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.