Scratch, Crackle, and Pop! An Interview with Steven WoloshenAuthor: Kelly Gallagher | Date: 12/2/16, 2:40 PM
Celebrated filmmaker and passionate evangelist of handcrafted cinema, Steven Woloshen, has released his latest colorfully informative book on handmade film techniques, Scratch, Crackle & Pop: a whole grains approach to making films without a camera. The book is more than just a technically immersive crash course for those interested in learning handmade filmmaking processes; it is an encouraging and welcoming text that both beginning and established filmmakers will benefit from reading, thanks to Woloshen’s ability to enthusiastically and authentically address a large audience. His passion for tactile processes jumps off the page and feels tangible itself, something for us to hold onto while reading the book. In an age when competition is often more encouraged within the art world than collaboration, Woloshen adamantly opts for collaboration. Through the demystifying and sharing of his personal filmmaking processes and honed techniques, both within this new book and within his real life through innumerable community film workshops, he encouragingly invites everyone to join him along the often rewarding adventure of cameraless filmmaking. We should only hope more animators and filmmakers begin to take more seriously the important work of sharing and demystifying their artistic practices within their communities, creating accessibility around animation and filmmaking. I had the pleasure of digging into the book more deeply with Steven.
Kelly Gallagher: You mention in the introduction to the book that though many texts don't already exist like this, there are a few, one of which is Helen Hill's brilliant Recipes for Disaster. As the title of her "handcrafted film cookbooklet" suggests, concepts such as disaster or failure are embraced in cameraless filmmaking. In Scratch, Crackle & Pop! you insist on encouraging viewers to embrace handmade filmmaking processes because they are a space to be playful, to experiment, and to continually be learning. In this realm of filmmaking, "mistakes" or "mess-ups" or even potential "disasters" can turn into accidentally beautiful and important seconds within a film. Do you find that these characteristics of handmade films make them feel exceptionally inviting to newcomers of filmmaking? In what ways are the concepts of "play" and "chance" celebrated and praised within the cameraless filmmaking form?
Steven Woloshen: I was greatly influenced by Recipes for Disaster. When I wrote the proposal for Scratch, Crackle & Pop, I referred to Hill’s book and Brakhage’s The Giving and Taking Book. I am always hopeful that a community of filmmakers will gather their experiences and create another “cookbooklet.” When I finished the book earlier this year, I created a website to promote the ideology behind its creation. I felt that it was important to include a page where readers could upload their own recipes to share them with other filmmakers. This feeling of “give and take” is at the heart of my philosophy. Alongside the artistic risk taking, “mess-ups” and the community spirit is the love and respect that comes with the sharing of ideas and experiences.
KG: Mentioned in the foreword by Marco De Blois, and exemplified in your personal case studies throughout the book, it is apparent that direct animation filmmaking practices harken on lineages and histories from both the experimental cinema realm and animation realm. Could you talk about what it means to straddle both worlds? In what ways do both communities value or give shape to handmade filmmaking processes?
SW: That’s a really good question. When I went to film school in the 1980s, it was a badge of honor to be put in one camp or another. But here we are in the 21st century. I don’t think that there is a clear division in these communities any more. We have so many creative stories to tell and so many tools to help with the task of self-expression, that the mediums of expression have therefore become very pluralistic. I am an experimental filmmaker for one project but I could be a traditional animator for another project as well. The one issue that is very relevant today is access to the tools and experiences of other filmmakers. I wrote these books and host workshops to address these issues. I also want to dispel any myths about the decline of one medium and the rise of others. I’m here to dialogue, discuss and work through any of the roadblocks that served to keep us apart. We all know that some artists are living silent and secluded lives - becoming separated from their homelands, communal experiences and community leaders. I want to bring artist and audience together with simple tools and overlooked means of expression.
When I began making handmade films in the late 1970s, I never looked in any specific direction. I made films only with a strong sense of curiosity. I owned all my equipment so I never had to discuss the methods of getting from script to screen. In Scratch, Crackle & Pop! I can only recall my own beginning and I hope my achievements touch other filmmakers as well. When I first proposed the idea of this handmade filmmaking manual - thirty years later, I had to ask myself if I was an experimental animator using non –traditional methods or if I’m an experimental filmmaker - creating films as a Dadaist or Surrealist would in the early 1930s whilst incorporating animated sensibilities into my experimental films.
KG: I greatly enjoyed the inclusion of actual samples of film leader in the book. Seeing them and touching them made me reflect on the immediate, sheer enjoyment that comes with tactile filmmaking processes. You discuss the importance of immediacy in the book, citing handmade film's fairly accessible tools, and the lack of need for storyboards and animatics- all qualities that have drawn you to champion this filmmaking form. Could you speak to the notions of tactility, immediacy (/but also patience), and accessibility as they relate to your own processes and the desire to share these processes with others?
SW: The leader was a very important part of the book. I am aware that everybody is only getting 16 frames (8 frames of clear leader and 8 frames of black leader) but it is important that I use this as a prop to explain these little squares of plastic as a vital surface for the filmmaking process. In many of my master-classes, I point to the calendar people analogy; basically, there are two types of people. The first type put a monthly calendar on the wall, then mark a deadline with an “X” at the end of the month. The other type tacks up a daily date book and peels off each day until the deadline is reached and then, are surprised that so much time has been squandered when the deadline arrives. When I look at a strip of film, I feel like the monthly wall calendar person – dividing my time and tasks, my motion and memories until I reach the final destination.
As a result of this calendar analogy, I included the film strip to remind the reader that handmade filmmaking isn’t necessarily a “flipbook” experience. The movement has to be imagined in linear space with the aid of film frame intervals. For example, if we can imagine an animated gesture, how would it be achieved in eight frames? Additionally, what would you want to illustrate in eight frames?
KG: The book's guide to testing for emulsion versus base side of celluloid made me smile- you mention that one trick to find the emulsion side is to put one's lips to each side of the celluloid so that one can realize the sticky side (the emulsion side.) This trick prompted me to reflect on notions of intimacy in handmade practices. Some of your own cameraless films (eg: The Curse of the Voodoo Child) are incredibly intimate and personal pieces. In what ways do intimacy, physicality, and abstraction- qualities of handmade filmmaking that you explore in your work and throughout the book- lend themselves to personal filmmaking and explorations of the deeply personal?
SW: In workshops, I start every practical session with this lip test. Sometimes, it freaks people out. I don’t set out to make students “kiss” film but then I explain how we should take risks to achieve our results. They laugh at first but then the idea of testing organic materials begins to sink into their processes. I remind them that just like other animators who have to lean over to adjust puppets or have to jump up and down in a pixilated film, our physical/tactile creations add to the memories of our production steps. In many ways, my book opens this door. Even the extreme microscopic photographs of my drawing and painting tools are a reminder of the small and intimate world of handmade filmmaking – a world that could fit into a shoebox or your shirt pocket.
KG: After thoroughly preparing readers of your book to learn the techniques of handmade filmmaking through case studies from your own films, you make sure to dedicate time at the end of the book to help readers organize their own handmade filmmaking workshops. You mention that in your own utopia, (and I agree!), there would be handmade filmmaking workshops at every film festival and community center. Could you talk about the importance of emphasizing and championing filmmaking workshops in your book as well as within your own life as a filmmaker who has successfully organized and participated in so many? For a filmmaking form that can often be incredibly solitary, you also mention in the book other various ways you've found to collaborate with others (whether it's using someone else's filmed footage to animate onto, or animating 10 seconds of a collaborative film involving many other filmmakers). Can you speak to the advantages of handmade filmmaking processes as they relate to both solitary activity and collaborative activity?
SW: I have hosted a lot of workshops. I feel that they are the real incubators for abstract ideas. I want people to learn from each other. I want them to share, talk, laugh and shake off the stresses of the working day. In workshops we learn about one another in addition to ourselves. It is also important to see how miniature experiments become large ideas when we put them on a large screen for others to view. There is no pride or ego in a group workshop. Our goal is to excel beyond our own grasp and into the hearts of each other.
When I was a guest of the 2007 Animateka Animation Festival in Ljubljana, Igor had the bright idea to recreate the handmade film workshop as a communal tool. Instead of giving me a ten-hour working session in a small room with a limited number of students, he opened the experience to anybody and everybody who walked into the cinema lobby. I met lots of Ljubljana residents, animators and festival guests. This was an eye opening experience. Talk about “meeting on the level and parting on the square.” When we screened the final film (with live music no less) the audience knew they were a part of the screen. That’s what I call collaboration between the audience and the artist.
KG: Something I found incredibly useful about Scratch, Crackle & Pop! was its embrace of contemporary and accessible digital technologies. For example, at one point you offer suggestions for accessible digital scanning options and include mention of a smartphone stop motion application. I find this important because so many young and new filmmakers will find something like that to be far more available than an Oxberry film scanner. Could you discuss the challenges in putting together a book that both celebrates handmade practices, celluloid and film tactility, while also navigating the reality of the material conditions surrounding many newly interested filmmakers of today's day and age?
SW: When I set off the write this book in 2010, I was very headstrong about the use of traditional methods, which included real film stocks with emulsions. But times changed and film equipment is increasingly hard to obtain. In 2012, I hosted a small workshop in Brussels. The students used simple tools, but in the end, the filmstrips were too short to load into the projector. I put lots of white leader at the head but the images still flew by at a very quick pace. It was the last time that I relied on a 16mm projector to screen film for students. In 2013, I looked into small USB microscopes in conjunction with Dragonframe. I really liked the versatility that digitized film brought to the workshop environment. We can also add audio tracks and compare the effect of sound on abstract imagery. In a 2014 Poznan workshop, we animated a film frame while the ink was spreading over its surface. Suddenly, two animated forms were colliding. This was something new! But this also raises a question: Do you still need to use real film or would any small canvas be sufficient to create happy accidents? In the end, though, the re-evaluation of your skill set can be as important as the medium itself.
Recently, I have become very interested in the concept of the secret cinema. As a result of the microscopes and scanners, I have been very interested in the exploitation of the perforations, the countdown leaders and the optical soundtracks that are all part of the cinematic identity. When the microscopes are aimed at film stock, there are so many new sources of inspiration.
KG: As an experimental animator myself who often uses cameraless filmmaking practices, I found that I was initially drawn to direct animation as a result of some of the feminist politics surrounding many cameraless practices and techniques. When I saw Naomi Uman's Removed and read about her detourning domestic household cleaning products and nail polish to create the film, I was immediately drawn in. Learning about the women who have made major contributions to cameraless practices but have been often written out of its history (Evelyn Lambert co-directed many of Norman McLaren's most well known films, Elisabeth Thuillier and her company of 200 women colorists did all the meticulous paint work directly onto celluloid for Melies' fantastical films), always makes me inevitably want to shout their names from the rooftops. What are some ways you think that the important work of demystification can expand beyond making processes and techniques accessible but also branch out politically and make the varied and complex histories of cameraless filmmaking also more accessible and transparent?
SW: For the last year and a half I have been working in film conservation. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of short films by female animators/directors. The titles and subject matter of the films are rarely talked about, the names are not common and all the work that they contributed to the art of film has fallen by the wayside. Some of the reasons became glaringly obvious: Musical rights were not renewed; new distribution formats were not explored and female directors were not properly encouraged to explore independent paths.
When I began writing Scratch, Crackle & Pop! I had to maintain conscience awareness about the shaky social state of independent analog filmmaking. Uman’s films are remembered because we talk about them, write about and share her techniques with words - like you did when you asked me this question. I felt that technical tools and tips were not the only topic that should fill this book. We have to maintain our uniqueness and individuality and that includes, a close vigil on the distribution, dissemination and the conservation of our films. I am hoping that this book and future writing efforts will steer away from the academic questions and focus on the accessibility of media. So far, the motto, “we share words” is the strongest reason to keep writing books – a selfless motivation to help keep all artists’ work seen and appreciated.
KG: In Scratch, Crackle & Pop! during the case study of your film "Playtime," you explore the processes you used to create a film with the earth (literally soil), which aided in the decay of film footage of old Hollywood trailers. While reading this section of the book, I couldn't help but think about it a bit metaphorically (in addition to the helpful concrete techniques being explored). In many ways, handmade filmmaking is a refusal of standard industry practices and modes of making. More and more handcrafted filmmakers are working to connect with each other, share resources with each other, help each other out on projects, and create works that are in direct opposition to what the mainstream film and animation industries promote and create. Do you feel that handmade filmmaking is an inherently "radical" practice, generally in opposition to other modes of more mainstream film and animation production?
SW: In handmade filmmaking, I believe that the subject and the object are very close to each other. I often wonder what would happen if we abstracted from the objective world? (When I say objective though, I mean the world as it was recorded through the lens.) For my work, I think found footage and appropriated images from Hollywood films are essential subjects to explore the language film movement and iconography. When I was writing my first book Recipes for Reconstruction, the derailment of the Hollywood standard was an important element in reconstituting film. Burial, decay and fermentation should be seen as valuable tools in filmmaking. Mortality is such a powerful subject and the lifespan of the physical image is such a useful object that they both belong together. I want all aspects of “objective” cinema to be part of the handmade experience.
KG: What inspires you to continue the meticulous and important work of demystifying experimental animation practices? What do you hope will come from the continued dissemination and further reading by new audiences of Scratch, Crackle & Pop!? Do you hope that more filmmakers feel encouraged to demystify their own filmmaker practices and techniques? In what ways does this kind of work help build community?
SW: I have met a lot of animators and filmmakers who have overestimated the audiences’ curiosity. They wonder why nobody “likes” the things they find important in the world. They realize that all the prizes and awards can’t be of service to the community or to arts so they wag their finger instead. I have read the comments of so many dismissive artists that I felt it was time to nurture the film community in optimistic, relevant and timely methods.
Inevitably, it is my hope that everybody who tries handmade filmmaking will share their methodology, their joys, failures and secret desires with other artists. I have great faith in book making. Since I have been working in the film conservation field, I feel that the printed word may be the only artifact that survives the test of time. I want to leave a simple blueprint to engage my children.
Kelly Gallagher is an experimental animator and filmmaker whose research explores the political potential and radical aesthetics of animation.