Backlighting Negatives

Backlighting Negatives

I enjoy exploring the creation of images that ride a fine line between analog and digital, images that raise questions about how they are made, versus how they are perceived. Isometrica was my first hike along the uncanny valley, but I have several other ideas brewing.

One idea that has been brewing is inspired by the 1982 film "Tron". While the computer graphics were what I loved most about that movie as a kid, as an adult I find the hand animation—of which there was a lot—the most inspiring.

Backlit animation is a technique that used to be widely used in hand-drawn animation to create glowing effects, whether the blue circuitry in "Tron", or the burning fires and sparking electricity in "The Secret of NIMH" (which came out the same year). The idea is as simple as it is time consuming: Mattes are made, usually cut by hand, of the glowing light source, and this is placed over a colored backlight and photographed. The resulting image should show some diffusion of the light over the matte, ideally, and is then composited with the animation cel to create the final image.

In the case of Tron, the costumes and sets were patterned in strong contrasts, and filmed in black and white as well. Then, one (or often several) high contrast negatives were made from the film, which were hand-retouched into the necessary mattes. This technique allowed the filmmakers to achieve very fine detail in the mattes while minimizing the amount of manual labor (which was still quite a lot).

Backlit animation has since fallen by the wayside in this era of digital effects, but it has an unmistakable look to it, one that not only reminds me of my childhood, but that I think could stand up to some further exploration—especially as we can now use digital technique to produce the required mattes more easily.

I'm starting to experiment with using an iPad as a light source for film scanning, and I have some transparency sheets (remember those?) on the way in the mail to print mattes on.

Palace of Justice, Lisboa
Palace of Justice, Lisboa

My hope is to create something that captures the unique feel of those 80s animated movies, and that is simultaneously difficult to achieve with digital methods alone while appearing as though it had been produced digitally. Early experiments are mixed, with the results being beautiful but not yet achieving my stated goals. Once the transparencies arrive, I'll be able to broaden the range of my experiments and hopefully produce something more promising.

Back to blogging?

I love writing. But for the past several years, I've written so very little. I've been so caught up in trying to create long-form, high-impact content, that I've lost the joy of writing smaller, easier pieces that I can maybe reassemble into something bigger in the future.

I'm challenging myself to write one short-form post a week until the end of the year. It mgiht be photography, it might be ethics in tech, it might be something else. Doesn't matter. My goal is not to entertain you, but to re-ignite my love of writing. Which will hopefully evolve into something not only entertaining but inspiring. One can dream anyway.