In 1435, Italian artist Leon Battista Alberti helped establish the revolutionary concept of “linear perspective,” a strategy that allowed artistic representations to mimic in two dimensions the three-dimensional perspective constructed by human sight. In establishing principles for how to create this new artistic vision, Alberti suggested using a person’s height as the means for distinguishing foreground and distance in a scene. As a result, most artistic representations in the ensuing centuries – from paintings to photographs to movies – have repeatedly re-created the point-of-view of a person standing in a landscape.
But what do we miss when we so frequently represent the world only from a human perspective? How might we understand things better if we more frequently employed other non-visual senses, told our narratives from a non-human perspective, or even just changed the angle of our vision slightly? Perspective affects both collective memory and our individual beliefs, so being able to see multiple points of view is vital for critical thinking, most especially for those of us who grapple with environmental and historical issues.
If you find that you or your students are getting trapped in the same old perspective, I recommend screening one of these eight animated shorts to shake up your approach to the world. Together, they can help you experience new ways of seeing, being, and thinking across space and time.
Historia Naturae (1967, Dir. Jan Švankmajer, Czechoslovakia) (9 min) – A surrealist trip through a cabinet of curiosities containing the diversity of the animal kingdom, this is a great short for those interested in the history of science or human-animal relations. The film slyly suggests that, even in a world where people often reduce life’s diversity to mere commodities like food, we should remember we’ll all end up as something else’s food, too.
Powers of Ten (1977, Dir. Charles and Ray Eames, U.S.) (9 min) – Listed on the National Film Registry – a list of American films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and earmarked for preservation by the Library of Congress – this film provides a fascinating demonstration of spatial scale, similar to the famous exhibit at New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. If you ever need to explain relative size, offer up this trip that moves from the view of a couple picnicking in Chicago to the view from the edge of the known universe and back down to the interior of an atom.
Crac (1981, Dir. Frédéric Back, Canada) (15 min) – This beautiful and lively Academy Award-winning film tells a history of French-Canadian life and people’s changing relationships to the landscape, as seen through the story of a rocking chair. Like a Canadian version of Virginia Lee Burton’s classic tale The Little House, this film can spark a conversation about how objects connect us to a hidden history of the world we live in.
Jumping (1984, Dir. Osamu Tezuka, Japan) (6 min) – A film presenting modern society, as seen from the perspective of a child taking progressively longer and higher leaps across, through, over, and even under the landscape. Even when still trapped by the perspective of the human eye, it’s important to remember just how much your understanding of the world depends on where you put that eye.
Creature Comforts (1989, Dir. Nick Park, U.K.) (5 min) – Made by the creator of Wallace and Gromit, this Academy Award-winning satire uses interviews from real British public housing residents and transposes them into the mouths of animals living in zoos. So a question one could ask is this: which is being satirized – the life of the zoo animal or the life of the public housing resident?
The Wheel/Das Rad (2003, Dir. Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, and Heidi Wittlinger, Germany) (8 min) – As Edge Effects contributor Spring Greeney pointed out in her recent post, this innovative Academy Award Nominee is worth checking out, as it conceptualizes geological versus human time witnessed by two stacks of rocks observing the wheel’s effect on the speed of human civilization. Ever had a hard time convincing students that the urgency of modernity is a bit of self-delusion? This film can really take you down a peg about the relative persistence or importance of any human generation.
She Who Measures (2008, Dir. Veljko Popović, Croatia) (7 min) – What happens when we not only can’t break out of our human point-of-view but our view is severely limited by the narcotic of the screen in front of our face? This is a dark, surreal tale about the myopic perspective of consumerism, offering a dispiriting vision of the state of mankind and what the film deems a capitalist wasteland.
The Lost Thing (2010, Dir. Andrew Ruhemann, Shaun Tan, Australia) (15 min) – An Academy Award-winning short, this film reminds us of the wonders that can appear when we slow down to pay attention to the unexpected. Why do our eyes so often not really see the world around us? Perhaps it’s because human perspective ultimately is limited not by our senses but by the openness of the mind to using those senses!
Featured image: How much wonder do we miss because we don’t know how to see the unexpected? In this still from Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing,” Shaun first notices the thing being ignored by everyone else on the beach.
Peter Boger is completing his Ph.D. in environment and resources and is the programming director of the Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival. He has also served as a guest programmer for the Wisconsin Film Festival and at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. His student film, In a Badger State of Mind, was featured at Tales from Planet Earth and Seattle’s Hazel Wolf Film Festival. Contact.