Sunday, October 21, 2012


The computer gaming industry was launched using just a few primitive elements.

Two or three colored pixels were all that was necessary to construct a story in the minds of viewers: a red pixel might represent a missile trying to knock out that green pixel before it hits blue pixel earth.

Later would come photo-realistic graphics, complex story lines and motion sensitive technology.  But the most important step-- turning viewers into believers-- was achieved with just a few basic visual symbols.  Our imaginations did the rest.  

It's amazing how a visual image--even a single red pixel--  gives our minds a starting place for belief in scenarios where mere words might fail to persuade.   Even the most far fetched ideas become more plausible once we can visualize them.

The newly released movie Argo tells the true story of the rescue of American diplomats hiding in the Canadian embassy in 1979 after  a mob of Islamic militants took over the US embassy.  To smuggle the diplomats out of Iran, A CIA “exfiltration” expert made up a wild story about the diplomats being a movie crew scouting locations in Iran for a Hollywood space fantasy called “Argo.”

As one film critic recounts:
“You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” a State Department official asks the CIA.  ”This is the best bad idea we have,” is the reply....   They can’t fake any of the usual identities for the Americans because they are too easy to disprove.  The normal reasons for foreigners to be abroad — teaching, studying, aid — are not plausible.  Only something completely outrageous could be true.
But how to persuade the fanatical Iranian border guards who were skeptical of all foreign devils?   Why should they believe such a far fetched tale?  Because the CIA showed them Jack Kirby's concept drawings for the "film."

They really liked the drawings.

Once the guards saw the pictures, they were able to visualize the movie and became persuaded.  They let the diplomats go.  Whether you're playing video games or smuggling hostages out of Iran, the principle that "seeing is believing" pays off time and again.  People who dismiss pictures as the mere illusion of reality underestimate the reality of illusion.


Jesse Hamm said...

I love the idea of Jack Kirby as Obi Wan Kenobi, and his artwork as The Force. "These are not the diplomats you're looking for."

Peter said...

Not to derail your meditation, David, because you make some very good points in it.

We in Canada are not thrilled with "Argo" because it distorts (badly) the history of that time--it was a Canadian diplomat in Tehran and not some CIA spook in Washington who secured the release of the US diplomats and that simply by passing them as a Canadian film crew--dead easy. Doesn't make the same Hollywood story, but it is a compelling one in its own right. It also downplays to the point of disappearance the role of Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor.

Although he liked the film, Ken Taylor noted that in this operation, "the CIA was a junior partner."

David Apatoff said...

Black Pete-- Every account I have read makes it obvious that the Canadian ambassador was the true hero of that event. He courageously gave the US diplomats shelter at great risk to himself and his embassy. In gratitude, the US allocated space on the National Mall in Washington (next to the White House and the Capitol) for Canada's embassy-- the only nation to have an embassy on the Mall. Ben Affleck swears that, with the exception of the runway scene at the end (which he added to dramatize the tension of the escape) he tried to be faithful to the real life story (combining several Rashomon perspectives). I gather that whether they were important or not, the Hollywood producers who faked the movie got attention because they were more colorful than Ken Taylor. And of course, the Jack Kirby drawings were real.

Jesse Hamm-- hilarious!

MORAN said...

That's why they say "seeing is believing" and why they pay artists good money to make storyboards. People can't believe in something until they see it spread out in front of them. I wonder if there is a neurological reason for it.

अर्जुन said...

Are taking us for a ride? Long live the King! Re: the film critic, Isn't she mentioned in the Fawcett book‽

Jan Lou said...

I really enjoy reading your blog.I found it a while back trying to remember when Life did its fabulous ancient Greece series in the 1960s and found your superb post on Stanley Meltzoff. Your most recent post on pixels, Argo and how art is often more reflective of 'truth' than reality is another great read. BUT, when you say Argo tells the true story, I have to speak up. Hollywood's brand of illusion often falls short when it comes to truth-telling. Here's a good story that sets the record straight:

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- I was wondering the same thing. Empirically, it seems that a visual image adds plausibility to even the most implausible notions. Once an artist shows us how it would look, we start to nod our heads and say, "yeah... I get it now." But I'm afraid we will have to look to other readers for the neurological explanation.

अर्जुन -- Wow, you are really scary.

Jan Lou-- I don't disagree with anything you have written. In fact, I originally wrote a couple of additional sentences about the heroism of the Canadians, but deleted them because they were not directly relevant to my theme (which is how Jack Kirby's drawings helped persuade the Iranian guards to believe a highly improbable story). Writing a blog, I have to be pretty ruthless about paring things down to their bare essentials. But rest assured, if my theme had been the politics and the risks of the Iranian rescue mission, the Canadians would have been the heroes.

AJA said...

"I wonder if there is a neurological reason for it."

David Apatoff said...

AJA-- Good point. Do you think Mr. Colbert has views on the connection between a picture and truthiness?

Anonymous said...

Q: How many Canadians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: At least two, one to screw the light bulb in and another to listen to complaints about how Canadians go unacknowledged by Americans.

Tom said...

Hi David

Thought you get a kick out of this article. A crack in the wall?

Last paragraph,

It is the job of a cultural commentator to make waves but Hickey is adamant he wants out of the business. "What can I tell you? It's nasty and it's stupid. I'm an intellectual and I don't care if I'm not invited to the party. I quit."

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- the US diplomats changed locations 5 times in the first week, shuttling from embassy to embassy until the Canadians finally risked their lives by taking the diplomats in. Anyone who is willing to take a principled stand with 50,000 screaming maniacs outside their front door qualifies for complaining rights around me.

Tom-- What a refreshing piece of candor. I loved it, thanks for sharing.

AJA said...

I don't know. It's sometimes difficult to separate Colbert from his character. His character trusts the study, and he did include a segment on the show, so I would think that he does see a connection between a picture and truthiness.

Anne said...

I knew it was Jack Kirby before I read it...he was one of a kind

Friar Mason said...

crazy to think just how far gaming graphics has come. to think 25 years ago we were playing raw pixelated space invader games made up of a handful of blocky pixels that would keep us entertained for hours... heh

gutscheine zum ausdrucken said...

Useful information, thank you very much.

Nick Chrissis said...

Just an FYI years after the fact: those drawings are actually concepts for a movie adaption of Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light" which never made it to production. Really great book and very interesting designs by Kirby, shame it was never made but at least they were put to good use.