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Teller Speaks! Talking Wondrously Mind-Boggling Art Doc 'Tim's Vermeer'

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 30, 2014 at 11:22AM

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a beautiful documentary, winningly compact at only 80 minutes, about an artist’s labor of love. It is also about an endearing technological genius, inventor Tim Jenison, and his insistence that art and technology are closer than they appear.
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Teller, Tim Jenison and Penn Jillette at TIFF 2013
Larry Busacca Teller, Tim Jenison and Penn Jillette at TIFF 2013

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a beautiful documentary, winningly compact at only 80 minutes, about an artist’s labor of love. It is also about an endearing technological genius, inventor Tim Jenison, and his insistence that art and technology are closer than they appear.

Tim's Vermeer

Directed by Teller (the quieter half of famed magician duo Penn & Teller), “Tim’s Vermeer” follows Jenison’s self-imposed mission of unlocking the secret behind the photo-realism in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings -- and, in the process, painting his own Vermeer as a means of proving that the 17th century artist may have used a certain device to achieve his masterworks. This device, Jenison posits, is a combination of the camera obscura, which projects an image on to a canvas, plus a 45-degree mirror to mimic brightness.

Having proved the effectiveness of his invention on smaller projects, Jenison sets out to recreate Vermeer’s Delft room in a studio in San Antonio, complete with period appropriate restraints (he grinds his own paint pigments and crafts special lenses). He then spends 130 days making his painting, a replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”

This is captured wonderfully in the film -- Tim’s backbreaking dedication, his meticulousness, and his bleary-eyed will to push though to the painting’s completion, despite getting caught up in a two-week time warp of painting dots on a certain section of the painting. Really, he only paints dots for days on end.

“Tim’s Vermeer” opens theatrically January 31, 2014, via Sony Pictures Classics.

Beth Hanna: I love how process oriented this film is. We really feel the 130 days it took Tim to paint his Vermeer. Was it a strenuous film to shoot?

Teller: The digital video revolution has been very helpful to us. As Tim was painting, for example, every morning he would come in, and set up the lights, and set up the cameras. Tim had five cameras on the painting at one time, so we’d always have what was happening on the canvas, what was going on from enough distance to see the painting, close-ups and various things like that. Tim would set that stuff up, and I would generally be in Las Vegas. At the end of the day, our producer and Tim would Skype together. The painting process was essentially covered in that almost diary-like, autobiographical way.

Where I was valued in the movie was figuring out what the story was. I think I had the first glimmers that this wasn’t a film about Vermeer, it wasn’t about technology. It was about Tim as an extraordinary character.

What seems to be a simple story is not a simple story to tell. Because the audience has to know all these little odd things along the way that pretty much nobody knows. What [David] Hockney’s book is about, what a camera obscura is, and then to understand the principle of Tim’s device, the business about the human retina. That was a key thing: That Vermeer was doing something in his paintings that the unaided eye cannot do. To measure and copy brightness -- the human eye can’t do that. But all these little things then became subordinate to Tim’s character and the story of making the painting.

At certain points Tim expresses how tired he is, that the film is the only thing keeping him returning back to the painting. Was there ever a genuine concern he wouldn’t finish?

[Laughs] No. We knew that he would try to the nth degree to do this. We did not know that he would succeed, by any means. When we first saw Tim’s demo, we were all very confident that his method would work. But because Tim is such a hard-ass on himself, scientifically, when he saw the original painting in Buckingham palace, he really was shaken. Quite shaken, because he knew that in that darkened room he would not be able to get that level of detail [in his own painting].

There was a moment where Tim said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Remember part of that great conversation I had with him that opens the movie: I said, “Are you going to succeed?” And he said, “If I don’t succeed, I guess there won’t be a movie.” And I turned to him and said, “Oh no, there will still be a movie.” But it will be different. I think those words ringing in Tim’s ear made him think that he really didn’t want to fail on this project.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Tim's Vermeer, Teller, Documentary, Documentaries


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.