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A Vermeer mirror image, courtesy of Tim Jenison

From left: Penn Jillette, his magician partner, Teller, and scientist-inventor Tim Jenison.

Angela Weiss/Getty Images

From left: Penn Jillette, his magician partner, Teller, and scientist-inventor Tim Jenison.

That’s Bob Dylan belting out “When I Paint My Masterpiece” over the end credits of “Tim’s Vermeer.” And that’s Tim Jenison, the Texas-based scientist and inventor, in the opening scene forlornly admitting to the camera, “I’m not a painter.”

The 80 or so minutes between in this “will he or won’t he?” documentary explore Jenison’s attempt to re-create, with paint and brush and a little technical assistance, Johannes Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”

Tim Jenison assembled one of the experimental optical devices he built.

Sony Pictures Classics

Tim Jenison assembled one of the experimental optical devices he built.

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Produced by Jenison’s longtime pal Penn Jillette — they met 25 years ago via mutual friend Dana Carvey — and directed by Jillette’s magician partner, Teller, the film also tackles the controversial subject of how the Dutch artist managed to achieve such precision of detail in his paintings. Jenison suspected that Vermeer, to borrow a magician’s term, did it with mirrors, by painstakingly copying images that were reflected in mirrors, rather than just eyeballing his subjects. But he didn’t just want to prove that theory; he wanted to paint that way, too. And he wanted to paint a Vermeer, specifically Vermeer’s light-flooded, extraordinarily detailed 29-by-25-inch “The Music Lesson” (circa 1662-’64). But he wasn’t going to just copy a print of it; his plan was to actually build a replica of Vermeer’s studio, add in the painting’s objects and people, set up a self-devised contraption he calls a comparator mirror (the likes of which Vermeer might have used), then get to painting.

“I wanted to see if an actual room of that shape and size, and those windows of that shape and size, would lead to that image,” said Jenison by phone from Los Angeles, when asked why he chose “The Music Lesson.” “Of all the Vermeers, that one has a lot more information in it. ‘The Girl With a Pearl Earring’ would have been far simpler. I wouldn’t have had to build anything, but it wouldn’t really prove much about the physics of it. If I could build this room, I’d basically have a time machine. I’d be looking at exactly what Vermeer was looking at. There’s enough information in ‘The Music Lesson’ to do that.”

The project started in February 2009, when Jenison had dinner with Jillette at a Las Vegas steakhouse. Jenison pulled a camcorder off his belt and showed Jillette video of an experiment he conducted that involved painting with his mirror system a precise copy of a black-and-white photograph of his father-in-law.

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“I just gasped,” said Jillette, also by phone from LA. “Then Tim said, ‘I bought this warehouse in Texas, and I’m gonna tear down a wall and build the exact Vermeer room, and I think I reinvented the machine he used, and I’m gonna paint a Vermeer. Then I’ll probably write a paper on it and maybe do a five-minute YouTube video.’ I said, ‘No! This should be a movie!’ I had no doubt at all.”

“It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be a film,” said Jenison. “But as soon as Penn heard it, he said this has to be a film. It was his force of will. I was intrigued by it because I thought it was a unique and important idea. If it was true, I thought it meant a lot to the history of art, and I wanted a lot of people to hear it.”

Jillette started bringing Jenison around to different networks and studios to look for funding and for someone to actually produce and direct the film. But he became upset when one executive excitedly said, “This is the debunking of Vermeer! This is Tim takes down Vermeer!” Jillette went to lunch with Jenison and said, “Let’s just do it. Let’s just buy the cameras and hire people and make this movie.”

It was about three months later when Jillette got the idea to have Teller direct it.

“Can you imagine the pitch of this movie?” said Teller by phone while being driven around LA. “This guy, who is not a painter, says he’s going to paint a Vermeer in his warehouse in Texas, using an arrangement of mirrors and lenses that he thinks was used in the 17th century. It really doesn’t sound like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ But when Penn gets an idea in his head, it’s very hard to shake that idea. So he and Tim set a budget on it, then thought about their options for a director.

“I’ve always sort of been responsible for figuring out the staging of things in our show. Penn’s very good on the verbal stuff, and I’m a little better on the visual stuff. The visual aspects of the show tend to fall to me; and I think, to some degree, the plotting of things tends to fall to me. So I think Penn said something like, ‘If Teller directs it, it’s gonna be very different and it might be interesting.’ They called me up and asked if I was interested, and I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’ I mean, here’s a scientific experiment that might change art history, and a real challenge. It sounded good, so I said yes.”

Oddly, neither Jenison, Jillette, nor Teller initially had much interest in Vermeer. Jenison got turned on to the concept of the artist working with an optical device after reading two controversial books on the topic: “Secret Knowledge,” by David Hockney, and “Vermeer’s Camera,” by Philip Steadman. Jillette said, “I knew one page of Wikipedia. I had no particular interest in Vermeer, but I was amazed, as everyone is, by the incredible realism, and the way it pops.” According to Teller, “I had fallen for the general line that Vermeer was some sort of amazing alien creature who could do these extraordinary paintings, just with his eyeballs. It really never crossed my mind to check into the science of that until we started to work on this movie.”

Then Jenison hand-built Vermeer’s studio over 213 days, and learned how to grind lenses for mirrors and mix pigments for paints, while Penn and Teller set up nine cameras to catch every one of Jenison’s brush strokes as well as his inevitable moments of boredom and frustration over 130 days of painting. There was also a visit to Buckingham Palace, where Vermeer’s original painting hangs, and where, after much coaxing of a gentleman whose official title is Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Jenison was allowed to spend 30 minutes — without any cameras — studying it.

“Teller took on this huge task in a very methodical way,” said Jillette. “He said that we had to teach the audience about Vermeer, we had to teach the audience about optics, we had to teach the audience about perspective and about the eye and about Tim. We had to teach them that before we could start telling them the story.”

“We thought this was going to be a movie about Vermeer, and that Tim would be something of our guide to him,” said Teller. “But the more we shot it, we realized it was really about Tim, and his personality, and his experiment. But we still didn’t know what the story was.

“Then I thought, ‘Maybe this is the story of Tim getting in his heart the idea that he wants to paint a Vermeer.’ Not that he wants to investigate Vermeer, but that he wants to paint a Vermeer. Once we had that concept, we had a simple, physical, short story kind of action to hang the whole movie on.”

So the film turned out to be about Jenison and Vermeer and the former’s seemingly impossible project. Asked if he could make a painting without his special device, Jenison said, “No. I wouldn’t have a chance. It looks like I know what I’m doing in the film. I’d say that I have fairly good manual dexterity, and I eventually figured out which paint brushes worked best, and how to control them. Although what you don’t see in the film is me constantly wiping up what I just painted, and trying it again.’’

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
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