“alternative”, “avant-garde”,“experimental” and “independent” - whatever.
Cinema Papers March 1991
With the next issue of Cantrills Filmnotes, Arthur and Corinne will have been publishing their magazine for twenty years. In that time, they have covered that area of filmmaking and video that is ambiguously called “alternative”, “avant-garde”, “experimental” and “independent”. This is the work of both local and overseas film and video-makers, and has been an important part of maintaining the links in an Australian film culture that is almost ignored by most magazines.
Just acknowledging the magazine’s importance is enough reason to mention it here, but, in keeping with my interest and the “Technicalities” brief, I am also considering the changes that the Cantrills have seen and their magazine has documented in the film and video technology of the avant-garde in that time. The magazine appeared at the same time as the Super 8 format was replacing standard 8mm, but for the bulk of the film work 16mm still held its place. The changes since have been the demise of film stocks and print stocks, with very few changes in the production tools like cameras. It is video that has understandably shown the most changes. The first mention of video and television screen photographs in the magazine were from a 1/4” reel-to-reel, black-and-white Akai portapak (FH note. belonging to me). That format has gone, along with reel to reel 1/2” and the “portapak” designation. However, the coverage of video has been determined by the Cantrills’ reservations about the impact of the medium on that of film and some significant developments are only mentioned in passing.
As always, it is how technology changes the way we work that is the most interesting factor. The following filmmakers and topics are selected from 54 issues of the magazine. I urge people to look at the back issues for a full examination of the many more artists than are mentioned here. Space was the consideration for my selection of typical examples; the Cantrills know and mentioned many more.
In these conversations with the Arthur and Corinne, one of them would often start a comment and the other elaborate on it, as is often the case in their film work, so some of these comments are really a mix of them both.
EXPANDING THE CINEMA
The Cantrill’s motivation for the first issue of the magazine was partly to document their Expanded Cinema show, and, as the National Gallery of Victoria had neglected to print enough programme notes to give to people who came to see it, to disseminate the notes in some form. “Expanded Cinema” had been applied to many of the mixed-media events from the 1950s on. Film, music, dance, painting and sculpture were being combined in ‘events’, and film projection was being explored in work as diverse as Stan Vanderbeek’s Moviedrome screenings, and to the slicker and larger multi-screen presentations at the World Fairs and Expos.
The screenings took place in The Age gallery in February 1971. In a three-week period, the Cantrills drew from their earlier work in Canberra with projecting onto water and burning screens. It all had, as Corinne says, “Very much to do with analysing the nature of the film screen. It had all been done before but, unless you’ve seen it, it is one of those things that you have to do again for yourself.”
And a large audience did come to see a range of different film styles projected onto gauze, coneshaped, painted and rotating screens. A film called Eikon was shown onto gold and silver screens, while Concert for Electric Jugs was an image of a boiling jug projected onto other boiling jugs, the real and projected steam mixing. The sessions concluded with a number of triptych films presented on a large screen from three non-interlocked projectors.
(I took many of the images used on the cover and in promotion. Can the person I lent these to, give them back? FH.)
Slightly before this gallery screening, the Cantrill’s had begun regular Sunday screenings at a coffee lounge-art space called The Maze in Flinders Street. Mixes of media continued, such as the Videocinemapoetry night where poets such as Garrie Hutchinson and dancers like Benny Zable performed, competing with film projections (and often winning).
Arthur mentioned the contribution of Hugh McSpeddon, whose light shows and mixed film and slide projections made, he feels, “a real contribution in Australia, especially his real time abstract images of light that originated from various optical devices. They rather nostalgically have connections back to 19th-Century magic lanterns and resonances that are sometimes very moving and quite thrilling to watch. Hugh is still working and refining, but doesn’t have as much chance to publicly perform. Lynsey Martin was another person doing ambitious multi-screen work that we documented.”
Corinne then mentioned their abiding interested in hand-made films:
“When you think of the large number of people in Australia who are working with hand-made films, the variety of approaches, ideas, obsessions and techniques is phenomenal. There are very few countries in the world that have the body of interestinghand-made work that we have in Australia. It stretches back, Arthur believes, to Len Lye, who was a New Zealander but studied animation in Sydney in the 1920s. He was really the father of hand-made film.In the hand-made film issue, we had everyone from a chemist Terry Turney working with Andrew Pike on chemical action on film emulsion to particular things that Albie Thoms and Aggy Read where doing in Sydney. Overseas we mentioned the work of Harry Smith and, of course, Stan Brakhage with Mothlight, where he sticky-taped insect wings and flower petals to the film.It continues today with the work of people like Marcus Berger, who is writing on film with such skill. It really is a form of calligraphy and attracts me because it is low-tech and an extension of the body and the ways of working with film.
In the presentation of independent films, Arthur believes that the standards of projection have always been pretty arbitrary, with a cavalier attitude in many places. And that is just single-screen; three-screen projection compounds the problem.
He pointed out an incident at the recent Experimenta Film festival presentation of a French two-screen: We had seen the work earlier in Berlin and it was a total mess-up at the State Film Centre: they ended up superimposing the two images and then at the end of show had to run it again. Things haven’t changed much since the 1970s. It is kind of touching how the technology
hasn’t changed; there is just a few more buttons. Corinne feels that there has been one positive improvement in projection:
After giving screenings all over the world for more than twenty years, the amount of damage and scratching of prints is much less today than it was then. It was the arrival of Xenon lamp Super 8 projectors (the Elmo was the most common) that
changed the exhibition of Super 8. Instead of the small, dark image, now festivals could run a mix of the mediums and one could confuse the original Kodachrome images with a 16mm print.
While we were in Europe, we were staggered with the quality of the Super 8 prints, especially those from France: you couldn’t believe it was Super 8. Perhaps the people doing prints here haven’t invested the money to get the best quality, which has affected the use of Super 8.
The Cantrills have an aversion to film on video.
Above all to VHS, which is a very poor format. My other hatred is video shown on a projector. When presented on a monitor, it becomes television. Ideally, there should be some other way to present video that distinguishes it.
It is due to a confusing of the two media. It is inevitable that there is some overlapping of technique and even creative work in film and video, but it is the expediency of showing on video programmes that have originated on film, that are photochemical and not electronic images, which we are quietly fighting against. We don’t expect to make much impression on this problem.
There is interesting work being done to exploit the essentially low-resolution image of video compared to, say, 35mm film. There will eventually be a high-resolution electronic imaging system that will rival film but, until then, we would like to have a demarcation between the two media and have them being used creatively in their own ways.
The magazine has covered more installation video work in the past, but in recent years we haven’t given it as much space because we feel that film is a threatened medium and we are trying to do as much on film as we can while it is still with us. I was interested in the things that people like Warren Burt were doing on the big screen in the [Melbourne] City Square. They did some very interesting things there, and in Japan there is a lot of big outdoor public screens that artists like Stelarc have participated with for performance events.
(The Melbourne City Square screen was a 6 metre by 15.25 metre mosaic of 25,000 tungsten filament light bulbs controlled by a computer to give 16 brightness levels of a warm sepia brown. The first of the big screen displays in Australia, its potential as an art display was never realized, and as a vehicle for commercials it failed to make money.)
The Cantrills first visit to the U.S. was on a travel grant to study Film Education. A lot of the time, Corinne says,
We concentrated on visiting videomakers like Woody and Steina Vasulka, and Nam June Paik, and in San Francisco Brice Howard at Video Free America. We met up with Jud Yalkut, who was talking about the Film/Video interface, Jim Wiseman, Dan Sandin, and Ron Hays, who was a major figure in experimental video at that time. We were trying to come to grips with video, and we went to a lot of video theatres, rooms set up with multiple monitors that either showed the same image or they played with two or three different images.
Among the work of Australian videomakers discussed in a number of issues of special significance was Mick Glasheen’s Buckminster Fuller tape, Telelogic Telecast from Spaceship Earth, as an example of one of the early sophisticated uses of colour video-keying techniques. American video Artist-in-Residence Ron Hays talked (in 1973) about video synthesizers, the Paik-Abe, and how he hoped a mass distribution videocassette system would accept dubbing from the cheaper 1/2″ video formats so that it could be used by video artists. He also mentioned the (failed) RCA videocassette system that used a laser scanned film strip and talked about the potential for popular music videos: Cartrivision has something called ‘Colourmusic’… Every 5- and 10-cent store is going to offer you a music-image cartridge when everyone has videocartridges. “Give it ten years and it’ll be as common as the television set is now.”
The cost of video versus film issue was a discussion point for years. There is a comparison in Issue 4 (July 1971) of the cost of 20 minutes of B&W film stock and processing ($40) with a 20- minute B&W Akai tape ($9).
The magazine Arthur asserts had never been terribly bookish or criticism oriented, being mostly visual and concerned with documenting work that often disappears from view:
For us, recording something’s existence, even if people will not be able to go and see it, seems important. But with all the good books turning up, such as Lipton’s Independent FilmMaking, Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema and P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film, we felt that we had to mention them and have gone on doing so.
One significant recent innovation was from Paul Winkler. Arthur believes that,
His real-time travelling matte is quite unique in terms of technology. No one has taken it up in any commercial or independent way that I know of. He has a computerized device that moves masks in a certain way and can repeat the exact movement for various exposures of the film in the camera. This allows him to accurately matte-in parts of the image that were blacked out on previous exposures.
GAUGING THE REVOLUTION
The so-called Super 8 revolution never quite happened, but there had always been people working in Standard 8mm and they took up the new format as did a new generation. Even then it seemed that blow-up prints to 16mm were the only way to ensure widespread distribution. There seemed to be a split into a 16mm group and a Super 8 group, something that Arthur feels is changing:
These days, as the last few issues of the magazine show, there is equally 16mm and Super 8. More people are working between the gauges, Super 8,16 and 35mm, depending on the money that is available to them.
Arthur explained that,
Although we work mainly in 16mm, we have made a number of Super 8 films. The idea of working with the larger gauges is of course attractive to a lot of us, if we had the money. We made a 35mm film Floterian and have had a 35mm print struck from it, although we mainly show a 16mm reduction print. We have seen it projected in 35mm at the State Film Centre and it is a very different film to the reduction print. Our friend Pat O ’Niell in Los Angeles recently made Water úf Power, a 35mm film that exploits the higher definition and control that he can get on his optical printer. And, of course, Stan Brakhage has recently made a hand-painted film in the giant IMAX format, but he is showing a reduction print as I don’t think he can get an Imax theatre to run it for him. It is a dream that eventually Imax theatres might run interesting stuff rather than the interminable travelogue stuff.
There were preoccupations in those earlier issues with things like do-it-yourself printing, black-and-white processing, scratch removal from prints and cheaper electronic soundtracks, all, as Arthur says, designed to lower the high cost of filmmaking. Processing your own film was quite popular, and it seemed that everyone bought one of the Russian OMO flat spiral developing tanks. Arthur:
In the years we spent in America [1973-75], we noticed that all these things were more advanced there; whereas we had had the plastic OMO tanks, they had the stainless-steel JOBO tanks and access to low-cost printers. The Americans seemed much more comfortable and fluent with the technology building optical and contact printers and other equipment. Stan Lawder had a very simplified computer device so that he could leave the printer ticking over while he was out. There were a lot of army or navy surplus Bell & Howell contact printers around that they could buy cheaply. We have always been disciples of technology going back to Harry Hooton and his anarcho-technology thing. The point is, because technology is expensive, it tends to be used for commercial ends rather than the more interesting creative ones.
We were always saying back in the 1960s and ’70s that now everyone can be a filmmaker and Cocteau said, ‘Film will be an art when materials are as accessible as pencil and paper. ’ If video is making the medium accessible to everyone, how come we haven’t seen the works of video art?
CHANGING THE IMAGE
Arthur points out as examples painters and print-makers who are continually experimenting with uncommon pigments and materials to see what can happen:
We don’t often get the chance to work in this way, but it is nice when it happens. There are some real connections between experimentation and ancient image techniques, like the work of one of my students in Oklahoma, Rob Danielson, who was experimenting with pinhole movie photography. The images are very different from what you get through systems of ground-glass lenses, almost as if you were seeing the image through the eye of another creature like an insect; it was so different to human vision.
Rob also was working with 7381 print stock as a camera original stock, which set us trying it out and reminded us that we don’t have to just stick with what Kodak has provided us to put in the camera.
We used a lot of that to make the negative images in our central Australian films. When it is printed onto reversal stock, because it doesn’t have the orange dye-coupling cast that Eastmancolor neg has; it looks more like what you feel a true negative would be. It is very slow, about 3 ASA, so you need lots of light. When you print it onto itself you get very peculiar blueish-purple, mainly high-contrast images.
HOMAGE TO THE BOLEX
The Bolex is still the most robust and accessible 16mm camera for independent work, while not denying the importance of a range of other cameras such as the Bell & Howell, Cine Kodak and the Beaulieus. The cover of issue 10 has stills from Michael Lee’s National Geographic, a film that I suggested was a homage to the Bolex as it exploited the ability of the Bolex H-16 to backwind a frame with reasonable accuracy and the manual fade attachment that allowed a set fade length by manually closing the shutter.
Michael Lee’s National Geographic is one of the great films of the Australian scene. But the technical complexity is not understood by most of the people who see it. It is a classic example of how individual filmmakers use their understanding of the medium to devise techniques for their own needs.
And there is all that intriguing work that he did with black carbon powder on a sheet of glass that was an infinitely manipulable matte shape. That is real lateral thinking. Like the work of Paul Winkler, these things are designed to bypass all the lab technology, which is designed just to do one thing well. It laterally uses stuff that you would find around the house to produce incredible images.
The work of one of the ‘fathers’ of computer graphics, John Whitney (and father of John Whitney Jnr., who is still a major figure in commercial computer work), was discussed in 1974. John Whitney also used the available military surplus equipment to build (from bomb-sighting, analogue-computer equipment) complex, repeatable film animation stands that manipulated back-lit art work and created a whole genre of Motion Graphics. John Jnr. has worked on a lot of true computer, three-dimensional image generation, an area of work that Corinne has misgivings about:
A lot of work that is being churned out in this area looks so similar. The Experimenta programme on computer graphics had a lot of work from Swinburne and, because they are working with the same software, a lot of their images look the same. They all had the same diamond-shape image for the floor, for example.
Arthur adds that,
It seems there is an enormous potential theoretically, but it is still being constrained by the technology.
There are times when I get excited at being transported into these other world environments.
The use of a non-synchronous soundtrack played from cassette or reel to reel has continued from the first days of sound recording. In independent filmmaking, it continues because of the high cost of a sound print, but also, Arthur feels, because of the poor quality of 16mm optical sound. Home hi-fi expectations have increased with things like CD, but 16mm optical tracks are a real disappointment.
It seemed that the quality of optical sound on reversal to reversal actually seemed to go backwards as if the labs couldn’t hold quality for some technical reason. We had a few prints done in London that had much better tracks. When we need stereo sound, we go back to reel to reel.
Australia never seemed to get onto magnetic stripe sound like a lot of countries do. Filmmakers in Indonesia, for example, use it a lot, but we couldn’t get the labs here to import the striped print stock. Super 8 stripe at 24 frames is really quite
good and there is the option to have a stereo track if needed, which is an improvement on 16mm. There were other options that are now unavailable.
We recently got VFL to kindly agree to go from the magnetic to a direct electronic optical track on the
reversal print, which we had done in the past but now required them to run cables from one side of the building to the other. The quality was much better, but they finally said they weren’t going to offer the service any more.
This is a technique from film history that the Cantrills have used to make some of their most beautiful colour films. Apparently there were filmmakers in Vancouver and Paris who came to the technique at the same time, but in Arthur and
Corinne’s case it came from a visit to the Eastman House museum in Rochester, where one of the displays had enough detail to get them started on “Cantrillcolour”, making their colour prints from three separate black-and-white original negatives photographed through red, green and blue coloured filters. It came about Arthur explains,
also partly because of Kodak’s cutting out some of the film stocks we had been using – a lot of reversal materials – that meant we were stuck forever with Eastmancolor neg, which we were unhappy about. We had a lot of Pan F negative stock which isn’t really the most suitable but, with some help from VFL, we came up quickly with the right exposures through Kodak’s standard Wratten Filters, and then it took a bit more time to get the right printer lights.
The result was beautiful colours, better than Eastmancolor neg we thought, and similar to some of the earlier Technicolor films. The process is the same although we didn’t have the camera that would expose the three negs simultaneously, so we
would do them one after the other. This gave us the time shifts that give the multicoloured shadows and reflections. It was a process that in 1975, when we started, we thought we would quickly master with a still-life film and a landscape film. We realized that there were so many avenues opened that we have continued to investigate.
Corinne calls them Time and Colour separations:
And because there are no colour dyes to fade, they will last. We will only have to worry about some shrinkage of the film stock affecting registration.
To echo earlier praise of the Bolex, Arthur mentions being surprised that,
The Bolex we bought in 1960 was still accurate enough to be almost spot on for registration on the three-colour separation films we made fifteen years later.
Refilming the front- or rear-projected image became almost an Australian film ‘movement’ that came from the lack of optical printers and developed into a style of its own. Arthur feels that
We actually made an advantage of this and came up with images that you couldn’t get with an optical printer, such as the camera moving around the projected image, a technique akin to what can happen with digital video image manipulation. In a very primitive way we were getting this rectangular plane of images moving in-space and twisting, moving around.
Corinne notes that,
Before this, we had made sharp defined images and it was almost as if having exhausted this we moved onto an image that was inherently obscure, soft and monochromatic. It was almost an impressionistic effect that we exploited and added multiple superimpositions that increased the softness. The frame-by-frame examination, often turning the frame advance by hand, led to using the effect of the film frame pulling through the gate, like a video frame losing its vertical hold.
Arthur described his interest in Holography as a basic thrill:
That magic bafflement is like a re-run of the early cinema experience and gives a feeling and a sense of what the first cinema audiences must have felt. At the first Lumière screening, people went up to touch the screen to try and get some idea of this new illusion. I have the same feeling with wanting to touch the holographic plate because it is still beyond our understanding.
For the magazine, we interviewed in 1979 Margaret Benyon, who was then a major figure in Holography, which she remains today. She was living in Australia and struggling with terrible technical problems. I find most of the holographic work remains a terribly primitive experience.
The whole area of stereoscopic cinematography is a real problem. Just holding together the technology seems to be almost insuperable. Of the people mentioned in the magazine, Ken Jacobs seems to have been the most successful, though he wasn’t really using film, but recreating the stereo effect on a big screen using silhouettes lit in different colours. The audience had coloured glasses and he was actually generating artificial 3D by the careful placement of the shadows. Standish Lawder was thinking of a very abstract stereo which was denying the normal human perception of depth and playing around with getting the space to merge. Lenny Lipton had two Nizo Super 8 cameras and two interlocked projectors, and was treating it as a more technical exercise.
On the subject of the archival qualities of the mediums we have chosen, the Cantrills have strong views and disturbing experience. Corinne begins by mentioning that,
All the videos that were made in the early 1970s can’t be played now. It is a problem with film as well. Apparently the first safety films are starting to breakdown now; there is colour fading.
Arthur adds their own experiences:
We have spoken to people who can no longer play the tapes they made because of the trouble with the
binder [which holds the oxide to the base]. We suddenly found that some of the Ampex audio tapes we made ten years ago couldn’t be played. When you start to play them, after about fifteen seconds all this gunk accumulates on the head and sets up this dramatic mechanical squeal and vibration.
Ampex says that the solution is heat and to cook the tapes in an oven. Chris Knowles has had to do this with some of his tapes, using a fan heater in a small space and then immediately transferring them. I’ve salvaged some of our tapes by running them backwards and forwards over a razor blade and scraping off the binder which has come through the oxide.
George Kuchar is one interesting case but his technique is low tech and pure underground. He is using Video 8 (standard not high-band) and in a very basic way. For example, whenever he wants some mood music, he has a cassette player draped around his neck and he presses the button and has this schlock Hollywood mood music come in.
His one concession is that he uses a line input rather than the mike. If there is a bit that he later decides is dull, he goes back and inserts over the top of it – usually a shot of his face – and drops in a comment. He wanted to demolish the High Art of film that was typified by the Anthology Film Archive.
Corinne asked him if he wasn’t worried about the impermanence and short life of these videotapes, of the video dying so quickly. His answer was, “I’m worried about MYSELF dying, not about the films or video.” For him, the important thing was for him to keep alive and working, and let someone else worry about when the tapes fade.
SPECIFIC MAGAZINE ISSUES MENTIONED
Expanded Cinema: Issue No. 1, March 1971.
Cinemapoetry at The Maze: No. 3, May 1971.
Video in A Public Space – Melbourne City Square Video Screen – 1 year later: Nos 35, 36.
George Kuchar Interview: Nos 55, 56.