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Peripheral Vision

For a printed version click Peripheral Vision PDF

Vanessa the Dolly Grip with the 25 foot telescopic crane in the Frank Gehry designed lower lobby of the new Lewis Science Library at Princeton.

It’s next time again.

Do you need different skills to look at sculpture than you do to look at painting? Does it help for you to look at Architecture in the ways you appreciate sculpture? What can be learned from Dance in the appreciation of buildings? Can these skills be learned? If so, what is the benefit?

If Architecture is really all about space, what is the best way to capture Architecture for a documentary? The secret probably lies in the way we experience buildings – we move through them. It is sort of like the difference between looking at paintings and looking at sculpture. The third dimension requires changing the point of view to get the full effect. You usually can’t walk around a painting and see it from the other side, but if you don’t do that with sculpture it will not be fully revealed. To make buildings come alive on Film, you need to move the camera – and, in order to not make you seasick, it needs to be camera movement as controlled and carefully choreographed as Dance.

Recently, at Princeton, I was thrilled to use two amazing contraptions to bring this about.

The crane is poised to do a swooping camera move at Whitman College at Princeton.

We came to Princeton to do “beauty shots” of two very different buildings. One is the Collegiate Gothic dormitory complex designed by Demetri Porphyrios and the other is the new the new Science Library designed by Frank Gehry. Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, was the donor of the dormitory complex which is appropriately called, Whitman College. The new Science Library at Princeton is named for Peter B. Lewis, former CEO of Progressive Insurance and former Chairman of the Guggenheim Museum. We are examining these two very different buildings for a new documentary I’ve been telling you about, called Extreme Visions.

Why does moving the camera give you a better sense of how a building actually “feels?” I learned a great truth, a few years ago, from one of the giants of 20th Century architecture, Philip Johnson. He told me, “Architecture is all about your peripheral vision.” He said this after looking at some footage I had shot of one of Frank Gehry’s models. We had used a special snorkel lens and moved the camera and the lens with a dolly to give you the feeling that you were walking through the space (even though it was only a model). Philip Johnson was delighted with what he saw on the screen and thanks to his keen observation about peripheral vision, I’ve trained myself to try and better “see” buildings in this way.

Peripheral vision can be developed and learned. Bill Bradley, the Senator and former Basketball Forward for the NY Knicks talked about how he practiced seeing players out of the corner of his eye to make himself a better player. I’m suggesting the same sort of awareness – of what is at the edge of your vision – can enhance your enjoyment of architecture. If you are practicing this while you are walking through a space, as odd as it sounds, sometimes it helps to close one eye. This is one of the ways moving shots are designed and rehearsed by the Director and the Cameraman when planning dolly shots for movies.

Steadicam operator, Tom Upton, prepares to shoot with Director of Photography ,Ted Sikora and Sound Recordist, George Gates at Princeton’s Graduate College

To make the buildings at Princeton come alive on the screen we first used Steadicam, which is a carefully-balanced stabilizing harness, which the cameraman wears. This allows the camera to float through spaces without the need for a camera dolly and track. One famous Steadicam operator I worked with described himself as, the Dolly that Bleeds. The Steadicam’s first big popular success was in the movie Rocky. You remember the famous shot with Rocky running up the museum steps and jumping around? That was shot with a Steadicam. The first big artistic success, of this device, was in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. You probably recall those shots as well. Remember those very smooth low angle shots of Danny riding his big wheel through the hotel? Or remember following Danny running through the maze? Those were all done by Garret Brown who invented the Steadicam. Kubrick was notorious for totally exhausting Garret Brown on that set.

The camera and the rig weighs over 60 pounds so you had better be in shape (like a great gymnast or dancer) if you are planning to operate a Steadicam. I felt terrible exhausting our very patient Steadicam operator, Tom Upton, as we put him through a grueling day covering three enormous buildings at Princeton. (We also shot Princeton’s Graduate College, a stunningly beautiful Collegiate Gothic complex designed by Ralph Adams Cram in 1913 which inspired some of the details of the new Whitman College.)

Vanessa the dolly grip and the crane outside the new Lewis Science Library at Princeton.

The second device we used was a 25 foot telescopic crane. Who would have thought “Dance” was the way to shoot buildings? Although I have used camera cranes on many occasions in the past, I never felt the camera dance as much as it did in the arms of the two talented crane operators we used on this shoot. “Vanessa the dancing Dolly Grip” and “Scotty the Telescopic Crane Designer” had a camera ballet going which needs to be seen to be believed. Scotty’s favorite movie is Brazil and his obsession with the movie showed in the design of his crane.

Scotty rotates the dials on his control panel which tilts, pans, zooms and rotates the camera as he choreographs the dolly moves from his seat behind the monitor.

A giant umbilical cord connects the crane controls to his remote-on-wheels operating panel which has more rotating dials and funky readouts than a U-Boat. He spins the camera in all directions as he watches a monitor, while Vanessa, with a trim dancer’s body and lithe athletic grace, moves the 25 foot carefully counter-balanced crane arm to Scotty’s instructions relayed to her through a wireless headset. The “Vanessa and Scotty Ballet” created breathtaking, carefully choreographed shots, which fly, spin, pan, tilt, float, rotate, swoop and otherwise defy gravity. I can’t wait for you to see this on a big screen.

The High Definition camera on the end of the 25 foot crane can tilt, pan, swivel and zoom as it flies through space.

All of this effort comes down to graceful fluid camera movement and delivering the “motion” part of motion pictures. A static image is one thing, the moving image is another. For Architecture, the building doesn’t move but you move through it. Using the concentration skills of a Dancer and becoming more aware of the space while you are moving through it, is a great way to more fully experience the art of Architecture. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about all this.

Until next time with much love,


4 Responses to “Peripheral Vision”

  1. Dear Tommaso,

    While reading your, once again, inspired great piece, a visit to Gehry’s Disney Hall came to my mind. A friend who works there gave me a tour a few months ago, and proudly showed me how skaters enjoy using the curves of the building’s entrance, in order to roller skate using a particular section of this arc of music and culture. The marks left in the silvery surface doesn’t seem to bother them…I believe actually that Gehry may enjoy the fact that people are having fun using this masterpiece for other purposes as well. As a child I always roller skated, and I can imagine how the “dance” using the wavy form of the building can attract those with the right skill to enjoy the experience…I guess they can become human dollys, recording the excitement of the form, with their interaction with space, speed and grace in a minor scale as “the Vanessa and Scotty Ballet”.

    Juan Bastos is a superb portrait painter living in L.A. His work can be seen at juanbastos.com
    – TB

  2. Tom, as I read your insightful post this month, the moment I got to your first usage of the term “peripheral vision” (and the importance that Philip Johnson ascribed to it) something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. It was on the right side of your blog…a picture of LeBron James on the cover of Time staring with golden determination over the top of an Olympic basketball.

    The fluid dance of basketball is at its most elegant when the ball is passed to a place where the thrower is not looking. The defense is caught off guard, as is the viewer at home, when this unimportant space suddenly becomes the center of play. The magic behind this movement is born from peripheral vision, as directed by a kinesthetic artist like a LeBron James.

    Well, I thought I had made a brilliant and original connection between architecture and basketball, until in the very next paragraph Tom made the same analogy with Bill Bradley. But, what a great notion, to practice mastering what is on the edge of your awareness, just outside your direct vision. These liminal (defined as a sensory threshold, or the threshold of a physiological or psychological response) areas of life are often very interesting places to explore and exist. But, how can a director capture and convey these areas with two-dimensional film?

    The wonderful challenge for the film artist is to play with liminal areas like these, and sometimes technology can bring these visions to life. I first saw Kubric’s The Shining at a movie theater when I was 14 years old, a teen in love with the horror genre, and convinced I was too old to ever be frightened by something I could see on a two-dimensional screen. Then I took a ride with Danny on his Big Wheel, rounding the corner, knowing something was coming, and feeling real fear. I was touching a Kubrickian threshold. Still to this day, late at night when I am walking towards my hotel room, the hallway seems to tunnel and lengthen before me and I am 14 years old again, under the spell of Kubrick. I am always foolishly relived to get into my room (and those twins did not appear). This is the power of a film genius, and until I read Tom’s blog this month, I did not realize the role of technology in conveying this vision.

    Enter the cyborg…

    This notion of strapping technology to a real cameraman and becoming a “dolly that bleeds” made me imagine the filmmaker as cyborg. The philosophy of the cyborg is a little more complex than the Borg in Star Trek or the Six Million Dollar Man. Donna Haraway in her famous “Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) defined cyborgs as a “hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” She called the cyborg a being at the “boundary between science fiction and social reality.” Boundaries and liminal space again.

    Tom’s Steadicam-wielding, bleeding, dolly operator, wearing the “carefully-balanced stabilizing harness,” brought to my mind a filmmaking cyborg. So too did the crane operator who was immersed in the technology, sitting behind his dials, seeing through the monitor’s eye, and connected to it as if by his own umbilical cord. Only with these cyborgs can the director portray what resides in his or her peripheral vision, and take us all on a choreographed trip into the third dimension.

    In Tom’s case, the cyborg enabled him to capture architecture for his documentary. It will help us to experience an “extreme vision” of a building, learn how the space feels, and replicate Philip Johnson’s peripheral vision. As Haraway concluded, “The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment.” Vanessa’s “dance” with her machine (the camera crane) and becoming a part of it to assist in getting the shot (an extension of our own eye) is such a wonderful realization of the power of the cyborg in the realm of film art. Peripheral vision mediated by technology, and the machine is now us.

    Mark is a historian and quite obviously an exceptional writer. He can be visited at bellehistory.com – TB

  3. Your musings on how we see invariably get me to thinking about the physiology of “seeing”, and the piece on peripheral vision has done that again. The things we think we see out of the corners of our eyes seem to summon emotions, mostly easlily fear, with far greater frequency than the things we see right before us. I’m almost never startled by what I’ve chosen to look at- it’s always the thing that’s just barely crept into my field of view. Peripheral vision is our early warning system-it tells is to be mindful of things we can’t yet fully discern. I think that part of the retina has a direct connection to the emotional part of our brain- the part that’s in charge of fear, and I’ll bet, our sense of wonder.
    I never get that pleasant disembodied sense of wonder when I look a painting or most anything else where I can see all there is to see by looking directly. My reaction is mostly cerebral. But nobody’s initial reaction to stepping into St Paul’s or Bryce Canyon or even experiencing Cinerama (for the younger reader, Imax) for that matter, is cerebral. I think because those sights occupy our entire field of vision, and the information coming in from the corners of our eyes is in complete harmony with what’s straight ahead (we’re safe), we get that great emotional sense of wonder. In fact in those circumstances, when we’re in full wonder mode, even our direct vision gives us mostly feelings, not information. Our eyes scan the openess trying to see it all at once and we try to not let our eyes focus on a single point- for the first few moments it’s all peripheral vision.

    Steve Ellis is a brilliant attorney and partner in the law firm of Tucker, Ellis & West – TB

  4. Thanks for sharing more of your fascinating behind-the-scenes secrets. I love to learn about your process and I can’t wait to see film! I’ll look at all of those glorious spaces with a new appreciation.

    Funny you brought up the hallway scenes from ”The Shining.” Those are my absolute favorite parts of the movie! Like Mark, I find them terrifying — and I too freak out a little in long hotel hallways. It’s always been amazing to me that something so simple has made such a lasting impression on me. I just figured it was that bizarre hexagon pattern on the carpet and of course, the TWINS! Now I know it was all of that AND more. The next time I watch it, I’ll try to picture a man running behind Danny’s Big Wheel with a 60 pound camera on his belly — perhaps I won’t be so paralyzed… Naaahh ;)

    Michelle Moehler is a truly gifted graphics designer whose work you know and hopefully love, since she is one of the genius’ behind the Telos Website. Her blog on typography is fascinating and can be found at http://repertoiretypographie.wordpress.com/