UN-DO: Tenacious Filmmakers Transcend Materiality with Digital Tools.

In Meticulously Recklessly Worked Up: Direct animation, the Auratic and the Index. (pg 167), Tess Takahashi defends the argument that digital filmmaking has been perceived as a threat, not only to the medium of film, but to the filmic avant-garde. Digital, has been seen as a potential hazard to artist innovation, Takahashi argues "the work produced by digital apparatus is considered too "automatic," the options it provides too "cookie cutter". Stating that digital methodology presents opportunities for timesaving techniques.

Is the threat of digital, that it puts accessible tools into the hands of the tenacious? Is the threat that anyone can do it therefore digital invalidates the institution of filmmaking? I argue that digital filmmaking tools have established themselves and found equilibrium as a method after an explosion of exploration by avant-gardists. What remains is a legacy of theory, methodology, practice, principles and history of filmmaking. Techniques of filmmaking persist through advancements of technology from film, to video, to digital tools. The tools of digital filmmaking does not a filmmaker make, anymore than the early instant cameras of Kodak threatened enculturated photographic artists, or anymore than digital still cameras have threatened institutionalized photography of art, portraits or journalism.

The advancements of digital tools, their programming, and the media they’re presented on and the advancements in the production of solid state transistors have contributed to the availability of professional filmmaking tools packaged for consumers. Now, one may shop an online store to purchase computers powerful enough to produce films, as well as the software suites designed to mimic physical methods of filmmaking on one's screen; virtual stores sell animation tools and materials, quality cameras and grip equipment, all delivered to your door. Digital tools interrupt tradition by changing capture devices, editing suites and presentation and preservation tools. However, the artist still requires some space to draw, paint, to model material in the physical world, this fundamental aspect of animation remains the same; unthreatened by technology.

Workflow processes for digital filmmaking may be a material-less medium to carry captured images to viewers, digital films may possess a great deal of material in the captured images themselves. Still are required talent that must be directed for each frame. The drawings and paintings still pass through the body of the artist to the surface or digital stage of a film. Particularly with digital animation, the digital advantage is not a matter of automation or time saving efficiency with push button results, but permits independent artists to create work without the specific constraints of the medium of film and the material world. The few advantages of digital over film can't be seen as coast our time saving for with the magic of social filmmaking tools a filmmaker may meticulously scrutinize each frame pixel by pixel that is just as direct and intentional as work produced directly on film. The debatable question, is the materiality of the film emulsion on celluloid running through a machine, interrupting a beam of light processes and edited to create consecutive image sequences much different from the image creation and capture methodologies of avant-garde filmmakers of 2013?

Digital, I argue is similar to more traditional avant-garde direct filmmaking techniques, but different mostly in the processing or developing and editing the materials. Rather than emulsion on celluloid infused by light, developed, edited and printed and the myriad applied techniques between each production point. Digital is also physical, rarely do we think of it as such, I long considered digital to be intangible, however the digital is rather tangible indeed, we rely on solid state sensors imprinted with electrodes that contain many fascinatingly tiny transistors, these are imprinted with light or electronic signals to make imaged which are adjusted and edited with another set of electors and sensors by powerful solid stage magnetic hard drives, copied and printed, actual physical film may remain pay off the process, as well as drawing, or scratch animation. The difference is the media that captures the light itself. Digital workflow processes are almost inseparable from modern independent avant-garde filmmaking processes.

As a one to one direct comparison of direct on film animation and direct digital animation methods, direct on film animation styles translate a little differently with digital tools in that one may ‘un-do’ rather than work with the physical consequences of mark making directly to the media in the material world. Craft and craftsmanship have not been cast aside with developments of digital tools and their applications to avant-garde filmmaking. Whether a filmmaker is making a mark with paints, bodily fluids, or fire, how is that process different from making a ‘mark’ with a graphics tablet? The hand of the artist is very much a lingering trace of the process either way. For the hand is still working with a tool to make a mark, on a wax, paper, plaster, film, silk with a scribe, brush, or stylus a mark is made and captured and remembered and stands to represent the humanity of the artist regardless of the storage medium film or digital. While the material is missing from direct digital animation, it’s not for lack of effort and energy.

Clement Valla’s film A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals, (2011), is not only digital, but outsourced to five hundred people directed to trace a line presented in the digital drawing software he created for the project in conjunction with Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk, “a marketplace for work”, each contributor was paid two cents per line. The work alludes to a present-absence of each individual taking part in the creation of the film. Each line wobbles a bit, creating conversation with the lines before it and the lines after it as the sequence progresses, each line provides a trace echo of the lines drawn before.

Screencap from A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals, Clement Valla, 2011

                  Screencap from Spin Cycle, Jeff Scher, 2007

Filmmaker Jeff Scher joins traditional watercolor painting techniques and digital tools to create his short digital animated films. By creating his own moving images with a digital camera to use as source, exporting as moving image files, down projected onto his painting surface; once painted the cells are shot with a digital camera and moving image sequence software to produce films that are then composited together to make short animations. While the medium is traditional, the advancements of digital tools have made the filmmaking process time efficient by the immediacy of results when painting, capturing, rendering and editing. With his film Spin Cycle, 2007, Scher created an animated loop of a slice of white bread spinning in space brought to life with ecstatically changing backgrounds. Scher’s work possesses certain aspects of of Wabi-sabi, in that the work celebrates irregularity, simplicity and economy of time and material resources, his techniques for mark making are strongly presented in brush strokes and the flow of the medium used to make the images.

Other artists, such as myself, utilize found digital videos as my source materials, save to my computer, imported into image manipulation software altered, distilled, and deconstructed digitally, then printed to rotoscope, or directly treat the surfaces of the paper cells, then shoot, arrange and edit digitally once again. With multiple digital steps the indexical traces from the source footage is layered together with my own mark making. I’m interested in the intersection of materiality of mark making, and a transference of aura many times digitally removed from the original object without erasing my own presence in the process. I’m attempting this by rotoscoping with varied traditional tools as well as the most innovative ways I can to consider and explore digital capture and release of energy. Fellow artist Micah Weber shoots his own digital video source material, distills image sequences with exactitude, then either prints the image sequences, giving way to incidental mechanical marks incurred in the process; or manipulate physically before digitally shooting his sequences, alternately he may use an image creation software to draw ‘directly’ onto his source videos. He edits his movie files with such precision the montage creates an emotional response with viewers, one of awkward discomfort, his films make audiences fidgety in their seats.

Regardless of digital processes, human intervention with traditional indexical capture methods create media that bears the marks of it’s makers, with indicators of an auratic presence of both the artist’s source reference materials and the filmmaker-animator by her choices in tools. What is avant-garde if an artist isn’t embracing advancing digital technology. We can look forward to technological advancements that will provide hands off filmmaking experiences for the filmmaker, and screenless presentation devices like virtual retinal displays completely removing the indexicality and aura of the filmmaker, but she will still be participating in the discourse of avant-garde filmmaking.

What will transcend between material methodologies and digital methodologies is what lies between the digital, the material of the medium and back again to digital. While a filmmaking process could very well be fully ‘automated’ through digital tools, the mind of the maker is always present. Is it reasonable to suggest that digital filmmaking will be completely devoid of human interaction in the filmmaking process? Of course not.


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