One of the cinematic constructs that fascinates me, and which i have written about extensively as a key subject of my research and PhD thesis, is the Virtual Camera.
As much a concept as a technology, the Virtual Camera represents an viewer vanishing point in space that is not only infinitely flexible in movement and position but is not bound by physics and physicality. The virtual camera can move through walls, move across miles in seconds, be infinitely small or finitely large. Thus at once the Virtual Camera is a simple evolution on from extant cinematic language and at the same time a massive paradigm shift in visual expectations.
This concept returns the notion of filmmaker as fundamentally being what William Mitchell described as the ‘Perspective Artist’. (Mitchell, W J 1992, p118) At once both derivative of all other arts and unique amongst them, cinema rises out of the collective influences of painting, theatre and photography as creations wrought by “perspective artists” and from a selected perspective it delivers itself as the Art of the Moving Image. The word Perspective derives from the latin ‘perspicere’ with the implication of ‘peering-through’ and the innate positioning of viewer and subject, audience and content, is at the heart of visual aesthetics. As Mitchell observed, “the perspective artist can control the image by varying the parameters of situation point” (1992, p118) When time and space are added to perspective we engage with Greek derived terms of ‘Kine’ and ‘Kinema’ meaning movement; thus functionally cinema is a perspective experience of movement in time and space.
This idea, and the techno-concept of the Virtual Camera, takes on an interesting conundrum in the context of an assertion by seminal film theorist John Gibbs where he saids;
“to discuss the lighting of a shot without reference to the position of the camera is to misunderstand how films are made - one does not light a set and then set about deciding where the camera is going to be placed.”
And more succinctly, Borge comments boldly that;
“it is quite feasible to produce a film without actors but a film without a camera is a sheer impossibility”
These two quotes give us the strangeness of the Virtual Camera. If we adopt the common and casual understanding of the camera as a physical machine for recording images then the Virtual Camera is not this and as such Borge’s assertion is rendered bunk. At the same time, Gibbs’ insistence on a predefined knowledge of where the camera is as essential to all other parts of filmmaking is likewise deeply flawed in the modern age. Rather than pre-decided, the very process of creating and utilizing a virtual camera is one where its position and vantage is the last or final step in the process, not the first. CGI layers and composited layers come first, before the virtual camera as vanishing point is inserted into a virtual space.
The Virtual Camera really upsets the apple cart for a lot of traditional thinking and yet there is nothing new or even innately digital about the Virtual Camera. It in fact has a long history drawn from animation and predicated on the idea of being an ‘impossible’ camera.
I recently viewed the very interesting Scale of the Universe flash graphic online and saw that it was simply the digital virtual camera remix of the famous (and quite fabulous) Eames film, The Powers of Ten.
It is included here for your virtual camera enjoyment.
Scale of the Universe can be seen here - www.scaleoftheuniverse.com