A riff on departure from reality - was Sensor sizes
Mark Weingartner, ASC
I’ll go a little further and suggest that many of us as cinematographers and many audience members of narrative dramatic material have a strong affinity for those very artifacts that depart from our perception of reality, so that what we find pleasing in a moving image is distinctly “unreal.”
24fps: Temporal undersampling - the motion blur that is created by 24frame photography is part of the fabric of “traditional” motion picture storytelling - one of the ways that we know we are viewing a movie and not “real life” on the other side of the screen. Higher frame rates are more naturalistic (the way our eyes move in saccades, following bits of motion reduces motion blur significantly - ride in a car and look at the road - unless you focus on something in the frame of reference of the car you will see glimpses - samples - of sharp roadway rather than a blur.
Restricted Depth of Field: In normal vision eyes focus where they converge and we sample the environment around us with constant eye movements (saccades) building up a “picture” in which everything is in focus. Controlling DOF is a wonderful device for us to direct the audience’s view, but it is an “unnatural” artifact of the photographic process.
Lens distortions: If you have ever walked past a rectilinear checkerboard lens grid and viewed it out of your peripheral vision and seen how distorted it looks, you have an idea of how much work your brain is doing to square up the distorted images projected on your retina. The visual model of the real world that you build in your mind has corrected for all sorts of aberrations in your personal viewing system. When we choose lenses with distorted renditions of what is in front of them they serve a purpose in shaping the way we depict a scene, - the autocorrect in our viewers' brains is bypassed.
Chrominance: We often play with chrominance - color saturation in order to evoke feelings or create impressions - we are manipulating what gets put in front of the audience in an “unnatural’ way. The vast majority of our audience does not see the world monochrome, yet black and white films can be incredibly powerful, partly, in my view, for the distillation of image into form and tone that removing hue leaves us.
Back when I was teaching and doing a fair bit of stereo 3D work I gave a short presentation at Insight Out in Potsdam. One of the lecturers, Ludger Pfanz, had an interesting take on controlling the stereo space. He remarked on the London Tube stations that have curved platforms with announcements that say “mind the gap”n and suggested that we as stereographers needed to consider leaving the audience enough of a gap between the scene and themselves to give them room to process the story - if we completely immerse the audience in the story all the time, by his theory, they are too busy ducking punches thrown in the bar fight to see the two important characters slipping out, for instance.
In tune with his assertion, I have been considering that among the many things we do when we set up and photograph a narrative scene, we make choices that create a gap between the way our audience perceives reality and the way they perceive the story on our screen. Which tools we use - which pigments on our palette, which lighting choices, lens choices, focus choices, filtration choices we make to evoke certain moods, times, feelings - all those choices are departures from the way the audience perceived the lobby of the theater… or the living room before they've turned the lights down.
I’ve spent my life as a visual chameleon - trying to match other people’s visions and photography - and much of my homework involves deconstructing what they are doing. I have some personal preferences in lenses, framing, lighting but none of them is globally pleasing to me - each is more or less appropriate for a given story/situation/style. I have also been involved in art projects and theme park attractions where the object of the game is to emulate the way the audience perceives the world around them as closely as possible with deep focus and high frame rates and locked off cameras so that a scene might be projected as though it were happening in front of the audience themselves. This is a really fun exercise but the object of the exercise is quite different making experiential special venue material from making narrative material for the theater and television. Ang Lee has been exploring some of these differences with Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk and I imagine the project he is currently engaged in. The work has evoked strong responses - positive and negative. Is this his Stravinsky Firebird Suite moment? Time will tell.
This was a long ramble to point back at why we make the choices we make - and why those choices for many of us are completely project-driven - and generally depart from the way we see the world literally. I love making beautiful lighting, and in theater my forte was “atmospheric lighting.” I enjoyed lighting scenes that closely emulated, or at least evoked naturalistic lighting in the very artificial world of a black box or proscenium theater- two very different ways of experiencing theater. In motion picture, where we start with an assumption of reality, the fun is sometimes in departing from that naturalism but in a subtle enough way as to affect our viewer’s emotions without their catching on to how we are messing with them. So for me our craft frequently involves a tug of war between emulating naturalistic aspects of portrayal of a scene and creating abstractions, distortions, or modifications of that naturalism in order to reinforce (or sometimes play against) aspects of the story we are exposing our audience to.
Many of us have familiar tools we want to have at our disposal irrespective of the story we are working on - preferred lenses, cameras, lighting tools, filters, etc Luckily we disagree about which ones we like, or many of the vendors and manufacturers we so enjoy spending time with would be unemployed.
Not sure why I felt compelled to share these observations - perhaps as a reaction to the tension between the technical side of my brain and the aesthetic that has been exacerbated by some of the recent discussions.
I’m not sure that a given camera’s infidelity with certain colors, or a certain lighting device’s “incorrect” color spectrum renders it “second class” Much of the visual art that I enjoy the most renders a very filtered view of reality. Distillation is one of the ways to preserve a gap between the viewer’s experience of your art from his or her experience of the local supermarket. Our craft (and occasionally art) involves knowing the various tools available to us and what we can do with them, not necessarily rating them based on how closely they emulate reality.
Mark Weingartner, ASC
Somewhere in Kern County
LA based DP/VFX practitioner
Thank you Mark for sharing these thoughts and articulating them so well. Great post about what it’s really all about and my take away is we’re not in the reality business. We’re in show business...
DP - Untitled Robert Levine pilot, formally Gone Baby Gone
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I'll agree with that.
Thanks Mark, sense rules.
Geoff Boyle NSC
On 2 Apr 2018, at 07:07, John Brawley <johnbrawley@...> wrote: