To Many Men Strange Fates Are Given

by Mary Martialay on August 11, 2011

An early image of the device EMPAC engineers created for Brent Green. Photo by India Lombardi-Bello

Musician and animated film-maker Brent Green wanted to talk about depth, so he turned to the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer to build a device that tells stories on multiple levels. The device uses a stack of hacked LCD screens to mimic a multiplane camera, a machine once used to create three-dimensional effects in hand-drawn animated films.

Multiplane cameras were used to painstakingly create animated films like Disney’s Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi.  Judging by archive images on the internet, a multiplane camera looks like a storage rack with shelves made of empty picture frames, and topped by a downward facing film camera.

The machine allows animators to layer large reels of hand-painted film – each one representing a different depth in the same scene – atop one another. By moving the individual layers past the camera at varying speeds – running them almost as separate films – animators could create a sense of depth and motion. Disney last used a multiplane camera to create effects in The Little Mermaid.

Consumers, of course, didn’t see the machine, or the process. Green, who is building the project as an EMPAC artist in residence, said he was interested in exposing audiences to the technique.

“I thought it would be interesting to walk into a room and see the simplest form of 3D – multiple planes that interact with you.”

Technical staff at EMPAC – Senior Research Engineer Eric Ameres and Event Technician Ryan Jenkins – took over from there.

The machine they created is similar in appearance to the traditional multiplane camera – although the “shelves” of clear frames are oriented horizontally rather than vertically. And looking through the layers creates the same effect as watching a multiplane camera in action. But instead of a mechanical apparatus that houses the reel of hand-painted film, each “shelf” on the EMPAC machine holds a hacked LCD screen.

To create the device, the LCD screens were stripped of polarizing filters and backlighting – the front and rear layers that make it possible for viewers to see images formed by the liquid crystals. This allows several planes of images (each on its own hacked LCD screen) to be stacked one in front of the other, creating a full image from multiple partial images. At the back is a backlight, and the foremost “shelf” is a polarizing filter.

In essence, Ameres and Jenkins built an exploded model of a normal LCD screen, albeit one with several graphic layers rather than one. Here’s a video of the device, along with more commentary from Brent.

Green hopes to exhibit the device and the accompanying animated short that he wrote and illustrated as part of an installation titled “To Many Men Strange Fates Are Given” beginning in January.