Potter flees to an elevator. Lightning strikes again, and we see a gray wall of clouds. The audio track is swallowed up and falls silent. Cut. Leaves flutter in the wind, blurred. The image comes into focus. A treetop.
Those who have seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be familiar with the scene in which the movie’s heroes “disapparate” – transporting themselves from one place to another by magic. Film scholar and professor Michael Wedel of Film University Babelsberg has studied this and other scenes from the Harry Potter series. “We were interested in how magic is expressed cinematically and thus made into something audiences can experience with their senses,” he explains. How does the scene described relate to other magical events in the film? How do the images and sound fit together with the emotional suggestions made to the audience? What does the viewer recognize from before, and what is new?
“Those who take a closer look at how magic is implemented in these films will find that the world of Harry Potter is very fluid. The effects are introduced bit by bit, and the rhythm, resonance, and images of the individual spells come together to form an aesthetic whole that the viewer recognizes time and again in a whole range of new variations,” Wedel says.
Together with Professor Hermann Kappelhoff of the Division of Film Studies at the Institute of Theater Studies at Freie Universität, Wedel heads the “Cinepoetics” Center for Advanced Film Studies, which has been receiving funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) since October. The group studies the poetics of audiovisual images. Their aim is to study how cinematic images interact with each other, how they are formed from other images and give rise to an ever-changing range of new cinematic images.
The objective of their work is ambitious: “Audiovisual media are received in many studies in the humanities and social studies. But there is no standardized method yet. We aim to develop a new standard that can be used by historians and theater scholars, political scientists and art historians alike to describe and evaluate audiovisual sources on a comprehensive basis,” Kappelhoff says.
To achieve this, the scholars are employing a new form of film analysis that they have developed. Each sequence is broken down into segments called “expressive movement units” and then described. What are the formal structures of duration, audio and image? How does the emotional effect change? What metaphors and topoi are used? How are transitions from one scene to another created? This method can be used to describe and evaluate video clips and blockbusters, art house films and computer games alike.
Plans call for this method to be discussed, further developed, and disseminated over the next seven years through workshops and conferences. Humanities Centres for Advanced Studies are a new DFG funding format for the humanities. Conceived as “special sites of humanities research,” they are supposed to create an open space for scholars. Well-known visiting scholars and scientists from all over the world will bring fresh impetus to their work. Each of the researchers at the center can also establish his or her own particular focus.
Kappelhoff, for example, is especially interested in the question of how new technologies not only change our perceptions of reality, but also the representational forms used in films.
Take the Iraq war, for example. In January 1991, when U.S. President George H.W. Bush authorized the first air strikes on Iraqi positions in Kuwait, a surgical, clinically clean war was supposed to be presented to the world. Special broadcasts on CNN and NBC, but also on German networks ARD and ZDF, showed the gray, static images from the night vision cameras of American bombers. At the center of the image, cross-hairs marked the target. White flashes of light suggested the detonation of the bombs, but that is all. The global public did not see a hint of misses, blood, or death, at least not initially.
“This image of war played a formative role in many military conflicts after the end of the Cold War,” Kappelhoff says. “This kind of representation was used in computer games and adapted artistically in films and video installations. When you think about bombings carried out by Western military forces today, the first thing that springs to mind is the bombers’ reconnaissance images, not the events taking place on the ground.”
The surging popularity of smartphones is changing our image of war yet again. Nowadays, the video portal YouTube shows videos like this one: blurred images of a gray sky with a missile flying across it. The clip description tells viewers what it depicts: Russian drones over Aleppo. We see buildings in ruins. Something flies through the air. Hand grenades? Fighters wearing purple headbands have shouldered their guns and are shooting at a wall. Who are they? Who are they fighting for?
These kinds of videos seem authentic to viewers, even if they could be staged. That is because this form now shapes our own experiences. We use our smartphone to take videos of an aunt’s birthday party, or a hotel in Tenerife.
As a result, this recording technique also affects our aesthetic perceptions, changing the field of film. Images that would once have been cut as unprofessional or blurry are now used as a deliberate style choice. “When it became known that there were a lot of juvenile delinquents who were recording their criminal acts with their cell phones and posting them online like trophies, these kinds of images also moved into the world of film,” Kappelhoff says.
Nowadays, hardly a single episode of the popular German police drama Tatort goes by without using one of these methods. A perpetrator might be caught on video using a cell phone, or a surveillance camera might provide the crucial piece of evidence, explains Kappelhoff. “Cell phone images and surveillance video suggest authenticity. But in reality, they, too, are only images, representing just one piece of reality at most.”
This text originally appeared in German on February 13, 2016, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.