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Steven Woloshen’s ‘Casino’ Gambles with Flux and Feeling

The latest short by the renowned hands-on animator is inspired by his father’s obsessions and the work of legendary director Norman McLaren.

‘Casino’ © 2016. All images courtesy of Steven Woloshen.

It’s not possible to sit quietly while watching a Steven Woloshen film. Feet tapping, fingers snapping, hands waving to the beat. That’s just how it goes.

Woloshen’s latest is Casino, an ode to his dad or, to quote him directly, “A film for my Father, who gambled with love.”

Brightly colored, the images fly by, leaving a palpable trace of excitement in their wake. A master of the art of drawing directly onto celluloid in an absolutely straight-ahead fashion -- no cuts, no edits -- Woloshen takes huge risks and is as surprised with the outcome as anyone. “I want to be the first audience member to be surprised when I view the final film,” he once said. I’ll bet real money that Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Harry Smith -- Woloshen’s heroes -- felt the same way about their films.

While the title and dedication of Casino allude to Woloshen’s father and his gambling history, there isn’t a specific storyline built into the progression of the film. The animation and music track -- Oscar Peterson’s Something Coming -- generate a powerful sensory and emotional experience. I asked him what the relationship was for him between the dedication and the film itself.

“There is no actual storyline in Casino. When I set out to make the film, I didn’t want to bash his obsessions and fascinations with gambling. Regardless of my personal opinion on the subject, I didn’t think it was fair to attack his beliefs. On the contrary, making this film was good therapy -- to honor someone that I hardly knew.

“I wouldn’t have made this film while he was still alive,” he continues. “In 2016, I had a long list of personal films that I was hoping to finish. When the Cinémathèque québécoise told me that I was to receive a lifetime achievement award at the 2016 Sommets du cinéma d’animation later in the year, I put all the other projects aside. I vowed to make Casino for my father, sitting in the empty seat next to me.”

In terms of visual style, Casino finds its source material in a 1942 classic film by pioneering animator Norman McLaren. While reviewing prints for a 2014 National Film Board of Canada tribute to McLaren, Woloshen became fascinated with the film Hen Hop and in particular its striking visuals. “I became convinced, without any real proof, that Hen Hop was created strictly with black India ink and that the color had been created in an optical printer. I was intrigued by this idea and swore I would try to mimic this visual style.”

Because American casinos have a complex and unique color scheme for such things as cards, roulette wheels and slot machines, getting the right feel for Casino’s color was a challenge. Woloshen first created the graphics and gambling icons directly on the surface of the film as monochromatic images. He then scanned the colors from old optical printer slides. (These slides were inserted into the optical printer to change the tonal values of an image as it was recopied onto raw stock). He then made an eight-step cycle from each slide and composited the loop into the project.

Throughout his career, Woloshen has worked with distressed footage, and has even penned several books on the process -- the most recent of which is “Scratch, Crackle & Pop!: A whole grains approach to making films without a camera.” His work in this area is so highly regarded that distressed film animation and Steven Woloshen have become virtually synonymous. I asked him if he used distressed film in Casino.

“Many times, I thought of using live-action film footage to accent the film, but I couldn’t fit it into the color scheme. But I deliberately left the dust and dirt on my slides, which made the film feel more alive.”

What’s up next from Steven Woloshen’s studio? A film on protests and uprisings is in the works. Interestingly, Woloshen considers experimental filmmaking to be this generation’s folk music. “Found images, like melodies and lyrics, are readapted from older versions. Many groups and communities are using film (and music) to convey messages of social inequality. This new film will combine previously shot film and found footage with traditional scratch techniques.”

He’s also putting together a proposal for a new book on the art of combining handmade filmmaking practices with found footage. The working title is 20/20: Clear Visions in Handmade Filmmaking.

As for the current film, Casino is a small masterwork in the Woloshen tradition. If you’re looking for dark existential truths or a reflection on growth through suffering, you won’t find them here. The depth is there but the entry and exit points are pure joy.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 Special Annecy Edition of Animation World Magazine.

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