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The 2011 AFI Fest Filmmakers | Bill Morrison Reveals the “Spark of Being”

The 2011 AFI Fest Filmmakers | Bill Morrison Reveals the "Spark of Being"

Director Bill Morrison has been a mainstay of the experimental film world for many years, but this is his first appearance at AFI Fest. His previous works, including “Decasia,” have played in festivals around the world, winning numerous awards and acclaim. With “Spark of Being,” Morrison retells one of the cinema’s classic stories, “Frankenstein,” in his signature style, using found footage meticulously step printed and repurposed.

Morrison’s mastery over celluloid allows him to add layers of decay and darkness to the screen, not to mention the electric sparks which course through both Morrison’s past work and this timeless tale of man’s hubris. Crackling off the screen, “Spark of Being” is a one-of-a-kind event for Los Angeles and AFI Fest. [Synopsis by Lane Kneedler of AFI Fest]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in 2011 AFI Fest’s Breakthrough, New Auteurs and Young Americans section to submit responses in their own words about their films. Get to know the films before they screen. AFI Fest takes place November 3 – 10 in Los Angeles.]

Spark of Being
Young Americans section
Director: Bill Morrison
Music: Dave Douglas

Director’s Bio: Morrison’s films and multimedia environments have been presented in festivals, museums and concert halls worldwide. His work combines archival material with original footage to create powerful visual tapestries set to contemporary music.

Responses courtesy of “Spark of Being” director Bill Morrison.

Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what’s it about?

An adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” using found film footage, with an original soundtrack by Dave Douglas, performed by Keystone.

OK: Now tell us what it’s really about.

“Spark of Being” arrives at the AFI Film Festival as the only film with the word “Experimental” next to it. The film itself is the Creature – a creation assembled out of old documentary and educational films, arranged to re-tell a literary classic. Nevertheless, it cannot be readily categorized as a either a doc, or a narrative feature.

As in Mary Shelley’s novel, the story begins as told by the Captain of an icebound ship. The Captain takes aboard a stranger, a Doctor, who recounts his experience giving life to a Creature.

Contrary to the popular misconception of him as a grunting, plodding, brute, Shelley’s Creature was considerably more sentient than his creator. But he is a stranger, and an unattractive one at that. When he tries to enter the xenophobic world of his creator, he is shunned. Failing to find compassion, he confronts the Doctor.

To quote Jarrod Seifert’s notes on “Spark of Being” when it was performed at the Walker Art Center: “The Creature is a wholly formed being but has the disadvantage of being devoid of prejudicial feelings and cultural boundaries. He is seen as a monster because he has no side to choose and no understanding of why he needs to choose one.”

Unlike in Shelley’s novel, in “Spark of Being” there is no murderous retribution. There is only the realization that the Captain, the Doctor, and the Creature are all different parts of the same being – doc, narrative, and experimental – Cinema.

Art school beginnings…

I went to art school at New York’s Cooper Union School of Art, where I studied painting.

I also took film classes from the great avant-garde animator Robert Breer, who described film as a series of paintings, each different from the last. I always loved how music and the moving image reinforced one another, and I started making films where I would distress a series of images and match them to music. After art school I fell in with a theater company, Ridge Theater, who used film projections in their staging. Through them I was introduced to the downtown new classical music scene. And while working as a dishwasher at the Village Vanguard, I was introduced to the New York jazz scene. I’ve been matching distressed footage to the music of the composers from both worlds ever since.

Building his own Frankenstein…

I’m not sure whether I saw Frank Hurley’s footage of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1914 before I read “Frankenstein,” or whether I read the book first. For me, the two opening scenes were always linked – the image of a ship encased in a sea of ice, with sled dogs pulling men away from, and back to, the wreck. As I had been making found footage collage films for years, I had always hoped to one day make a Frankenstein in this way, the form following the story.

Dave Douglas also inspired me. He had been asked by Stanford University to be a resident artist and create a new piece on their campus. He asked me to join him. From our conversations we began to talk about a project that would involve art and technology. It occurred to me that my Frankenstein had finally found a home.

Adapting a classic…

I had never adapted a classical narrative to my style of filmmaking before.

It took work on both ends, both finding the relevant shots, as well as re-shaping Shelley’s tale to meet the task at hand. My conversations with Dave were instrumental in arriving at a narrative resolution for this piece.

A visual and aural experience…

There are some optically printed sequences of water-damaged 16mm film that are pretty stunning to look at. And Dave’s soundtrack and Keystone’s performance is mindblowing. But I’m hoping that [the audience] will respond to how the two relate to each other.


Again, Frank Hurley’s “South”, depicting the Shackleton “Endurance” expedition was a key inspiration. Speaking generally, the Fox Movietone collection housed at the University of South Carolina inspired me. I was also inspired by other free adaptations of “Frankenstein”: Thomas Edison (1910), James Whale (1931), Andy Warhol (1973), and Mel Brooks (1974), as well as Peter Ackroyd’s 2008 novel “The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein”.

Other projects…

I completed three other feature-length films since we wrapped “Spark of Being” last year:

• “The Miners’ Hymns”, with soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, which premiered at Tribeca this year and will have a run at New York’s Film Forum in February 2012.

• “Tributes – Pulse”, with soundtrack by Simon Christensen, which, along with “Spark of Being” and “The Miners’ Hymns”, recently screened at Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal. It will be at IFF Rotterdam in 2012.

• “The Great Flood”, a collaboration with Bill Frisell about the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, will have its NY premiere at Carnegie Hall on November 4, 2011.

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