Most people think of movies and abstract art as two separate creative fields. Yet Gregory Zinman, a current Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, visual art curator, visiting professor, and handmade cinema aficionado wants audiences to think about new ways to consider the moving image.
Zinman, who received his Ph D. from the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University in 2011, based his dissertation on the topic of handmade cinema—what he describes as a practice that does away with the camera to develop artisanal techniques by hand. He explains handmade cinema as when artists “intervene into the film strip or into the soundtrack” with techniques such as scratching or painting on to the filmstrip as well as the creation of hand-drawn soundtracks.
“An abstract painting, say a Jackson Pollock, is a single image that you can take your time with and look at and contemplate at your own pace,” Zinman said in an interview over the phone. “With celluloid film you’re talking about 24 frames a second, so that gives you 24 different abstractions a second, which is sort of overwhelming to the viewer.”
Ziman first started to think about different ways to look at the moving image and contemplate what cinema really is when he saw Len Lye’s 1935 film “A Color Box.” Regarded as the first publicly viewed example of direct animation, the three-minute film is made up of vibrant, wavy, geometric shapes Lye hand-drew on clear celluloid. However “A Color Box” is one of hundreds of examples of handmade cinema, an art form that dates back to the 18th century and continues today.
Since so few people know the history of handmade cinema and much less have been exposed to it, Zinman and graphic designer Jeff Sheinkopf decided to make a website in 2011 to educate and enlighten the public on this fusion of art and media.
Although Zinman wrote his 600-page dissertation on handmade cinema and is in the process of writing a book about it, his and Sheinkopf’s website handmadecinema.com enables far more interaction with the medium and its many artists. The site charts the timeline of handmade cinema, ranging from Louis Bertrand Castel’s work with color organs in the early 1700s to contemporary artists such as Jennifer West, who uses food and bodily fluids on filmstrips, and Thorsten Fleisch, who grew crystals on celluloid and has applied his own blood to the filmstrip.
The site highlights over 80 artists and allows visitors to read about the artists’ practices and histories as well as watch videos of their works. While the term “handmade cinema” was used in the 70s and 80s, Zinman said that he uses it now to encapsulate a broader examination of its many practices. “I think when most people talk about handmade cinema they’re talking about direct cinema or direct animation,” Zinman said. “I think what I’m doing with handmade [is] I have a much more capacious understanding of it including design elements like light sculpture or light shows, in order to get us to start thinking about the moving image in relation to other practices.”
Handmade cinema isn’t just something we would experience in art galleries or experimental performances; we can find traces of it in more recent popular films. Zinman mentioned Edgar Wright’s 2010 “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” as an example of the handmade in the mainstream. The film’s title sequence, created by U.K. design team Shynola, features a combination of “analogue methods of drawing directly on the strips with digital editing,” Zinman described. Another example is the colorful glimmering light featured throughout Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” or what Zinman said Malick has referred to as “’the light before the light’.” Those sequences are actual footage of Danish musician and inventor Thomas Wilfred’s lumia, or silent color organ, “Opus 161” (1965-1966). This along with the creation sequence in “The Tree of Life”—in which Malick and “2001: A Space Odyssey” special effects supervisor Douglass Trumbell created by hand without the help of computers—a primary examples of different handmade practices.
While handmade cinema may seem like a new concept to many, Zinman argues that “it has been with us since the beginning, right alongside with photographic cinema and it continues until this day.” Although Zinman has enlightened many students on such practices during his time as a visiting professor at both New York University and Georgia Tech, it is his and Sheinkopf’s website that serves as the premier hub for all things of the handmade moving image.
Favorite handmade cinema artist?
“One of my favorites is Jose Antionio Sistiaga who made what I believe to be the first feature length handmade film in 1968-1970 (“era erera baleibu izik subua aruaren …”). He was a Basque painter who began painting on film around that time. The film was about 108,000 hand-painted frames of 35mm film.”
Favorite film, not handmade?
“Nicholas Ray’s ‘In a Lonely Place’ with Humphrey Bogart.”
Most memorable movie going experience?
“My dad taking me to ‘Star Wars’ in 1977 and almost wetting my pants when Darth Vader came on screen.”
Favorite handmade artist to teach in a class?
“When I taught ‘American Cinema: 1960 to the Present’ at NYU I showed Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’ (1964-1967) which is a film of her lovemaking with her lover at the time, electronic composer James Tenney. She re-photographs images and paints over them. It’s one of the most humane, lovely films, the ultimate make-love-not-war film that, while very explicit, is in no way pornographic. It’s a document of these two people and their relationship, and her cat, and it’s just a beautiful film. Even though it was a lot for the students to handle they responded beautifully.