Saturday, 21 May 2011

Camera Obscura

We have been asked to perform our show at Edinburgh International Film Festival, as part of a strand called "Soundtracks" curated by Domino Records.
   This is particularly exciting for me, as I grew up in that city and have very hazy, half- imagined memories of it's narrow passageways and cobbled streets - and it's famous Camera Obscura.
   For years I believed I had dreamt up this phantasmagorical device, vividly recalling images of a very steep and narrow winding staircase leading to a high tower-room, with an enormous glowing disc magically suspended in the centre. That is, until re-visiting the city in my late teens and realising I must have been taken there as a very small boy.
   There is a terrific short story with that name by English writer Basil Copper, also set in Edinburgh. It was adapted for Rod Serling's TV show Night Gallery in 1971 - the year I was born! Copper was published by August Derleth/Arkham House, the famous home of H.P.Lovecraft, and did in fact contribute some notable tales to the Chtulhu Mythos. He was also known in the 70s as one of England's leading film collectors.
   Tickets are now on sale for our show on June 23rd at EIFF, where we'll be playing in the historic Teviot Row House Debating Hall.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Other Side

Last night's sell-out performance for Flatpack Festival has put a semi-colon into the story of the show so far. A UK tour would be amazing, we'll have to see what we can do this year.
   It was a long day, but we were greatly assisted by both the venue staff and Flatpack crew, and the audience response seemed to be good. It's hard for us to tell, of course - we are working away in our hidden realm behind the film screen, and have to rely on others to gauge the reaction for us. I personally thought that the band could not have played better, and it was by far the most "complete" performance we have achieved. They might disagree!
      I managed to organize some documentation (in HD no less, which has a certain irony considering my insistence on lo-fi visuals), so in due course I will be putting together a multi-angle dvd of the show - with a behind-the-screen angle too! Here's a glimpse...

Copyright 2011 Film Ficciones/Pram

Monday, 21 March 2011

Show and Tell

Flatpack Festival have asked me to give them some films to screen during the Shadow Shows after-party this wednesday, so I've compiled a disc of eleven shorts - mostly old favourites of ours, or which you could say have in some way inspired our own collaboration:

AN ABSURD ENCOUNTER WITH FEAR  (1967, David Lynch   2mins)
Very early 16mm film experiment which you can only see as part of the mysterious extra disc on the Lynch 'Lime Green' box set. Already he's doing the funny/scary thing.
ART OF LOTTE REINIGER  (1970, John Isaacs   10mins)
Beautifully concise doc about the great grandmother of silhouette film.
A WALK ON MON  (1972, Derek Jarman   15mins)
Silent astronomical Super 8 visualisations which I believe would have been used at live shows.
BIRTH OF A BUILDING  (1960, BBC   14mins)
Short corporation doc about the construction of BBC TV Centre, with an amazing music concrete score by Radiophonic Workshop stalwarts.
THE DEVIL'S BALL  (1934, Ladislaw Starewicz   5mins)
Excerpt from the longer film 'Duffy' (or, 'The Mascot').
DREAM WORK  (2002, Peter Tscherkassky   11mins)
Austrian artist who uses existing 35mm film to construct trembling (and often quite hallucinatory) black and white light shows.
LA FEMME QUI SE POUDRE   (1972, Patrick Bokanowski   15mins)
A major (and somewhat undiscovered) experimental film maker, whose ideas and techniques crop up in all sorts of things. Very interesting score by his collaborator wife Michelle Bokanowski.
HOUSE OF CARDS  (1947, Joseph Vogel   16mins)
Austrian-born Vogel was a great artist and occasional documentary film maker. This brilliant piece of Deren-esque poetic surrealism was his only fiction film.
NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN  (1933, Alexieff and Parker   8mins)
One of the all-time great 'shadow' films, via the laborious 'pin screen' animation technique: a large board holds thousands of metal pins, and images are formed from their shadows by pushing them out at different lengths. 
URSULA  (1961, Lloyd M. Williams   11mins)
One of our very favourites - a perfectly realised gothic fairy tale (in saturated 16mm colour), one of a small handful of completed cine-experiments by this member of the New American Cinema Group. His films were thankfully preserved by Jonas Mekas.
WOLD SHADOW   (1972, Stan Brakhage   2.5mins)
A sublime two-and-a-half minutes of cine-magic. 

Apparently tickets are selling well for our performance, so if you plan to come and don't yet have one.....

Friday, 11 March 2011

Lotte Land

During our 2010 visit to Sigmaringen, we also had the chance to spend an afternoon in the university town of Tubingen , some 30 miles to the north. It would have been a worthwhile trip anyway, as the fascinating "old town" survived World War II intact (thanks to the absence of heavy industry in the region), and our guide Prof. Schweizer led us through the narrow streets with talk of artists and scholars including Hegel, Schelling and Herman Hesse. But we were in Tubingen for a reason: it was the last place that silhouette film maker Lotte Reiniger called home, and the town has a museum dedicated to her life and work.

   And some museum it was. The exhibition was stunningly presented on walls that were designed like a labyrinth of "lightboxes", opaque blocks with bright white interior illumination. One room provided materials to create your own cut-out figures, to be projected and photographed for an ongoing video installation - so myself and Prof. Schweizer engaged in a battle of scissors, snipping silhouette caricature heads of each other. You can see our efforts in the top photo - my version of the professor somehow resembles Kurt Vonnegut; his own brutal blade was quite cutting.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Like Clockwork

This is Stanley.
   A Bolex H16 RX 16mm film camera, the serial number tells me that the year of production in Switzerland was 1961, making this his fiftieth year of faultless spring-wound precision. Touch wood. An amazing gift I received about a year ago, he came with three lenses: a 16mm, 25mm and 75mm. (Right now, I'm experimenting with a super-wide Cosmicar 6mm CCTV lens - a number of forums suggest that a respectable image can be achieved with one.) So far, he hasn't seen service on live-action, but I've used him to shoot the stop-frame silhouette animation for Shadow Shows.
   Stanley has some interesting provenance: I'm told he was purchased from a woman named Nikita, who lives in the shadow of the pre-historic White Horse in Uffington, Berkshire. She's an animator (and now full-time mother) who contributed to the television programmes Spitting Image and Fireman Sam amongst others.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Wood Wind

As well as Pram's soundtrack score, utilizing a mixture of acoustic and electronic instruments, Shadow Shows also employs live sound effects. Amongst other devices from a bygone theatre age, the musicians have built this imposing, hand-cranked Wind Machine (also known as an Aeoliphone). It makes an appearance in a number of classical music pieces, as well as the soundtrack to the film The Blue Max by the great Jerry Goldsmith.

Image Copyright 2011 Laurence Hunt

Monday, 28 February 2011

Shadows Approach

Flatpack Festival website is now online, with details of our opening night show on March 23rd and how to purchase tickets. So that's official then. No sleep through March. 

Smoke Gathers

Copyright 2011 Film Ficciones/Pram

Forest Somniloquy

Photo Copyright 2008 Max Simpson

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Slaughterhouse Five

Well, in truth there were six of us. Not such a great post-heading though.
   Our first visit to Schlachthof Arts Centre in Sigmaringen came about after we had played Klangbad Festival in 2008, in the sleepy nearby town of Scheer. Organized by leading experimental musician (and Faust founder member) Hans Joachim Irmler, we had an amazing time and were invited to return and headline Saturday night the following year. It's hands-down one of the best festivals any of us has ever played or attended.
   We spent a week before that show undertaking an artist's residency at Schlachthof to develop Shadow Shows - a pilot of which we had unveiled at another great music festival, Supersonic (Capsule UK), in our home town a few months earlier. We were shown a great deal of generosity and support during that week by the committed team who run the arts centre, and the time spent in such an environment, devising and revising the show, had an enormous impact on it's development. 

During that week we were also introduced to Prof. Hans-Martin Schweizer. A philosophy lecturer, he gave us a fascinating talk on the concept of Schatten und Licht (shadow and light) in German education, art and philosophy - from Goethe to local school teacher Johannes Seipp (1893-1978), whose incredible silhouette artwork I had been incorporating into the show. I shall post at length about them both soon.  

   In Summer 2010 we returned and spent a further week working in the shaded concrete cool of the former slaughterhouse, surrounded by pulleys tracks and meathooks, performing the work-in-progress to over two hundred locals during the year's annual SchlachtFest. It seemed to go down well, although that whole day (which involved de-rigging the show straight afterwards and then performing our usual stage show later in the evening) is now a bit of a shadowy blur.

Photos and Images Copyright 2010 Scott Johnston/Johannes Seipp/Schlachthof Arts Centre

Friday, 25 February 2011

Would You Date a Skull?

Frederick, Prince of Hohenzollern (1891-1965) was prince at Sigmaringen Castle from 1927 to 1965. He was obviously a keen hunter, diligently dating and mounting his huge collection of prizes; the large and the small. We did not linger long in this part of the castle.

Photos Copyright 2009 Scott Johnston

Devil's Bridge

There are many across Europe, medieval in origin. This Devil's Bridge is in Inzigkofen, near Sigmaringen. We explored the forest one night, filming and getting lost. We saw some things here.

Photo Copyright 2009 Scott Johnston

Insert Coin

"In the cellar, we came upon a rusted, antique mechanical orchestra. Dusty light from street level came in through a small iron grate during the day. Their shadows had been silent and still down there for a long time. We looked, but didn't have the correct coin to make them play again."

Photo Copyright 2009 Scott Johnston

Shadow of Charlotte

It would be impossible to plan a film exploring shadow techniques without becoming aware of the great pioneer of silhouette films,  Charlotte (Lotte) Reiniger (1899-1981). Her extraordinary The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (1926) is the oldest surviving animated feature film, a highly evocative tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights that is consistently being re-discovered (and re-scored) for new audiences. (We actually visited the Lotte Reiniger Museum in Tubingen on our second trip to Baden-Wurrtemburg in Summer 2010, which I will go into in another post).
   Planning to shoot some 16mm silhouette animation for Shadow Shows, I managed to find an ex-library copy of Reiniger's out-of-print book  Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films published in 1970 by B.T. Batsford. It's her comprehensive overview of shadowplay in all it's forms, with a substantial section on filming techniques.

I might have stumbled through with my own experiments, but as I was limited by time and film stock Lotte's how-to guide proved essential. (Another useful book was Shadow Puppets and Shadow Play by David Currell).
   With Lotte's imposing shadow leading the way, I set about building an animation rostrum table (or trick table as she describes it): adapting a large computer work station by removing the doors and shelves, allowing space for lights, I cut an A3-sized hole in the table top, creating a sunken beveled lip for a piece of 8mm glass to sit in laying flush with the table surface. A piece of 140gsm architect paper went on top of the glass. By complete fluke, I had recently been given a photographic rostrum kit by a retired cinema projectionist who was having a clearout - the kind that you used to be able to buy from Jessops, and would have set you back over £800! This one was built in Poland and beautifully made - essentially a sturdy wooden base board with a metal column and adjustable camera head attached, and a set of four 150w lamps with clamps to fix them around the base. 
   I adapted this kit so that the column was reversed on the base (then when the stand was secured above and behind my hand-built table, the camera would be looking over it rather than facing the other way!) The lighting was secured inside the trick table and screened off with heavy blackout material...and that was pretty much it. As I was shooting my silhouette animation with a Bolex 16mm film camera, I had some working out to do as far as focal distance/exposure etc, but all in all it wasn't too difficult - and looked gratifyingly close to Lotte's own trick tables.
   What I hadn't taken into account was how difficult the actually animation would turn out to be - I'd scaled down my shooting area to around half of that which she had used (for a variety of reasons). My tiny 8cm figures, painstakingly cut from black card and having around fourteen micro-miniature wire joints each, did not appreciate my choice of scale at all, and took a great deal of coaxing to perform for me. 

Film Still Copyright 2010 Scott Johnston

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Upon the Castle Stair

I wish I could tell you something about the person in this photo, but none of us has any idea who she is. In fact, I don't even remember taking it. 
   I know the location though - it's the steps leading to the tower of Sigmaringen Castle, during our first visit to the town in Summer 2009. We were invited by a music journalist and promoter named Christoph Wagner to undertake an artist residency at  Schlachthof Arts Centre, returning the following year to perform the finished show at the annual Schlachtfest. 
   Sigmaringen is a small, wealthy town in the state of Baden-Wurrtemburg, which is the southern-most part of Germany bordering with Switzerland. Situated on the upper Danube and the largest of it's valley castles, the stunning Schloss Sigmaringen was briefly home to the exiled Vichy French government at the end of the World War II. 

   Our wonderfully energetic host Ulrike somehow managed to pull a few administrative strings, allowing us to film inside the castle for a few hours. Whilst there, she provoked our imaginations with colourful tales of a previous royal resident - Princess Amelia of Hohenzollern (1815-1841) whose friendship with Napoleon had once saved the town from being sacked. She's understandably talked about with saintly hushed reverence. A little later, during a walk through the surrounding forest, we were told how the princess and her beloved horse had once made a death-defying leap from the top of a tall chalk cliff, across the Danube, landing safely on the other side. I forget now the motivation for this act, probably love, but this photograph shows the exact place where it happened. It's commemorated with a large emblem you can see painted high up onto the cliff face.

Photos Copyright 2010 Harry Dawes/Scott Johnston

The Great Hall

One section of our show is called The Great Hall, and was inspired by an unusual local building...and a chance discovery of this photograph. Great Barr Hall  is located between Walsall and Great Barr, Birmingham, and is a Grade II listed building - though at present it is barely recognisable as the 18th century mansion pictured here.
   I first heard about it around 2007, from my sister who lives not far from the hall - she'd visited a number of times, scrambling over barriers and through holes in chain-link fences with her husband and kids to gain access. Back then there were still plenty of features of the hall intact, even if by that time any architectural details of value had been stripped out. The building had last been owned between 1911 and 1978 by the local hospital board, being for most of that time St Mary Margaret's Mental Hospital. A number of deliberate fires in recent years have eradicated any last traces of grandeur.
   Already intrigued by her explorations, one day I found myself standing in a charity shop in Harbourne, fixated upon a framed black and white photograph - turning it over, I found a small handwritten note taped to the back: 

I don't know why that particular dating. My best guess on the photo itself is 60s/70s.
   Now having a real image to replace the one in my imagination, and a compellingly eerie one at that, I decided it was time to see the hall for myself. We had to clamber through fence holes and trudge for almost an hour along a muddy, debris-strewn trail through the woods... only to find that it was now not only securely fenced off, but had a 24 hour guard on site in a little porta-cabin. With dogs. The fires had caused serious structural damage, he told us, but a wealthy property developer had recently aquired the hall and was determined to restore it to it's former glory. I wonder if, in reality, a housing development or somesuch isn't planned for the site. 
   My idea about shooting some film inside instantly evaporated, but I left with the strong feeling that the hall had somehow succeeded in keeping it's secrets from me, it's mysteries intact.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Eye Scream for Crow

This is Inky.
   I made him out of card, feathers, fuse wire and black paint. And a lot of hot glue.
  Animator and artist Babis Alexiadis helped me bring him to life (of a sort), coming over with his fancy-schmancy Canon 5D digital stills camera. (Until now, the animation in Shadow Shows has been made using "Stanley" - my 1961 Bolex H16RX 16mm film camera. More about that later...)
   Inky is generally quite well behaved for a carrion beast, except at night...when he is overcome by the compulsion to try and steal my eyes. I've been gently discouraging of this behaviour so far.

Photo Copyright 2011 Scott Johnston

Nothing to do with Hank Marvin

...just in case that's how you've found us!
No, Shadow Shows is an audio-visual performance incorporating triple-screen film projections with a live score and sound effects. Somewhere between experimental cinema, music performance and installation. With a bit of smoke-and-mirrors shadow theatre. 
   And us is myself, Film Ficciones, and cult experimental music group Pram. We've worked together previously on short films, music videos, installations and live shows since 2003 - and in a future post hopefully there will be a few words from those enigmatic purveyors of telemetric melodies, with their view on the making of this show. If I can only coax them out of the shadows...
   For the most part though I shall be mainly posting background stuff about the work and its' development, including the people and places which have had an influence, as well as photos and documents to illustrate the process. We've been working on Shadow Shows for almost two years, including a pilot version for Supersonic Festival (UK) and a residency at Schlachthof Arts Centre in Germany - much more on that to come. 
   Right now though, we're preparing for our first performance proper as the opening event of Flatpack Festival on 23rd March 2011. Details and tickets from the Flatpack website.

We're really looking forward to it as the date approaches...exactly a month from today!