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Home > Festivals & Events > Café Ex: Canadian Experimental Cinema > Analogue Dialogue - a conversation with Matthew Rankin
Analogue Dialogue - a conversation with Matthew Rankin
dir. Patrice James
Canada, 2016

Café Ex: Canadian Experimental Cinema
Club SAW, Wednesday, February 1, 2017, 7:30 pm
Written by IFCO Executive Director Patrice James.

So Matthew Rankin is this incredibly awesome, generous and talented filmmaker, at least that’s what I thought before I sat down with him over Google Hangouts one late, late evening to talk about FILM! As it turns out; all of these really wonderful adjectives I’ve applied to his character above, can all be summed up by one word – INSPIRING!

I myself am a mid-career film artist, and I love EMULSION. I mean I’m not necessarily into exploring the materiality of emulsion; I use film more experientially. I love taking a Super 8mm cartridge out of its package and sticking it into a Super 8mm camera, turning the camera on, to listen to that magical mechanical sound that’s so specific to a Super 8mm camera. I love the challenge of figuring out how to load film into a 16mm Bolex camera without wasting film stock, as I try to painstakingly thread the film through the loop formers without getting it all jammed up. These experiences are being somewhat arrogated within our new hyper digital reality, so it was extremely refreshing and inspiring for me to have a dialogue with Matthew about why film matters, and why it’s still relevant as a truly unique artistic medium.

The Nitty-Gritty:

Patrice:
When are you wrapping post on your film? You're finished shooting no?

Matthew:
Yes! I *juuuuust* finished the mix for the new short before the holidaze, now in prep on a feature length motion picture (entertainment), which I shoot in March.

Patrice:
So did you, or are you going to use film in any of the new projects? I don't know anything about them.

Matthew:
1000%!!!!
The short I made at the National Film Board (NFB), and they almost NEVER go analogue any more. Karl Lemieux made a film there, Quiet Zone, and it's like the only other analogue film they've made in a decade. The knowledge has all but vanished among their technical staff. There’s a guy who works there named Luka Senader, and he is building something called a "Retro-Lab" --- rebuilding, repairing and renewing the analogue technical heritage of the National Film Board (NFB). This consists of several REALLY nice cameras which managed to escape the mass analogue purges of the late 90s. This equipment hasn't been maintained, but Luka found it, and is really trying to get it going. The National Film Board (NFB) is now having second thoughts about the digital hegemony and were really interested in making this analogue film with me (as they were with Karl), so I shot on Black & White with a 16mm Bolex camera, and one roll of 35mm ORWO on the animation stand (there is one sequence which involved a lot of hand-painting), so I elected to shoot that part on 35mm just to work in the larger frame. The feature as well is going to be shot on 16mm, in colour. I had to reinvest my salary completely to make this happen (it's gonna be a lean year) but there's just no other way. I *refuse* to shoot digital. It would be COMPLETELY wrong for this film.


Patrice
:
Wow! This is amazing, inspiring, and awesome! I realize how extremely difficult your commitment to your craft can sometimes be. How have you been able to navigate a terrain or environment at The National Film Board (NFB) that's both providing you with access to producing, while also creating certain obstacles that may prohibit you from creating through your preferred means? Are they more accommodating with filmmakers like you and Karl, because of your stature?


Matthew:

Maybe with Karl! I'm not sure what stature my dog-and-pony show could possess. But really it all comes down to Julie Roy, the Executive Producer of French Animation. She is an honest-to-god VISIONARY producer. With vast, vast cinematic interests and enormous curiosity. She was just 100% down!

I presume The National Film Board (NFB) just thought digital was the future in the early 2000s - and the world did very much look like that then. It probably still does. But they were VERY SUPPORTIVE about me working with analogue and VERY interested in learning about it, reintegrating these practices into The National Film Board (NFB). And that has a lot to do with Julie's leadership.


Patrice
:
You know I love film, I love working with it. Can you tell me as filmmaker why you think it's important for artists to have access to artists’ resource centres similar to the ones you've used throughout your career? Why should spaces such as the National Film Board (NFB) as an example, continue to be embracing of FILM?

Matthew:
Committing to celluloid is of course increasingly strange and unusual and, as time goes on, this knowledge is becoming lost and those who want to work with this knowledge, or learn it, are increasingly desperate to find the centres of learning and production that they need. Film is a material for art making now. It is no longer a commercial imperative --- to the contrary. Digital can become the reserve of other forms such as the infomercial, the ‘calling card’ film, the cat video and Snapchat. Capital has abandoned celluloid, and really that is an emancipation of a sort. I feel that the National Film Board (NFB) realizes that if a place like theirs does not advance these practices, WHO WILL?

Patrice:
Matt, why do you love film so much? Why do feel your art is mostly suited to emulsion?


Matthew:
There are lots of reasons! One would be that digital makes me think of photorealism in art. You know those artists who can do HYPER-realistic pencil drawings by hand? The technical skill involved in photorealism is just OFF the charts, but it is meaningless to me. It is not mediated or transformed by the viewer, its purpose is to be an unmistakable, photographic replica. But of course with photorealism there is at least a human skill at work. In digital, a computer is doing this work. So I love film - especially 16mm and Super 8mm - because it mediates and transforms the filmed subject. It gives you less information. And as such, the viewer's imagination works a bit more. I love film for its imperfections, its grain, its fuck-ups, its margin of error, the imaginative space it allows between the viewer and the subject. For the kinds of images I like to make, this is essential. I typically use very primitive, handmade special effects, handmade costumes and props and décors. On film, everything looks right. But in digital - as I learned the hard way once - it can look completely dissonant and wrong.

It would be disharmonious to shoot Karel Zeman's special effects in 7K Spielbergian gloss, for example. They are not meant for each other!

Patrice:
Oil and water. You're pretty FUNNY! But continue. I understand your frustration; I deal with it every month or couple of weeks even.

Matthew:
And of course there is the materiality of film which digital cannot imitate. But the hegemony of digital, again, has shut off our imaginations. We assume computers do everything! In my film Mynarski: Death Plummet, there are 21,000 hand painted frames of 35mm celluloid, in varying degrees of ravagement.

And I was really surprised how often people asked me what plug-in I used to make those images. But it's normal really ---- we just assume computers are behind everything. Some of my best friends are computers. But there's something about films that really LOOK like they’re made by actual humans, which enchants me.

I guess the last reason is the discipline of shooting on film. I love that too. When the camera is rolling, it is a truly sacred moment. And if you are filming actors, you are always closer to them in this way.

I try to not even look at the frame with a digital monitor. It feels like looking at an iPhone or a computer game somehow. The results are always better when I stand next to the camera and watch with my own eyes. Or when I film directly. It's similar in that way to the collective experience of a movie. A film is of course a completely different experience when you share it with a whole audience. All those human energies combining into a critical mass --- it's totally analogue! We must devise new methods for analogue presentation, it seems to me. Film projectors are great and important but the collective experience seems to be the key, I think.


Patrice
:
A lot of artists are now showing in galleries; doing site specific projections, doing loop projections etc. And even with single channel presentations, they're not necessarily being completely appreciated in traditional screening spaces, like cinemas etcetera. What are some new methods that you think additionally need to be devised for analogue?


Matthew
:

I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with creating an EVENT. Something you can never experience on your phone. My friend Sam Green does this thing he calls "live documentary”. Sam shoots on film but then collects all his clips and photos and stuff into what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation. Then Sam narrates and edits the film LIVE on stage. While musicians perform a LIVE soundtrack. And the best part: he REFUSES to produce a DVD, or put it on the net or whatever! So you HAVE to go! Anyway, what's so great about Sam is also what I like about shooting on film; it’s that the work is mediated through human beings. It's a person expressing their perspective and spirit to you, as opposed to a fleet of number-crunching robots who care nothing for you. It's a back-to-the-land approach, like organic farming, or unpasteurized milk, or beekeeping or something. It’s the same! Of course all of this said, I am not a purist. I don't believe in some kind of BINARY between film and digital.

Digital is great for so much! But film is an endangered beast.

 

FIN!