Married, with hypocrisy

The brutal gaze of high-def TV: My essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine

Last month, I blogged about the ways in which new media change our ideas of beauty — by changing the thing the camera “sees”. People with sharp facial features looked great in black-and-white movies, but lost ground when color came in, a format that rewarded softer features. Then I started wondering about high-definition TV, which can pick out the tiniest facial flaws swith unforgiving precision. What effect was that having?

So I started researching it, and wrote a short essay for this week’s New York Times Magazine. You can read it online at the site for free, and for posterity’s sake, a copy is below:

Not Ready for Their Close-Up

by Clive Thompson

Cap Lesesne, a New York plastic surgeon, hears from a lot of women worried about aging. Late last year, he says, he had one visitor, a female newscaster, whose inquiries puzzled him. She was only in her 30’s, he says, and still looked terrific. (Lesesne, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, wouldn’t identify the woman.) When he asked her why she wanted surgery, she explained that her show was about to begin broadcasting in “high-definition,” the hot new digital technology that makes TV images look as crisp and sharp as IMAX films. On normal TV, she said, you can’t see her few tiny wrinkles; in high-def, they stand out like folds of origami. “When she walked in here,” Lesesne says, ” ‘high-def’ was the first thing that came out of her mouth.”

Celebrities are considered attractive at least in part because they’re suited to the technology of the age. The transition from silent movies to talkies destroyed many actors’ careers, as did the shift from black-and-white to color. While almost all prime-time TV on the major broadcast networks is shot in high-def, there are only 18 million of the pricey, wide-screen sets in use. But that number is expected to more than triple by next year, and the new scrutiny that comes with high-def is already making some on-camera talent nervous. “There are a lot of people who are going to be affected by this,” says Deborah Paulmann, a makeup artist for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

To understand why high-def is so unforgiving, consider the numbers. Today’s new top-of-the-line HD televisions can display two million pixels, nearly 10 times the resolution of a regular, old-style TV set. Also, the screens are the size of a tabletop. Watching a show in high definition is thus rather like being Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag — where every pore on the giants’ faces looms like a shell-blasted crater. Many new HDTV owners have tuned in to high-definition celebrity events, only to discover that their favorite stars suddenly look downright haggard.

“I’m seeing people in a whole new way,” says Phillip Swann, president of OnHD.TV, an online magazine. “If somebody’s aging or if they’ve got any old acne damage, it just jumps out at you. They’ve got no chance.” The editors of OnHD.TV examined several dozen stars and compiled a list of heartthrobs who (they claim) wither under the unblinking gaze of high-def, including Cameron Diaz (“littered with unfortunate pockmarks”), Jewel (whose makeup “looks like it was done by Ringling Brothers”) and Bill Maher (“scary”). I’ve seen the effect myself: when I recently watched a high-def close-up of Bradley Whitford — a handsome star of “The West Wing” — a normally insignificant mark on his forehead suddenly stood out like a third eye. I couldn’t stop staring.

The high-def format’s merciless gaze isn’t solely a matter of screen resolution. Color is a factor, too. For years, government standards have limited the range of colors available to broadcasters, based on the technological limits of the time. With high-def, more colors can be used, including some formerly forbidden shades of red — which means that blotches, zits and tiny nose-veins can be presented with the brutal clarity of a surgery textbook.

“It’s almost too realistic, too digital and computery,” complains Alexis Vogel, a veteran celebrity makeup artist who recently worked on “Stacked,” a high-def show starring Pamela Anderson. “We’d all like to go back to the old days.” Makeup artists are now engaged in an arms race with the new medium. But they face a paradox: while makeup is more necessary than ever, its artifice is more obvious. You can’t slather on powder when every grain looks like a boulder on your client’s face. And interestingly, many cosmeticians predict that high-def could actually reduce the amount of plastic surgery in Hollywood, because the tiny seams look Frankensteinian at such high resolution. High-def is, in essence, a medium peculiarly unsuited to dissembling. “It’s harder to change people from their natural form,” Vogel adds.

This will probably put an ever-higher premium on genuinely natural beauty — those lucky few people who require virtually no touch-up. Indeed, high-def fans say that some stars look better in the new medium: Anna Kournikova, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones glow like supernovas, and, Vogel says, “in high-def, Halle Berry’s skin is so beautiful and flawless, she’s almost a genetic freak.”

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the magazine.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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