Thursday, 21 June 2007

Human Resolution, Human Definition

I've been thinking about the eye and what the eye is and what the eye does.

What it does is to represent the reality we find 'before' us in frequencies of a particular spectrum, which in itself is a sample of the overall spectrum. The other senses do the same in those other parts of the perceivable frequency bandwidth that their representative abilities are geared to.

Complex (or simple) descriptions take a stab at formulating a hypothesis where we might then treat as a topography, a terrain which is most apt for creating a structure for our concepts to then develop.

So we invent ourselves different technologies to then re-present what we have experienced through this topography - our technologies are narratives with which we tell ourselves and each other about the world.

So then there's the concept of 'more'. When I was young I experienced a version of infinity which I then retold to myself as a way of handling the notion of endlessness.

Many years later I went to see some starlings down on Long Drove and into Shapwick Heath. 20% of the European population of starlings landing in one boggy piece of land. That's about 12 million birds coming in to land. Forget Lord of the Rings - these effects were of an order that defeated my concept of 'more'. They didn't stop coming and I was satiated by the experience of 'more' and letting the effect wash over me. ...And more and more birds came...

Then there's that commercial made for a technology company that speeds the cars up to 400 miles and hour and talks about developing the capacity to handle the guidance systems of the cars at an intersection - a complex manoeuvre beyond our capacity - whilst we simply take out hands off the wheel and just relax, chat, have a cup of tea. In this future we let the concept of 'more' or in this case using a different but allied notion, 'speed', wash over us.

And in visiting the Glastonbury Festival with around 170,000 people just wandering around on the night before the music really begins, for something to do, possibly going to find a frozen yoghurt (like I did) or seek out a friend, or maybe go buy a vegetable burger, or whatever, because the desire simply fuels the urge to have a narrative, seeing all of that multitude of eager hopeful humanity, a million complex lives passing you by, animated faces never to be seen again, animated with complex organisational structures amounting to a self-reflexive reality, in that melee the concept of 'more' and the accompanying non-attachment washing over one - just like in the other experiences I described - there I realised the issue of high resolution imaging.

I previously used the metaphor of traffic lights at dusk being too bright because the rod and cone technology of the eye switches over from good colour to good light receptors. So there's a place where we switch between technologies - but more, we have a narrative of 'switching' which encompasses the potential of there being a liminal space existing between the poles where something out of the ordinary can happen. Carrying the metaphor over into the definition handling capacities of the eye, in one narrative, that bit of 'mechanics' or in another narrative, that 'software solution' charged with dealing with the appropriate amount of definition available, or rather, the amount of definition that 'is good or useful for one at any one time', which sometimes is switching between two settings, then there is, it seems to me, a potential for a liminal space where something out of the ordinary - or - extraordinary, in terms of definition, can happen.

The artist and sometimes the entertainer and sometimes again, the technician, is charged with the exploration of that space - my research then, is to do the above and talk with those busy doing the same - and when I say 'talk', I really mean 'to look with', to gaze.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

High Definition Dawn

About 5 years ago I realised that High Definition Video was not a format, but a portal. What I mean by this is that I suddenly saw it as a doorway through which I could see various futures opening up. It was a point of departure to imagine what might happen in the future.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke

Yesterday, 11th June, 2007, on the cinematographers mailing list a bout of imagination broke out and Director's of Photography allowed themselves out of their technical and lighting space and into the realm of imagination. One DP imagined that Ultra High Definition Video could be used for landscape images where city apartments only had blank walls to look out on to.

This is reminiscent of Bob Shaw's 1966 story, The Light of Other Days, where a technical development in toughened glass produced a slowing down of light as it passed through the glass. It wasn't long in storyland before people were exposing glass on Scottish hillsides for importing into city apartments - using 5 year or 10 year duration glass... (this technology is now actually under investigation).

This is an exploration of extreme resolution. By being articulated it brings up a set of issues around on one level the practice of gathering images and on a wider societal level the implications for the design of exhibition space and in general - architecture.

Should camera people just be reduced to glorified glaziers ? I joke but if the resolutions gathered are vastly beyond what the eye/brain needs/is designed for etc, then why not just put up several big resolution cameras around the planet and just keep shooting, then reframe for production ?

Current tests with screening Ultra High Definition Video have made audiences nauseous (watching a point of view shot from a short car journey) and this reminds me of the Lumiere Brothers screenings around 1895 which sent audiences running from the theatre pursued by a100 ton train made of light. It might be possible, given these levels of verisimilitude, as a BBC research engineer ruminated upon, that we don't need windows - or architecture - we just need their image. After all, it's all just light bouncing around. If you have enough sensory stimulants happening to convince you something is real - then it's real.

In 1940 the Argentinean writer Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote a novel of which Jorge Luis Borges describes as 'the prefect novel'. The Invention of Morel (from which Alan Resnais derived Last Year In Marienbad) posited the existence of a high resolution virtual reality machine - where an entire island was the site of the projection and it's uncommunicative inhabitants were actually a recording of a visit last year by some visitors. Our hero can only watch as their realistic yet virtual light counterparts travel around the island and live their lives - in fact so real are the inhabitants that he falls in love with one of these creatures of light.

"The cinema is an invention without a future."

Louis Lumiere

It's pretty clear that we imagine futures and those futures are a signpost for our technical experimenters to find a way to realise what has been imagined. Or alternatively, it's the other way around. Out of technical innovation comes the potential for further imagined futures. There is room here for an argument about which is the most potent and correct description of the process - but for me the issue is more that art and science are one. For me, I feel a sense of rejection for the pre-modernist assumption that technology is a thing we use, that it is separate from us - I feel more resonance with the more holistic position, that technology is part of what we are.

So the doorway through which we might stare is currently perceived as disclosing a wave of innovation that produces objects like cameras that achieve those far off and tempting images and all the paraphernalia that goes with that particularly seductive device. It also allows us to see new developments like home cinemas as somehow normal, or huge imax style auditoria, or even projections onto buildings, but on the horizon are images covering cityscapes - where the buildings are simply the site where images are to be found: and the images are the buildings and the buildings are the images...

...Which leads me to think that were I ever consider writing a book that might be derived from this blog, it would be called White Cities - 'White' Cities because white represents blankness and one can see how future architecture could have no inherent texture and instead simply adopt a changing image facade.

However on further reflection, I find a small reaction deep down in myself to this notion that is related to a comment a post production supervisor made about high resolution images:

"If you think about it, isn't that (3840x2160) just about right for 1920x1080 HD television production? Gives one a bit of room to play with, punch in and reframe."

He's referring here to a production format that has higher resolution than the display format and how that extra resolution can be used to reframe an image (if you reframe a standard definition very much it doesn't look so good).

The problem buried in this off the cuff remark is that of de-skilling camera technicians. If it doesn't matter how you frame then where's the skill gone - and does that matter ?

Zen calligraphy requires a fully concentrated execution in the moment so that the act is a statement of all and everything that you and the surrounding universe are.

There's a certain school of photographic practice that will not use an image if the framing is bad and therefore supports a semi Zen-like aesthetic view of accomplishing the act whilst in the act. In other words, practice your eye and hand co-ordination so that when you click the shutter - when you chose and when you display intent - then let that intent be art-full.

Bill Brand is said to have practiced a form of shooting where he would sit and wait for the 'photographic moment' to occur. The moment when all comes together, when maybe the clouds and the light come into positions that satisfied the aesthetic he was most comfortable with in relation to the landscape he was focusing in on.

Modern photographers worry about how many images can be taken by a digital camera within a second so that they can spray off a group-of-pictures (an important term in digital motion imaging) so that somewhere in the group the ideal picture is to be found. Not very Bill Brandt. Yet maybe it's just another way in to the photographic moment.

In Digital image processing a group-of-pictures is a description of a set of frames within a general flow of stills that make up the moving image sequence. A Long GoP or a short GoP is a designated group of pictures - a long GoP might be 15 frames long. So a computer uses an algorithm (an automatic analysing function) that is looking for 'difference'. If you take what is the same and just send it once and then you send the difference, there's a lot less data than if you send all the data in every frame. This is a compression technique.


Compression is a notion that comes from limited technical resources: if you have little storage space - then you have to limit the data. If you have limited transfer capacity (slow speeds on the internet) then you have also to limit the data. But things are changing, which is why a group of DoP's (here I have to resist an acronym that makes fun of them aligning their thinking with the technology behind GoP's) feel free enough to consider what might be possible with Ultra High Definition Video - and are not just content to look through a portal, but actually walk through the doorway.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Dusk and Lightwaves

I was just talking to an engineer.

I do like engineers, mainly because I like their imagination. They are enthusiasts after all. Why else would they be so committed to whatever their particular crevice of the mind/reality split is ?

I also get on with them because I can partially speak their language - a sort of pigeon-Enginese. I can sort of understand what they're saying as they speak in a language loaded with jargon in some kind of meta-language. I can sort of (badly) understand the maths and I can sort of understand the difference between Discrete Fourier Transforms and Wavelets. Sort of.

But coming back to their imagination they are sometimes far more practiced in its use; I was describing an idea through a metaphor to my new friend and the idea was based upon an understanding of that moment at dusk when the traffic lights are too colourful. I learned later, after first noting this phenomenon, that what I was seeing had a direct physical cause: the rods and cones of the eyes were switching. The cones are good for colour, the rods are good for luminance - or lack of it. We employ mainly the cones during the day when the light is bright (because they're not so good with luminance but good with colour) and we use mainly the rods at night when colour isn't so important, but seeing the edges of things is, in case you bump in to anything.

At dusk the brain is switching its use from one technology to the other. During dusk, light levels fluctuate a bit and you see a driven intensity to the colour.

If you've seen that, or noticed it then you'll know what I mean - if not, keep a look out.

Now - using that as a metaphor, there's a moment in the use of definition within an image, standard definition, High Definition, 35mm, 2k, 4k all of those different kinds and levels of definition, where what is real and what is not becomes confused. Obviously in future developments of technology there will be a moment when a displayed image can be mistaken for the real thing. For instance: a few years ago with digital sound, as my new engineering friend said, there was a moment when you could place a string quartet behind a curtain and also some very good speakers and a digital recording of the string quartet and the listener couldn't tell the difference between the two. The same will be true with images.

NHK in Japan are experimenting with Super Hi Vision as they call it and with Ultra Hi Definition as we call it. The use of English is revealing in that the Japanese have furry friends and we have strategically placed guided missiles with surgical incision. Their new system is 8000 lines resolution and a raw signal has a bit-rate of 24-Gigabits-per-second. That's a lot of data. But this means we have an understanding of what we have to do to make it work as a system. The first reports tell us that the images are immersive - not immersive in the old two telescreens strapped to a headband where you wander around in a lousy graphic environment not really believing why you are actually doing this - but immersive in the sense that you 'buy' what you're being shown in much the same way that you're happy to stand in line to buy the popcorn and take a seat and for 90 minutes believe that monsters are threatening the Enterprise or your sympathies really do lie with a bloke that has scissors instead of hands.

So for me, more interesting than the heady realms of a technology that supplies more detail than the eye can actually use, will be the place where you are both convinced at one moment and not convinced at another moment by what you see. A flickering place of acceptance and non-acceptance. It's a similar 'place' using the metaphor of the rods and cones to the one you find yourself in at dusk. It is a liminal place, a borderland where some interesting work can be done. It is a place characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy.

There are issues of belief and suspension of disbelief - and as so competently understood by my engineering friend - that is where the art can be found.