2008 - 2021
December 26, 2012

The animals transformed into spectacle have disappeared in another way. In the window of bookshops at Christmas, a third if the volumes on display are animals picture books. Baby owls or giraffes, the camera fixes them in a domain which, although entirely visible to the camera, will never be entered by the spectator. All animals appear like fish seen through the plate glass of an aquarium. The reasons for this are both technical and ideological. Technically the devices used to obtain ever more arresting images ―hidden cameras, telescopic lenses, flashlights, remote controls and so on― combine to produce pictures which carry with them numerous indications of their normal invisibility. The images exist thanks only to the existence of a technical clairvoyance.

☛ “Why Look At Animals?” by John Berger, 1977. First published in three sections in New Society (now defunct magazine): “Animals as Metaphor” (no. 39, 1977, pp. 504-505), “Vanishing Animals” (no. 39, 1977, pp. 664-665) and “Why Zoo Disappoint” (no. 40, 1977, pp. 122-123). Republished as a single essay in About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, pp. 2-28; Google Books). Recently republished by Penguin Books as part of their series Great Ideas (no. 80, 2009).

John Berger is widely known for his four-part television series Ways of Seeing first broadcast in 1972. The series was also made into a book with the same title (Penguin, 1972). Watch it on YouTube or catch some clips of it on the BBC website. The Guardian published a commemorative review of the televison series last fall to mark the 40th anniversary of its first broadcast: “Ways of Seeing opened our eyes to visual culture” (by Sukhdev Sandhu, Sept. 7, 2012)

The essay “Why Look At Animals?” turns his attention on the relationship between humans and animals, especially as it is informed by the visual representations of them we both experience and produce. Here’s the follow-up of the excerpt quoted above:

A recent, very well-produced book of animals photographs (La Fête Sauvage by Frédéric Rossif) announces in its preface: “Each of these pictures lasted in real time less than three hundredths of a second, they are far beyond the capacity of the human eye. What we see here is something never before seen, beause it is totally invisible.”

In the accompanying ideology, animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away we are.

La Fête Sauvage was first made as a feature documentary film in 1976 (IMDb; watch a clip on YouTube dubbed in Russian) before a book version was released (Paris: Lafont, 1976). The idea has become quite common from Microcosmos (1996; IMDb) to the numerous shows presented on Animal Planet: they’re all a tribute to both the animal kingdom and to the technologies we use to capture it. What follows are three examples of such an effort to capture animal in motion: one very recent (21st century), one from the 19th century and one form 30,000 years ago. I’m merely collecting those three cases here. I do not address the polemical aspects of John Berger’s critical essay (which had some influence in the recent development of “animal studies”).

• • •

I recently came accross the short documentary film Cheetahs on the Edge depicting trained cheetahs running at full speed in slow-motion. The video was directed by Gregory Wilson and produced by National Geographic with the collaboration of the Cincinnati Zoo. Here’s from the short presentation offered on Vimeo, followed by the short film itself:

Using a Phantom camera filming at 1200 frames per second while zooming beside a sprinting cheetah, the team captured every nuance of the cat’s movement as it reached top speeds of 60+ miles per hour.

The video is truly mesmerizing. But what we’re seeing here is not cheetahs per se, but animals given to us through the prism of high-tech recording gears. It’s first and foremost a technological achievement: the capture of wild animals inside the frame of a lens mounted on a high-speed video camera (and this is not to be understood as a critic ―in the narrow and negative sense of this word― but as a simple observation). Of course the making-of is also very interesting to watch.

Looking at the slow motion images of the cheetahs running, one is likely to be reminded of Muybridge’s experiments in recording images of animals in motion. After all, the very concept of cinematography can be (has been) linked to this fascination with animals and to the strong desire we have to discover more about the realm they live in. Part of this realm remains out of reach of our (human) sensory system and thus special equipments is needed to access it. The story behind the silent film Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878) is well known. One can revisit it through the documented account made by Brian Clegg in his book The Man Who Stopped Time (Joseph Henry Press, 2007; Clegg believes the “betting” part of that story is apocryphal: see page 48). The photographs composing the sequence shown below can be found online at the Library of Congress (LOT 3081). More high resolutions images produced by Muybridge can be found at Muybridge.org, while relevant documents are archived at The Compleat Eadweard Muybridge.

Maybe our desire to capture animal motion is even older. Already in 2011, Werner Herzog introduced a “provocative idea” (his own words) to the audience of his newly released film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011, IMDb). The film documents the prehistoric paintings of the Chauvet Cave, in France. While the exact dates of those paintings is still being debated, they are nonetheless estimated to be aproximately 30,000 years old (see “Time and Space” at the official French Ministry of Culture information site). In his documentary, Herzog suggests that some of those paintings hint at movement and suggest an “early form of cartoon”. He explains his idea in an interview he gave Scientific America in May 2011: “Werner Herzog on the ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’”:

In June 2012, palaeolithic researcher Marc Azéma and prehistory specialist Florent Rivière co-authored an article in Antiquity titled “Animation in Palaeolithic art: a pre-echo of cinema” (vol. 86 no. 332, pp. 316-324; PDF). In it, they make an attempt to substantiate the idea of a prehistoric cinema (I don’t know if the two men have met Werner Herzog or not). Here’s the summary:

Marc Azéma a Palaeolithic researcher and film maker has been exploring the representation of animal movement in cave art for more than 20 years, and here shares with us his latest examples, culled from the parietal art in the Chauvet Cave (Ardèche) and La Baume Latrone (Gard). Here he has shown that Palaeolithic artists have invented systems of breaking down movement and graphic narrative. His co-author, Florent Rivère, discovered that animal movement was also represented in more dynamic ways—with the use of animals drawn on a spinning disc. In these flickering images created by Palaeolithic people, the authors suggest, lie the origins of cinema.

A short video was made to go along the article (1m46s). There is also a lesser known, longer version of the video: it’s available on YouTube as well (5m39s). The short version is embedded below:

Although it remains for the moment a theory, it’s quite a seductive one. Not surprisingly, it caught the attention of many: some boldly wrote about “prehistoric movies” while others wonder if we found the “earliest form of cinema”. Some with a little more imagination called it… “paleo gifs”.

• • •

Previously: Étienne Jules-Marey’s Myograph

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