Our approach here at the Program in Comparative Media Studies in general, and in the Consortium in particular, is that, often, the best way to understand the present moment and where the media industries are headed is to look at where they have been. That is one of the foundational principles, for instance, of our bi-annual Media in Transition conference, and it explains why the Consortium is built on the type of work, for instance, that C3 Principal Investigator William Uricchio has done on early conceptions of new media forms in the past, such as the telephone, phonograph, cinema, television, etc. Questions currently arising about mobile media, online video, virtual worlds, and the Internet more broadly can often be better understood by looking at how similar questions were tackled and what mistakes were made in previous eras of media transition.
That approach is a staple of CMS curricula, and it explains in part our association with scholars like Dr. Ted Hovet of Western Kentucky University. I've been fortunate enough to know and work under and with Ted for six years or so now. We've had the pleasure of presenting workshops at conferences together in the past (the 2006 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in particular, where--along with my wife Amanda Ford and WKU's Dale Rigby--we discussed the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum and academic research), and I was glad to be able to hear him present his latest work at this year's SCMS. His presentation on Friday morning was entitled "Framing Motion: Early Cinema's Conservative Methods of Display."
Ted is researching early conceptions of the screen in cinema and how the rectangular shape we now take for granted was not a foregone conclusion but rather the conscious choice of standardization by the industry. Through historical research looking at the many ways motion pictures were screened in the early days of cinema, Ted is interested in what other modes of research were possible, as well as the many reasons why the rectangular projection has been chosen.
In particular, Ted showed a variety of visual examples from early cinema to illustrate how--throughout our culture--the rectangular frame is seen to be "normal" or invisible, in a way that often leads to our forgetting the constructedness of what the screen allows us to view. Drawing on a history of scholarship about painting frames, windows, book pages, and so on, Ted discussed the ways in which the rectangular frame has become normalized so that people pay attention to the images displayed on the screen itself rather than its boundaries.
He looks as well at how early cinema also used other framing devices, including circles, but how it was often established first that the rectangular view gives you the "whole picture" through an establishing shot, while every other shape is obscuring part of the action in order to draw attention to something specific. As Ted points out, the rectangular shape is important as a surface that provides the illusion of depth--a sense of depth that is key. While the boundaries of the projection cannot be ignored--the rectangle can only contain so much action--the illusion is put in place that this rectangle has a limitless depth.
Ted talked about how, from the earliest days of cinema, one of the aspects of project that became quickly established was the anchored-ness of the projector. However, he went on to provide a fascinating alternative, in which the projector moved as much as the camera, in order to change the nature of way images are projected. This thought experiment was both fascinating and illustrative of the myriad reasons why the choice to anchor the image was so obvious--through a "static" or "conservative" display style, the way a picture is shown from theater to theater is normalized and not dependent on the particular choices of the projectionist. In addition, the boundaries are stable, so that all action is guaranteed to happen in a centralized location.
At a time when the media industries is looking at how a variety of new screens interact with viewers--in particular, mobile media and online video--I think returning to the earliest days of the cinema could provide some perspective on the merits and mistakes of early experimentation, as well as a variety of possibilities that were never realized.