Film’s New Generation of Experimentalists

By David Munro
By David Munro

In a recent article I wrote for Craftsmanship Quarterly, “Real Film Strikes Back”, I tell the story of analog film’s surprising comeback in a motion picture industry that has become almost entirely digitized. Yet unbeknownst to most of us, there is another world of film artists working outside of Hollywood who are using celluloid as a medium for visual craftsmanship in completely different ways.

A prime example is Robert Schaller of Colorado’s Handmade Film Institute. A leading light in the DIY film movement, Schaller believes that commercial forces robbed film of its infancy. “Film was immediately sucked up into existing media and pressed into the service of other arts and industries,” Schaller says. “But with its collapse as a commercial medium, it’s now free to explore all the things it can be. We have the opportunity, as filmmakers, to create a new history for it, and in a sense, to start over.”

Film artist Robert Schaller knows extreme film atavists who boil jackrabbits for emulsion gelatin and make developing solution out of horse urine, but in his words, he’s not quite there yet.

When Schaller says “start over,” he’s not kidding. On his annual Summer Wilderness Film Expedition, he leads a trek of film-curious adventurers up an Edenic Colorado mountainside to recreate film’s genesis. Using mostly organic materials — coffee-based developing solutions, distilled water from mountain streams — his students make homemade, hands-on film stock.

“Film manufacturers started with an outcome — to replicate what is seen through a camera viewfinder — and they developed a chemical process to achieve that,” says Schaller, who has a chemistry background and actually assisted the scientists who discovered left-handed DNA. “What we do on our treks is fundamentally different. We start with a natural phenomenon — the light sensitivity of silver halides — and then ask, ‘What artistic possibilities does it offer?’ It’s the difference between imposing a vision onto nature and entering into a dialog with it.”

One of Schaller’s expeditions produced some particularly surprising results, stemming from a white-knuckle moment in the middle of the night. As a rainstorm approached, campers raced to gather up strips of drying emulsion. The film ended up getting “flashed” by lightning, an unwitting accident that gave the resulting collectively authored film, In Lightning Agnes, a strobing, halated beauty. Schaller finds this kind of serendipity absent in digital cinema, and he is mission-driven to propagate it through the alchemy of natural-born, photochemical media.

Schaller’s project is to cede to digital video the burden of perfect photographic representation, and in turn, give analog film the childhood it never had.

Another filmmaker, Bill Morrison, is giving analog film a second life in a very literal sense. In his hauntingly beautiful 2016 film, Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison uses decaying footage, from a trove of silent films unearthed in a former Yukon boomtown, to weave a recombinant tale of greed and its wages.

“Gold was discovered in the Klondike the same year that cinema was invented,” Morrison says. “Their stories are deeply intertwined.” Early silent films made their way north to Dawson City, where they screened in theaters sandwiched between the bars and brothels. With distributors unwilling to pay return freight for films that had exhausted their earning potential, the films piled up. When the piles of canisters got too high, the city buried them in a swimming pool, under a hockey rink, and forgot about them.

Decades later, a bulldozer clearing the way for a new recreation center struck cultural gold — a motherlode of 533 impossibly rare, silent-era films, stubbornly preserved beneath the permafrost. “The films, actors, and studios that made these films —  they’re survivors,” Morrison says. “We have their shadows again. All of them are dead, but look at the screen. There they are, breaking the fourth wall.”

The ghost-like silhouette of a trekker in the group-authored short film In Lightning Agnes was shot with a pinhole camera made from a used film cartridge.

It’s tempting to call Morrison’s art necromancy. But what makes his films so possessing is how he liberates his subjects from the confines of time, making them achingly alive to audiences today. He does this by eliminating the silent film clichés that distance us from what we’re seeing. In place of the usual tinkly piano, Morrison got Sigur Ros collaborator Alex Somers to write an ethereal modern score. And instead of running the film at old-timey, sped-up speed, he slowed it down by half. Vignettes that once seemed comically manic are now deeply moving.

The slow-motion confers another special effect: It makes the film’s water damage register graphically — not as defect, but as visual poetry. “The damage is a modern artifact. It’s taken the footage this long to look this way. When you see decay, that’s an artifact of time. It makes the footage contemporary.”

As reels of highly flammable nitrate film piled up in Dawson City, some self-combusted in fiery conflagrations, while others were tossed in a river, poisoning the water supply and fishing grounds of the indigenous Han people downstream.

While Morrison and his fragile masterpieces benefit greatly from advances in film lab technology, Australian filmmakers Richard Tuohy and his wife Dianna Barrie are co-opting labs altogether. Tuohy is recognized as the leader of the artist-run lab movement, a global initiative to create filmmaker communities around film processing equipment offloaded by closing labs. In economic terms, artists are taking over the means of (post) production.

“Cinema is the first machine-age medium,” says Tuohy, “but access to the machines has always been restricted. You gave your film to a lab, hoped for the best, and God forbid you touch the equipment. Now the equipment is ours. Nobody’s happy that labs are closing, but we’re giving the machines a new life, and the art a second go at evolution.”

In traditional moviemaking, the printing stage — rephotographing a spliced-together edit onto one seamless film strip for exhibition — is a fairly perfunctory last step in the process. But for experimental artists like Tuohy and Barrie, printing represents a dynamic — and largely unexplored — part of filmmaking’s frontier.

Morrison breathes new life into silent cinema, working against the hackneyed tropes that make archival imagery seem “like a hermetically sealed world we’re not allowed to enter.”

Consider the typical scenario at a commercial lab: When a filmmaker brings in a reel, the technicians might balk at requests more exotic than basic fades and dissolves. For Tuohy and Barrie, access to their own professional printers has allowed them to go wild, taking the machines into realms they’ve never been before.

The team’s 2017 film Pancoran is a showcase of what analog film artists can achieve when they control every phase of the creative process. Shots of Jakarta scooter traffic are transformed — after countless exposure passes under their printer’s lamp and lens — into a mind-blowing study in perpetual motion. We all know what traffic looks like; Pancoran is how traffic feels.

Tuohy and Barrie’s organization, called Nanolab, includes workshops, residencies, and a microcinema, but that’s just the opening scene in the new film-arts movement. Alongside Nanolab is Paris’s L’Abominable, Germany’s LaborBerlin, and Brooklyn’s Mono No Amare, whose name derives from the Japanese term for “the awareness of impermanence.” Tuohy himself has helped set up labs in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Boston, and elsewhere.

Louise Lovely in The Social Buccaneer (1916), from Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time. The co-occurrence of cinema’s invention with gold’s discovery in the Yukon have great resonance, says Morrison. “Both were sensations. Both had profoundly colonizing effects.”

In many ways, the artist-run lab movement can be placed inside the high-tech world’s recent approach to craftsmanship: the maker movement. Both efforts share an artisan spirit, a learn-by-doing ethos, and a peer-led, communitarian structure. The two movements also diverge in at least one important way. While many high-tech makers hope to scale their inventions for commercial application, today’s experimental film artists are trying to separate from the film industry’s commercial imperatives. In fact, that goal has been alternative cinema’s longest, most closely held dream.

The great irony is that celluloid’s commercial decline gave a new generation of analog film artists opportunities to live that dream, in their own way, and with their own two hands. Now that analog film is enjoying a dramatic comeback in the commercial arena, it will be interesting to see what kinds of media experiences the experimentalists carve out for themselves, and for us as viewers.

David Munro is a writer and filmmaker whose latest project is Stand Up Planet, a semi-scripted documentary about a new generation of global comedians sparking change through humor. His debut feature film, Full Grown Men, won the Sundance Channel Audience Award. His previous articles for Craftsmanship Quarterly are “Real Film Strikes Back”, “Let Tinkerbell Tinker”, and “The Art of the Joke”.

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