English 192
Science Fiction
Spring 2002
Professor William Warner

Course Overview



Study Materials

Course Policies

Science Fiction Film's Visualization of the Unseen

The Wonder of the coming into visibility of the unseen

3 shots from Spielberg's Close Encounters of a Third Kind (1977)




Technologies of Visualization: we live a matrix for representing what is real


My focus in this lecture:

  • techiques of visualization in painting and photography
  • pre-digital film
  • digital film effects
Masaccio: the Brancacci chapel in Florence, early 15th century

The Tribute Money: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, unto God what is God's"

The Trinity
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden

Albreckt Durer, late 15th-early 16th century

The Draftsman and the model: turning linear perspective into a scientific technique


Royal Olympic Theater, London, 1831

The arch over the stage marks the "fourth wall", into which the spectator looks, to find an illusionistic space for the drama. Key elements: scene painting, linear perspective, props, actors to create a space that believable reality.
Later in the century, film makers will adapt the conventions of fourth wall to locate the camera (during shooting) and the projection screen (during playback).

Notice the apparatus used to fix the subject's head in a still position before the photographic appatus. The seriousness of the figures in these early photographs suggests that these are portraits (painted by light) that are intended to preserve a face against the ravages of time.

Traditional Film: techniques of visualization:
  1. Storyboards are sketched to plan the most important shots within each scene of the film: e.g. Twister storyboards
  2. Visual rhymes: 2001: the hand of the ape touches monolith is shot in the same way as the hand of the the astronaut touches the monolith.
  3. Scene painting, then photographed
  4. Techique of Compositing


Scene painting

Metropolis: the painted scene which is then photographed


2001: "earth station": compositing two images together to compose one image

Blade Runner: (models of) spinners and a night sky are composited together to create the illusion of flight

Blade Runner: approaching the Tyrell Corporation at dawn
By editing together a shot of a (model of a) building, with a reverse shot of Deckard looking into the sunlight, we get an illusion of Deckard fling toward the Tyrell Corporation

The model:

Digital Cinema --as technique

Old morph: the robot is morphing into the form of Maria
Technique: time lapse photography of intermediate states of the object.

New morph: the T-1000 walks through the bars at the mental hospital
Technique: digital manipulation of the image

Narrative setting of the clip: John Connor and the Terminator have come to the mental hospital to rescue Sarah from the T-1000 sent to kill her

Elements of the T-1000 morph:

  • Photorealistic image of the police man as starting and ending point
  • His morph around the metal bars exposes the hyper-reflective metal of which he is made
  • The plasticity of the image shows off the remarkable flexibility of digital code manipulated by software

The Digital Difference--as content: visualizing cyberspace

William Gibson's invention of cyberspace: 2 passages from Neuromancer (1984)

Conceptualizing cyberspace as a network space for a "consensual hallucination" as experience:

"'The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games," said the voice-over, "in early graphics programs and military experimentation with cranial jacks.' On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically generated ferns, demonstrating the spatial possibilities of logarithmic spirals...
'Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding....'" (51)

NASA: early technology for "Virtual Reality"

human |||| interface: computer, screen, images, helmet, data glove|||| data

The hacker jacks into cyberspace:

"Please, he prayed, now-- A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky. Now-- Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. Expanding-- And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach. And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face. Molly was gone when he took the trodes off, and the loft was dark. He checked the time. He'd been in cyberspace for five hours." (52)


Two Visualizations of cyberspace:
Johnny Mnemonic (1995, Dir. Longo), chapter 32:
At the end of the film, Johnny makes a "run" to capture the formula from a drug company, and release it on the network, for downloading.
Cybersex scene from Lawnmower Man (1992, Dir. Leonard):
A dimwitted lawnmower man named Jobe Smith has been adopted by a scientist (played by Pierce Bronson), who gives him mind expanding experiences-training in cyberspace/ virtual reality and drugs-so he acquires startling new powers. In this scene he takes his girl friend on a romp through into virtual reality.

Assignment: please read the Script of The Matrix
Questions for viewing The Matrix (1999)

  • How is The Matrix similar and different than the two short stories of Gibson, "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Burning Chrome"?
  • What is the effect on the film of the Christian allegory?
  • How does the film develop the figure of the hacker as rebel? how as kung fu become synonymous with hacking?
  • How does the film visualize movement over the network? fighting in "bullet-time"?


This page was composed by Professor William Warner. Last changed 4/2/02. This course is part of the Transcriptions Project of the Department of English at UC /Santa Barbara.