Resident Video 7: Experiments in Buoyancy

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to short films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you Calum Walter’s Experiments in Buoyancy.

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In last month’s Resident Video interview, Izik Alequin had a thing or two to say about the digital/film debate. He concluded that “there is nothing about film that is inherently ‘more organic’ than digital.” In a way, Izik’s claim is a perfect introduction to this month’s Resident Video: Calum Walter’s Experiments in Buoyancy. Calum’s meticulously constructed film is a response to and enactment of the relationship between the digital, material, and organic.

Experiments has the rare capacity to be highly conceptual and intimate at the same time – a thread that runs through all of Calum’s work. While watching Experiments one is immediately struck by its form, but also becomes engrossed in the strange world that it presents. As viewers we are not necessarily challenged by the images we see, but drawn into them and asked to consider them seriously.

Calum’s films have screened at film festivals around the world, including Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Rotterdam International Film Festival, and Hamburg International Short Film Festival, among others. To see more from Calum, head over to his website.

In the interview below, we talk to Calum about his process, the alien quality of Chicago winters, classical music, and other interesting things. So keep reading.

The production of Experiments (a process also used in Relief) was quite painstaking: you collected footage on your phone, then printed and manipulated the footage using a photocopier, finally reanimating the manipulated frames. This process makes the objectness of the piece very apparent – like how old, degraded film stock reminds the viewer of its material presence. But the materiality in Experiments is not edge lettering, sprocket holes, dirt particles, etc. It’s the high-contrast/low-resolution of class handouts and DIY zines. For you, what is the relationship between the production process and the resulting aesthetic?

The process for Experiments mostly came from my decision to stop shooting film early on in graduate school. I was concerned with lab turnaround times and the cost of shipping and developing film. I was hoping to work in a way that was more immediate (ha). The problem was that shooting digitally felt really strange after working on film for so long. The process felt too immediate, and I was generating all these images I felt no connection with.

The idea of printing frames of video out/reanimating was in part a way to put the work and rigor of film back in. I was also looking for a way to ‘materialize’ digital video – printing it on to paper and holding each frame made me feel like I’d cheated the computer somehow. The images that originated as digital information were being turned into objects, then fed back into the computer. They’d seen light, gotten dirty, crinkled etc.

While it is definitely loose, there is a narrative or at least some worldbuilding going on in Experiments. To a certain extent, the film is similar to how Meredith Monk describes her piece, Dolmen Music: “I was trying … to get a feeling of a very old reality, but also … a very futuristic almost interplanetary feel.” Going into the project, what was your approach to narrative and how, if at all, did it change throughout?

Yeah that describes it really well. I’d been filming during several Chicago winters and was fascinated by the way the city’s personality changed with the seasons. Downtown took on an almost monochromatic look, and people walking around looked lost and kind of embattled just dealing with the elements. I recorded these moments of people falling asleep on the train, umbrellas being blown out of people’s hands, and the lake raging in this alien way – not like waves crashing on the shore, but these giant swells moving in every direction, like a turbulent swimming pool.

I wanted to create a miniature of that chaotic world in Experiments, and as the process moved along certain characters emerged, like the couple that stands at the edge of the water as those tall figures pass, and the person that’s scraped away after pulling something from the water. The film became about these transitions between a soft, elemental world, and one that was more severe. The figures seen throughout are often seeping inadvertently through the membranes that separate the two places – like they’re being swallowed up. The title came from a sense of being profoundly insubstantial against a force that was vast and dangerous, but ultimately impersonal, like the ocean.

Experiments is truly haunting. Perhaps even the visual analog to dark ambient music or black metal. Your sound design adds significantly to the overall mood of the piece. Closely mirroring the visuals, the soundscape is extremely textured and natural, though without being completely diegetic. This is an approach you use in your other films – you seem to prefer field recordings instead of music, traditional or otherwise. What films, musicians, or composers have influenced your sound design?

I’ve been a big fan of modern classical for some time now, and am interested in the shifts that started happening in the early 20th century when composers were leaving primarily tonal music to explore dissonance and atonality. Composers like Shostakovich, I think, explored really dark territory while always keeping one foot in a musically familiar place. I think this is what makes his music challenging, but not altogether alienating. I’m also inspired by some recent black metal that seems more interested in playing with texture and tone than in burning things.

A constraint I give myself is to try to achieve something musically adjacent while using only field recordings I’ve accumulated over time. This is my way of policing my instincts – music is so persuasive and evocative that sometimes it takes over, and using dark music over dark imagery can feel a bit perverse – so although it’s tempting to incorporate music I try to keep its influence indirect.

What guided a lot of the sound design was trying to match the texture and speed of the images, but most important for me was to create a sense of ‘space’ in these scenes that had been flattened and desiccated by the process. That’s where some of the uncanniness comes from, I think, that there’s this discrepancy between the ‘vacuum’ of the images and the fullness of the sound.

The first thought in everyone’s mind while watching Experiments must be: How many pieces of paper were used to create this video? If we’re to go by flipbook standards, you must have dealt with at least 10 reams. If anything, you definitely became very intimate with printers, photocopiers, and toner cartridges. So first of all, give us some numbers. Second of all, do you recycle? And third of all, how has this effected your understanding of what film can be?

Ha! Yeah, there was a lot of paper involved, and the process was very inefficient at first. Over time I learned to refill my own cartridges using grey market toner, to print the images as negatives and reverse them in post (saved toner, as most of the shots have a lot of black) and to reuse paper over and over. My guess is that it’s about 2000 pages total, a stack that now towers in my closet.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.

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