July 13, 2020

Who Has Seen the Wind?

        Invisibility is a staple of both fantasy and sci fi, from Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak (or that of the soldier in “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), to the cloaking devices of Romulan spaceships.  It’s easy enough to include it in a story, but what about the illustrators and filmmakers then called upon to show viewers what invisibility looks like?  In a previous post Picturing the Unseen, I talked about how artists illustrate those things that supposedly no human has ever seen.  But portraying invisibility is a whole ‘nother issue.  It isn’t that we have to imagine what it would look like; it’s that we have to depict the non-appearance of it.
        One option filmmakers often use is to show the very faint shimmer, especially as something transitions between visibility and invisibility.  That’s what various shows do with cloaked spaceships, and we can also see a slight hint of wrinkles as someone throws on the cloak of invisibility in the Harry Potter movies.  But what about outside that brief moment of transition?  How to show something not becoming invisible, but already invisible?
The answer is in the poem by Christina Rossetti:
Who has seen the wind? 
Neither I nor you: 
But when the leaves hang trembling, 
The wind is passing through. 
   Who has seen the wind? 
   Neither you nor I: 
   But when the trees bow down their heads, 
   The wind is passing by.
        You show the invisible by the effect it has on the world around it: footprints appearing in snow, mud, or grass; curtains or bushes moving as something unseen goes past; items knocked over…  Those effects can give away a person who is trying to remain unseen, but there can be even clearer effects when the invisible agent is trying to act on the world, such as picking up and carrying items.
        That brings us to a big question that writers need to wrestle with as they figure out the parameters of this invisibility in their universe.  To what extent does the invisibility of the agent extend to the items with which they interact?  An invisibility cloak is fairly straightforward: anything covered by the cloak is covered by invisibility, while anything out from under the cloak is seen.  I can pick up and carry invisibly anything that can fit under my cloak with me.
        Now what about Bilbo’s ring of power?  The ring isn’t working by the physical act of covering, rather it is extending some force of magic.  The first question is always: clothes or no clothes?  In Bilbo’s case, clothes also become invisible, as do accoutrements such as hats, swords, and backpacks.  Does his invisibility extend to anything he might pick up, such as a loaf of bread or a golden goblet?  If not, all he has to do is put it on his head and call it a hat.  What about if he gave young Frodo a piggy-back ride?  Surely Frodo is then not much different from Bilbo’s cloak?  And yet we know also that the invisibility does not extend to everything Bilbo touches: doors, rocks, bar tables…  What about his blanket when he sleeps?  Is it visible because the edges are grounded?  But would it become invisible if it were all bundled up atop him so that no part of it touched the ground?  But then, of course, if he’s lying down his clothes would be touching the ground as well as himself, and yet they remain invisible.
        I’m obviously looking for the grey areas here, but usually we don’t really have too much difficulty drawing what seems to be a logical line between which objects count as part of a person’s person, and which objects are extras they may happen to be touching or holding.  And magic can work by rules of human “reasonableness”.  In the world of sci-fi, however, invisibility works not by magic but by science, and thus cannot afford to be as vague as what seems reasonable to a human.  Think about The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, in which the man has been made invisible by a procedure that is specific to his own body.  Thus nothing else around him becomes invisible because of mere touch or proximity.  When he puts on clothes and covers his face with bandages, everything appears perfectly visible again.  1992’s movie “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” goes one further and proposes that even the food he eats is visible, visibly turning to mush in his transparent mouth, and visibly gurgling down his transparent gullet, at least until it digests sufficiently to count as being part of his invisible body.  Presumably many of these same questions apply to creatures such as jinn that are naturally invisible as part of their nature.
        How you catch an invisible creature is a question that really requires us to grapple with the parameters of our system of invisibility.  If you throw flour over the creature, does the flour reveal the invisible shape upon which it lands?  Or does it, like clothing, also turn invisible?  Can you see an invisible shape in the rain?  What about if an invisible creature is stabbed, or steps on a tack?  Clearly the blood inside its body is invisible, but does it become visible when it drips to the ground?  Being speculative, any answer is possible, but when you imagine how invisibility works, you want to come up with a coherent and consistent system.  In any case, thermal imaging and dogs are probably always a good bet for invisible humans, although I’m not sure how they work on jinn.  (It would presumably be no help at all with ghosts, but then, incorporeality is a completely different issue from invisibility.)
        All of these decisions are difficult enough to work with as the writer, but potentially even harder for the illustrator.  Telling you an invisible cat crept up the stairs is a lot easier than showing you the invisible cat going up the stairs.  In still pictures as opposed to moving images, it’s even more difficult to get across the idea of footprints appearing, loaves of bread disappearing, and the presence of something not depicted in any way.  Probably the most common method is to depict a semi-transparent figure to show the viewer what’s going on but indicate that the other characters in the scene cannot see it.  I haven’t attempted any pictures of the invisible myself.

[Pictures: Cloaking spaceship from The Clone Wars: Shipyards of Doom, by Fillbach Brothers and Ronda Pattison, 2008 (Image from Star Wars Fandom);
The Cloak of Invisibility, by Mary GrandPré (Image from Pulse.Gallery);
Invisible man smoking, still from “Memoirs of an Invisible Man”, 1992 (Image from House of Geekery);
The Invisible Man cover illustration by Gerald Gregg, 1948 (Image from Flickr).]

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