It's a little strange to have Al Roker, a weatherman from mainstream TV's The Today Show, guiding us through the birth of Renaissance perspective, but that's part of The Magic of Illusion.
Produced by the National Gallery of Art, this short documentary isn't terribly original, but it's presented in a way and at a level that makes it the perfect introduction for young people to an important aspect of art history.
Prior to the 15th century, Western art was "flat" in the sense that it did not present the illusion of dimensionality in the way that we've become used to through the representation of space and motion on flat surfaces. Artists prior to the Renaissance prized narrative (which we could think of as temporal perspective rather than spatial perspective), and so often portrayed multiple scenes (or episodes) in a single space.
This film could easily give viewers the mistaken impression that perspective was developed by Italian artists of the Renaissance. In fact, the development of perspective began at least 2,000 years earlier, as the ancient Greeks used visual illusion to create a sense of depth in theatre productions, for instance.
In the ruins of Pompeii are beautifully preserved trompe l'oeil paintings: masterfully executed false windows overlooking exotic landscapes made small rooms seem much larger. And, not surprisingly, an Arab mathematician of the 11th century explained the optics of perspective quite clearly.
But it was indeed the Italians who brought together the mathematics and the skill of visual representation to create modern, geometrical perspective. Empire of the Eye: The Magic of Illusion spends the bulk of its 50 minutes showing examples of vanishing-point perspective. The explanation of how perspective is accomplished is greatly enhanced by the use of special effects that lay bare the visual schemas involved in creating a perspectival drawing.
So proficient were the Renaissance artists that they created near-perfect anamorphic images which require the viewer to stand at a specific vantage point in order for the picture to reveal itself (Hans Holbein the Younger's "The Ambassadors" is probably the most famous example of anamorphic painting from the Renaissance).
The last few minutes dash through a couple of modern examples of using perspective to create illusion. In the film Casablance, a small soundstage is made to appear much larger than it really is by taking advantage of the fact that the mind assumes that smaller objects behind larger ones are further away. By employing short actors and placing them behind taller ones, a sense of depth was created in one shot in the film when, in fact, the stage was quite shallow. The same is true with Disney's Magic Kingdom: using forced perspective, the 189-foot-tall Cinderella Castle appears much taller than it really is because, as it gets taller, its proportions were made tinier.
While the graphic effects used to help explain perspective are helpful, the multiple wipes used on exit and entrance edits of Roker are cheesy. Kids might find them fun, though, and might also find the last few minutes of the film (on modern uses of perspectival illusion) intriguing enough to lead them into further exploration. It's too bad the filmmakers chose to spend a couple minutes on Casablanca rather than a contemporary video game in which developers have spared no expense to create "realistic" illusions based on precisely the same principles of forced perspective. The result might have been much more interesting to its intended audience.
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