From Blue Screen and Chromakey to the Alpha Channel and 2.0 Look, Dirt Style

Carolyn L. Kane

Assistant Professor, Department of Film and Media, Hunter College, the City University of New York (CUNY)

Using digital media to simulate “rough edges, stains, organic textures, [and] grunge-retro fonts,” can help one avoid the cliché “2.0 Look,” argues British designer Elliot Jay Stocks, characterized by “vibrant, high contrast colour; gloss; sheen; bevelled edges; gradients; and soft-focus effects (with a subtle outer glow),” [1] all of which Stocks finds aseptic and (too) clean-cut, as voiced in his 2007 tirade entitled, “Destroy The Web 2.0 Look,” presented at The Future of Web Design conference in New York.

Buttons with precise gradients illustrate the typically clean, smooth, and semi-translucent “2.0” look.

Buttons with precise gradients illustrate the typically clean, smooth, and semi-translucent “2.0” look.

Stocks is not alone. Also in support of anti-aseptic (and even a bit dirty) web design is Russian-born net artist Olia Lialina who, in her 2011 talk at the New Museum, advocated a future web aesthetic chalked full of unicorns, simple animated GIFFs, personal journal entries, and naïve, amateur-looking home pages. Going back to “amateur graphics” resist 2.0’s corporate and professional look, which has acted as a disinfectant to personal expression. “We are all naïve users at some point,” Lialina argues, citing web pioneer Ted Nelson, “and we don’t need to be ashamed of this.” [2]

Rainbow Glitter. Net artist Olia Lialina advocates a web aesthetic of glitter and animated GIFFs.

Rainbow Glitter. Net artist Olia Lialina advocates a web aesthetic of glitter and animated GIFFs.

But what happens if these anti-style styles are placed in a broader historical context – such as the history of digital graphics and special effects – do these stylistic call to arms suffice as critical models? This history, which begins with cinematic matting and chromakey, is explored at length in my book, Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming, 2014) however, I must here compress this history into a brief overview.

Chromakey is a special effects technique that involves removing color from an image so that another element may replace it. In a weather report on a news program, for example a reporter is recorded against a blue or green background, which is then “keyed” out and another image is re-composited onto the background, usually with the weather map. In chromakey, color becomes functional: used only to negate itself.

Its pre-history lies in cinematic matting and split screen, such as Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley’s Suspense (1913) that uses an innovative three-way split screen to shows multiple points of view simultaneously. Or, Linwood Dunn’s Flying Down to Rio (1934) that uses an early compositing technique – to mask portions of the image – during an aviation scene.

In electronic media there is pioneering video artist Peter Campus whose Three Transitions (1973), I argue, foreshadows the logic and aesthetic of digital compositing and links it directly to the 2.0 look. The path connecting this work to the 2.0 style, however, turns on the introduction of the alpha channel, developed by Ed Catmul and Alvy Ray Smith at NYIT in 1984. Their alpha channel allowed them to “render the opacity information with the color information.” This way the information could be stored together in a file that could then be composited over the background so the other parts could be altered without re-rendering the whole thing. [3] In short, the alpha channel creates a digital matte that preserves a range of transparencies (opacity levels) at each image point and for each red, green, and blue channel in the image. Once alpha channels were standardized in computing, alongside developments in the GUI, personal computing, and the Internet, slick and clean images – as in the 2.0 look – became feasible and practical.

But we are still left with the question: is dirt-style – as illustrated in the work of the art collective Paper Rad – an appropriate or effective critical response to corporate 2.0 slick-professionalism? Perhaps not always, but sometimes yes, even if only because these bright hue and raw juxtapositions punctuate normative viewing habits and patterns of media consumption – for however brief a hyper-chromatic instant.


1. Stocks, Elliot Jay. “Destroy The Web 2.0 Look.” The Future of Web Design, New York, November 2007.
2. Lialina, Olia. “Digital Folklore: A Conversation with Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied.” New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, April 15, 2011.
3. Alvy Ray Smith, “Alpha and the History of Digital Compositing.” Microsoft Technical Memo 7 (August 1995): 5-6.