Why I shoot film: or was my bolex worth the money?
published in Workprint, Spring 2005
In an age of digital intermediaries when new developments are continually being made which bring digital video one step closer to having the same “look” as film, one has to wonder why one would choose to work solely in “old fashioned” film based practices. The accessibility of equipment, the ease of being able to do nonlinear editing on my laptop on location, and that glorious “undo” button, are all tantalizing features of digital video. So, why do I continue to focus all of my intentions and energies on the actual material quality of film?
I think that when considering the role of filmmaking and its specific identity in this new digital era, we must look back a hundred years to how the role of painting changed when photography was introduced. Paintings were traditionally representational and used to capture moments, document history, and tell stories. When photography was introduced, many people thought that its ability to effortlessly capture “reality” would supplant the role of painting; some went so far as to forecast that photography would be the death of painting. Instead, painting was all of a sudden free, if not forced, to re-explore it’s own identity; what was “painting” really? What was the nature of its medium and processes? What was it capable of communicating? These questions lead to the development of impressionism, cubism, and expressionism among many other new forms.
I strongly feel that filmmaking now, is in the place where painting stood one hundred years ago. For the past century, filmmaking, has been, for the most part, used to capture moments, document history, and to tell stories (I am not denying the long tradition of experimental film, but am referring to the more popular of uses of film). Now with the increasing quality in digital and video production, the medium of film is slowly being supplanted from its traditional role as key storyteller and keeper of historical events. Unlike many filmmakers, I am not afraid of this shift: on the contrary, I feel that this is the most exciting time in history to be a filmmaker.
I feel that film has entered its adolescence: an awkward stage in which it is almost time to separate itself from its industrial and commercial parents who have just given birth to a younger digital sibling. Film must now re-explore its identity, just as painting did one hundred years ago. So here we are, teenagers all over again, with growing pains and awkward moments trying to figure out who we are and what to make. So what’s the answer? I can’t answer for everyone else, but I can share a some of my own ideas.
Last fall when I moved out to Vancouver, I built myself an editing table in my apartment and set up some handwinders, a sync block, and a hot splicer (a wonderful parting gift from AFCOOP). I bought myself a bolex, a tape splicer, and a moviscop and made a point of shooting at least a hundred feet of film a month. By using short ends, and hand-processing in the dark room (both black and white and colour), I keep my costs low. I’ve also begun making my own contact prints from negatives by using a flashlight in the darkroom. I am especially excited by the images resulting from my contact prints, in which the sound track, sprocket holes, and edge codes drift in and out of the image revealing the material qualities of the film itself.
The process for me is an important feature in film’s identity. Because the process is so long, I have a lot of time to think about and reflect on the subject matter and the content of the film. The cost of the film is also a distinctive feature of this medium. Rather than being a limitation, I see this as an important challenge in the process, as I have to be more selective and precise when shooting.
Mistakes and serendipity are also distinctive qualities of film for me. I often find my filmic “mistakes” to be far more interesting than the things that “work out”. For instance, one day when I was solarizing some film in the darkroom, I accidentally flashed the light for too long and my whole negative turned completely black. I thought it was ruined. But then I grabbed a few bags of farmer’s reducer (potassium ferricyanide) and soaked the film repeatedly in this bath. Because I was sloshing 100ft of film around in only 1 litre of chemistry, the coverage was not even. The result was an image that shifted between negative, positive, and solarization. It was a very surreal and ethereal image that seemed to taunt the screen with the promise of an image that never settled. Ironically, these are my favourite parts of the film.
I enjoy the rigor and the meditative quality of these filmic processes and the unique images that they produce. While I am also intrigued by video and enjoy making new works on my laptop, I still would not trade in my bolex, my editing table, or my darkroom for all of the mini dv tapes in the world.