CNN shows us that smoke looks like, well, smoke

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CNN has shown that not only is its future murky following the ouster of leader Chris Licht, so is its decision to run a quasi-augmented reality segment illustrating what smoke looks like.

During “News Central” on June 7, 2023, anchor Sara Sidner tossed to broadcast meteorologist Dereck Van Dam in the CNN Severe Weather Center to provide another perspective on the smoky conditions areas of the Northeast U.S. is experiencing due to wildfires in Canada.

Van Dam took up the story as a rather indiscriminate cloud of smoke hovered in the upper right of the screen for quite some time. The effect was difficult to see, given that the semi-transparent graphical representation of the smoke only occupied perhaps the upper one-eighth of the about two-thirds of the way across. 

The most obvious sign that something was there was that the red column and row of video panels on the weather set were slightly obscured.

Things got a bit more exciting when Van Dam noted that the smoke does result in some stunning sunsets — at this point the cloud grew slightly in size and shifted to a rusty orange, becoming easier to see. There was also a slight burst of light representing the sun.

In this iteration, the effect mostly covered the row of video panels on the studio wall, but a small portion peeked through in a shade that happened to closely match the sun-cast effect, making it look, at least at a quick glance, the there was some sort of odd glitch in the graphics causing the ethereal smoke to form a very unnatural right angle.

Finally, as Van Dam noted that the smoke can settle toward the ground, an additional faint gray overlay entered, covering about half of the screen. The effect was little more than a graphic of semi-transparent whisps.

CNN was apparently attempting to add a bit of augmented reality to its segment, but ended up adding another example of how using visual effects for the sake of visual effects isn’t always the best move.

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While the smoke effect would technically qualify under the AR banner, the segment featured no camera moves and did not include an instance of Van Dam interacting with the smoke as if it was an element in the space of the studio, such as standing in front of it. The effect could have been created by simply overlaying an animation with an alpha channel on top of the camera feed.

At certain points, when Van Dam’s hands would gesture toward the middle of the screen, it appeared his hands were behind the smoke, as opposed to an effect making it look like he was in front of the virtual element.

In some ways, an effect like that would have actually made the segment a bit more effective since viewers would at least be able to see how the smoke could affect visibility as was better illustrated in Athena Jones’
live shot immediately preceding Van Dam’s segment. 

To be fair to Van Dam, he did offer another visual — holding up his own “asthma pump” (a small white inhaler) when notating how the smoky conditions could affect those with respiratory issues.

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