Experimental filmmakers Richard Tuohy, Dianna Barrie, Ohio State professor and filmmaker Roger Beebe, along with Ohio State professor and Livable Futures co-director Norah Zuniga Shaw held a public dialog to discuss strategies for building thriving community through creative living and skills trading as demonstrated by the artist-run film lab movement. Both Tuohy and Barrie, who are from Australia, were in town to share their works at the Wexner Center as part of Beebe’ Expanded Cinema series. Beebe describes the series as a challenge to the “traditional single-projector black box theatrical screening” with live performance of the films by the filmmakers using multiple analog projectors.
In the public dialog, the filmmakers all shared their passion for analog filmmaking and presenting as an example of re-use culture, that does not discard the technologies of the past but lovingly restores and revives them. In the process, an international community that supports each other and is conserving old tech that would otherwise be lost.
Digital didn’t replace analog any more than photography replaced painting.
There are always comparisons made between traditional film and digital film making. Both sides have ardent defenders. But, to Tuohy, it is not an either/or question, “I only wish to argue that film is different…Neither is better,” Tuohy said. “It’s an ontological question…whether moving image art is moving image art or whether there is enough significant differences in the materials themselves that define it as a different. There is so much that digital and film have in common. But I think there's more that they don't have in common that is important. If you consider the art form as far more intimately connected with something perceptual, something that is generated through the experience of watching by the materials. Another example of this would be the difference between oil and watercolor paintings. Each can depict a landscape from a perceptual point. If that's all you are asking from a medium perhaps the cheapest is the best–it is the one it can be reproduced most readily and distributed most easily. But, if you would acknowledge there are fundamental differences between watercolor and oil painting, between film and digital, then you should embrace that difference and say, ‘well we need this as well as that.’ I think it comes down to what you think the nature of an art form is.”
Love for analog does not seek to eliminate the digital. The filmmakers all agree the digital world helps with their analog pursuits. “I make so much use of digital tools, I would never want to edit sound on 16mm mag stock again, it’s the worst thing I ever did. As much as I care about this medium, the mode of production, the community forming aspects of it, I recognize how a digital world is really helpful,” Beebe said.
Tuohy said the aspects of any medium changes the way we approach art making. The aspects of a medium add to the final artwork. “Working with analog film is inherently slow compared to working with digital images. You can catapult into something very quickly with digital stuff, buy some kind of filter or what have you, then all of a sudden, you've got a radical transformation. Indeed, it's so radical you might not feel what the connection is to the original image. For me, what is interesting is the aesthetic difference that is there rather than the philosophical or even political differences. Aesthetic difference is if you spend a long time with an image you get to understand it and its possibilities and limitations more than you would if you had many, many images to use. Also, the generation of the image from that place is likely to be more thoughtful, from a process point of view, because you have engaged with the process of making it more slowly it makes it image more thoughtful,” Tuohy said.
Analog is not about nostalgia it is about a desire for material connection.
There is a nostalgia of the look of film that has appealed to certain generations. Those that grew up with Super-8 family films, when seeing a contemporary film, this nostalgia might be activated. But, Beebe said that the new generation of filmmakers were not brought up with this nostalgia and are forming new connections with film, “The new generation works with this medium without nostalgia. They don't have a connection to memories of growing up with the look and feel of analog film.”
For Beebe, the connection to film is in part due to how easy it is to comprehend the basic concepts of the workings of the equipment needed for filmmaking. “The desire for physicality of this medium is very important. And I think it is about the simplicity of the mechanics...this part has a belt that then turns this and so forth. It's so appealing in an era when my computer breaks and I don't know how to fix. In film things are fixable.”
Tuohy added to this idea, “one thing that I've been thinking about a lot is the way the digital era has humanized machines. We used to think of machines as the epitome of modern and the alienation of humanity. But now, I think in hindsight, we can look back at machines and say, ‘wow aren't they beautiful?!’ They are completely understandable things. We can look at them and say well this moves up and down and this thing makes that thing move and it's entirely graspable. It is humanly understandable in a way it's a virtual just is not.
In this type of filmmaking there are inexorable connections between the physicality of the art making tools, the cameras, the editors, and the like, and the art and community that supports it. This connection extends to ideas of production and comprehension. When we work in the digital realm, for most of us, we cannot begin to comprehend the computers that enable us to produce our work. We know it is a computer, but we get lost in the circuitry and the software programming that runs the computer. Because film is analog and reliant on a viewable, visually accessible construction, filmmakers have more of a concept of the production that leads to their art. But, this comprehension is at the cost of ease of production to the filmmaker. Because it is mechanical, mistakes are harder to correct. Copies are inherently expensive. Film itself is expensive.
This is always on the mind of a filmmaker. Beebe said, “There is an intensity when you pull the trigger the first time on a camera, I joke that you can hear the cash register running. You have 100 feet of film in your camera. When you are done shooting, you are done with that forever so you have to make it count. With video there is this kind of indifference. So even when getting to the place of how to set up a shot...in video there is a tendency to go, let’s set up, get a bunch of stuff and I will figure it out later, rather than getting to that place thoughtfully. My heart always quickens when I am getting ready to roll film.”
Why no new Super 8?
Tuohy said that even with the support of film labs around the world, it is still difficult to imagine large scale manufacturing of equipment to support filmmaking. “With film and in film equipment, like the Super 8 film cameras, industrial factories were all geared up to produce cameras at reasonable costs. When they moved on two other things it became no longer possible to do that to make even one camera except if you do it yourself. People wonder why there can't be a new Super 8 cameras and it's because there was a whole industry that was needed to make these cameras at the price point they were made at. The camera factory needed the optics factory and the tiny gear factory. Now, you can make one camera and it will cost $10,000 or even more for the tools and everything to produce a camera but you can't scale that up at that price point. There simply won't be enough people paying $10,000 for an analog film camera where there isn't a mass-market to justify its production. This is an example of lost memory of forgetting.”
Machinery can be anchors for community.
All of the filmmakers participate in film labs. Film labs are communities around the world who help each other keep the art of analog film projection alive. They work on old pieces of equipment, experiment with new ways to process the chemicals involved with developing film, and share ideas, equipment and time to produce new films. Tuohy connects filmmaking with the creation of communities because few people know how to operate the equipment and because the scale of production of new equipment has made new film equipment cost prohibitive to purchase, people have to work together to revive the old equipment and DIY new equipment.
Barrie said that it is the costs and the equipment that contributes to community, and this, too, shows a differentiation between the digital and analog, “one of the really practical differences between digital tools and analog tools is the way communities support them. There is a big digital community–it is forums and user groups. It doesn’t require people to meet face to face of use their real names. For the analog...because they have these great pieces of machinery at the heart of it, they are like anchors that people attach to and this is part of the reason this creates a face to face community.”
Barrie added there is also a “cool” factor when working with these machines. There is something in the clicks and the whirring of parts that are so beautifully assembled to make moving pictures. But, she reiterated, this is yet another aspect that creates community in the film labs. People are smitten by the technology and want to share that. It is the feeling that these machines can produce as well as the art.
With moving images being churned out at hundreds of minutes every hour of the day, we tend to forget about the technology that has enabled this. We focus on what is before our eyes, not what is behind the pixels. Working in film, being part of the film lab community, blurs the artists with the art making machines. Not only are these machines a type of artifacts on their own, they seem to be built to extend our analog human creativity and force us to consider the very act of making art.
Tuohy said, “our sense of a lab is different than a commercial sense. We’re interested in breaking the machines--exploring them, extending them, dwelling within them to find out what else they can be, or the chemistry. For me that is the most important part about an art practice is that dwelling—occupying space with it. I’m interested in seeing what you see perceptually, seeing how your hand, or your body has been trained to do whatever it is you do. You have to have done that to become insightful.
Find more artists involved in Expanded Cinema projects and performances via Roger Beebe and the Wexner Center for the Arts through the links below.
Wexner Center for the Arts event listing: Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie in person (November 2018)
ArtsKnoxville article about Roger Beebe’s films