05 Feb 2010

Mastering your Eye

Or “Your Eye Can’t See” A little while back a wrote a post entitled, The

05 Feb 2010


“Your Eye Can’t See”

This Eye needs Discipline.

This Eye needs Discipline.

A little while back a wrote a post entitled, The Straightest Path to Better Cinematography.  I had considered including a long section about light and the way we see it, but I realized the post was already too long and someone like me wouldn’t read it.

So consider this part II.

First, lets get caught up on what light is, exactly.  I’m sure many of you remember this from your Physics class, but light is basically a type electromagnetic radiation,  like radio signals and X-rays.  In one sense, X-rays and radio signals are just ‘colors’  we can’t see.  It would be conceivable to have an organ that “sees” radio waves just like our eyes “see” light.  Buildings would be transparent, people practically invisible, and radio towers extremely bright.

Why even worry about that?  Well, first of all, it’s very important for a filmmaker or photographer to realize that their eye is an antenna.  In fact, a radio antenna, night vision googles, and your eye are all the same technology, just with different specialties.  Each picks up a particular kind of electromagnetic radiation.

Okay, so the eye is an antenna.  So what.  Well, hold that thought, and allow me to go off on a brief tangent.

Tangent!: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have been experimenting with a device that translates video feed from a camera into ‘bumps’ on the surface of a plastic strip which can be worn in the mouth of a blind person.  The subject will then ‘feel’ the surface of the plastic strip with their tongue.  Based on the texture of the strip, the subject can get an idea of what the camera is looking at.  Here is the interesting part:  As a subject got better at using his tongue to ‘feel’ the sights around him, he began to see with his tongue.  Brain scans revealed that the information from a subject’s tongue was being re-routed to the visual centers of his brain.  The tongue was now an eye.

This experiment raises some very interesting questions about the nature of sight.  We’ve been conditioned to think of our vision like a photograph: an accurate and detailed representation of the world around us.  Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true.  The visual centers of our brain do a lot of interpreting and short-cutting for us.  In fact, we don’t really see with our eyes.  We see with our brains.


I’m glad you asked.

For a very simple demonstration of this phenomenon, close your eyes and picture your computer keyboard (just remember to open them again and keep reading, otherwise you’ll be sitting forever and eventually starve to death).  What you pictured probably looked something like this:

Your Keyboard (how did I know?)

Your Keyboard (how did I know?)

Now take a look at your keyboard.  Focus on the “F” key.  Without moving your eye, try to read the key next to it.  Now look at the one next to that.   At best you can only see one or two keys without moving your eye.  In other words, your vision actually looks like this:

'F' This!

'F' This!

We think that we are seeing fully-formed photographs, but really, our eyes are just seeing tiny pin-pricks of detail.  The visual cortex does the rest, using what it already knows to fill in details that aren’t actually there.

Ever walked into a dark room and thought you saw someone, only to discover it was a pile of laundry?  This is the sort thing I’m talking about.


I’m glad you asked.

For the cinematographer, it’s very important to learn to override your visual cortex at will.

How many times have you looked at your dailies only to discover some overlooked detail (like a tripod) that ruins the footage?  These details are surprisingly easy to miss while shooting, because the your brain is actively filtering out details that it considers to be un-important.  The camera is not so forgiving.

How does one override the brain?  Concentration.

Remember focusing on the ‘F’ key?   In that moment, you were examining the raw data provided by your eye.  The visual cortex wasn’t doing any interpretation on your behalf.

Practice doing this with other objects around the room.  Think of your eye as an antenna or radar dish, scanning the room for light.  You’ll start to notice details that you didn’t before.  With some practice, this becomes routine.


I’m glad you asked.

Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

NOTE:  Chris’ epic tale of YogaFly will be returning next week.  If you haven’t already picked up on this, we rotate.

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