Montage of magic "photo enhancement" in cop shows and movies

Darren sez, "A terrific montage of those 'can you clean that up a little' moments in film and TV. You know the trope: when back at the lab, some nerdy technician spouts technical gobbledygook and uses some fancy version of Photoshop to improbably improve the quality of some grainy security footage."

My favorite one of these -- I think it was in Enemy of the State? -- was two supercops looking at a satellite image of a terrorist standing on the roof of a building, and one says to the other, "can you rotate the picture so we can see his face?" I was waiting for the other guy to say something like, "sure, I'll just rewrite the fundamental laws of the universe so that cameras from overhead satellites can see around corners," but no, he did it. As the lady said of Meg Ryan, "I'll have what he's having."

Let's Enhance



  1. What BLOWS it for me is when..they attack the keyboard like manic angry german kids playing Unreal Tournament. Hello..MOUSE.

  2. They did this in Flash Forward the other day, zoomed in on a guy that was at most 40 pixels in height to reveal a pattern on his ring, with the explanation that because it’s video footage that you can do that. Yeah right. I try to tell people that you can’t zoom in or enhance a 40×40 pixel image to get a detailed picture of 1000×1000 pixels, but they don’t believe me because they’ve seen it in the movies.

    1. I was actually impressed by the way they did it in FlashForward, at least to begin with. IIRC the “lab” came back after a day or few days with only a slightly less grainy image than before, which was even commented on with some remark “is that the best you can do?”.

      I even bought the fact that you can extrapolate a little more detail information from moving images (which seems to make sense).

      Shame they then lost it with the 3D reconstruction of the ring.

  3. i wonder if blade runner was the first to do this, the rest seem to emulate it piece by piece, enhance, reflection, rotate, mirror etc

  4. to be fair, the moment in “enemy of the state” you may be thinking of was the one time they actually said “no we can’t,” where the tech actually chided the agent for asking to rotate a straight-down satellite photo. it was a plot point, because this was the first time the agency had gene hackman’s charater on video, and he was notable because he “never looks up.”

    i saw it recently, so it’s fresh in my mind, and what bothered me about this moment were two things:
    1. after they 3-D rotated a shot from a lingerie store security camera, all bets are off when it comes to their magical version of photoshop, and yet they pick-and-choose for suspense reasons.
    2. people almost never look up when walking around normally, and certainly not 90°-to-the-ground up, so this does not distinguish gene hackman’s character from any average person. all they need to know to determine he is savvy is that he’s on the roof of a hotel, talking to their target man.

    in any case, i find the “enhance” meme to simply be lazy storytelling. the characters either have the intelligence they need, or they don’t. unless the whole film is centered around intelligence processing, like “the conversation”, there needn’t be a scene about it at all.

  5. Yeah, like DeWynken said, the keyboard thing is silly. Keyboard shortcuts maybe, but it looks like they’re typing an email…

    I wonder if this trend started with the 60’s movie “Blow Up,” which was a similar concept but with darkroom enlargements instead of computer.

    1. yeah, antonioni did have the enlargements actually get more and more grainy, but then again, the ambiguity of the situation in the park was precisely the point of the story. looking more closely at the events made things less clear, not more, to stick with that theme.

      the “enhance that” scene is sort of the opposite: a pivotal clue gained after a needless obstacle. technology provides the answer, instead of being coldly and frustratingly indifferent.

  6. That isn’t what happens in Enemy of the State. You must be thinking of a different movie.

    I remember they note that Gene Hackman won’t look up, but who looks up anyway?

  7. The keyboard is actually a very convenient way to use modern image enhancement software. You type in something like “display bad guy’s face” and it does what is necessary. You see, after computer scientists figured out how to reconstruct the back faces of two dimensional objects, natural language processing was a snap.

  8. I love it when computer nerds possess magical powers. I also want to one day make cop shows, so when the time comes to use ‘hey, could you enhance that image?’ the tech guy adds page curl, lens flare, and little unicorns.

    1. From Anon #10 “I also want to one day make cop shows, so when the time comes to use ‘hey, could you enhance that image?’ the tech guy adds page curl, lens flare, and little unicorns.”

      I will watch your show.

  9. Yeah in Enemy of the State they definitely mention it’s not possible to turn to see anything but directly down from the Satellites.

  10. Worked at a 1hour in the early nineties. Everyone wanted enhancement.

    Btw, i saw “the conversation” years ago and i still can’t flush a toilet with getting flashbacks.

  11. There is a short clip from “No Way Out”, that if not accurate at least used better buzzwords.Somebody did a bit of research to cram eigenvalues and Fourier transforms into a conversion.

    “I’m not satisfied with the way this
    is coming up. The eigenvalue is off.

    Looks all right to me.

    We’re pulling away from our reference
    information. Program a Fourier transform.”

  12. Ah but, if I recall correctly, in Blow Up the images become increasingly grainy as the enlargements grow and grow on the studio wall. Antonioni knew what he was doing.

  13. The old Jimmy Stewart film noir “Dial Northside 777″ [spoiler alert] uses this technique to solve the underlying mystery. Hollywood should’ve stopped using it a long time ago.

  14. The mouse has got to be the un-sexiest prop in Hollywood. It seems like directors are so desperate to avoid it that they invent new ways to achieve mouse-like functionality. Think of the hand tracking device in Minority Report and the surface screen table in Quantum of Solace. There is something emasculating about a device that requires a gentle touch I guess.

  15. Best movie (ever!) for this was Rising Sun where one hacker removes a guy from a video and then another puts him back in using reflections that the first hacker forgot to take out.

    1. Looks interesting..

      A couple of weeks ago I wanted to phone an old fashioned hardware store in South London, so old fashioned their phone number didn’t appear anywhere on the web I could track down.

      It was on their sign board (with a twenty years out of date dialling code) in Google street view, but unreadably out of focus.

      Captured off the screen, into LAB in photoshop and voila.

      I was able to ask them if they had any old fashioned flower pots.

  16. My wife and I call these “bullshit moments” on CSI. When they enhance the reflection in a photograph of the victim’s eyeball to see the bad guy, for example, we’ll look at each other and say, “Ah, that’s bullshit.” The forensic cops shows are full of these things.

    1. the forensics is all baloney anyway… there’s no proper protection of the crime scene… cops still walk around in normal uniform traipsing all sorts of contamination in… and potential evidence out and handle the stuff with bare hands…

      oh occasionally they make a sop to preserving fingerprints when they pick a spent case or pistol up using a pencil… but the scenes of crime handling is utterly rubbish…

  17. Combine Photosynth with the frame-redundancy of video and not only can you rebuild 3D environments, you just might get to ‘Enhance’.

  18. What’s cool, though, is that when you are working at, say, an exhibition, and after that can’t remember who is the guy on the photo, you can actually read his badge.

  19. Of course Red Dwarf’s “Back To Earth” special had an homage to the silliness that this technique has taken in cinema. They were enhancing reflections off raindrops that were reflected in windows … etc.. to get an address off a business card. Fantastic scene.

  20. The moment I fell in love with the new Galactica was the moment in the first series when they did this right.

    In an episode that hinges entirely on some altered video of Baltar, when asked to enhance the video for clues, the officer says, roughly, “Well, I might be able to highlight something, but I’ll need a day or so to play with it. And don’t expect miracles.”

    By the time he does, after a day or so at work, find some evidence the video was faked, we the audience know that the fake was deliberately sloppy, meant to be found.

    This had a brilliant elegance of writing and technical plausibility (both of which Galactica sadly later lost, but that’s another topic).

  21. Just FYI
    There is no law of physics that says satellites must only look directly down. They can look at the horizon too and get peoples faces etc…
    Of course you can’t get the inf out of 1 pic…

  22. This sort of montage is also colloquially known as a “supercut”; that sometimes gets confused with the hair salons, so I also use “ubercomp”. Andy Baio’s page compiles so many of them, including this one which showed up on the same day it was posted.

    I squee’ed when Abby from NCIS showed up! The editing here was very tight, and I was cracking up when one “reflection” bit after another showed up. Also, the music helped pace it for suspense instead of having awkwardly-jutting ambience between cuts.

    I can’t think of an earlier example than Blade Runner.

    But I like hearing of modern tools that would seem miraculous in the best, like context-aware resizing and tools like TinEye to ID images.

  23. If Photoshop (or any other application for that matter) made little beepy, squeaky, sound effects every time I zoomed or dragged an image, I’d have long ago stopped using it. Yet every time a character in a movie does so, or words appear (line by line, thank you) we have to actually hear them appear. Makes me crazy.

  24. Man, I deal with this kind of crap from customers on a regular basis: “What do you mean that my camera phone pic can’t be blown up to a 5’x8′ poster? Can’t you, you know, put it in your computer and ENHANCE it or something?”

    Damn you Hollywood, DAAAAAMN YOOOOU! :)

  25. thequickbrownfox #21

    I say Blade Runner with my Dad at the theater. He has shot a lot of slide film in his life and during that scene he whispers to me, “Jesus, how much resolution does that film have?”

    Also, how do the characters always know grid references just by eyeballing the screen? “Enhance A2 through G12.”

    1. Mind you, a couple of years ago a friend of mine shot a bunch of us at a restaurant table with a 9 MegaPixel camera. I have actually zoomed in on a reflection in a saltshaker on one of those pictures to pick up a reflection of someone’s face who’s turned away from the camera. You can tell who it is, albeit only if you already knew this person and the list of people whom it was likely to be.

  26. there was some good material in the terrible movie “Vantage Point.” Just watch the trailer.

    Stop! REWIND THAT.

  27. Also, how do the characters always know grid references just by eyeballing the screen?

    Don’t mean to wreck anything, but Harrison Ford is a robot too.

  28. Yeah, can’t believe they missed the Blade Runner one. Especially since he uses the word “enhance” like 30 times. Also, I never quite understood where the woman came from in the photo. At a certain point it looked like he started traveling around a corner in the photo.

  29. I’m also interested in the computers that tell you everything they’re doing in pop-up poxes with 72 point font, with really intense graphical representations of searching a database or something going on in the background.

    I mean, I know it looks better on film, but by now we must have reached a point in our society that the entire audience knows that isn’t how computers work. Right?

  30. #32

    as I recall that’s right. There was a parabolic mirror through the doorway in the next room. He zoomed in on that and saw around the corner.

  31. The other application for this is the tech geek can just hack into spy satellites during special events and magically enhance everything and get 8X10 glossies. This would be far more preferable over invasive ostentatious wedding photographers. Hate those guys.

  32. One scene that should have been included was from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where Dr. Gillian Taylor keeps asking Captain Kirk how they can zoom in, rotate and focus on a something that’s thousands of kilometers away from the ship, and Kirk keeps telling her not to ask such questions.

    The Red Dwarf sketch: I think it hit just about all the stuff that wrong with the “Enhance” scenes in shows…and somehow, the crew can’t read text that’s not perfectly horizontal.

    I came here to decry the “Enhance and refocus the reflection off his cornea” scenes, but Red Dwarf even covered that one. And one I hadn’t thought of: “Uncrop”.

    Besides, why doesn’t Abby on NCIS, turn off the flashing display so that the facial recognition search runs faster – and tell her Boss comes in a says “Why aren’t you running the…”, she can set him straight?

    Hmm, that’d give her street cred, no? We can’t have that, eh?
    (Oh, I know why the computer screen has to have all the images flashing away: there are two computer systems. One flashes all the faces on the computer screen. Another systems has a video camera looking at the flashing faces on the screen, and is doing the actual comparisons..)

  33. @2&41
    See also: Mr Scott dealing with the ‘quaint’ keyboard in ‘Voyage Home’. One minute he’s talking into the mouse, the next he’s so familiar with mid-80s Apple software that he creates a 3D molecular model for ‘transparent aluminum’ with 10 seconds of one-fingered typing.

  34. Not a cop show or s.f., but there was a funny scene in 30 Rock where Jack wants to see what’s inside of an (open) box in a home video of a birthday, shot from the side. So he calls one of the AV guys from downstairs and says, “Now from what I know of CSI, you’re going to want to zoom and then enhance.”

  35. Remember us audio guys have to deal with the same fiction too. “Let’s enhance that” and voila, a conversation carried on behind a paint spray booth sounds like a commercial voice over!

    With lots of keyboard commands.

    1. at #55: yes, just as bad in the audio realm. The university work I did in audio forensics was so tedious, I cringe every time I see someone on CSI turning an oversized, magical rotary dial to positively “get a match” on a suspect’s voice.

  36. I’ll let “Blade Runner” and the futuristic sci-fi shows get away with it since they are supposedly dealing with technology we don’t have (who’s to say that film cameras CAN’T see around corners in a world of flying cars?).

    Everybody else who does this (CSI probably being the worst repeat offender) has caused me a great deal of grief every time I teach a class in Photoshop. “No, you CAN’T use that GIF image you found on the internet for the background of a poster.”

  37. As someone who works with satellite imagery, I just pretend that it’s actually from a drone every time a character is looking what is identified as a satellite feed. Even the best military satellites can’t really see individual people on the ground, let alone follow them around in real time and allow identification.

    This sample image of Cairo from Worldview 2, one of the best commercial satellites up there only has a resolution of a half metre to the pixel, too low to see people.

  38. Funny, I always assumed that the picture Dekkard is playing around with in Blade Runner is a hologram to start with, and that’s how come it shows parallax when he’s zooming around it. And, IIRC, he at least ends up with a fuzzy image of whatever he was interested in.

    BTW, we used to joke about using the ‘Hollywood’ plug-in to Photoshop whenever an account exec asked us to do something impossible with a picture, like flip over a scan so we could see the other side of a car (true story).

  39. I stopped watching CSI after the very first episode when I realised I’d have more respect for the people who made it if they’d just had a magic pixie in the corner that could answer their questions for them.

    Bloody hacks.

  40. @4: You really can assemble lo-res video into higher res stills. A friend of mine from grad school was involved in a trial where they got a sharp image of a tattoo from some convenience store security camera footage. I don’t have a reference handy, but my friend studied wavelets.

  41. From what I read, US military imaging satellites have ground resolutions down to a few centimeters- all you need is a big enough aperture and clever algorithms to minimize the muddle. This is certainly enough, under the right conditions, to see a person on the ground. Such an image wouldn’t identify an individual in itself, but might allow identification indirectly because the time and place of the image are known.

    And I think all this stuff about Deckard being a replicant is just Ridley Scott pulling our collective leg in retaliation for hearing nothing but “Blade Runner” for the last 27 years.

  42. By the 24th century, we’ll just bombard the image with an inverse tachyon beam. It won’t provide any more information, but at least it’ll be dead.

  43. Anybody remember the Brady Bunch episode when Greg couldn’t play football because he was hurt, so he took his camera to the game and was taking pictures of his cheerleader girlfriend and caught the game changing play in the background of one of his pictures. He “enhanced” it (basically he blew it up larger and larger in the darkroom)to show whether or not the guy was out of bounds…’s a classic!

  44. The MacGuyver bits were especially hilarious. “Got an image enhancer that can bitmap?” “Lock on, and enlarge the z axis!”

    Anyone else see Mel Brooks’s 1977 Hitchcock-spoof High Anxiety? A photograph is blown up to the size of a barn to turn a tiny speck into a recognizable person.

  45. In Response to jetfx
    The City of Vancouver has a great orthophoto site called VanMap that has photographed every bit of the city, and includes super detail that does show people on the ground, and will allow you to count traffic cones if need be.
    I had thought it was from a satellite, but now you make me think it has to be from an airplane or balloon.
    Best City Map I have ever seen. Parking meters, sewer lines, City owned property, a wealth of info.
    (Internet Explorer only and it will install an an Active X control for viewing only with permission.)(Click orthophotos in the left column to see pictures).

    1. in response to Dan Mac | #75 | 15:54 on Fri, Dec.18 | Reply

      (Internet Explorer only and it will install an an Active X control for viewing only with permission.)(Click orthophotos in the left column to see pictures).”

      they need smacking round the head with a cluebat for making that not only browser specific, but OS specific…

      Let me guess, Microsoft helped them set it up for free…

  46. What about in Wild Wild West (with Will Smith) when they used the guy’s head and shined a light through the back of it, through the eyes to reveal the killers portrait burned into the eyeballs of the victim (the head). I didn’t know that was possible.

  47. I read through the comments and couldn’t find a reference to the scene in High Anxiety when they blew up the picture of the killer to lifesize. Very funny scene.

  48. I’m rather surprised at how few of you believe. For, without belief in the near-impossible, we wouldn’t have amazing technology… like this:

    Yes, they use still megapixel photos to enhance details. But jump to the end where they’re cropping out real-life objects from a single frame, and it’s removed from the full streaming video. Cool stuff is possible!

  49. ah, thats all nothingness compared to the mother of all zooms in the “Patriot Games” (Tom Clancy adaptation with Harrison Ford) where satellites are redirected to spot down into the cleavage of a terrorist:

    “Do you know how big a deal
    it is to retask those satellites?


    Tighten on the camp here.
    Let’s look up here.

    Let me see down here.
    What’s that? Tighten up on that.
    Can you enhance that?


    (couldn’t find it on youtube today, leave it to the reader to find))

    1. No, I remember that one, and it didn’t seem at all implausible. The Hubble Telescope could — if I recall — read a newspaper on Earth, which is way more resolution than you would need to distinguish male from female from orbit.

      I don’t think the spy satellites are as good as Hubble (yet), but they’re good enough to do what you saw.

      1. Hubble doesn’t have the resolution required to read a newspaper on Earth – in fact it’s resolution is too low to resolve the moon landers on the moon (which is why no one ever tried to use it to “prove” that we went to the moon). Hubble’s abilities lie in light gathering, and viewing objects that are very big. It wasn’t until the LRO that we had sufficient resolution around the moon to photograph the landers from orbit.

        More explanation:

  50. Blame it all on Jack The Ripper!!

    The detectives of Scotland Yard back then took close-up photographs of the eyes of his victims as many
    Victorians at the time believed that the eye would hold the image of the last thing seen before death… therefore the latent image of Jack would be ‘trapped’ in the eyes of his victims!

    Ahhh…Victorian CSI using the latest hithech equipment – glass negatives and wooden cameras!

  51. I always like how the programs look all high tech and fancy, like a big flash intro screen. Or, like the movie “The Net”, where they’re using old, outdated Macintoshes. Photo enhancement software isn’t that high tech, guys!

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