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Richard Tuohy on Cameraless Filmmaking, Dual Projectors and Fly Screen

When Australian filmmaker Richard Tuohy says he makes experimental films, he means it. He runs Nanolab, an artist-run film-processing lab where he develops 16mm and Super8 film for fellow filmmakers. In his free time, he has devoted himself to exploring hand-processing, optical illusions and even cameraless films. Tuohy does not limit himself to one projector, either. In performances with two 16mm projectors, he explores the relationship between two colliding images and studies the visual illusions the images create.

In advance of his Saturday night multiprojector performance and screening at Glob, we spoke with Tuohy to learn more about how his movies work. See also: Karen Yasinsky Talks Surrealist Animation and Boredom

Westword: Talk about what you're going to be doing at the show at Glob.

Richard Tuohy: We were only able to confirm the Denver thing relatively recently. I'll be showing all 16mm film. They're all from our lab. They're all our films. There will be some multiprojector pieces, but the majority of the program will be what we call single channel films. [Single channel is a fancy way of saying a movie is shown using one projector. It's the normal way movies are shown.] The multiprojection piece is called Dot Matrix. It's a piece that's continuing our exploration of interference patterns. In this instance, the two images we project are landing on top of each other. They are grids of various dots which have been rayogrammed or photogrammed on the film. Do you know what a photogram is? I don't.

Okay. If you take a piece of film or a piece of photographic paper, or whatever, and you put an object on it in the darkroom and then turn the lights on. Film is a light sensitive material, so when you develop it, you get a black image where the object is, but you get no black where the objects were. So you've effectively left a shadow of the object on the film. Now, the film, of course, is different than a piece of paper in that it's going to be run through a projector at 24 images per second. These little 24 pictures per second represent a kind of radical filmic transformation of the photographic rayogram, in that it converts something that was a continuous strip into a broken-up series that's flickering very quickly. Now, depending on the nature of the images that you rayogrammed onto the film, you get a generation of movement. Now, also, what you photogram onto movie film you not only photogram onto the picture area but also onto the soundtrack area. The soundtrack on film is just on one edge.

One of the interesting things to engage with when doing a rayogram or a photogram film is coming up with objects in the picture area that are going to make an interesting sound in the soundtrack area.

What does that look like?

There are three things we could be talking about. We could be talking about the rayogramming thing in the abstract, which is what I was just describing. We could be talking about our film. It might be sensible to switch to talking about the rayogram film that we will be showing. Sounds good.

Dot Matrix is made from pieces of paper that have dots printed on them. These dots come from Japan. They are used in the Manga cartoon-making or illustrating business. We photogrammed them onto a piece of movie film. Once you develop it, the movie film is just covered in these little dots. If you were to just project that film, then on the screen you would see dots. You would probably see them moving upwards or downwards or sideways. Depending on how the pattern of dots relates to the arbitrary 16mm pictures that the projector is projecting, effectively you see these dots moving up and down. Now, depending on the number of dots per inch or centimeter or whatever you like, the sound you're hearing, the optical sound you're hearing, is generated by the images themselves, because the images, the dots, reach into the soundtrack area.

Read on for more from Richard Tuohy.

What does that sound like?

A whole lot of fine dots make a high pitch sound. A courser distribution of dots will make a harsher tone. Bigger dots will make a lower tone. So, the kind of sound is directly connected to the material you've photogrammed. In our film Dot Matrix, there are two projectors both projecting a flicker diversion of these rayogrammed dots. So the two sets of dots landing on top of each other then begin to interfere with each other and create new patterns. But these patterns aren't on the film. They are on the screen. Why are they only on the screen? Because of the relationship between the two projectors?

Let's put it this way. We made an earlier film where there are all sorts of complex patterns being generated by the same grids of dots. Now, those complex patterns were generated by printing one series of dots on a piece of a roll of film and then rewinding that roll of film and printing another series of dots. So there are two series of dots being printed onto the one piece of film.

When you have two frequencies of anything being audio signals or waves in a pond or whatever, you get four frequencies out of the other side. You get the two original frequencies. Then you also get the addition of the two frequencies and the subtraction of the two frequencies. When we're talking about the visual field, if you have a whole lot of lines and then you add another lot of lines, you would get the appearance of two other sets of lines on top of that. So where you started with only two sets of lines, you would end up with these extra series.

You either end up with whole extra fine lines appearing in a whole strange, shimmering sort of way. But there would also be a much slower series of lines appearing. These extra lines are called interference. When you're talking grids of dots, you get interference in the same way with lines; however, it's in two orientations. Not only like a line, you've got the grid, so it's two dimensional as opposed to one dimensional.

If you look at Dot Matrix, what you're seeing are two projectors that are flickering. Each projector is just projecting a grid of dots. The dots themselves aren't making complex patterns. But when one projected image lands on top of another projected image, on the screen you have additional patterns generated. So that's that.

Through the interference?

That's right. Then, of course, being a two-projector piece, you get two channels of sound generated by the pictures, and so there are interesting spatial effects I like to play with, too, during projection. We've made a number of films engaging with various games that you can play with interference. We made one that some people have described as very Australian. it's a film using fly screen. Do you know what fly screen is?


You probably do. You put it on the windows to keep flies out. Got it. [Laughs]

We made a photogram film in the same way. If you put the multiple layers of fly screens, the two grids interfere with each other and make these other patterns. And the sound that those rectangular grids make sounds like a demented fly. The challenge of making a cameraless film in this way is to come up with objects that you're going to photogram that are going to create, in an interesting way, the conversion in a continuous strip in between 24 little pictures per second and that also makes an interesting sound when you run it at 24 frames per second through a film projector. As you're deciding what shapes or what images to photogram on there, how many attempts go discarded?

Quite a few is the short answer. Fly Screen was made first. Now, that was quite felicitous. I had a feeling that fly screen was going to work as a material, and sure enough, it did. After that film, I wanted to continue exploring that area, and I tried numerous things. Everywhere I went, I was looking for mechanical grids of any sort that we could photogram onto film, source material, stuff that might photogram well. What that means to me is something that is visually interesting when broken up into 24 pictures per second and does something that's acoustically relevant to those images.

Read on for more from Richard Tuohy.

Talk about the films you shoot with a camera? How do they relate?

We recently made a film in Chicago where we were using the grids of the city buildings and double exposing in the camera onto high contrast film the skyline and various buildings in the city. The grids of the buildings, like the grids of the windows and other things in the architecture, interfered with each other whenever we did a double exposure. So these new patterns emerged, which was quite exciting.

Can you explain what you mean by double exposure?

Yep. Double exposure is a very powerful film technique. You need a camera like a Bolex or something that can be rewound. What you do is you make an exposure and then you close the shutter and you put the lens cap on and then disengage the motor and put in a little key and wind the film backwards to where you started filming from. You then take the key out, open the shutter and reengage the motor and then you do a second exposure on that same piece of film. So you've now shot twice on that one piece of film.

This produces various effects ranging from just a mess to quite interesting and quite expressive results. It very much depends on what you're filming. If you're filming something very similar the second time, for instance, if you move just a little bit during that time, it will become quite evident, because it will show up. Things that stay still won't show up so much. That's an example of what happens with double exposure.

Experimental filmmakers use double exposure quite a lot. We often do it in the printer. Because we have set up our own lab, we can do a lot of experiments in the lab with printing things. We can print things multiple times onto pieces of film and generate interesting results that way. So we do a lot of multiple exposures in the lab, but we've also done a number of films where there are multiple exposures in the camera.

One of the things that's kind of pertinent about what we're doing is that we are engaging with what is effectively discarded industrial equipment, as in these film laboratory tools. 16mm film is in a curious place at the moment. I think it's effectively transforming into something new. There are still people working with it in the traditional way where you use commercial services and go through a traditional film work flow, but what's happening now is that there are an increasing number of artist-run film labs around the world.

There is a network of us called filmlabs.org. Each of these little labs have somehow managed to get hold of film printers or processing machines, or what have you. What's interesting about this is that it's given these artists, ourselves included, an opportunity to play with and dwell with these bits of laboratory equipment that in the past were inaccessible, effectively. If you wanted something printed, you could go to the lab and say print this, but you couldn't say, I want you to play with this. I want to play on your machine and discover things.

Now, we're in a position where we can play for months at a time trying to figure out what these machines that are fundamental to what cinema is can do. We can look at what they are and what they can do. We can test their boundaries. I think that's quite an interesting development in what 16mm film is today.

Talk about what your lab looks like? What's the workflow there? What's the day to day process?

There are two aspects to it. On the one hand, we process film for money. Mostly Super8 . We do 16mm as well. Nanolab, our lab, is the only lab commercially processing Super8 film in the Southern hemisphere. That's pretty cool. We process Super8 by hand. Everything we do is by hand because it's very flexible doing it that way. If we only get 10 roles of film, we can process 10 roles of film. If we get 100, we can do that too. We don't have to wait for a minimum quantity before we can turn on the machine and pound it out.

Ours is a hand-processing lab, but also, it's a place where we create our own work. What does it look like? Nanolab is on our property. We live in the country, so we have the lab in a separate building that we have built.

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We have another lab -- one in Melbourne -- Artist Film Workshop as a way to generate community. We've been running workshops there for the last couple of years. The members of that lab are really coming on and they're getting to the point where they are starting to make interesting work, so we really achieved something with that. The Richard Tuohy program will start at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 8 at Glob, 3551 Brighton Boulevard. There is an $8 suggested donation. For more information, go to the Process Reversal website. Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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