Thursday, November 11, 2010

Perspective Smash-Up

With all of the discussion about the missile launch or airplane condensation trail that was left behind this past week, I was reminded of something that happened several years ago. But before I tell this story, let me explain first, why I could see it as very likely to be an airplane condensation trail, for this will lead into my memory.

If you sit in your living room and look up at the junction of where a wall opposite you meets the ceiling on the other side of a room, and then imagine a toy airplane coming in your direction along the ceiling from that intersection, the plane will look like it’s taking a path towards you and over you.  Your three-dimensional vision, with enough light, will describe to you it’s true path.

Now imagine that there is a large piece of clear glass between you and the toy plane, positioned on a parallel plane to the opposite wall (meaning that the glass is flat in front of you as you are sitting up), and that while the toy plane is moving as described above, your job is to draw it’s path using an erasable marker or your color choice on the glass.  As the airplane gets a good number of feet from where it started, your drawing will look like a line going up, and maybe slightly sideways if the plane’s path isn’t perfectly angled towards you.  There's just no other way to draw the perspective of an object coming towards and over you onto a two-dimensional surface, but "up."

Why do I use this example in talking about the missile sighting?  Well, actually, it just popped into my head as a way of describing a phenomenon I’ve seen several times before.  Driving north on the California 99 along the San Joaquin Valley, an area which can be very clear at times and in which because of how flat the land is, one can see airplanes leaving con-trails way off in the distance, I have seen con-trails that look like they are rising up, or even going in the opposite direction than I later figure out that they are headed. 

The reason is that, especially when talking about great distances, one has less ability to calculate perspective.  The eyes’ parallax is ineffective, and so any information on distance needs to be gathered from other indicators such as resolution, overlap, texture, light, shadow, haze and probably a few more things I am not thinking of.  The result at these great distances is that objects will look more flattened, as if on a piece of glass, than if they were closer.  Weather conditions and time of day can vary greatly to decrease depth perception.

In addition, and this is the part that will lead into my anecdote, the longer the lens on a camera, the shorter depth of field you end up with.  When a camera is completely zoomed in and focused on infinity on a far object, the result is a flattening of everything in the field.  Any sense of depth is pretty much obliterated.  We’ve all seen images of, say, someone on a motorcycle on a desert road heading towards the camera in sweltering, rippling heat, and yet, the motorcyclist never seems to get any closer to us, but rather appears to stay attached to the background.  Yet you know they are moving because the guy’s hair is blowing back, the cycle's tires spinning, and the bike is reacting to bumps in the road.  That’s an example of the flattening that happens with a really long lens; a telephoto lense.

The news crews on helicopters have some of the most powerful zoom lenses that are made.  One of my good friends, Chris Tyler, is the son of the man who invented the original TylerMount for helicopters and owns TylerMount Camera Systems, and another friend of mine, Stan McClain, who owns FilmTools, is a veteran helicopter cameraman, and believe me, they have both told me about the strength of the various cameras that can be attached to, or riding in a helicopter.  They have to be very powerful for shooing brush fires, freeway chases, steak-outs, and other events that they cannot get close to.

My guess is that the CBS cameraman who was shooting the images of the missile from the helicopter the other day zoomed way in on the subject at a time of day when the sun was nearing setting, which often increases flattening of things near the horizon; all of this happening many, many miles away, again increasing the effect further.  So the path of the airplane coming towards the camera way off in the distance was similar to the path you drew on the glass with your erasable color marker.

Ok, now onto my memory. 

Back in 1986, one summer when I was living in the USC dorms, it was a cool, very clear night.  There had been a dry wind blowing through the Southland.  I turned on the television, and on the news was a breaking report that the Santa Barbara Pier was on fire; like big-time on fire.  At first there were no images, but then within a few minutes, the news cut from the anchor’s face to a black screen that showed blip of what looked like fire in the center. 

The anchor said that they had gotten a helicopter with a cameraman up from the studio in Los Angeles and on it’s way to Santa Barbara.  What fascinated me was how clear the images were on my television only about ten minutes into it when the pilot was over only about Santa Monica or Malibu, albeit at a high altitude to be able to see a direct line up the coast to Santa Barbara.

The anchor periodically mentioned the location of the helicopter from which we were seeing the image, and I was amazed that when the chopper was over, say Oxnard, the image was getting about as clear as I could imagine it could get, even so much as showing fire reflecting off of the seas surrounding the pier when the chopper was still miles away.  As I said, it was a very clear, windy, and dry night, so the conditions for long distance photography were, I am certain, close to perfect, and yet, this experience illustrated to me just how powerful the news cameras were even at the time.

So again, I must think that the video camera that was used to photograph the missile, or airplane con-trail, or whatever it was the other day, was extremely powerful, and in that respect, was extremely capable of flattening images as a byproduct of that focal power.

Of course I don’t know for sure.  Maybe it was some really bad people playing with old Russian missiles from the black market, launching them from a boat or submarine into the sky just to know that they could be mischievous and stealthy.  Or maybe it was an alien entity getting a sense of where the threshold would be for igniting our atmosphere before they cook us all up (“It’s a cook book!!  IT’S A COOOK BOOOK!!!”  …did you ever see that “Twilight Zone” episode?)

But then again, it might just turn out to be the simplest answer.