Vignetting

I was watching a rather high-tech film the other day, and suddenly I noticed how crisp were the edges of the screen. In the film a character stood in the foreground, framed from chest up against a brightly lit interior, and all of this was surrounded by a rectangle of inky blackness — the areas within my vision that were off of the screen image.

Oddly, the seemed notable precisely because it is a phenomenon that generally goes so unnoticed. The sharp line between light and dark, the sudden horizontal slash that cuts of a character at the chest or waist or neck, we see these intercisions every day, and yet we never really look at them. And yet they are so at odds with the way reality itself operates. In the real world there are no such sudden cut-offs. The world flows in a continuous way, from one atom to the next. When bodies in the physical are cut into pieces, it is not so much an artistic choice as it is an act of extreme violence.

What came to mind as I observed myself observing this was the now long obsolete phenomenon of vignetting in early silent films. In many early silents, you don’t actually see the edges of the frame. Rather, the filmmaker deliberately throws out a portion of the frame, fading everything near the edge to black in a smooth and fuzzy transitional zone.

I had never understood before why early filmmakers did such a thing. Suddenly it becomes clear. There was no reason for those cinematic pioneers to believe that an audience would accept the sight of a head severed sharply at the neck or a body cut off below the waist. They were trying to protect their audience from odd images of violence, dismembered limbs, headless bodies. There was, as yet, no well developed theory of mind for a cinematic audience, and so there was not yet a consensus on a most plausible representation of human reality on screen.

I believe we are faced with similar issues with the introduction of each new information technology. At first artists feel they need to be literal, to protect their audience from the sheer strangeness of our new mode of expression. But then at some point they learn to relax into it, to see the places where an audience is able to embrace an abstraction, a sort of short-hand.

TV shows in the last decade have become thoroughly post-modern, with meta-dialog in which the writers gleefully speak directly to the audience through the mouths of their characters. In the midst of an otherwise realistic love scene or conflict, a character will suddenly describe their motivation, or the dramatic irony of the show’s set-up.

This is but one of many examples. The vignette, that soft fuzzy transitional layer around the edges that attempts to distract us from the fact that we are watching a fiction, is no longer necessary. Audiences are now used to seeing characters severed in half at odd moments, their spoken thoughts and expressed emotions suddenly sailing out of the frame of the story.

I suspect, as computer-mediated character driven interactive narrative starts to come into its own in the next ten years, that we will see more kinds of vignetting obsoleted, as player/observers of these emerging media learn how to jump in and out of the frame, in their enjoyment of these new fictional worlds to come.

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