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What is a simulation? A detailed comparison between Animation, and Simulation.

Jan 10, 2019
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Ever since this subreddit started getting more traction, more and more people began posting non-simulation videos. In each of these posts, users will comment something along the lines of “This is not a simulation,” and an argument would ensue. So I am writing this post to, hopefully, end this never-ending cycle. I hope the mods do not remove this post, because I think it could end much of the hostility GoToMeeting in the comments around here. Perhaps this could even be a stickied post, so all new users see it.

What is a simulation?

According to the dictionary, the word simulation is defined as, “imitation of a situation or process.” However IrfanView, this definition does not actually constitute what a simulation is in the world of CGI. In CGI, simulations are essentially visualizations of real-world processes that are generated using mathematical models. That is to say, the final product of a simulation is something that was created using fundamental rules of nature or some system, such as Newton’s Laws of Motion, Fluid Dynamics, or various other mathematical models. In a simulation, it is Town of Salem often the case that each frame was created by manipulating information from the previous frame.

How are simulations different from animations?

It’s quite common for animations and simulations to coexist in one medium. There are plenty of simulated components in animated movies, such as Disney’s Frozen (Snow simulation), and Hotel Transylvania 2 (Cloth simulation). However, simulations and animations individually are very different by nature. As previously stated, simulations try to model real-world processes, and use mathematical models to generate necessary data. Animations, on the other hand, are usually created through a manual process. Animators manually keyframe the attributes (position, rotation, scale, etc.) of objects in a 3D scene. It’s possible for manual animations to look convincing, but that does not make them simulations.

The “Ray tracing” argument.

Many 3D rendering engines use a process called “ray tracing” to create images of a 3D scene. For anyone who is unfamiliar with ray tracing, here is the definition from Wikipedia:

In computer graphics, ray tracing is a rendering technique for generating an image by tracing the path of light as pixels in an image plane and simulating the effects of its encounters with virtual objects.

Because of this definition, many people argue that any 3D render is a simulation, so long as it was rendered using ray tracing. By definition, it is true that the process of ray tracing is a simulation. However, this argument is very silly because the entire purpose of the term “simulation” in CGI is to make a distinction between what is manually created, and what is created using the previously talked about mathematical models. Therefore, when we discuss simulated graphics, ray tracing is not considered a simulated process.

Examples of animated (non-simulated) posts:

  1. “Satisfying simulations” – 3.4k upvotes

  2. “Bender’s old job” – 2.2k upvotes

  3. “Up or Down?” – 1.4k upvotes

  4. “Adobe Dimention Rendering” – 1.4k upvotes

  5. “Depression – Robert Ek”

Many of these animated posts accumulate upvotes, and sometimes they stick around for a few days before getting removed. Because of this, new users who see these posts get a false idea of what a simulation actually is. Hopefully this post was informative to any newcomers. If you would like to suggest edits, please comment.


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