VIDEO SYNTHESIS: Real Time Analogue Special Effects

By Gallant, Denise | American Cinematographer, June 1982 | Go to article overview

VIDEO SYNTHESIS: Real Time Analogue Special Effects


Gallant, Denise, American Cinematographer


"Larger than life." Motion pictures have always been the landscapes on which our truer than life emotions can play. Our ability to give up what is real is stimulated by the multiple mattel levels and motion control techniques that animate a Coppola or Trumbull extravaganza. We love the distortion, the exaggeration, the near-real cinematic effects that suggest new perceptions and visual-mind combinations. These are the poetic romances of the new age of film production.

The film producer reaches into his bag of tricks to find a set of highly refined tools: computer controlled cameras, lighting and film processing, complex miniatures, robotics, and Snorkel lenses fleeting over table model landscapes. Special effects have attained primary status in film direction. The possibilities seem endless.

At the bottom of this bag of tricks producers have discovered a new "toy" that has opened up a whole new set of film special effects: video. In hybrid form this low resolution form of visual recording now works on the film floor as a test. The real time image on the video monitor and playback system affirms what will be seen once the film has been developed. In this case the video is used as a "stand-in" in the planning stages to be replaced by the real "star"-the film -in the final take. Only in remote cases has the video reached the "silver screen" on its own merit. DEMON SEED with video effects by Ron Hays was perhaps the first film to integrate video with other special effect film processes. The value and potential of video effects in film, however, have only begun to be realized.

My own involvement with video special effects grew out of my interest in "visual music" or the synaesthetic blending of sight and sound in a new form of experience. As a film student at UCLA I used conventional film animation techniques in conjunction with water colors and pastels to achieve a visual expression of music. After UCLA I went to Santa Cruz where I became involved with student video productions while also making independent animated films. Videotape offered several advantages to student productions, but very often the equipment was not adequately maintained and a great deal of creative effort could go down the drain because of technical problems.

One experience I had persuaded me that I had to learn something about electrical engineering in self-defense. I was videotaping a theater production in an old barn and unaware during the shooting that the lighting for the stage created a large enough voltage drop to garble the sync pulses on my video signal. The production represented the culmination of a senior project for the theater students, and I poured a lot of energy into capturing it creatively on tape. When it was over, everyone was anxious to view the tape, but all I had was a series of rolling images that wouldn't sit still long enough to see anything. I went to a friend, Rob Schafer, who was an electronics technician and asked him to explain to me what went wrong. Not long afterwards I began taking courses in electrical engineering at Santa Cruz. Surprisingly the theory of video electronics and electronic design revealed more than just how to fix a video tape deck. Taking the video signal as an elementary phrase that could then be arranged in a variety of designs and structures produced some intriguing, explosive and beautiful results.

Along with several other students, faculty and staff at Santa Cruz I embarked on a period of intense experimentation in the manipulation and synthesis of video signals. The "godfather" of our work was Gordon Mumma, the electronic music composer who is on the faculty at Santa Cruz. He enabled us to work in the electronic music studio at the university and guided our efforts to manipulate video signals in conjunction with music. Out of our work during this period came the development of a "pitch follower" and a colorizer for kids to play which is part of the exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. …

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