Documenting the Workshops, Part 2

Part 2: Practical sessions
By Stuart Heaney

Friday 14th and Saturday 15th December, led by James Holcombe at, Bethnal Green, London

Friday 14th
In contrast to last Saturday’s crisp beautiful sunlight, today it is pouring with rain and I’m running late, having spent the previous evening exporting HD clips from my camera onto my hard drive via my now creaking and ancient (2006 is pretty old in dig(ital)-years!) laptop until the small hours of the morning. The session is about to start when I arrive so I hurriedly set up trying to catch as much of the start of the session as I can.

First thing this morning, James talks us through what the Bolex does, how it has been used by filmmakers in the past, how to load film into it, how to expose your shots to light correctly by using light meters and the panoply of possibilities the camera opens up by using its functions. Video and audio of these invaluable instructions will follow soon, so please check back soon for an online tutorial!

Then, after a break to refuel over lunch, we return to experiment with the cameras as the students’ all form into groups. Some have their cameras loaded with ordinary black and white negative film (meaning you get a negative image, which must then be printed to make a positive), the others with a high contrast positive printing stock used for making sound on film, but which, with lots of light, can be used to shoot images. The negative, at 200 ASA is more sensitive to light, meaning it is easier to get an image under darker lighting conditions. The positive printing stock is only 8 ASA, meaning it needs much, much more light (the lower the number the more light you need to get an image), but if used well comes out with very stark, high-contrast images that have an almost graphic look. For these tests, the cameras are loaded with only 50ft rolls of film, which lasts about a minute and a half. After everyone has shot their film, the films will be unloaded into tanks in darkness (if they are exposed to light at this point they will be ruined) and developed in chemicals, just like what happened to your old family photos before digital cameras. James shows the students how to do this.

The students have fun playing around with their cameras, trying out light meters, and shoot footage indoors. I roam amongst them as they experiment, none of them seem to be disconcerted by my filming them, while they film each other, it’s all one Bolex free for all. I use one whole 100ft roll (just under 3 minutes) of film on the day.

As the weather is so stinking outside, there’s no possibility to go out and film in daylight, which would have been better for those with the printing stock in their cameras (and indeed they don’t get many images out of that film). But nevertheless, it’s for the best as today the students need to be back in the lab soon enough to process all the films in time to hang them to dry. Once dried, we take a look at them, running some on a Steenbeck, which is a machine that used to be used by editors when they worked with film and is a way of looking at films without the use of a projector. Cries of ‘wooowwww!’ are heard when some of the strange results are shown to the students. After, we try running the films in a loop on the projector and slowing the projection speed down to take a closer look.

Saturday 15th
Today the weather has improved and, while again I’ve had to stay up late to empty the video from my camera’s capture card onto the drive, I’m there in good time and ready for the day’s fun.

After a brief discussion, the students are unleashed and they immediately start rummaging through the bags of costumes and props they’ve brought with them to shoot their rolls of film. James, noticing how some of them love fooling around with different costumes and role-playing in a very improvised manner, encourages some students to see the films of Ron Rice and Jack Smith. Troy seems to be adopting a cat-woman-like persona and so we encourage her to take a look at the films of Jeff Keen and specifically the roles played by Keen’s wife and muse, Jackie.

Again, I roam amongst the students as this time they go outside to play around, untroubled by rain, recording them with HD video, but also filming them with the Bolex. That morning James rewound the film roll in the dark so that I could re-expose the same roll, making day one and day two run simultaneously over one another in a double-exposed image. Occasionally, I run the film through the camera with the lens covered so that only one image is registered (from the previous day) in those sections.

Having filmed a couple of the groups playing around with costumes and props in the park near Bethnal Green Road, I wander off to find other groups, unsuccessfully. Returning to I find they have regrouped there and we agree to go out together for a bit more filming before the sky becomes too overcast and the rain sets in – and before the winter sun sets.

We wander into a wood at the edgelands of the park where TK takes delight in filming the tree branches (much like Jonas does in Walden (1969), although I did not sense a fantastic feeling of spring in the air on that occasion) in single frame exposures, then seeks out a lone squirrel climbing up the branches. She is delighted when she successfully captures the timid creature on film. It’s at this moment when, seeing TK filming the grass, I remember I wanted to get a shot of one of the students filming the ground in an homage to the moment in Lost Lost Lost, when a flag-cloaked Jonas (filmed by Ken Jacobs, not with a Bolex, but with a Bell & Howell Filmo), on the plains of Brattlebro, Vermont, pretends to be a Catholic priest and ceremoniously sweeps the camera across the ground, like a censer, as though purifying the land by filming it. TK is willing to oblige, so I run back to the lab to grab the Bolex I foolishly left behind in favour of HD. When I return I take the shot in slow motion and then speed her up at 8 frames-per-second. The shot itself is planned and not spontaneous, but the moment is and we are having fun, so it counts.

Returning to the lab, many of us remain and continue playing around with our cameras, experimenting, milking every last moment in this space for all they’re worth, until everyone uses up their film, returns their cameras for the film to be processed and telecine’d and eventually all peel off towards their homes, their families and friends and the festive winter holiday season. Soon enough I too make my way out, for I have an appointment to keep – a screening at BFI Southbank of Jonas and Adolfas Mekas’s debut film, Guns of the Trees. That’s where we came in.

Watch out for forthcoming frame grabs from the video and 16mm film, plus audio clips from this session – please check back soon! 

Watch out also for the completed students’ productions and the workshop video , which will screen together at BFI Southbank on 26th January, then again at UAL on 1st February. Once the private screenings have been held the students’ videos and the workshop video will be available online here on this site and on the Serpentine website.

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