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Droste Image

An image that contains a smaller replica of itself, which (being a replica of the image) contains a smaller replica of itself, which contains ... well, you get the idea. Like a fractal, but without all the complicated math. In the example from the movie Escape From the Planet of The Apes below, they referred to it as "infinite regression."

For instance, take this cover of Spoof which shows the characters holding a copy of that very comic, whose cover depicts them holding ... a copy of the very same comic (with the same cover). Theoretically, there could be infinite recursion of that comic book in the image, though it's safe to assume that the printer doesn't have enough resolution to reproduce them all. (It's the thought that counts!)

A similar effect can be set up in a Hall of Mirrors by putting two mirrors facing each other.

See also Nested Stories and Dream Within a Dream, which has the layering but not the self-similarity. Also see Recursive Reality which is this trope on a cosmic level.


Examples

Advertising
  • The Trope Namer is Droste cocoa powder, made by a Dutch food company that was famous for using this trope in their ads. See the Wikipedia article.
  • Seen on several cereal packages. You know, the type that feature a picture of somebody having breakfast. Said breakfast of course centers on the cereal, with a package proudly displayed. On that package, we see somebody having said cereals for breakfast. And so on...
  • Royal Baking Powder.
  • Land O'Lakes Butter.
  • Nippon Paint used to have this on cans of Pylox spray paint, where what appears to be a hand belonging to a woman is holding a can of Pylox, whose can shows the same thing over and over. Newer cans did away with this, although a vector drawing of a hand holding the paint can be seen.
  • This cover of the German magazine "Amiga Joker".
  • La Vache qui rit. French cartoonist Gotlib parodied this for his series of exhibitionism gags: the cow opens her cloak to show a cow which opens her cloak etc.
  • Science mag "Nature" (issue #7476) illustrates an article about science replication with a Droste image.

Anime
  • Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer had a scene where Ataru is in a room in the school building, looks through the doorway, and sees on the other side of the door the same room that he's in, complete with himself and the doorway, and past that doorway is the same room again, etc. (It seems that space itself is forming loops; earlier there was a scene where we see Mendo run up the stairs past the "camera", only to reappear coming up the same stair and go past the camera again.)

Art
  • M.C. Escher's "Print Gallery" is a very unusual take on this concept: It only shows one copy of the picture, but implies an infinite recursion all the same, using uneven magnification to make the contents of the picture merge with their real-world analogues.

Comics
  • In comics, it's called an infinity cover.
  • An issue of Runaways has Victor, a cyborg who was (unknowingly) being used to spy on the team, discover the TV screen where the camera in his eyes feeds back to. The result is himself, watching himself watching himself, watching himself watching himself watching himself, watching himself watching himself watching...
  • The cover of the Doom Patrol comic "The Painting that ate Paris" also has such a shot.
  • Used in The Beano back in 1954 [1].
  • The cover of the one-shot Elfquest anthology "Bedtime Stories" is like this.
  • Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror II had this.
  • French cartoonist Gotlib had one in his "Exhibitionist" gags, with a cow opening her cloak to show a cow opening her cloak etc. The cow is "La Vache qui rite" and most probably he got the inspiration from her Droste-style ad.
  • Pregnant Matroschka doll gets ultrasound.
  • Subverted with this old Charles Addams cartoon.

Film
  • This effect is captured in Citizen Kane when Kane passes between two mirrors.
  • Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, did this again in The Lady From Shanghai in a Hall of Mirrors sequence.
  • In Spaceballs, the titular bad guys watch the Spaceballs video tape to find out where the heroes are. Hilarity Ensues when they get to the exact point in the tape that they are watching, although the Droste effect is too small to see much of.
  • Happens in The Matrix Reloaded with the architect: The room's wall is filled with monitors depicting Neo in the room (and his various anticipated reactions), which in turn are rooms with monitors across all walls. There are several transitions where the scene zooms in on whichever monitor corresponds to Neo's actual reaction.
  • While not in the film itself, the box art for Memento.
  • Airplane! uses this when the air traffic controller, McCroskey, adopts a thoughtful pose in front of a framed photograph of himself holding the same pose. Airplane II: The Sequel then cranks this Up to Eleven by posing McCroskey in front of a framed photo of himself posing in front of the framed photograph of himself.
  • Escape From The Planet of the Apes uses this as a metaphor for Time Travel: A painting that contains an infinite regress of images including the painter himself.
  • In Hot Fuzz, the shot of Simon Skinner's smiling face in front of a photo of himself smiling.
  • In The Hobbit, after Gandalf is beaten by the Necromancer a.k.a. Sauron, the Necromancer appears as the Eye of Sauron with his humanoid shape forming the pupil, repeating itself infinitely from within.

Literature
  • "Jack's Story" from The Stinky Cheese Man could be considered a print version of this, as it features an infinite regression of the same story nested inside itself. Justified in that he's (Jack, that is,) telling this story to a giant who intends to eat him after he finishes his story. So he tells a story that can be continued for an infinite amount of time, or at least until the giant falls asleep. Which he does. On a later page, we see Jack making a break for it.
  • In The Mouse and His Child, much is made of a particular dog food label depicting a Droste Image of the dog holding the same can, complete with the same picture, continuing down ad nauseam. It's said that some grand revelation lies beyond "The Last Visible Dog", i.e. the smallest iteration that can still be seen.
  • The cover of the Little Golden Book My Christmas Treasury features a little boy and girl, and a cat and dog, sitting on a rug, reading a copy of the same book which features a little boy and girl, and a cat and dog, sitting on a rug...
  • The Ramona Quimby book Ramona Forever gets its title from a scene where Ramona does this with the angled mirrors in a dressing room.
  • In The Art of Discworld, Paul Kidby's drawing of Dr Whiteface shows him holding a scepter tipped with a whiteface clown that's holding a scepter, and so on and so on.
  • The Peter David Star Trek novel I, Q featured Picard, Q, and Data moving through a Hall of Mirrors. Data naturally stops and stares when two mirrors create such an image. Q can't resist asking him how many reflections he sees...then cuts him off when he starts in the trillions.

Live-Action TV
  • The first episode of The IT Crowd opens with one of these: A shot of Mr. Reynholm at his desk, with an identical scene on a picture hung on the wall. The camera then pans out to reveal another identical scene. When he starts talking, we see that we were actually looking at the picture on the real Mr. Reynholm's wall.
  • Square One TV did something similar to teach viewers the concept of infinity.
  • During Steve Martin's "I'm Me" song on Saturday Night Live, he notices a monitor showing live footage of him, thus creating this effect. "It's me, watching me, watching me!"
  • In Kamen Rider Decade, Decade's Transformation Sequence into his Complete Form invokes elements of this. Decade has a card of himself in Complete Form located on his forehead. Which has a card of that on its forehead, and so on. The sequence repeatedly zooms in on Decade's forehead of infinity until he's suited up.
  • An episode of Happy Endings had Jane doing a slide presentation of her father's interests, one of which was "old-timey slide projectors." The accompanying visual was somewhat unsettling...
  • In the end of an episode of Rutland Weekend Television, one of the announcers is reading the credits for the show. The credits in the script he's reading stop around a certain point, however, so he runs up to a television monitor showing the show so he can read the credits on the screen out loud instead. The monitor, behind the credits, shows him reading from the screen which, behind the credits, shows him reading from the screen...however, he doesn't read quickly enough. Hilarity Ensues.
    • One episode also uses a "Bohemian Rhapsody" style video feedback effect (see below) during a "performance" by an up-and-coming singer whose gimmick is... he's dead. This is a spoof of the effect's popularity (and overuse) on shows like Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test.
  • Stephen Colbert's portrait on The Colbert Report is slowly becoming one of these, as every season he has a new portrait painted... where he's posing in front of the previous portrait. That said, what he's holding, generally his latest book, is different.
  • In an episode of Mad Men, Sally and Glen (kids) have a Seinfeldian Conversation where she points out this is the case with the Land o' Lakes butter label, and says it scares her.
  • In one episode of the live show MTV's Most Wanted in the mid 1990s, the camera followed presenter Ray Cokes through the lobby of the MTV Europe studios, where there was a video wall showing the current program on MTV Europe. Pointing the camera straight at it, this produced a Droste Image of that video wall, which was then enhanced by the cameraman (probably Rob the Cameraman) rolling the camera left and right, the image following this with a slight delay for each iteration giving the impression of a kind of moving tunnel.
  • Modern Family does this to go from the Cold Open to the opening credits.
  • An old CBS logo, seen for instance at the end of The Twilight Zone, features a push-in on a CBS eye inside a larger CBS eye.
  • An unintentional example happens every now and then on Pardon The Interruption when the hosts ask Tony Reali if they made any mistakes. The monitor at Reali's desk shows the camera feed, and that screen has a smaller version of the camera feed, and so on and so on.
  • The classic Doctor Who title sequences were created using this effect. The original (Hartnell to early Pertwee) sequences were made by pointing a camera at its own monitor and then passing objects across the lens to create the weird "howl-around" feedback effects.

Music
  • The last scene of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Ava Adore" video.
  • The New Pornographers use TV monitors to create this effect in their video for "Letter From An Occupant."
  • The cover of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma uses a variation: a photo of the band with a smaller photo on the wall containing a smaller photo containing a smaller photo. However, each successive photo shows the various band members occupying each other's places.
  • The album cover for Best of Friends - The Smurfs.
  • The album cover for Amber Gambler by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.
  • The album cover for Swing to the Right by Utopia.
  • The video for The White Stripes' Seven Nation Army.
  • The video feedback method referenced below is one of the special effects used in the music video for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody.

Newspaper Comics

  • Garfield: The first panel of one of the Sunday comics from the 1990's shows a picture of Garfield reading the comics...with a picture of himself reading the comics, etc.

Pinball
  • The scene in the backglass of Capcom's Breakshot pinball machine has a Breakshot pinball machine in the background.
  • Pinball Magic has a Pinball Magic machine shown in the backglass, complete with another pinball machine on its backglass.

Sports
  • Every year, ESPN The Magazine has an issue called "Revenge of the Jocks" where a famous athlete takes over as editor for that issue. The front cover features the athlete in question tearing up last year's magazine, which features last year's cover athlete tearing up the previous year's magazine, etc. etc.

Tabletop Games

Video Games
  • Digimon Rumble Arena (a Fighting Game spinoff from Digimon) featured one arena with a copy of the screen displayed as a colored hologram near the top of the arena, and the Droste effect varies in depth according to the camera's current position.
  • Although several Mario Kart games have tracks with monitors displaying live race footage as it happens, the size and placement of these monitors around the track generally prevent a Droste effect from developing.
  • In Portal, place two portals on opposite walls and look through the resulting "tunnel". It may be the first game to where it is also possible to walk (or fall) through them.
  • The first-person "tunnel" effect in the final levels of Super Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi were rendered using an analogous method, in which as one tile increased in size, another, smaller (and usually identical) tile appeared inside it, and so on. See it here.
  • Dwarf Fortress art includes images of "historical events", which includes artifacts, and since the object is created before art is added to it, the content maker sometimes depicts an artifact on itself. Moreover, a glitch/repeatable exploit adding more art and law of large numbers make it happen. The first reported was the statue aptly named "Planepacked", among "an ungodly amount of items built into it" including 73 images of itself. Read here the description of its full glory, as well as of this and another similar exploit.
  • The mirror leading to Satan's altar in Tecmo's Deception, although its range is too small to show much more than itself and the surrounding wall.
  • There's a manuscript page like this in Alan Wake: "I lifted the page in front of my eyes and read it. In it, I lifted the page in front of my eyes and read it. In it..."
  • In Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, this can happen in the Glitz Pit when the huge monitor set-up at the back of the arena shows a front view of the arena, wherein the huge monitor set-up at the back of the arena shows a front view of the arena, wherein...
  • One area of the Alpha Labs in Doom 3 has a security monitor. The player can cycle through a number of cameras, including a camera looking at the screen, so the Marine sees himself seeing himself, etc.
  • The menu page of The Stanley Parable, which goes so far as to have your cursor's movements reflected in each of the images.

Webcomics

Web Original

Western Animation
  • Used in The Venture Bros. when #21 and Dean are caught spying on the Murderous Moppets.
  • The Darkwing Duck episode "A Brush With Oblivion" had one of these as Honker Muddlefoot's art project.
  • In the Justice League episode "Wildcards", one shot has the Joker showing his successful takeover of TV channels by appearing at a TV screen, which shows him on television in the same shot, and so on.
  • An old Rankin/Bass cartoon called Tomfoolery had a gag involving an animated man holding a Droste image of himself that zoomed in for several seconds. After a while, the narrator quipped, "This could go on all day!"
  • One episode of Phineas and Ferb had Doofenschmirtz explaining how he was able to capture Perry the Platypus again through a series of pictures on canvas that ends up reaching his own explanation thereof. The final picture is of himself pointing to a picture of himself that goes on for several times (but not getting smaller) until the canvas runs out of room.
    • In "Meapless in Seattle", Ferb unearths an old urn with a picture of an ancient Greek version of himself holding an urn with a picture of an ancient Greek version of himself holding an urn... and so on.
  • "Drip-Along Daffy", a Daffy Duck cartoon set in The Wild West, plays with this by showing a Wanted Poster for Nasty Canasta. When the picture seems to move, we discover it was Canasta himself, standing in front of the poster in the exact same pose.
  • In The Smurfs episode "Now You Smurf 'Em, Now You Don't", Vanity presents Greedy with a painting of himself in the exact same pose holding a painting of himself.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "No Free Rides", inside of Mrs. Puff's house there is a picture on her wall that shows the exact same shot of Mrs. Puff standing by the door, picture and all.
  • In an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, when Moltar is attempting to fix the monitor, it begins showing Space Ghost looking at it as it's showing him.
    Space Ghost: Hey look! It's me watching me watching me watching me!
  • In the Wander Over Yonder episode "The Box", Wander peeks inside the titular box and sees... himself peeking inside the box. The camera then zooms through the infinite progression of boxes and into a Dream Sequence.
  • Used during Xergiok's musical sequence in the Adventure Time episode "The Great Birdman".
  • During The Amazing World of Gumball episode "The Phone" Darwin looks at one on the eponymous phone of him coming out of an envelope then opening his mouth to reveal another envelope with another Darwin.

Real Life
  • Stand two mirrors opposite each other. Observe.
  • "Video feedback" can be triggered by pointing a video camera, or a computer webcam, at any screen which is displaying the camera's own live footage. (Example)
  • An early transatlantic satellite broadcast included a monitor on the wall behind the presenter which showed the return signal from the satellite. Satellite delay meant that the image on the screen took about half a second to cut from a test pattern to the image of the presenter with a test pattern on the screen behind him, and so on.
  • In mathematics, the concept of Self-similarity.
  • The concept of recursive functions in programming is pretty much that. If you don't put a stopping condition, it will repeat itself until it runs out of memory. On an unrelated note, modern operating systems guard against the aforementioned programming oversight / malicious code. Before infinite recursion can happen, the program will be terminated by "overflowing out of stack", which is basically exhausting the (fairly small) space to note the connections between the recursing function(s). As for forkbombs, it's one of those things that modern UNIX-based OS actively try to prevent. You can't make too many forks at too short an interval, and in some cases there's a maximum number of forks you can do.
  • During the stage show of Depeche Mode's 2006 "Touring the Angel" tour, which featured a large LED video wall behind the stage, the screen would often feature a medium-zoom view of the performers with the wall directly behind them. A (perhaps unintentional) half-second delay loop resulted in a "stepping" effect, which was enhanced by blinking lights and camera flashes. See here for an example.
  • In heraldry this is called "mise en abyme" (from French "placed into abyss"). It was fairly common in medieval Europe. More recent examples include:
  • Virtual Machines. You can run a "virtualized" operating system inside that very same operating system, recursively ad infinitum in theory, hardware resources notwithstanding.note  This is getting more and more common these days to prevent the headache of having to craft policies for many, many users that share single administrative space. Having an OS emulating the very same OS also cuts down the hassle of having to provide different updates.
  • Wil Wheaton has made an InfiniTee (see above) of himself. He is fond of posing in the position it pictures while wearing it, resulting in a surreal meta-recursion.

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alternative title(s): Droste Effect; Recursive Image; Infinity Cover
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