesting thesis that lurks in the subtext, which betrays the failure to properly conceptualize the field of inquiry, viz. videogames.
    Alright, time to cut the pretentious babble: at times during the author's exposition, the issue of limitations creep up. Mostly, these are (as is not surprising for most videogame freaks, given historical development) limitations in technology, and remarks made in passing do indicate that game development has to take this into account (with a salient example being Katamari Damacy). But there are other limitations, the biggest one being money, whether expressed in development time, anticipated sales, or the burgeoning arts budgets of big-ticket games. In other words, aesthetics does not merely consider formal aspects, but rather formal aspects as expressed in the proximate matter that we call "the medium". A painter can't paint on moonlight, but needs a canvas (of some sort). A filmmaker without film (chemical or digital) is not a filmmaker.
    So at the heart of it is the computer, and its capabilities. But the problem here is not just material; it's formal. The Author assumes the essence of a computer game; that is he never defines his subject. As a result, he injects ideas and categorizations that are completely foreign to video games.
    When I was younger, and even more pretentious, I once declared that if cooking were an art, I'd have slipped motor oil into the compote. I'm glad there's someone following in my footsteps and suggesting a matisse-like (as opposed to 1920x1280 matrix-like) pointillist video game. "Computer game" is not a monolithic concept: games belong to specific types, and those types have their proper artwork. Puzzles (like tetris) do not need photorealistic artwork; in fact, a pure puzzle works best with an abstract and unambiguous semantic scheme that communicate the salient information immediately to the player (imagine how much fun tetris would be if the blocks were photorealistic bricks of nearly identical size). A narrative can play with representation (like the author's beloved comic books) and explore some of the more fantastic representational schemes. A simulation, however, needs to give the user the cognitive experience of the reality being simulated. That doesn't rule out art altogether; rather it establishes rules within which the art operates.
    Within these rules, "photorealism" is a dead end, or at least a misnomer. Few photographs convey the feeling of "being there". Extracting 2048x2048 textures from photographs, and slapping them on 100,000-poly models doesn't result in a realistic-looking model: any photographer will tell you the same object, photographed, will be entirely different from one part of the day to the next, and that the camera does not function identically to the eye. Making a "photograph" means putting something in focus, and directing the player's eye along.
    But the idea of "imagistic realism" itself, complete with complex graphics and lighting effects, is quite valid for games with a heavy simulation element. The largely narrative-driven ("sandbox") series Grand Theft Auto, when it shifted to a "first person" (or nearly) perspective with GTA3. went from an exploitational sidewalk-driving game to a blockbuster monument of game development with "Vice

  • Uncanny Valley (Score:5, Informative)

    by vistic (556838) on Monday October 10, 2005 @06:40AM (#13755316)
    No one mentioned the Uncanny Valley [wikipedia.org] yet?

  • by porttikivi (93246) * on Monday October 10, 2005 @09:37AM (#13756083)
    There is a chinese wisdom about arts: "If it looks real, it is not art." I think the "mimesis paradox" is also known in western art philosophy: that striving for realism is kind of futile, because absolute realism would be in no way more beautiful or fun than the reality already is.

    Of course, it might be better to differ from reality by the ways of the artists all-powerful mind, and not because of limitations of our tools. So photorealism here and some fantasy somewhere else makes sense. But if you insists on photorealism, realistic chracter AI, a working realistic environment and complete freedom of storyline, what is there left as the "art"?
  • Haven't you seen the 13th floor? [imdb.com]

    If they get too close to reality, they'll crash this one! :P
  • To hell with realism, I play Kingdom of Loathing [kingdomofloathing.com]
  • Most of my favortite games are not the ones with the greatest graphics. Gaming is about having a good time, and there is no rule that you have to be immersed in a replication of the real world to do that. Pac-man and the original Mario Bros. weren't fun because they resembled reality, but because they took us away from real life for a while. But of course, there will always be games out there that realism because it is part of the experience: sports games, GTA types, and realistic FPS's. But let's not f
  • Games journalism is retarded, it has no sense of it's own history or continuity. People say the same things over and over again. I wrote an article like this a decade ago, only better :)
  • The trouble with "photorealistic" games is that they really aren't actually photorealistic at all, because they don't accont for indirect illumination [wikipedia.org]. Games keep adding more and more triangles, yet that approach has reached a point of diminishing returns. Graphics cards have become faster and more programmable, but they're using the wrong algorithms. Should we be surprised when gamers complain that new games are starting to look more and more like old games?

    Unfortunately, the alternatives have histori

    • The trouble with "photorealistic" games is that they really aren't actually photorealistic at all,

      You are attacking games for a claim that they've actually never made.

      The topic of the article is not any existing game, but possibilities for the future, when brute-force raytracing becomes more and more plausible.

      because they don't accont for indirect illumination.

      There have already been games that accounted for indirect illum, usually by precalculating light levels. Of course, that means that they are then
  • How about publishing an article about realism in games or about scary games that DOES NOT reference System Shock 2? Yes, the game is way cool but it seems editors are just showing off their game knowledge here by name dropping.
  • Doesn't matter how good the graphics are.
    If the controls are awful (most games I've played for some reason or other) then the game will just be back to annoying and frustrating.

    I picked up an old copy of Riddick for the Xbox last weekend and found myself getting into it.
    Well, that was until I had to use a ladder, or jump on a box, or try to get up on a step that is only knee high, but unable too.

    The more photo-real the game is, the more fluid the controls need to be.

    I'm off to make a cup of tea. -
    H
  • Photorealism is difficult and technically demanding, and doubtless brings out the nerd in many game producers. If they're not careful, other aspects of gameplay will be lost. Titanic was a visually spectacular movie, but could have been taken to a whole new level if James Cameron had thought of spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars on editing the script. I've been in a musical theatre production where the director spent 80% of the time working on the lighting and 0% of the time actually directing th

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