Thursday, November 24, 2011

Will Hindle's Visual Cue Rolls

Happy Thanksgiving! Decided to write a quick(?) post before starting to peel potatoes.

When I started working at the film archive in 2003, one of the first filmmakers whose work I wanted to do something to preserve/restore was Will Hindle. Will died in 1987. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was easily one of the more influential and acclaimed experimental filmmakers working. Even his earliest films, like Pastorale d'ete (1958) and Non Catholicam (1957-63/64) had a huge influence on people like Bruce Baillie (who helped Will shoot Non Catholicam). Stan Brakhage was a great friend and admirer. By all accounts, Will was a deeply intelligent, sensitive, and intense person and artist, who affected many he encountered over a few decades of existence on the independent film scene. Several of his 1970s/80s students I've spoken to have a profound connection to him, and count him as a chief influence in their lives. A much more extensive post should be written on Will, but I'll try to address that in the future.

One important thing to mention is that Will's films wouldn't have survived if it weren't for the incredible Shellie Fleming, who has not only been an exceptionally influential professor for many SAIC students over the years, but was also the person who really single-handedly saved and cared for what survived of Will's films for many years until she and I got in touch in 2003 to talk about preserving them. She has been an important inspiration to me as well.

A lot of pictures for today's post, all of a single object. One of Will's most complex films in terms of its visual choreography and editing, is Watersmith (1969). Will clearly had an incredibly deep and perhaps even innate understanding of the possibilities of film printing. His editing and composition reflects this, and his most accomplished films, like Billabong (1968), Chinese Firedrill (1968), and Watersmith reflect a truly uncanny understanding of the remote capabilities of a film printer and the seemingly inconceivably rich ways in which that process could be manipulated and exploited.

In working with Will's surviving film materials, one method I've realized that he employed to visualize this process is that of the visual cue roll. Although I can imagine that other filmmakers must have used similar methods (perhaps Scott Bartlett or Tom DeWitt?), Will's visual cue rolls are the only ones I've personally encountered. At the archive, visual cue rolls for Billabong, Chinese Firedrill, and Watersmith have all survived, and they're fascinating to wind through. Essentially, they function as a map to the printing of the film.

Watersmith was constructed in 16mm reversal A/B/C rolls, meaning there were three full-length printing rolls which, when printed in succession onto the same receiving print stock, employing all the various effects/dissolves/etc Will charted, would create a complete print with all its desired effects, color timing, and so forth. Accompanying these actual printing rolls would be the visual cue roll. See the pictures below to get an idea of what I'm talking about. The visual cue roll is a roll of lightstruck leader, the kind of stuff you'd normally splice onto the head or tail of a film, for example. Will created a roll of leader that matched the printing rolls in length, with matching head and tail cue marks as well. Then, throughout the visual cue roll, he would make notations and labels in magic marker indicating the various effects, color timing requests, and other descriptions of how the A/B/C rolls should be printed by the lab (in this case, Deluxe Hollywood).

To me, this is a remarkable primary document, which not only illuminates Will's process itself, but expresses some of the complexity of his conception for his films as (if I could borrow the expression) sculptures in time. The interaction of layers, the procession of sequences in tandem and succession, are incredibly rich, often moving, highly intuitive yet inexplicable - in other words, Will's films often have the effect of hitting the viewer on both a gut and intellectual level without you knowing precisely why. I think his control of visual language, in both pure image/sound relationships and in the use of powerful narrative fragments and suggestions, is incredibly unique, and hopefully his work will experience some kind of rediscovery in the near future. I'm currently working on preserving a few of his films, and a few more are short on the heels of these. Unfortunately, the one film that perhaps suffers the most, archivally speaking, is Watersmith itself. For while the visual cue roll survives in all of its suggestiveness, the original A/B/C rolls are lost.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I'm a bad blogger, but I'll try to be better.

Sometimes I update with reasonable regularity, then I'll go months with no sign of life. Sorry about that.

There has been so much going on for the past year in my film world/life that it's often hard to keep up. Between the ever-increasing volume of preservation and restoration work (not to mention all the filmmaker and lab interactions, inspections, inventory, and collection management that goes with it, and even further not to mention the horrendous amount of email I feel like I'm always drowning in), plus the huge amount of stuff I have going on with Los Angeles Filmforum's very exciting Alternative Projections project, it's been hard for me to make time to post thing here.

But I do definitely want to continue to be able to share the bizarre or interesting projects, findings, discoveries, etc. that I feel are a big part of my work, so I'll try update things a bit more regularly here. I just have to cultivate it as a habitual activity.

Above is a still from the incredible The Death of the Gorilla (1966), by the inimitable Peter Mays. This is what you might call a local classic, in that it's known to the L.A. avant-garde community, and is a crucial part of L.A. avant-garde history, but it's been shamefully left out of a lot of larger histories of experimental film. This film is a masterwork and should be a classic, (whatever that means). It's also now newly restored, and is showing in the 2011 edition of Views From the Avant-Garde at New York Film Festival, as well as other locales, and I hope you get a chance to check it out.

Peter made this film by shooting 100ft. camera rolls of 16mm 7255 Ektachrome Commercial off of his television. He would run the film entirely through the camera with a certain color gel in front of the lens, and shoot fragmented bursts of primarily low-budget horror, sci-fi, and exotica stuff, with some King Kong and other recognizable features thrown into the mix. Upon reaching the end of the roll, he would rewind the entire roll, then do another full pass in-camera, shooting again off the television, this time with a different color gel. He sometimes did 6-8 full passes with 6-8 different colors in this manner. He got roll after roll of amazing, kaleidoscopic material this way. Immediately after getting his very best roll yet, he produced a total dud, which is how he knew the shooting was done. He then VERY extensively edited the material into a rough psychedelic narrative, and also created a similarly kaleidoscopic collage soundtrack to go with the image. The end result is 16 minutes of mind-blowing psychedelic genius, with all superimpositions produced in-camera, no exception.

Actually, you may have already seen some images from this film without realizing it. Strips from the film make up the entire cover of Taschen's Art Cinema coffee table book.

The preservation didn't actually take a ton of time. But it was an interesting experience, and unique in a couple of ways.

Peter had actually undertaken his own project to preserve and make available his work a few years prior, culminating in an incredibly elaborate and resourcefully executed DVD set of his work, from his earliest shorts to his most recent Flash animations. With a lot of films in his filmography, and some of them confusing due to variant versions, incompleteness, and other issues, he and I agreed that the best way to start working on anything of his was to go title-by-title, with The Death of the Gorilla seeming an obvious place to start, it being his most well-known film.

Peter had attempted to get the original 16mm mag track for the film transferred a few years back, to no success. The audio house had told him it couldn't be done effectively, and instead he made a new optical track positive from his track negative, and used that as the audio source for his digital transfer and DVD.

Acetate mag stock does have a tendency to deteriorate more readily and alarmingly than picture, something to do with the metal oxide "aggravating" the acetate base it's on. Most mag stocks switched to much more stable polyester in the 1970s/'80s.

When I got the mag track from Peter, it was pretty stinky with vinegar syndrome, and fairly warped and starting to curl. But it wasn't as bad as some really nasty mags I'd encountered, and I was pretty confident it could be transferred. Nick Bergh at Endpoint Audio really knows how to handle deteriorating mag well, and I gave it to him, which eventually yielded a very nice transfer. At Audio Mechanics, we checked the mag against an existing transfer of the optical track, and it was superior, though not by a huge margin, as the source for the track's audio was recorded ambiently off of television with a mic, and was pretty lo-fi to begin with. But the mag still sounded a bit better.

In the meantime, the original picture had its own issues. 7255 Ektachrome Commercial stock doesn't have nearly the color stability problems of its successor, the dreaded 7252 ECO (covered elsewhere in this blog), and Peter's original still has great looking color and contrast. It was also undamaged - no tears, perf damage, anything like that.

Normally, an element like this would be printed on a wetgate printer, the liquid in the gate helping to fill in scratches and blemishes on the source element, so the newly made element is as scratch-free and clean as possible. But we couldn't print Peter's original this way for two reasons. First, the head and tail titles were hand-painted (and beautifully, I might add - see end of this post). More problematic were the splices - Peter had originally edited the film with tape splices, which have held firm, but separated slightly over time, leaving a sliver of a gap in between pretty much all of them (and there are many many hundreds of splices in the original). If printed as-is, these slivers of splice gaps would be visible throughout the movie as punctuating white horizontal bars, occurring annoyingly and constantly throughout the film, especially since the framelines shift a bit over the course of the movie. To compensate for this, Peter, in his incredible focus and diligence, actually blackened out the splice gaps with a black marker, OVER the tape splices. So any attempt to clean or wet-print this original would wash away not only the hand-painted titles, but ALL of the "corrections" to the splice gaps. Yikes.

Also, because the adhesive from the tape splices had oozed somewhat over the years, every opposite lap of film from any given tape splice had dirt and adhesive residue stuck to it, on both sides of the film, constantly, throughout its entire length. Yikes again.

What to do? Well, the solution was painfully clear. I had to hand clean the entire thing, a foot at a time, all the way through, on both base and emulsion sides of the roll. Which I did. I hand-cleaned every single instance of that adhesive gunk and the dirt sticking to the adhesive gunk, through 600+ feet of the original for this film, on both sides. It took a while, but not as long as I thought it would.

In the meantime, another unique aspect of the project presented itself, which was very helpful. Extremely presciently, Peter had cut together a short, 50ft. roll of original outtakes from the film which represented a lot of the film's various looks. He did this specifically to be used as a test roll, so the lab could print the short test roll and experiment with exposures and timing, rather than print the full original a bunch of times. VERY helpful.

So while cleaning the original, I sent this test roll to the lab - Colorlab in this case. The wonderful and brilliant timer there, Chris Hughes, and the great Julia Nicoll got the test roll printed to internegative, then timed to print. Peter and I had decided pretty early on that the film should absolutely be printed as a "one light". In other words, there would be no timing light changes for the entirety of the film - one "best" light setting would be used for the whole thing. The reasoning for this was twofold - Peter had originally printed it this way in the 1960s, and the nature of the film's concept and making suggested this approach made the most sense. In other words, all of the superimpositions and color effects should be treated equally on a neutral grounding, not diversely modified from sequence to sequence or anything like that.

Additionally, Peter and I agreed the lab should try to make the new print look as much like the original as possible. Normally one might be matching a screening print of a film rather than the original, because perhaps there's a certain amount of color correction or other exposure modification that would have taken place in the film's printing. But in this case, we agreed that matching the original again fit the film's concept and execution, and also allowed for a very fine, subtle, high quality mirroring of the original as an object, rather than trying to artificially match a Kodachrome print, which would be a lot less subtle, a lot more contrasty, and miss the film's fine detail somewhat.

The test came back from Colorlab looking great, and needed only a tiny correction (1 point lighter, 1 point less blue). It looked beautiful. In the meantime, I had finished hand-cleaning the original, and shipped it to Colorlab for them to do another dry cleaning pass and then print it according to the results gotten from the test. Also in the meantime, the sound work had been finished and a new digital sound master, new mag track, and new optical track negative were created. Colorlab produced a new internegative and a first answer print with sound that hit the film exactly on the money. It looked fantastic. Peter saw it and was absolutely thrilled. I compared it to the 1960s Kodachrome print, which, though also beautiful, was not as good as the new one, which had a lot more range of color and subtlety of detail, closer to the original.

The new print premiered at Rotterdam 2011 in a pair of restored L.A. experimental film programs I put together, and I hope Rob Todd doesn't mind me quoting him as calling the film "a maximalist monsterpiece".

To conclude this really long post, I thought I'd share a few more stills from the film:

Adding three images to this post that show the hand-painted titles in the film's original. I had originally planned to put these images in from the beginning, but my laptop (on which they were held hostage) crapped out, and I only got it fixed in late December 2011... Enjoy!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Canyon Cinema

I'm formulating a couple of (long overdue) new posts, but in the meantime, please read this (below) if you haven't already elsewhere. This letter from Canyon Cinema was formulated by Executive Director Dominic Angerame and the Canyon board in an attempt to safeguard the future of this essential organization.

I'm currently on Canyon Cinema's board and worked there as assistant director from 2000-2003. Canyon has had a large and extremely positive impact on my life, going back to age 18 and continuing, at full bore, to the present moment. Although the organization was, in a way, conceived by its founders as ephemeral, a lot has changed over the past 45 years and I think the survival of Canyon is crucial. I know there are solutions out there, and we're just trying to find them at this point.

Thanks for reading,

Mark T


To the Film Community:

This is a very serious letter. It was emailed to our filmmaker members and we would like to share this with the larger community. It concerns the survival of Canyon Cinema. As most of you probably know, film rentals over the past few years have been steadily declining. This is a result of the proliferation of digital media. Many of Canyon’s major filmmakers who have brought substantial income to the organization have now made their work available in digital formats. Many of our renters, especially in universities, no longer have access to adequate film projection. Often after the purchase of a DVD, instructors of cinema studies continue to use the digital media and forsake the renting of the original 16mm prints. This is partly due to their own dwindling rental budgets and the lack of well functioning projectors.

In addition, a part of our annual income has traditionally come from bank interest rates. In previous years Canyon has earned more than $4,000 per year this way. In the past three years we have earned almost nothing in this area. We are also very dependent on the money collected from our annual distribution fee from our filmmakers. Many filmmakers do not to pay their yearly fee. Canyon Cinema should be collecting more than $32,000 from its 320 members. Last fiscal year we collected approximately $21,000 in this manner.

During the past decades Canyon Cinema has been able to survive entirely from earned income generated from rentals, sales, distribution fees, bank interest and occasional donations. Each year, since our inception, Canyon Cinema has been successful economically, albeit with a very small margin of excess. We are now in a state where we can no longer continue to operate as we have in the past. This is a very real thing.

World wide interest in our celluloid film collection continues to be strong. There are even indications of a resurgence of interest by a new generation of film enthusiasts, filmmakers and scholars. Last year our gross rental and sales totaled more than (purposely left blank). This is not insignificant. However, this is not enough to continue to run our business in its present form.

It is apparent that Canyon Cinema can no longer continue as it was originally conceived and changes need to be made that are appropriate to our present day and age. The Board of Directors and the staff have been working on solutions. However, after many discussions, meetings with advisors, and inquires made directly to people who might help us we find that we are at a loss to solve the problem. Currently Canyon Cinema is losing $2,000 a month, approximately the amount of our rent. At this rate of loss, Canyon Cinema could be out of business within two years.

In short, we need any tangible help or advice that our community, or other contacts that might be able to offer. We mean this very seriously. The members of the Board of Directors and the staff of Canyon Cinema are experimental filmmakers like yourselves. We need all the help that our fellow members might be able to offer in terms of contacts or ideas. This is very important.

The five other major distributors of experimental film which are located in New York, Paris, Toronto, Vienna and London now receive substantial funding from government agencies on both a national and local level. These distributors, despite the fact they are “small businesses” are recognized as irreplaceable cultural entities which like any other municipal arts organization such as a symphony orchestra need additional support in order to survive. This is far more difficult in the United States.

Here are some specific examples of experimental film distribution companies modeled after Canyon Cinema currently receiving substantial funding. The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York City is currently funded by the Experimental Television Center as well as New York State Council for the Arts. They have also received a life saving donation of free rental space. Light Cone in Paris is funded by several governmental agencies including Le Centre National de la Cinematographie, Le Ministere de la Culture, La Region Ile-de-France and La Ville de Paris. LUX in London is funded by the Arts Council England and the Leverhulme Foundation for Educational Activities. In Canada the Canadian Filmmaker's Distribution Centre in Toronto is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, The Ontario Trillum Foundation and the Toronto Arts Council. In Vienna, Sixpack Film is most generously supported by the Federal Ministry of Art, Culture and Education (Department for Film), City of Vienna - Department of Cultural Affairs, the Provincial Governments of Lower Austria, Upper Austria and Salzburgh, and the Trade Association for Music and Film industry.

In contrast Canyon Cinema has not been able to obtain funding from federal, state or local governments. It is not that we have not tried. All recent efforts to procure funding have been rebuffed due to the nature of the way Canyon Cinema is structured as a for profit shareholder corporation. This is how the organization was set up since the late 1960’s. Canyon Cinema has attempted to become an IRS approved non profit corporation at least twice in the past years without success.

Fortunately we have enjoyed many contributions from our members and members of the greater film community over time. We are extremely appreciative of that. Lucasfilm Foundation has been very helpful in recent years. However they have indicated that they will no longer continue their support. Stanford University Media Library acquired the Canyon Cinema paper archives for a generous amount of $100,000 in 2009. It is those funds upon which we are currently operating.

Now what do we do?

These are some of the ideas the Board and staff have been discussing. Nothing has been decided upon. We feel that our filmmakers must be informed of some of the possible solutions being discussed. We need your help in determining the direction we should take. The solutions are not easy and some may appear radical but are necessary. The question is: what is most important to preserve in Canyon Cinema as a motion picture film distribution company. Is it to have faith in the eventual value of celluloid projection and find a way to survive through patronage? Is it to expand into a digital world, a transition for which we do not have funds or staff? Is it to face the reality of the present day and age of film presentation and radically alter the nature of Canyon Cinema as a celluloid distributor?

Here are some possible solutions that have been discussed and investigated:

1) Dissolve the share holder corporation completely and convert it into a small business, modeled as a non shareholder for profit company distributing filmmaker’s work that generates income. This would enable Canyon to streamline its operation and be responsible for a much smaller inventory.

2) Dissolve the corporation and start another organization that is a 501 3(c) non profit and still operates as a distributor. The cost of converting the present company into a non profit is prohibitive and not recommended by all of the legal advice we have received along with our past history of this request to the IRS. We have also been advised by many significant non-profits in the Bay Area that becoming a non profit is by no means a solution for fundraising.

3) Dissolve the company and create a 501 3(c) company that can expand distribution to include all media, and forms of moving imagery. This would include the difficult and expensive project of digitizing the current films in the collection.

4) Find a patron who can donate to Canyon Cinema approx 850 square feet of office/film storage space, saving us almost $25,000 per year. Or find a long term patron that can provide a contribution of $25,000 cash per year for operational expenses.

5) We have explored the possibility of merging with a large more stable organization within the film community such as the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, Pacific Film Archives, Stanford University Media Library. So far these organizations do not have the interest or resources to engage Canyon. There may be other film/art organization that might want to form a relationship with Canyon (possibly outside the Bay Area). The idea is that Canyon’s unique film collection and distribution skills would be preserved under their protection.

Please take a moment to consider these options and what you feel would be in the best interest of Canyon Cinema. What can you personally do to help us at this urgent moment? What resources, connection or contacts can you share with us? We are interested and considering any kind of solution, including relocating from the Bay Area to a less expensive location.

Please email your offers of help, feedback and responses to:

We have received private donations in the past and can continue to receive such if directed through our fiscal agent the National Alliance of Media Arts Center. Checks can be made payable to this center and mailed directly to:

Canyon Cinema, 145 Ninth Street #260, San Francisco, CA 94103.

Canyon Cinema’s paypal account is info@canyoncinema.

If you have any helpful suggestions please contact


Dominic Angerame

Executive Director, Canyon Cinema