Monday, 19 August 2013

Pre-Flashing: I Got Poetry In Me

As one thing dies another thing is born. With Firefox 23 the blink tag was finally laid to rest, and now if you want to make text flash on and off you have to use animated gifs or HTML5 or Javascript or something. The simple elegance of the blink tag is no more. Is this progress?

So in tribute I decided to have a go at flashing. No, not that kind of flashing. Or the other kind. I'm talking about a venerable photographic technique. It's quite popular with large format photographers and zone systems aficionados, but is otherwise obscure, and of no real relevance in the digital age. In that respect it is like love and food; in an age of virtual machines and always-on internet we no longer need them. A few cranks do it the old-fashioned way.

It's also called pre-flashing or pre-exposure but the idea is the same. You take your film and expose it to a small amount of light, and then you shoot it as per usual. If you use ordinary white light flashing has the effect of boosting the shadows and reducing contrast, as if you were fiddling with the highlight / shadow controls in Photoshop. If you use coloured light, it does this as well, but it also mucks the colours around. So I used coloured light. Two effects for the price of one.

Blue in this case. I flashed the film blue. Fuji Superia Xtra 400. It had the effect of muting blues in the image and making everything a bit green once it had been inverted. It also made the film yellow:

Flashing with red light makes the film green, by the way (and has the effect of desaturating reds):

Preflashing sheet film is relatively simple, because you can leave the film in place when you pre-flash and expose. Preflashing 35mm is harder. You can't simply flash a roll and then rewind and feed it back into the camera, because the frames won't be lined up. You could in theory use your camera's multiple exposure feature, if it has one, but ensuring consistent pre-flashing is difficult. I used the most direct solution I could think of - I unrolled some film in a dark room, taped it to the wall, and popped off a flashgun through a coloured gel at a low intensity. The results are imprecise, just like life.

Camera-wise I used a Fujica ST605 with a Chinon 55mm f/1.4, shooting through a vaseline-smeared filter. The ST605 is a late-period M42 body with stop-down match needle metering, notable mainly for using standard SR44 batteries rather than unobtainable mercury cells.

It's no more advanced than a Pentax Spotmatic of ten years earlier, and has some of the same ergonomic flaws, e.g. you can't easily change the shutter speed without taking the camera away from your face and there's no film reminder window. The plastic tip of the wind lever is hinged, but it just feels broken. The top shutter speed is an odd 1/700. If I had been in charge of Fujica I would have labelled it as 1/1000, because the target audience isn't going to notice, and it would be embarassing to sell a camera that was less advanced than a ten-year-old Pentax SP1000.

Still, the ST605 is compact and really, really cheap. By 1976 the M42 system was on the way out, although Chinon had a go at bringing it into the modern age with the Memotron, which had aperture-priority autoexposure and LED exposure indicators. Zenit and Praktica continued to sell M42 bodies for many years afterwards, but - like hippies and compassion - they were anachronisms by the 1980s.

Preflashing was one of the many weapons of the Hollywood cinematographer, back when films were shot with film. I have always associated it with the 1970s, a decade when a small number of cinematographers were given enough freedom to mess about with thousands, nay millions of dollars worth of film stock. It's absurd to talk about the "look" of an entire decade, but when I think of Hollywood in the 1970s I think of a low-contrast, low-saturation aesthetic - scuzzier than studio productions of the 1950s and 1960s, less saturated than the neon colours of the 1980s, with copious amounts of lens flare (e.g. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which Vilmos Zsigmond won an Academy Award) and diffusion filters, the hallmark of Geoffrey Unsworth. Flashing was used by Owen Roizman for the dimly-lit Taking of Pelham One Two Three and, more famously, by Zsigmond for Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which was shot in dim light with slow zoom lenses, fog filters, 50-speed film, probably spiders in the camera. Flashing is especially demanding with film stock, because the flasher has to ensure consistent results across different reels.

McCabe is the ultimate Hipster Western. It was filmed in Canada, for a start. It has songs by Leonard Cohen. The characters dress up like Mumford and Sons. And (spoiler) it has an unhappy ending. Unhappy endings were a cliché of New Hollywood; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection, Chinatown and so forth all ended with death and failure and bleak, bleak emptiness. McCabe is particularly bitter, in that McCabe takes on an impossible task and almost pulls it off. Perhaps he went on to be a legendary folk hero. Or, more likely, he was forgotten by history, and everything he achieved and all the people he cared for were scattered to the four winds. In New Hollywood it wasn't so much that the hero died at the end; the films existed in a world incompatible with heroism.

So the story goes,
Soon after Robert Altman released his "art film" hippie Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Stanley Kubrick called from London with a burning question, "How’d you get that shot where McCabe [Warren Beatty] is lighting the cigar?" The shot - just a blink during the opening credits - is a tone poem: a distant point of flame against a black figure on a rope bridge in a pastel forest.

"Well, we just kind of waited till the end of the day [for the right light]," said Altman, who took the filtered telephoto shot through a pane of saloon glass. Incredulous that it was done simply by "feel," the precision-minded Kubrick pressed for specifics. "Yea, but after you shot it, how’d you know it was good?"

"Well, we didn’t."
Robert Altman is remembered more as a people-and-dialogue director than a visual stylist, which is a shame because his films were always interesting to look at. That shot, mentioned above:

The grain and low contrast defy digital compression, they mock it. The rest of the film has a distinctive look that reeks of the 1970s; if you could distil it into a set of Final Cut or After Effects presets you could charge money for it. About the only thing that doesn't work is the fake snow during the final gunfight, which was added as an optical effect and always seems to be floating in front of the image. Apart from that the film is, in its own way, perfect. Riddled with imperfections. But perfect.

You learn to hate that little bastard. Also, this is where I got my visual sense from; films, not photography.