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Creating Music and Imagery Together

Independent German filmmaker Kirsten Winter describes her unique pre-production process of working with composer Elena Kats-Chernin, while developing her visuals.

Filmmaker Kirsten Winter has worked with composer Elena Kats-Chernin on two animated films, Clocks and Smash. © Kirsten Winter.

Smash is my second film in collaboration with the Russian-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin (born in 1957). The first time I met her in the fall of 1993, she was composing a piece of music commissioned by the ZKM (Center for Arts and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany) for Multimediale 3, an arts festival, which took place in November, 1993 in Karlsruhe.

After listening to her kind of modern classical music for hours I was bewildered: on one hand the music appeared pretty strange to my `uneducated' ear, on the other hand I was really fascinated by something I cannot precisely describe. Maybe it was the contrast between her shy and reserved appearance and the strength and power of her music. We decided to work together. I received permission from the composer, the commissioner, the performers and the conductor to use part of the music which was performed by the Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt, Germany during 1993's Multimediale 3.

Elena Kats-Chernin is pictured in the film Clocks, her first collaboration with Kirsten Winter. © Kirsten Winter.

Our First Film: Clocks

The result of our collaboration was Clocks, an animated short film which offers an impression of Elena's working life. Accompanied by her own music, we see Elena composing, at the piano, and in a dialogue with Richard Toop (musicologist), Daryl Pratt (percussionist) and Elizabeth Burton (dancer). Sometimes the film leaves her and focuses on the music entirely by using abstract paintings. The viewer becomes the listener. Since I used a piece of already composed and performed music, the structure was assigned to me and it was my duty to support the music by using images in a way no one would recognize that the music had come first. It worked as I had intended ... more or less. (Prixes were won in: Montreal, Canada; Esphino in Portugal; Krok in the Ukraine and the Art Award of Lower Saxony in Germany, additionally it received several special mentions, the Editors)

Although (or because of?) we occasionally argued, mainly about artistic topics, Elena and I became good friends and a productive team with our opinions generally harmonizing quite well. Therefore, we decided to collaborate a second time. The `success' of Clocks made it comparatively easy to get grants, not only from Germany, but also from Australia. We also received support from ZKM, the Studio For Experimental Music in Freiburg, and Ensemble Modern for the next film, Smash.

SMASH: The Non-Linear Story As Don Perro wrote in his review (November issue of Animation World Magazine), Smash is concerned with the `days in a life;' especially the days in my life before they resulted in a near fatal automobile accident. Smash doesn't describe my life literally, but is based on my experiences. I also figured out, after screening Smash several times, it is not only my experience, but it could be anyone's experience who is involved in an intense, busy career.

As Don mentioned, Smash is not a clear, linear story. My aim was to find a way to tell a story by creating feelings while watching the screen. I prefer not an intellectual but an emotional reaction to a film. This was one of the reasons I chose to edit the film as I did. I started fast and increased the pace until by the end of the first third, it is frame by frame. No one can recognize every frame, only the rhythm. Although I used concrete, real images as a base for my oil paintings, I treated the material, the rhythm, like I was making an `abstract' film.

When I send my film to festivals I add the following summary: "In the daily cycle, even the transfigured images of the apparently `ideal' life lose their appeal. Severed from their original content, they develop a dynamic of their very own, which inevitably leads to a Smash, to a breakdown". An "after' with its own qualities evolves - until the cycle threatens to form again.''

Kirsten Winter at work, using oil paints to transform photographs into art for her animated films. © Kirsten Winter.

The Production

For Smash Elena and I worked together from the very beginning to the end. Our aim was to produce a congenial film. On one hand sometimes the images support the sound and sometimes the sound supports the music. However, on the other hand both kinds of art are used diametrically. Sound is as important as the imaginary. I told Elena my idea for the film and tried to give her an impression of the mood, images and basic structure I intended to create. I joined her for about nine weeks (June to August 1996) in Sydney, Australia, where we refined the structure together. Moreover, we listened to the sounds that Elena developed, created and collected predominately during her stay in Germany (1981-1994). We were looking for a melody which reflects the `daily life-cycle.' In a review the melody Elena composed was called, `Frühstücksmusik' or `breakfast music' which, I think, describes it quite suitably. After we'd roughly got it blocked out, I went back to Germany to tend to the visuals, while Elena was composing. The only thing fixed at the time was the rhythm which was necessary for me to start shooting the footage. Several VHS and music tapes were sent back and forth between Australia and Germany before Elena came to Karlsruhe, Germany in early November, 1996. In the meantime it was decided that Clocks and Smash would be screened in both the Concert Hall in Vienna, Austria and the Old Opera in Frankfurt, Germany with live music performed by the Ensemble Modern - in April, 1997! This did not leave much time for animating a nine-minute short film.

A still from Smash. © Kirsten Winter.

The music for SMASH is formed by two distinct parts. One track features both natural and artificial sounds manipulated electronically and the other is a musical composition. The tape was produced at the ZKM and the musicians received their sheets of music to rehearse during November. Elena had to leave Germany to compose an opera in Sydney which premiered with praise in November, 1997. She came back to join the Ensemble Modern while recording the CD at the Studio For Experimental Music, Freiburg, Germany in December. During this and all of the following performances the sound effects tape and the music performed by Ensemble Modern were played simultaneously. The CD, which was recorded just for my use, formed the basis for shooting, and later editing, the film. Four Months Later On April 16, I was in a film lab in Berlin, waiting for my first print. I then went directly to Frankfurt, where the Ensemble Modern, conducted by Jonathan Nott, rehearsed for the first time while actually watching the film. Later, we went to Vienna where the first screening with live music took place in the Concert Hall on April 18, 1997. The next day Clocks and Smash were screened and performed in Munich and on April 22 in the Old Opera in Frankfurt. The first festival screening was during the World Film Festival in Montreal, on August 31, 1997. Smash is available on DVD through Short Film Journal out of Venice, California. Call (310) 821 9843. Kirsten Winter runs a film production company, which specializes in experimental animation. She recently created a short animated sequence for the Absolut Panushka web site. She is also a part-time lecturer for animation at the college of higher education in Hanover, Germany. She is involved in several film festivals and loves to leave Germany temporarily, in search of new inspirations and collaborations.