Engaging the Ephemera:
Embodied Approaches to Hand-Processed and Optically Printed Films.

(2000 word program essay to accompany curated film screening), 2006.

‘Ephemera’ is a loaded term in film.  I am interested in playing loosely with the definitions of ephemera, expanding and contracting its borders like the surface of deep breathing skin, in order to bring the bodily senses and body of film closer together, if only for a fleeting moment.

In my experience with film students, it seems that every single student wants to analyze films in terms of the plots, characters, and narrative structures.  True, the stronger students will tie in other cinematic structures such as editing, sound design, and lighting, but only insofar as these elements relate to, support, or subvert the narrative which always seems to hold primacy.  Part of this may be due to the fact that most schools place an emphasis on narrative and plot in language and theatre classes, as well as in approaches to history. We learn in school how to do character sketches, write plot summaries, and analyze narratives.  As such, we approach films with the same literary tactics that are familiar to us:  the tactics of the bedtime story from childhood, the short story, and the novel.  These literary forms are familiar to us, and they translate easily to films that take their genesis from the literary form of the script.

Quite often, people will have a physical sensation or emotion (and people tend feel the need to tie emotion and sensation together) that they want to convey in a film, and then they struggle to find a story in which to house (or perhaps cage) that sensation.  Or vice versa, they have a story that is bland and dry and they seek to make it more ‘realistic’ or more ‘engaging’ to the viewer so they superficially try to bring in some sensuous elements to ‘ground’ it or make it more ‘appealing’. However, these are not the only times that the senses can come into film, an essentially ‘audio-visual’ medium. 

 Consider for a moment, a few sensuous experiences.  When you eat a fabulous meal and savour in the bitter and the sweet, there is no narrative, no story to that experience; and yet it can still be incredibly valuable and intense, affecting emotion, memory, and physicality like any other work of art -- and all this without a story. When you smell the fresh cut grass in summer, deep incense, musk, or Christmas cooking, and that smell fills your whole body with tingling sensation even though it is ‘only’ smell, that experience has no story or narrative, and yet it is still moving.  True, the sense of smell is considered to be the sense tied closest to that of memory and memories often are tied to personal stories and narratives. But, these stories and narratives are broken stories with gaps missing where memory has failed, sections modified where exaggeration and embellishment have accessorized, and still other sections modified where trauma has blocked out certain details. So even when tied to narrative, smell attaches only to a broken narrative. Yet still that full bodied smell of a good bottle of red wine or a campfire can be enjoyed on it’s own.  And what of touch? What of that sensation of a new lover’s skin on your own for the first time, the feeling of a young animal’s fur on the palm of your hand, hot water on tired feet, cool water on hot hands, a car door slamming on your baby finger? These experiences are not necessarily tied to narrative as they are complete sensuous experiences in and of themselves.  Tying them into a story can in fact sometimes detract from these senses by forcing the brain to contextualize and analyze them from a logical and disembodied place rather than purely experiencing them on a phenomenological level.

When watching film, any film (narrative or non-narrative, Hollywood or home-movie), the viewer has an all over embodied experience, even though the medium provides only audio-visual stimulus.  The viewer cannot simply turn ‘off’ her senses.  She is still actively engaged – taking in her surroundings and all her senses informing one another.  Our senses are not as distinct and delineated as we make them out to be.  It’s common knowledge that taste and smell – both categorized as part of the olfactory system – are intricately linked; but our other senses are also intricately linked, informing and affecting one another on a continual basis. Unfortunately, many film critics and theorists overlook this embodied experience in favour of more narrative, literary, political, or historical approaches in analysis. But, what of the viewer and her fully embodied experience? When you watch a horror film, your adrenaline rises you feel your stomach in your throat and you occasionally involuntarily hide your eyes. When you watch a dramatic film with a sad ending, you might cry, your eyes might tear, and your nose might run. These are pure physical bodily responses to audio-visual stimuli.

If our olfactory and haptic senses can be excited like this with the audio-visual stimuli of narrative film, then why not venture one step further away from the conventional narrative and focus on the pure essence of the sense itself; the sensation and the moment.  Like an abstract painting, or a fabulous meal, a film can be a beautiful moment of being or revelation that brings us closer to our intimate senses and to the geography of our bodily presence in this world without leaning on the guise of an Aristotelian story arc. 

This is not to dispatch with narrative altogether, but rather to enter into a critique of the language that narrative is constructed from.  Certainly, according to the most basic definition, all films are narrative in that they have a beginning (the moment the projector lamp is illuminated), a middle (film of any sort, even clear leader passing through the gate), and an end (the moment the projector shuts off and/or the house lights come up).  In this sense, all films are narrative, functioning on a series of cause and effect events through a progression of one frame to the next to the next to the next one after that.  The challenge therefore is to critique and expand upon the language (the audio-visual language) with which the narrative is constructed in order to incorporate a syntax of sensation which speaks through taste touch and smell, as much as through sight and sound.

One approach (of many) to engaging the tactile and olfactory senses with film, involves the making of the film itself.  Through hand-processing and hand manipulation (such as contact printing or optical printing), the touch of the artists’ hand registers on the film surface, often sending the image into complete abstraction.  This trace of touch translates into a handled surface of materiality in which the viewer’s relationship to the film shifts away from visual-analysis and toward haptic-experience.  Instead of trying to follow a storyline or to analyze a meticulously constructed mis-en-scene, the viewer begins to ponder and experience the cellulloidal surface as waves of colour shift beneath scratches, dust, visible splices, fungus, or chemical stains.

Hand-processing allows the filmmaker to dig into the film’s emulsion like an archeologist or a sculptor bringing out the beauty in that which is already there.  Scratch marks and chemical stains are only the beginning of bringing attention to film’s two-dimensional surface (not unlike the tradition of embracing the two-dimensional picture-plane in painting).  The trace of touch can also be found in tinting, toning, and the use of various chemicals to eat away at the emulsion.  The filmmaker can also accelerate the growth of bacterial cultures and fungus on film to accentuate the beautiful texture of natural decay over constructed images.  The olfactory can enter the process as the filmmaker nips into the kitchen and dyes her film with cooking products such as wine, tea, or beet juice, or bakes her film in the oven.

The number of ways in which a filmmaker can handle, attack, caress, or make-love to her film, are legion.  Ironically, the exact processes are generally not evident on screen – the viewer rarely has a sense of ‘how’ these films are made.  Even so, when ‘watching’ these films, the viewer is most often ‘hit’ with a sense that there is more to these films than ‘meets the eye’.  These films often carry a strong physical/emotional punch that it is hard to put one’s finger on, and even harder to wrap one’s words around.  Many viewers comment on having a visceral and embodied experience when watching experimental films; be it from the pounding soundtracks or stroboscopic images.  In more extreme cases, these embodied reactions can range from headaches to epileptic seizures, and from tears to hallucinogenic states of euphoric bliss.

In the context of film theory, the term ‘ephemera’ or the ‘cinema of ephemera’ generally tends to refer to the use of found footage that no longer has a functional use in contemporary society.  This would include health and safety films from the 1950s, military or office training films from the 1940s, athletic analysis and public service films.  Any film that once served an educational or propagandic purpose before the advent of video is often considered ‘ephemera’.  Ephemera includes a large number of film prints which exist, taking up space on shelves, in boxes, in basements, in archival vaults, all around the world, which serve no purpose whatsoever aside from the occasional documentary film that might use a few excerpts as b-roll to illustrate a point.

There is a tradition of experimental filmmakers who make films using this found ephemera and re-appropriating it to create something new.  They find this ephemera in their parents basements, yard sales, antique stores, e-bay, and school libraries.  Once the filmmaker has obtained the ephemera, what she does with it is the next step.  Some will directly re-appropriate it and re-edit it with very little manipulation of the actual image whatsoever, while others, manipulate it to a point beyond recognition.  The re-appropriation of images can serve a political purpose as the filmmaker critiques the Hollywood studio system, or it can serve an aesthetic purpose conjuring a sense of nostalgia, or it can serve an economic purpose, saving the filmmaker from the cost of shooting film.  Some filmmakers even argue that it is immoral to shoot film in the first place today.  These filmmakers will argue that enough images have been captured on film already, that there is no need for today’s young filmmaker to go out and shoot or capture anything ‘new’.  Whatever today’s filmmaker is looking for, it has already been shot.  As such, if she is environmentally and economically responsible, she should dig deep into the bank of world images and cull some for herself to work with. This is not necessarily my position, however I find it to be a valid and intriguing argument for the re-appropriation of images and ephemera.

Beyond the concept of ephemera as found footage, and the ephemeral nature of sensuous experience, I’d like to expand the concept a little further to include the material of film itself as an ephemeral medium.  On the most basic and structural level, the material of film is transparent and relies on its ability to transmit light and shadow while continually moving through the gate of the projector.  When watching a film (unlike when making a film) you cannot hold a single frame or image in your hand.  Your ‘viewing’ experience of a film relies on the fact that it is continually in motion.  As a temporal medium, each image is fleeting, and unlike on your home DVD player or VCR, when seated in a cinema, you cannot press pause or rewind to savour or analyze any single frame.  Like it or not, each frame whips through the gate for a fraction of a second making way for the next and the next and the next one after that.  Not only does the projection of film implicate the ephemeral nature of the medium, but, the material itself is often prone to fading and decay over time if improperly stored. 

Finally, we are at a fleeting moment in history when film’s actual existence as an artistic medium is feeling the full weight of its ephemerality.  In this age of HD and digital technologies, film is falling out of favour as the key keeper of history and teller of stories.  Industry directors are shifting gradually away from film, first through the use of digital intermediaries when editing, and now through the initial use of HD at the production stage.  As such, some would argue that we are reaching the end of the filmic era, and that ‘film is dead’.  This is not unlike the argument that painting was dead when photography was introduced.  As history has proven, painting did not die; it was instead forced (or freed if you will) to reinvent itself.   I believe that this is the current fate of film; exploration, emancipation, and reinvention.  However, if film is to ever die, I believe that we can still work with its ghost.  Once the medium of film has been buried by the capitalist entertainment industry, artists can still work with found footage, make their own emulsions, and process it all in their bathrooms and kitchens.  In this context, film will still serve a phenomenological function in the creation of haptic works for fully embodied experiences, no matter how ephemeral.

Amanda Dawn Christie, Vancouver, 2006.


1.  handprocessing:  hand-processing is the practice whereby filmmakers process their own film, either in darkrooms or bathrooms, instead of sending their films to professional laboratories.  This involves various chemical baths, and can be done in specially designed tanks or in easy to find buckets. Unlike most commercial film practices that are collaborative by nature, filmmakers who hand-process often maintain a more solitary and self-reliant practice.  Economically, the chemicals are cheaper than lab processing fees, while politically, hand-processing is seen by some to be a subversive act of resistance as the filmmaker continues to make film art, while refusing to participate in the corporate economy of the film industry.

2.  optical printing:  optical printing is a re-photography technique which involves a machine called an ‘optical printer’.  The optical printer is essentially a projector aimed directly down the lens of a camera, which allows the filmmaker to re-photograph films one frame at a time.   This is the technology that was used to create special effects in Hollywood movies until the 1980s when digital special effects replaced optical special effects.  Today, commercial labs and optical houses are literally throwing out their optical printers, and unfortunately many are sold for scrap metal instead of being donated to film co-ops and practicing artists.  These machines are of use to experimental filmmakers as they can re-photograph found footage in order to re-appropriate it in their own films, or they can re-photograph their own footage and manipulate it to create moving images that could never take place in real life. 

3.  phenomenology: There are many different approaches to contemporary theories of phenomenology.  Essentially, it deals with experiential knowledge.  Stemming initially from the Kantian concepts of ‘phenomena’ and ‘noumena’, in which the ‘phenomena’ is that which we know through our senses, while the ‘noumena’ is that which we cannot know through our senses, but rather deduce from logical analysis of our sensuous experiences.  Contemporary theories of phenomenology have come a long way since their Kantian genesis, and they differ in their specific implications, but for the most part they take physical sensation and lived experience as a starting point for understanding and knowing. 


Further Reading

Marks, Laura U.  Touch:  Sensuous theory and Multisensory Media.  University of Minnesota Press:  Minneapolis, 2002.

Rodaway, Paul.  Sensuous Geographies:  Body, Sense and Place. Routledge: London, 1994.

Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts:  Embodiment and Moving Image Culture.  University of California Press:  Berkely, 2004.