Saturday, 12 July 2014

Musings on the Nature of Attention, Images and the Advent of the Digital


Images are how we tell eachother what’s inside of us.

Like a dream the image can represent a detail or the whole – which of those it is, is open to interpretation.

What’s inside of us as image is the sum total – or variously a small detail – of what we know about the world. It is relative to our conceptual constructional capabilities and what we are focused on at the time.

Sometimes like radio, within the flow of images we pick up ideas and our internal representation system creates an image for us to review the idea we’ve encountered. Sometimes a specific image (often made by an artist, designer or architect) communicates a new idea that we experience with a degree of excitement: Fashions are the eddies and surface currents of this exchange.

Fascination is the state a non-digitally enabled person, or a non-velocitised person, experiences when the flow is simply, ‘The Flow’. When a person has negotiated the 360 stream of images, as with a swimmer who has come to terms with the coldness of the water they are in and it no longer bothers them, swimming within the flow is the ability gained by acceptance of temperature and soon the temperature becomes not only negotiable, but forgettable as a factor.

New ideas are formed from the artists ceaseless enquiry into the nature of things. Occasionally there is no enquiry at all – simply an insight revealed into the nature of what is coming, through an image in human consciousness.

Moving and still images perform different tasks in human consciousness. Still images – idee fixee – are apposite and definitive reflections of adoptable and attractive concepts. The caught and stolen glance, the desirable car, the palm tree against the blue sky representing freedom and release, the prison bars that indicate incarceration. These are ideas of yearning – even the last which is about a yearning not to be limited, which is where its power lies. Images or ideas like this reflect species concepts that everyone aspires to or are inspired by.

Aspire, Inspire, Expire – all are developed from the root word Spire (spi/ray in Latin pronunciation) which means breath.

Potent Iconic images, like a crucifixion are redolent of more than desire. They are of species intent: martyrdom for those that are affected by the image to benefit from, the deep spiritual smile that always says there is more to know and so leads the viewer on to want to know whatever that smile denotes; the images of people en masse in tears that tell us this is wrong – or right.

Moving Images perturbate intention, They utlise the iconic functionality of still images in an onward flow from before and after the iconic moment. These shift us into and through the moment of most potent affectation. They functionalise the still iconostasis of the deep idea and render it into movement. The definition of an iconostasis is a screen decorated with icons that divides the sanctuary of a church from other areas. It is the wall of images that is found in very traditional churches to separate the priests from the lay community. It is the divide which those that engaged in theoretical behavior – the naming and categorizing of ideas and things create power for themselves. They know and at a price they will tell us who do not know. But the priests are gone. We are sufficiently velocitised to change the rules of the language based game.

An Iconostasis was a dividing wall of images – which are themselves insubstantial and not a wall at all. They can be moved through at speed.

The theories of the moving image – not those of film theorists who seek a relationship between their local (in time) meaning and the performatory qualities of the content and form of moving images in a material sense  - but those theories of the highest practitioners of movement and the frame can speak to us about the relational function of the moving image. By relational, in this sense I mean how the stutter of the image says something to us different from the statically viewed image. Our eyes saccade when we sweep our gaze across a scene. They fix points like photographs many times a second as they weep yet we perceive this a flowing gaze.

Investigative Cinematographers (like Conrad Hall who is now deceased) know that each frame within any shot should be of photographic quality. If a camera pans across a scene, even the dead space between the subjects of the front and the end of the shot, should be of photographic quality – meaning each frame should be capable of being viewed as a photograph – even if abstract it should be a good abstract, not an unconsidered one. Cartier Bresson was more prosaic. His ‘definitive moment’ was simply the editorially precise moment which said most about an event. A skill to be attained by photographers is clearly obtaining the moment which does this.

Most cinematographers do not know the photographic moment within cinema. In working with moving images one is simply practicing seeing at 24 frames per second. The only way you can do that is let go into the act and trust that your biology is up to the task. Thankfully it is up to a task far more demanding than that. The eye can detect one photon, certain Buddhists maintain that consciousness can detect one chronon of time. That the human species – if not all sentient witnessing creatures - being composed of biological components made from the matter of time and space will always be enabled to detect the qualities that go towards their construction.
24 frames per second or 24 miles per hour – the first is our preferred frame rate for receiving a series of images to communicate information within this period of our development, the second our top speed whilst running. The first is Perceptually/biologically cognate and also velocitised through eye motion with a maximum saccade of many divisions of a second.
“The peak angular speed of the eye during a saccade reaches up to 900°/s in humans; in some monkeys, peak speed can reach 1000°/s. Saccades to an unexpected stimulus normally take about 200 milliseconds (ms) to initiate, and then last from about 20–200 ms, depending on their amplitude (20–30 ms is typical in language reading). Under certain laboratory circumstances, the latency of, or reaction time to, saccade production can be cut nearly in half (express saccades). These saccades are generated by a neuronal mechanism that bypasses time-consuming circuits and activates the eye muscles more directly”.
Our running speed is at least 3600 times slower than our attentive gaze when spliced up by the saccade – so in effect this may be 3,600,000 times slower at it’s greatest division. Buddhists when asked about the duration of the chronon (the smallest fragment of time) say the Buddha said it was a 48 millionth of a second - -when asked how he knew this his monks said ‘he counted the parts’.
So at this point in our evolution we are being asked to discern the nature of information at much higher speeds that we’ve experienced until this moment – but from the biology it would seem we have already the built-in equipment necessary to absorb that information – but perhaps not read it through being armed with practice derived from language, writing or reading. Each of these behaviors filters information through our interpretative centres which require time for processing for use by higher brain finctions. The Tiger that approaches at 24 frames per second was understandable and interpretable – the approaching cue or clue that relates to some expressed desire or preference within a world which is information enabled directly to target YOU, is not interpretable at millionths per second. It is not interpretable, but it is absorbable to the deeper mind. ‘Absorbable’ in the sense that we can judge the nature of the flow of images and act appropriately.

So within the rapidity of the flow of images of the 21st century we are enabled to see these one by one – despite the fear of latter 20th century theoreticians such as Baudrillard, Virillio et al that the image would finally have no meaning at all – we can distinguish beneath operative consciousness what each image means and does to and for us because our equipment, our biology is set up to perceive meaning without end.

How can this last statement be substantiated?

Evolutionists surmise that we evolve by exploit our ability to adapt – we humans above all animals – and it is because we are an open and not a closed system, this itself is the proof. We know we learn biologically – and our minds conceptualise reality based upon our ability to evolve. It’s a virtuous circle, a functionality which all animals have.

Most of the ideas that flow through species consciousness are relevant to the temporary eddies that play out for each nation or race. Even the mention of race is problematic because the concept can be used politically, but actually, in real terms, humans can split up and categorized into races – just like plants and animals.

Species ideas are deeper, more paradigmatic in either being the rails that guide the train, or points that control the switches that guide the train into new landscapes. Sometimes ideas deliver us from metaphor and instead of travelling through a landscape we come up above it to take in the whole. Given that that idea was expressed in language – it’s a metaphor – but one can leap off the idea into meaning outside of metaphor, providing we have experience in the ability to conceptualise outside of language. If you understand this statement then you can utilize this ability.

So like this paper that you are reading, all that is perceived is fed through the filter of consciousness which itself has a set of constructs governing its operation. If you use text you’re operating through the theoretic centre: the centre of language and dialogue and so as one resides there we often experience the world as an inner interpretive dialogue. Art and events in the World are to be interpreted to deliver meaning and significance to the perceiver. But things have moved along in terms of their velocity such that single standard acts of interpretation do not alone deliver a useful grasp of what is happening. Now we need engage a higher function that can operate at a velocity greater than biological function.

To interpret you need filter what is perceived through developed evolutionary functionality: the senses and the common sense to all the other senses: mind. Mind itself is constructed of a set of functionalities such as discrimination, intellect, discernment, analytical powers and many more as yet too subtle to have been described separately. So far Vedantic Philosophy has made the best study of the separate elements of mind in its pursuit of the suspension of the interpretive mind, though certain forms of Buddhism have identified the conundrums of the intellect sufficient to create humour around the thinking brain or mind. Each of these separate functionalities developed over time to makes sense of a world by a sentient creature moving at most at 24 miles per hour. Now not only do we move very much faster (planes trains and automobiles) but the image flow itself is velocitised so that we may be standing still but the image flow is rapid (and any combination thereof).

The functionality of the moving image itself is developing so that we have higher frame rates of capture and display – no longer is a film shot at 24 frames per second and played back at that rate in cinema (significant that our top biological speed is 24 miles per hour which is an inverse multiple - roughly 3600 times - slower than the frame rate we like to view images within – 24 times per second). Instead a 200 frame rate of capture can be shown at 200 frames – or 48 fps capture can be seen at 48 fps delivery. There are now shorter gaps where there is no image at all. But we’re also developing higher dynamic range of the image and also higher resolutions. People talk about the better pixel –the one that contains not just a 15 variations of the colour orange – but 1000. To our physiological construct there’s a point at which the computational world is offering us more differentials than can mean anything to us - apparently. Everything seems to be moving out of our current scale.

We have constructed touch based interfaces (the typewriter, the touch screen platform) and also – latterly – environmental touch based interfaces – such as plants that can now control computer interactions (and plant based energy supply and also computation).

Our whole sensorium must interface with things that manipulate the world. Are we therefore lacking because we came from the trees? No. We used to be ‘at one with plants’ as we moved through them now we are again having to learn that at-one-ness.

Inherent in our sentient design is the ability to stand each of our intellectual and biological interpretational functionalities back and allow non-intellectual abilities to take over in complete confidence. When you drive the car you do not interpret what gear to go into, you have consigned that ability to below surface consciousness. We are capable of driving a spacecraft at over 20,000 miles per hour. Providing the context speaks of the speed (large planets pass slowly past us at massive accelerations) then we cope. But we also have the functionality to move rapidly and process rapidly as long as we do not move through interpretable functionality which of course involves the 24 miles per hour functionality of the common-sense-mind which unites the various senses. Instead we gaze at leisure and grasp at leisure what the rapidity of information is telling us because we have begun to operate the functions that are waking up in us to deal with speed. An article like this is the begining of the theory of velocitisation.

It’s the same with rapid evolution of interface and also – importantly – reading the world that is, making sense of the world at high velocity. Taking it to its extreme, when you’re viewing at the speed of light, you become the information you have been witnessed to - you and it are the same.

Our physicists are telling us that information is the base quality of the construction of the universe. Information sits at the boundary of every black hole and is NOT annihilated within the black hole. It is preserved and a function of the annihilation process at the centre to retain information at the perimeter. The latest cosmological donut of thought about the shape of the universe is that what we see is not what is. Out experience of the perimeter of information of the universe as a whole – this 3D (plus time), 23 mile per hour reality – is us as 4D - 6D sentient creatures reading the information back into the material 3D state.

Whatever went in to a black hole can be reconstructed from that trace element of its passing – it is therefore a Black Whole.

Just like us.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Bendy Futures

There are a series of posts you can access by me for 2014 here:

If bendy display materials now allow designers to finally now go where Apple and their copyists have been waiting for, then moving images on surfaces begin a different stage of development of the human use of moving images per-se.

The sacred and sanctified space of the cinema/church begins to wither - not for the form of entertainment that has sustained it for years - the story - but more as a site of iconic cognitive distribution, a place where anyone can keep up with ideas developed and distributed within the current paradigm. So the place where ideas of the developing paradigm are developed and distributed must also change.

The age of technical developments such image skins for buildings (a 30 story wood skyscraper - in appearance at least?), invisible tanks and destroyers (camera at the front daylight display at the back – and on every side of the object you wish to make invisible) and wearable imaging approaches at speed. Hot on the tail of recently distributed versions of the accoutrements written about in scf-fi stories of the twentieth century (like the wrist communicator) are much more serious developments: transport beams, warp engines based upon Hawking Drives, hyperspace leaps - it's all coming very shortly - so it's time we upgraded our imaginations and stopped being so startled by it all.

In terms of continuing to theorise the production and display of moving images - we must first remember that 'to theorise' is perhaps within the passing paradigm.

The theoretic age arose with a late form of language development, is language therefore based, bureaucratically organised (catalogued and indexed) and this behaviour was developed after the rise of prosody around 500,000 years ago, language 150,000 years ago, to grasp power by shamans and militarists around 10,000 BC. To be able to barter a connection between the common person and god, or to deliver a chief a military victory - delivered a initially power followed by a higher tribal position and therefore lifestyle to the proponent. No need to hunt or gather if you can tell people it’ll cost them a months rations to speak to god. So modern academia also grasps power to deliver lifestyle and is fundamentally in bed with power. If an academician rocks the boat they are cast out and liberated from a priveleged lifestyle – which to provide a smoke screen for, they moan an awful lot about how much work we have to do. Tell that to a starving person from the third world – or an Al Quaeda representative who wants to behead you, because you're part of oppressing their people.

So we have a duty to go beyond the theoretic to help reveal and articulate the answers that everyone is feeling in their bones. The corporations can't do it, the politicians certainly aren’t going to do it and it's fundamentally against our own interest when looked at from the point of view of the old paradigm. When looked at from the point of view of the new paradigm it is an absolute necessity to try to understand what is going on – but t deliver than in a much more intelligent way than loading sentence with references and citations. We must begin to think for ourselves.

That’s what the Centre for Moving Images is about – that’s why we have an interest in the developing technical parameters of the moving image, it’s history rediscovered and retold, it’s politics, its aesthetics, it’s site of display – all of that constitutes a gestalt view, rather than taking the narrow theoretic confines that conspire to obscure the real issues within the developing moving image paradigm. So our project is that we’re looking at the world through the lens of moving image media to discover new knowledge.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

High Definition in 2014

2013 was an eventful year, not only in terms of the way moving image capture has developed, but also in terms of opening a new research center in Cinematography at the University of the West of England. During the year 3D was superseded by 4k as the key buzz phrase – not that 3D has gone anywhere, in fact with Gravity, in my opinion 3D has come to something, finally. What I mean by this is that in this film the camera moves around its subject and the extra level of depth generated by 3D has added something to the experience.

With 4k, cinematographers have been working at that resolution with the Red One since 2008 – though when a term like 4k is used, arguments break out about what that means – can a compressed signal ever really represent it’s supposed resolution, when there are so many factors that represent the true resolution? One of my earlier artworks uses this technology but the issue with 4k has been how we display the actual image for some while, but all key manufacturers now make 4k displays and also, now, the manufacture of the domestic TV screen is getting closer and closer to the quality of the professional display – so prices are coming down. I intend that the new research centre buys a 4k display in early in 2014 so that we can then display what we capture.

Earlier this year in collaboration with University of Bristol and BBC Research and Development I was privileged to lead several shoots in Higher Dynamic Range which had the intention of being displayed in HDR as well – this was a world’s first and because of that the code is still being written though we can display a basic edit of the piece at 8bit with one track spread across the dynamic range of the Dolby 6000 nit screen. In the eye brain system we have around 14.5 orders of magnitude of response which at any one time we use 5 orders of that scale - so in going into a starlit environment we slide down to the bottom of the14.5 order scale and on entering a desert landscape in bright sun, we slide those 5 orders of sensitivity up that scale to the top – thus keeping the highlights exposed properly for viewing. In this scale 1 order of magnitude is vast. So the difference between the eye brain system and what is displayed is immense. The screen you are viewing at best displays 2 – 3 orders of magnitude and the HDR screen we are capturing images for at University of Bristol is 5 orders – the same as the eye brain pathway. Using the term orders of magnitude means that the scale is not just arithmetic, but geometric – the highest values of the scale are millions of times that of the bottom of the scale. The eye/brain system is truly magnificent in its capacity.

Later in 2014 we expect to have combined the 2 tracks we shot into a truer form of HDR. The most surprising – and disturbing element of the shoot was in learning that 100 years of cinematographic law had to be turned on its head: In exposing for 6 stops of latitude between the two exposures I could only monitor the highest exposure which was 3 stops above the correct exposure, in the knowledge that the true exposure was set in virtual space and as with film I had to have ‘faith’ that the end image would be exposed properly. One track recorded 3 stops over, one track recorded 3 stops under – therefore I had to knowingly gather an overexposed image in the hope that somehow the two could be combined and a decent image delivered. When we finally had the code written for the recombination I was relieved to find that it had worked. It left me knowing how we’d achieved the end result, but emotionally I didn’t know how it could be ok when my experience was of searing over-exposure. Interesting.

Over the year I set about the process of setting up a research centre that meant presenting to various academic research committees and with luck by April 2014 we shall be authorized to proceed. Meanwhile I began the process of attaching visiting professors and the first was Emeritus Professor Chris Meigh Andrews of Central Lancashire. Chris is a professor of electronic and digital art and adds his weight towards investigating the histories that have been written on the subject (including his own second edition of ‘A History of Video Art’) plus an investigation of where we are and where we’re going during the advent of the digital. For my own summation of that issue you can read a short paper on the Future of the Moving Image and how it will affect the production of Art at this URL:

On another issue, previously, Arts and Humanities subjects have utilized the theorization of a subject through various strategies, such as dialectics, structuralist analysis, semiology and so on. But now there is a sense within academia that though these have been useful tools, they are no longer fit for task, due to the constant and rapidly changing landscape caused by the introduction of the digital era. In the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council has called for new ways of evaluating subject areas and many researchers have wholeheartedly embraced empirical principles, a consequence of which is to have embraced cognitive neuroscience as a primary route for the use of eye tracking devices, fmri scanners and then combining testing with social science practices of evaluating the data or ‘evidence’.

One of the issues with this practice is that truth at best is implied – that a hypothesis is set up, an experimental test administered and if the cards fall right then the implied truth of the hypothesis is ‘proved’. It can be argued that deep within the ideological position taken by empiricism is in a fact a gnosticism argued by many cognitive neuroscientists, that there is a grand human project to excise it’s entire knowledge into exograms – or sites of memory outside the person (a book, a computer, a map, hierloglyphs etc) - and it follows that the final manifestation of this project is exporting all knowledge into data. A final outcome of this act is as yet un-theorised by cognitive neuroscientists but I have proposed the concept of velocitisation to help describe acts on the internet that express behaviours that speak of human change. With a simple gesture like the Harlem Shake, one person gestures mimetically that everyone should ‘do their own thing’ and later in the piece, all then gesture mimetically that difference. What this describes is a positive response to change, rather than a dystopian response. But there is not theoretical position on this behavior and the social sciences have only just begun to take up the challenge.

Enter Complexity Theory, born of mathematics and physics and the human response to the multifarious comprehension of complex behaviours. Complexity theory seeks to theorise the complex and has a set of strategies to deal with this apparent limitlessness, by limiting it’s possibilities through rules drawn for the complexity that has been witnessed. Of course what seems limitless is actually limited and so this is a mathematics ntended to pick up at the point at which human systems given up on numbering and categorizing. It is the point at which we might say ‘I saw many starlings in a murmuration and they seemed to act together as they flew’ or that a weather system is too complicated to describe but that it worked through a series of states that derived from prior states – this is where we know that a system is complex and may do one of several things and science does not yet know which way it might go and possibly that we will never be able to predict its exact outcome.

So since the 1940’s when Illya Progogene began thinking about complexity, we now theorise that a system can be ‘complicated’ but is not necessarily to be described as ‘complex’, where complex does mean complicated but can go one stage further by being able to enter new states, through ‘emergence’. A car engine is complicated but will only remain as such. A storm is both complicated in terms of the many factors that come together to form it, but it is ‘complex’ because several other states may emerge – a hurricane for instance. So complexity is about richness – chaos is no longer being ‘chaotic’ because in that chaos lay a set of variables which can result in ordered states it can become also then become further ordered, or disordered.

But the main point here is that what seems too much for the human system to ‘count’, but can now be mathematically modeled and therefore described – at least in some part. Before we described something as having a number too large to be counted – now we can say we no longer need to number something in its description – suffice it to say that it is now to be considered as complex and can act in different ways that could be one of the following. This too has to have an impact on human consciousness with regard the introduction of different frame rates, dynamic ranges and resolutions – right now the young express a preference for higher frame rates but the old prefer slower frame rates. Why is this? (is it related to higher frame rates in computer games?) What does this preference say about human evolution? Is it temporary or indicative of eye brain development? And so on and so forth…

So when the research centre begins its activity we will look as much toward future technologies as towards the past (a critical issue will be the re-investigation of how past histories have been told and hat they have included as ‘important’ in the telling). We will look at technology as much as at the human system that utilizes that technology, we will take account of the biology of the human system – the equipment that each human is endowed with – and we will also look at the cultural systems that encompass the individual that help create meaning and significance in the production and consumption of moving images. We will look at the cognitive systems employed by human species, and the situation the individual finds him or herself in, with regard the cognitive distribution of information.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Contemporary Paradigm and Cognitive Neuroscience

Hi - sorry for the delay in writing. You know how it is: you have the best of intentions but things come up. So I gave a lecture in Oz  on the gnostic ideology underpinning Cognitive Neuroscience. There are papers available, there's also a journal call for this subject which will soon go large. Everyone loves CG and MFRI scanners because they seem to offer proof where before there was only conjecture.

Eye tracking only tells you where eyes are triggered to move to, which talks about design but not art, it talks about mechanics but not aesthetics. As it stands in the attached paper the researchers are careful to say that CG and MFRI scanners only imp lie certain things - and of course everyone's executed because the medieval latin scholar has access to 'proof' as much as the hard core scientist - but the truth is the proof is circumstantial.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has called for the cultural values evaluation project to reveal ideas of the value of culture and art that are more empirical than flowery french prose and at back of that the work of the Frankfurt Group, already criticised as a misdirection by Thomas Crow in 'The Intelligence of Art'.

But - because society functions in faddist terms (as a friend of mine says: "academics are like cows in a field they hear a loud bang and all look in the same direction" - but you can substitute artists, cinematographers - whatever you like here) then we can be sure that rock and roll currently finds its resting place in Cognitive Neuroscience.

And then there's the problem of what art is in an age of integration (having superseded convergence). It's said by Emeritus Professors of Cognitive Neuroscience that the Artist is the cognitive formative node that sits within a cognitive distributive network - and that art is what it is to be human, not just a thing that humans do (note the Gnostic position) - so the question arises in an age when everyone has a platform for screeching their individuality (and here I always laugh at the Italian phrase: "Few are called; But many answer"): what is the function of art within a paradigm that few even recognise has superseded an older paradigm that no longer functions?

I make art work that is cognisant of this set of problems and have two new works that directly deal with the central problem of the role of the artist - one of which I have to premier which has taken a year and is a triptych which feature a reconstruction of Dali's Crucifixion (really). I'm also preparing to do a performance event where I engage with the celebrity Ted lecture stance which is called: 'An Anatomy of Light'. This is a lecture in-the-round which invites the audience to consider how the world is illuminated, how we use light to manifest 'moving images' and what happens when light ceases to operate in the universe (I say moving images but that's a complete fallacy - it is the mind that moves).

So there it is, that's what I've been thinking about lately - how to deal with a new era of human thought given that contemporarily we're still thinking in old pattens.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Understanding the Digital Realm - On coming to ISEA 2013

Duchamp must be laughing in his grave as we go forward towards the future, as we appear to be walking backwards staring into the past. Duchamp might laugh because he was always strong on pushing the concept rather than the material – or at least balancing the two. But now we are having real trouble disentangling the real from the unreal, the material from the immaterial. Trying to understand the things that flow past us as we walk backwards – effectively part of the past as soon as we notice them – we reach for descriptions of these things fashioned with the terms and ideas we understand so well, from the past. Ideas that once fitted like gloves. But these are of course inappropriate to grasp the naming of the needs of the new.

Were we facing the right way when walking forward we would see an unfamiliar landscape and we’d have to invent names for the things that we see coming towards us, some animate, some inanimate and sometimes we’d confuse the two. But we’d have a new language that would describe the form and behaviour of the new things that approached us – or as we approached them, because it is we that are moving.

We would have to remember Einstein’s dictum that everything is relative and what we think we see as we red-shift our way towards things that in the distance would appear different from the way we see them close-up, and then differently as they fall behind: we’d have to realise that they have a changing nature as we apprehend them and lose them from sight.

Right now in walking backwards as we go forwards we use the nomenclature of things we have become familiar with from past experience, because of their similarities with the new things we perceive – but of course there is a moment when our metaphors start to fail in their description of what we are seeing – and the language is no longer fit for purpose. But we cling to this language because it has served us until now. It will be our older selves or even our children who will laugh at the misconceptions we generate and wonder why we didn’t walk forwards, facing ahead, describing what we once saw, in new language rather than old.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Ontology of Digital Cinematography

I’ve been reading reports in Senses of Cinema* on recent international film festivals and came upon this comment on the film Leviathan by Daniel Fairfax and Joshua Sperling during their review of the New York Film Festival:
By contrast, Leviathan is pure cinema. The fact that it, too, was shot on digital does not detract from such a status. Rather, it demonstrates that there are really two digital aesthetics: the fantasy digital practiced by the likes of Ang Lee, and the “ontological digital” at work in this film. Or rather, it demonstrates that the digital/analogue dichotomy is more a question of aesthetic principles, of philosophies towards filmmaking, than of technology – and in this case, Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s work falls squarely on the analogue side of the divide.
‘The analogue side of the divide’ is the metaphor used to describe that which entrances by lack of guile – whereas the digital side of the divide is all guile. It used to be that the metaphor for the digital was ‘clinical ‘and in some senses the ‘fantasy digital’ has helped move the clinical into the mythic. But here, a documentary helps create another line of division, where the poetic and the clinical can mix and transmute the medium into what the authors describe as the ‘ontological digital’:
The waterproof prosumer cameras used to extract the extraordinary imagery of Leviathan are tasked simply with recording the real. They do so to such a visceral extent that at certain moments – when the masses of dead fish squirm about as they pile up before the camera – Leviathan can feel like a horror film, an effect which the Gothic writing on the film’s title card would suggest is intentional. In a way, it possesses a more truly three-dimensional quality than the tawdry gimmicks of Pi could ever hope to attain.
This associative thinking is reminiscent of much film theory of the French style where over elaborate and poetic descriptions are used to massage the reader into the belief that they are reading ‘truth’. But you can’t really blame the French for trying their best – after all they have a lifestyle to maintain and the rest of the world should celebrate their largesse, their joie de vivre. Any country that has such a surfeit of bakeries deserves respect even if it requires agricultural support way beyond others. The Anglo-Saxon critic owes a great debt to French theory with its twin polarities of articulation and obfuscation in pursuit of poetic truth.
This last comment really allows the digital through into cinema as it invokes one of the mythic gods of French theory to authenticate its position:
Our absorption in the film’s unrelenting diegesis is enhanced not only by the immersive camerawork, but also by the unsettling surround-sound audio, which I felt was reminiscent of Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac. And, lo! Grandrieux himself was in the audience for Leviathan’s press screening, having just embarked on a road-trip with the filmmaking duo, where, as Castaing-Taylor related, they whiled away the hours by discussing Deleuze.
The fantasy digital’ is actually a symbolic reference to what is in truth a combined commercial and technical description. What the digital has enabled in surpassing the capabilities of film, whilst at the same time finally imitating its ability to invoke ‘cinema’, is a set of economic benefits. If you wanted to shoot 35mm film at 48 frames per second – you would need a massive stock budget. With digital you simply dial up 48fps. Yes it has data ‘costs’ – that is management issues around the production of large amounts of data, which also has cost implications for storage – but due to the much-abused Moore’s Law, computational storage becomes cheaper over time. The issue is that one can dial in a specific enhancement, 3D, higher frame rate, uncompressed recording, higher dynamic range etc, without the pain of late Victorian industrial style costs.
Film grew out of sewing machines and fake teeth. Stop-start machinery could enable proper exposure and shifting film in the gate to move on without fogging. Material developed for Victorian dentists for replacement teeth could be stretched, flattened and made clear – a medium fit for holding virtual images (until they were developed). Even with Henry Ford’s intervention, it would still be expensive late into the twentieth century. The masses would not take up such a clunky modernist medium. With the advent of analogue, then its chimera digital video, the last gasp of the struggle for democratic production of images was to be heard, but the ‘industry’, the protective mechanism of ‘quality’ would see that Digital Cinematography, raw, progressive imaging, was sufficiently expensive to deter the great mass of untalented or rather, derivative creativity - as exhibited by user generated content. Until the great mass receives the education of the intelligentsia the end product would always be the accidents of a 1000 chimpanzees typing away, with the odd surprise on Utube.
Beneath this piece of blogging (unsubstantiated opinionating) is a conviction derived from many years of being at several ‘coal faces’. These are professional production in the UK TV and film industries, artistic practice, theorizing as an academic and lastly and tellingly,  as a socialist. This latter is about youthful conviction where I believed that the means of production should be placed in the hands of the populace so that its more varied stories and perspectives could be spoken aloud. I had that belief whilst being enabled as a speaker for that demographic – that is, I was a specialist who could ‘help’ the masses. As defined by Buckminster Fuller, E F Schumaker, Edmund Carpenter, Stafford Beer and their like I could be a ‘competent man’ (this term coined prior to the advent of feminism really means competent person). This competence began its like as a specialism, such as drawing, which when abstracted from the practice could be made universal in creative terms: if you were good at radio, you could be good at anything if you simply kept your wits about you and exported a set of taste functions (in most circumstances, ‘this’ is better than ‘that’, but in specific circumstances remember ‘this’ juxtaposition). But there was a high romanticism about this which included a belief in ‘great art’ -  that is some art was better than other art – and in that belief the socialist ideal fell. And it stands with me now that I do not believe everyone is as talented as everyone else – and the training of everyone to be excellent must also mean that everyone has to have a value system of excellence – which is both tautological and self-defeating.
Just look at Ang Lee for instance. He can certainly make movies, but frankly with his resources (and I include talent) so can anyone. The Life of Pi in movie form to me is trite and soporific. It has a confused message which advocates embracing symbolism over ‘reality’. I’m not sure about the book because I haven’t read it – but I suspect it as a piece of modern fiction as most modern fiction is victim of ‘cut and paste’. But that’s a different argument.
But back to ‘the fantasy digital’ and ‘the ontological digital’. These are consumerist descriptions as they can be applied to different cinematic experience on a consumer level. I like the idea of an ontological digital because I’ve been operating it since I first took up making experimental motion images – even in analogue form when it was equally a form of ontological video – and was appropriate in the naming because video is latin for ‘to see’. And ‘to see’ is important if understood from the vantage point of cognitive neuroscience where when one speaks of ‘seeing’ one is speaking of the combined eye/brain pathway. In these terms perceiving and understanding are a combined activity, the left eye being governed by right brain and vice versa…. And in this narrative, left-brain is the site of focused attention which is highly ratiocinatory in nature – or so the neuro-scientific community would currently have it.
Whilst looking through or within the electronic terms provided by video, I have seen a description of the world that has been reflective of my internal state. I have made works in this electronic as opposed to photo-chemical medium that have added meaning to the world I see in biological terms. Biology here means ontological in a certain sense – that sense if added to, is more full when combined with the extra viewpoint enabled by video.
Max Hastings once wrote ‘film is a long-distance telephone call whereas video is a call from the box round the corner’. This comment was made at a time when there was a qualitative difference in the two kinds of call. The distant one sounded so due to interference on the line, the inferior sound quality, the clicks and bumps and atmospherics. Hastings wasn’t saying that film was inferior; he was talking of the romanticism of distance – distant, unknowable lands where information had been brought back by a Marco Polo, as an ambassador that brought back tales of the unknown. Interestingly there are questions about the authenticity of Polo’s stories – but again, that’s another article.
It was in fact Hastings intent to describe something other than the lesser quality of video – that though the displayed image was lesser in quality it had a greater quality: video was live, it was here and it was now. Remember that video came along a long time after television, the parent medium with its ability to disseminate. So the currency of television was of presenting the world as it is NOW. Video inherited the connection of representing NOW. The feel of it was and is immediate and Digital Cinematography, when it became progressively based, shed the sense of the immediate and became THEN, elsewhen and  elsewhere. With Digital Cinematography came a greater possibility of the electronic capture of video as having a developed capacity for ontological use.
So our two authors bring up a definition of immediacy as if it were a Gothic artefact additional to the medium that has been introduced successfully as a medium of fantasy. I think there’s more to it than that description, that delineation of two levels. I think it has many more levels than two and this current description is unaware of the width of the medium. My evidence for this the developed plasticity of past media, which, when they go past the necessary period of remediation, always disclose their true nature outside of their ability to chameleon-like imitate the behaviour of other media. For a description of what that true nature is, watch this space.
Note to self, see 'Leviathan'.


Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Expanding Horizon of Digital Cinematography

Recently I have been working with Faculty of Engineering at University of Bristol and BBC Research and Development to shoot some tests for the expanding capabilities of Digital Cinematography. My role on this project was to oversee the cinematography. In essence we have been trying to calibrate Higher Dynamic Range, Higher Frame Rate and Higher Resolutions to match the eye/brain pathway to create highest immersion for the viewing experience. The first tests were shot in November 2012 and since then have been ongoing.

In the human optical system we have a sensitivity of 14 orders of magnitude of which we can always access 5 orders of magnitude. These 5 orders slide upwards for bright desert sun and downwards to cope with low light levels of moon and starlight. The University of Bristol has a display that exhibits this dynamic range.

Digital Cinematography cameras capture around 12 – 14 stops and 35mm film captures around 18 stops. Standard displays, TV’s projectors & computer screens display between 10 and 16 Fstops – that’s between 2 to 3 orders of magnitude of the entire 14 available in the human system, so if you create a higher dynamic range image of 18 or above stops – it will display beneath its dynamic range on contemporary displays. The common response from people seeing this is: “the image looks ‘plastic’”.

The department of Experimental Psychology at Bristol has already undertaken 2D and 3D immersion tests – but these require of 30 minutes of footage. With a limited budget we decided to shoot the Somerset Carnival because of its high internal illumination and floats with internal movement. To shoot HDR an Epic would shoot 50 fps at 4k in HDR mode with a 4 to 6 stop difference giving 18 stops dynamic range.

We then considered mounting 2 Phantoms to shoot 200 fps at 2k in a 3D mirror rig, one camera exposing the high stop the other the low. Dr Marc Price & Alia Skeikh of BBC R&D placed two cameras on a rig at BBC London, but found that artifacts became evident as the tolerances necessary for HDR alignment are far higher than 3D because you need pixel accurate registration to eliminate these artifacts.

We calculated on Epic we could record 6 mins of 4k, 50 fps HDR (thats 100 fps) that would take 40 minutes to download. We decided that due to much higher levels of data output on the Phantom, we would shoot selected floats at the carnival exhibiting high levels of motion. Had we shot Phantom in a mirror rig at its highest speed you could easily generate 1 terabyte of data per minute and that would take 6 and half hours to download.

An HDR stop-motion test conducted by Aaron Fang of University of Bristol Engineering revealed that you need 7 exposures combined to display full higher dynamic range on the display. So using Red’s strategy of setting a correct Fstop to build upon for HDR did not exploit the full-potential available.

The hardest thing to expose in cinematography is a subject that emits light: At our first shoot in Burnham on Sea on the Epic I set the ASA at 320 at 50 fps with a shutter of 100th, then used a spotmeter to calculate a stop. But following this through to display, we discovered that a full HDR image was not achieved using normal cinematographic judgment. I realised that the 100 year old maxim of exposing to protect highlights was no longer a correct rule for HDR. In fact you had to expose the ‘correct’ stop ‘virtually’ – What I mean by this is that if the Fstop should be F5.6 then we would have set the Iris to overexpose three stops over at F2 plus HDRx highlight protection of three stops under: making 18 stops in total. That might seem obvious now, but on the shoot, sphincters tightened, because the Epic images looked terribly overexposed.

We had planned a second shoot at Wells and collected material at 2 stops and 3 stops over and under e-exposed. In HDR terms that’s between 16 to 18 stops respectively. We are about to shoot more footage for immersion testing at the newly built lab at Bristol University. It should be remembered that the first tests worldwide with this expanded digital cinematographic form took place in the South West of the UK.

From the cinematographers viewpoint, it seems to me that counter-intuitively, lower lighting levels are where HDR will function with most impact on a photographic level. Obviously in the highlights colour formation will be held better than in standard systems, but this is a technical issue, rather than specifically an artistic one. But this is interesting because it may in fact require a renaissance of cinematic judgment – someone will need to know that the end result will be fine. With regard low light, the way we read an image may allow the cinematographer to offer clues when underscoring plot, story & emotional cues, in a far more subtle way than with standard dynamic range that the cinematographic arts have used for decades: that of trying to represent 5 orders of magnitude in a 2 – 3 orders of magnitude display.