notes on the cinematic image

Ever since the birth of cinema, a handful of remarkable films have been released every year, notable for both content and image quality; these are narrative films, with a classical style of camera work. I’m convinced, however, that we have yet to explore the full potential of the cinematic image; although this may seem paradoxical and improbable, I’m convinced that this potential has not received the attention that it deserves. I think that the primary reason for this is as follows: unlike the images created by painters, who have mastered the wide range of techniques that is available to them, the cinematic image is a creation of the film industry, rather than the film director. This industry determines the materials with which these images are recorded: film or digital files, lenses, screens; their primary criteria being either economic or technical, with the capture of “reality” taking precedence over the expressive potential of the image. With the exception of a few rare cases, directors and camera operators (or directors of photography) are not consulted about these modifications or technological developments.

To take a few examples: Jean Cocteau was astonished to find that new prints of Le Sang d’un poète [The Blood of a Poet] (1930), struck ten years after the film was made, were inferior in quality to the original prints. A supervisor at the lab explained what had happened: they had reduced the layer of gelatin which coated the plastic base of the film stock; the light no longer created those internal reflections that were responsible for the beauty and magic of the original prints. Another example: during the pre-production for Roma (1972), Fellini announced that he wanted to film the underground construction of the new Rome metro; he visited the site with his assistants and descended to the depths of the earth, where a giant machine, the “Mole,” was drilling through the Roman subsoil. “Fantastic!” cried Fellini. His assistants were delighted. “We’ll rebuild the whole thing in the studio!” His assistants were stupefied. Fellini knew that nothing he could shoot at the original site would give him the effect that he wanted; there wasn’t enough space for wide shots, the lenses were insufficient, he would achieve neither the pictorial strength nor the dreamlike aspect that he was looking for; he would have needed “subjective” instead of “objective” photographic mechanisms. He therefore constructed an even larger “mole” in the studio — a disproportionate reconstruction of the underground — which allowed him to capture the images that he needed.

Another, more recent, example: during a discussion at the Cinémathèque Française, Jean-Pierre Beauviala revealed that he had finally developed a new digital camera after resisting the medium as long as possible, being of the opinion that the digital image was inferior to that captured by a film camera. Since the sensors had recently been upgraded, he developed a new digital camera, but its capture of facial imagery seemed, to him, to be too “plastic.” He therefore created an oscillating sensor, so that the digital grain, like the chemical grain of film stock, was continually shifting, rather than hitting the same spot in each frame. Beauviala is an exceptional engineer, whose technical developments are the result of well-considered criteria, including the potential for any positive, or negative, effects upon the evolution of visual representation.

In 1984, The Tale of Tales, an animated film by Youri Norstein, was voted by a large international jury to be the greatest animated film of all time. A few years later, at a festival whose program included both of our films, I found myself sitting at a table with Norstein, waiting for the screening to start. A long and awkward silence ensued. Reluctant to find myself sitting in front of one of the masters of animation without asking him a single question, I gathered my courage and spoke to his interpreter: “Could you ask Mr. Norstein what his response would be, if he was asked to give one single piece of advice to another director?” The interpreter translated this into Russian and Norstein, who seemed irritated, replied: “That’s a stupid question! How can I answer that! It would take me 24 hours to give any kind of relevant advice!” I swallowed that response; a long moment passed. Then Norstein spoke to his interpreter again:

“Upon reflection, it’s not such a stupid question. The three necessary qualities in a director of animated films are: a sense of duration, a sense of rhythm and a sense of the incandescence of the materials.”

This last point suggests one way in which image quality could be improved: every film project could develop its own specific material characteristics, its own texture. If film directors had access to the variety of styles and physical characteristics that painters enjoy in their own medium, they would be able to create genuinely original cinematic images. This issue is perhaps of more concern to poetic, rather than narrative, filmmakers. The apparent diversity of photographic imagery to be found in contemporary cinema is the result of lighting, decor and costumes; the cameras and lenses remain the same from film to film. These lenses have undeniable qualities that allow them to capture a certain aspect of reality but, no matter where you go in the world, you’ll find the same lenses, constructed according to the same physical and mathematical principles. We must remember that this is, in fact, a very conventional optical construction of the image; the challenge consists in finding a way to liberate the image from these constraints.

The wide variety of styles utilized in animated films is an indication of the possibilities offered by the liberation of the photographic image. Youri Norstein has forged a new path for the construction of space, or “spaces.” One of the few to have freed himself from the rules of perspective, he has created a universe that is, in my opinion, more convincing that anything made with contemporary techniques. Animation often finds inspiration in “realistic” forms of cinema — there’s no reason why the flow of inspiration shouldn’t also operate in reverse.

“Norstein’s images have a real depth of field and are not creating a false sense of perspective; they give us a fresh perception of the world, completely different to that offered by more traditional forms of animation... The spatial organization of Norstein’s world into different planes creates a world of 'virtual space,' as opposed to 'real space.' In Norstein’s world, there are no linear perspectives, no disappearing points for his imaginary lines, which converge at a certain distance, which in turn define the scale and rendering of the animated objects. The world created by Norstein’s animated images is structured simultaneously in two and three dimensions. The depth of field is hypothetical; it lacks the continuity of European classical painting; it’s disjointed and discontinuous. We are faced with a hierarchy of planes, of scenery and of areas of solid color, each separated from the next by an arbitrarily determined distance. The viewer is unable to detect or evaluate the actual distance between the planes of imagery, whether near or far, because it is both infinite and infinitesimal, being based on an imaginary scale of measurement... This flattening of spatial structure and decor is a fundamental characteristic of Chinese and Japanese classical painting. In Oriental painting, depth of field is created by the juxtaposition of fore- and backgrounds which are not connected to each other in terms of perspective, but rather by a playful intersection of lines and colors.” (Mikhail Iampolski, Iskusstovo Kina 2, p. 97)

What kind of processes can we use, to obtain images which remain legible, while possessing a considerable power of suggestion? Certain directors have taken up the challenge: Abel Gance used unconventional lenses, innovative formats (triple screen projection) and audacious superimpositions; Man Ray used filters and misshapen pieces of glass to capture his images, then moved on to solarization; Stanly Kubrick commissioned an especially “wide” lens to capture the candle-lit scenes in Barry Lyndon (1975); and one can add Alexander Sokurov’s Pages cachées [Whispering Pages] (1993), the work of the brothers Quay and the many experimental filmmakers who carry out their research in the domain of the imaginary.

The research into the concept of perspective carried out by David Hockney and the painter Henri Dimier is even more radical. Both artists cast doubts on the photographic lens as we know it today. The construction of these lenses is based on two principles: the concept of conventional western perspective, with its precise vanishing point, which was invented in the 15th century by Italian architects and painters; and the “belief ” that images captured by the lens match those perceived by human vision.

The many different kinds of pictorial traditions that have developed over the centuries in different geographic zones demonstrate the potential but also the inadequacy and monotony of contemporary image construction. Dimier, like Hockney, proposed using multi-lens cameras or taking photographs from a variety of different angles, allowing for a greatly increased freedom in the construction of the image. Dimier suggested shooting from at least three, if not five, different angles, from different heights and areas of the pictorial space in order to accurately recreate that space. Ground level, or the “visible gradient” as he termed it, should be used to recreate the perpendicularity of people and objects. According to Dimier, Breughel and Toulouse-Lautrec dealt with this issue (instinctively?) in a very convincing manner. He also paid great attention to the curvature of space, which displays contradictory angles when viewed from a distance or close up. The impetus for Hockney’s famous photographs was very prosaic; he wanted to photograph certain paintings of his which were too large to be captured in one shot, so he moved around the paintings and took pictures from a number of different angles. He assembled the resulting photographs on a large sheet of paper and realized that he had stumbled upon a much more striking way of rendering the “exterior world” than that afforded by one single photograph, shot with the lens focused on one central point of interest. He was thus able to sculpt or “model” space. He continued with these tests and became aware of their relationship to Picasso’s pictorial research. Hockney left us a luminous account of this whole process.

More recently, Jacques Perconte has succeeded in transforming the dimensions of the image and the space that it describes, applying the qualities of various styles of painting to the magic of movement and modulation inherent in the cinematic process. His own process is not based on optics but on a brilliant and paradoxical manipulation of digital transformation. He explores a world of hitherto unseen imagery while at the same time maintaining a strong and extremely rare pictorial coherence. “The image adopts the texture of embers, flames and incandescent waveforms. It melts, liquefies, disintegrates and is attacked by strong, saturated colors Only the railroad track persists, leading us ever further into the depths of the image landscape. The color fades and walls of 'non-color' obscure the traveling shot. Abstraction creates new and auto-generated forms” wrote Smaranda Olcèse in “Jacques Perconte: Art numérique à la galerie Charlot.” It’s quite possible that, in the future, films which utilize a more personal and striking form of imagery (something that early filmmakers and critics may have hoped for) will impose a new and different form of storytelling, with the strength of the image itself contributing to the story. Time will tell!

translated from French by Moira Tierney