In the first chapter of The Film Sense, Sergei Eisenstein discusses a method by means of which an actor can generate the emotions required by their role. Using the example of a character who has been condemned for having gambled away government money, he describes what he would see, were he in the situation of such a man. This, he observes, is "exactly how it takes place in life. Terror resulting from awareness of responsibility initiates his feverish pictures of the consequences". A man in a situation of terror fantasises certain possibilities with such strength that it is as if he can see them: he projects them outside of himself. Hence the reverse technique can also work: by visualising such images, the actor begins to feel as if the images were his projection, and thus to engender the appropriate emotions without focusing directly either on the emotions themselves or on how they should be depicted. Eisenstein then claims that a successful film exists before the audience as if it is the result of their projection:
The basic validity of the method obtains in both spheres [ie acting and editing together a film]. The first task is the creative breaking-up of the theme into determining representations, and then combining these representations with the purpose of bringing to life the initiating image of the theme. And the process whereby this image is perceived is identical with the original experiencing of the theme of the image's content.
The technique is based on a metonymy of emotion: rather than emotion giving rise to images of that which would evoke the emotion (heightening it via a feedback cycle), images are witnessed whose unifying factor is the sensation of a particular emotion or collection of emotions; the viewer is thereby persuaded to attribute the fact that they are seeing particular images to the presence in themselves of the appropriate emotion, which causes them actually to feel said emotion.
The crucial distinction between projection in life and as a theatrical or cinematic technique is the presence or absence of control. The metaphor of projection (both deliberate and involuntary) is central to David Lynch's Inland Empire, as is indicated by the fact that the very first thing we see at the film's outset is the beam of light emanating from a film projector. Lynch dramatises a self-reflexive version of projection in a number of sequences in Inland Empire, using what one might call a "projection shot". A character is shown looking towards something, followed by a reverse shot indicating that what they are looking at is themselves, at another point in space and time, after which another shot shows that one of the two versions of the character has disappeared. They have projected themselves into another version of themselves. Their sight is productive of reality, distantly recalling early emission theories of vision (held by thinkers including Plato, Ptolemy and Galen) in which sight functioned via the emission of rays from the eyes. Such shots are placed prominently at two points in Inland Empire. The first happens at the end of the visit Nikki Grace (played by Laura Dern) receives from Grace Zabriskie's "visitor #1", when Nikki looks across the room and sees herself a day later, about to hear from her agent that she has got the part of Sue Blue in the film On High in Blue Tomorrows. The second occurs when Sue, played by Nikki, emerges after having entered a metal door marked "Axxon N" and finds herself on the soundstage of On High In Blue Tomorrows, looking back at herself during the first read-through, which we have already seen earlier in Inland Empire from a different point of view.
Inland Empire argues that Hollywood's projections corrode the distinction between fantasy and reality and subvert commonsense assumptions about the dominance of the actual over the virtual. In Eric Knight's 1938 novel You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (which David Lynch at one point wanted to film) the film director Quentin Genter laments this surreally corrosive power:
And you see this restaurant? Well, it isn't here. It's a process shot. All Hollywood is a process shot. It's a background just projected on to ground glass. And the only reason nobody knows that is because we're all mad.
Furthermore, this effect is contagious:
Wherever I go the world won't be itself. It becomes a movie set the moment I get there. And I can't go any farther. If I go to Europe that will become a movie, too. Everywhere I went it would become a process shot or a travelogue, until there'd be no world left. Only a movie of the world. Then the world would die – it would become two-dimensional – it would be the end of the world. It would be Armageddon!