Thursday, December 21, 2006

It Lookey like Lars Von Trier is at it again.

Not content with creating a revolution in filmmaking by spearheading the Dogme 95 movement, Lars Von Trier is now experimenting with how his films are shot and how viewers engage with them. His new film, The Boss Of It All, is filmed using a new camera control technique developed by Von Trier called Automavision. The system removes the need for a human camera operator, replacing them with a computer which randomly selects camera shots and movements based around an initial camera position selected by the director. The system removes the usual control the director and cinematographer have over the composition of each shot and, specifically it’s framing. Lars Von Trier explains his desire for developing this technique:

“I am a man who likes to control things, and if I can't control them totally I will not control them at all. After doing Europa with very very fixed shots and camera movements, I was tempted to do something totally different. I started using a handheld camera and we invented a form of framing, or non-framing, called pointing of the camera, because I hate framing.” (guardian.co.uk)

This hand-held, almost haphazard method of framing combined with non-continuity editing had recently become Von Trier’s trade mark. Even after he deviated from the original strict edict of the Dogme 95 manifesto with Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay he retained this style of framing. The style deliberately breaks with the traditions of the Hollywood continuity style by forcing the viewer to actively search each shot for the most significant elements. In the Hollywood style these elements, for instance a protagonist would be centred within the frame and lit in a way which made them highly salient even in busy scenes. In Von Trier’s recent films the protagonist is often cut off by the frame, visually diminished by other less important elements, or moving at odds with the hand-held camera movement. In combination with his often uncomfortable subject matter, this unpredictable framing technique often leads viewers to describe the experience of watching a Von Trier film as “hard work”.

In a series of recent eye tracking experiments I have shown that this difficulty in following the action of a Von Trier film can be very clearly seen in viewers’ eye movements. When watching a film composed according to the classic continuity style, all viewers will focus their attention on a small number of objects within a shot. In most shots there will only be one clear centre of attention, usually the face of a principle actor and it will be this that all viewers track within the shot and across cuts. By comparison, viewers watching Dancer in the Dark or Dogville distribute their attention across more of the screen and show less agreement of what they believe to be the most significant object. When a cut then happens (which they often do at unexpected moments in Von Trier’s films) viewers are not guided to the new centre of attention by the director so they have to actively search the scene. This active engagement with the visual constituents of the film creates a viewing experience that is completely counter to the normal smooth, direct, almost passive viewing experience of a classical continuity film.

Von Trier’s desire to create films that actively engage viewers can also be seen in his use of Brechtian theatrical technique. In Dogville and Manderlay the use of black backdrops, minimal props, and transparent scenery expose the artificiality of the film. Bertolt Brecht developed these techniques, amongst others, as a way of encouraging his theatre audiences to adopt a critical mindset. By actively counteracting the “suspension of disbelief” encouraged in classical Artistotelian theatre, Brecht was trying to engage his audience in the critical interpretation of the depicted action, the act of its construction, and its place within real-life. The application of these techniques to cinema by Von Trier also resulted in an extra level of visual engagement beyond that created by the non-framing camerawork. By populating the set with transparent scenery the director is unable to hide insignificant actions. All actors must be present on set at the same time and act even though their actions are not important to the current shot. These peripheral actions crowd in on the main action, drawing the viewer’s attention away from the main action and creating further disagreement between viewers.

However, the natural instinct for framing is hard to overcome and it appears that Von Trier realised that his desire for completely un-framed shots would not be possible so long as he or his camera operator were controlling the camera. A hand-held camera is often described as a visual prosthesis: an extension of the camera operator’s eye; seeing what they see. The movement of a hand-held camera may be rough and the framing imperfect but, like the human eye it will always eventually settle on the most important parts of a scene. If Von Trier is to create shots in which viewers are unable to predict what is the most significant part of a scene or how the camera is going to move he needs to take the human camera operator out of the equation. Hence, Automavision.

Automavision is not the only innovation in Von Trier’s new film, The Boss Of It All. Von Trier recently announced that he has embedded five to seven “Lookeys” in the film:

"For the casual observer, it's just a glitch or a mistake….For the initiated, it's a riddle to be solved. All Lookeys can be decoded by a system that is unique." (Von Trier quoted on Screendaily.com)

Von Trier is offering 30,000 Danish kroner (£2,700) to the first Danish viewer that identifies all the Lookeys. The Lookeys are described as “visual elements that are out of place” (www.lookey.dk) and are intended to turn the film into a “mind game”. By informing his viewers of the presence of these Lookeys Von Trier is again encouraging his viewers to actively engage with his films in a way in conflict with the normal film viewing. Spotting continuity errors, which is how these Lookey’s would be described if they were unintentional, has been an occupation of film viewers throughout the history of film. The pastime has escalated to such a level that there are even books and websites devoted to it. Continuity errors are typically mistakes made during production that are spotted by viewers on repeated viewings of a film. The most common errors are unintentional costume changes across shots or cigarettes and drinks that disappear or refill.

Finding errors is always good fun although it can often be very difficult. In my Ph.D. thesis I created a taxonomy of continuity errors that classifies them according to when they are made during the film’s production process and what is required to spot them (page 186 of my thesis). The detection of errors is very dependent on how the viewers watch the film. If the viewer looks at the parts of the screen the director wants them to look at they should never be aware of any continuity errors. The focal objects (those at the centre of attention) should never have errors as they would have been spotted by the director, cinematographer, or editor. Errors are more likely to be located in the periphery of the screen, areas where the production crew and the average viewer are unlikely to look. As film is a dynamic medium and a viewer can only focus their attention on one small part of the screen at any one time, peripheral errors should be missed as viewers are rationing their attention to the most significant parts of the screen.

In a traditional Hollywood film composed for continuity, errors are hard to spot as viewer attention is so carefully influenced by the director and editor. In a Von Trier film, as already discussed, the intention appears to be to encourage active search of the screen and disagreement between where different viewers look. With the addition of Automavision the likelihood that a viewer looks at a part of the scene that would traditionally be insignificant probably increases. This may mean that viewers of The Boss Of It All may be more likely to spot the Lookeys than if they had been included in a traditionally composed film.

However, without knowing exactly what form these Lookeys take (see page 186 of my thesis for a taxonomy of errors) or what expectations the viewer will have to have to realise that the Lookeys are errors we cannot know whether they are easier or harder to detect than traditional continuity errors. What we do know is that the experience of watching The Boss Of It All is, like in all Lars Von Trier films going to be unlike watching any other film.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Automavision system sounds intriguing. However, it would be interesting to compare the results of this technique to a hypothetical system where the computer was intended to shoot in the classic continuity style. Such a system could be compared to the software that is used in videogames to make sure the player has a good view of the action. In even simple videogames, computer controlled cameras struggle to frame the most important items in a scene, or even understand which items are important. Anyone attempting to engineer such a system may well find their results being all-too-similar to Von Trier's!

Antithesis Boy

anne said...
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Hermes said...

What's the point in Von Triers continuos aim to film "purely"??
For my moint of view, his films are more and more artificial with all of these "revolutions" he pretends to embrace.

I dislike him as much as his films after "Europa". And this Automavision invention seems to be the most absurd he could ever get.

I believe his next film will be an ode to John Cages 4’33’’. A complete silent black screen movie, which had been probably shot "with no cameras or sound equipment, no post-production either, to have a pure unique cinematographic experience".

How far is he going to get?
Absurd he is...

Anonymous said...

hermes: have you watched the movie?

SAM RENSEIW said...

hello tim smith,
just discovered your fine blog and work on your site.
great to see von trier's automavision project disected with such gusto and precise contextual framing. it is a pity indeed that his seminal, ground breacking visual work - and his films - are so underrated, and even hated!
it seems that the overall filmic gaze and understanding is allready lost to tv and hollywood schemata. godard has also for years now tried with dedication and courage to open up for oblique ways of seeing and perceiving filmic understanding....
it is thus a great pleasure to read about your investigations.
best, sam renseiw

BHC said...

Great movie, watched it recently. Has anyone noticed any of the Lookeys? I'm certain I've seen at least one on the first viewing. Loved the movie overall, the filming makes it very unique, as well as the humour and story. Looking forward to Melancholia!

Brian - Life Science Blog