Thursday, December 08, 2011


TAKE A LOOK at this video; this is the trailer for an upcoming film, due out in May 2012:

TimeScapes 4K from Tom Lowe on Vimeo.

Photography is difficult. Photography at night is more difficult. Time lapse photography — where you take a photo every second or so, and join them together into a video — has its own difficulties. Adding smooth camera motion during the time lapse adds layers of complications. Likewise, videography or filmmaking is a difficult endeavor, while, slow-motion videography — where you shoot many more frames per second than standard to slow down motion — requires a certain vision and specialized equipment. But putting all of these together into a stunning, epic video such as this, is a great work of art that transcends mere technique.

One of the striking effects used by videographer Tom Lowe is his use of camera motion during time lapse sequences of the night sky. As the heavenly orb rotates overhead, the camera itself moves, showing us the three-dimensional quality of the foreground objects such as rocks and trees. It is so obvious, it seems — why hasn’t anyone done that before? And I must admit to a tinge of envy — which is not a capital sin that I usually succumb to — but ultimately this sublimated to finding inspiration in the art.

I find myself envious of the camera gear that Lowe uses, and his innovative technique. But ask a photographer “what camera do you use?” and if you are unlucky, you may get one of these answers:
  • “Why I have a Cannikon D8x Mark V, with a 10-300 mm f/0.95 zoom lens, which has a maximum frame rate of 100 fps, maximum ISO 10 million….”He’ll then go on and talk about his  camera gear for the next hour.
  • “I am an artist. What camera I use doesn’t matter all.” He’ll then go on and talk about himself for the next hour.
For a very long time, I was torn between these two opinions: they both seem to be true, yet they seem to be mutually exclusive, while yet both seem to be rather cold, naïve, or self-centered. Contemporary art theories tend to be partisan and lack universality. Only when I studied classical art theory, and then the artistic traditions of Holy Mother Church, did things become clearer. Well, you can’t take a photo with only a rock, and even the best artist would find it difficult to make a drawing if all he has is a piece of paper without any implement to draw on it. But give an unskilled person a slab of marble and Michaelangelo’s stone cutting tools, and they will be unable to make the Pietà; likewise give a Canon 5D Mark II camera to a novice, and they would not be able to duplicate Mr. Lowe’s work.

Aristotle explained that virtue — and art is the virtue of making things well — can only be gained with knowledge and with practice. Lowe has been making time lapse night photos for years now, but his work from only four years ago lack the polish of what we see above. Doing this kind of work full time for over a year, while living in an R.V., honed his skills tremendously, as is described here. Lowe also generously shares his expertise freely, as is seen here. If you would like to copy his technique, it’s easy: all you have to do is spend ten thousand hours of practice with tens of thousand dollars worth of equipment, along with thousands of hours of study, a thick enough skin to withstand criticism as well as the humility to realize that your work could always use improvement. Contrary to the two example photographers above, neither “being a genius” nor owning lots of equipment will make you good.

I think that a skilled artist will almost certainly advance the state of his art, out of necessity. As it happens, Lowe uses advanced camera technology, while manufacturers of this technology rely on Lowe to improve their equipment.

Questions that perplex Moderns — “what is art” and “how do you judge art” — have been answered in an explicitly Christian manner by Dorothy L. Sayers, in her book The Mind of the Maker. Following the three Creeds of the Church, Sayers explicitly lays out the divine Creation of the cosmos and human sub-creation in the arts in a Trinitarian manner, and how heresies about the Trinity are strongly paralleled by bad human art. According to Sayers, good art is trinitarian:
  • The art has to be true, even (or especially) if it is fiction; not merely true to nature, but especially true to psychology and metaphysical truths. For examples, the characters in a play have to be real human beings, even if they are simultaneously allegories of higher things. In Lowe’s films, these images are straight from the camera: they were usually taken at night, carefully exposed to capture the stars, while the moon often illuminates the objects in the foreground. His images are not computer generated graphics, despite his extreme use of computer graphics technology. They show what they depict.
  • The art must be done well, using excellent technique. Technique does include technology, such as the cameras and cranes Lowe uses, as well as the prodigious amount of computer processing that he must use afterwards to put the films together. Lowe invented some of the technique that he uses. Lowe does use expensive, specialized camera gear, but it serves the art and is not for its own sake.
  • Viewers must have a lively spirited response to the art. Art is not made in a vacuum, and art fails if it does not elicit a good response from the audience, even if the audience is merely the artist alone. Regarding Lowe’s films, I’ll let you judge yourself whether or not they are successful.
In conceiving good art, all three of these must be taken together at once, not separated or divorced from each other. Giving emphasis to one Person of the Trinity at the expense of others is often found in the heresies, and so in art, giving emphasis to one of these at the expense of the others leads to bad works of art.

For his film, Lowe chooses epic locations, which well-illustrate what is called “the sublime,” things that are high, lofty, on a far greater scale than the individual human being. They are not merely pretty places, although they are usually beautiful, rather they overwhelm, in an instant, the person viewing them. The stars in the sky are especially sublime, because although we can see them, they are forever out of our natural human reach, despite what science fiction stories try to tell us. His slow-motion videography shows us more ordinary things, but in a manner that we normally cannot see, giving sharp emphasis on things that we would otherwise miss, such as a bird landing on water, sparks flying from a fire, or a girl wiping sweat from her forehead.

TimeScapes: Rapture from Tom Lowe on Vimeo.

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