Experimental scratch film animator Steven Woloshen had his film, 1000 Plateaus screened on the opening night of the Ann Arbor Film Festival and in this interview Steven talks about his film, the Ann Arbor Film Festival as well giving some thoughts on the background of his film production world.
Interview undertaken by e-mail during April 2015 with images provided by Steven Woloshem.
JS: I’d like to start by asking when was the first time you screened work at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and how often have you been to the Festival.
SW: I’ve shown three films at the festival. The first was “Playtime” in 2011, then “Fiesta Brava” in 2013 and finally “1000 Plateaus (2004-2014) this year. I think I may have screened “Didre Novo” in 1984. When I was in Ann Arbor, I spent a little time leafing through old AAFF programs at the Public Library.
JS: There is such a strong film making community in Montreal and each year a number of works by Montreal film makers get shown at Ann Arbor with this year being no exception. I was wondering what you think the importance of the Ann Arbor Film Festival is both to you and also to the community of film makers in Montreal? Does the Festival help to externalize and showcase work going on in Montreal?
SW: I agree with you that Montreal is a strong film making center but we still have to work on the "community." Since the winters are long and cold, my only contact with a lot of my filmmakers is through their postings in social media. When I began my film education in 1977, there were only a few places to look at and talk about the art of cinema. Through the years, me and other ex-graduates created “grape vines” to keep us up to date. But, I think we could be stronger. Many independent filmmakers have higher ideals and tend to associate themselves with particular collectives, groups and other factions (I.e. analog/experimental; formal, installation, etc.). Regardless of our individual styles, it is always comforting that my fellow Quebecers hold AAFF in such high regard.
JS: I wanted to ask you how you first got into doing camera less films. Was it something that happened gradually over time? Was it something that suited your style of working? Is there an aesthetic process to working by way of camera less films that suits you and what you want to achieve?
SW: I’m glad you asked this. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Laval. (A tranquil island, north of Montreal). As a teenager, life without a car was very boring and mid nineteen seventies angst and destruction was the art form of the decade.
After my parents had invested in super -8 cameras and projectors, I thought it would be a cool idea to damage and disfigure our home movies with ink and sandpaper. I still think that these visceral, direct approaches are some of the most intimate encounters in my cinematic past. Although my style has developed in the last 30+ years, I always like to look back on my grass roots. Also, in the late 70’s, my Vanier College years with Dr. Ron Burnett (now at Emily Carr College in Vancouver) exposed me to some great works of indie cinema. I still recommend Brakhage and Lye to everybody. Their films are a great pedagogical foundation for understanding the direct relationship that one could have with the medium of super-8 and 16 mm film.
JS: Stan Brakhage wrote a short piece called ‘In Defence of Amateur’ in which he wrote, ”An amateur works according to his own necessity and is, in that sense, “at home” anywhere he works : and if he takes pictures, he photographs what he loves or needs in some-such sense – surely a more real, and thus honourable, activity than work which is performed for some gain or other than what the work itself gives…surely more personally meaningful than work only accomplished for money, or fame, power, etc….”. To me this is such an interesting quote from an interesting written piece I was wondering what thoughts you might have on such a quote?
SW: like that quote by Brakhage. The Amateur also works with love. This is what the Latin word means, too. I am still looking for my favorite quote. In my recent book, “Scratch, Crackle and Pop,” I quoted Bergson: “The Brain; an image, cannot create images.”
JS: I partly asked the last question because the film you had in competition at the Ann Arbor Film Festival ‘1000 Plateaus’ I know that amazingly you looked to make it in your car whilst working as a driver on film sets and you would sketch a few frames here and there when you had time. I was wondering if you could expand a bit upon this amazing and ingenious way of working.
SW: I had a lot of secret agendas when I began “1000 Plateaus.” Revolution! Truth! Insanity! I began building my portable light boxes in 2003 just after “Cameras Take Five” was doing so well on the festival route. I wanted to work like a sketch artist - light and mobile. I also wanted to raise awareness of abstract, direct-to-celluloid films. Since I drove actors and directors all day, I thought I could use my portable light boxes and art supplies to initiate interesting discussions in the car. I knew that my passengers would have to ask the first questions, so I placed my wooden box between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. The box measures 4 inches by 12 inches, with a glass surface, metal cranks and illuminated with a small flashlight. You couldn’t mistake it for anything but a weird, DIY contraption.
My first test: I was a production driver on the feature, Noel. First, I drove Susan Sarandon, then the late Robin Williams. The producers weren’t happy but in my mind, this was akin to the driver littered the front seats with crosswords or silly novels.
I won’t spend another 10 years to re-make “1000 Plateaus.” Now I’m going to move on my next short experiment. I’ve created a lot of short films and I have a lot of new roads to explore.
JS: How did you find your experience of attending this year's AAFF? Was there certain things that you picked up on and gained from this year's Festival - whether in terms of viewing particular film works or seeing the way certain film makers have advanced their work, or in relation to a particular aspect of the programming of this year's Festival that you find interesting or in terms of the Ann Arbor Film Festival in general, etc.
SW: In the last 15 years, I’ve built up my expectations of screening films in festivals. In most cases, I arrive in a strange town, tired and full of dreams and discoveries. Most of these festivals serve my interests as much as I honour their traditions but it is ultimately about self-promotion.
I found that AAFF was a very different experience. Days before my arrival, I was asked to help my fellow filmmakers by carpooling from Windsor, Ontario. This was very foreign to me – helping others. But AAFF has that effect on people. The festival seems to be built on a foundation of local efforts, too. A festival that offers free coffee around the corner and local patrons-of-the-arts who offer their couches and spare rooms as a gesture of international good will. At AAFF, it’s more important to praise others than to promote yourself.
The opening night mood was electric and high spirited. “1000 Plateaus” screened in the opening night line-up. Everyone stayed for the Q and A at the end of the screening. The comments were both tactful and highly emotional.
Most of the screenings happen in the main venue. It’s a great way to know your fellow filmmakers. I’ll miss the shy smiles and the American Great Lakes attitude.
JS: I'm very much interested in ideas around the use of surface within film making, and the kind of film making that gets considered as part of experimental & independent film. These ideas particularly relate to camera less film making and the way in which film makers create marks that sit on a surface without having much recoil to creating a sense of depth. Do you have any thoughts on this?
SW: Since my college days, I have always been interested in the surface of the film. Yes, it is an integral part of camera less filmmaking but it is also a simple strategy for a filmmaker to intervene on objective (camera shot) footage well. The artist responds, sometimes years or decades after the fact, with marks and lacerations on the emulsion to speak with the film across the oceans of time. It is almost a visceral response to the subject matter while the filmmaker shares the intimate distance of the subject matter. The vibrating, shaky feeling (this occurs because proper registration can never be achieved) moves with the rhythm and the sound of the film projector. This is a feeling that the digital projection can never transmit to the public.
JS: In terms of the mark making that you undertook for creating '1000 Plateaus' was there any specific goals you looked to achieve regards the mark making? (For instance Brakhage's looking to capture what he saw in his mind's eye or the relationship of mark making to music and musical notes, etc.).
SW: In “1000 Plateaus’ my goal was to use the influences around me. The electric colors of the traffic lights, the neon on the wet streets of the city and the map art (street maps) that were important tools in a driver’s daily routine. I worked thirteen - sixteen hour days with the radio as well. It’s true that the film was organized around the jazz beat. That is the driver’s experience. The music influenced the outside world and vice versa.
JS: How important was it to transfer '1000 Plateaus' to a digital format? Are there ways in which the work becomes enhanced or changed by way of the digital medium?
SW: Initially, I wanted to bookend the film with a brief explanation about my process and the time it took to create the film. This was the first time I have wanted to explain the motivations for my film. I originally planned on using an optical printer but money and technical problems prevented me from going down that road (get it?) so I turned to after effects instead and I added the optical projector “hiss” as a background soundtrack. I also used an on-line colorist to help me boost the colors so I could amplify the hidden hues in the deep background. I have never used this process before “1000 Plateaus.” I am happy that I can look in the mirror and say that I have tried it.