Short Takes

By Stasukevich, Iain | American Cinematographer, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Short Takes


Stasukevich, Iain, American Cinematographer


Crossing Over in Viola's Ocean Without a Shore

In a dark edit bay at LaserPacific in Hollywood, there's a copy of Dante's Inferno on the desk where video artist Bill Viola is assembling his latest project, an offshoot of Ocean Without a Shore, a three-channel installation created for the 2007 Venice Biennale. Viola notes that most of his work can be traced back to texts of a poetic or philosophical nature, and looking at his body of work, it's easy to see these influences at play.

From his earliest works, Viola has experimented with the concepts of memory, movement, time and mortality, and through numerous residencies, commissions and independent works, he has gained many collaborators. Since the late 1970s, he has worked with wife and partner Kira Perov, the studio's executive director. Of his productions, he says, "Initially, I chose to work with myself because it was the only way I could be honest and authentic about what I was trying to accomplish, but I slowly reached a point where I needed to be behind the camera, and I couldn't be behind it and in front of it at the same time."

By 1992, Viola realized he had exhausted the possibilities of slow-motion with video and sought help. He was introduced to cinematographer Harry Dawson and high-speed 35mm film. Their first project together was Arc of Ascent, which depicted a clothed man jumping off a 10-meter board into a swimming pool. The diver was photographed at 300 fps against a black background in such a way that he appeared to be floating in mid-air until the surface of the water rose from the bottom of the frame to meet him. "Bill just fell in love with the quality of the 35mm high-speed image," says Dawson.

Viola and Dawson's collaboration extended into the high-definition-video realm with 2002's Going Forth by Day, a five-screen projection installation inspired by the frescos of 14th-century Italian painter Giotto. That project introduced Viola to LaserPacific staff editor Brian Pete, who has been a regular collaborator ever since. "Collaborators are so essential," says Viola. "Brian and I have done extraordinary things together, things I couldn't have done completely on my own, and so have Harry and I. Harry brought an incredible new palette for me to work with."

Dawson recalls the moment Viola suggested the project Ocean Without a Shore: "Bill was talking about spending days just sitting in a chapel in Venice. Then he talked about all the ghosts there are in Venice, and he showed me some unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo's where the figure was sort of halfway out of the marble. He said he really liked the idea of unformed figures emerging from something. He wanted there to be something they passed through, maybe fabric or light or water, and then went back through.

"I remembered this old, black-and-white surveillance camera that Bill has had since the 70s," continues Dawson. "When you starve it for light, the image takes on a very ghostly effect. It's very grainy, streaky and evocative. I think if you were to photograph ghosts, it would look just like that."

With the surveillance camera used to create the effect of a single ghostly figure emerging from darkness, a Sony HDW-F950 would capture the spirit's transition into flesh after it pierces the proverbial veil between life and death - the veil is represented by a transparent wall of cascading water.

To orient the two cameras so they could shoot the same image, Dawson sent Brian Garbellini, his longtime assistant and camera technician, to Pace HD in Burbank. Pace's engineers devised a solution that worked in a similar fashion to the company's 3-D camera systems, creating a custom rig that oriented the surveillance camera on top of the F-950 at a 45-degree angle. The "Grainycam," as it came to be called, is aimed at a beam-splitter with the HD camera shooting straight through the beam-splitter's glass mirror (where both images are aligned). The rig was mounted sideways, creating a 19x6 aspect ratio. …

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