Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Experimental Uses of Analog Reflectance Mapping in the Pre-Digital Cinema

As we move into the new world of digital cinema is it time to embrace modern aesthetics and criteria of excellence and move away from the tired old notions of story, plot, character and dialog?  These latter elements served their purpose in their day but now hold us back, some would say.  Who cares about a story when you can have giant robots?   What is the point of having sympathy for a character when you can have 1200 effects shots instead?   The answer is there is no point.

If "new art requires new artists" then it also requires new criteria, new standards, which we can use to judge and appreciate this new work  Our modern cinema has clearly transcended these old ideas and moved ahead.  I believe it is time we moved analysis and criticism forward as well.

What are the new criteria that more properly embraces and embodies our new art form?   This is not yet known for certain.  We are feeling our way in a dark room filled with sharp edges.

I propose that one such new aesthetic will be an appreciation of the power and nuance of a well-placed "reflection map".   Consider how pointless it would be to try and appreciate a movie like Gravity (2013) without deconstructing its reflection maps that underlie its mere surface reality. 

For those of you who are not familiar with the terminology of the new cinema, let us review the basis and origins of the "reflectance map".   

A reflection map is subtlety incarnate. Just out of sight it informs the scene subliminally. It is the distorted lens through which we do not see this world, but another world, a world around the corner or above our heads, a world of light that fills the space between the objects.

The origins of the reflection map predates digital cinema, it predates all cinema. Its beginnings are in the history of theatrical lighting and set design of different cultures, both of narrative theatre as well as the religious and other cultural events of these earlier periods. It is in the history of theatrical lighting, the projector, the lime-light, the mirror, the torch, the well-placed pane of glass, the unscrolling panorama, and in the world of theatrical magic that we should seek the origins of the reflection map.  (1)

The reflection map is not new to the cinema, it is has been in the background, in the art form of the cinematographer since the beginning. There have also been some early examples, ahead of their time, that elevated the reflection map to a more prominent place in the structure of the film. There are four films that I describe here that demonstrate mastery of the reflection map, all of them classics of the traditional cinema. I think you will agree that all four films are recognizable at once merely by describing their use of reflection mapping, as analog as it may be.

That is right, in all four examples below, the maps (reflection, projection, etc) are all analog, which obviously could not be as good as digital, that goes without saying, but has value nevertheless.  

Film 1:

The film begins with a minute of solid black with white titles in a classic type. The audio fades up from silent to the background sound of people in a public space and, slowly after a minute and maybe twenty title cards, what appears at first glance to be a stylized impressionist painting appears. A very subdued color palette with unrecognizable shapes of what may be a cafe or group of people. The painting begins to move (it is actually in slow motion), it appears to be animated or abstract in some way. As color is faded into the picture, an orchestra becomes to warm up in the background audio and the painting is revealed to be a distorted mirror of a club in Berlin between the wars. The reflection map itself becomes an element of the scene as it is a backdrop to the stage which is slowly pulled up to the ceiling where it acts as a reflector of the stage beneath it.

Film 2:

A black and white film about a young man who is color blind. However, he became color blind as a young adult, in his early childhood he could perceive color. When he sees something that he saw as a child or which reminds him of his childhood, that element will be in color. This is particularly noticeable in a scene involving a dark room with a back-lit aquarium and the reflections it casts in the room. (2)

Film 3:

A 1960's film about space travel. We often do not see what the character sees directly, but only indirectly in the visor of his space suit, or the reflections on the wall or window. Even when we think we are seeing what he sees directly, we are not, as the imagery is created with an analog technique called slit scan, a technique that uses imagery in a motion control process to create new animated abstract imagery on film.

Film 4:

A black and white film about love and death, with death and death's mechanism personified in the character of a woman (4) and her male assistant. The boundary between the worlds of the dead and the living are mirrors. In an attempt to bring someone back from death, the assistant to death guides the protagonist into and through the world of the dead on his mission. The imagery is composited, either optical or rear projection, of photography at night moving through ruined cities.   The plates are then used as both backgrounds and projections on the characters.  

The four films are of course Cabaret (1972) by Fosse , Rumble Fish (1983) by Copolla, 2001: A Space Odyssey  (1968) by Kubrick and Orpheus (1950) by Cocteau.

These are all analog films of course, and all but one of them, 2001, can only tease us with the promise of reflection mapping.  It will take the advent of digital techniques for the tsunami of reflection mapping to truly find its voice.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Rumble Fish




1. For those who think that reflectance mapping was invented in 1982, sadly I must disagree.  At most it was demonstrated in digital form in that year.  Reflectance mapping has been with us since long before.   Anyone writing a renderer in that period, as I was, was well aware of its promise and possibilities.

2. Rumble Fish also used projected time-lapse photography which is another example of the use of reflections for narrative purpose.

3. Story has become the victim of the new economy.   By economizing on a writer, the total film budget may be lowered by many thousands of dollars.  This allows them to spend more on what is important, to bring value to the film, such as more visual effects.

4. Yes, death is portrayed as a woman in this film.  I do not know what the gender issues are, but they must exist.

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