Scratching the Surface: Handmade Cinema in the Digital Age

By Holly WillisApril 17, 2020

Scratching the Surface: Handmade Cinema in the Digital Age

Film in the Present Tense by Luisa Greenfield, Deborah S. Phillips, Kerstin Schroedinger, Björn Speidel, and Philip Widmann
Reset the Apparatus! by Edgar Lissel, Gabriel Jutz, and Nina Jukić
The Crafty Animator by Caroline Rudell and Paul Ward
Process Cinema by Scott MacKenzie and Janine Marchessault
Making Images Move by Gregory Zinman

I AM HOLDING a slimy piece of 35mm film unceremoniously clipped from the fourth — and only remaining — reel of Street Justice, a film that has been housed in the Moving Image Archive in the USC School of Cinematic Arts for years. It’s wet because I’ve been soaking it in water out in the back yard in a big jar. It stinks, like old vinegar. The optical sound track along the edge has dissolved into yellow goo and images once neatly boxed in their tidy frames are oozing, in blue and green rivulets, one into the next. After this wilted mess dries a bit in the sun, I will scratch it with a wire brush, paint it with some bleach, and maybe sew a seam down the middle with a sewing machine. Then I will digitize it by taking a picture of each remnant of a frame, sequence the boxes back together, and allow the traces of these processes to reveal themselves as a film.

With this act of cinematic desecration and refashioning, I am trying to get a feel for the hands-on manipulations performed by dozens of filmmakers and artists in the United States and internationally who make films by working physically with the various materials that comprise cinema. Ignoring the “don’t touch” rule that typically accompanies strips of precious celluloid, these artists paint, draw, and scratch on the surface of their emulsion; they stand in the dark, exposing images without a camera to make photograms, lumen prints, or cyanotypes; when they do choose to shoot pictures, they construct pin-hole cameras or camera obscuras pointed toward the light; they hand-process footage with inappropriate materials such as coffee, horse urine, wine, or salt; and still others perform their manipulations during projection, subjecting moving images to unconventional, even “improper,” presentation techniques.

Rather than vanishing quietly as digital tools inexorably eclipse analog cinema, the practice of handmade filmmaking has grown steadily more robust over the last decade. In some ways, this should be no surprise: other hand-based activities, such as knitting, sewing, ceramics, furniture-making, home-brewing, and assorted other forms of crafting, have also been on the rise, especially now that these activities can be so readily monetized through craft fairs and Etsy. So, why not handmade filmmaking?

More than a dozen books have been published on the topic over the last few years. Some are cheeky and provocative, such as Film in the Present Tense: Why Can’t We Stop Talking About Analogue Film? Edited by Luisa Greenfield, Deborah S. Phillips, Kerstin Schroedinger, Björn Speidel, and Philip Widmann, this volume draws from the proceedings of a symposium on analog film culture held in Berlin in 2017. Greenfield responds to the book’s titular query by suggesting that we are obsessed with analog film because it offers “an altered experience of time that runs counter to a capitalist sense of time” and reveals a desire for a slow cinema in a fast culture. Analog film trades the click-and-post instantaneity of Instagram and Facebook for a contemplative process that connotes intention and authenticity.

In her contribution to Film in the Present Tense, scholar and critic Erika Balsom rightly puts the brakes on the simple fetishization of contemporary analog film practice by highlighting precisely “the ambivalence of authenticity.” She points to the irksome desire to buy and flaunt icons of a bygone era, a desire epitomized by avidly collecting vinyl records, old books, and vintage clothing as badges of the authentic. To be sure, we may yearn for the unique, the tactile, and the handcrafted in a culture increasingly characterized by the multiple and the digital, but we too often enact that desire only through our purchasing power. That said, Balsom concedes that, in handmade filmmaking, “we find a needed affirmation of the work and care of the hand, an investment in palpable materiality that recruits the power of anachronism to debunk the false promises of progress and innovation.”

Yes to the work and care of the hand! Yes to palpable materiality! As I hold my sticky piece of footage, I know what Balsom means about this “needed affirmation.” The so-called promises of progress and innovation are happening right now, on my computer back inside as algorithms fervently scour my data in order to point me toward new things to buy. In contrast, I feel a giddy sense of possibility for what might happen in this odd partnership with mushy emulsion and washes of color on my film strip.

To explore the history of handmade filmmaking in more detail, I turn to Gregory Zinman’s brand-new book Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts, which echoes the title of Christopher Horak’s 1997 book, Making Images Move, an analysis of work of photographers who venture into the realm of filmmaking. Zinman, a faculty member in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in some ways continues Horak’s exploration of the boundaries that only ostensibly separate media forms by chronicling a rich, 100-year history of handmade moviemaking in which artists similarly trespass into other areas of creative practice.

Written with careful precision and breadth, the book opens on the extraordinary 75-minute film by Spanish filmmaker José Antonio Sistiaga titled ere erera balebu izik subua aruaren. Sistiaga could not afford to shoot and process footage to create a traditional film, so he instead spent two years — between 1968 and 1970 — painting and drawing on transparent film by hand. In some cases he painted frame by frame, and in others he crafted sequences across sections of film. The result is a dazzling explosion of color and texture which, according to Zinman, “is almost too much to process.” He writes, “Sistiaga uses cinematic spectacle to overwhelm the viewer’s senses, to bring us in and out of our minds.”

Zinman goes on to use the film to make his central argument, writing that the film “stands as an exemplar of how handmade cinema’s generative confluence of cameralessness, abstraction, and the questioning of distinctions between art forms reveals a new conception of the moving image — one that radically reorients how we think about its practices, technologies, and meanings.” He notes that while many of us understand the power of cinema to reside in its photographic capacity and ability to represent the world through pictures, handmade moving images instead focus on “abstract form, otherworldly color, textural richness, and sensory depth.” He highlights the cameraless photography found in the graphically sophisticated photograms of László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and György Kepes in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s; he presents the scratch films of Len Lye, who literally scratched and marked on film emulsion to produce elaborate visual patterns; and he highlights the hand-painted films of Norman McLaren, Harry Smith, and Stan Brakhage, showing how they are productively understood alongside the work of painters such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

This early history builds to the most thrilling aspect of Zinman’s work: his attention to more contemporary corporeal filmmaking that eagerly and adamantly makes art with the whole body and the environment. These projects evince a somatic connection to the filmmaking process, extending the symbolic role of the hand to the even more beguiling potential of a visual poetics rendered through flesh and the body. Artists reckon with the body’s often icky materiality, applying blood to the emulsion and making “skin prints” by pressing the oily body against clear leader. Zinman extends this fleshy attention to the physical environment and artists who work with various elements — wind, rain, dust — to co-create films that emerge from interactions staged by artists’ bodies with the material world. Filmmaker Jennifer Reeves, for example, dismayed at the thought of adding to the local landfill, buried pieces of 16mm film left over from another project and then dug them up later, and proceeded to paint on the decaying footage to make her 2011 film Landfill 16. Blood and sweat, dirt and rain coalesce. Zinman writes,

Through the careful combination of image and soundtrack, Reeves addresses not only the ways in which the medium of analog moving images is literally and metaphorically being disposed of as it approaches its industrial obsolescence, but also the disastrous environmental consequences of modern life.

This is true: Landfill 16 functions beautifully as an emblem of death and decay, but also as a purveyor of uncanny delight. The film’s degraded imagery crackles as gorgeous fissures and crevices bleed odd combinations of sharp color. The images blur the boundaries between body and earth. Further, knowing of the interplay among the earth, the footage, and the actions of the filmmaker yields a woozy pleasure over the complex merging of human and world. Finally, the interconnectivity between matter and maker, even if somewhat rueful, registers a loosening of the demand for mastery, usually so much a part of traditional filmmaking practice but here relinquished in favor of collaboration.

Marking, scratching, bleaching: these acts become ever more pointed in certain circumstances as Zinman shows. Filmmakers as diverse as Carolee Schneemann, Naomi Uman, Ja’Tovia Gary, and Kelly Gallagher have attacked the moving image with gusto. In 1964, for example, when Schneemann decided to make a film, Fuses, celebrating her intimate relationship with her partner, she shot images of pair fucking, and then painted on the imagery, baked the film, and left it outside in the rain. The result is a dazzling 23-minute erotic film in which the “erotic” is not close-ups of genitals but the pulsing energy of color and rhythm, sex seen through a woman’s eyes. More recently, filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary has sought to develop and share a “radical Black femme gaze,” often using hand-painting techniques, scratching on imagery, and staging installation spaces that effectively torque expectation. The hand in these handmade films is often angry; it destroys for very specific reasons, and we feel the edge of rage as the gesture of making and marking turns avowedly political.

A slightly gentler political impetus underpins a collection of essays titled Reset the Apparatus!: The Persistence of the Photographic and the Cinematic in Contemporary Art, edited by Edgar Lissel, Gabriele Jutz, and Nina Jukić. The book emerged from a three-year research project in the Media Theory Department of the University of Applied Arts Vienna (2016–2019). Scholars and artists collaborated to explore a host of cinema and photographic practices, focusing on the “apparatus,” by which they mean both the specific “machines” of cinema and photography, as well as what’s known in French as the dispositif, which includes the larger frameworks of cinema that make it possible for audiences to experience it, such as the projector and the movie theater. In traditional Hollywood filmmaking, the cinematic apparatus is supposed to disappear; moving images appear as if by magic on the massive screen in front of us. However, this attention to the projector, beams of light, the film strip, and more becomes legible as a political act that exposes these mechanisms as instruments of ideology. The book’s 15-part “Corpus” outlines specific techniques, such as artworks at the intersection of film and photography as in Steven Pippin’s use of washing machines as cameras in his project Laundromat-Locomotion. In “Repurposing the Hardware,” the authors look at projects that modify the tools of cinema, as in Gibson + Recoder’s installation Light Spill, for which the artists removed the take-up reel on a projector, letting the machine spill the film into a pile on the floor; the heap of footage grows larger throughout the duration of the installation, marking time and pointing to film as a palpable material.

Whether seeking a slower pace or more profound connection to the materiality of image-making, artists working in this mode also represent a larger cultural desire for an awareness of practice and attention to emergence, or the idea that the world is in a state of constant transformation. This idea is addressed in yet another collection of essays, this one titled Process Cinema: Handmade Film in the Digital Age, edited by Scott MacKenzie and Janine Marchessault. The editors foreground the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Author of the 1929 Process and Reality, Whitehead has reemerged as a central figure in numerous corners of contemporary critical theory and philosophy, with his interest in seeing the world as an entity in constant flux. Handmade filmmaking seen through this lens is all about process instead of outcome.

A brick of a book, Process Cinema is rich with provocative essays on critically overlooked artists. Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerstahl Stenport showcase the incredible work of Greenlandic multimedia artist Pia Arke and her life-sized pinhole camera, for example, showing how the artist rejected traditional ethnographic practice. Arke did this “by inserting herself into the pinhole camera as an actively perceiving and creating agent” where she could use her body to shape the light that came through the pinhole. Other essays celebrate the burgeoning analog creativity around the world. Pip Chodorov, for example, charts a history of artist-run film labs, writing that “this evolution indicates a turning point in history: the closing of commercial labs has thrust the machines and knowledge into the hands of the artists themselves,” with labs opening in Greece, Iceland, and Colombia. Toggling between the local and the global, Process Cinema represents America and specifically Los Angeles’s film world with an essay by Lisa Marr and Paolo Davanzo, the co-founders of the Echo Park Film Center, which, since 2001, has hosted weekly screenings, equipment rentals, and workshops to support local media making. “We are not a Hollywood bootcamp, nor have we ever wanted to be,” they assert. “We use film as a catalyst for community-building.”

If “process” allows us to see filmmaking as an unfolding practice ever in flux, “craft” points to the handmade as a skill. The Crafty Animator: Handmade, Craft-based Animation and Cultural Value, a collection of essays edited by Caroline Ruddell and Paul Ward, explores the handmade as a craft through the lens of animation. In their introduction, the editors highlight the dual meaning of the word “craft,” noting that it designates both the deception we see in magic and sleight of hand, as well as the making of something with one’s hands. They then go on to query what the handmade actually means when it — and words such as “artisanal” — are used by major corporations to brand things such as burgers, beer, and coffee. Rather than avoiding the contradictions, the editors dive right in, showing how the practice of animation often moves from handmade to digital and back again, sliding, too, across disparate political objectives. They have wisely focused their collection on “the ways different types of animation foreground or self-consciously showcase notions of the (hand) crafted.” What’s at stake in showcasing the mark of the hand in contemporary art practice?

Birgitta Hosea’s contribution to The Crafty Animator, titled “Made by Hand,” begins to respond to that question, refusing the warm and fuzzy sentimentality of artisanal modes and instead asking, “Are the aesthetics of the handmade a form of political critique or are they a form of populist nostalgia?” (Ouch.) She proceeds to undermines this nostalgia by reminding readers of the very real — repetitive, physically uncomfortable — labor necessary to make animated films. This work is not romantic; it’s just plain hard. She also reminds us that Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1935, was not a lament over the loss of the auratic artwork but a celebration of mechanical reproduction’s capacity to make artworks available to many people, not just a few. In place of simplistic notions of the romantic lone artist working by hand on some unique artifact, Hosea offers examples of “ugly” computer-generated imagery, arguing that they are possibly more subversive than their supposedly unique analog counterparts. She ends decisively: “Crafting dissent can be done either manually or digitally.” Hosea returns us to Zinman’s thesis: the often spectacular handmade works vary dramatically; they may react against traditional filmmaking; they may also extend our understanding of filmmaking; and they can also connect filmmaking to other histories and traditions, from painting and sculpture to music and sewing. However, the political motivation of these practices is never guaranteed simply by their “artisanal” nature.

Given the community of artists in Los Angeles, it should come as no surprise that the city serves as an important site for showcasing handmade cinema. Carolee Schneemann was recently celebrated in day-long symposium at REDCAT titled “Dangerous Erotics,” for example, and the work of LA-based artist Jennifer West was scheduled to be on view at JOAN in a show titled Future Forgetting, before the pandemic. West’s exhibition includes a piece that was made in part by submerging reels of film footage into the L.A. River and dragging them through the muck, and indeed, the artist is known for her provocative mistreatment of film celluloid, alongside a desire to draw communities together around practices of making. Ja’Tovia Gary’s video installation mixing interview material and handmade film snippets titled The Giverny Suite was on view at The Hammer Museum, before it too closed. Other key venues are The Echo Park Film Center and Los Angeles Filmforum.

As artists explore the cinematic apparatus, as they revive outmoded pieces of equipment and explore the materiality of film, we get to reimagine what film can be, what a community invested in the moving image might look like, and how we might gather together making, sharing, viewing, and discussing moving image art with an awareness of the larger infrastructures all around us — of power, technology, the material world, and perhaps even our own senses. Finally, in this attention to the materiality of film — film stock, emulsion, projectors, screens — not only do we get to dismantle and reconfigure one of the most powerful purveyors of ideology ever created, but we get to rethink our relationship to the material world. Rather than ruling over it, we might consider collaborating with it.

The next step for my piece of Street Justice will take some time. It will take some patience. As they say, it’s a process.


Holly Willis is the associate dean of Research in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California where she teaches courses on new and emerging media forms, especially as they relate to moving-image storytelling. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image.

LARB Contributor

Holly Willis is a professor in the Media Arts + Practice Division in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where she teaches classes on digital media, post-cinema, and feminist film. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well of Björk Digital, and the editor of both The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing, and David O. Russell: Interviews.


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