Vision Q&A: The Smaller the Better

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Credit: Thom Yorke: Harrowdown Hill
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At first glance, the landscapes featured in the video for Thom Yorke's "Harrowdown Hill" appear to be excruciatingly detailed miniatures straight out of any model train enthusiast's wildest fantasy. In fact, it's just stock footage that's been manipulated by a technique created at Bent Image Lab called "smallgantics," which creates a miniature-like shallow depth of field on full-scale moving footage. Director Chel White explains the tech behind the Radiohead frontman's solo effort.

How did you arrive at the concept for the video?
Chel White: It's a longer song, four and a half minutes, and Yorke responded to the idea that the video would evolve over that time and not be the same concept all the way through. Our inspiration came from the aerial photography done by Olivo Barbieri, so we started talking about how we could do it in motion. One of our directors here at Bent, Jim Clark, took it upon himself to do the research. You can do it with pan-shift lenses but to achieve it in motion we did some tests with some swing-tilt lenses and they were cool. But you're not going to achieve the right effect if you have a telephone pole or tree that goes from top to bottom of the frame—it'll end up destroying the effect. We were trying to figure out how to do it digitally and even with existing footage. In the case of "Harrowdown Hill," we licensed all the footage from stock footage houses—we didn't shoot any of it. It was such a short time frame that we thought we'd get better variety if we licensed the footage. It wasn't too much of a leap to accomplish, just a tremendous amount of work.

What were the challenges?
We had about three weeks to finish it once we had selected the footage. The biggest challenge was the labor involved, because "smallgantics" was so experimental. We were figuring it out as we went along. We worked to combine different software but when it came down to it, it was a lot of handwork that had to be done by a number of people.

Credit: Thom Yorke: Harrowdown Hill
Why use "smallgantics" to tell the story?
What attracted me to it was clearly the technique, but also the aesthetic. It acts as a metaphor that can be interpreted in different ways. To me, there's something about it that reflects that the world is getting smaller, and I love the confusion that is created by looking at the effect. The work that's achieved in macro photography is very similar to the way the eye sees things in miniature. When you look at something really small, your eye, like macro lenses, breaks down the depth of field to be shallow, in most cases.

What is the "glass pass" technique you developed?
That's a technique we used with the riot footage, and it's putting objects between the scanner and the film. I've been doing it for a while; I used it on a short film a few years ago. I developed it with the colorist at Downstream Digital, Jim Barrett. It's basically putting lenses and pieces of glass between the scanner and the film itself, so for this project, even though we had all this great stock footage, we had to transfer it all onto film so we could do it. In a way, it's a very organic, almost a performance because it isn't something you can really control.
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