2.5D and the Photographic Document

‘2.5D and the Photographic Document’,

Visible Evidence Conference, Australian National University, 19-21 December 2012.

In this paper I want to attempt to analyse the visceral offence I take at seeing the CGI process know as 2.5D used in documentary films.

First of all, what is 2.5D? It is a relatively simple process — at least for experts — which is available through such popular software packages as Aftereffects and even Photoshop. It takes a scan of a still photograph and slices it up, cutting out individual picture elements and putting them on separate transparent layers. The background picture elements are then extended out beyond their initial edges by cloning the original pixels. Gaussian blur may be added to the background elements to increase the sensation of depth of field. The layers are then separated in virtual space, while a virtual camera tracks through them to create the feeling of motion parallax and to produce a stereographic visual sensation in the viewer. Sometimes animation is added to the picture elements — clouds can scud across the sky, arms and legs can pivot at their elbows or knees, smoke can rise from chimneys or cigarettes, and water can sparkle. Sometimes, even, final sound effects can be added.

The popular 2007 TV documentary Ten Pound Poms makes use of all of these effects to animate the personal family snapshots of the British migrant subjects of the show, who are also interviewed in a studio. These were then intercut with newsreel and home movie footage. From the point of view of the documentary filmmakers all of these effects only add to the photograph. They endow it with movement, time, spatiality, animation and even diegetic sound. All of these things can only enhance the experience for the viewer — to give them more sensation, to make them feel more like ‘they were really there’, and to integrate the boring old still photographs with the fabulous newsreel footage, staged re-enactments, emotional remembrances and talking heads which make up the rest of the film. They supplement for what the still photograph is so manifestly lacking, so what’s the problem? I think there is a problem.

However, I am not entirely a purist when it comes to the use of photographs in documentary films. I recognise the value of using still photographs in a variety of ways which enable the photograph to take part in the specifically filmic syntax of the documentary film.

Sometimes 2.5D is described as just a turbo-charged extension of the notorious Ken Burns effect, an effect so famous they named an iPhoto default setting after it.  The use of still photographs filmed on a rostrum camera had been growing steadily in documentary TV and film since the 1950s, and some docos of the 1980s used slow zooms and pans across the surface of historic photographs. But when, in the television series The Civil War which was about a historical period before cinema but at the height of the carte-de-visite craze, Ken Burns combined the extensive panning and zooming of his 16mm rostrum camera with soulful music, stentorian voiceovers, and long contemplative landscape shots over empty fields, the effect came in to its own. The Ken Burns effect narrativised the still photograph. Reframing, re-sizing and tracking slowly revealed faces and incidents that had been cropped out by the rostrum camera. By zooming, details were given emotional and dramatic emphasis. This is not dissimilar to the way an actual photograph is pored over by an avid viewer in real life, when perhaps small details initially unnoticed are delightedly pointed out, or perhaps a lover’s face is intently gazed into. Most importantly, from my point of view, the photograph remains in tact. After filming it is picked up of the rostrum table and returned to the archive, its ontological integrity respected.

Nor am I against the photograph being used as a collage element, or as a re-enactment trope. Still photographs offer the opportunity for expository collages which many doco filmmakers can’t resist. For instance this year’s television documentary on Australian suffragettes, Utopia Girls, makes extensive use of both photographs as documents, and photographs as expository tropes. The resultant phantasmagoria makes me squirm and cringe, but it doesn’t give me the visceral outrage of 2.5D. I’m used to naff anachronisms in documentaries —footage from fictional war films intercut with actual newsreel war footage; or film footage from the twentieth century used to illustrate events in the nineteenth century. And the producers of Utopia Girls take these anachronisms to new heights. Why, for instance, do they make a mock ‘slide show’ of Charles Bayliss’s famous and beautiful collodion glass-plate negatives of the gold fields, complete with added surface dirt and the clunk of a twentieth century slide projector, when to my knowledge they were never even used as lantern slides? Why do they embed twentieth century newsreel footage in the decorated pages of a nineteenth century photograph album? Why are the stained backdrops of the photographic studio, in which actors act out the written words of the historical characters, based on the Sydney underworld police photographs of the 1920s made famous by the recent book City of Shadows, rather than the middle-class studio portraiture conventions of the late nineteenth century, where the actual historical characters would have actually been photographed?  Why?

Nonetheless I understand and accept that perhaps these devices are there to try to make history ‘come alive’. They take the complex, disparate stories of Australian radicalism over a sixty-year period and turn it into a palatable piece of TV by recasting it as a single, self-contained, linear, racy detective story, with our historian as our own personal guide. In Utopia Girls, as well, these techniques, which essentially translate one less familiar media form into another more familiar media form, are used to explicitly link the past to the present — the young actors hired to play the protagonists, the film implies, only have their political rights because of the bravery of the women they are portraying.  All young women, therefore, should admire the pioneering Utopia Girls just as much as they admire the Spice Girls. Perhaps in these cases the loses of the specific artefactual quality of the documents which are being used — the smooth collodion of Bayliss’s glass plate negatives, for instance, are outweighed by the gains — the patience of the TV viewer at home which isn’t strained.

But I think that when it comes to the 2.5D even this isn’t the case. Why am I specifically against 2.5D? Because the photograph is ontologically different to film and 2.5D destroys that. The photograph has a particular relationship to time. Obviously it freezes time. It is a snapshot but it can also be, as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it in the 1950s, a ‘decisive moment’, a stilled action which nonetheless contains compacted into it a sense of the extended action from which it was extracted. Photographs are moments in which time is held. Roland Barthes even says they are ‘engorged’ with time (p91) and 2.5D deflates this engorgement. A documentary like this year’s Croker Island Exodus relies on the testimony of eye-witnesses to time. The memories of the young Aboriginal children are written on their faces when, as old ladies now, they are recounted directly to camera. These faces are intercut with acted out re-enactments of their epic walk across Australia. And again, as in Utopia Girls, those re-enactments which use young Aboriginal kids as actors connect past to present. However the historic photographs which are used to segue between testimony and re-enactment also given the 2.5D treatment, though admittedly not as extreme as in Ten Pound Poms. There is a little bit of motion parallax, and the addition of colour. But, if the women themselves can give their testimony through their own presence and in their own words, why aren’t photographs also allowed to give their testimony in their own way as well? Why must their still moments be given an alien filmic propulsion?

In Photography and Fetish, 1985, the film theorist Christian Metz defines the photograph as being fixed in the past, and therefore standing in for an absence. On the other hand, he said, film unfolds in time and orchestrates the viewer’s desire. The photographic theorist Roland Barthes agreed with this basic dichotomy. In his 1980 book Camera Lucida he said of the photograph:

‘…this very special image gives itself out as complete  — integral, we might say … The photographic image is full, crammed: no room, nothing can be added to it. In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not, however, have this completeness (which is fortunate for the cinema). Why? Because the photograph, taken in [the] flux [of a film], is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views; in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favour of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a spectre. … in it, no protensity, whereas the cinema is protensive … Motionless, the Photograph flows back from presentation to retention.’ P89-90

I think this dichotomy is still very useful, despite changes in technology since then, when the photograph and video converged on the same digital platform. The experience of looking at a photograph is still very different to the experience of watching a film. We still don’t watch a photograph, and we still don’t gaze upon a film. The photograph still holds time, while the film still propels time.  The viewer still contemplates the photograph as an object, but enters the psychologically enveloping virtual space of the film.

For generations of photographic theorists such as Roland Barthes the photograph’s power came from it paradoxical relationship to time. From the point of view of the viewer’s experience the photograph is simultaneously both ‘here now’ and ‘there then’, however from the point of a viewer absorbed in a movie, filmic movement and montage has collapsed this paradox. The photographic image remains in the past while the moving and edited image creates its own present. Extrapolating further from this dichotomy, many writers have discussed the various ways in which the photograph is associated with the closure and distance of death, while film is associated with the flow and relentless becoming of life.

Of course this dichotomy is complex and entangled, and defined very much by the dominant social and historical uses of the twin technologies in the past: on the one hand the rise of the social habit of personal snapshot photography— which has tended to emphasise the mnemonic aspects of the photograph as an object; and on the other hand the rise of the movie industry— which has tended to emphasise the temporal compulsions of story and spectacle in movies which are experienced in cinemas. And you are all right now no doubt thinking of exceptions as well: the elegiac moments of a child waving from your grandfather’s Kodachrome standard 8 holiday film on the one hand, or the way that the various ‘decisive moments’ of news photographs were put together into the unfolding quasi-cinematic picture layouts of illustrated magazines like Life, on the other.

But nonetheless the fundamental ontologies of the dichotomy remain. Even within the filmic technology itself this distinction holds I think. In the 1890s early cinema exhibitors delighted their audiences by showing the first frame of the kinematograph frozen like a lantern slide, before suddenly cranking the projector forward into life. Since then countless fiction filmmakers have apotheosised their characters in a sudden freeze frame. Over the years millions of art school students have revelled in the uncanny temporality of Chris Marker’s 1964 film La Jetee, a film made up almost entirely of stills. And generations of video artists such as Douglas Gordon, Bill Viola or Gillian Wearing have made, and still make, work exploring the tension between stillness and movement.

But when, within the documentary genre, it comes to bringing together two related but distinct social practices — the photograph as documentary artefact, and the film as narrativized event; and two related and distinct recording technologies — snapping and filming, then I think this ontological dichotomy must be respected.

2.5D does a violence to the ontological integrity of the historic photograph, and it does a violence to the psychological power of the phenomenological experience of the photograph as historical object. The photograph does not need to be animated with CG effects because its unique power lies precisely in its lack of animation. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes describes the effect this power had on him.

In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it. So that is how I must name the attraction which makes it exist: an animation. The photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in ‘lifelike’ photograph), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.’ (p20)

The photograph must retain its temporal retention over which this animation can reach. Even embedded in the syntax of the documentary, the stillness of the photograph, and its historical authority as document and artefact, can still create the precious feeling of mutual animation over a mysterious distance of time. It must continue to be allowed to.

Martyn Jolly

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