The other day I was watching the most recent TierZoo video, “The Rodent Tier List,” and I was struck by a musical lick that starts about 25 seconds in and runs to about 50 seconds.
In reality, I’m not entirely sure that the music in these videos is meant to be heard, and is probably there to take away some of the tedium of constant narration.
But, I knew this song.
Not what it was, but hearing it sent those shivers down your spine, where you know you’re hearing something that you’re familiar with, and better yet, it’s from your childhood.
I couldn’t place it. I knew it was a science show, I could remember generally what it looked like, even if I couldn’t remember what it was called. And, when you’re searching on the internet, it helps to have nice concise search terms.
So, it took me a little while to find what I was looking for, but I eventually found it:
The name of the show was Eyewitness, based on the children’s book series of the same name.
I found some full episodes of the show online and started watching through one, for old time’s sake and for an opportunity to enjoy the music. This led to a little research on the side about the how. I discovered that it was made by the BBC, which is kind of surprising, but also that it has a visual style designed to emulate that of the books on which it is based.
In the books, that takes the form of a lot of white space surrounding colorful pictures.
The Eyewitness television series borrows this aesthetic and transforms it into the 3rd dimension.
The very first thing that happens in the intro to the series is a dolphin leaping out of a pool, while the camera rotates. It lands in a picture that is on the wall, which is now the floor because of the camera rotation, and then the camera pans down to reveal that the wall-turned-floor is also a ceiling over the floor below.
There are some crazy relationships with orientation and gravity going on here. The camera rotates twice while passing through pictures during the rest of the intro, revealing that the floor in the next room was at a 90-degree angle of that in the previous one.
This isn’t just a party trick used for the introduction only.
It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about digital space. I’ll talk about how they use it in a moment, but first I want to take a moment to consider how much digital content remains fixed to two dimensions. There’s another dimension in which things can relate to each other, instead of being fixed to just two planes like they are on much of the internet and on our phones.
Think about the interesting relationships we should show between things by not only moving up and down and left and right, but also forwards and back. I know on Android phones, you can select between apps after viewing them in a somewhat 3-D space, but that’s not really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible here.
When transitioning between Eyewitness segments, the camera will pull back from the end of a scene, and reveal that it’s actually something akin to a painting on a wall in a museum. The camera generally pulls back, pans past something sitting in the digital museum, and then looks at another painting on the wall—the first frame of the next scene.
It’s hard to grasp how utterly revolutionary this is.
In film, you have some options for transitioning from one scene to the next. Famous transitions include the dissolve, the cutaway, the split edit, and the fade. And there’s also the wipe, which George Lucas loved:
However, the camera panning and zooming in the Eyewitness series is none of these. Sure, in an episode about Volcanos, for instance, there might be a few hard cuts within a scene, from a shot of an underwater volcano, to a different shot of an underwater volcano, to a third shot of the same, but when it comes time to transition to a new scene about Mount St. Helens, then you have the iconic camera move.
It pulls out of a painting and travels across the museum to the next one.
Now, there are three possible interpretations of this move.
First, it’s that it’s a transition in and of itself. This makes some intuitive sense, as it’s used to move between live-action scenes, but it fails to address the fact that there’s often narration during the movie, suggesting that it’s more of a scene.
Second, you could look at it like there are no transitions. It’s roughly akin to zooming out from a scene on one soundstage, rolling the camera to a new soundstage, and then zooming in. Since you wouldn’t have to splice film together during the editing stages to make this work, there is no transition.
Third, there are two transitions. Both are represented by the zooms that take place, one for the original zoom out, and one for the zoom into the next scene. The problem with that is that zooms generally aren’t regarded as transitions, so why would they be those here? Furthermore, there are no visual queues as to where one scene ends and the next begins. It’s literally impossible to say where their boundaries are.
I think the second option is the most accurate one, and that’s why I think this is such a big deal. Fades, wipes, dissolves, and cuts are part of the language and medium of film.
But Eyewitness, a children’s science show, of all things, has somehow transcended that and appears to have transcended that in a way that is hardly ever used, despite its appeal. And that’s kinda special.
It’s one of those things that proves one of the adages of Ratatouille true.
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”