Lance Williams, 1949-2017

November 18th, 2017

one of my heroes
his memorial today
words were not enough

A history of failed film techniques

November 17th, 2017

Every medium has techniques that are understood to work for their intended audience. Film, for example, has adopted quite a few conventions that have been shown to be effective in support of clear storytelling.

We now know what those are. They include establishing shots, two shots, close-ups, cut on action and the 180o rule, among many others.

In the earliest days of filmmaking not all of those conventions had been worked out. It wasn’t so much a question of any technical limitation as of understanding what works for human viewers.

After all, the set of all possible movies is incredibly vast — it consists of anything you can capture with a camera, edit together, and show on a screen. Yet the set of movies that can actually be comprehended by human beings is a relatively tiny subset of this much larger set.

With that in mind, it would be interesting to compile a list of techniques that filmmakers tried which ultimately failed. An obvious example would be films which broke the 180o rule: An edit which moves the camera position to the other side of the actors.

This kind of cut doesn’t work because the “screen right” direction in the first shot becomes the “screen left” direction in the second shot. When you do that, audiences lose track of which way the actors are facing, and they become disoriented.

I’ve tried to search on-line for a history of failed film techniques. That is, attempts to add to the cinematic vocabulary not because of any technical difficulty, but because the minds of human viewers would simply reject them or respond with confusion.

Does anybody know where such a list might exist?

That guy

November 16th, 2017

The day before yesterday I was having a conversation with some of my students at NYU about why people go out to the movies. We focused on the whole tribal aspect of it.

When you are in a movie theater, and you are surrounded by other people, most of those other people are generally strangers. Yet you still feel a sense of being in a tribe, and your sense of immersion is amplified by that sense.

It’s a powerful primal feeling, and you get the same boost when you go out to see live theater, or to a concert, or to a football game. As an audience, we all collectively manage to heighten the sense of emotional involvement for each other.

I noted, for completeness, that this isn’t always how people see movies in a movie theater. “Sometimes,” I pointed out, “when a big movie mogul is screening a film, it’s just an empty theater, and he or she is the only one watching.”

Of course that is a statistically rare occurrence. I mean, who is that guy? Have you ever met him? We decided it wasn’t really a point worth dwelling on.

Then today I visited Lucasfilm/ILM to give a talk and discuss possible research collaboration. The first thing my hosts did, before having me meet with anybody, was sit me down in a big empty movie theater.

They directed me to center row H, because that is the best seat in the house. For the next 38 minutes, all by myself, I watched Lucasfilm/ILM movie trailers and special effects reels on the big screen, which was a totally awesome experience.

I suddenly realized that, at least today, I was that guy.


November 15th, 2017

This week I was talking to a student I had just met, and we were happy to discover that we had both been born in New York City. She grew up in the East Village, so we reminisced about how radically that part of the city has changed over the years.

It was so good to meet a fellow native New Yorker, and to realize we had that in common. But it was even better to do what proud New Yorkers always do — complain about New York.

We groused about the way the true character of the East Village has etched away with time, replaced by something more commercial.

“St. Marks has never been the same,” I said, “after they opened the Gap Store.”

“Wait,” she said, “there’s never been a Gap Store on St. Marks. I would have remembered.”

“I am sure there was a Gap Store,” I insisted. “It’s closed now, but I remember when it first opened, we all thought that was the beginning of the end.”

So we went to the Internet. Sure enough, there was indeed a Gap Store on St. Marks. It opened in 1988.

“That,” the student said, “was before I was born.”


Night before the trip

November 14th, 2017

Time to pause, reflect,
Take a moment, take a breath,
Night before the trip

Cognitive time dilation

November 13th, 2017

The other day I blogged about a recent conversation which touched on wildly differing time scales of various living things. I’ve been thinking about this topic since then, and those thoughts have meandered into various odd yet amusing directions.

In science fiction, time dilation is a well known trope. The problematic third season Star Trek episode Wink of an Eye from 1968 is based on the concept of a race of beings who exist at a super-accelerated rate.

More successfully, John D. MacDonald’s 1962 novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything hinges on a device that lets its user temporarily achieve the same result. This allows him to move around objects instantaneously, deflect bullets, etc.

The story works because its premise is largely played for laughs, and MacDonald knows how to write comedy. Similarly, I suspect that DC Comics’ The Flash only works in the relatively realistic setting of the recent films because the hero’s superpower is largely played for comic effect.

In reality, of course, placing a human in such a state would violate all sorts of laws of physics (which is perfectly OK in a superhero popcorn movie). But what would be similar that might not violate the laws of physics?

One possibility would be some theoretical maximum subjective rate at which a person could experience consciousness, at least for a short period of time. Imagine, for example, that you could temporarily speed up your conscious thoughts by a factor of ten.

In the three seconds of a conversational pause, you would have a subjective half a minute to ponder an optimal answer. And in an actual half a minute, you could get in a solid five minutes of thinking.

Since computers are not bound by our human limitations in processing speed, it could be very productive to use your dilated time to look things up. Inside of a mere minute you could search for an answer on the internet, read up on a topic you’d never heard of, and be ready to provide a reasonably informed response.

Considered from the perspectives of physics and thermodynamics along, one could probably derive a theoretical limit on the attainable rate of cognitive time dilation.

I wonder what the actual limit is. It may not be a factor of ten, but it may very well be significantly greater than one.

Comedy for our times

November 12th, 2017

Perhaps the most talented American comedian of our age is now out of commission, undone by self-inflicted wounds. What will we do now for something to make us laugh, to help relieve the tension of these troubled times?

Never fear, it seems a new comedian has arisen to take his place. Today, hearing this guy’s material, I had the longest, heartiest, most self-sustained laugh I’ve had in a long time. I checked with several friends, and they’d all had the same reaction.

Here’s the scoop: As you may know, this week the Orange One has been in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific summit. While there, he met with Vladimir Putin.

Taking the opportunity to clear the air, he asked Putin straight out whether Russia had interfered in the U.S. election. Here was his account of the exchange:

“I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”

So there you have it — end of story, case closed, no need for anybody to investigate the electoral legitimacy of our current administration. We have the assurance of Putin himself.

OK, sure, the whole situation is unbearably stupid, deeply embarrassing, and hideously pathetic, but you’ve got to admit that this stuff, tragic as it is, is pure comedy gold. When I first read his words, I sort of couldn’t stop laughing.

Looks like we’ve got ourselves a great comedian, folks!

Fun with pseudo-science

November 11th, 2017

Today someone recommended I see the 1979 film The Secret Life of Plants (loosely based on a 1973 book which I have not read). I had never seen the film, so I watched it on-line.

Afterward I emailed my recommender and told her that I had found it to be very trippy and visually lovely. The time-lapse visuals of plants growing were absolutely stunning.

Yet it was also filled with extremely provocative claims. It must have been very different watching this in 1979, when you couldn’t simply pause the movie and do your own research on-line. But now you can.

For example, I checked up on the movie’s claim that Cleve Backster’s polygraph experiments had shown that plants can read human minds. It turns out that many have attemped to replicate his work down through the decades, yet nobody has ever succeeded.

I also checked up on the movie’s claim that the rituals of the Dogon tribe in Central West Africa celebrate the small companion star of Sirius, even though they possess no telescopes with which to observe it.

It turns out that there have been numerous encounters between the Dogon people and Europeans since the late 1800s. During any of those encounters the Dogon could have learned about this star. But of course it’s more fun not to think about that.

If you had watched this film in 1979, you wouldn’t have had any convenient way of checking up on any of its claims, so you could easily have been caught up in its compelling tale of mystical pseudo-science. Especially if you really wanted to believe that it was all true.

Since the film had gotten me into a mystical mood, I found myself pondering the amazing difference in time-scale between human movement and plant movement. For example, I learned on-line today that good time-lapse photography of plant growth requires capturing a frame about once every 100 seconds. Which means that plants are moving about 2500 times slower than we are.

Conceivably there could be creatures on the Earth that we cannot perceive because they are moving super-fast all around us, just as to a plant we might appear to move super-fast.

Maybe you could run a camera at 60000 frames per second to look for evidence that these beings exist. If you pointed your camera in just the right direction, perhaps you might just catch something moving…

Situational armor

November 10th, 2017

I heard two related stories today about the effects of RSS (repeated song syndrome). If you are putting a show at a festival, or work in an amusement park, the odds are that you will end up hearing the same song or musical motif over and over again.

When you are in in this kind of situation, you develop a kind of tolerance for the incessantly repeating tune. You somehow manage to shut it out rather than become progressively more irritated by it.

But if you then hear the tune outside the show or festival, it can drive you completely crazy. My theory is that the mind develops a kind of situational armor to protect it against mental irritants.

Your situational armor is effective as long as you are in the environment where you originally encountered the mental irritant. But when you are outside that environment, you are no longer wearing that armor, and the feeling of irritation comes roaring back.

This is only a theory.


November 9th, 2017

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on

— Robert Plant