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The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer

CreativeCOW presents The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer -- TV & Movie Appreciation Editorial


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Palm Springs California USA
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When I heard about the documentary "Tim's Vermeer" at the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival, it sounded kind of interesting. Here's the description from the festival program:


Any good mystery begins with a series of unanswered questions that get under the skin. In the case of Tim's Vermeer, the fascinating and quirky documentary by magician team Penn (who produces and talks) and Teller (who directs and stays mum), the questions piled up fast when Tim Jenison, a rather obsessive inventor friend from San Antonio described his current fixation with the 17th-century Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer: "How did Vermeer paint with a photo-realistic detail that seems practically impossible to render with the human eye?"

What if, in fact, Vermeer didn't really paint his paintings from his mind's eye, but copied them from an optical contraption that projected images onto a wall? If this were true, wouldn't it be possible for someone with no painting expertise to duplicate this technique and produce a work of "art" just as effectively as Vermeer?

What if Tim was just crazy enough to tackle this experiment? What if Penn & Teller captured this whole cockamamie enterprise on film and called it Tim's Vermeer? On second thought, it's too farfetched. Never mind. Don't go see this movie.



Duplicating a Vermeer, Penn & Teller, a witty catalog description, a maniac named Tim: this combination was a no-brainer.

But wait. This "rather obsessive inventor friend" Tim isn't just any obsessive inventor. He's one of the most important figures in the desktop video revolution. You may not know his name, but you know the name of his most famous invention.

The NewTek Video Toaster.

Calling the Toaster the first shot in the desktop video revolution is an understatement. The Video Toaster added high quality, high performance video cards to an Amiga personal computer, and a software suite that included LightWave 3D. There had never been this combination of video and graphics power in one place, at any price -- and it happened that the price was incredibly cheap, only $2399.


NewTek Video Toaster
NewTek Video Toaster


When the Video Toaster was released in 1990, there was no Adobe Premiere. No Avid Film Composer or Media 100. This was before CoSA After Effects, before Photoshop was released, even before QuickTime. It was long before Final Cut Pro, of course. In fact, when Tim founded NewTek along with Paul Montgomery in 1985, the Mac was still limited to strictly black and white, on a 9-inch screen.

For a while there, Toaster was very nearly the entirety of the desktop video revolution.

The revolution of Toaster wasn't just that individuals could create video on desktop computers. It was that they could create 100% broadcast spec-compliant video. The combination of features, price and exceptional image quality led to NewTek's 1993 Emmy Award "For Developments in Television Engineering," singling out the Video Toaster.

Tim is the first to admit that the Toaster is also remembered for its cheesy-looking graphics, and its distinctively playful video effects and transitions, but, as he notes, "they were broadcast quality cheesy-looking graphics."

(As someone with a video production company in those days, I can testify that the cheesiness was more endearing than anything else.)

In Tim's mind, quality wasn't just a prerequisite for broadcasting. It was, and is, an obsession.

Tim has had a lot of obsessions along the way. Over the course of our conversation he variously described himself as a film geek, a darkroom geek, an electronics geek, and an audio geek (are you sensing a theme?), but, ironically for this tale, most certainly not an art geek.

Still, it's inevitable that a photography / film / electronics / video / image quality nerd would look at art a little differently than most other people. In Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Tim saw a kindred spirit: somebody interested in capturing the world with uncanny detail.

The more closely Tim looked at Vermeer's work, the more he became convinced that Vermeer was using technology to aid the creation of his art. He became certain that this included Vermeer's variation on camera obscura, a system of lenses and mirrors to project images. The idea had been around for centuries by Vermeer's day, but better lenses were making camera obscura more useful for painters. These new, improved lenses allowed them to project high quality images on a board or canvas, to use as a guide for creating their paintings.

Tim was certain that that's how Vermeer was able to create such photorealistic pictures. So certain that, having never painted before, he became confident that he could paint something very much like Vermeer, and very nearly as well. He decided to try and duplicate The Music Lesson.



The Music Lesson


As crazy as that sounds, it gets a lot crazier. Tim built a full-scale replica of the room in the painting. The details went all the way down to the pattern on the rug and the paper decorating the exact model of harpsichord in the picture -- which Tim built himself. He lathed and milled all the furniture. He made his own paints and brushes using materials that Vermeer would have used.

Tim even ground the lenses himself, using 17th century methods.

Spoiler Alert: Tim pulls this thing off.

With no real painting experience, he successfully recreates The Music Lesson, with closer to Vermeer-like quality than you'd ever imagine -- and art world chaos ensues. Could Vermeer possibly have worked this way? If he did, did his reliance on technology make him less of an artist?

Actually, I'm not giving anything away at all when I tell you that Tim succeeds. As Tim's Vermeer goes along, the film becomes a little less the story of Tim painting a Vermeer. It becomes the story of the obsessions that drove Tim to take his ideas as far as possible, and then a few steps past that.

Think of this as a Penn & Teller-style reveal. The way they show how they're about to perform the trick before they show you the trick. The reveal before the trick actually adds to the magic, because you know exactly what's coming, and you still can't believe your eyes.

There's no smoke in Tim's Vermeer, but there are mirrors -- which makes the result no less magic. You now know exactly what you're going to see, you're going to see it, and you're still not going to believe it.

Until you do.



'Tim's Vermeer' Trailer (2014): Tim Jenison, Penn Jillette


The unlikely story that became the unlikely documentary Tim's Vermeer has had an overwhelmingly positive response, with festival plaudits from around the world, and a 93% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

You've likely picked up by now that I'm a Tim Jenison fan, and a Penn & Teller fan. I also adore the movie, Tim's Vermeer, that these three made together. This leaves me anything but objective. Trust me, though. It's going to work out fine. You're going to be amazed by this wild ride through the obsessions that tie together Tim, the Toaster, and Vermeer.







Creative COW: Long before Tim's Vermeer, the place that most of us got to know you was through the Video Toaster. What was the origin of that?


Tim Jenison, NewTek: I was a film geek, and an electronics geek as a kid. I had an uncle work for IBM, and my dad was an electrical engineer, so I learned by osmosis. I was also a darkroom nerd and made some 8mm movies, so when video equipment started to become cheap, I latched onto it.

When personal computing came along, I glommed onto that too. I always felt that video and personal computers belonged together, and that at some point, personal computers would become useful for video production.

They just weren't up to the task at the time. The IBM PC was only a few colors, the Mac was black and white, and neither was fast enough. The Amiga computer wasn't fast enough either, but it was the first one that was video-centric, so I was able to graft on some high-performance video circuitry.


You weren't just interested in performance, though.

I knew that quality was important, because the gatekeepers of video at the time were the networks and television stations, and chief engineers were not easy to please. I figured if there was anything wrong with the video, it would be a great excuse not to allow a Toaster on the air.

I dug into all the specifications, like the RS-170A spec, which describes what video is supposed to be like for broadcast quality, and I made sure the Toaster would meet that spec. You know, there were some cheesy-looking graphics on the Toaster, but they were broadcast-quality cheesy-looking graphics.

The acid test came just after we shipped the Toaster. We went on a network television show, Computer Chronicles on PBS, to demonstrate it. While we were setting up, I said to one of the engineers, "If you want, you can take a cable from the Toaster, and plug it into your switcher for a clean feed."

He said to me [in a condescending tone], "You've got to understand, computers are not compatible with broadcast video." I said, "Well, this one is compatible with the RS-170 spec," and he looked at me like, "Ah, the monkey speaks English!"

(Laughter)

Behind him was a guy with a baseball cap and a coil of coax, and he plugged us in. As he does, he looks into the control room where there's a commotion going on. I ask him what's happening and he says, "A bunch of guys made bets whether this would actually meet the RS-170 spec" -- and the guys who bet against us lost the bet!


You started NewTek with other products, but did you get a sense what you were on to when you came up with Toaster?

Yeah, I did. I grew up in the days of three networks, and by the time we came out with Toaster, it was 36 channel cable, and it looked like that trend was going to continue, that there would be more and more video production. But it was inherently very expensive. I knew that if I could do something that was 10 times cheaper than the traditional way that it would be successful.

And the Toaster was successful, and a lot of people got into video production. Once the internet came along, and streaming video, Pandora's box was opened.


That's where TriCaster starts to fit in, right?

We called it "tri," meaning three, because your program output can go three places. It can go to standard video, like to tape or a hard drive. It can go out to a projector for image magnification for live events. The third is streaming to the web, and it can do all three things simultaneously.

Also, "TriCaster" sounds like "Telecaster," which is one of my favorite guitars. It also sounds like "Tricorder" from Star Trek. It was a combination of all those things.




Fender Telecaster


Okay, this is a little sideways from the film, but I want to hear about you and the Fender Telecaster guitar.

I played in several rock bands, for four or five years. I designed a synthesizer, and my very first product for a personal computer was an automated mixdown system for 8-track recording studios, called Mixmaster. I only sold a handful of them, but it was my first production product, and music has been on the side for me ever since.


In his warehouse in San Antonio, Texas, Tim Jenison plays the viola de gamba he used to furnish his Vermeer room. Photo by Natalie Jenison, (c) Tim Jenison, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
In his warehouse in San Antonio, Texas, Tim Jenison plays the viola de gamba he used to furnish his Vermeer room. Photo by Natalie Jenison, © Tim Jenison, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.


This actually is connected to the film then, because your side interests take you to a lot of unexpected places. Where does art fit in?

You know, I've never been a real art nut, but I did take an art history class in high school. One day, my teacher, Mr. Thorpe, was showing slides of a lot of different painters. We got to the Dutch golden age, and I raised my hand and said, "These guys are basically trying to make color photographs, aren't they?"

He took offense to that. He took umbrage. "That's not what this is about! This is about narrative, composition...." It was kind of embarrassing. (Laughs.) I don't know why he reacted so strongly, but I sure do remember it. Maybe this Vermeer film is revenge against Mr. Thorpe, because I set out to prove that Vermeer really was making a kind of color photograph.


It's a long way from high school to where the film picks up, though. What happened in between?

It actually started about 2002. My daughter gave me a book by David Hockney, called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. He talks about how art changed very suddenly in the late Renaissance, and became much more photoreal. He theorized that it must have been due to breakthroughs in optics that happened at the same time.

Hockney mentions another book, called Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces by Phillip Steadman, and that's what got me going.

One of the pictures in Steadman's books is, side-by-side, the Vermeer painting The Music Lesson, and a miniature tableau that he built for his book, sort of a Barbie doll scale version of the room Vermeer painted.

As I looked at the two, I realized I was seeing something impossible, especially the way the light fell off along the back wall in Vermeer's painting. As a video guy, I know that that's a really hard thing to see. Our retinas filter out that level of detail before it gets to our brain. They try to make a white wall look more uniform than it actually is. That got me thinking: Vermeer must have had some way to observe those paint colors that is more precise than the eyeball.

I was lying in the bathtub one night and it occurred to me that you could this very simply, with a mirror.


Let's back up a second. Why did Hockney make the connection between more realistic painting and better optics? What do optics and painting have to do with each other?

Throughout history, even to pre-historical cave paintings, people have attempted realism -- but somewhere in the 1500s, it started to really, really change. Hockney was mostly thinking about perspective, the way that artists got their shapes and angles correct for the first time.


17th century illustration of camera obscura, a system of lenses and mirrors that projected images that artists could use as a guide for their work.
17th century illustration of camera obscura, a system of lenses and mirrors that projected images that artists could use as a guide for their work.


Hockney realized that with better and better lenses, the camera obscura could project an image that must have been pretty amazing to somebody in the Renaissance. It looked like a video projector. Actually, some people would put on plays outside, then project the images through a lens to an audience sitting indoors, in the dark -- basically, watching television, hundreds of years ago.

So when I look at Vermeer, I don't just see something realistic. I see something impossible.


And now you're thinking about Vermeer and lenses.

Yes. The trick is that you have to match every color, every white, along that wall, on the way to almost pure black. Every spot on the wall has a different color. So Vermeer painted according to the laws of physics, the way that light actually behaves.





Here are two enlargements of sections of the wall seen in The Music Lesson. Note that nearly every point on the wall has a completely different color.


This raises a couple of questions for me. The first is, why this particular Vermeer?

I was mostly interested in the lighting. You could also reconstruct the room based on that painting. It's that good. You know where the light sources are, because you can see the windows on the left side of the room. You only see two of them in the painting, but you see the reflection of a third in the vase.

That meant I could build a room of the right size and shape, I could build windows of the right shape and size, and then I could test my theory about how Vermeer worked, in a space that was virtually identical to the one he worked in.


There's my other question. How do you get from an idea in the bathtub about how Vermeer did it, to actually wanting to build that exact room to prove your point?

My first experiment was to take a black and white photograph -- it happened to be my father-in-law's high school picture -- and prop it up on a table. Then just in front of it, I put down a board to paint on. Then I put a small mirror that was exactly at the midpoint between these two things, at a 45 degree angle. If you get the mirror in exactly the right spot, it's easy to tell when you've made the colors exactly match.





It was my first oil painting ever, and what I ended up with was hardly distinguishable from the original photograph. That's when I said, okay, I'm on to something.


You can see Tim's first painting using his invention, the comparator mirror and a photograph of his father-in-law, closer to the finished version. Photo by Luren Jenison, (c) 2013 Tim Jenison, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
You can see Tim's first painting using his invention, the "comparator mirror" and a photograph of his father-in-law, closer to the finished version. Photo by Luren Jenison, © 2013 Tim Jenison, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.


I started searching for more about this online, because I couldn't believe that somebody hadn't done it -- but apparently, no one has.

So I mentioned this experiment to Penn Jillette as we were having dinner one night, and he said, "What are you going to do with this?" I said, "I want to paint something that looks like a Vermeer. I'll get some Dutch-looking furniture, put it in a room, and see if I can paint from it. Then I'll make a YouTube video about it or something."

"That's a stupid idea," he said. "This could be a real documentary." From that point on, it was Penn's project. It took on a life of its own, and it became far more ambitious.


At this point, you now believe that you've understood the physical mechanism mediating between the room that Vermeer saw, and the one he painted. But now, you transition to wanting to actually do it. To actually paint a Vermeer, the same way you think Vermeer did. How did that happen in your mind?

I thought that if I was right, that it was important. An important part of art history.

It also seemed to me that the way I could prove I was right about how he did it was to end up with something that looks very much like a Vermeer. I could have started with a modern scene, with a TV set in it or whatever. It could be Vermeer-like, but it wouldn't make the same connection that it would if it looked like one of the Vermeers.

So I really liked Penn's idea. I thought that the film would be a great way to get this idea out there, where it would cause more ripples.


How did you go about building the room that this particular painting is set in?

First of all, you can tell what all these things are.

The harpsichord in the painting was made by the Ruckers family, famous Flemish harpsichord builders. These are still in museums. It's decorated with printed paper, with a standardized pattern that you can still get. That chair -- those are still in museums. We found a carpet expert who told us exactly about the one in the painting, a Turkish medallion rug, and we were able to find one that was very similar.


Tim measuring the exact replica of the harpsichord in Vermeer's The Music Lesson that he built to furnish his Vermeer room. Photo by Tim Jenison, (c) 2013 Tim Jenison. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.
Tim measuring the exact replica of the harpsichord in Vermeer's The Music Lesson that he built to furnish his Vermeer room. Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 Tim Jenison. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.


The harpsichord and the chair, as well as the window frames, those are kind of unusual. You can't buy them. They would have to be built.

I actually tried to get somebody to build them for me, but everyone flaked out. (Laughter). San Antonio is a fairly large city, but I just couldn't find anyone to do it. I decided that I had to do it myself.


Tim Jenison lathes one of the legs for the furniture he built for his Vermeer room. Photo by Tim Jenison, (c) 2013 Tim Jenison. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.
Tim Jenison lathes one of the legs for the furniture he built for his Vermeer room. Note the name badge sewn onto Tim's shirt: Geek. Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 Tim Jenison. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.


We have this machine shop at NewTek that we use to create prototypes of our products. It includes a metalworking lathe, and a big CNC [ed. note: computer numerical control] milling machine, and I knew how to operate it all. I thought if I could get a computer model of that furniture, I could feed it into the milling machine and make this stuff myself.

It sounded pretty easy, but it was a lot of work, a lot of details. I built the harpsichord, and that Spanish chair with the lion heads, and the window frames. It took about a year to do all that, but by the time I finished, I was basically standing in Vermeer's painting.


Tim Jenison nearly falls asleep polishing a lens. For his experiment, Jenison made his own 17th century lens. 
Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.Tim Jenison with one of the experimental optical devices he built. 
Photo by Shane F. Kelly, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved
Above left, Tim nearly falling asleep while polishing one of the lenses he ground. Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved. Above right, Tim Jenison with one of the experimental optical devices he built. Photo by Shane F. Kelly, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved
Tim Jenison made all the glass lenses for his camera obscura by hand, using 17th century methods.
Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 Tim Jenison. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.
Tim made all the glass lenses for his camera obscura by hand, using 17th century methods. Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 Tim Jenison. Used with Permission. All Rights Reserved.

So now you sit down to paint.

It's not quite that simple. I thought I could just use a lens to project a camera obscura image onto a white card, and paint the same way that Vermeer did.

In theory, that works. In practice, when I set the machine up in the room, the image was too fuzzy and dark. If I'd used a modern lens, it probably would have been sharp enough, but with a simple lens that Vermeer would have had, it was just too fuzzy. I couldn't see the details on the harpsichord.


A magnified view of the harpsichord in Vermeer's The Music Lesson.

A magnified view of the harpsichord in Vermeer's The Music Lesson.


At that point, Teller came interview me, and he said, "You think this is gonna work?" I said, "Well, I think it'll work. I've got this problem, though." He said, "You know, if it doesn't work, it's going to be a very different movie." I said, "We're not going to make this film if it doesn't work," and he said, "Oh yes we are."


He's right. There would still be a story.

One that's extremely embarrassing to me, and I didn't want that. (Laughter)

So I sat there, playing with stuff, stressing over it, and one day, I discovered the solution to it, which was to add a second mirror. Suddenly, everything was bright and clear, and from that point, I was ready to paint.


But at this point, you'd only painted that single black and white painting.

I'd also done some experiments using a color photograph, and I did some experiments with paint brushes, but essentially, yes, my second oil painting.

I thought it was a simple extension to go from my father-in-law picture to a Vermeer, but I really wasn't prepared for the sheer amount of work it was.


You mentioned that you needed to build some 3D models. How did LightWave factor into how you managed to execute this?

LightWave was extremely useful. First I made a model of Vermeer's room. In LightWave you can set up a background image to work against, so I used Vermeer's painting and started building objects on top of that image. I laid out the basic parts of the room -- the floor, the ceiling, the corner -- and then started to lay in some of the basic lighting.

Then I built a model of the legs of the harpischord, these lathe-turned spindles that the harpsichord sits on. I didn't have to make a detailed model of the harpsichord itself, because there's a guy in Scotland who has already done this. He restores harpsichords, and I bought the blue prints for this harpsichord from him.

I found one of those Spanish chairs with the lion heads in Holland, and I took a zillion photographs from all different angles so I could make a 3D model of it. Again, I had the lathe-turned spindles, but the tricky part was the lion heads on the top. They're three or four inches tall, and once I built them in 3D, I had to carve them on the milling machine.


Tim working with NewTek LightWave 3D.
Tim has placed a photograph of Vermeer's The Music Lesson to use as a guide for the scene he is building in NewTek LightWave 3D software. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.


Once I had all the models in the computer, before I even started building the room, I could run all these lighting models, seeing how light affected the room in various ways, simulating angles of the sun. The sun does come directly in, in late summer afternoons, from nominally north-northwest facing windows, in both Vermeer's room and mine.

Direct light from the sky, though, did not give me Vermeer-like results. I discovered that everything worked great once I had diffusers over the windows. This is actually mentioned in painting manuals from Vermeer's time, that you could use oil paper over the windows to give you a really uniform light, kind of like using a lightbox in modern photography. LightWave was the perfect tool for working that out.

I had to learn more about LightWave than I ever wanted to, though. You have to turn on every feature of LightWave to get this accurate. I actually had to build a 24-core Pentium machine so that I could work and not have to wait days for every test render.

(Laughter.)

But it was fun. I had a lot more confidence going in because I started in LightWave.


Tim Jenison assembles one of the experimental optical devices he built. Photo by Shane F. Kelly, (c) 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
Tim Jenison assembles one of the experimental optical devices he built. Photo by Shane F. Kelly, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.


You pull this off in ways that are impossible to describe, which is part of what makes the movie such a pleasure. It raises the question though, about the difference between art and technology.

What you've basically done is come up with a technological solution to what could be considered an artistic, or even a philosophical question, which is, What is the nature of ART?

You know, this is a big can of worms.

One of the worms is, do you consider photography to be art? Some people do, some people don't. Some people say that what I've described as Vermeer's method boils him down to some kind of photographer. I don't agree with that, but that's a question.

Another question is, are movies art? Because we certainly use technology to create movies. Movies are technology, but they also incorporate all the arts -- literature, music, so on. I think it's the fine art of our day, and we use any technology we can get our hands on to get the best possible image.


Tim Jenison (right) adjusts the wig on Graham Toms (left) who modeled as the gentleman for Tim's painting. 
Photo by Shane F. Kelly, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
Tim Jenison (right) adjusts the wig on Graham Toms (left) who modeled as the gentleman for Tim's painting. Photo by Shane F. Kelly, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.


In Vermeer's day, the fine art would have been oil painting, and we know that artists at that time were striving for maximum realism. They said that they were. They wanted those paintings to look like you were looking through a window. I don't think Vermeer would have been ashamed to use this technology.

Long before Vermeer, artists were using mechanical aids to achieve this. Leonardo talked a lot about them [nearly 200 years earlier]. There were manuals about how to do this in Vermeer's day. We may not have found all the things I think he used in his studio, but he might have kept it a secret, not out of shame, but because there were trade guilds. You had to keep some secrets.


Tim Jenison discovers a mistake in Vermeer's original painting of The Music Lesson.
Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved
Tim Jenison discovers a mistake in Vermeer's original painting of "The Music Lesson." Photo by Tim Jenison, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved


If this was actually the way he did it, another reason he might have kept it a secret was that it gave him an advantage over his next door neighbor who didn't know the trick. If Vermeer could get a little better result, it would give him a certain edge in business.

We make the point in the film, maybe not explicitly enough, that what we call art and technology are basically two sides of the same coin, which is creative activity. Writing computer software is a highly creative activity, very inventive, but most people don't think of it that way. They think of it as a lot of arithmetic or something. Columns of strange-looking characters. But if you ask a computer programmer, they're inventing things all the time. It's just creativity. Art and technology.


It struck me that some of the people who had negative things to say about the film weren't really talking about the film. They have a negative reaction to this idea that Vermeer was a copyist. In the context of Toaster and LightWave and TriCaster, though, there isn't an inherent conflict between art and technology. You use tools to create art. Vermeer's mechanical aids didn't replace the "art," or create something other than art, just because of those aids.

Poster art for Tim's Vermeer
The young film geek, satisfied.
I couldn't agree more. What Vermeer did was create beautiful pictures. The beautiful pictures didn't change because I made this film. He decided what to paint, he chose the things to put in the paintings, and he created paintings that some people consider the best paintings in history. He did that.

If Vermeer worked the way I think he did, it's still not cheating. There are no rules to break in art.


So I have to ask, what's next for you?

Well, right now I'm back to my day job full time, and I'm between obsessions. I have too many hobbies, though, and I'm sure that one of them will get out of control soon.

Along the lines of painting, there's an experiment I'd like to do trying to replicate part of a Carvaggio. He painted long before Vermeer, and it looks to me like Carvaggio was using a simpler version of the machine Vermeer used. I'd like to at least try it out and see how close I can get.

I'm not going to make another movie, though. Too much work. (Laughter.)


The young film geek has been satisfied.

Yep. I got that out of my system. But if I do try painting a Carvaggio, I'm sure I'll roll some tape on it and see what happens.


It's interesting that when I asked you what's next, you went straight to an artistic obsession. Without being reductive, Toaster and LightWave originally sprang from obsessions. I don't want to say "hobbies," but you did actually have these as hobbies at some point when you were younger, before they became products.

True. Somebody once said if you can integrate your fun with your business you've got it made. That's always the way I've looked at it. I hate working, but it doesn't seem like working if you're doing what you want to do.


With Toaster, you created affordable, high-quality tools to be used in a broadcast infrastructure. With TriCaster, you've enabled people to do their own high-quality broadcasting. Those are two really big problems to have solved, so what's the next horizon from a business point of view?

First of all, I don't think they're solved yet. We've come leaps and bounds, but it's still hard to do this. I think we can make it easier and easier, and cheaper and cheaper.

I forget who said it, maybe it was Orson Welles, but somebody said that film isn't a true artform because nobody can afford the tools, whereas all you need is a pencil to write a novel.

The moving image is the most powerful medium of communication. At some conscious or unconscious level, people simply believe their eyes. That's almost too powerful. You certainly don't want that power in the hands of just a few people.

I'm really optimistic about the future of mankind because that power is no longer concentrated. We've taken that power and given it to everybody.






For more information on this remarkable project, visit TimsVermeer.com


HEY, LOOK! TWO BONUS CLIPS

The visit that Tim made to PBS's Computer Chronicles to introduce the NewTek Video Toaster in 1990? Here's the full segment! Needless to say, it looks its age, but it's impossible to overstate just how jaw-dropping this was at the time: a full-on broadcast suite for under $1500. Old-timers will also be delighted to see a Kiki Stockhammer cameo.





explanation as the most magical part of the trick.



Comments

Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer I hated it!
by Mike Rangel
Artist knew since the time of Van Eyck about using mirrors at least. Ask any photographer tell him hey I can do what you do with a brush, your not doing anything. See if he doesn't hit you over the head with a Vivitar lens.

Also what's this I see about making a Vermeer with a .99 CVS pharmacy brush? No I don't think so.

Wow, this looks like this, yeah but it ain't art.
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer I hated it!
by Richard Herd
[Mike Rangel] "yeah but it ain't art"

That begs the question: "What is art?"

Note: no one actually claimed the work created by Tim was art, so that line of reasoning is a red herring.

It is a demonstration of a subset of Vermeer's technique, a technology for artists. It is not the sum total of Vermeer's technique.
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer I hated it!
by Gary Huff
[Richard Herd] "That begs the question: "What is art?""

Art is what other people say is art. One is simply pompous if they refer to their own work as "art", especially without third-party validation.
Re: Article: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Richard Herd
What a great movie!

And the evidence is overwhelming. Vermeer used optics. Now, I wonder, what kind of NDA Vermeer had his subjects sign, one hell of a lawyer to write an iron clad NDA lasting so long!
-1
Re: Article: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Gary Huff
[Richard Herd] "And the evidence is overwhelming."

And also explains why he didn't make that many of them.
Re: Article: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Richard Herd
[Gary Huff] "And also explains why he didn't make that many of them."

I don't understand.
@Richard Herd
by Tim Wilson
Gary (as well as Tim Jenison, David Hockney, et al) are thinking that because the process was so time consuming, it's no wonder Vermeer finished so few paintings. Nobody knows exactly how many, but something like 34 or 35 seems to be the vicinity.

Tim obviously took much longer than Vermeer did -- aside from the time to build the room, grind the lenses and so on, he worked for years on it. I saw an interview with Penn where he said that they documented every molecule of paint that Tim applied, and they wound up with 25,000 hours worth of footage.

That's one reason why it's ridiculous to say that Tim's likely deduction of Vermeer's likely toolset has anything to do with whether or not Vermeer was an artist. Tools are tools. What Vermeer DID was ART.

In fact what struck me wasn't just how close Tim's Vermeer was to Vermeer's -- it's how different they were. Any child could immediately tell which was done by an ARTIST...which of course Tim never claimed to be.

But the fact that he's NOT an artist and still got so very much in the ballpark is the most persuasive evidence that Tim was on the right track. I defy anyone to watch the movie and account for Tim's result any other way.
+1
Re: @Richard Herd
by Gary Huff
[Tim Wilson] "n fact what struck me wasn't just how close Tim's Vermeer was to Vermeer's -- it's how different they were. Any child could immediately tell which was done by an ARTIST...which of course Tim never claimed to be."

And I agree that the tools being used in no way detracts from the work. Art is what the public proclaims it to be, and there are plenty of self-proclaimed "artists" running around who produce terrible stuff.
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Jeffery Haas
Is it possible to also get some details on the magical "24 core" machine Tim built? I sure would love to have 24 cores to play with even if I am not using a program like Lightwave all the time...because for Pete's sake, it's TWENTY FOUR CORES!
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Tim Wilson
[Jeffery Haas] "because for Pete's sake, it's TWENTY FOUR CORES!"

Good question. I'll ask. :-)
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Ganbayar Gansukh
Just watched it 2 days ago, and it was fascinating documentary with excellent insight. Thank you so much for Tim exploring this and sharing it with us.
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Alex Vak
Great story and never a surprise there's an Amiga behind creative people.
+1
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by jim bachalo
Greatly enjoyed the film.
However, I wish both Tim and-or the filmmakers had spent some time focusing on the actual content of Vermeer's work and what it meant, and not just his technique. Another more traditional (but excellent) take on Vermeer's work can be viewed online on TVO's site...at least for a little while longer http://tvo.org/video/162708/views-vermeer

You should follow me on Twitter here. My latest work
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Tim Wilson
[jim bachalo] " I wish both Tim and-or the filmmakers had spent some time focusing on the actual content of Vermeer's work and what it meant, and not just his technique."

Fair enough...although that's why it's called "Tim's Vermeer" -- it's less about Vermeer himself than it is about Tim, and the version of a Vermeer that he produced. That's why Penn (who produced) and Teller (who directed) were going to make the movie whether or not Tim actually succeeded. It was about HIM, and what he went through.

Which you know because you watched it, but I often wonder if the people who rip the movie (which you're obviously not doing) actually saw it. I saw one comment at Amazon ranting about Tim using modern lenses and paint, and I'm within a hairsbreadth of posting there, "Fess up. You REALLY didn't watch the movie." The struggle Tim went through with the lenses is one of the best parts.

You're certainly right, though, that Vermeer isn't nearly as well known as he should be. We in this industry are descended much more directly through him than maybe through any other painter. Even if that weren't the case, there's a lot to explore. Most people are only passing acquaintances of his work, and historians still don't know much about his life.

Thanks for passing along that link, but it's not licensed for the US. There are others, though, including a documentary from 2001 called Vermeer: Master of Light...which a guy posted at YouTube as a rebuttal to Tim's Vermeer....and which once again largely misses the point of the movie. (Aside from missing the niceties of posting licensed material on YouTube.) Not even Tim is 100% sure he's right about this, and says so very plainly -- but it's like some of these people are trying to distort his story into something that they can rebut using whatever argument they have at hand.

In any case, you're absolutely right: Vermeer and his work are very much exploring on their own terms.

Thanks again!
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Aindreas Gallagher
idiot point: after me replying the first time this was posted without even actually seeing it, I will rectify it - mad for vermeer since forever -

given it's a first instance of the artist/witness/cinematographer or something - given he actually painted the defocus lens bokeh to focus his subject - it's still hard to get away from the notion that the milkmaid is reportage?

or whether girl with a pearl earring is a painted play on selective defocus? that earring is well out of focus yo.
it's a weirdly soft painting bar the contrast edges - given it's painted through a lens. that scarf feels wild bokeh out of focus too.

never mind Rembrandt and particularly Velazquez right? look at those highlight dashes on his collar in the pic below.

http://education.houghtonrevisited.com/pdfs/velazquez-popeinnocentX-hi-res_...

there is a lens image under that portrait. flat fact. tracer man, just a damn dutch tracer.












http://vimeo.com/user1590967/videos http://www.ogallchoir.net promo producer/editor.grading/motion graphics
@Aindreas Gallagher
by Tim Wilson
Aindreas ...or whether girl with a pearl earring is a painted play on selective defocus?

But the location of the art, so to speak, is in the SELECTION of WHAT to defocus, and how much.

Everyone who has ever picked up a camera has always had to answer the question of whether their work can properly be called art. It strikes me as the wrong question. It's easy to see that some photographs, and motion pictures ARE art...even if not considered to be HIGH art because of the technological components.

Even that is a false dichotomy, though. ALL great art has ALWAYS included better technology than what went before, and in the case of someone like Michaelangelo, who had big enough budgets that he could take time that other artists never could.

So there we go -- the ancient struggle between art, technology, budgets and deadlines.

I also saw a quote from him the other day, surely paraphrased but also ringing true, “If people knew how much work went into it, they wouldn't call it genius. ”

And another quote, that the hand executes but the eye judges. No matter what his hands executed, it's impossible to doubt that Vermeer's eye is incomparable. THAT's where the art is. Not the tools.

That said, tools make a difference. Part of his genius was working through the dead ends to find his eventual method, to keep refining, and to stick through to the end of the job. We all know how hard each of those steps can be, and how important the choice of tool can be. I don't believe for a minute that any set of tools can achieve any result, and I doubt anybody in the COW does either. Tools MATTER. There are good choices and bad ones. Tools with acceptable limits, and others whose limits are deal breakers.

And some that are more fun to argue about than others, too. :-)
@ Tim Wilson
by Franz Bieberkopf
[Tim Wilson] "ALL great art has ALWAYS included better technology than what went before, ..."

Tim,

This is demonstrably not true, and also the insidious fallacy that informs much of the inverted popular film sensibility now (that technology is the measure of innovation).

[Tim Wilson] "... the question of whether their work can properly be called art."

I think Leonard Cohen once said that poetry is a judgement that others make about your writing.

If you haven't read a great novel lately (that technology is old ...) then I put it to you that you should pick one up.

Franz.
Re: @Aindreas Gallagher
by Aindreas Gallagher
[Tim Wilson] "Everyone who has ever picked up a camera has always had to answer the question of whether their work can properly be called art."

yes. but the dutch painters picked up the camera at midnight under a cloak, with no one looking, and started taking pictures around 350 years too early.
As hockney titled it: secret knowledge.

It's funny because of the scale of artistic distortion it effected - what artists were driven to not knowing they were following a secret nikon experiment in medieval holland. the fact that art went basically completely joyously bananas the minute the first lithograph appeared could make the argument that the dutch movement was incredibly pernicious and knocked art off course for quite literally hundreds of years.

just a damn dutch tracer.

http://vimeo.com/user1590967/videos http://www.ogallchoir.net promo producer/editor.grading/motion graphics
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by jim bachalo
Couldn't find the complete doco I referenced, but here's a short clip







You should follow me on Twitter here. My latest work
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Paul Carlin
Excellent article. Thanks!

How did they deal with the fact that the earth rotates? Wouldn't the shadows be constantly changing? Perhaps he painted for 30 minutes around the same time every day?

- Paul
@Paul Carlin
by Tim Wilson
Glad you liked it! It's an amazing tale.

I don't know how long they painted at an interval, but yes, Tim only painted part of the day -- for 130 days!

The thing is that nobody is sure exactly how Vermeer did this stuff. Even Tim is only 90% convinced that he knows (although, interestingly, Hockney is all but certain that Tim is right)...but it seems likely that Vermeer would have only used a slice of the day as well. His paintings took a long time to make, and he didn't make many of them, and the complexity of this method, and the time it takes to actually DO it, was surely part of the reason why.

I should have noted re: the NOT spoiler-y reveal that Tim pulls this off -- not only is it noted in almost every review, but Sony Pictures Classics has posted the screenplay online. The details MATTER. The story's ability to persuade MATTERS. And, in the spirit of showing how the trick is done, you can follow along with the words....

...although, since it's a movie, and it's about a visual art, people really do need to see it. On top of being interesting, it's really really entertaining. Tim, Penn, Hockney...but also Martin Mull, and indirectly, Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second...and others, all combine to tell a wonderful tale.
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Tim Kocher
Thanks so much for sharing this, can't wait to see this movie. Excellent article. Great to know Penn is involved as well, that is a prime-motivator for me. Neat to meet the guy behind the Toaster ... brings back a lot of memories.
+1
Re: Article: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Aindreas Gallagher
shout out to david hockney - he did a lot of the ground work on this. I bought his book at the time. It cost a fortune, and then I leant it to someone, and forgot who that someone was.

never lend books. that said - hockney didn't go to the lengths of grinding stones - but being fair, if you'd read hockney there isn't much in the arguments presented that he didn't cover as far as I'm aware - he went into forensic detail on lens perspective distortions in earlier dutch art as well.

It's funny he isn't more widely referenced on the topic - he worked for years analysing it.

http://vimeo.com/user1590967/videos http://www.ogallchoir.net promo producer/editor.grading/motion graphics
@Aindreas Gallagher
by Tim Wilson
Hockney's book was very widely discussed in the art (and artsy) world when it came out, but movies have a way of spreading further. I think that Tim's Vermeer will serve to make Hockney's work more widely known.

Tim is certainly very explicit in crediting David for getting him started. I mention it here, and Tim discusses it more in the movie.

You only see him briefly in the trailer that I included in the story, but David himself appears in the film when Tim visits him and Phillip Steadman in David's studio to show them what he's done. David acknowledges, though, that Tim went quite a bit further than he had, not just because of grinding lenses and building harpsichords, but because of what Tim found in his experimentation.

I (obviously) strongly encourage you to see the movie for more details about this...and so much more of course. David definitely gets his due, and I think you'll enjoy it all the more for having read David's book.
Re: @Aindreas Gallagher
by Aindreas Gallagher
sold. will do. the process he went through sounds madly interesting.

http://vimeo.com/user1590967/videos http://www.ogallchoir.net promo producer/editor.grading/motion graphics
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Kevin Ung
Great, I just got tickets for the Hong Kong showing!
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Douglas Bowker
Great article and interview. Thanks.

I think the knee-jerk reactive some will have to the film or the "exposure" of Vermeer using technology are just missing the point about almost all art. Oil painting itself was a big advancement in technology. Every new tool, brush, technique and form of pigment was in fact technology. And further, how amazing was it that Vermeer pulled all of these concepts together on his own, without the benefit of hindsight.

Doug Bowker

Motion graphics, video and 3D Animation for the Medical and Technical World
http://www.dbowker3d.com
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Tim Wilson
I should have noted that, at TimsVermeer.com, there's a page that shows all the places that the movie is playing. It just opened at my local theater in Palm Springs, the first time it has been here since the Palm Springs Film Festival that I mentioned at the beginning of the article.

Needless to say, I'll be seeing it again. :-)

Also nice to note that it just opened this weekend in Tim's town of San Antonio. So definitely check that list. It may be easier to find than you think....


Tim Wilson
Editor-in-Chief
Creative COW
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Dave Haynie
Very cool! I had read about the suspected use of the camera obscura in art, the sudden jump in the quality of perspectives and lighting. I know Tim and Brad Carvey from back in the early days of the Toaster, but had no idea Tim was involved in this. Must track down this film immediately!

-Dave
Re: The Toaster and Tim's Vermeer
by Kylee Peña
Fantastic article. I've been meaning to track this film down, and now I'm extra motivated to do so.

Out of all the amazing stuff Tim mentions, one of the best things I've ever heard is that he didn't have to work out the dimensions of the harpsichord. He bought the blueprint from another guy with a fascinating hobby and obsession. I love it.

blog: kyleesportfolio.com/blog
twitter: @kyl33t
demo: kyleewall.com


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