Gainesville, Florida, USA
For the past decade, I’ve been doing extended touring shows of my experimental short films, most of which are on 16mm (with a few on super-8 and video as well). Over the last five years or so, all of the new films I’ve been making involve operating multiple projectors (two, three, five, even eight), performed live at every show. Every couple of years, I manage to wheedle a semester off from my teaching job at the University of Florida to head out on the road with these films for several months at a stretch. I travel with what amounts to a mobile micro-cinema: a 2007 Prius packed floor to ceiling with seven or eight projectors and accompanying gear.
It wasn’t always thus. When I started touring back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I’d travel with a very simple set-up—a bunch of reels and a projector or two—but over the years I accumulated equipment after one too many unsatisfying, foolhardy and even dangerous experiences. Maybe the most perilous of these provisional set-ups was a show with Bill Brown and Kent Lambert at the High Noon Saloon, a Western-themed bar-cum-rock club in Madison, Wisconsin in 2004. The tables between the projection area and the screen/stage were all incredibly high, with tall bar stools. Our unbelievably bad solution to the problem was to balance one tall wooden chair atop another and then perch our 16mm projector on top of that. The whole tower was wobbling under the weight of the projector and it was so high that I could only reach the projector by standing on my tip toes.
But getting the necessary gear to avoid peril is only part of the story of my journey to a seven- or eight-projector set-up. The other key part—the idea to start using multiple projectors at the same time—didn’t really materialize until a few tours later. In September 2007 I headed out on a two-month, 40-show tour that took me from Florida to Maine and back. At the first stop, in Wilmington, North Carolina, I was in a classroom that had an unusually wide screen (wide enough to accommodate side-by-side 4:3 projections). I had positive and negative contact prints of TB TX DANCE, a cameraless film that I’d made by running clear leader through a black-and-white laser printer, and since I had two Elmo 16-CLs set up for quick changeover, I ended the show by running both prints at once, panning the audio from each to the speaker closest to that image. I quickly fell in love with this ‘poor-man’s Cinemascope’—the film was made for $23, so a $46 double projection—and decided that it might be worth exploring this direction more seriously.
I had my chance the following year when I was invited to make a film for the planetarium at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, Georgia. I started out with four 16mm projectors (from my fleet of Bell & Howell 3580s that I’d been picking up at school board sales over the years for $10 a pop) and then added a super-8 projector (an incredibly bright Chinon SP-330MV that I’d purchased for $30 in Cleveland). All the different projections had a space theme—some cameraless abstractions that looked like planets, stars and nebulae; some old educational films on the solar system; an East German animation called The Drunk Sun; etc.—and I called the result Last Light of a Dying Star. I thought I might only screen that film once, but after the incredibly positive response I got that night I realised that I’d have to figure out a way to reconfigure it for spaces other than the planetarium.
I’ve toured twice now with that film—newly recast as a six-projector, all-celluloid affair—as the show-stopper (most recently for another two and a half months on the East Coast, driving most of the length of I-95 in the fall of 2011). I’ve also continued experimenting with slightly less ambitious multi-projector set-ups for my other recent films (three 16mm projectors for my 2009 Las Vegas study Money Changes Everything; three, scaled back to two, 16mm projectors for my 2010 alphabetic film AAAAA Motion Picture). I’ve been slowly adding new quirks and new levels of sophistication, like live zooming and focusing/defocusing as key parts of the performance, plus the trick (learned from projector performer Bruce McClure) of using power strips to turn on and off different configurations of projectors with a better semblance of sync.
Having discovered the thrills of this new way of making films, it’s hard for me to imagine going back to a single projector. Part of what I like is the ‘novelty act’ aspect and the way that makes my show a much easier sell than just trying to describe the content of the films. Audience members routinely gawk at the set-up when they enter and take pictures of the fleet of projectors arranged in what I like to think of as ‘attack formation’. Some audience members say they like to sit behind me to see me run the projectors during the show; I’m still slightly resistant to the idea, because I do feel that the ‘show’ is really on the screen, but I’ve grown more receptive to their interest in watching me project as I’ve grown more confident in my ability.
More than the novelty of the fleet of projectors, I find that it’s much more exciting to be ‘arranging’ films across multiple frames—something like composing for an orchestra rather than just writing solos. The kind of complicated rhythms you can build across these multiple frames makes regular single-strand editing seem incredibly simplistic or even ham-fisted. Even the unavoidable drift as the projectors run at slightly different speeds gives the films a vitality that I don’t see in multi-channel video work.
In the end I may be attracted to this style of filmmaking precisely because I’ve spent so much time on the road showing my films. I used to feel largely unnecessary at my screenings; I’d basically just turn the projector on and stand around waiting for each film to end. Now I feel absolutely necessary to the event/screening/performance and fully engaged in making and remaking my films each night. There’s something perverse in taking a medium that’s made to produce identical, mechanical performances night after night and turning into something more like dance or theatre, produced by the bodies of the performers. But if that is how to inject excitement into these shows for me and my audience, I’m happy to embrace it.
© copyright caboose 2012