Magazine article American Cinematographer

Cosmos in Czechoslovakia

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Cosmos in Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt

It was not unusual, during the planning stages of COSMOS to be confronted with scientific concepts that had little or no screen potential, yet were intrinsic to an episode. Sometimes difficult ideas were made comprehensible and interesting by complex computer animation sequences, other times by models, or created landscapes. Yet a third answer was to place ideas in their historic and dramatic context. Typical of this approach is the half-hour sequence in Episode 3 on the life of the 17th century German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

Kepler is known for his three laws of planetary motion which, unfortunately, taken by themselves, are singularly uncinematic. Nevertheless, they are significant because Kepler's discovery of them represents a scientific and historical threshold: Up until Kepler's time astronomy was a speculative science, the realm of mathematicians and astrological quacks alike, its progress threatened by religious intolerance. But with Kepler's three laws, cracks began to appear in the fabled "crystal spheres". It was this conflict, the conflict between superstitition and reason, between chaos and the search for celestial harmony that dominated not only Kepler's life but the era that he lived in. The cinematic solution then, was to put the three laws into their historical context.

Unlike conventional docu-drama film, the Kepler sequences had to be designed to work almost exclusively without benefit of dramatic dialogue so they could be accompanied with Carl's voice-over narration. Choosing specific events in Kepler's life in which the greater conflict between chaos and the scientific search for order could be symbolized, we let the camera tell the story. The effect, in scenes that ranged from Kepler's early childhood in a strict Lutheran seminary to a lavish feast in the castle of his rival, is that small details become very important. A glance, the gesture of a hand, even the smoke rising from a snuffed-out candle become significant statements in the absence of conventional dialogue.

Needless to say, the reliance on this kind of detail to carry a film sequence is risky: One can easily end up with a scene which is without tension or conflict and, therefore, boring. One way we avoided this was never to choose an emotionally neutral camera angle or composition. Since Kepler was always at odds with the society he lived in he was always shown lost in big spaces, or moving against (in conflict with) the movement of the camera or in big close-ups, in isolation from the rest of the world. …

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