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Big Screens Brainstorms

September 14, 2010

I’ve been thinking about Big Screens ever since the show last winter. The running joke throughout the summer was, “What’s your big screen project?” I thought I’d hold off on writing about it until we were back in the thick of it, giving it time to percolate. Never sure if that is really such a good idea, though.

Initially, the focus here is to separate what is unique to this medium from content. While content is critical, there is already a deep history of large-scale projection and theater, and a fairly firm grasp of what is possible within those media. Whether discussions of content before medium remain within the boundaries of the possible, or push those boundaries, they continue to exist in relationship to them.

List of Potentially Unique Attributes, in no particular order:

Aspect Ratio
Scale
Viewing Angle and Perspective
Networked
Interactive
Pixel Control
27 Projectors

The aspect ratio and scale are the first features of the IAC screen that stand out. From a traditional theater perspective, it is a terrible space in which to view the screen, but that also forces one to reconsider it. It is wallpaper, or a mirror, or a window. It is also visible from the West Side Highway, and from that perspective, it is part of the building’s base or curtain wall. Because it is at the rear wall of the lobby, seen through the fritted glass, it takes on a depth and glow that it would not possess if it were on the exterior surface. For the same reason, it backlights anyone in the lobby, making it feel like a warmer more inviting place.

As an initial experiment, I’d like to see what a flat color would look like, both in the lobby and from the street. The fact that the 27 projectors don’t have equal fidelity so that you see vertical stripes seems like a technical feature that might be interesting to reveal, and could be used to advantage. It is unlikely that this would be visible from the street, but it could serve as a focal cue seen within the lobby.

As a Processing sketch, the wall could cycle through a number of solid colors.  The stripes could also be utilized to create an illusion of color matching or depth, such as this one Dan O’Sullivan showed us in Rest of You, but I’m not sure where I’m going with that.  While this is still in the realm of abstraction, it is moving rapidly back to a discussion of content, or at least of color theory, illusion, and painting.  As placeholders for a longer review of the matter, I’ll leave this one with Albers’ Homage to the Square, and one of Rothko’s untitled pieces.  I juxtapose them also for their treatment of focus.

Viewing Angle and Perspective

No one I know likes to sit in the front row of a movie theater, especially far left or right.  Your cone of vision is theoretically 30° left and right of a line normal to your face.  Anything outside of that is distorted.  This can be demonstrated in graphic perspectival construction, but it is interesting that nonetheless the brain processes the image back to something normal.  I saw Chariots of Fire in just such a seat, and remember the awkward sitting and neck position clearly.  I also remember the strange anamorphic projection of distorted early twentieth-century automobiles rolling across the screen, but I don’t remember the entire movie that way.  The rest of it is glimpses and story fragments reassembled into a normal cinematic experience.

Most people are uncomfortable viewing televisions at any angle not normal to their retinas.  The same goes with the placement of a window with regard to a view.  Viewing something from a rakish angle leaves you feeling as if you are not looking at it.  Perspectival projection was developed around this idea, and since its invention, most painters have accepted it as a convention, but some have explored the tension that can develop if you force the viewer away from the normal.

Early Renaissance paintings most clearly and proudly declare the mathematical precision of the new science of perspective:

Once mastered, they could begin to play with it to exploit the illusion of depth.  Here Andrea Pozzo describes a dome in St. Ignazio that was never constructed:

From the correct vantage point, it looks like a convincing dome.  From any other vantage point it looks either flat or like a strange wormhole into another dimension, depending on your faculties.

This exploitation of the science was taken furthest once the study of anamorphosis matured.  Holbein’s The Ambassadors is one example, with the strange distorted skull at their feet that only resolves when you look at the painting from an angle nearly parallel to the surface.

Another is the mural in the Trinità dei Monti in Rome at the top of the Spanish Steps.  It looks like an art nouveau landscape fantasy depicting scenes from the life of Francis of Paula, but seen from an angle as you walk down the hallway, resolves itself into a large-scale representation of the saint kneeled in prayer before a large tree.  Here are some images of the mural and a good description of it: http://www.theromanforum.com/?p=2098 Given that another advantage of large-scale projection screens over murals is that they are blank canvasses that can take ever-changing content, it would be an interesting experiment to see if you could continuously change the perspective viewing angle so that the image resolved itself from many different viewing angles, or so that different images resolved themselves simultaneously to different viewers.

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