Sunday, December 14, 2008

Video Timesculpture

Here's some state-of-the-art eye candy for you. It's a new Toshiba ad that resembles the iconic "bullet-time" scene from "The Matrix" -- on steroids. As described in the New York Times "Year in Ideas" special:

Imagine a dozen actors, running, jumping, twirling, even throwing paint, each repeating their activities in a loop while the camera revolves around the scene 360 degrees. With each pass of the camera, they form a more intricately choreographed ensemble. Two guys fall forward on their hands and pop back up again; a woman in the center twirls around; the guys bounce up and down, over and over; the woman twists back and forth. Others walk into the shot, bouncing balls, waving a flag, then those actions, too, start repeating in a continuous loop. Someone throws a bucket of purple paint in an arc; a guy darts underneath it.

But no text description (or still image) can do justice -- you must see this four-dimensional extravaganza for yourself. (You can also see the final result on Toshiba's Website. )

And then when you're wondering, "How did they DO that?" -- look over here to see the behind-the-scenes video.

As the Times explains:

Instead of using still cameras, as they did in “The Matrix,” the filmmakers used 200 of Toshiba’s Gigashot HD camcorders, mounted on a circular rig. This technique of looping and layering, dreamed up four years ago by Mitch Stratten, who directed the ad and calls the approach “timesculpture,” has never been used before. Each character was filmed separately, after careful rehearsals — the man ducking under the paint did so without actually seeing the paint. Each sequence was edited separately and then composited into one shot. ...It took about 10 technicians working 24 hours a day for two and a half weeks to download and process the 20,000 gigabytes of data.

So you can rest assured that newspapers won't be requiring their videojournalists to be entering the fourth dimension any time soon. However, as we're always discovering, cutting-edge video technology is never more than five minutes away from being accessible to mainstream professionals and consumers. And when it comes to "non-fiction" video that's being used to portray "reality," all kinds of ethical considerations come into play.

Right now it may seem ridiculous to be concerned about this whirling anti-gravitational circus being confused with real life, but consider that, on the most basic level, we've seen videojournalism incorporate familiar time-altering techniques, which we've come to unquestioningly accept:

  • Fast-forwarding for either comic effect or to show rapid passage of time (e.g. time-lapse photography of a flower blooming)
  • Slow-motion to emphasize a specific activity or give it a dreamy feeling (or sometimes, pragmatically, just to synch B-roll to VO audio by making the person walk a little faster or slower)
  • Rewinding to signal going back in time, or to cue the viewer that we're going to see the same sequence again
Inevitably the day will come, sooner that we think, that timesculpture is within the reach of every videojournalist -- another tool for our toolboxes. How will we use it creatively... and ethically?

It's tempting to recoil at the increasingly "unreal" aspect of a medium that we are trying to use to depict reality, but maybe we're looking at it the wrong way. It calls to mind an anecdote about Picasso, who was confronted by a critic who complained that the great artist's cubist paintings were unrealistic. "Show me realistic art," he countered, whereupon the critic produced from his wallet a photograph of his wife. Picasso held it in his hand, examined it, and remarked: "Your wife -- she is so small."

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