Peripheral Vision

October 31, 2008

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,

Tommaso

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