Saturday, August 23, 2008

athletics, Muybridge and the red queen

Shot type 1: Its over 100 years since Muybridge's death and I find myself glued to the television to appreciate an idea that originated with him. The Olympic Games have been two weeks of the most beautiful pictures of human physiology I have ever seen. My favourite shot is certainly the slow motion tracking camera that follows alongside a sprint or gymnastic tumble.
I first consciously appreciated this shot as the final sprint in the Tour de France exploded along the Champs Elysées a few years ago. The lens does not distort the perspective as it would when using a distant telephoto. The angle remains fixed. The background tears past at a terrifying rate, the cyclists are trapped in the frame like the Red Queen, legs ablaze, faces straining, backs arched before a final throw for the line. And the whole thing can be repeated at a fraction of race pace so that you can take it all in: muscles ripple, sweat collects on noses and jaws before gracefully lifting from the grimacing face to glide away and off-screen.
The same shot applied to athletics, especially the 100m sprint, reveals the wealth of detail Muybridge captured. The form of a top class runner is a gorgeous sight that can best be appreciated in this slow motion tracking shot. The technique allows the repetition of the cycle to be appreciated. For just short of fifty paces the best runners maintain a fluidity that belies the effort it requires. In less than 10 seconds the race is all over, the medals are decided, the athletes are ecstatic and bounce around, or they are shattered and collapse in tears on the track. Years of effort to produce 10 seconds of glorious physiological poetry. Thanks, your effort is appreciated... especially by the airlines, fast-food chains. vehicle manufacturers and banks whose advertisements I had to endure... but also by the millions of other crazy people like me who tuned in to admire technology's view of the body in motion.

Shot type 2: The photo-finish is also a fascinating piece of work. In this, slices of the athletes as they cross the line are compiled into a single image with a timing scale marked along the image's edge. Lines placed on the image at the point where an athlete's chest (or front bicycle wheel) first touch the line may then be read off the timing scale to determine their time. The distorted forms of the athletes look less than elegant, but the image is a great way to reveal a winner.


  1. Hey Alan - on this topic Australian video artist Daniel Crooks recently won a $100k prize for a piece based on high-speed footage of a runner on a treadmill. A great "result" for Australian media arts, but it bugs me that the nation's richest art prize is sport-themed!

  2. Hi Mitchell. Yes, I saw this, and I've read extracts of Robert Nelson's comments on sport in The Age. I wish the arts had more funding in Australia, and I reckon sport could manage on far less despite my love for it!

    To be honest though, I'm not a big fan of art competitions anyway. I wish art didn't need to be competitive in this way, its cut-throat in enough other ways.

    As you say, it does seem a shame that the only way art can get such funding is when tied to sport in some way. Alas.

    P.S. By putting his runner on a treadmill I reckon Crooks makes a good point about athletes and the Red Queen. I prefer the tracking camera over the tread-mill mouse :-)