Perception is Everything
By Rebecca Redshaw, For American Cinematographer, June 2004
A movie theater is the only logical place to stage a symposium of artists who realize their vision through the practical means of cinematography. As film festivals proliferate around the world, vying for stars’ attendance and the discovery of the “next big little picture,” pathologist Dr. David B. Kaminsky and cinematographer Frederic Goodich have pioneered a unique venue. In 1999, under the tutelage of Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC, Kaminsky established the first Cinematographer’s Day at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. Four years ago, Goodich joined with Kaminsky, and the two have since produced and coordinated numerous events focusing on cinematographers’ techniques and philosophies.
This year, at the behest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the governor of Bangkok, Ms. Juthamas Siriwan, Kaminsky and Goodich took Cinematographer’s Day to the Far East, coordinating a two-day event at the Bangkok International Film Festival in January. Financial support for the event was provided by Phil Radin of Panavision and Bob Hoffman of Technicolor Digital Intermediates.
The first day celebrated the work of Christopher Doyle, HKSC, whose artistry was illustrated by screenings of In the Mood for Love (see AC Feb. ’01) and Hero (AC Sept. ’03). The day was moderated by Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF (Dogville, 28 Days Later), recipient of the 2003 European Film Award for Cinematography, who brought his own progressive perspective to Doyle’s art. The second day brought together an eclectic, international panel for a discussion on visual perception referenced used the 2001 Brazilian documentary Janela da Alma (Window of the Soul) as a starting point. Immediately after screening the film, Goodich initiated the theme of “Seeing Through Glass: Lenses, Spectacles and Human Perception,” to provoke discussion among the panelists: Dod Mantle; Doyle; John Bailey, ASC; Robert Primes, ASC; Benedict Neuenfels, AAC; and Shoji Ueda, JSC.
Janela da Alma, co-directed by Walter Carvalho, ABC and Joao Jardim, explores the sight and insight of people who are visually impaired to varying degrees. Nineteen interviewees — including author Jose Saramago, directors Wim Wenders and Agnes Varda, photographer Eugen Bavcar and neurologist Oliver Sacks — share personal and unexpected revelations about issues relating to sight, among them the physiological workings of the eye, the use of glasses and its effect on personality, the meaning of seeing or not seeing in a world saturated with images, and the importance of emotions as the transforming element of reality.
When the last frame of Janela da Alma faded out, the audience remained in near total darkness and silence for about five minutes. Goodich then signaled for the projector beam to be turned up, so that the audience faced a blindingly white screen. Holding up a white cup, Goodich spoke about the paradoxes of seeing, suggesting that the audience consider what we see when there is light and whether we need light to see. These introductory remarks led into the cinematographers’ discussion about their own methods of processing visual information. Following are some excerpted highlights:
Robert Primes, ASC: I would like to say that we do not record things; instead, we interpret them. We always see things through our own eyes. How can blind people have an image in their heads? Well, they do, but they do not record them the same way we do — they’re interpreting in a different way. Every one of us sees life from a different worldview. Every one of us has different opinions. We all look around, and we each see something different. If we are myopic, I guess, then all of those beautiful, out-of-focus images are what we see. It reminds me … of an age when artists thought [it was important to] record something accurately and see the detail. Then the Impressionists came along, and they did not record the details. They recorded a mood or feeling without having to do every brushstroke exactly. That is like so much of the vision that we saw [in Janela da Alma], when someone has a feeling or impression of something rather than an accurate recording.
John Bailey, ASC: Several weeks ago I finished reading the novel Blindness, written by the great Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who is one of the most eloquent and insightful people interviewed in this film. He [presented] a very revealing anecdote that I guess was the genesis for the novel: he was sitting in a restaurant in Lisbon and had this idea of what would happen if we were suddenly blind. Blindness, which I recommend that all of you read, is essentially about what happens when an individual goes blind and then his family, an extended group, and finally a whole society go blind. It spreads almost like a virus. It’s a metaphor, I think, for our contemporary condition, and Saramago goes on to explain what happens to us in terms of our compromised ability to see when we are surrounded and smothered by world images.
Primes: I once heard the expression ‘Stand on your head and you will be a great photographer.’ And what it meant was that if you look at the world upside-down, you will see so many familiar things in a … new way. You will break the cliches of the way you see. I think cinematographers have to constantly break the cliches of the way we see things in order to get people to see them again, in order to communicate something. Filmmakers tend to say ‘Got that!’ in an instant and then move on. We have to have different images. We have to keep on breaking through. The film process, and sometimes the technology, is a device that allows you to put across an image differently, to find a new way of seeing things. And I think whatever device it takes to break the cliches is ultimately a good thing.
I also want to comment on the commerciality of images. All of the images that make advertisements — whether they’re images on top of other images on TV, whether they’re billboards, whether they’re leaflets — are trying to attract the eye for purposes other than beauty, for commercial purposes. Basically, we want to take joy in our environment. We want to see the beauty in it, and we try to keep on seeing this. And while there is certainly some irony, an ironic beauty, in advertising and all that, to some extent it is a violation of trust. We all live in the world, and we all have the ability to see beauty, and when we sell it… to whoever wants to have a message, I think that is a violation of the public trust. I think we should revolt!
Christopher Doyle, HKSC: As you progress in any endeavor, or as you get older, perhaps [the concept of] ‘less is more’ is really true. I was doing a film in Taiwan, and I walked into this very rundown station [that we would be using as a set], and it had an open sort of skylight. We had not seen the set before — in the film, it was to be a jail — and the sunlight fell on the set in these incredible patterns. The gaffer was much more experienced than I — he was very famous and had worked on a hundred films — and I said, ‘Just get a 10K up there and that will be it.’ Eight hours later, after he had put 25 lights in different places, what he created was a very typical, shadowy, prison-cell look. That is exactly what we shouldn’t do. We should respond to what is there — appropriate it and share it. That’s really our job.
Benedict Neuenfels,AAC: First of all, we see light because objects reflect. What I learned from that blind photographer [in the film] is to look for another way or path to see … to concentrate more on things I do not see. When I sit on a beach and watch the sea, often I see something different than the sea.
Frederic Goodich: Most of us believe that the blind or the visually impaired do not have a visual sense on a par with people with so-called ‘normal’ vision. This notion results in a kind of ‘racism’ toward the blind, many of whom apparently ‘see’ in some fashion. It also implies there is only one way of ‘seeing’ the world. Evgen Bavcar, a photographer interviewed in Janela da Alma, is blind, yet he has devised strategies for seeing and photographing that have resulted in some unique and profound images.
In another context, there seems to exist a kind of ‘imperialism’ of cinema, meaning that there are only certain ‘acceptable’ ways to visualize stories. For example, there’s a ‘Hollywood look’ and a ‘European look’. Depending on the artist, these approaches can result in great art or they can result in conventional images and trite emotions. Audiences may accept these as norms, but really, the forms of cinema are constantly reinvented, reflecting how different countries and different generations capture their experience of the world.
Shoji Ueda, JSC: When I photographed for Akira Kurosawa, he would use a zoom lens because he liked to have a very long cut of the pictures. That is why he had to take pictures from many positions; in order to take good pictures so everybody [would be] happy, he used the zoom lens. It wasn’t that he was [necessarily] going to zoom into people, but he tried to focus on the important elements and forgo the other ones. Kurosawa said, ‘If you use a long lens, you’ll be happier.’ Yesterday, when I was watching Hero, I thought Christopher Doyle often used a long lens. Am I right?
Doyle: Yeah. Well, I’m afraid of horses!
Primes: Composition and magnification are critical considerations. Magnification is how big someone is, how much you can clearly see their eyes, how much you see of their gestures. And composition is the relationship between the person and his or her environment. The lens is a point of view or particular perspective. It represents where you stand. Your perspective or point of view about a scene is represented by the lens. Every lens has a different worldview than any other lens. The lens conveys your particular editorial perspective. It is an opinion.
Cinematographers are generally able to carry a huge array of lenses, which means that we can interpret from different points of view. We can expand or compress space using corresponding wider or longer lenses. Because we usually frame vertical subjects in a horizontal frame, there is generally room for visual commentary. The environment, lighting dynamics and where a subject is placed in the frame can allow the cinematographer to make strong, subliminal and often ironic visual statements. These are all just tools that we have, and we choose how much we want to magnify, what kind of commentary to make, what kind of environment to create, and what our point of view or perspective is. This is both complex and basic We work intuitively rather than with formulas, but these are some of the tools we use.
Neuenfels: So if the lens is already a standpoint, I think my wish would be to shoot film without a lens —you know, like with a pinhole camera. Because when you shoot only with the little hole in front, without the lens, it’s the purest standpoint you can have to reflect the content.
Primes: It’s still a lens. It certainly has a focal length, it certainly has a diameter, and it has a point of view. Even the humble pinhole has particular characteristics like infinite depth of field and unique aberrations.
Bailey: The camera lens is really nothing except a pile of glass and steel. It’s cruel; it’s indifferent. The great lesson for all of us in this film, I think, is that perception, human perception, is personal and subjective. We heard many wonderful people, ordinary working people as well as highly articulate poets and artists, give us a perspective on the nature of human perception with its emotion, its heart, its soul, and how that is the way human beings look at the world. Each of our perceptions, each of our lenses, is a very personal experience.
One of the great interviewees in the film is Oliver Sacks. He talks a lot about dysfunctional perception and people who could not recognize their loved ones. In one of his really great essays, he talks about what happens when somebody who is born blind has an operation and is given sight, and how they have to be taught to see, because when their eyes open and they see what we think of as the world, they do not known how to interpret it. They need to be taught how to see, not just in terms of perspective and color, but in terms of the emotion of what it means to see.
Sacks also writes a lot about the criminal mind, and how it often has corresponding visual impairment. Certain aspects of schizophrenia or psychopathic behavior are often accompanied by visual distortion and visual dissociation from reality, or what we think of as reality.
Goodich: I echo what John is saying — that the job of the camera is to make us feel a scene, and that the job of the cinematographer is precisely to lead us to specific feelings via what is seen on the screen. We set moods and points of view through the use of light and camera angle. We attempt to calculate where a shot exists in a sequence. Seeing what we feel can be very subjective, and not necessarily what’s out there. A lot of us don’t just pick up a camera without intent.
Bailey: That is exactly what Joseph Conrad said about his goal as a writer: to create images to make you feel, not just assume.
Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF: Whatever it is that you pick up from [technical] books, it is that lens in your mind that causes the [camera’s] lens to see. And we all have kinds of alphabets in life. We have a logical system working day and night, even when we sleep. I think we learn the alphabet to communicate something sensual or emotional, and you have to understand the alphabet, respect it, and then break it up, change the order. It’s not pretentious to remind each other that in between those letters, there is new light. You take the letters out of the box, and instead of maybe taking this one, you take that one. Instead of taking the letters out and putting them where you normally would, sometimes you place them forward or backward or sideways. [People] give and receive signals, which is what happens in artistry, whether it’s cinema, music or your own personal alphabet. You become confronted by the fact that your alphabet is not the same as anybody else’s, and that is what life is.
Doyle: I think pretty much the same thing. I had an assistant on Liberty Heights, the Barry Levinson film, who used to drive me nuts, because before every shot he would check to see if the so-called focus of the image was correct. He would say, ‘Print for focus.’
Anyway, the Chinese word Qi is usually translated as ‘energy’ We know that light is energy, and the actual experience of film is the actor’s Qi passing through the lens. Basically, only three people are [involved] in the act of cinema: the actor, the person who is holding the camera, and the audience. I think our function [as cinematographers] is to exchange the Qi, or to let the Qi flow through the camera. That sense is created by enthusiasm, encouragement and trust. The response to all of these things is a very, very intense human and singular relationship. That comes through the lens, which is the focus. That is the process, the focusing of the Qi. That is also what tai chi is about: getting the energy and channeling it through the body. I get very scared when I work with a director who asks for a viewfinder, because I figure if he doesn’t see what he wants, and he doesn’t trust me to give him something he didn’t expect, then we shouldn’t be working together. Recently, on the Thai film Last Life in the Universe, I was very happy to work with a young Thai director, Penek Ratanaruang, who was very much ‘old school’ He stood beside the camera. It was fantastic. I hear there are other people like that, but it is now so common to have the director sitting in a van a hundred meters away watching video. I think our job is to be competent and visually focused. It is about the relationship between the actor and what is being recorded. Because the director knows the actor’s needs, he needs to be right there to exchange the Qi.
Audience question: When do you decide what lens you would like to use? Does that come at the stage of reading the screenplay, or in preproduction discussions with the group, or when you are on the set and actually pick up the lens?
Ueda: I do not choose the lens beforehand, because in order to choose the lens I have to see the location and see the background. I will choose a lens by looking at the location. If I want to [create] a very nice background, I would use a wide lens; when I’m in very small places, like in a house or in a room, I’ll choose a short lens. It also depends on weather. For example, in order to shoot Mount Fuji, I have to see the weather. If the weather is bad, Mount Fuji will disappear in the clouds; if I want [to see] Mount Fuji, I have to change the lens in order to take the pictures.
Audience question: How do you choose your lens in terms of a character’s perspective, and how do you frame for a subjective POV?
Primes: I don’t think there is a formula for that. It can be a very long lens with a very tight frame, or it can be a wide lens. I think it all depends upon the context. A cinematographer works intuitively.
When actors are in the moment, they are not conscious, they are not judging — they’re reacting. In a given film in a given circumstance, when the subjective is a POV, it could be almost any lens, depending upon the situation. I think that has to be felt. In other words, I do not know! [Laughter.] ?