Magazine article American Cinematographer

Mirroring a Master

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Mirroring a Master

Article excerpt

Art scholars have long suspected that 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer used an optical device when painting. The Dutch had created the first telescopes and microscopes just one generation earlier, and lens fabrication had recently taken a great leap forward. This was the moment when a German astronomer coined the term camera obscura, naming a device that had been kicking around the studios of European astronomers and artists since Leonardo da Vinci's day. It was the camera obscura's projected image, art historians hypothesized, that inspired Vermeer. Little is known about his work methods from primary sources, but his canvases contain tantalizing clues, such as blurry foreground objects, circles of confusion, and, for instance, a faint blue fringe around a cloak that is much like the chromatic aberration of an imperfect lens.

How Vermeer rendered these effects is a question that began nagging Texas-based inventor Tim Jenison when he read David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters. Jenison, who revolutionized desktop video with inventions such as DigiView, VideoToaster and Lightwave 3D, sensed a kindred spirit in Vermeer. Although Jenison had never picked up a paintbrush, he wanted to "do" a Vermeer: reconstruct the scene in The Music Lesson and then paint it using Vermeer's optical device. What that device would be was the mystery Jenison had to solve.

Production on Tim's Vermeer began in 2008, after Jenison casually mentioned his obsession to longtime friend Penn Jillette, the verbal half of the comedian/magician team Penn & Teller. Jillette insisted that Jenison's project be documented and volunteered to produce the project with Farley Ziegler and Teller, who also directed. Soon, cinematographer Shane F. Kelly came aboard, and the team spent the next five years chronicling Jenison's work.

Kelly, whose credits include A Scanner Darkly (AC July '06) and Urbanía (AC May '00), had two things the production needed: He lived in Austin, Texas, just an hour's drive from the warehouse in San Antonio where Jenison was reconstructing Vermeer's studio, and he owned a Red One. Some footage had already been captured in 4K with a Red in Delft, Vermeer's hometown, by Amsterdambased cinematographer Robert Berger, and Jenison was a fan of the image quality. "Tim is fascinated by everything, and at that time, the Red One was groundbreaking," says Kelly. "It was 4K in an affordable package, and he wanted to explore that a bit more, so he bought one." As the shoot evolved, Kelly shifted to a Red Epic-X (and from Red Drives to RedMag SSDs), continuing to capture in 4K.

The setup in Jenison's studio comprised nine digital cameras, a mix of Reds (used with Zeiss Compact and ZF primes, Nikon primes, and a Nikon 17-35mm T2.8 zoom) and Canon DSLRs (used with Canon EF 2470mm f4 zooms) and camcorders, plus multiple iterations of antique optical devices. Altogether, 2,400 hours of footage was accumulated during the 1,825-day project, which included 130 days of actual painting.

Jenison intended to make his own camera obscura using 17th-century techniques, from firing the glass to grinding it by hand. "That's the depth of his obsession," Kelly marvels. "I collect lenses, but Tim wanted to make them." For specs, Jenison turned to Philip Steadman, author of Vermeer's Camera. Through a geometrical analysis of six Vermeer paintings, Steadman established not only the use of a lens, but the dimensions of The Music Lesson's room, its vanishing point, viewpoint (i.e., position of the lens), and focal point. "I verified Steadman's measurements with Lightwave 3D, and they jibed," says Jenison. "I knew I needed a focal length of approximately 28 inches. Then, I had to work from the focal length to the curvature." He also turned to Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes by Vincent Hardi. "This type of lens would have been the same used in a telescope, about the same diameter and focal length," Jenison says of his 4" creation. …

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