ART BLANCHE: Merriweather Post Pavilion
There’s about nothing more fitting for an Animal Collective album cover than an optical illusion — it’s a seemingly perfect complement to their very unique style of music. So when it was announced that the cover for Merriweather Post Pavilion was an optical illusion, well… it just made sense. The thing that makes less sense is actually looking at the cover. The leaves are all moving, but I’m pretty sure it’s a still image. It’s a headache-and-a-half.
So that begs us to ask the questions: what exactly am I looking at, and why does it make my brain hurt?
First, some background: optical illusions play on the sensory skills of our eyes and the way in which they process and perceive light, color, shape, movement, etc. One of the pioneers in the development and study of optical illusions is Japanese psychologist and professor Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Aside from designing one of the most famous optical illusions, the “rotating snakes,” Kitaoka is also responsible for the illusion on the cover of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Now, to the science-y part: breaking down the cover of MPP.
The illusion on the cover of MPP is called an “anomalous motion illusion” which is a fancy term that means “part of the image moves in a different direction from the rest of it.”
When looking at this cover there’s two apparent layers to the image: the green, moving leaves in the foreground, and the spacey, blue-pinkish image that is the background. What you may or may not have been able to guess is that the background actually has (mostly) no effect on the illusion at all. In fact, you can completely replace the background and the illusion still works. Take a look at my quick (and sloppy) photoshop that proves this exact point. Yes that’s Nick Cage.
On top of this, the leaves’ green color also has no effect on the illusion at all. (Well, mostly… I’ll get to that in a sec.) Here, I’ve changed the leaves to purple (because it’s my favorite color) and replaced that photo of Nick Cage with a different Nick Cage photo (because I can), and guess what — that headache-inducing movement is still going strong.
By now, if you’re a fan of process of elimination you may have figured out the magic behind this illusion: those black and white outlines around each leaf. They create what is called “conflicting luminosity” which is an effect that triggers the neurons in your brain into thinking they’re seeing motion when, in fact, they aren’t. In conjunction with this, the leaves are also laid out in a very specific pattern that helps further stimulate these neurons. Research has shown that repetition helps trigger the motion-sensing parts of the brain, and you can see the pattern of movement from MPP in this diagram below from the fantastic idsgn blog (who did their own post on this cover that I highly recommended checking out).
Now remember how I said the color of the leaves and the background mostly doesn’t matter? Well, that’s because of the whole conflicting luminosity thing. Think about it - for the full conflict effect, you need both colors to be present so they can conflict with each other. So, if you were to replace the background or the leaves with one of those two colors, it basically nullifies its effect because that color becomes overwhelming in the sense of creating conflict.
Lets take a look at an example of this in that second Nick Cage photo real quick. In it, there are certain spots where the black lines in the background intersect with the leaves and you lose a bit of the intensity of the illusion in those spots. So, in the case of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the green leaves and the spacey background don’t really help make the illusion work, they just don’t make it not work. Ya dig?
That’s all I got for this week, but before I go, I just want to say I know that was long - thanks for reading!
Also, sorry for all the headaches.
P.S. If you have any ideas for my column, tell me! firstname.lastname@example.org