A few months ago, I got a new LG smartphone with an interesting – and somewhat disconcerting – software feature. When taking a picture using the front-facing (“selfie”) camera, there’s a slider at the bottom of the screen with an icon of a woman’s silhouette at the far left end, and a glittery one at the far right. Cranking the so-called “beauty slider” all the way to the right applies a heavy-duty blemish eraser to the camera that makes the image look like its being viewed through a foggy pair of glasses. Turn the effect all the way down, however, and – well, the result isn’t what I expected. Despite the slider being apparently turned “off,” the glossy effect persists, albeit in a far weaker dose than the max-strength setting. In other words, without switching to a third-party camera app, I can’t take a picture that is unblemished by LG’s blemish-removal filter.
The baked-in nature of my phone camera’s beauty filter is concerning for any number of reasons, from its implications regarding the degree of control we have over our devices, to the fact that my phone is apparently telling me that a picture of my slightly touched-up face will always be preferable to an un-edited one. For this remix-based hack, though, I chose to hone in a single issue that this technology raises: that is, the very nature of filters, specifically the distance they create between the original artifact and the edited product.
Since the advent of the photograph, creators have sought to achieve what music scholar Peter Johnson calls “the notion of the perfect recording, transparently presenting an exemplary performance” (38). According to Johnson’s definition, a so-called perfect recording requires two components: a perfect performance, and a perfect recording of that perfect performance. We’ve worked tirelessly over the past few decades to create the machines that edge us closer to that latter component, to creating a recording with flawless fidelity, or faithfulness, to an original performance. The progression from staticky, analog TVs to high-def digital ones; the switch from slow, black and white cameras to speedy and color-accurate ones; and many other histories all converge upon a shared goal of creating a reproduction so accurate that it becomes invisible.
Now, enter the photo filter. In many ways, these color-distorting and contrast-confusing effects throw a huge wrench into the aforementioned ideal of the perfect recording. Far from make the recording technology invisible, filters instead make it obvious. They reveal the manipulative hands of both the user (some might argue for the term “artist”) who chose the filter, and the software that slapped it on. In fact, many filters work to outright reverse the progression toward the disappearing recording technology by introducing artificial film grain, vignette effects, or black-and-white palette swaps, reviving the side effects of expired technologies.
A guiding question throughout my hack was that of how certain elements within a text dominate or are subjugated by other elements. At what point do filters subsume the original, underlying content, and make the image more about the vignette effect and yellowish tint than, say, the face it covers? Is it even instructive to view these two as separate entities, or do filters simply become part of “the image” as soon as they are applied? This notion of blending and bleeding between media sources provided the impetus for the “grand finale” of my remix, in which a smorgasbord of audio tracks, visual effects, filters, and distortions gradually coalesce into a heap of nothing (or everything, depending on how you look at it). Each new edit further diminishes the viewer’s ability to distinguish between the sources.
My hack deliberately breaks part of the second rule of this assignment, which asks us to incorporate three different kinds of media. Mine only uses two: video and audio. I wanted to focus exclusively on these two highly dynamic media forms in an attempt to highlight the action of applying filters and effects to our videos, pictures, and audio. Excluding the rarer cases of my LG phone’s beauty slider or other automatically applied effects, these effects require intensive deliberation on the part of the user.
It’s at this point that I begin to question my own cynicism regarding the rise ubiquity of filters. I voice this doubt in the last few seconds of my video, which feature a clip from Georges Méliès early sci-fi film A Trip to the Moon. I also added a bit of audio from a color-grading tutorial I found on YouTube, and whose British narrator I feature several times during the T-Pain finale. As Méliès’ moon grimaces at the camera, the tutorial’s narrator reminds us that “there are no rules in filmmaking.” In pairing the two, and in positioning them at the very end of the video, I hope to suggest that perhaps aren’t as corny and superficial as we like to think. Or, rather, perhaps they are, but focusing only on their corniness is to ignore their value. The availability of filters and other simple audiovisual effects may well represent a watershed moment in the history of filmmaking, much as Méliès’ own illusions ushered in a new age of cinematic possibilities. I also can’t help but admire the work these filters do to disrupt the march toward the perfect, perfectly invisible recording. The future will be filtered first, then televised (or streamed).
Johnson, Peter. “Illusion and aura in the classical audio recording.” Recorded Music: Performance, Culture, and Technology. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
“Color Grading in Filmmaking” by DSLRguide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sblEu4x5ug
“Facetune: Reshape Basics” by Facetuneapp: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8467zdYu4Z4
“Free Empty Old Silent Movie Title Card” by Downloads Zone:
“How I Edit My Instagram Pictures!” by MamaMiaMakeup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JGao_yDMkQ
“How To Apply Filters On Instagram Photos – Instagram Tip #11” by Aux Mode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bU9VAnUHQ_4
“How To Take A Perfect Selfie And Edit For Instagram (Facetune + VSCO Cam) | TheBrandonLeeCook” by TheBrandonLeeCook: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL5f9-EKuiQ
“I am T-Pain App” by ThePlerer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HaIMA9YkSg
“Let’s Enhance” by Duncan Robson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vxq9yj2pVWk
“A Trip to the Moon (HQ 720p Full) – Viaje a la Luna – Le Voyage dans la lune – Georges Méliès 1902” by Escuelacine.com: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FrdVdKlxUk