Reverse Engineering Art: How versus Why

by F.

In Vertigo, Hitchcock used an interesting device to make the audience feel Scottie Ferguson’s subjective sense of dizziness: he simultaneously tracks the camera back while zooming in (or tracks in while zooming out—I’ve heard both descriptions).


Suppose you, like me, like to reverse engineer artworks—take them apart and put them back together again. What sort of questions arise when viewing this famous shot?

I think there are two:

  • How was it done
  • Why was it done

And I think these questions apply to reverse engineering any work of art.

First, the “How.” Watching Vertigo, we, the audience, see a shot down a stairwell in a tower. The image on the screen seems to stretch out into the distance, while almost simultaneously coming toward us.

How did he do that? The answer is the zoom & track, or “trombone shot.” But that doesn’t tell us why, or what the artistic effect was.

So, second, we ask, Why? What was the effect on the audience. Well, in this case it was to make us dizzy, putting us into the head of Scottie, stoking our fear that he won’t be able to follow Judy Barton up the stairs of the tower.

Now a note on “Why.” The question, “Why did so-and-so do such-and-such,” is massively ambiguous. “Why” questions are notorious slippery. The answer to a “Why” question could refer to purpose, cause, intention, or something else.

In the case of reverse engineering art, I think the most productive way to think of “why” is in terms of the audience reaction—“Why” as in “what effect?” This is close to “Why” as in “what was the purpose.” But the effect could have been intended or not, and that is, to me, of secondary interest. What is most interesting is what the audience reaction happens to be.

Did they barf?

Get horny?

Spontaneously combust?

I think that for the reverse engineering artist, the most important questions is, “How did this make the audience feel?” And then, after that has been answered, the question is, “How did the artist do this?” In that order.

I think this is the proper sequence in which to think about these two question because, when it comes time to create our own works, this is how we think about it. We want, in this painting or story or movie, to make the audience feel a certain way at a certain point. And then we have solve the interesting problem: how to elicit that reaction in an economical, effective, elegant, and perhaps novel way.

There are usually a lot of possibilities, from which one has to be chosen. There is no recipe for that part (yet). And that is why art is an art. For now.