Ancient Article for FILM WAVES No.6 Published in 1998
This piece is about “Light of Uncertainty” – a film I had made for BBC2, 10 minutes long, about quantum physics and painting.
Photography has been repositioning Painting for a hundred and fifty years, and over the same period painting has acted as a precedent for photography. The interaction persists today. Many artists have worked with film over this period because they recognise the significance of photography, ideologically, practically and formally. I suppose, in a modest way, I belong in that company. I am not a movie buff in the usual sense. I only have a mild artistic interest in mainstream movies, or for that matter, in mainstream entertainment animation. I am more intrigued by the artistic and philosophical implications of the camera’s point of view, the way photography can be used to make movement and the ideological implications of living in a culture which sees these conventions of representation as natural. When I go to the movies I just join in and enjoy. And I dont watch much TV either.
There is not much to read about the corner of film-making I am really interested in – four or five books will do it – but there is a huge accumulation of work. There are thousands of films around the world languishing in small studios, archives, film laboratories and TV companies. Artists are well ahead of business here; I mean they have outwitted normal business constraints somehow. Most reviews of this work mention the early pioneers in Europe, quote Apollinaire saying that art animation will be the art of the future, and then follow the drift of the political migrants over to the States where they were more or less rolled over by Disney. But there is a much more involved story to be told than that. Jayne Pilling and Paul Webb, for example, have made a start. Perhaps as the new delivery media like DVD come into use short film will become more popular. Maybe random access will make short dense pieces more consumer friendly and then publishers and scholars will want to get involved with this sort of work. Who knows?
For artists like Fernand Leger, Man Ray and Lotte Reiniger it was a way of pursuing their art interests. Many such people explicitly used phrases like “moving painting”, or “working in film as if it were painting”. Robert Breer and Stan Brakhage are shown in art venues, both of them Modernist artists with their hearts set on making film like painting. To me this is all congenial thinking and these famous names have created an overlap tradition between the art of painting and film to which I want to belong.
Whilst animation in general is usually generated to film – the stop/go technique was impossible in video in the early years – it is TV which has made the recent UK renaissance possible. In the early eighties Channel 4, and in Wales S4C, began broadcasting and buying programmes. I was there from the beginning trying to get the new channels to put up money for me to work. In London the animation programmes eventually became the responsibility of Clare Kitson and in Cardiff, of Chris Grace; very different personalities in very different contexts. In Wales S4C had become, by a feat of Welsh politics, the Welsh language medium broadcaster. In London C4 was supposed to be more experimental and cosmopolitan. Because I had to raise so much money for my work I always had to make co-funding deals between TV companies. Getting them to speak to each other used up a lot of time and finding ways to bridge the cultures between two channels I found quite tricky. The editorial policy of different channels is partly fixed by the tastes of the commissioning editors, and partly (and now increasingly) by schedulers and strategists who see themselves as fighting the competition from other channels. The strategists are bosses to the editors so editors dont have an entirely clear field. It is beyond people of my station to second guess what an editor will like from one year to another; their own situations change, and they can seem to change their minds – but I dont know any other way than standing in the queue with all the thousands of other beggars holding out your wares for sale. I have only ever offered them the film I wanted to make next. Sometimes they buy, sometimes (like now for me) they dont!
The prime source of support for art or personal film, once you are out of college and outside of TV, is, I hate to say, a day job in the graphics or advertising industry, which takes all your time (you want to get on, don’t you), which means you don’t get much time to do your own stuff. It sounds sad but it has never been easy to make art which the business process doesn’t see a use for, particularly if it costs money or time. At least in the industry you acquire contacts and in friendly agencies you can get practical support for your own work (late at night!). It can be seen as a sign that the agency has creative power to burn off, and so it can be good for their business to help you. In Wales we do not have an advertising industry (that you would notice!) so day jobs over here take a less glamorous form.
I was a builder for twenty years.
Despite the importance of TV companies to the development of artist’s films they are of very little use to the companies. Even Channel 4 struggles to find time slots for them. They are too strong and short, its a physique thing!, even for C4. In Wales the strategy people have, over time, determined that their target audience has no interest in artists’ films whatsoever. Hence it is not unknown for film to be commissioned over here and never broadcast at home.
We do well at festivals though and that is important for a small TV company to bear in mind.
It is at specialist international festivals that this form comes alive. It was a great shock to me, who was already quite well acquainted with contemporary visual art, to see the standard of the international art-film properly on show, and to recognise with a little frisson of near fear, that it was something of a secret as far as the rest of the art world was concerned. I sort of stumbled in there, like my famous forebears, imagining I would just see more art like I was used to. What I did see, and am now acclimatised to, was a seriously underestimated art form in waiting, oddly kept away from the rest of culture, keeping its power to itself.
Artists typically destroy (deconstruct!) and rearrange things (bricolage!) which seemed to be perfectly alright as they were; for most people, surely, animation is a technique which Walt has perfected, why mess with it. But of course, no artist approaches a medium with such humility. Those that interest me, among my peers, or from the tradition, rebuild the technique each time for themselves. Each rebuild opens up new meanings for the medium. Almost no-one of interest is doing this work to make advertising more successful or to make their work more viable in the entertainment world, they are doing it because there is still room to invent meaning in this art form. Perhaps this is a side benefit of its position in the wings of mainstream culture. Some work on film stock directly, even drawing their own sound tracks, others at the opposite end of the technical spectrum, work entirely electronically. In between these extremes, images are still created on paper, on glass, in 3D form, and photographed or videoed to film or tape or disc. The results are either seriously post produced or they are not. Mine are not.
My own work over the years has been on glass in various rigs I have built to facilitate working with paint and camera moves. My present machine was built to make The Divetimenti on in about 1993 and is still my main tool. It allows me to make a multi-layered painting, have access to each layer separately, and fly the camera around and into the image. It is not like anyone else’s, but neither was Fischinger’s or Bartosch’s! We make technique up as we need to. The Whitney brothers in the States were engineers (as indeed was Fischinger) and made beautiful mechanical devices just to synthesise sound tracks with. The advanced techniques employed now to make digital art require some confidence in technical matters. If you are obliged by your art ambition to reinvent technique in whatever way then you will find you have the means to do it. (It is one of those ineffable things).
But much experimental film has been made in an anti-technical spirit and has been wonderfully successful. The film which turned me on to artists in film in the early sixties was the “Flying Man” (but not the one by George Dunning) which could not have been more technically crude. To get images moving more technique is required than, say, to make a painting; but not more than to play a jazz piano. Large quantities of technique can be seen as uncool and this is sometimes raised as a criticism of our form – that it is so difficult, so boring to do – but many forms of art over centuries have been technically difficult, think of feature film-making and architecture, the real problem it raises for us practitioners is that it costs so much because it is so demanding of time.
Light of Uncertainty took two years to develop, sell and make. Its budget, realistically has to pay for all that time, for the music and for the little bits of post involved in versioning. It is only ten minutes long so, per minute, it was dear. I persuaded the then new commissioning editor for animation at the BBC in Bristol, Colin Rose, more famous since as executive producer on Wallace and Gromit, to half fund it. S4C, who have been a reliable part funder to me over 13 years, put up the other half. The “editorial” was to remain with Colin Rose. I had just finished a suite of six films which were also funded between the BBC and S4C which were called The Divertimenti. Colin made a nice documentary in which those films were embedded to make them digestible to a TV audience; a creative way through the short-dense-film-on-TV problem. With Light of Uncertainty I hoped to make a move up through the gears to a more ambitious piece. I secretly intended it to be the first of a trilogy which has now been stopped, one third finished!
The idea was presented to Colin Rose as an essay. The BBC still has some parts of its old culture in place – you can appeal to the thinker in there occasionally. He wanted it longer so I introduced the thought of working in some live action. Then it got shorter again but the live action idea stayed with me. The essay dealt with the notion that a society can suffer as much from a failed and bankrupt epistemolgy as from outright injustice. I was intent on making a group of films about modern knowledge which showed that, within the intellectual mainstream of our present culture, there are special areas which are like port holes through which we can glimpse other ways of reckoning and knowing the world. I chose the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as the first “port hole”. I had a scientific education I suppose, if it could be called education, which provides me with a little maths and some science; enough anyway to find the Heisenberg stuff quite scary and enlightening at the same time. I wrote and filmed the black and white sequences on an old Arri ST and imported them into my glass plates system by back projection. I have tried to create a movie within a painting. The poor quality of the movie-within material helps to move the time of the film back to the early thirties when Heisenberg’s principle first found its way into physics and keeps it visually back in the film, so it doesn’t take pride of place in the final effect.
The movie-within shows a girl on a beach and a group of students in a classroom. They are all students of (very simplified) quantum physics. The girl on the beach is able to make the imaginative move to a new view of the world which is implied by the formula, while the students and their enthusiastic teacher get themselves in a mess. This “story” is set within the space of my rig which I treat now as if it were an enhanced sort of canvas. The space and paint in this enhanced space are employed as a working image of the world the way it might be experienced by the girl. The audience see the film within the space of the moving/living painting and at the end the girl joins the audience in that space; she looks out at us as we look in.
Painting expects a good deal of proactivity in its audience, an audience reaction more like an interrogation than consumption, (more like life than shopping) which is regarded as a little presumptuous of an art form nowadays of course, and very bad for business. The preparation which audiences need in order to understand TV and movies is more implicit, even denied, buried as it is in the visual and epistemological ideology of the present time. Consequently there are things film cannot say because of the trust people now put in it. I wanted to make something like a movie but which operated like a painting so I could say something people might expect painting to attempt, but not film. Photography and Painting can work for each other like this. Film is bemused by mimesis, sort of tongue tied. Painting is sidelined by film, yet it has access to a much more sophisticated visual tradition than film. Film’s sophistication is in the things it portrays – its content. It is innocent about its means. Painting has been obliged by Photography to investigate itself very closely and now has no secrets to itself.
In the overlap of these great Arts is where I put my pieces.