"Empire of the Eye: The Magic of Illusion" is a tricky DVD to review. It's an extremely basic, straightforward presentation, which appears to have been at one time, created for a museum exhibition. I say this because "National Gallery of Art, Washington" is slapped on the bottom of the cover. I've encountered such a disc before, but had the luxury of having actually attended an accompanying exhibition. My initial fear with this disc, is it heavily relied on the viewer being familiar with an exhibit. Whether an exhibit linked to this documentary exists or not, ends up being irrelevant though, since this 50-minute look at illusion in art is quite engaging, and very enlightening.
Hosted by Al Roker, "The Magic of Illusion" takes viewers into the world of Renaissance era art, where the use of optical effects and some quite remarkable technical understanding, elevated paintings from their flat, stylized predecessors, into masterpieces that in many cases look like living images. Roker makes for a very competent host, delivering his presentation with ease, which is written quite well to ensure people of all artistic backgrounds find the material accessible.
As someone who isn't into paintings much at all, the program added a new layer of respect for how the painters got things just right. The concept of the vanishing point is a heavy part of the program's core content, and while a relatively basic principle to understand, the filmmakers take the time to dissect a few paintings, showing just how much depth and dimension it adds to paintings, and how when closely scrutinized is a brilliant optical illusion.
As with fields, artistry evolved over the years and so did the use of illusion within it. The program doesn't stop with basic, "flat" paintings. An amazing real-life sculpture is shown, highlighting how the concepts that would make a painting of a view down a row of columns appear like a photograph can be replicated in complete three-dimensional form. This piece of the program is the strongest by far, bringing together the core concepts that were highlighted in paintings and showing them in a living breathing, optical illusion. This portion also brings up my biggest criticism of the program, a complete lack of on-screen text and/or subtitles. While Roker is very clear and easy to hear, many of the artists he mentions, including the one responsible for the column illusion have names that, despite my hardest to Google came up empty in my pitiful attempts to spell. For a film that wants to increase appreciation of art, this is a pretty big mistake.
The program does seem to run out of steam towards the end, hastily throwing in some modern usages of optical illusion, specifically in the film "Casablanca" and the design of Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom. They are nice ties to the innovation that makes up the bulk of the program, but feel very tokenistic. They are followed by a brief montage of paintings highlighted over the course of the program; while this doesn't negatively affect my enjoyment of the program, it does make it feel a bit cheaply produced. I'd much rather see something end on a high-note five to ten minutes earlier, then try to pad time.
Ultimately, "The Magic of Illusion" is a solid program. It gave me something to look at and analyze when I do happen upon the occasional art exhibition, but most of all, instilled a further appreciation of the greats of the art world. Art fanatics are likely to find nothing new here, but for the average viewer, this is well worth watching.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is not as sharp as I'd like for a documentary based on paintings, but the level of detail is far above what one might expect from a smaller release such as this. Color levels look strong and accurate, with only a minimal amount of grain present.
The English Stereo soundtrack is solid for a documentary feature. Narration is strong and clear, while mood music is appropriately mixed to supplement viewing, not detract from it.
Aside from a minor quibble regarding textual information for the artists' names, and the slightly slopping wrap-up, "The Magic of Illusion" is a very enjoyable enlightening documentary. If you've ever looked at a painting and thought, "that looks almost like a picture," then by all means, check out this documentary; I can assure you, you'll learn something quite cool. Next time a major art exhibition rolls around town, I can see myself checking this documentary out again beforehand. Recommended.