Lens-Sense: On Seeing a World as Sensed by a Camera

Can a camera sense what a human eye cannot? This question was of great concern to early film theorists. It has since been rejuvenated by recent trends in contemporary cinema that present the photographic lens as transcending the limitations of human vision. In this article, I propose that camera-centric vision offers us particular ways of seeing the world. More particularly, I suggest that camera-centric images raise speculative ideas about what the world may look and feel like to technologies of (digital) reproduction and visualisation. In what follows, I will investigate how found footage horror and the films of American director Tony Scott enact a camera-centric vision, concentrating my analysis on scenes from V/H/S/2 (Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Timo Tjahjanto and Adam Wingard, 2013) and Deja Vu (Tony Scott, 2006).

Stylistically and thematically, these films seem far apart. Found footage horror deals with how non-human terrors appear to the human as well as how their appearances are effectuated by audiovisual recording technologies. The themes explored by Scott do not concern monsters or invisible terrors but a making visible of tensions and atmospheres that do not necessarily reside within or originate from any particular human character. His films make visible the tensions evoked in a given narrative situation, as well as the performative affective potentials of these atmospheres. What found footage horror and Scott’s films have in common is their creative use of cinema as a medium of speculation.

Following on from this speculative potential, my emphasis will be on the ‘what-if’ questions raised by these films. I pursue this emphasis by addressing how camera-centric vision makes sight visible according to certain parameters. The films that I examine experiment with camera-centric vision, challenging and re-negotiating these parameters. This raises the question of what it is that camera-centric vision makes visible and how this phenomenon is positioned in relation to other more established modes of cinematic vision. My focus is on how camera-centric vision performs and renders visible affective relations. Visualising relations of affect, camera-centric images make a-subjective intensities perceptible to the human observer.

The visualisation of affect is a consistent theme in film history. What makes found footage horror and the films of Tony Scott especially innovative is that they visualise affect in more explicitly mediated and camera-specific forms. My analysis thus revokes revelationist trends in classic film theory while at the same time offering a complementary perspective on how digital images present medium-specific traces. [1] Recent discussions about the ontological status of images often point to the prevalence of analogue traits in digital pictures. [2] Concurrently, such images are addressed as self-reflective. They are seen as both commenting upon their own mediated status and inviting a meta-perspective on a media-saturated contemporary culture. [3] These images are also analysed as a particular case of precarious or ‘noisy’ media [4] ; as instances of post-continuity cinema [5] ; or, more specifically, as an aspect of the post-perceptual qualities of post-cinematic media. [6] My focus on camera-centric vision complements these concerns, while also seeking to address the particular speculative and affective scenarios raised by the films that I discuss.

Establishing a View through a Lens
Contemporary cinema and visual media often include traces of photographic production. This trend is most clearly seen in imagery that directly acknowledges the presence of a camera, such as in faux documentaries or the tradition of found footage fiction cinema. At a more implicit level, the inclusion of medium-specific formal characteristics such as lens flares, out-of-focus shots, shaky camerawork, lens cracks or splatter, fast motion, slow shutter speeds and grainy surveillance footage acknowledge the images’ mediated status and gestures towards the presence of a physical camera. This tendency is what I label as ‘camera-centric vision’ in contemporary cinema. It occurs when images explicitly present themselves from the vantage point of a photographic lens.

Camera-centric vision is not determined by its mode of production. Oftentimes, the traces of a camera-centric view are inscribed as a visual effect, even in cases where the image is entirely generated through digital computer graphics without any photographic source materials. This is for instance seen in the prevalent introduction of lens flares in digital animation and computer games.

Special effects are integral to digital image production. [7] Indeed, visual effects are no longer special but are closely ingrained within contemporary filmmaking. They permeate not only post-production but also the preparation and execution of photographic stages of image production. [8] Even though cinema has arguably never been an exclusively photographic medium and visual effects have always been integral to cinematic production, digital tools have diminished the role of photography in the making of cinematic imagery. [9]

This is not to say that the camera itself is becoming obsolete, however. In everyday life, cameras are ubiquitous and ingrained with numerous other technologies such as cell phones, tablets or webcams. With the rise of contemporary digital media, camera-generated images are more prolific than ever before. At the same time as the production-based role of photographic imagery in cinema is receding, we are witnessing an overflow of user-generated photographic content. This is the context within which the current prevalence of camera-centric vision can be situated, pointing towards the omnipresence of cameras in contemporary culture and the waning of photography-based image production. Even as camera-centric vision is becoming a more active and visible presence in the cinema, the technology of the camera is becoming less central as a determining factor in its production.

Historically speaking, cinema has always presented its audiences with images of the world as seen through a lens. Cinematic images typically originate from a camera and audiences are in most cases well aware of this fact. In influential cinematic traditions such as classical Hollywood cinema, the mediation of the image has largely remained implicit and masked by standards such as continuity editing. [10] Images are here oriented towards transparency (a clear and unobstructed view of the world). The classical model of transparency is not a given neutral standard, however. Transparency is itself always particular, operating according to certain parameters that define how views are presented to audiences.

Film Sees
The transparent image is modelled on human vision, whereby cinematic conventions are broadly directed towards creating a semblance of human perception. [11] I do not hereby claim that all cinematic images present the world as seen through the eyes of a human individual (as if cinema consisted of nothing but point-of-view shots). Rather, cinematic transparency is modelled on translating how a scene would appear to a(n) implicit or imaginary human observer (no matter the likelihood or realism of the shot actually originating from a human spectator). Human-centric cinematic vision has been paradigmatic across film history and is still a predominant mode.

My distinction between camera-centric and human-centric cinematic vision should not be seen as a binary opposition. All cinematic images reveal both mediation and an anthropocentric bias. [12] On the one hand, an image reflects its technological mediation and, on the other hand, it renders sights discernible for the perspective of a human observer. Both always-already present, these two characteristics can be more or less explicit. The mediated status of an image can veer towards the invisible (as in a model of transparency) or it can be made explicit (as in camera-centric vision). Likewise, the views presented can be more or less anchored in human vision. It would be hard to even imagine what a non-human-centred image would look like; especially since all available imaging technologies are assembled according to anthropocentric parameters and aimed towards rendering sights visible to the human observer. A camera-centric image is thus not presenting an a-human view on the world. Rather, it presents a view that is explicitly anchored in a technological apparatus that is itself tailored towards human vision. The question, then, is whether or not camera-centric vision enables new sights for human observers.

Film offers a mode of seeing and a mode of thinking. [13] This is true for all films, although different films will offer different modes of seeing and thinking. Although some films make their particular mode of seeing and/or thinking explicit for the viewer, we tend to approach film as the representation of a (diegetic) world, in a more or less accurate manner. However, once we start from the premise that film sees and thinks, new sets of questions emerge. How does a film see, what does it see, and from which perspective? How does it think, what does it think, and how are these thoughts presented? This forces us to question what it means to see and what it means to think. Can a mode of technological mediation see and think? Can a mode of technological mediation be a subject? To address these questions, it is imperative to approach film in non-anthropocentric terms. Film can be a seeing and thinking entity but not necessarily according to human-based models. Film can see and think differently than human beings.

Film Thinks
To understand film as a particular mode of thinking, Daniel Frampton proposes the concepts of the filmind and film-thinking. [14] Whereas the filmind designates a “concept of film-being” as “the theoretical originator of the images and sounds we experience”, film-thinking “is seen as the dramatic thinking of the filmind”. [15] Frampton names his theory of film form “filmosophy”, explicitly linking filmosophy to the prevalence of unreliable narrators and non-subjective point-of-view shots in contemporary film. [16] In other words, stylistic devices such as unreliable narration and non-subjective points-of-view emphasise film as a thinking mind. Film becomes something that introduces new ideas, sensations and vistas into the world.

Frampton warns against an anthropomorphic understanding of the filmind:

Phenomenological metaphors of human perception would limit the meaning possibilities of film (the camera would then be ‘another character’, and any non-human-like actions of the camera would be signs of excessiveness or reflexivity). Film-thinking resembles no one single kind of human thought, but perhaps the functional spine of human thinking – film-thinking seems to be a combination of idea, feeling and emotion. [17]

Freed from an anthropomorphic framework, the filmind is, in principle, unlimited. It becomes a speculative tool for introducing new and suggestive thoughts. Films can be analysed and classified according to their mode of thinking, by the thoughts and impressions they can offer. Films presenting non-human visions of the world that are explicitly anchored in technologies of recording and visualisation constitute one such emerging trend of film-thinking. Film such as V/H/S/2 and Deja Vu suggest what the world may look like to a camera, making camera-centric vision visible and sensible for human audiences.

As Frampton argues, “film becomes the creator of its own world, not from a ‘point’ of view, but from a realm, a no-place, that still gives us some things and not others”. [18] Film sees and thinks a world of its own making. This world may be connected to the worlds of the film’s audience but these worlds are never one and the same.

Even if we accept Frampton’s position as a starting point, it remains the case that film still tends to resemble the vision of a human observer. Frampton thus goes a step too far by making a clear-cut distinction between film-thinking and human thinking. [19] Since film operates along anthropocentric parameters and can never reach a fully autonomous state, human modes of thinking and seeing are always-already entwined with the film. This is not to say that the thoughts and visions offered are not those of the film itself, however. Film is genuinely performative. It translates and mimics how scenes and vistas would look like from any particular position or any particular subjectivity. Most importantly, these positions or subjectivities need not be human. They do not have to appear in a unified manner throughout a film, a scene or even a single shot. Films are free to speculate and roam between differing positions and realms of sensation and herein lies much of the medium’s appeal.

Camera-Centric Vision in Found Footage Horror
Found footage horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) and the Paranormal Activity series operate on the premise that cameras that are located within the diegetic universe of the film will record horror. [20] Explicitly working against the classical model of transparency, found footage horror indicates its mediated status. Cameras here do not operate just as recording mechanisms. They become actors, partaking in the events depicted and engaging the films’ audiences through their camera-centric visions. [21] Found footage is integral to the overarching plot, as the camera functions as the sole surviving witness to the horrific destinies of the films’ human subjects. [22]

In found footage horror, camera-centric vision provides us with the main vantage point on depicted events. Our access to the films’ events hinges on the continued operation and survival of the diegetic recordings. In addition, human characters within the film will engage with events and other characters through visibly mediated images. The killers, monsters and otherworldly beings that dominate these films are typically made manifest through camera-centric vision. Seemingly, the films insist on the superiority of camera-centric vision because cameras observe what is not visible to the human eye. For instance, Toby (the demon terrorising an assortment of families in the Paranormal Activity films) is visible only to cameras and to certain young children being targeted by the demon. While adults can feel Toby’s presence, they can only see the demon through a camera’s recording. The elaborate staging of visual recordings as well as the inclusion of scenes of characters scrutinising recorded materials are key operative elements in these films. They inform audiences as well as diegetic characters about the demon’s presence, making evident the affective horrors that the demon evokes.

Visualisations of monsters and demonic forces through new imaging technologies are common to the horror genre. However, the Paranormal Activity series takes this one step further. The camera-centric becoming of the demon constitutes what Steven Shaviro labels as a “new sort of post-cinematic – and post-phenomenological – apparatus”. [23] Here, horror derives from a performative assemblage wherein audiovisual recording devices and supernatural forces combine to create complicated feedback loops. Technological visualisation enables and intensifies the impact of the demon.

Camera-centric vision injects variation into the found footage formula in Phase I Clinical Trials, from the found footage anthology V/H/S/2. Following a car accident, a camera is implanted into the right eye of a young man (Adam Wingard, who also directs the segment) as a new prosthesis. After the surgeon completes this medical procedure, the entire segment is viewed from the perspective of the eye-cam. Upon returning home, the patient starts experiencing strange sights. He appears to be hunted by ghosts. These ghosts are made visible to him through his implanted eye-cam. [24] Once their presence is known, the ghosts start interfering with the young man’s life, escalating conflict between him and the undead spirits. Unable to bear the sight of the ghosts, the man eventually grabs a razor and digs the camera out from his eye socket. The eye-cam continues filming, capturing the sight of the man with blood running down his face. Still visible to the camera, the ghosts close in on the man. One of the ghosts kills him by grabbing the eye-cam and shoving it down his throat. The camera presents us with a distorted view that is filmed from inside his body, before the segment comes to a sudden end. [25]

In this film, camera-centric images are remarkably non-transparent. This tendency is especially the case when visualising the ghosts, as the images feature static and other glitches. While the eye-cam technology makes the ghosts visible, the ghosts introduce noise into the image transmission. Needless to say, this makes the ghosts appear even more horrific. Most importantly, the noise and the glitches originate in the images themselves. These effects are not the result of his subjective vision.

Camera-centric vision not only renders things visible: it introduces specific atmospheres and tensions into its imagery. What it presents is not so much the subjective experiences of the man who is being terrorised but the terrors that are being directed towards him. The images show what he sees and what makes him react, not what he subjectively feels. The man is made to experience, and react to, ghosts that the camera forces him to witness. The camera visualises, and thereby also actualises, the affective impact of the ghosts. Camera-centric vision here affects, and ultimately torments, the human character. The sights that are brought about by the eye-cam are both superior to human vision and beyond human control. They enable the young man, as well as the audience, to experience the horror of the ghostly beings. The camera triggers, intensifies and documents affective torment of the human. The man’s agency and his self-control are demolished as he is exposed to terrors brought about by camera-mediated images.

Visualising affect in Tony Scott’s Deja Vu
Tony Scott’s films flaunt camera-specific traits such as lens flares, blurs and alternate shutter speeds, frequently incorporating cameras within the diegesis. Recent theoretical attention directed towards Scott as a post-cinematic filmmaker has highlighted his preoccupation with visual technologies. [26] The director seamlessly makes use of human-centric and camera-centric modes of vision, without departing from the conventions of genre-oriented, Hollywood storytelling. Films such as Enemy of the State (1998), Spy Game (2001), Man on Fire (2004), Domino (2005) and Unstoppable (2010) integrate surveillance footage, television news and satellite imagery. The most radical instance of Scott’s preoccupation with visual technologies is the time-travel thriller Deja Vu. In this film, futuristic imaging technology can look back in time. This technology is utilised to investigate a ferry bombing and to save the life of a woman killed before the attack. The film’s protagonist, Carlin (Denzel Washington), an ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) special agent, gets involved in an FBI investigation and is introduced to the technology, named “Snow White”. By compositing multiple satellite images (all looking exactly four days, six hours, three minutes, 45 seconds, and 14.5 nanoseconds back in time), the investigative crew look for clues that might help explain the bombing.

As with found footage horror, cameras here can see what the human eye cannot. Cameras translate objects and events into sights that are discernible to the human eye. Human sight is presented as insufficient and in need of support from superior optical technologies. Scott’s work will often utilise camera-specific views to heighten the affective intensity of particular scenes. This tendency is evident in Deja Vu, when Carlin tells the crew to scrutinise the home of Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), the woman killed in the ferry attack. Tracking through the walls of her home, Snow White composes vibrant, three-dimensional images of Claire. Clearly infatuated by the imagery, Carlin stares intently at Claire, seeking eye contact with her image. Scott’s use of a camera-centric vision establishes an intense affective relationship between Carlin and Claire. This is not presented as a subjective vision or experience. Rather, it is presented as an encounter between a human subject and mediated imagery. As was the case with the Phase I Clinical Trials segment, we are not witnessing what Carlin feels but how he is made to feel something. The scene visualises the affective relations between Carlin and the mediated images that he perceives.

As indicated by this scene, affect becomes an adverbial distinction concerning the operative powers and potentials of cinematic imagery. [27] By adverbial I mean that affect is a matter of how an image does things, as a differential modality that also has performative capacities. When affective states are introduced through camera-centric views, we are not dealing with representations of human subjective experience. Instead, we witness tensions that affect the film’s characters. As viewers, we are positioned in the relation between human characters and camera-specific visions. In this case, this is the relation between the character of Carlin and the images of Claire that affect him. These images present the tensions, sensations and atmospheres to which Carlin is subjected. As audiences, we are invited to not only observe but to experience and feel these affective intensities. This is not to say that the audience will experience what the diegetic characters are presumably feeling. Rather, it is to suggest that camera-centric vision will make visible and lend discernible audiovisual form to affective sensations that move between characters and images.

To adopt the vocabulary of American philosopher Susanne Langer, I would propose that camera-centric vision gives symbolic form to feelings. Such images express “not actual feeling, but ideas of feeling”, thereby signifying the vital import of certain scenes. [28] This term is central in Langer’s aesthetic philosophy: import indicates “the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known”, while the qualifying adjective vital restricts “the relevance of ‘import’ to the dynamism of subjective experience”. [29] Hence, “vital import is the element of felt life objectified in the work, made amenable to our understanding”. [30] Similarly, camera-centric vision in contemporary cinema makes a scene discernible for a viewer by objectifying the affective tensions and atmospheres of depicted events.

What Phase I Clinical Trials and Deja Vu hint at is not merely a world captured by a camera but furthermore a world sensed and even affectively registered by a camera. Camera-centric vision transcends the limitations of human vision, giving visual form to a wider range of sensory experience. The images do not just make things more visible; they render visible what was not previously available to vision. Rather than magnifying or clarifying, a camera-centric vision translates one sensory or experiential modality into another (vision). In this regard, it is inscribed with the capacity to make visible what might be otherwise unavailable to human sight. Interestingly, this strategy seems at odds with cinema’s usual close alignment between the camera and a human point-of-view (thereby underscoring the subjective and personal about emotional experience). In camera-centric images, by way of contrast, affective intensities are located outside the domain of human subjectivity. At the same time, they translate the affective into sights that are discernible for human vision.

Sentience and Revelationist Film Theory
The concept of sentience is notoriously slippery and hard to pin down empirically. As stated by Steven Shaviro, “we are clearly sentient, and yet we do not know what sentience is, how it can exist, or what it means”. [31] Sentience, Shaviro argues, is a wider category than consciousness, preceding cognition. Before any reflexivity or information processing can take place, the ability must exist to register and respond to an environment. Sentience is not unique to living organisms. Most importantly, it need not be located in distinct beings. In other words, sentience can be a distributed quality, enacted through networks of relations as is most clearly exemplified by a beehive or an anthill. As argued by Shaviro, sentience can occur through networks of technological mediation.

By stressing the sentient qualities of a camera, I am not referring to the subjective experience of an emotion but the ability to register a sense impression or an affective intensity. Since its inception, cinema has registered such impressions. A range of stylistic techniques and devices have been used to create and/or capture atmospheres and sensations, rendering these visible for a human observer.

This evokes a central concern of classical film theorists such as Jean Epstein, Dziga Vertov, Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer. In his book Doubting Vision, Malcolm Turvey locates these film theorists within a revelationist tradition. In this context, the medium is seen to encompass an “ability to uncover features of reality invisible to human vision” and thus “reveal the true nature of reality to viewers”. [32] According to these early theorists, “certain cinematic techniques – the close-up, slow motion, time-lapse photography, editing – can reveal features of reality that are invisible in the sense that it is impossible for the human eye to see them without assistance”. [33] Their focus is on the insufficiency of human vision and how cinema, through its revelatory powers, can escape these limitations. [34]

To better explain how my perspective departs from this tradition, I would like to stress the differences between a focus on powers of revelation and a focus on processes of translation. While revelation focuses on a disclosure of what is insufficiently visual, translation focuses on what is fundamentally non-visual. This distinction further emphasises what Turvey sees as a critical mistake in revelationist film theory: namely, the conflation of empirically discernible visual phenomena (such as microbes) with things that are logically unavailable to vision (such as sounds or class-struggle). [35] Turvey sees this as an error that undermines trust in human perception. As it overplays the revelationist capacities of cinema, Turvey indicates a flawed use of perceptual concepts in film theory. [36]

Rejecting the revelatory capacities of cinema, Turvey makes the case that cinema can only present what is already potentially visible. Cinema can thus only make visible objects whose supposed invisibility is either due to our attention being directed elsewhere or because some optical aid is necessary to see such phenomena. [37] The “correct way of conceptualizing the relation between visual technologies and human perception”, Turvey argues, is that these technologies “extend our already existing capacity to see and know the world around us. They enable us to see further and know more than we would be able to do otherwise”. [38] Visual technologies extend and enable human perception. By claiming that camera-vision is not qualitatively different from human vision, Turvey operates within a model of enhanced transparency.

While Turvey indicates shortcomings in classical film theory, I find his model insufficient to capture what is innovative about camera-centric vision. Turvey draws a clear distinction between agents and ability: agents are physical entities that may have certain abilities such as seeing whereas abilities are qualities that can be exercised. [39] In other words, something that enables sight does not make it an agent. Turvey sees perception as a quality grounded in the ability to discriminate between or react to sensory stimuli. He acknowledges that “the camera can certainly help us do some of these things by recording and thereby enabling us to see what we would not be able to see otherwise” but maintains that “this does not mean that the camera performs these actions”. [40] He thus rejects revelationists and later theorists such as Deleuze who ascribe perceptive qualities to the camera as an agent in cinema. [41]

The camera can enable sight, Turvey claims, but it cannot be a seeing agent. [42] As the camera lacks the qualities of perception and consciousness, it “cannot behave like a sighted or conscious creature. It cannot recognize or fail to recognize an object, identify it or misidentify it, discover it or overlook it, pay attention to it or ignore it, watch it, observe it, scrutinize it, study it, or inspect it. Nor can it go blind or lose consciousness”. [43] Strikingly, Turvey’s long listing of perceptive capabilities rings close to a description of camera-centric vision as it is enacted in found footage horror and in Scott’s cinema. In these films, cameras behave like they are sighted and sentient (although not strictly conscious) creatures. They recognise or fail to recognise objects. They identify and misidentify, discover and overlook, pay attention to and ignore elements that can potentially be visualised. Cameras watch, observe, scrutinise, study and inspect the surrounding world. Cameras can even lose their sense of sight, as when their batteries run empty (a trope frequently explored in found footage horror).

These films perform modes of seeing that are not bound to an individual perceptive or to anthropomorphic agents. I thus find Turvey’s understanding of agency to be narrowly atomistic. In his perspective, agency can always be traced back to an instigating agent. If, however, we apply a model of distributed agency, then the agent is simply the network of factors that makes something happen. [44] As a network, agency is not bound to concrete entities (although these can be constituent parts of networks). Agency is distributed across a potentially unlimited number of relations. Abilities are network effects. Cameras cannot act or perceive as atomistic entities but neither can human beings. In order to observe and interact with the world, any entity (be it a camera or human) is dependent upon numerous other factors. These factors range from the rays of the sun to the interrelationship between camera and photographer. Any act of recording or observation is a collective performance. Cameras become sentient through their enactment by socio-material assemblages. The point here is not to conflate cameras with humans. As previously discussed with my examples of a camera-centric vision in film, a camera can act in a sentient manner but it is not thereby conscious. It has or rather it performs the quality of registering and articulating feelings and affective sensations. It lacks the reflective attributes needed to intellectually comprehend these registrations, however.

A World as Sensed by a Camera
As Turvey claims, the cinema:

vastly extends our capacity to observe what human beings have in common by recording people we would never be able to see without assistance and juxtaposing these recordings. This does not mean that the cinema is more mobile than human perception and can move through time and space instantaneously. [45]

However, this is exactly what is being suggested in Deja Vu where camera-centric images instantaneously transcend time and space. Of course, this is all a fictional ‘special’ effect that depends upon the film’s diegesis. Arguably, this is the case with all cinematic images: they are suggestions about how a sight can be made available for a human spectator. Cinematic images do not present any factual statements or truth claims. They offer ideas and speculations about worlds of their own making. The particular mode of operation of camera-centric images is akin to what Steven Shaviro sees as characteristic of science fiction; the images propose a “thought experiment, a way of entertaining odd ideas, and of asking off-the-wall what if? questions”. [46] Like science fiction, these films offer a way to “work to the weirdest and most extreme ramifications of these scenarios, and to imagine what it would be like if they were true”. [47] These films do not operate within the world of the real, at least not the real of the present time. They present us with fabulations about potential realities.

Camera-centric images in found footage horror and Tony Scott’s films invite thought experiments whereby audiovisual technologies can sense more than what is available to the human eye (and ear). The imagery brought about by these technological assemblages also has the capacity to affect the film’s human characters and viewers. These films translate scenes, atmospheres and affective relations that have no existence outside of their respective diegetic universes. In other words, there is no pro-filmic reality being translated that could otherwise be visible to human perception. [48] As a camera-centric vision brings things about, it indicates a constructive and demonstrative activity rather than a revelatory or perceptive one. As with Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the figure, these images present us with “the sensible form related to a sensation; it acts immediately upon the nervous system”. [49] As Deleuze discusses in his work on the painter Francis Bacon, the figure has nothing to represent. As opposed to figuration (which designates illustrative or figurative representations), the figure is not a copy or an illustration. It is fundamentally an act of sensation. Sensations are to be understood as particular moments or vibrations of intensity and movement. Acts of sensation are operative in terms of affect; acting “immediately upon the nervous system”. [50] In camera-centric vision, the particular powers of the image include similar potentials for engaging and affecting audiences.

As previously discussed, shots are typically linked to human/subjective experience and perception. This is in line with Turvey’s claim that emotion can be made visible through the display of facial expressions. [51] In contrast to this, the recent turn towards camera-centric vision locates the affective and the experiential outside of the human subject, explicitly presenting vision as technologically mediated. The anchoring of sensational qualities to the lens of a camera also shifts the relationship between affects and human subjects whereby the former is not subordinated to the latter. In other words, affect is presented not as subjectively felt emotion. Rather, it is rendered visible in an a-subjective and relational form. [52] By anchoring affect in camera-centric views, a film such as Deja Vu makes visible the affective relations through which subjects emerge. The affective is put before the subjective. Rather than watching the human being portrayed as the source of affect, we witness human subjectivity being constituted through a portrayal of affective relations. Phase I Clinical Trials makes this point even more explicit, illustrating the transformative powers of visualisation technologies in found footage horror. In these films, the main function of the human characters is to react to the sensations induced by camera-centric vision.

When Turvey allows for films to “endow the environment around characters with expressive qualities that reveal their true cognitive and affective states even when the characters themselves do not explicitly express them verbally or physically”, he remains tied to a model whereby the affective states of characters are expressed more or less transparently. [53] In this model, affect always remains the affect of someone. Furthermore, the affect of someone is what can be expressed: for instance, images of threatening clouds underscore a darkened mood or close-ups of items underscore the sentiment of a certain character. This differs from the sights that are made available through camera-centric vision as these present relational capacities to affect. This is what makes the camera sentient; it brings about felt tensions and atmospheres. Furthermore, these affective tensions have no visible existence outside of the camera-mediated image. Nothing is revealed, only articulated into a visually discernible experience. Translation is not to be conflated with replication. Rather, translation is a process of audiovisual articulation whereby expressive form is given to affective relations. The sentient camera articulates affective tensions, making these tensions visible to diegetic characters as well as the films’ audiences.

Scott’s films and found footage horror present a speculative cinema that explores the affective capabilities of camera-centric vision. These speculations are both nostalgic and futuristic, presenting foregone camera-specific stylistics and exploring the potentials of (imagined) technologies of digital reproduction. What remains constant is the preoccupation with the powers of visualisation technologies to transcend human sight. In these films, vision through a lens makes new sensations possible.

By translating affective intensities into sights that are visible to the human eye, camera-centric vision still remains tailored towards human perception. The human-centric visions of the cinema are not displaced by the rise of a camera-centric vision; if anything, these modes of vision are closely entwined. While camera-centric vision allows for a non-human-centered perspective on the world, it still takes place according to premises defined according to human parameters. These premises are social as well as material; cinematic images are made through practices and technologies directed towards making sights visible and intelligible to a human observer. Camera-centric views do not break with these parameters but take them one step further, rendering visible a wider range of sensory experience than what can be seen by the human eye. As such, the contemporary prevalence of camera-centric footage involves a transposition that adds new dimensions of sensory and affective experiences to human-centered forms of vision. Camera-centric vision hints towards modes of cinematic vision whereby non-visual sensations are translated into forms available for human sight. By anchoring these translations to a camera, affective sensations become presentable without being solidified within a human form.

In contemporary cinema, camera-centric vision can offer us suggestive experiments about what the world would look like to a sentient camera. This world looks neither human nor a-human. It is alien yet recognisable, bringing forward otherwise invisible affective potentials. What camera-centric vision illustrates is a form of cinema that makes explicit its potentials towards the translation of non-visible sensations into visible forms. Perhaps, what is most important about these films are the questions raised: What does the world look like to a camera? What does it feel like to perceive the world through the lens of a sentient camera?

[1] For a discussion of early revelationist film theory, see Malcolm Turvey, Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[2] See William Brown, Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age (New York: Berghahn, 2013); Markos Hadjioannou, From Light to Byte: Toward an Ethics of Digital Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Stephen Prince, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012); and D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
[3] See Caetlin Benson-Allott, Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Barry Keith Grant, “Digital Anxiety and the New Verité Horror and SF Film”, Science Fiction Film and Television, Vol. 6 No.2 (2013), pp. 153-175; Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014); and Nicholas Rombes, Cinema in the Digital Age (London: Wallflower Press, 2009).
[4] See Arild Fetveit, “Medium-Specific Noise” in Liv Hausken (ed.), Thinking Media Aesthetics: Media Studies, Film Studies and the Arts (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013), pp. 189-215 and Arild Fetveit, “Death, Beauty, and Iconoclastic Nostalgia: Precarious Aesthetics and Lana Del Rey”, NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies (Autumn 2015), https://necsus-ejms.org/death-beauty-and-iconoclastic-nostalgia-precarious-aesthetics-and-lana-del-rey/.
[5] See Steven Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (Winchester: Zero, 2010) and Steven Shaviro, “Post-Continuity: An Introduction” in Shane Denson and Julia Leyda (eds), Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film (Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016), http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/.
[6] See Shane Denson, “Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect” in Post-Cinema.
[7] Brown, Supercinema; Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. (Cambridge: MIT Press. 2001); and Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?” in Post-Cinema; and Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film.
[8] Brown, Supercinema; Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?”; Prince, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema, p. 56.
[9] Prince, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema, p. 98, p.155; Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film.
[10] David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
[11] William Brown, “Man Without a Movie Camera – Movies Without Men: Towards a Posthumanist Cinema?” in Warren Buckland (ed.), Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 66-85. For further discussion, see also Edward Branigan, Projecting a Camera: Language-Games in Film Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006); Denson, “Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect”; Stephen Prince, “Through the Looking glass: Philosophical Toys and Digital Visual Effects”, Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, Vol. 4 No.2 (2010), pp. 19-40; and Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
[12] Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) provides an interesting example in this regard, as it is a film that makes explicit both a camera-centric view and a human-centric perspective. In the film’s ‘motel scene’, the unnamed main character (Ryan Gosling) kills two invading mobsters. Having shot the final man with a shotgun, Gosling’s character looks up at the dead intruder. This look is followed by a point-of-view shot of the scene of the killing, also featuring blood splatter on the lens. Here, the camera-centric splattered lens is directly identified with a human character’s perspective. In other words, a point-of-view shot is rendered camera-specific.
[13] Film is not an exclusively visual medium of course. However, as my focus here is on its visual qualities and how these are explored through camera-centric images, I will not explicitly address film’s other sensory modalities.
[14] Daniel Frampton, Filmosophy (London: Wallflower Press, 2006).
[15] Ibid., p. 6.
[16] Ibid., p. 6 and p. 76.
[17] Ibid., p. 7.
[18] Ibid., p. 38.
[19] See John Mullarkey, Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 128-129.
[20] The series comprises Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010), Paranormal Activity 3 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2011), Paranormal Activity 4 (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2012), and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Gregory Plotkin, 2015). An official spin-off, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Christopher Landon) was released in 2014. An unofficial Japanese sequel, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (Toshikazu Nagae), was released in 2010.
[21] Xavier Aldana Reyes, “The [•REC] Films: Affective Possibilities and Stylistic Limitations of Found Footage Horror” in Linnie Blake and Xavier Aldana Reyes (eds), Digital Horror: Haunted Technologies, Network Panic and the Found Footage Phenomenon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), pp. 149-160; Steven Shaviro, “The Glitch Dimension: Paranormal Activity and the Technologies of Vision” in Martine Beugnet, Allan Cameron and Arild Fetveit (eds), Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), pp. 316-333.
[22] Kjetil Rødje, “Intra-diegetic cameras as cinematic actor assemblages in found footage horror cinema,” Film-Philosophy, Vol. 21 No.2 (2017), pp. 206-222.
[23] Shaviro, “The Glitch Dimension: Paranormal Activity and the Technologies of Vision”, p. 324.
[24] The segment makes it clear that the ghosts had already been there prior to the presence of the camera. It is the prosthetic eye-cam that makes their appearance visible, however.
[25] For a further discussion of this segment see Rødje, “Intra-diegetic”.
[26] See Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect and Michael Loren Siegel, “Ride into the Danger Zone: TOP GUN (1985) and the Emergence of the Post-Cinematic” in Post-Cinema.
[27] Any relation that develops between two or more entities effectuates a capacity to affect these entities. This capacity cannot be reduced to the qualities or characteristics of any of the parts making up this relation nor to a sum of any such parts. Although influenced by any such qualities, affect is never fully determined by its constituent parts. Affect is genuinely singular and processual. Any relation brings about a potential to affect the parties involved. This definition is in line with the influential Deleuzian-inspired perspective of Brian Massumi who discusses affect as an a-subjective relational intensity that is placed outside of a realm directly available to empirical scrutiny. There is no empirical access to affect as such, only to its effects and reverberations. Although material, affective capacities are incorporeal and without any given location or origin. Affect is something that happens and that can make things happen when a relation occurs. In other words, affect is the intensity that introduces a creative and unforeseen potential into any relation. It is an undetermined surplus that makes the world unpredictable and that introduces potentials for change. See Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).
[28] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), p. 59, emphasis omitted.
[29] Ibid., pp. 31-32.
[30] Susanne K. Langer, Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures (New York: Scribner’s, 1957), p. 60.
[31] Steven Shaviro, Discognition (London: Repeater, 2015), p. 8.
[32] Turvey, Doubting Vision, p. 3.
[33] Ibid., p. 5.
[34] Ibid., p. 9. These authors’ focus on the revelatory powers of cinema can be demonstrated by quotes such as:

“There can be no doubt that film has uncovered a new world that had been previously covered up. It has uncovered the visible world surrounding man and his relation to it”, Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), p. 99).
“Film renders visible what we did not, or perhaps even could not, see before its advent”, Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 299.
“I am kino-eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it”, Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 17.

[35] Turvey, Doubting Vision, pp. 12-14.
[36] Turvey argues against Balázs’ view that “Economic and political forces have no visible form and thus cannot simply be photographed for a newsreel. They can, however, be rendered visible”. See Balázs, Early Film Theory, p. 154.
[37] Turvey, Doubting Vision, pp. 73-74.
[38] Ibid., p. 113, emphasis in original.
[39] Ibid., p. 17.
[40] Ibid., p. 95.
[41] Ibid., p. 96.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid., p. 95.
[44] See Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[45] Turvey, Doubting Vision, p. 126.
[46] Shaviro, Discognition, p. 8.
[47] Ibid., p. 9.
[48] I should make it clear that this argument does not deny the indexical status of cinematic imagery or the existence of a pro-filmic reality. Although imagery can present indexical traces to the pro-filmic, the cinematic diegesis as such is exclusive to the imagery presented to the viewer.
[49] Gilles Deleuze (trans. Daniel W. Smith), Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 31.
[50] Ibid., p. 31.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Massumi, Parables for the Virtual.
[53] Turvey, Doubting Vision, p. 121.

About the Author

Kjetil Rødje

About the Author

Kjetil Rødje

Kjetil Rødje is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of Images of Blood in American Cinema: The Tingler to The Wild Bunch (Ashgate/Routledge 2015) and co-editor with Casper Bruun Jensen of Deleuzian Intersections: Science, Technology, Anthropology (Berghanh Books 2010). His current research is centred on the intersections of media theory and affect theory.View all posts by Kjetil Rødje →