Film In Conversation
with Phil Coldiron
If one needed a reminder of cinema’s youth as an artistic medium, the dearth of serious attention yet paid to stereoscopic filmmaking would suffice. Happily, the young filmmaker Blake Williams, Texas born and Toronto based, has given his considerable energies (he also works as a critic and academic) to shaping a coherent history of what has so far been achieved in stereoscopy, and, more importantly, pointing toward what work remains to be done. Williams’s newest film, PROTOTYPE, his first at feature length and in the more common polarized 3D (following a run of anaglyph shorts), was tipped as the opening film at this year’s edition of Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, for which he’d also curated a superlative survey of his chosen format. Ranging from the Lumiere Brothers’s 3D remake of their own Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat through animations by Norman McLaren and Lillian Schwartz, experiments from the canonical avant-garde (Paul Sharits’ 3D Movie), and up to the relatively blossoming present, where Jackass 3D entered into conversation with Godard’s Goodbye to Language, Ken Jacobs’s Seeking the Monkey King, and Jodie Mack’s Let Your Light Shine, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what’s possible beyond the strictures of photographic realism and Renaissance perspective. Williams and I spoke by phone shortly after returning from four busy days in Tennessee.
Phil Coldiron (Rail):In a recent interview, you mentioned that 3D has a unique aesthetic vocabulary. What would you take that to be?
Blake Williams:I was answering a question regarding how I’m teaching 3D cinema to undergraduate students. It’s basically a way of learning to talk about images, to describe something beyond whether it's good or bad, or if its use of 3D was necessary or unnecessary. It’s a matter of understanding what the stereo images are really doing beyond simply coming out at you from the screen, and being able to articulate what these images are saying when they're “speaking” to you. There’s a realm of sensations and affective responses that is beyond the hostile pop-out effect that intrudes on your space and makes you feel a brief moment of surprise or wonder or feeling like you can touch or poke what’s coming out at you, and since I think language is always itself hostile toward sensations, you have to be careful with how you develop the vocabulary that is being used for these articulations. It's one thing to speak of the image in spatial terms, to speak of emergence and immersion; when tasked with describing the image's hapticality, its effect on the viewing body, its reorientation of how your two eyes function together and separately, the language is less developed.
A good example is Goodbye to Language's split-screen effect. That's a specific mode of address that’s speaking in stereoscopy—the simultaneous presentation of two images—rather than in 3D—the marriage of two images for the production of depth. There were gasps at the early screenings of that film for a reason. It was presenting an experience people had no language for, so it forced everyone to respond merely in deep breaths. That was one of the goals of doing the 3D program in Knoxville, having this opportunity to show many short films that are each using a different stereoscopic format—like ChromaDepth, anaglyph, or Pulfrich—and using different gestures or evoking different types of visual responses that can be experienced.
Rail: Here it would be useful for you to describe what you understand that shot in the Godard film to be doing, since to my mind it isolates the physiological concerns which have always been present in your work.
Williams: It seems like the understood reading of that shot—and perhaps this is attributable to David Bordwell being one of the first to offer hard, detailed analysis of that moment—is that it’s a new form of shot-reverse-shot, a democratic turn in editing where the spectator chooses which shot is being taken in and when it cuts to the reverse angle. And I think that impulse to blink and view the film interchangeably between your right and left eyes is of course there and a significant way to experience that moment. But outside of its significance to montage, I’ve always felt that it was more about a phenomenological destabilization, and I think most people who experience it in the proper 3D format would agree with that. There's, as you say, this physiological or even biological way that the shot breaks us out of the experience of being human, of being embodied in the shape of a person, with heads that have eyes that—at least for able-bodied people—see the world with binocular vision. We look at the world in a specific way that becomes the fact of every visual encounter we have in the world, whereas for many species or types of animals, the view of the world is completely different. Whether that’s just because of different orientation of the eyes—looking to the sides as opposed to being aimed forward, or being farther apart so you have a greater depth of field, or because the types of colors that they can see or not see are different, or they have more or less than two eyes—this manner of vision that humans have dictates how we move about the world, organize the chaos of the universe, and how we respond to other beings. It has a lot to do with scale, and it has a lot to do with our general sense of feeling dominant or submissive in the face of other things.
I'm not a hardcore Darwinian or anything, and this isn't true of every animal, but for the most part, animals with their eyes oriented as humans have them—with binocular vision seeing depth illusions via stereopsis—these tend to be more predatory, moving through space efficiently in order to capture and consume things. Then, with animals whose two eyes are directed to the side, like squirrels, granting them close to a 360°vision of their environment, they are more often preyed upon, and have adapted to view the world always in a protective mode, always on the defensive. So when you have this moment inGoodbye to Language where the binocular cameras split apart and our vision becomes 360°, in this very physiological or biological or phenomenological instant you’re thrown from a mode of viewing the world that is in line with our human coding, out into something that is more vulnerable, more sought after. And that’s just part of the movie’s broader argument, its acknowledgement of our inability to experience the world in a way that isn't negotiated by the facticity of our specific existence—and that includes all of the cultural, ideological, intellectual modes of cognition that we participate in once we enter into language.
Rail: Offering people a different way of seeing the world is one definition of pedagogy. Given that you work as an active classroom lecturer, a research academic working on a dissertation on 3D, a popular critic, a curator, and a filmmaker, do you think that those all share an orientation toward instruction?
Williams:Partially, and I say partially because I always feel like I’m still learning what it is that I’m doing, or what it is that 3D as a format is doing, so when I approach the technology or a given movie or a specific filmmaker, I’m really just learning it myself, talking myself through it, finding a vocabulary for it as a way of introducing myself to this way of working with images. For a major visual format that Hollywood first adopted over sixty years ago, there’s a remarkably low number of stereoscopic movies that have been made. It's an incredibly young mode of making images, even though it has a very deep history. So when I’m writing about or teaching films like Gaspar Noé's Loveor Goodbye to Language, I'm searching for a language—a vocabulary that can articulate what these images actually are. This means identifying in a very material sense what actually went into the creation of that instance, that gesture, but then also articulating the affective response that it generates in me. It’s something that I’m curious about as a maker, largely because I don’t completely understand it, and I’malso trying to figure out why I find stereoscopic images more aesthetically beautiful than ‘regular’ images. I guess there’s a certain degree of pedagogy in that, because I've built up this persona as ‘a 3D guy’ somewhat unwittingly. I started making 3D films before I really started researching or writing about them—actually, I hadn't even seen that many 3D movies before I started making my own. I think when I made my first 3D short, Many a Swan (2012), I’d probably only seen Avatar(2009)and Cave of Forgotten Dreams(2010)and some anaglyph shorts at a theme park.
Rail:Could you describe your approach to composing in stereoscopy, particularly in terms of the arrangement of the image-objects in PROTOTYPE?
Williams:Sure. The main chunk of the movie takes place in this virtual warehouse space, where the only thing you see are these egg-shaped CRT monitors showing what looks like 3D b-roll. I made it by filming a single television—a 1959 Philco Predicta Debutante—in my living room over many nights. I'd film the TV screen showing the left eye channel and then the right eye channel of all the footage I'd amassed over a few years of shooting. So you get this effect of seeing 3D cathode ray images, which as far as I'm aware would an impossible aesthetic to see outside of this film. So at a certain point when I was still figuring out what the movie was, I started compiling the different channels as though they were in the same space. I was drawn to the way that an image of one screen would be protruding and seem closer to you than an image on another screen, which itself would appear closer to you, allowing you to witness this phenomenon where spatial realities from all the different screens conflict with one another. To use Laura U. Marks's terms, there’s no real “skin” to the film image of PROTOTYPEitself: you're in a voyeuristic void, and only the monitors themselves have a skin, have their own volume and shape and tactility, but we’re able to view them from a distance and have them basically contradict each other.
Rail:This gets at what I would take to be one main theme of your 3D films, which is the way you are concerned with illusion and depth effects at the same time as you’re working with the different layers of flatness that stereoscopic vision makes available to you.
Williams:I think spatial illusion is actually very funny, and also kind of sad. I would also say that—I don’t know that this would apply to PROTOTYPE—but I would say that all of the 3D films I’ve made are fairly anti-illusion, that they mock the idea of spatial illusion, and I think that’s probably most explicit in Many a Swan, where the idea of an image being presented to you three-dimensionally is essentially laughed off the stage, by delivering the spectacle of the Grand Canyon in 3D image distortions that are still fundamentally two-dimensional, adopting awkward origami techniques in order to compensate for the lack of dimension. The video clips there are shaped and bent into things that are themselves three-dimensional objects, and the movie wonders about what that kind of skewed or folded perspective does to the idea of that image as a document of a particular landscape (which is itself already quite bent and folded). The image becomes an object itself, takes on a volume that is in some sense greater and more palpable than the space it's representing. So the movie is very forthcoming about its images’ failure to create ‘real’ depth. You see that in a different way in Red Capriccio(2014), where an image of a police car with its siren lights blinking is transformed, via a methodical, step-by-step process, into a pure, anaglyph form—an image so determined to express its own flatness that the blues and reds of its color palette take turns blinding one of your eyes, forcing you to view the film cyclopically.
But I tend to work in a somewhat unreflective way. I’ve only recently really started drawing connections between my 3D shorts and the 2D pieces I made before them. I recently looked at Coorow-Latham Road(2011) again for the first time in years, and was struck by the way that the image in that film—bent and warped, as the Google Street View algorithms try to replicate reality and create a more embodied experience for the user—became a wellspring for my entire aesthetic sensibility. And I was like, “Of courseI started making 3D movies after I made this!” I don’t know why I’m drawn to that kind of folded, curling image so much. Maybe it's my attempt to get in touch with something when all I see are interfaces. It’s also just kind of funny to look at. In a certain sense, I think most of the movies I’ve made—PROTOTYPE maybebeing an exception—are comedies, looking onto a world that can't stop worrying about how to best represent itself.
Rail:There’s an intriguing set of tensions, if not contradictions, related to the viewing body in the ways we’ve been talking about the work. You’re talking about things existing as objective and outside of any sort of immediate, personal, subjective perspective at the same time as you acknowledge that the work is concerned with pushing its audience around through different sensations than they’re used to.
Williams:I think you’re right to call it somewhat of a contradiction, even if you might end up going with a different word. I understand that I’m creating certain types of experiences that I fully expect people to respond to or describe in a way that would be either sensorial or visceral or whatever, but I feel like I’m most concerned with cognitive processes and the act of thinking through an experience or a certain structural logic, especially in the absence of any clear, structural organization. With everything that I’ve made, and this includes PROTOTYPE, the beginning of a production is always a matter of planting a certain bud of an idea, or a blip of an image in a timeline in Final Cut Pro, and allowing however many weeks or months or years it takes for that idea to evolve as it will. And that’s obviously largely dictated by certain whims of what I’m feeling on a particular day, or whatever happens to be at the top of the folder where I stored all my recent shots after clearing out my camera's SD card, or the movies I saw, or the softball game I lost. It's also a collaboration with the software I use to work, with the render speeds, with whatever YouTube's algorithms recommend I watch on a given day. It's a collaboration even with the rhythms of my computer's RAM, the speed of my internet, and the number of email interruptions I receive after 4pm. So the films are documents of my entire social condition, of my attempts to wade into my work station and create images with it. Sure enough, I find that I’m most satisfied with something—that is, I'm able to call a movie finished—when the experience of watching it seems to be most representational of this condition of making it, and so if I’m thinking about the work as something that’s trying to transmit some subjective feeling that I have to other people, I would say that I'm less interested in what's happening to the viewers' bodies, or even their sensorial responses to visual stimuli, than I am the way they thought through the film's logic system. And so when you talk about this feeling of getting lost, I think that is probably true in a spatial sense, but I think it’s more interesting to me as a mental process of getting lost in one’s own thoughts or in one’s own experience of time passing.
Rail:What you’re saying is something like a definition of beauty, or at least the sublime.
Williams:I guess so, yeah, because in my most intense encounters with anything that I would describe as beautiful or sublime, I've been unable to recognize or cognize what it is that I’ve actually experienced. Mystery is too essential to beauty for me to be able to appreciate something I feel like I understand. To reproduce that in an aesthetic art object, I think it would have to come from an experience that precludes cognition yet still somehow demands contemplation.