The Slow Film Movement

I recently returned from a week in Jamaica with Robert Schaller of The Handmade Film Institute in Colorado. A group of 6 of us shot B&W 16mm film with Bolexes and pinhole cameras, then we developed the footage in buckets of chemicals in a cave near the beach, made contact prints with a modified sync-block and an LED, and projected the finished product on a sheet suspended over a tide pool between two rock outcroppings.

Besides the obvious exotic appeal of developing film in a cave, the experience caused me to question my relationship with my chosen creative medium (or media, I guess) in a profound way.

Over the years, I’ve often heard old-timers talk about how digital video will never really replace film. And, I’ve heard the young turks (such as myself) retort that digital video was changing everything, finally democratizing the means of film production and distribution, and making the world a better place.

Digital media is accessible, efficient, convenient and abundant – so the argument goes. For the few thousand dollars that it would cost to shoot a short film on 16mm, you can buy a camera, a computer and software – everything that you might need to make an infinite number of films. The choice is clear, right?

For the most part I agree. I shoot tons of video, and the fact that these days anyone can pick up a camera and make a movie is pretty remarkable.

But what’s been on my mind lately is the question of process. In our society it usually passes without question that more for less is better – that greater economy and greater efficiency equate to greater good. For the most part, these assumptions carry over into the arts, whether or not the comparison is valid. If my film crew costs $3200 per day, for example, it’s better to make my movie in 18 days than in 36… at least as far as the producers are concerned.

BUT, I believe that there is at least some element of art that is by nature irreduceable – that there’s no clear equation linking quality and quantity. An argument to the contrary quickly grows surreal, I think – the idea, for instance, that two paintings are worth twice as much as one painting, regardless of what’s on the canvas.

This intangible variable of quality, which doesn’t fit neatly into any equation by which value is determined, has something to do with experience, with inspiration, and with process. Neither the life experience of the artist nor his or her source of inspiration are likely to be adversely affected by the choice of medium – a brilliant filmmaker can make brilliant films with a cell phone camera, no doubt.

But process… process is a factor in the value of a piece of art. Process can be intangible – one doesn’t automatically know, walking around a gallery, which paintings took 8 years to make, and which took 8 minutes. But, the artist arrives at a finished piece of work by means of a specific process, that encapsulates, in a certain sense, their experience, their training, and their inspiration for making the piece in the first place.

We did learn about process in film school, but mostly in the administrative sense of making a movie as efficiently and economically as possible, from start to finish. Our process was ultimately product-oriented; it was about getting the film done competently, and as painlessly as possible.

With digital cameras and nonlinear editing systems, it’s possible to be incredibly efficient – a movie can be shot and edited in the same day; it’s not at all uncommon for films, short and long, to be made in a matter of hours; the 48-hour film festival is just one highly visible example of this ethic of efficiency.

What gets lost in this utopian vision of accessibility, economy and efficiency is the whole idea of process – the idea that any step could, and perhaps should, require an irreduceable amount of time.
Sculpting in marble takes time. No matter how quickly the artist arrives at their vision of exactly what the piece should finally look like, there are still many, many hours yet to spend with chisels, hammers and sandpaper. And, the nature of this process – the steady chipping away, day after day, lends a certain unique quality to the finished work.

I’m not making the case that sculpting in marble is better than sculpting in clay, or that oil painting is better than watercolor. But each form, over time, evolves a process that reflects the values of that form.

Filmmaking used to be a relatively slow process – every step took a fairly consistent amount of time, from loading the camera with film to checking the exposure, to developing, printing, syncing, editing, color timing…

Video, as a separate medium, will no doubt develop its own processes and rhythms over time – but currently, it seems to me that this new, powerful technology is being used basically to mimic film processes, only more cheaply and more quickly.

And, that’s a problem – because when you cut the process out of the filmmaking process, without replacing it with another process suited to the new media, practitioners of the new media are robbed of something essential. Economy and efficiency are no substitute for process. You can’t shortcut around process to get to product faster and expect the quality to be unaffected.

So what’s my point?

There is intangible, irreduceable value to sitting in the dark with a bucket of chemicals. When the practice of one artistic process requires more time and energy than another artistic process, that additional time and energy isn’t necessarily wasted – maybe, in fact, it’s that time spent in process where the invisible part of the creative work is actually taking place. More, faster, cheaper, doesn’t necessarily mean better, where art is concerned.

I’m not advocating that video be abandoned by any means. But the creative process around video is still evolving, and we do it and ourselves a disservice by ignoring it, or pretending that it’s something it’s not. Maybe it’s watercolor, maybe it’s jazz – but if we treat it as a null, as a means to an end, as a cheap way to move pixels around – it will only ever be beautiful by accident.

  3 comments for “The Slow Film Movement

  1. Paula
    May 28, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    Your thoughts are interesting. I love assigning value to the action of sitting in the dark with a bucket of chemicals because it does have value. It’s like meditating (or trying to)and that has value which maybe can’t be articulated or entirely described or identified in the moment. It’s process too. You’ve got me thinking and I appreciate that.

  2. August 21, 2010 at 8:58 AM

    I love this post and how you express what must be going through the minds of most filmmakers and photographers everywhere. Instead of “the days of film are numbered” approach…perhaps a more balanced “I shoot film and I shoot digital” way of seeing this issue is prudent. I can spend the better part of an afternoon preparing a meal with all my heart in it. I can also pass through a drive through to get take out so that I can have dinner while watching the sun set on a lake high in the mountains.

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