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A Candid Talk with Scratch Film Master Steven Woloshen

Experimental hand-made animator Steven Woloshen riffs on his new film, 1000 Plateaus and the fascinating world of scratch film animation.

I first met Canadian animator Steven Woloshen at the Ottawa Animation Festival in 2002. A colleague recommended I catch a retrospective of his experimental scratch films. I will admit I was dubious at first – my jaded and ill-informed prejudices about experimental films made the notion of watching an entire program something akin to making a scratch film on my own eyeballs. Nonetheless, I watched the program. And was totally hooked. Maybe because I hadn’t see many good experimental films. Maybe because I was too childish and immature to allow myself to embrace them. Maybe because his films are just that good. For whatever reason, I left that screening a changed man.

Fast forward to the Annecy Animation Festival in 2014. Steven’s latest film, 1000 Plateaus played in competition, a film, like so many of his, that simply put, is just plain fun to watch. They’re like little gems, great music integrated with a bevy of stunning visuals. Little nuggets of fun.

The story behind his latest film is fascinating in its sheer pragmatic simplicity as well as its audacity – he made the film in his car. I recently had a chance to talk to Steven about his film and the fascinating world of scratch film production.

Dan Sarto: Your latest film, 1000 Plateaus, just screened in competition at Annecy. My understanding is it took almost 10 years to make? A true labor of love. Tell me how you came up with the idea?

Steve Woloshen: I was really happy to be part of the new Annecy short film selection this year. The jury selections reminded me that all animated films can co-exist. There seems to be an eager audience for everybody's films.

As for my new film, for the last couple of decades, I’ve worked as a driver on film sets. In 2004, I decided to prove that I could make a film in the car. I built small wooden boxes that I loaded with 35 millimeter film.  They were just simple wooden boxes with a light source inside that I could plug into the cigarette lighter. I could put the boxes between myself and the passenger seat. Whenever I wasn’t driving, I thought I would just sketch a few frames here and there…copy some of the map art I’d been collecting as a driver, like of the streets of Montreal.

What was most interesting was that when the box was sitting between myself and the passenger seat, the passengers would always ask what I was doing. And I told them, “Well, I’m making a film. I’m making an animated film.” Then they’d say, “Where’s the camera?” I’d tell them there was no camera.

Most of them would say, “You’re nuts!” Usually my passengers were actors or directors. Since I was driving on feature films, the higher up my passengers were on the ladder, the more interested they were in this little box.  So I started recording in my mind all the conversations I was having with everybody that was looking at these boxes. And the funniest thing is some people said, “Oh, I remember when I was at film school in California and we were told to do a scratch film and I thought it was very fascinating but haven’t thought about it since.” Or, some people just said, “You know you can’t make a film without a camera.”  So the ranges of responses really went all over the place.  And I thought it was really interesting how this little box of film could provoke so much discussion.

 

DS: It’s so interesting that you would have such deep conversations with big-time actors and filmmakers about the essence of making a camera-less animated film.

SW:  Well that’s just it. Especially since they were so entrenched in Hollywood, you figured they knew everything about film. But I quickly figured out that many of them had no idea what was going on inside that box with the lens on it. Or, they had a huge knowledge of film that they kept masked because it would sound too stupid if they stood up at awards night and started talking about Stan Brakhage.  It was really interesting that our discussions elicited such a wide range of recollections, memories and emotions, all because of this little ice breaker, this little wooden box. I invited actors sometimes to sketch a frame or two to see if they liked it and some were too afraid to touch it.

But it just shows that we can all make films and talk about films. When they see something physical like a piece of film, it reminds actors that they were part of a process that ended up with their image on a piece of film like the one I was holding in my hand.

DS: What’s the significance of the name 1000 Plateaus?

SW: When I started, I told myself as a parameter that I would only work on this film while I was in the car either on one film set or another. That’s why I called it 1000 Plateaus. Because it’s about plateaus, the French expression for film set. Over 10 years, I worked on at least a thousand film sets, maybe 20, 30, sometimes 50 film sets per film.  So it turned out to be a thousand film sets. And the subject matter was just the maps that got you to the film set.

DS: Tell me about the process. You’re in the car, you’ve got your wooden box and you’re working on individual frames of film. How did you create each frame? What types of tools did you use either to paint, scratch and mark or otherwise create these frames?

SW: Well the first thing I did was find a piece of music I liked. That was in early 2004. I transferred it from a CD onto 35 millimeter magnetic sound tape. I recorded what animators used to call a Dope Sheet. It’s a record of all the frames where I wanted major movements and changes to happen, all on a sheet of paper. I carried that sheet with me for ten years. I loaded up the film inside the box. For example, let’s say I dedicated six frames towards a spinning box. In some cases, I used a scratch tool.  I used nothing more than a linoleum tool and black film leader. Sometimes I carried with me a little vial of India ink and a nib pen. I would slip the map art underneath the clear film leader and basically rotoscope and trace over the streets and names of streets.

Because the film had emulsion it dried pretty quickly. Since I spent 14, sometimes 15 hours a day as a driver, I certainly had time to plan the next six frames. So it went like that, six frames at a time. Some days I could do a foot at a time.  Some days were so busy I never got a chance to do anything. Sometimes when I made mistakes, rather than throwing the mistakes away, I clipped them out and glued them onto later frames to create a double image. Sometimes you can see that with this sort of flashing stroboscopic effect.  It was the earlier frames that were glued on to the later frames. I wanted to have zero waste.  I wanted every frame to end up in the final film.

DS: Were you using colored inks?

SW: Yes.  Colored ink on clear leader. I went to Technicolor last December and asked them to take my clear leader with colored ink and tell the Spirit 2K scanner that it was a negative and to reverse all the colors.  So what I ended up with was the opposing color on the black background.

Then we put it on to my hard drive. I went to a colorist to boost some of the colors that weren’t very strong or some of the exposures that were a bit low or too high. We were trying to balance it out. Then what I wanted to do at the beginning and the end was to create a look like it’s sort of a historical document…as if it was recorded on an old optical printer.  So in After Effects, we basically added lettering that looked like it may have been made on a 35 millimeter optical printer…kind of jumpy, kind of glowing a little, kind of not exactly precise but something that would have just framed it up as a document. And that was it.

DS: Working on this for 10 years, did you animate linearly as we see in the final film, or did you animate separate segments and then edit them together?

SW: Most of it was done linearly. There were spaces and gaps I left in because early on, I really hadn’t thought of the outcome.  So rather than fill it in and then cut it, I thought I’d just leave it blank and then go back in later. That’s why you have bits of the old film that are glued on top of the newer film. I’m basically gluing in gaps because I knew there was a drum hit here and a saxophone there and I didn’t know at the time what I wanted to put there. Rather than put anything and then cut it out, I just left it blank.  Let it digest in my mind a little bit and then come back at it with what I knew I wanted to put in. Like fill in the blanks.

DS: Your selection of music was critical to the success of the film. You’ve used a number of zippy, peppy jazz pieces in your films over the years. Do you use that type of music because you love it or because it makes for such embraceable and watchable animated films?

SW: Well, I did love the music. It just gets my heart going every time I listen to it. It’s just so active. I don’t know how to compare it but there are a lot of films where the animators are holding back. I wanted my music and my film not to feel like I was holding anything back. I wanted the colors to be raw and the music to be potentially dangerous, really on the edge of just too much for somebody to absorb. I wanted it to look like I didn’t go to a committee or a process or a group intervention to come up with the final product. I wanted the experience of being in that car to be that final product.

DS: Jazz can be quite frenetic with the crescendo of all the soloing. But with this film as well as your others, it seems the music is just the right length to capture the frenzy, but not too much. It’s just enough to bring that additional burst of energy and then conclude. I found the film very satisfying.

SW: Thanks.  Me too. I’m really thankful that when Lionel Hampton met Oscar Peterson, they didn’t drag it out over seven minutes between the two of them. Because their piece was short of course my film is short. But I did edit the music in some of my past films because I didn’t feel I could subject myself to that much and I didn’t really think the audience could be subjected to that much either.

It’s like high speed driving. You need to take a break, you need to rest sometimes. I particularly like pieces of a music where you can breathe in and then breathe out. You can pause, you can step back for a little bit and then step forward for a little bit. It’s like a driving experience.

DS: You started by telling me about these interesting discussions you had with a wide range of actors and directors, talking to them about your film, about scratch films and filmmaking in general. It’s not like this type of filmmaking is widely known even in animation circles. Where do you think experimental, non-linear and non-narrative films fit in the world of independent animated shorts these days?

SW: Well I think experimental films are always going to be on the fringe. At festivals, they’re either going to be really admired or really hated.  I think they really polarize a lot of people these days. Some festival boards still say they’re not going to accept them anymore, others say they are going to accept them.  There are certainly a lot of people saying, “Well you know we don’t screen on film so how could we possibly take a scratch film?” But there are programmers and artistic directors who want to know what’s going on around the corner. Brave programmers give it a shot.

DS: Do you think the reluctance to embrace and include experimental films in more mainstream festival and curatorial efforts is partly because of the perception that somehow they are just lesser films made by people who don’t have the talent to make character driven or narrative driven films?  That somehow they’re judged by, “Well anybody could do that. Anybody could throw a bunch of crap up and call it art.”  Do you think that perception is a factor?

SW:  I think that’s part of it. I think it’s also about the risk that people are willing to take. There are a lot of programers that don’t believe in risk because they’re involved in money-making affairs. A lot of filmmakers don’t take risks.  Scratch films definitely are judged a little differently than even abstract films. I don’t know how to say it but it’s like people think they’ve seen this before or they’ve seen it too many times.  Okay, you made a scratch film.  How can we go beyond the scratch film?  So I don’t know.

It’s really hard to say what’s in people’s minds. But I figure if I keep doing what I do, eventually I’m going to get to the people that I really want to speak to. The people that really want to hear what I have to say are going to be there for me. Hopefully I’ll always have a home somewhere for my scratch films.

DSSomeone watching one of your films in a program of animated shorts wouldn’t necessarily think they’re seeing a scratch film. You’re obviously using different techniques than those used on most other films but to me, your films don’t all stick out as scratch films. They’re just different, even amongst experimental films, scratch film or no-scratch film. You animate to popular, up-tempo music. Not loops of horrific cacophonous distortion. Your films are relatively short, they are very, very high energy.  You get in, you get out, it’s all good fun. You have a good experience.  I can’t imagine someone watching that type of film and not enjoying the experience.

SW:  Well what I’m trying to do is get away from the idea that the materiality of the film has to be tied to the subject. In my films I have a wide range of subgenres and subjects that are going on at the same time. This latest film may be a scratch film but it’s not about the material of film. It’s not about the scratching. It’s about my life in the car. I picked colors that represent streetlights. I picked maps as my subjects. I’m also using synchronization as a sort of subject matter too. So even though there’s all this going on, the end result is not, “Let’s look at film.” It’s “Let’s look at my life through film.”

DSSo what is it you’re trying to get across to the audience?  What do you want them to experience?  What do you want them to come away with when they see one of your films?

SW: Ultimately I want them to know I have their interest in mind. I really want them to walk away a little bit happier, with the knowledge that there are more shades of color and more techniques than they may have considered when they walked into that screening. Every time I go to a festival screening, I love walking away knowing that I’ve seen something new, that I’ve seen something just a little bit dangerous or a little bit unknown, or something I can talk to with the people I’ve been sitting with.  I’m hoping that what I go through, other people will go through as well. I love the experience where none of us is walking away angry or upset or hating somebody or hating the subject matter that I set you up to watch.  I want everyone to walk away just a little bit happier.

 

DS: There’s not exactly a burgeoning market for independent animated shorts. Even less so for experimental shorts. These films take so long to make even in the best of circumstances. What drives artists to make these types of films?

SW: You know, I just had this thought earlier today. Actually it was a thought that I had about Priit Parn last fall where I equated his films with toys and puzzles. Today I was watching Shock of the New on YouTube and one of the subjects was surrealism. Surrealism is like a toy with a booby trap.  And I think a lot of short filmmakers, myself included, are trying to make what seems like a toy on the outside but has a booby trap on the inside. You think you’re going into something benign but you’re walking out of it fully loaded. The filmmaker has really loaded significance into that very short period of time.

DS: Both within Canada and abroad, is it easier for you today than it was 10 years ago to develop an audience, to get your work seen and to get your work distributed? How do you compare your universe as a filmmaker to what it was 10 years ago? And how do you see things going into the future?

SW: Well because I spent the last ten years doing so many workshops and talking about it so much, I thought for sure I would have a lot more competition from other scratch filmmakers.  I know a lot of people still love doing it and there’s a lot of people trying it but I thought for sure that I would be going up against tons of scratch filmmakers in festival competition. But actually, I’ve come up against less. I thought things would be so much more competitive today.

Maybe people think, “Well I can’t screen it on film, so what’s the point…I can’t transfer it properly, so what’s the point?”  So actually the competition in my category, or my arena is going down. The fact I have a number of different ways I can transfer these films digitally, along with email, the Internet and social networking, has allowed me to reach a large number of people. One of the biggest changes is since I wrote the book, Recipes for Reconstruction, I’ve opened up a dialogue now with tons of people that I’d never even thought of talking to. That book became a real bridge across waters.

DS: With the advent of expanded distribution opportunities on the web, are your films getting greater exposure now? Is it easier to get distribution?  Are there more places you potentially can make money from your films? 

SW: Well it’s like a double edge sword because the more social opportunities I have because I digitize my work, the less opportunities I’m going to have of being accepted by festival selection committees. Once your film is uploaded and disseminated on Vimeo, it’s impossible in many cases to get into film festivals. I have to hold myself back from showing this stuff on YouTube, for example.  I’d really would love to put my films out there and send the links to everybody I can.

DSBut you’re saying that would jeopardize the potential to get a film into festivals?

SW: That’s right.  Exactly.  So I have to bite my tongue and bide my time and only share it with some people I really admire and just hope that the right people are awake during the festival selections.

DS: I understand you’re writing another book?

SW: Yes. I got a grant earlier this year to write what I hope is the definitive manual on painting and scratching on film. It’s going to be called Scratch, Crackle and Pop. It’s a book about making films without the aid of cameras or computers.  Hopefully it will be out by Christmas.

DSVery, very cool.

SW: It’s going to have a DVD attached to it of course. Not just filled with random films but with material that relates to a particular technique of scratching and painting on film. The last chapter is going to relate to the future development of the look of hand painted film done with computer interfacing.

DS: Is that something you’ll be getting into yourself?

SW: Well for the Ottawa Animation Festival, one of the first films I made, Crossing Victoria, was the result of computer compositing in Final Cut Pro, using new tools to make new stories with new takes on hand painting and hand scratching. I wanted people in the future to know that computers can be just another tool in the toolbox.

And if you ever see the NFB’s Hothouse 5 logo, that’s an early example I worked on with two other people where we combined Toon Boom, Maya and hand scratching into After Effects to give a different look. Hopefully, new tools will usher in a continued renewal of scratch and paint on film.

You can find more about Steven’s film at http://scratchatopia.tumblr.com/.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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