That Obscure Object of Circular Frame

— Journey From Iris Mask to Fisheye Lens

As a media scholar, I am very familiar with an early stage of cinema where the use of circular mask was prevalent. The following is not a complete taxonomy of the many uses of what can be called the iris shot. But roughly speaking, the iris can have a clear boundary, showing a perfect circle in the rectangular frame, such as this:

Mount Everest (1924)

Or it can be a cropped circle, basically serving as a heavy handed vignetting effect such as this:

True Heart Susie (1919)

In Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923), the presence of iris mask attained the status of a formal device as the circular shape, such as the “wheel” in the title, resonates throughout the film. Watch the following clip about the train crash, and you will see how the circular shape of the iris mask is seen as almost fighting and breaking loose the rectangular frame!

Since the advent of sound and its accompanying heightened effect or realism, however, the use of iris is instantly subdued. The cinema picture is now seen more of a window into the three dimensional diegetic space. The circular, in this context, feels obtrusive and rubs against the spatial realism. The use of iris, therefore, becomes an explicit homage to the silent period, such as the following shot from Guy Maddin’s breath-taking short film.

Heart of the World (2000)

Why was the early cinema audience so enamored with the iris mask? My speculation is this: magic lantern.

As you can see from the above illustrations, magic lantern presents quite frequently a projected image of circular shape! This is actually unusual, as the slide frame itself is decidedly rectangular! The circular shape of image is a choice, and a very appealing choice if not the only one.

According to their book Remediation: Understanding New Media by J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, remediation is a defining characteristic of new digital media as digital media constantly remediate its predecessors such as television, radio, print journalism and other forms of old media. However, remediation as a concept can be applied to old media themselves. Cinema was remediating Magic Lantern in this case and Magic Lantern was definitely remediating something else (for instance the tableau tradition in theater, the narrative picture book and the camera obscura setup) before its time. Of all these different traditions, only the camera obscura renders a circular shape.

In fact, in a modern setup of camera obscura, the image is often projected down from the roof to a table, for viewing ease. I have been to several such establishments. They look like this:

The right one is from Griffith Observatory in LA.

The grammar of cinema has certainly evolved a lot since then. Gone is the iris, and so is any transitional effect such as dissolve to black, all replaced by straight cut.

To my utter surprise, a recent film revisited this old grammar to somewhat interesting effect.

Wo bu shi Pan Jing Lian (2016), or in English title: I am not Madam Bovary.

Apart from its admiringly daring attack to Chinese political climate, the film is hugely innovative in its exploration of screen mask. Here is what happens in the very beginning. The film starts with a completely silent opening credit sequence, which is highly unusual in itself. But nothing prepares the audience for the first shot, as you see below, followed by of five other similar shots. All of these are completely static — in fact, they are painted, in the tradition of magic lantern, with Feng’s voice in off screen narration.

The first shot! Notice the widescreen format.

As if echoing the move from hand-painted magic lantern slides to photographic slides, the film then shows the following shot, with the VO acting as continuity.

To again echo the showmanship demonstrated in the first Lumière screening, the static image then defreezes itself into a video sequence!

As I mentioned earlier, although the image is in circular format, the widescreen frame still has a strong presence. This presence is accentuated by making characters moving from outside the iris into the iris, such as the following:

Characters constantly moving in and out of the circular frame, accentuating the double framed nature of the presentation

The film goes on in this format for about 35 minutes, then something very dramatic happens. To use the shot of going through a channel as a transition device, the film presents three formats in a row: first the circular, then the full wide-screen, and finally settles on the square boundary.

This visual change corresponds to an important narrative event: our heroine finally amasses the courage to take legal action against her persecutor — from now on, she wants to “be square”!

However, the “be square” section doesn’t last very long. 20 minutes later, the screen abruptly switches to the circular frame.

This move is somewhat pre-figured a few minutes earlier in any shot which is somewhat circular. To be precise, this is a “key hole” frame.

Our heroine’s journey reaches another milestone close to 2 hours’ mark, where she emerges from being subdued (in the form of no other than marriage!) to again rebellion. The screen echoes this by going square again.

Every road leads to BJ

But this is not the end of it. After her failed suicide attempt, the epilogue section of the film bring back to the audience much waited full wide-screen format. Everything finally goes back to normal, in a highly unrealistic lighting, as if this was only a dream!

What’s the implication of our discussion on circular framing?As someone who always “dig” the formal devices of cinema I am very happy to see experiment of this sort. However, I am also aware that, for the majority of moviegoers, especially those accustomed to Feng’s strictly entertainment blockbusters, this inevitably brings up the question: how does this formal device tie to the narrative (or anything you think that should be the main point of a film)? The idea that a formal device has to “serve” a narrative purpose like a servant serving a master is somewhat perplexing to me. But I will concede that in this regard, the film seems to be less convincing.

Apart from formal innovation in the realm of cinema, I am also thinking of the circular framing in terms of photography and videography, especially as I recently started to use a circular fisheye lens.

The circular fisheye lens has been somewhat an oddity for photographers. It allows for incredible field of vision, and in the age of computational photography, can be easily defished in your existing workflow — you can even keep a certain degree of distortion for artistic effect. If you are shooting 360 photos, the circular fisheye lens also allows the least number of shots — just four for the whole sphere!

If circular fisheye lens is a somewhat fun but use-with-caution toy for most photographers, very little people would shoot video with circular fisheye. There seems to be something so outrageously wrong about it that makes it almost a forbidden practice.

But what exactly is wrong? Is it the circular mask, or the distortion? Or the uncanny combination of both?

In this article, I have focused on the circular framing. I have been trying to make the case that circular framing was a highly popular mode of image presentation which unfortunately was eclipsed by the advent of several modern technologies, including photography and cinema.

What does this mean? Certainly Feng didn’t shot the film with a circular fisheye lens! You therefore may concede that circular framing can be interesting, but without the distortion. So it might be that the constant distortion gives viewer an intense discomfort that can be regarded as “fun” for a still but certainly too much for a video.

This argument is hard to deflect. However, discomfort has been a major source of innovation in terms of media. A lot of what was historically regarded as discomfort has become standard practice. Straight cut was. So was any shot scale other than long shot. Early cinema audiences screamed at medium shots of closeups (rare at the time) for they cut up human bodies. Also, cutting rate was significantly longer (with notable exceptions) so the audience was only gradually accustomed to accelerated editing.

Was optical distortion something that can be easily tolerated, or even accustomed? Or is it something that is a big no-no permanently?

Until some brave filmmaker go out and try it hard, I really wouldn’t know! But just like some filmmakers (such as Terry Gilliam or Stanley Kubrick) are famously adept at using optical distortions to serve their stylistic purposes, the optical discomfort can be used to strengthen a point. On theoretical level, there is currently no scientific study about the psychology of shot scale that I know of, and I did my share of research in cognitive film theory.

Terry Giliam is known for using the distortion effect of ultra wide angle lenses that the 14mm is called the “The Giliam lens”

The fact that I have not seen any good attempts at circular fisheye videography doesn’t meant it can’t be done. In fact, I think it would be fun to assign this in a film production class. Working under the constrain, I am sure some brilliant young minds would come up with great topics to shot with the circular fisheye!

Notes: After having written this I discovered that there is actually a recent film that employs circular fisheye. The film is Lucifer (2014), by Gust van den Berghe, thanks to an excellent post by Luke McKernan. The process is referred to as Tondoscope.

I have not seen the film. And probably will add more thoughts after.