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Film’s Atmospheric Setting

Aerial perspective is grounded strictly on the important fact that all mediums called transparent are in some degree dim.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colors

This is an essay about the relationship between film and air. More specifically, it is about film as air, bringing together a theory of medium and setting by way of the air’s dispersed form. My provocation is to conceive of film’s setting as neither location nor place. Instead, unhinging setting from ground, I explore film’s avant-garde and self-reflexive gesture of setting into the air, of claiming the air as its medium. “All that’s solid melts into air,” Karl Marx writes, a phrase that underpins modernity’s affiliation with the ephemeral and reverberates behind film’s own hazy atmosphere, which seeks currency in the visible air as a diffuse signature of the fleeting and the transient.[1] Early film’s affiliation with ephemerality is most frequently discussed in terms of the particular temporality of its continuous and fleeting images. Here, however, I consider film’s spatial, atmospheric engagement with dissolution or dematerialization, asking how it calls attention to itself as a medium of and in the air in the early decades of the twentieth century.[2] I grant that this is an unconventional approach to thinking about film’s setting, exchanging the more typical terms of mise en scène for medium; geographical place for a diffuse materiality; location for the surrounding currents of the air. Yet, bringing our attention to air, to the element that is considered transparent or invisible, film’s transience might be understood in terms of the instability and shifting nature of the sky itself, whose insubstantial shapes continuously shift and disappear.

The non-fixity of the sky transmutes the air into a medium for film, reinforcing the granularity of the air and of film alike. Film’s turbidity—its vaporous optic—recalls the muted contours and shadows of Leonardo’s sfumato technique in Renaissance painting.[3] Robin Kelsey notes that sfumato has its origins in the verb sfumare, meaning “to evaporate” or “to go up in smoke,” its sense of dynamism contingent upon the threat of disappearance into the air’s mist.[4] Alongside sfumato, Leonardo developed atmospheric perspective—seeing in and through the air—which negotiates opacity and distance, maintaining that an object viewed from afar is less distinct, blurrier, paler, often bluer.[5] Leonardo used the system of atmospheric perspective to set objects within aerial volumes (clouds), registering the visible air as a medium through which the world appears in relative contrasting planes, and substituting opacity for clarity. Seeing the air is about visualizing motion in terms of its disappearance, which requires dimness (to use Goethe’s term from the epigraph to this essay) and the haze of atmospheric perspective.[6] So film, which scatters the light and materializes haze both in its projected beams and its depictions of wind, clouds, fog, dust, or smoke, is an atmospheric, vaporous medium, whose form and matter derive from the air’s particulates.

Film’s invention in the 1890s coincides with the International Year of the Clouds (1896) and the publication of the first International Cloud Atlas, which is the culmination of a century-long devotion to the classification and description of the clouds.[7] Participating in a cultural penchant for sky gazing, which produces modern meteorology, film nonetheless eschews the classificatory impulse of the atlas, elaborating, instead, on the meaning of cloudiness per se. Film embraces the obscuring effects of vapor, steam, smoke, mists, and clouds, which allow us to see the dispersed materiality of the air itself. It observes the unsettled, shifting nature of air as a matter of ethereal substance, but does not comment on the social or moral destruction such skies augur (as, for instance, John Ruskin does in “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.”) In what follows, I bring together a series of atmospheric perspectives and early accounts of film that reveal how film’s airiness registers setting as the appearance of atmospheric dimness or cloudy interference, a shadow-play of ethereal contaminants made visible as both projection and medium.[8] But if film is essentially air—essentially a disappearing form—what does its dimness or opacity mean for the visual field, rendered ever more abstract? Turning at the end of the essay to the dusty air of the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, I reveal how film’s atmosphere is like the tornado itself, the abstract wind and dust threatening the legibility and the coherence of the visual field, turning the screen dark, and obliterating the sky altogether.

Remembering the Air

In thinking about modernism’s turbid skies as film’s setting, I take my cues from Virginia Woolf, who articulates a particular theory of atmosphere in her writing that incorporates visibility and yokes it to cinema. In her essay “Modern Fiction” (1919), she famously writes that “life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”[9] Describing the particulates of a modernist haze, an “incessant shower of innumerable atoms,” Woolf offers a theory for a new kind of realism that is capable of registering the air (“Modern Fiction,” 160).[10] The figures she employs in the essay—“a luminous halo,” “a semi-transparent envelope”—take up the air as both a medium and an object of representation, made visible by its cloudiness. Woolf’s experiment involves determining how to see and represent the dimness of atmospheric setting, and, as if in response, the vantage in her novels turns repeatedly to “the gauze of the air” (Jacobs Room); to the air as a “fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh” (To the Lighthouse); to the “thin veil of gauze,” which hangs over “the gold-blue amplitude” that is the sky (The Years).[11] Woolf’s metaphors of gauze leverage the technology of film, transmuting the sky into atmospheric screen and the air into medium. The atmosphere’s visible air produces a filmic medium and setting to be seen through and into, which depends on a series of elemental substitutions and physical phenomena—particles of water, dust, cloud, mist, light, color. Her descriptions of the air as film (gauze, semi-translucent material) acknowledge Goethe’s observations in Theory of Colors that the air obtains visibility and color through shadow and haze, allowing for a consideration of filminess and obscurity.

In “On Being Ill” (1926), Woolf urges us, once more, to “remember that there is such a thing as atmosphere,” which is a rejoinder to heed the unseen, to acknowledge the element that is invisible.[12] “Always there,” Luce Iragaray writes, the air nonetheless “allows itself to be forgotten.”[13] Forgotten, perhaps, by all but the isolated invalid in Woolf’s essay, who, “sunk deep among pillows,” is able “perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky” (“On Being Ill,” 321). This sky, remembered by the invalid, is no longer “a background for man,” but is understood as an illuminated source of the otherwise unobserved and expansive action of air (321). The “endless activity” of the atmosphere—its “incessant making up of shapes and casting them down”—has been going on all this time without our knowledge of it (321). Summoning metaphor, Woolf refers to the sky as a “gigantic cinema” that plays “perpetually to an empty house,” figuring the air as a cinematic site of revelation, an “interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows” (321). Abstract and experimental, her description of shifting shadows insists on obscure air as film’s medium; on the cinema’s potential to attain atmosphere and capture the excessive play of light, whose energies point back to itself. Woolf’s sky is the cinema of the avant-garde, whose modernist experiments push the medium of film away from mimesis toward self-referentiality; that is, toward the air and its kinetic properties.[14]

In similar terms, we might consider Lázló Moholy-Nagy’s photogrammic experiments, which explore contrasting shades of light and dark. Building on his earlier writing about light as the material of the avant-garde, Moholy-Nagy reveals how light is visible in and as air. His aim is “to produce pictorial space from the elemental material of optical creation, from direct light.”[15] In his film from 1930, Ein Lichtspiel schwarz-weiss-grau (Lightplay: Black, White, Grey), he records the play of light as ether, its beams penetrating and reflecting off the rotating body of his kinetic sculpture, Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator) (fig. 1). His emphasis on projection—on the movement of light in visible air—signifies the cinema itself.[16] In the film, the sculpture is reduced to a shifting abstraction, its form dispersed through the spaces of the unobserved or the invisible. Gilles Deleuze calls this “gaseous perception”—a decentered, inhuman perception where the air is the medium and “everything is at the service of variation and interaction.”[17] (Deleuze is referring, in this instance, to the films of Dziga Vertov, whose Man with a Movie Camera embraces the cinematic landscape of the cloud, smoke, and steam from its opening shots). Gaseous perception returns us to the sense of film’s atmospheric setting—its placement in atmosphere. Thickened by shadow (clouds, turbidity), the air becomes the stuff of cinema.

Fig. 1. Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Ein Lichtspiel schwarz-weiss-grau / Lightplay Black-White-Grey (1930).

The air provides the shifting setting for a modernist theory of film that is constructed around its essential movement. At the end of his introduction to Theory of Film, for instance, Siegfried Kracauer recalls seeing his first film and yokes his own cinephilia to the changeable sky:

What thrilled me so deeply was an ordinary suburban street, filled with lights and shadows which transfigured it. Several trees stood about, and there was in the foreground a puddle reflecting invisible house facades and a piece of the sky. Then a breeze moved the shadows, and the facades with the sky below began to waver. The trembling upper world in a dirty puddle—this image has never left me.[18]

This image of moving shadows and shafts of light is occasioned by the breeze, the movement of the air that becomes the matter of film itself. Film’s affiliation with atmosphere—film understood as atmosphere—answers the call to pay attention to the air and render it visible. The shimmering puddle reveals the dissolute movement of the “trembling upper world,” which fades into the air and scatters in the light. The airy world of film is impermanent, shifting, “trembling,” its fragility conditioned by the vicissitudes of the wind. The atmospheric changes reflected in the puddle initiate a series of figures in Kracauer’s writing on film that emphasize the proximity of film to air. Addressing the early films of the Lumière brothers, he writes of “the jumble of transient, forever dissolving patterns accessible only to the camera,” linking such patterns to the “clouds of smoke which leisurely drifted upward” (Kracauer, Theory of Film, 31).[19] Lumière’s images waver, fade and dissolve into abstraction as the air shifts.

Turbid Medium

Lumière’s smoke clouds inherit their claim on the kinetic possibility of the air from Etienne-Jules Marey’s photographs of the movements of the air, which he made between 1899 and 1902. For these motion studies, Marey constructed a series of smoke machines, or wind tunnels, to generate fine lines of smoke, which he then photographed in various patterns as the streamlines moved past differently shaped objects (fig. 2).[20] Marey tooled these photographs of air and his smoke machines to get at the atmospheric essence of motion, figuring the air’s kinesis as cloudy striations. The visualization of the air’s movement depends on its turbidity—on the introduction of smoke’s opacity to the wind machine, which generates air’s visible currents exposed in a flash of light. While Goethe was concerned with relative turbidity in his determination of color, here opacity is put to the service of comprehending motion. By increasing the darkness of the air in his smoke machine, Marey intensifies his representation of the air’s movement. These strange photographs of motion metaphorize movement as blurred wisps, swirling eddies, and channels of air, whose ephemeral, granular opacity threatens dissolution and gives way to abstraction.

Fig. 2. Etienne-Jules Marey, smoke studies.

Marey’s smoke photographs are experiments geared toward determining the behavior of air under various simulated conditions, and I have them in mind when thinking about the simulation of film’s cloudiest skies in The Wizard of Oz, whose cyclone sequence connects the air and its movements to the medium of film and to the ultimate destruction of the visual field by way of opacity. The early sepia-toned scenes of Fleming’s film—the wind-whipped, darkened sky—make an unexpected yet necessary claim to medium specificity that dovetails with its representation of stormy weather as gauze and haze, blackened clouds, unreadable skies, swirling dust. The storm clouds of the film gather during the opening credits under the windy pressure of the impending storm. Once it arrives, the cyclone’s dusty particulates render the air visible and turn the weather itself into a medium, in this case, one that threatens to obliterate. The tornado is the product of dusty air (the visible particles of the atmosphere), which, Salman Rushdie writes, are “gathered together and whirled about and unleashed, so to speak, against itself,” and delivers dust and wind to the screen’s surface.[21] The tornado in The Wizard of Oz is really a glorified smoke machine, constructed of yards and yards of muslin and wire and filled with fuller’s earth to generate volumes of dust. In the production of the film, the muslin and wire formed a cylindrical screen (similar to a wind sock) that swirled and twisted from the force of compressed air, pumping smoke and spewing clouds of dust.[22] The dust spun out of the top and bottom of the wind sock as well as through the porous sides of the filmy muslin, blurring the edges and matching the stormy skies of the sequence, which were filled with “dense clouds of yellowish-black smoke” (Harmetz, The Making of the Wizard of Oz, 248).

In preparation for shooting the central weather event of the film, the special effects team conducted a series of Tornado Tests. These tests are remarkable namely for their illegibility and abstraction, recalling the cones of light and shadow from avant-garde film. In these myriad takes, the swirls of dust and the massive funnel cloud shift across the screen, registering discrete layers of light and dark within the turbulent air (fig. 3). At times, the screen is completely blacked out; other times it records only kinesis as the movement of particulate matter and varying shades of light and dark, cloud and dust (fig. 4). The tests reveal how the cyclone is about the accumulation of opacity as a kind of excess. Insisting on turbidity and volatility, they experiment with the limits of the air’s visibility. The Tornado Tests were preparation for the dramatic shots that show the twister swirling across the prairie toward Dorothy’s house, and for the shots from within the house, once it has been picked up by the cyclone. Dorothy and the viewer enter into the storm, and into film itself, as the swirling dust becomes the stuff of projection, viewed through the window frame.[23] Against the window’s dust screen, a series of objects float past in an absurd parade of dislocated objects and people. However, when Dorothy sticks her head out the window—when she sticks her head into the air, into the film—all she sees is obscurity. The screen is reduced to a pixelated brown mass, a void that represents the ethereal and essential elements of the filmic medium. The violent atmospheric event of the cyclone thus calls attention to the formal elements of film, not so much as a magic trick or source of wonderment (although this is a special-effects sequence), but as medium: the storm’s visible dust is the projected medium. The threat, however, is that this obscured vision might ultimately obliterate the visual field itself, as it does when the spinning house crashes to earth and the screen goes black for the briefest of moments. This brief moment of darkness suggests the possibility of destruction; the possibility that film, constructed of dust, might blow away entirely.

Figs. 3 and 4. The Wizard of Oz, tornado tests.

After falling through the eye of the storm and landing in Oz, Dorothy famously opens the sepia-toned door of her uprooted house and walks out simultaneously into the full-color spectrum and into the full-color possibilities of Technicolor. The relationship between the film’s sepia beginnings and its subsequent realization of color have typically been understood in terms of the stark contrast presented, marking a technological shift from monochromatic to multihued color scheme. Yet color, Goethe insists, requires a turbid medium. Writing on Goethe’s studies of color, the British physicist John Tyndall explains, “The action of turbid media was to Goethe the ultimate fact—the Urphänomen—of the world of colors.”[24] Later, in his Remarks on Color, Ludwig Wittgenstein states that “colors were shadows for Goethe.”[25] Thus, when Stanley Cavell argues that color in The Wizard of Oz provides the “condition of [the] medium,” I understand this to mean that turbidity (the atmosphere necessary for seeing color), provides the condition of the medium.[26] In other words, the sepia beginnings of The Wizard of Oz provide the basis for the appearance of color. The polychromatic Oz scenes extend the claims of medium specificity embedded in the earlier dusty skies, whose obscurity presents a theory of colored air that relies on dimness, haze, and shadows for its embracing and enveloping atmosphere.

What The Wizard of Oz and the light and shadow experiments of the avant-garde and early film show us is that film’s setting might be conceived of as medium. That is, film is set in the air, situated in shadow, whose dusty self-reflexivity threatens to occlude the visual field itself. In conclusion, I turn to Maxim Gorky, one of the earliest commentators on the medium, who famously wrote in 1896 after going to the cinema, “Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Everything there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air—is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of sun across the grey sky.”[27] In his description, Gorky maintains a Platonic stance, claiming that film’s shadows are inexact or derivative replicas of life, yet his criticism of film’s limited mimetic capacity on account of its shadowy skies and monochrome air nonetheless provides a remarkable account of the medium’s atmospheric perspective. It is indeed, “strange to be there,” as he claims; strange to be suspended in the air, in turbid skies, just as Dorothy is, in the very essence of the medium.


[1] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Verso, 2012), 38.

[2] For more on film’s temporality, see Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002) and Leo Charney, Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, Drift (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

[3] Elsewhere, I discuss film’s embrace of sfumato as an analogue for speed’s blur, marking the dynamism of the medium. See Louise Hornby, Still Modernism: Photography, Literature, Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[4] Robin Kelsey, Photography and the Art of Chance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 108.

[5] In his Theory of Colors, Goethe writes that blue is the color of darkness, seen through a semi-transparent medium, so that mountains in the distance appear dark blue. See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colors, trans. Charles Lock Eastlake (London: John Murray, 1840), 311. So, too, when struggling to complete her painting in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe is instinctively in need of distance and blue, that is, in need of the effects generated by atmospheric perspective.

[6] Atmospheric perspective is not the same thing as aerial or bird’s eye point of view. Although both situate perspective within the air, aerial point of view constructs the downward gaze of a view from above, whereas atmospheric perspective is about seeing the clouds, without necessarily implicating verticality. To further complicate things, atmospheric perspective (cloudy seeing) is also sometimes called aerial perspective, as in Goethe’s epigraph to this essay. For more on the aerial point of view, see From Above: War, Violence, and Verticality, ed. Peter Adey, Mark Whitehead, and Alison Williams, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Seeing from Above: The Aerial View in Visual Culture, ed. Mark Dorrian and Frédéric Poussin (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013).

[7] See Kristi McKim, Cinema as Weather: Stylistic Screens and Atmospheric Change (New York: Routledge, 2013), 9. For more on the classification of clouds, see also Richard Hamblyn, The Invention of Clouds: How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies (New York: Macmillan, 2002), and Lorraine Daston, “Cloud Physiognomy,” Representations 135, no. 1 (2016): 45–71.

[8] Steven Connor also refers to the air’s haze as “interference” (Steven Connor, The Matter of Air: Science and the Art of the Ethereal [London: Reaktion Books, 2010], 177).

[9] Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4: 19251928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth, 1994), 157–164.

[10] The concept of modern haze is important to Connor, who claims “a general affinity between modernism and the nebular” (Connor, The Matter of Air, 177).

[11] Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950), 126; To the Lighthouse (New York: Harvest, 1955), 280; The Years (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1965), 306.

[12] Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill,” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4: 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth, 1994), 317–29, 326. This passage from Woolf also provides the epigraph to Jayne Lewis’s fascinating account of literary atmosphere in the eighteenth century in Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Air’s Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660–1764 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[13] Luce Irigaray, The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 8.

[14] Claims to film’s medium-specificity emerge alongside the invention of film studies in modernism, and have been shaped by early writers such as Hugo Munsterberg, Jean Epstein, and Germaine Dullac, who sought to identify something essential and autonomous about film’s representation of motion.

[15] Lázló Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision, trans. Daphne M. Hoffman (1947; rpt., New York: Dover, 2012), 85.

[16] See Mary Ann Doane, “The Location of the Image: Cinematic Projection and Scale in Modernity,” in The Art of Projection, ed. Stan Douglas and Christopher Eamon (Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz, 2009), 151–66, 156. In her essay, Doane compares the experiments of Moholy-Nagy to the “fascination with the projection beam” in later film, from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), to Max Ophuls’s Caught (1949), to Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989).

[17] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 80.

[18] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), li.

[19] These puffs of smoke join “the ripple of leaves in the wind,” a phrase Kracauer borrows (without attribution) from a contemporary commentator on Lumière, and repeats throughout his book, insisting on film’s essential relationship to moving air as an expression of the ephemeral and the contingent (Theory of Film, l, xlix, 27, 31, 222).

[20] Kim Knowles acknowledges the connection between Marey and the avant-garde, too, through the trope of smoke in the work of Man Ray. See Kim Knowles, A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009), 270.

[21] Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 2012), 16.

[22] See Aljean Harmetz, The Making of the Wizard of Oz (New York: Knopf, 1977), 244.

[23] Rushdie argues that the window as movie screen prepares Dorothy for the “new sort of movie she is about to step into” (The Wizard of Oz, 29). In other words, the dusty, brown colored air in the tornado sequence provides a segue to Technicolor.

[24] John Tyndall, “Goethe’s Farbenlehre,” The Fortnightly 33 (1880), 477.

[25] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color/Bermerkugen Uber die Farben (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 24.

[26] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 82.

[27] Maxim Gorky, Review of the Lumière program at the Nizhni–Novgorod Fair, 1896, trans. Leda Swan, repr. in Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, 3rd ed., ed. Jay Leyda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 407.