Sunday, 26 July 2020

FLASH, WHAT A PICTURE, WHAT A PHOTOGRAPH [252]



The first camera I remember using was a Kodak Disc 4000. Like most point-and-shoot cameras of the 1980s, there was little to go wrong: there was a single fixed-focus lens and an automatic flash, so all I needed to do, apart from removing the lens cover, was point and shoot.

It was our family’s camera, so I obviously will not be sharing any example pictures, but according to what I have read since, the picture quality achieved by the camera and film is supposed to be worse than I remembered.

Introduced in 1982, but not lasting much beyond the end of the decade, Disc film was Kodak’s latest attempt to package their film in a simple and fool-proof cassette, avoiding the hassle of unspooling film and winding it into your camera yourself, risking damage to the film and unwanted exposure to light if not done properly. Kodak had previously introduced the “126” and “110” film formats for their Instamatic camera ranges, encasing the usual supply and take-up film spools in a cartridge that the user could replace without ever touching the film, but replicating how the film and spools normally inside the camera made the cartridges necessarily bulky.

Disc film was completely different – encased in a flat cassette was a disc of stiff film, arranged in a circle of fifteen 10 x 8.5 mm image frames, not unlike a View-Finder toy, but not compatible with one. Simply open the back of the camera, place in the cassette, and start shooting.

The elimination of spools meant film could not be distorted or damaged by the film either being rolled up before or after taking the picture, or held down when the picture is taken. The tiny image size allows for a very short focal length of 12.5mm, and the lack of spools reduced the overall thickness of the camera: the Kodak Disc 4000 was only 3.2cm thick, which I didn’t see again until digital cameras became more popular.

Like the earlier formats, improvements in film production allowed for use of the same film in a wider range of conditions, and greater picture quality from smaller images taken - 126 film took image sizes of 26 x 26mm, and 100 film took 17 x 13mm images. However, because Disc cameras were not envisaged for anyone other than consumers wanting a simple camera, you could only buy standard Kodacolor film, so no experiments with Kodachrome, Ektachrome or black-and-white were possible.

Because the image size of Disc film was very small, the perceived lesser quality of pictures taken with a Disc camera appears to be a numbers game. They were considered of adequate quality when they were developed and printed onto 6 x 4 inch paper, but that was at a time when printing pictures was the only way most people saw their pictures, and 6 x 4 inches is often bigger than the screens on the smartphones where most pictures now taken often remain, regardless of how many megapixels were involved. However, the aspherical lenses used in both the cameras and the printing equipment, designed to make the most of the small image size, was an extra expense for developers that was often not spent, meaning many prints did not capture the quality of the original negative.

I guess our family was lucky with our prints, although the fact that Boots, the chemists that once had a network of film development centres in store, also sold Disc cameras under their own brand, probably meant they developed their prints properly. We later moved to using a regular 35mm film camera, either when cameras that automated the loading of standard film rolls became more common, or when the sealed lithium batteries inside the Disc camera ran down – like most devices now, we would have had to send it to a dealer or the manufacturer to replace them.

As if to prove that the 10 x 8.5mm Disc image does not mean you are looking at the film grain as much as the picture, there is the fact that pretty much everyone has seen motion pictures taken from an image size of just 10.26 x 7.49mm. Any time British television made a show on film, or ever filmed outside, whether it was “Doctor Who,” “Pride and Prejudice” or “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” used 16mm film – the widescreen Super 16 format, used even today on HD-quality productions, is only 2.26mm wider. All you need to do is do your homework, use the right lenses at all times, and have the BBC insist on Kodak making progressively better film.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

JUST A MAN AND HIS WILL TO SURVIVE [251]



“Now I’d like to see you lick that bloke who knocked you out at the fair… and get my two quid back!”

When “La La Land” was released in 2016, Hollywood was perceived as having re-learned the ability to make the old-time musicals to which the film was paying tribute. Likewise, I often think that, with the advances in sound technology in film production and in cinemas, the “technology” of making a “silent” film has been lost. True, silent films were never silent, usually having musical accompaniments and sound effects either performed live or on record, but once actors were able to speak, there was no reason to shut them up again. Making a film that works only on its visual imagery has since been restricted to more comedic actors, like Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati or Rowan Atkinson, or films deliberately made to be “silent” – like “La La Land,” 2011’s “The Artist” appeared to earn its many awards through having made the effort to re-learn the old, previously trusted ways.

However, Alfred Hitchcock, studied as much as Shakespeare because he is the nearest film has to its own Shakespeare, thought the purest form of cinema was the silent kind, missing only, “the sound of people talking and the noises… But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in.” In all of Hitchcock’s films, dialogue only supports the visuals – turn down the sound on “Rear Window” (1954), “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960), and the story will still be there.


While Hitchcock had an uncredited role in shaping all the stories he filmed, he is listed as sole screenwriter for one film, for which he also conceived the story. “The Ring” is the story of a fairground boxer, “One Round Jack,” who is beaten by Bob Corby, a professional boxer in disguise – Jack is then given the opportunity to become Bob’s sparring partner. As Jack works his way up the championship rankings, an affair develops between his girlfriend Mabel, later his wife, and Bob. Inevitably, Jack and Bob settle their differences in the ring, Jack winning after Mabel declares she wants to remain with him.


Hitchcock hangs his story on the motif of rings – the boxing ring, the wedding ring, and the ring formed by Jack, Bob and Mabel. There are only about seventy intertitles in a ninety-minute film, which is below average for the silent era, but I feel that could have been cut further, as jokes like, “This is to toast my success – and happiness…” followed by, “…but we won’t drink until the wife comes in,” don’t advance the story – I wonder if Hitchcock was obliged to keep some humour like this in for the benefit of his audience. Still only twenty-eight years old when he made “The Ring,” Hitchcock still had plenty of time to iron out his technique, in addition to playing with mirrors to make a boxing match look like it was shot at the Royal Albert Hall, seven years before this was repeated for “The Man Who Knew Too Much”.

When Hitchcock made his first film with sound, with 1929’s “Blackmail,” he used it as a tool, spreading it throughout the film, rather than converting only the last twenty minutes of his originally silent film, as originally asked. What delighted him was being able to hear the scraping of the blackmailer’s knife… as he ate breakfast.



Sunday, 12 July 2020

FILL IN THE BLANK [250]



[Please see below for the script for my latest video, as seen above.]

(black screen)

Do not adjust your device, or do not adjust it any more than you already have. Your screen has been intentionally left blank.

However, that might change, so don’t look away either. This is not a podcast, and this is not radio. This is a video.

This isn’t a confidence trick either. Videos need pictures, but my conscious decision to put nothing on screen still leaves a picture frame. I may also change my mind.

Mind you, that frame is never empty – even if your screen is turned off, it still reflects light. In 1951, the artist Robert Rauschenberg painted a series of canvasses with white house paint, but those paintings are not blank, for the brush strokes played off the ambient conditions in the room, and off anyone that looked at them.

The following year, Rauschenberg’s friend John Cage composed the musical piece “4’33”” [pronounced “four minutes, thirty-three seconds”] which of course, is not four minutes, thirty-three seconds of silence: it is composed for any instrument, any band, any orchestra, but while the players do not play, the room, and the audience, plays with them.

Ideally, you want your work to be received hot, rather than cold, but I will explain that later.
I actually found this blank screen online, but in searching the term “blank screen”, I either get this:

(white screen)

Or this:

(black screen)

I recently bought a new television, and the energy-saving options actually affected how it dealt with the difference between black and white. When a video cut from black to white, or even if white text is added to a black screen, my television faded it in instead. For me to see a video properly, I have to turn off all of its fancy processing features... and set the picture mode to “sports,” for some reason. So, if I cut to a white screen:

(white screen)

And back again:

(black screen)

...and your screen faded instead, your settings are not acting in my best interest.

Video crosses over with both film and television, but these two media are not the same: as classified by Marshall McLuhan, in his book “Understanding Media,” there is “hot” media, and there is “cold” media, according to how much participation is required of the audience. For McLuhan, film is “hot”: the picture is dominant, and you are ideally in a cinema, so you are captivated by the image, because less is required of you to remain captivated. On the other hand, television is “cool”: there are more distractions, and you have to take account of this before you can start paying attention to whatever is coming from the TV. Films can be shown on television, but “hot” media cannot be rendered “cool” – making it harder to focus on a film may make it impossible to watch, missing out on detail television knows not to include.

When I next make a video, do I want to be hot, or do I want to be cool?

Thank you for watching. As ever, the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com

Friday, 3 July 2020

THE IDEAS IN HIS HEAD WERE FOREVER FERMENTING [249]

Calculator, Industry, Work [copyright Paul Rose]


“How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” is the brilliant title for a 2013 film by the German video artist Hito Steyerl, and can be viewed here: [link]. Using computerised imagery and voiceover mixed with location shooting and The Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again,” this satire of instructional films is also about a serious subject: resolution targets, used by the American military in the times of pre-digital aerial photography for calibration purposes, but now left cracked and obsolete – to truly become invisible, you must enter those cracks, be smaller than a pixel, become a picture, or be a female over fifty years old.

Now try this: Petrochemexxx Solutions Corporation presents “Party Phantoms,” simulated guests ready to fill the spaces at your party or other miscellaneous celebration. They can dance, but you must not dance with them; they can hold conversations, but their opinions might be toxic. Apart from the voiceover, and perhaps the music, the video is constructed from stock footage and photographs, especially of frightening medical dummies. The colour and grain of the picture is of a 16mm film where the yellow layer faded away, captured on video tape too late, dating this film to the early 1970s at most, supported by the fonts used on screen, and the spaced-out synthesised sound effects. It appears to have been archived in a forgotten shed. You then remember this film has only just been made.

Seeing Steyerl’s video at Tate Modern, I realised I want to make videos like this. “How Not to be Seen” is presented as an art installation, but it is entertaining, funny, informative, and not far from your more ambitious YouTube video. However, watching the YouTube channel Mr. Biffo’s Biffovision [link] has made me think I could achieve this.

Party Phantoms [copyright Paul Rose]

“Party Phantoms” opens “Mr Biffo’s Lost Footage: Eggs,” posted in April 2020, continuing a series of “found footage” videos begun in 2016. “Mr Biffo” is the trickster god persona of Paul Rose, a creator of children’s TV comedy-dramas like “Dani’s House,” “4 O’Clock Club” and “Almost Never,” screenwriter for the 2014’s “Pudsey The Dog: The Movie,” and the writer of “Wrongs of Praise,” the episode of the sitcom “My Parents are Aliens” that crushed a model of a satellite with a bible, and had said parents, through self-idolatry and obsession with celebrity, raising the stakes by getting ready to burn their family on one as blasphemers – I liked that episode a lot. The “Mr Biffo” name comes from the 1993-2003 Teletext video game magazine that began Rose's writing career - “Digitiser” is remembered for the subversive humour and characters that infiltrated the reviews, the anarchic spirit continuing in the YouTube series that has often threatened to injure both Rose and co-host Paul Gannon (also of the CheapShow podcast, as discussed here: link).

In other words, the Biffovision channel – a channel that sounds like it has its own ident introducing the videos, just as ITV shows were presented by Thames, LWT, TVS or Tyne Tees - is created, like most YouTube channels, in someone’s spare time, but the imagination and ambition of the videos created in that time eliminates that as a limitation. In a Q&A video also posted in April 2020, Rose stated that, apart from scripting voiceovers or pieces that actors will read to camera, and working with the musician Christopher Jerden-Cooke, entire sketches or passages are conceived in the edit, having gathered the necessary stock footage. The 2017 series “Mr Biffo’s Found Footage” has more original filmed sequences, but are treated in the same way. While these videos may not be, as Rose stated, his life work, they are his favourite hobby.

Digitiser: "Indoor Fireworks" [copyright Paul Rose]

In comparison, two earlier videos by Steyerl, “Strike” (2010) and “Probability” (2012) – the first portraying the breaking of a TV screen, and the second demonstrating a zero-probability event - may have been filmed at home, as so many YouTube videos are, but like Rose’s videos, Steyerl’s confidence and precision in the imagery created, from framing to lighting to sound, is the cut above that turns “just a video” into cinema. It is possible to create cinema in your spare time.

So far, the videos on my “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” YouTube channel [link] are mostly written articles spoken out loud, with pictures. I always thought that, to achieve television or film standard, I needed to devote more time than my regular job would allow me to give. Having discovered this is not true, it is now up to me to make different choices. For all the film theory and rules that have built up since the Lumière brothers filmed their employees leaving their factory in 1895, all they had to do was work out where to place the camera.

Pie Vendors in the Night [copyright Paul Rose]

The final episode of “Mr Biffo’s Lost Footage” appeared on 21st June 2020, titled “The End,” this time presenting a through line of life from birth to death, via your first day of school, birds, pie vendors in the night, parental training tapes, calculators, memories of TV, and a slow, beautiful passage of reaching the end, when there is nothing more, piecing together archive voiceover, prog rock music, and the Apollo moon landings – and then you let go. Watching this on a televisio
n, I did not see “#Funny” written under the picture, and I laughed a lot before then, while making notes on how different layers of photography moved in the “Pie Vendors in the Night” section, but I was not expecting to be emotionally moved myself, by a video on YouTube.

When you remember that “cinema” describes the space as well as the art form, does an art work create the space, or do you just hope it does by putting it there? Maybe some videos just need to be seen on as big a screen as possible.

Because Paul Rose does it, and because Hito Steyerl has done it, I hope I can create cinema in my spare time.

Beanus Likes Beans:
Digitiser co-host Paul Gannon with spirit animal
[copyright Paul Rose]