In this section, we look at the ways in which the related processes of filming and fieldwork combine toward a final cinematic outcome. We detail the technicalities and considerations of the filming process and how fieldwork was an integral part of this process.
For us, the filmmaking process was about finding cinematic ways of illustrating the lamps in their urban surroundings. This involved both filmwork and, as we discuss in this section, fieldwork that consisted of observing, documenting, and reading the city. Even though this work is not so visible in the accounts of our technological and visual explorations, the work has been just as much about the city as it has been about the instruments. It has involved exploring the city, finding sites, and adventuring with the aim of finding explanatory, interesting, and intriguing spaces.
This is not primarily a gallery piece: The film is aimed at popular online audiences, and at audiences for whom the relations between cities, technology, design, and the implications of these are important. As with our previous films, Satellite Lamps has a weighting toward design, technology, and art interests, but also toward news, entertainment, and education.
One of the challenges and opportunities of working in communicative ways is that audiences (including ourselves) are used to very high production value from the commercial television and film industries, and even in interaction design we share our audience with those of Apple and Microsoft with their high marketing budgets. We, thus, devoted a great deal of time and attention to creating images and sequences that have a production value that reflects the subject matter using full-frame cameras, high-quality optics, high-resolution images, careful color grading and attention issues such as frame rate and motion blur.
In order to do this, we researched photographic, cinematic, and timelapse techniques, just as we have researched lightpainting techniques in the past. We used specialist techniques learned from timelapse practitioners to balance the brightness of the images, the exposure time, and the amount of motion blur in each image. We encountered highly technical, but crucial issues such as exposure flicker and camera stability that needed to be tackled.
The cinematographic framing, content, and timing of each sequence was carefully constructed. They are slow enough to allow contemplation of the subject matter, but dynamic enough that both the lamps and the spaces come alive. The patterns in the brightness of the lamp is revealed over time, but the way that they relate to their context is revealed by the framing and the camera movement. These cinematic qualities offer a reflexive space that draws the viewer in to observe the GPS behavior in context.
The filmmaking work is conducted through processes that allow for the construction of sequences and narratives. For instance, we used storyboards to map out the overall structure of the film, which allowed us to quickly think through the meanings of each section, and led us to construct the film as an adventure that takes us from wide open spaces into the city. Film editing itself is a highly reflective and iterative activity that allowed us to experiment with the way in which the concepts in each sequence were revealed and explained.
Filmmaking as Fieldwork
We like to think about the practice of filmmaking in this project as a form of fieldwork that altered our view of the city. This fieldwork involves finding the right sites where GPS uncertainty and fluctuations are great enough the be caught on camera and expressed in film. By studying the city through the lensed lamps, we came to read and understand the negotiations between satellites, weather, and the built environment of the city very differently.
In the gallery above, we have tried to convey how timelapse photography can be seen as a form of fieldwork. It forced us to observe the GPS activity in urban spaces closely through the filmmaking. Shooting timelapse is a special experience with lots of careful preparation, followed by waiting for flickers in the satellite signals without knowing what you have caught before you get back to the studio. As such, it can be compared to nature documentary production in that there is a good degree of anticipating phenomena, observing, waiting, photographing, evaluating, and iterating. The filmmaking made us regard the city as a landscape of GPS waiting to be discovered.
Film as Communication
As formulated in our design brief, we set out to not only investigate and understand GPS, but also to design ways to communicate it. The film, with the lamps as its protagonists, is the conclusion of the project and brings together all the activities, reflections, experiments, and decisions. All the failures and successes of the project are concluded and condensed into these six minutes of online film.
As we saw above, film is a way of investigating the technology itself, but is also a highly communicative medium. The long history of cinema and television, particularly documentary, has developed highly refined languages for revealing and explaining complex subjects to broad audiences. Our film mixes behind the scenes footage of us exploring urban spaces with the timelapse sequences and explanatory inter-alts. These are all driven together by a spatial music soundbed in a way that accessibly communicates our adventures in GPS.
The purpose of the film is to put forward a set of ideas, as broadly as possible, into the world. It is the outcome of a constructive practice through which we have engaged with the technology of GPS, similar in many ways to Matt Ratto’s (2011) concept of critical making that applies “material forms of engagement with technologies to supplement and extend critical reflection” (p. 253).
The film is designed to be embedded, not only technically in the way that most Internet video can be, but also embedded culturally—both as an epistemic object in its “capacity to generate questions and to open up different issues to different audiences” (Ewenstein & Whyte, 2009, p. 29), and a boundary object with its capacity to mediate between different fields and contexts, being “both adaptable to different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them” (Star & Greisemer, 1989, p. 387).
Our hope is that this film will show up in all kinds of contexts, as our other Immaterials films have, travelling far and wide as an illustration of another way of looking at technology that fosters a space of understanding and imagination for discussion, invention, and critique.
- Ratto, Matt. (2011). Critical making: Conceptual and material studies in technology and social life. The Information Society, 27(4), 252–260. doi: 10.1080/01972243.2011.583819
- Ewenstein, Boris, & Whyte, Jennifer. (2009). Knowledge practices in design: The role of visual representations as “epistemic objects.” Organization Studies, 30(1), 7–30.
- Star, Susan Leigh, & Griesemer, James R. (1989). Institutional ecology, ‘translations’ and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387–420.