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    Re: Celestial Navigation in the Movies
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2015 Mar 24, 15:50 -0700


    Regarding your screen capture from "All is Lost", you wrote:
    "But is he looking wrong way? The sun is to his back."

    No, I wouldn't call that an error at all. If you watch the scene (I double-checked), or even look carefully at the screen capture you posted, you can see that he is reading a book while he's doing this. Minutes before we see him opening his brand new sextant case and handling it like an artifact from a lost civilization. Without dialog, the film is saying very clearly that he has never seen this thing before. Further, since there is a gift card in the box which he handles for a moment, there's an implicit suggestion that this sextant was a gift from someone who feared for his safety on the open sea. The scene in the screen capture with the sun behind him is intended to portray one of the very first times that he has held the instrument to his eye. It is completely alien to him.

    I feel that "All is Lost" failed primarily because it did not flesh out his character. This was completely intentional, but I contend that it was a huge mistake. If hew knew why "our man" was recklessly sailing the oceans, the story might have been more compelling instead of becoming a "feeding frenzy" for sailing experts picking and feasting on nits. Given the lack of dialog in the scenes at sea (and given the unremarkable cinematography), flashback scenes interspersed could have broken the monotony of the the movie and made the character human --and interesting. It would have been nice knowing who gave him the sextant. It would have been useful to hear him explain his "navigational logic" no matter what it was.

    As for the scene is "Das Boot"... yes, it's a sextant. And yes, the actor probably received a quick lesson in how to handle it to make it look like he was actually using it. But the angles don't make the slightest sense. The images below are from the "Director's Cut" of the film. This sextant scene occurs at about 2 hours 16 minutes into the film (DC ver.). The first image is the very first frame in which the sextant is visible, but the process is already in motion. Although there is a perpective effect which reduces the apparent angles by about cos(20°), the navigator is starting with the horizon line of sight about 33° above the horizon, and the index arm appears to be indicating an angle of about 5°. At the end of the motion, the sextant is clearly pointing well below the horizon. I estimate it's aimed about 13° below the horizon. By then the actor has rotated the index arm to a position of about 75°. And then after the briefest of glances (faster than anyone I know could read a sextant!), he calls out "25 degrees 43.3 minutes" (I think). So none of that makes sense. Of course "Das Boot" is an excellent film in other respects, but the sextant scene is nothing special. I would not fault the film for the sextant details, but it's not praiseworthy on those details either.

    Frank Reed
    Conanicut Island USA




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