"Tim's Vermeer" is one of those magical documentaries. It's a film that makes you see the world in an entirely different way. Directed by Teller, the taciturn member of the famed magician duo Penn & Teller, the film follows the artistic and scientific experiments of Tim Jenison.
Jenison is a respected pioneer in computer graphics, as well as an avid tinkerer. The film follows his investigation of a hypothesis -- that Dutch master Vermeer used optics to aid in creating his photo-realistic art. Along the way, Jenison's investigation gets to the core of artistic expression and engineering ingenuity, and how the split of art and science may not be quite as stark as many believe.
Moviefone Canada sat down with Teller and Jenison during last September's Toronto International Film Festival.
Moviefone Canada: This may be the definitive statement about what you do as Penn and Teller. This is a reflection upon exposing the technique and still finding it magical even if you know how the trick works. Was it this aspect that drew you to this story?
Teller: What ensnares one in a project is not what one ends up experiencing from it. Life doesn't have a topic sentence. You don't set out at the beginning of your essay and say this is what we're about to accomplish.
It didn't have to do with making a statement, but part of what [P&T] have always done is put out there what we believe. One of the things that I believe is that when there's a magic trick, there's two ways to approach it. You can say well, here's the way to explain it in a sentence, which is disappointing. Or, you can tell the full story, all of the technology, all of the psychology, all of that stuff, and when you do that, it then becomes completely fascinating.
What Penn and I do on stage is a sort of a hybrid, it's a sort of cheat. When we explain magic tricks on stage, they're not real magic tricks as people would do, they're magic tricks that we've created for the purpose of explaining them. But you're right that our joy in simultaneously appreciating the amazingness of something and how it's done certainly feeds into this movie.
As the subject of a film that gives such remarkable and precise insight into your own proclivities, how are you affected by watching yourself as the character in this film?
Jenison: I can't be objective about it at all. It's Teller and the rest of the team who made the film. I did the experiment, and the experiment was a very different experience than watching the film.
The film kind of gives you a flavour of it, but it was a really long, sometimes boring, sometimes painful but gratifying process because I thought I figured out how Vermeer painted those pictures. To see a Vermeer materialize on this canvas, having never painted before, that's what kept me going and it was just so cool. But there was also an insane amount of stress because at one point, before I started painting, Teller said, if this experiment doesn't work, it's going to be a very different movie. I said it's not going to be a movie if it doesn't work, and he said, "Oh, yes, it is!" That drove me to solve some almost insurmountable problems.
There must have been considerable time between the experiment not working and overcoming those challenges.
Teller [to Jenison]: You were sick in that period too, weren't you? You were hospitalized?
Jenison: Yeah, it was the sheer stress of Teller threatening me. Something that's really important is that I was in Vermeer's room, trying to solve the problem that he was trying to solve. If I'm right, Vermeer did this. If I hadn't built that room, if it was a thought experiment, I never would have discovered this.
This comes back to what P&T do with their magic. What this is a celebration of is human ingenuity, technology and the ability to create art, that itself is art, it doesn't need to come from anywhere else.
Jenison: Well, there is a supernaturalism about Vermeer among art historians. They're just unapproachable, they are larger than life. Normal people can't do what they do, and Penn and Teller debunk things quite often, like Houdini did, and I think this movie debunks the mysticism of Vermeer. It makes him into a real human being, a human being that I admire, because he's a technologist trying to make a beautiful image. That's what we do with computer graphics. I think Vermeer's a 17th century nerd.
Teller: Houdini took ... [the] idea of escaping, but made it open, made it part of reality. [He] said what I'm doing is escaping and that in itself is amazing. I want to slap people who say that Vermeer was supernatural. Give Vermeer some f**king credit!
Tim, you start the film by saying, "I'm not a painter," and yet we see you paint. In the same way, Teller, you could claim that you are a performer, not a director, and here you've made a remarkable film. What's the difference between one who is actually executing it and the bigger thing of how one identifies oneself as a creative artist?
Jenison: I'm not a painter. It's semantic. I made a painting, and I guess that's one definition of a painter, but I couldn't sit in front of a canvas and paint anything like that.
But you did. And so did Vermeer. Is Vermeer still a painter if he used your technique?
Jenison: I stole Vermeer's painting. I stole his composition. So I wasn't doing what Vermeer was doing. Vermeer was a great artist. Even if I'm right and he was using this machine, he made 40-odd fantastic pictures. And they're beautiful people in beautiful settings perfectly done.
Teller: His compositions are really extraordinary. One of the things I noticed, Tim deliberately made his painting different from Vermeer's. He had the same furniture and the same characters, but there were lots of things that were changed just enough because we didn't want to be accused in the end of Tim copying the Vermeer. So the idea that maybe Vermeer is slightly different from what we thought he was, maybe he was the first serious art photographer using technology that was proprietary in those days, still puts him in an enormously elevated position.
Tim, do you appreciate Vermeer more or less after having done the painting, and Teller, do you appreciate Tim more or less after having done the film?
Teller: Tim is an awe-inspiring individual. Tim's inventions tend to do that, they tend to be world-changing, so that's really important. My admiration for him has always been great. It is now greater and in working with him on this, I've learned more about his heart. He's been so extremely generous and informative at every step of the way.
Jenison: Before, when Vermeer was this supernatural being that suddenly made these pictures appear on the canvas, that's just incomprehensible. Now he is a talented geek. He is more understandable and more human. I admire him a great deal and I feel a great kinship with him.
I feel like I've been through part of his life, it is a kind of time travel. The whole process has just been so gratifying from start to finish, especially spending more time with Penn and Teller. They are interested in everything and the smartest people I know.
"Tim's Vermeer" opens in NY and LA on January 31, wide in the U.S. on February 7, and in Canada on February 21.