Interview for 360 On-Line
With Kerry Laitala, Interviewed by Katherine McInnis
1. How did you make Muse of Cinema? How long did it take? What made you choose those materials/methods?
I started the Muse of Cinema about 5 years ago using magic lantern slides as my source material. These were found at the Alemeny flea market in 1999, and I had been thinking about ways to re-work this material for a long time. These were made of magic lantern images probably dating from between 1905-1928, and were meant to address directly the movie-going audience in a variety of ways. Some of them referred to problems that were evidently common at the time. It seemed as if wearing hats that obstructed views, spitting on the floor, loud talking, and raucous behavior much annoyed theatre patrons. So the lantern slides were used to keep the audience in line. Some lantern slides would serve to waylay an audience while the projectionist surmounted a technical disaster in the projection booth, while others announced upcoming amateur acts and films to be screened. I had these slides for about two years before I finally decided to reformat them to the 35mm motion picture film format using a 35mm slide duplicator and re-orientating the image. At my place of work (a dental school), I would duplicate slides of intra-oral photography and anatomy slides from instructors’ classes. With free access to this equipment and an amicable, supportive supervisor who allowed me to use the duplicator on the weekend, I was able to reformat the 35mm slide images to the 35mm motion picture format.
In 2001, I manage to pick up a large box of 35mm movie film that is intended to be used in an x-ray device. This film is "orthochromatic,” which means that it is "Red Blind,” or not sensitive to the red spectrum of light. I've been experimenting with this material and contact printing everything in sight from a broken windshield found by the side of the road in my neighborhood to the hairball from the bottom of my bathtub drain. With the help of my dad and his friend, we constructed a registration board to contact print the raw stock with the negative of these images, plus more abstract material that I print the film Ray-O-Gram style as well as through other means. The "red blind" film is great for using in my living room with only the permanently affixed red Christmas lights on, which run the perimeter of the room. As my apartment is like a cave with no light, it is quite easy to work there. Only one window needs a black cardboard panel to block the white light, and I post signs for my roommate on the outside door of the apartment so that he doesn’t fog the film. I experimented with a variety of lights to expose the film, but most often used a flashlight. Then I acquired a 35mm sync block and contact printer, which enabled me to print faster and with more accuracy, although the registration board works best for multiple strips of film. I hand processed this film material at the San Francisco Art Institute using a hand crank processing tank which allowed me to process up to 100 feet of film at a time. I set up a clothesline from the ceiling that would allow the film to dry, and which created a maze of film images running throughout Studio 8 in the basement of the Art Institute.
While I was working on the "Muse" film I projected it several time on an old hand-crank projector called an ACME that dates from 1921. Adolph Esposito, a local engineer, and I restored this projector and it took a lot of hard work to get it running. It was pretty crazy working with this beast, as it could jam pretty easily if it wasn't threaded just right. I was interested in the relationship of magic lantern technology to early cinema and the itinerant projectionist. As the magic lantern is often considered the grandfather of cinematic technology, magic lantern slides were instrumental in giving filmmakers ways to deal with the temporal aspect of cinema. Lantern slides brought about an understanding of how to use time to allow the story to unfold and reveal a time/concept continuum. The lantern slides that were screened with films had several functions, many slides highlighted upcoming movies and some advertised local retailers in the vicinity of their wares and services. Lantern slides were usually hand painted, and gave viewers a tantalizing single frame peek at the photoplay that would be screened in the near future. Both the magic lanternist and early cinema projectionist were itinerant, going from town to town and performing in the local theater, public hall, university or church. When the projectionist would arrive with hand crank projector in tow, often there would be recommended speeds for the hand crank mechanism. Some projectionists developed reputations from their skill in achieving the desired film speed. If I could raise the funding to do this, I would love to go on a tour such as this.
Finally, I mastered the original film material in the summer of 2005 on a 35mm Oxberry optical printer in Vancouver BC at the film CO-OP Cineworks onto 35mm color negative film stock. This allowed me to further intervene with the original imagery to highlight key moments of the lantern slides and make them more legible to the audience.
The sound collage took about 2 ½ years and was the result of collaboration with the talented Robert Fox, a San Francisco film and video maker and friend who makes exquisite and complex sound/image collage works using both film and digital technologies. Together we have foraged through various libraries using everything was wax cylinder recordings from the first decades of cinema, “Tin Pan Alley” music, calliope music to original recorded sounds. This sound collage enhances the whimsical atmosphere creating a dimensional quality that encompasses the viewer.
I finally managed to finish the film in December 2006, and got the stereo optical sound track produced and had my final prints made. The process seems pretty long, but I had to finance the film myself for the most part. I was awarded a Special projects grant in 2004 from the Princess Grace Foundation, but it was a reimbursement grant, so I had to spend $10,000 before I could get recouped for my expenses. The Museum of Contemporary Cinema also played a part in helping me through the process with a grant for $5000.00. I am still working on three other 35mm short films as the Muse of Cinema has evolved into a series.
2. What is the role of found/appropriated imagery in your work?
I have been inspired to use artifacts, documents, and ephemeral images from the past to formulate a sense of history that is expansive, allowing the viewer to experience new insights. By incorporating many such objects into my films, they in turn become re-inscribed with meaning through metaphorical juxtapositions, and thus retrieve these artifacts from the limbo of forgotten things. My process is organic, utilizing elliptical forms, allowing my projects to evolve and become entities unto themselves. I am more interested in ideas that arise in a non-linear fashion where my images can carry myriad meanings, for literal connotations are limiting. Making discoveries while I work, I try to make each element carry equal weight and functionality, yet each component must stand on its own. Curiosity and a sincere need to explore unfamiliar terrain is a driving force in creating art thus inciting me to delve into the past to address issues pertaining to the present.
3. What is your relationship to obsolescence? (Is there urgency to using materials that are on the verge of disappearing?)
Well, I am attached to several film stocks that are no longer being made, and it's disheartening to see that there is a generally dismissive attitude that one who still uses film is quaint, or not hip with the latest technology. My relationship to film has a lot to do with the process. It's not possible to expose video tape with a flashlight and get an image.
4. What is your relationship to new technologies of movie-making and viewing?
I am pretty open to all mediums: digital and analogue and am particularly interested in those using hybrid forms. Ultimately, I like to see people working with the medium of there choice and using that medium in a way that makes sense formally, but I realize that many people are working with a cheaper format because it is the only format that is economical. I think that intention is the key here. What purpose does the moving image work have for you? That is an important question to ask.
5. What influences your work? (writers, other artists, childhood, etc.)
Well, I have a lot of influences; those from history and not only moving image makers per say. Obviously, filmmakers who use the optical printer and re-photography techniques who have informed my work would include people like: Phil Solomon, Pat O'Neil, Janie Geiser, Abigail Child, Paul Sharitts, Peter Tscherkassky, Rose Lowder, Ken Jacobs, Scott Stark, Guy Maddin, and Shirley Clark. For the past five or six years, I have been doing research into the history and pre-history of cinema… Just finished reading "Phantasmagoria, The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern" by Mervyn Heard and got a lot of inspiration from this book.
Interview conducted with Katherin McInnis, Spring 2007