THE EVOLUTION OF ARTISTS AND THEIR TOOLS
A Word from our Executive Director
Dana Denha of Community Television Network recently hosted me on “Let's Watch With the Ann Arbor Film Festival,” now in its third season. Each 30-minute show features an interview with a regional filmmaker who has presented work at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and a film by the guest is shown and discussed. We talked about Rife w/ Fire, my 16mm optically printed film from 1996, an experimental documentary about artist Stephen Rife's pyrotechnic demonstrations, which showed at the 36th AAFF.
When Denha asked what I would do differently were I to approach this same subject today, I could hardly imagine this film arising from my relationship with contemporary moving image tools. Describing the film in 1996, I wrote, “The medium of fire lends itself magnificently to the medium of film. They share rudimentary principles of light and movement.” The arcane alchemy of firelight carving film emulsion — combined with experiments in optical printing — resulted in an aesthetic far removed from the cold, hard edge of computer technology.
When each new medium comes onto the scene, it emulates the old one. Early photography imitated painting, which had been used to record likenesses of important people, places, and things in the world. The first films reproduced the proscenium arch of the theater. Artists led the way in unlocking the inherent properties and strengths within each medium — and continue to do so to this day.
In 2013, the 51st Ann Arbor Film Festival presented retrospective screenings of the work of Suzan Pitt and Pat O'Neill, two masters in their respective fields of animation and optical printing. In addition to several programs of their seminal achievements in film, both artists showed new work made in digital video. Pitt's Pinball (2013) was included in the Animated Films in Competition screening, and O'Neill showed Painter and Ball 4-14 (2011) and Ojo Caliente (2012) in the program “Films by Pat O'Neill.”
Prior to these new digital works, both makers had masterfully honed their craft and aesthetic in the medium of celluloid film. By 2013, though, film stock production had been on the decline for several years. Fujifilm stopped making it entirely, and Kodak declared bankruptcy just one year prior. The landscape has shifted yet again since then — a topic for another time — but the point is that the skillful command that certain artists wielded through film as a creative medium became practically futile in the face of the new digital frontier.
Pitt and O'Neill were masters of their craft. Craft is inherently materials-based. The physical tools, materials, and processes of film have a relationship to digital moving-image making, but the rules of physics no longer apply. Within the realm of the digital, knowledge of the physical world has in many ways become irrelevant: the way the film moves through the gate of the camera; how much light will affect it, and in what way; the bend of 16mm film as you wind it onto a reel for hand-processing; the solid whir and clunk of the stepper motor on the JK optical printer.
I take comfort existing in — and in relation to — the physical world. Gravity is reliable. There is permanence to the flow and feel of water, and honesty in the wood grain of a cherry tree that grew with its roots in the earth, towards the sun, and in regard to rainfall and the currents of the wind. It’s a different place from the logic of digital space.
As for Pitt and O'Neill.... How bold. How courageous. How fantastic to see these accomplished artists stepping into unfamiliar territory, overcoming fresh obstacles presented by an entirely different medium — one whose properties are distinctly different from their native mode of expression. Imagine speaking Portuguese for your entire life and then one day you must learn, and speak, only Mandarin.
At the 56th Ann Arbor Film Festival, look for the work on another master of celluloid and animation, AAFF alumnus George Griffin. His film My Catchbasin Runneth Over will open the Animated Films in Competition program on Friday, March 23. In it, we can observe and learn from some of his process in tackling the shift to digital. We can also find, in a bird’s song, the beauty of the analog world.
AAFF Executive Director