Created By: Folamh3 on November 16, 2011 Last Edited By: Folamh3 on October 21, 2014

Sliding Scale of Realism vs. Stylization

A SlidingScale of how stylized the visuals in a work are

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No Examples, Please

There are a potentially infinite number of ways to represent objects in visual media. There are portraits of people that are so lifelike they could easily be mistaken for photographs, whereas the art of, for example, Jackson Pollock is so abstract and formless that it could scarcely be said to represent anything at all. This is a sliding scale of how realistic or stylized the visuals in a given work are.

Please note that this trope only refers to how realistic or stylized the visuals in a given work are. It has nothing to do with the realism of the setting, plot etc.

Very Realistic

  • Visual art which quite closely resembles real life. There will be a strong preference for natural, rather than artificial, lighting. Shooting on location will be more common than shooting on sets. Special effects will be at a minimum, if present at all, and there will be no use of CGI (in live-action). In film or animation, editing techniques will generally be limited to cuts, fades, dissolves and other minimal techniques of this nature, and individual shots will tend to be unusually long. Colour will generally be preferred to black-and-white (exceptions are made for films produced prior to the advent of shooting in colour). Post-processing of all kinds will be used sparingly, if at all. At no point will the audience be in any doubt as to what a given object is meant to represent.
  • Examples include many documentaries, mockumentaries, Dogme 95 films, Italian neo-realist films etc. This point on the scale is essentially limited to live-action (and some of the fine arts, typically of the "warts-and-all" school): it's not really feasible to pull this off in animation. This rarely appears in mainstream, commercial films precisely because the audience has become so used to more stylized films that the realistic art style itself looks unrealistic.

Quite Realistic

  • Still very realistic, but more stylized techniques will begin to creep in. Artificial lighting will become more prominent, as might coloured filters. Simple special effects might be used, along with minimal use of CGI. More elaborate editing techniques may be used.
  • Most live-action films sit around this point, along with some animation and sequential art (especially rotoscoped animation). Most kinds of fine art sit either here or on the point below. Some entirely CG art will sit here as well.

Moderately Stylized

  • In animation, the art style will become rather more impressionistic here. Colour schemes will become increasingly artificial, sometimes employing black and white for artistic reasons. Special effects will become very popular, often used to represent events that are essentially impossible in nature. CGI will be used liberally in live-action. In animation, cel-shading will start to become apparent, buildings may start to employ increasingly unlikely architectural designs and human or animal bodies may begin to appear subtly out of proportion, for example employing angular character models or Most Common Superpower.
  • Most animation and sequential art are around this point, along with German Expressionist films, many music videos, some more over-the-top action films and many science fiction and fantasy works. In painting, surrealism starts to emerge here.

Heavily Stylized

  • Very stylized art style. While the audience will understand that objects onscreen are intended to represent objects in the real world, they may have some difficulty identifying exactly what they are meant to represent. Buildings will employ architectural designs which are physically impossible, as might also be the proportions of human or animal bodies. Colour schemes will make liberal use of colours which never occur in nature. Editing techniques will be extremely experimental and eccentric. Cel-shading will be very pronounced and alternative forms of shading will be less popular.
  • Lots of animation and sequential art (including Stick Figure Comics and Stick Figure Animation) resides at this point. It is unusual for commercial films to reside here; anything live-action residing at this point will typically consist of short experimental pieces, often without plot or characters. Many music videos (especially of the surreal kind) reside here. In painting, most impressionism is somewhere between this point and the point above.

Completely Stylized/Abstract

  • Artwork which is so stylized it can be almost impossible to identify what any of it refers to. No two people will agree on whether a given object in the work is meant to represent a dog, a house, a gun or whatever.
  • As noted above, popular in abstract paintings, along with experimental music videos, animation and short films.

Note: the scale runs from "very" at one extreme to "completely" at the other extreme. This is done to avoid a philosophical debate about what constitutes "completely" realistic art; for the purposes of this trope, it is considered an artistic impossibility.

Related tropes include True Art Is Incomprehensible and Art Evolution. See Art Shift for when multiple points along the scale are employed in a single work.
Community Feedback Replies: 24
  • November 18, 2011
    It might be best to come up with an actual scale with which we can sort examples.

  • November 18, 2011
    Sliding Scale of Realism Versus Stylization?

    In that case you can find examples anywhere, Seen It A Million Times. Maybe a supertrope of Mohs Scale? Or strictly visuals?
  • November 19, 2011
    I'd prefer not to associate it with Mohs Scale, that leans a little too close to True Art Is Realistic for my tastes.

    I think first we need to decide how many points on the scale we'll have and what we'll call them. For now we'll just apply them across all media. The points I had in mind so far were:

    1. Realistic 2. Slightly Stylized 3. Somewhat Stylized 4. Moderately Stylized 5. Heavily Stylized 6. Completely Abstract

  • November 19, 2011
    The vampire flick Ultraviolet compared to the vampire flick Daybreakers...
  • November 19, 2011
    ^^Make the first one "Complete Realism" so that it gives a better sense of what belongs on that end of the scale.
  • November 19, 2011
    Good idea. I'll put up a rough draft now.
  • November 19, 2011
    The scale will need to be fairly defined, but:
    • Compare the Sands Of Time trilogy with the newest Prince Of Persia. Those were fairly realistic in portrayal (for all that they were portraying sand monsters and time travel), whereas the reboot features cel-shaded graphics.
  • November 19, 2011
    Since every piece of art ever created fits somewhere on this scale, do we need examples on the page?

    We can just Pot Hole it in show descriptions, right?
  • November 19, 2011
    @Wheezy, that might be a good idea. Though perhaps for each point on the scale, we might have one or two illustrative examples. Perhaps, actually, one example for each of the relevant media, so one for film, one for animation, one for video games, or something like that.
  • November 19, 2011
    Understanding Comics has as one of its motifs a triangle with photorealistic art at one vertex, the "picture plane" (represented by a bunch of geometric shapes) at another vertex, and extremely simple, "cartoony" art, like stick figures, at the third vertex, with an area beyond that vertex reserved for words and language, and claims that all art fits somewhere on that triangle. The way I'm describing it is probably really confusing, but still.
  • November 21, 2011
  • November 24, 2011
    This isn't an easy trope to write, and I'm impressed. Every work ever will be included on it, so I won't give any examples.
  • December 12, 2011
    I am not sure the no-examples decision is a good idea. I agree that every work ever can be placed on this scale, so it's probably bad idea to just add individual works. However, it might be quite illustrative to include instances where individual installments within the same series, such as Zelda and Dragon Age above, slide up and down the scale, because the differences in art direction are most visible with the same characters, settings, etc..
  • December 12, 2011
    I don't think use of CGI is the same thing as most of this trope. If you're doing totally photorealistic CGI, surely that's the same as, say, a photorealistic painting?
  • March 18, 2012
    For animation, from realizm to stylization:

    1. arthouse examples: Alexander Petrov, Keita Kurosaka

    2. 40s-50s Soviet cartoons, some anime targeted at older audiences, such as Akira, Monster, Paranoia Agent

    3. Disney with human characters, most anime, 80's American cartoons

    4. Disney with animal characters, most Golden Age cartoons

    5. Most modern american cartoons, some kodomo anime, 60s-80s Soviet cartoons, "Cartoon modern"

    6. Yellow Submarine and alike

    7. I cannet name anything, but i'm sure it exists.
  • March 28, 2012
    @pinkdalek - I take your point, by CGI I was more referring to how CGI tends to be used in otherwise live-action films. I added a line about photorealistic CGI under "Quite Realistic".
  • February 28, 2013
    Where does Jojos Bizarre Adventure sit here?
  • February 28, 2013
    From looking at it, I would say in the middle of the scale, Moderately Stylized.
  • October 20, 2014
    What about Adventure Time?
  • October 20, 2014
    Compare Sliding Scale Of Like Reality Unless Noted for in-story elements.
  • October 20, 2014
  • October 20, 2014
    For the "completely stylized" category, the only example I can think of is the "Toccata And Fugue In D Minor" sequence from Fantasia.

    Also see Disney Acid Sequence, where the visual style becomes less realistic in a work during a musical number. It often overlaps with Art Shift.
  • October 21, 2014
    Fantasia is one of the few films to cover nearly the entire scale, from Quite Realistic for the live-action segments and "Rite of Spring" to Completely Stylized for the "Tocata and Fugue". The live action segments don't go under Very Realistic because they are shot in silhouette with theatrical lighting.
  • October 21, 2014
    Possibly a note that art skill is note the same as art style? so a not-very-good artist trying to draw realisticly would not go in a more "stylized" catagory (or would they?)