Not (a) Part: Handmade Animation, Materialism and the Photogram Film

Updated: Oct 1

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2019.15 | Issue 2 | September 2019

Vicky Smith

University for the Creative Arts

 

Abstract

Not (a) Part was conceived in relation to both the rapid decline of flying insects and the high recurrence of animation, handmade or contact film that works with the subject and/or material of flying insects. Numerous dead bees found on walks were positioned directly onto negative film and contact printed. Occupying approximately 24 frames they run at a rate of 1 bee per second. In research terms, the aim of the film was to explore how we might raise the visibility of the mass extinction of flying insects through experimental animated analogue film practice, exploring the potential relationships between aesthetics of film pace/structure and methods of superimposition and animation when dealing with the thematic issue of insects.

 

 

Research Statement

In 2017, researchers from Bristol University and I received an award from the University’s Brigstow Institute to collaborate on the making of an animated film that responded to the rapid decline of bees. Our interdisciplinary project, over one year, involved learning about apiculture, modernist language and filmic practice. The project’s emerging film, Not (a) Part, was conceived in relation to both the dieback of flying insects and the high recurrence of animation, handmade or contact film that works with the subject and/or material of flying creatures. Numerous dead bees found on walks were positioned directly onto negative film and contact printed. Occupying approximately 24 frames they run at a rate of 1 bee per second.

 

It was understood from the outset that the project be process-driven and that it be informed by encounters with specialist sites, materials and practices. A series of workshops across Bristol beehives, the natural history museum and Bristol Experimental & Expanded Film (BEEF) were instrumental in shaping the project. At the hives, beekeeper Quentin Alsop fearlessly cradled a live bee in the palm of his bare hand and also showed us the yellow mucus thread of a bee sting. These scenes confirmed the central theme and filmmaking method of the project: that of maximising contact with often unfamiliar materials and substances, common to both small scale apiculture and analogue filmmaking.

 

Aims

In research terms, the overarching aim of the film was to explore how we might raise the visibility of the mass extinction of flying insects through experimental animated analogue film practice. Our two interrelated research questions comprised the following:

What is the relationship between aesthetics of film pace/structure and methods of superimposition and animation when dealing with the thematic issue of insects?How might Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) be referenced (using dead bees rather than old moth-wings) to reframe the insect animation within the current extinction crisis?

 

Beyond our immediate research questions, our secondary aims, which became apparent later in the project, concerned the extent to which we could develop darkroom methods for translating organic materials and museum display practices into animated cinema, and also to use this method as a means of drawing parallels between issues of endangered species and film practices.

 

Method

In the most basic practical terms, our method was to gather dead bees from forests, hives, parks and streets, and to attach them to the film. Prior awareness of Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), a classic of avant-garde film in which the filmmaker attached insect wings directly to the film-strip, was validation enough to pursue this improbable method. Brakhage produced the film without the use of a camera, using what he then described as ‘a whole new film technique’ (MacDonald, 2001: 69). Key to this technique was the collecting of moth wings, flower petals and blades of grass, which were pressed between a strip of 16mm film and a layer of splicing tape. The resulting assemblage was then contact printed at a lab to allow projection in a cinema.

 

The need arose to make parts small enough to be contained by the 16mm gauge: for example, one honey -bee wing fits diagonally across a single film frame. This issue led us to visiting the Natural History Museum to learn about methods of insect dissection and display. Very much influenced by, and yet departing from, Mothlight’s method of attaching only the wings of the insects to the film, the decision was taken in our project to value the bee in its entirety; in other words, by working with the entire creature. The initial plan had been to attach the parts directly to the filmstrip and to project the actual decaying material.

This approach had felt important because it would be less mediated, more urgent, and the colours and textures of the actual insect bodies, when enlarged and illuminated, would be very moving. However unlike the diaphanous wings of Mothlight, the lumpy limbs and thorax parts of the bees would not lie flat or stay secured to the film. After all it was necessary to employ the same approach that Brakhage had used: that of printing.

 

First, some context to understanding this different approach. The industrial demise of analogue film has been met with the rise of numerous DIY film lab collectives around the world, many of which have installed their own darkrooms and discovered new methods for working with outdated stock and brewing alternative chemistry, such as an eco-processing formula made from coffee, vitamin C and cleaning soda. BEEF is one such collective that I co-founded in 2015 along the model of the London Filmmakers Co-op, where I had worked in the 1990s. In the BEEF darkroom I contact printed the bee parts.

 

I adopted the classic photogram method, where a photographic image is made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material and then exposing it to light. Specifically, a long strip of unexposed negative stock was laid along the bench and the dissected parts where arranged directly upon it: touching the strip, their print yields contrasting black and white outlines. The wings are less dense and thus produce grey-scale tonalities on film. Where the larger black shapes of thorax and head prevent the light from reaching the sensitive film emulsion, the film print appears white. A positive print struck from this negative film had the effect of restoring density to these once solid black forms, but it was discarded because the black shapes on a white ground suggested the presence of bees whereas the white voids merely emphasised their absence.

 

Of course, the limit of contact printing is that while the shape, scale and density of a thing are truthfully reproduced, the particulars are abstracted. These desiccated silhouettes retained distinctively insect outlines, yet the flat surface impressions, lacking colour and substance, conveyed nothing of the volume or of the buzzing, humming and stinging life of the bee. Hence while printing was initially a compromise for the method of collage, the outcome of the process was nevertheless effective in research terms, working to invoke a kind of poetics of loss.

 

As noted above, the initial intent had been to reference Mothlight; beyond a mere reference, the aim was to reframe this classic of ‘first-person lyrical filmmaking (Sitney, 1974: 160) to reflect the gravitation in contemporary materialist experimental film toward more ecological concerns (Knowles, 2017). This understanding of sensuous exchange and tactile/material interconnections was acknowledged in Not (a) Part by including, in image form, the ‘chemicals’ used to develop the film. The actual granules, powder and the crystals of soda along with incidental matter, such as regularly shed parts of the human body – i.e. hair strands, skin, saliva – were placed directly onto the negative film along with elixirs of propolis and honey to reference the mucus and secretions that lie inside bees and their homes. At this point the film’s title, Not (a) Part, was realised.

 

To maintain, as far as possible, the integrity of the bee corpses and the use of an animation method, one whole dissected body followed by the next was positioned in the order of four wings, followed by the legs, then the head, and then the torso. Altogether the parts occupy approximately 24 frames, or run at the rate of one bee per second of screen time.

Over time the individual cadavers became broken and mixed up in the darkroom and so the order was abandoned, the parts organised instead by grouping together the legs, heads, torsos and wings. Over one hundred wings scattered onto the film fell one on top of the other, tumbling and spinning across the frames and, piled up in this way, prevented light from reaching the film. As the density increased the frame filled with whiteness and intricate details, such as the brushes on the bee legs and the mesh of their wings – harder to discern in the darker frames – suddenly become visible.

 

Beyond aesthetics, our visit to the Natural History Museum also influenced the film’s structure. For example, the practice of encouraging the public to donate found dead specimens to the museum stimulated the idea that the film could be of value as a literal inventory. The particulars of bee findings were hence annotated as inter-titles in the manner of museum index cards. The common method of museum display is one where specimens are attached to a support by metal pins [1]. It seemed important to reference the contrasting qualities of these hard and soft materials in the film. Accordingly, pins were lined along the filmstrip and, crossing five film frames, the uniform shafts imposed a more insistent, metric pace to that of the irregularly shaped insect and human matter. The pins and bees occupy neighboring frames and so when the film is projected, the optically produced afterimage suggests that bees have been impaled.

 

Academic Significance

The film was shaped by process and encounters, themselves the heart of much creative practice research, and these contingencies contributed to the project’s originality. The urgency and scale of the issue of insect extinction is communicated by an aesthetic style that had not been originally intended: for example that of the superimposed wings, not flying, but tumbling en masse and without direction. Since the initial plan had been to attach parts directly to film, and the contact printing method established only at a later point, the aesthetic of the photogram had not been considered from the outset. It was only during production that the versatility of the photogram as a communicative and expressive research method became more apparent: beyond its mundane capacity for reverse tone duplication of objects, the photogram worked to emphasise the properties of everyday materials from disparate sources. Things mingle in the depthless and opaque ground, yet their individual properties are pronounced in terms of how they move in relation to the film: large grains mixing with fine crystals create depth cues, particles of skin float to the top, furry bits hover, long wing and leg shapes spin, strands of hair and pins travel lengthways cutting across frames, while propolis oozes in a downward direction.

 

In relation to work by photogram filmmaker Barbel Neubauer, Heide Hausler observes that the photogram film has seldom been employed in the history of camera-less film (Schlict, 2010). The challenge of discovering new methods for this overlooked material practice seemed timely in relation to the extinction of much of our material world. By allowing collaborative process, experimental animation and real world issues to shape the production of Not (a) Part, the photogram film is given a new direction and, combined with the pink dribbles and stains produced by the propolis, is distinct to much photogram animation. In terms of research process, finally, it is notable that Brakhage, in the making of Mothlight, had found the insect parts in his home. The bees in our project, by contrast, were discovered in public spaces. In many ways, this more outward-looking approach to doing the research reflects the wider collaborative remit and broader aesthetic scale that is itself so important to much creative media-based research today.

 

References

  • Knowles, K (2017) Revisioning Celluloid: Aesthetics of Contact in Material Film. In Indefinite Visions: Cinema and the Attractions of Uncertainty, edited by Martine Beugnet, Allan Cameron and Arild Fetveit, 257-272. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • MacDonald, S (2001) The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films About Place. California: University of California Press.

  • Schlict, E (2010) Zelluloid: Film Ohne Kamera. Berlin: Kerber Verlag.

  • Sitney, PA (1974) Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde 1943-2000. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Notes

[1] A number of direct and handmade animation films work with insects as subject and/or as material including: Mothlight (Stan Brakhage, 1963); While Darwin Sleeps (Paul Bush, 2004); Gnats (Guy Sherwin, 1997); Mothfight (Vanda Carter, 1985) and Garden Fliers (Margaret Tait, 1998). The common size and scale between many insects and the 16mm frame surely prompted this minor genre of insect animation. Several of these insect animations were screened at the launch of Not (a) Part at Bristol’s Cube cinema. See: https://www.evensi.uk/rule-world-screening-cube-cinema/283129652.

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