Thursday, 21 June 2018

Interview w/ filmmaker, Michael Woods (USA)

New York-raised, Los Angeles-based "media terrorist", Michael Woods, studied Film & TV Production at New York University and is now Head of Immersive Media at Studio Arts in LA. He is a Represented Artist at LACDA (Los Angeles Centre for Digital Art) and creates his own work under the banner, Disassociative Productions. He also spends a great deal of his spare time helping the homeless on skid row and campaigning against the Trumpist philosophies of the American Right. We became fully aware of Michael Woods' phenomenal body of work - wild, inventive films which are usually deeply political and always experimental - when he and we had our 60-second silent films included in TUFF (Toronto Urban Film Festival) in 2016.

AK: Who are you? Where did you grow up and where are you now based?

MW: My name is Michael Woods, but for creative purposes I go by M. Woods. I was born in New York City to a single mom. My mother was born in Costa Rica; my grandmother being originally from Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, and my grandfather and his family are from Ambato, Ecuador. I went to most of grade school and high school in Evanston, IL (where Northwestern University is located), before returning back to New York City to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, majoring in film production. I’m now based in Los Angeles, where I work, teach, exhibit, and make my creative work with whatever time I have left.

AK: Could you give us a brief history of your involvement with creating work involving still or moving images?

MW: As a kid, I was bullied incessantly from the age of 6, so I used movies as a sort of retreat/escape. My step-father (who I regard as my father) introduced me to writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka at an early age, while also introducing me to 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 9. The experience of the Stargate sequence initially sparked my interest in making films – to recreate the sort of transcendental experience I did not have the words to express at the time. I continued a rabid addiction to movies, until I watched Mulholland Drive at the age of 13. That was the experience that sparked my pessimism towards motion picture and allowed me to become conscious of the way in which my personality was an amalgamation of motion picture simulation. That I did not feel like an authentic self. The movie communicated to me on a ground I had never experienced before and may never experience again; but if Lynch pulls the rug out of the movie, he is similarly attempting to pull the false reality out from underneath the spectator, so as to direct their consciousness towards the spectator/spectacle relationship, while simultaneously drawing the viewer towards a practice of self-reflection that helps to spark consciousness. 

Once I was convinced that this consciousness could be spread through media, I embarked on a project called The Numb Spiral. The origins of the Numb Spiral also reflected my state of drug addiction and self-destructive behaviour. At the age of 15/16, I began to experience bullying that was so constant and aggressive that I began to drink, smoke marijuana, abuse prescription pills like Vicodin and Adderall, but most pathetically, I began to consume cough syrup on an almost daily basis. The cough syrup in question had only one active ingredient – Dextromethorphan – which is a disassociative anaesthetic. A disassociative anaesthetic creates a feeling of total numbness, which causes the illusion of “out-of-body” experience when taken at higher doses. Conscious of my own descent into a place divorced from physical reality, I tried to channel my addiction into a creative obsession, and as I became clean, I created a “production company” – essentially a label for all of my films – which would become Disassociative Productions. The first and only project that Disassociative Productions has been working on is an art cycle known as The Numb Spiral. The "Numb Spiral” is a term I use to describe the parasitic nothingness at the heart of American culture. This is a nothingness that can be broadcast, ingested, used as the basis for societal norms and conventions; it is at the heart of currency, politics, corporate culture, and racial hierarchies. This corrosive nothingness operates similarly to The Precession of the Simulacra as illustrated by Baudrillard, the Spectacle as illustrated by Guy Debord, and is further elucidated in Being and Nothingness by Sartre. I began using the work of Freud and Jung to better come to grips with the way in which this nothingness has evolved to augment the original psychical models they introduced. In short, the "Numb Spiral” is the moment in which consciousness falls into Sartrean “Bad Faith”. In this “Bad Faith” model, nothingness or illusion is taken to be as “real” as the facticity of physical reality. (Facticity being a term that Sartre coins to define the ground of physical reality that exists despite and as the fountain of human existence.) The “Numb Spiral” is the moment in which human consciousness completely loses that ground, and the super ego projects an illusion of reality – the individual succumbing to the heart of hyperreality. In my own experience of this “Numb Spiral”, a sort of void fills reality that enables consciousness to posit nothingness over everything, and in doing so the false lure of completely malleable existence entices the conscious mind. 

What I found, however, is that experiences like Mulholland Drive are able to counteract the hyperreal; media, most importantly motion picture and immersive media, posit themselves as real when they are instead falsehoods. They are false representations of reality meant to force the spectator into a real reaction towards the illusion. In the work of Lynch, for instance, Lynch uses this construct to build a formidable illusion, but every one of them begins to fall prey to its own falsehood. In this way, Lynch is creating consciousness with motion picture. Just as human beings posit nothingness in order to allocate themselves as being here in everything, Lynch uses the false reality of motion picture to point back at its own negative structure. In doing so, in telling the whole truth through an artificial construct, Lynch is terrorizing the media. It was with this in mind that I began using all art to accomplish the same goal; I am a media terrorist, aimed at exposing the nihilism at the heart of the artifice, while expressing through it in order to transcend and reverse the effects of hyperreality. It is a Quixotic quest, and on my work desk I have small figurines of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza clearly visible to remind me of my naivete along the way. But using both digital and analog means allows me to explore the different dimensions of media; in adopting a hybrid media practice, I’m able to call upon the nostalgias and memories associated with different media types/film gauges. While the main thrust of my work remains the same throughout this 13 year + period of the Numb Spiral, I experiment with different ways of recording illusions and then intervening through direct and digital manipulation. At first my work was not overtly political, but through the past decade I have grown more aware, especially as a White-passing Latino, of the need to include racial politics in my work, especially as we continue to trudge through Trump’s ham-handed hyperreality. Especially Aldo Tambellini and Spike Lee have driven me to make my politics more visible. If anything, the politics have started to catch up to my work, and Trump is now a very fitting backdrop to the sort of surrealism that pervades my work.

AK: What were the major influences in the arts and in life which encouraged you to become involved with this field?

MW: The folks above, definitely, but also all of the real avant-gardes: Dada, Surrealism, Lettrists/Situationists Intl, Hip-Hop. The RZA and J Dilla, as samplers, are extremely necessary to my work. Wu-Tang Clan in general has a similar model in hip-hop, theoretically, to what I’m exploring in motion picture, and I have adopted some elements of their business plan as well. De Beauvoir, Malcolm X, William S. Burroughs, Jodorowsky, Deren, Menken, Anger, Bergman, Akerman, Breillat, Bunuel, Godard, Rivette, etc… numerous obviously, but all approach their art with a similar set of ethos and politics. My direct mentors have been Jason Halprin, Fred Worden, Bruce McClure, Aldo Tambellini, Pipilotti Rist, Lynne Sachs, Marco Williams, and Darrell Wilson, all of whom have shown me different ways of looking at motion picture and performance, documentary vs. narrative, experimental, video art… etc…

AK: What does the word “experimental” mean to you?

MW: Experimental to me simply signifies a new way of expressing that has not been forged before, or at least there is an implication that the experimenter is taking an uncharted route down a previously explored path. To work in experimental film does not mean to acknowledge and hold dear those previously heralded or currently thought of as the most important. I think the term “experimental” implies avant-garde, but not in the current configuration of academic “experimental film.” Academia defined “experimental film” and the related film festivals often choose work that does not experiment, but rather re-treads down the same path for the purpose of fitting in with trends defined by those in power. My work is often not shown at “experimental” film festivals as a result of it not fitting the programming – especially as the scene in the United States celebrates work that is sometimes outright boring. In general, I do not like Structuralist work, though there are a few artists like Ernie Gehr, who interest me despite the goals being radically different from my own. I think the Structuralist movements view “experimental” in the way a scientist would as opposed to the brazen artists I am most interested in. When it comes to art, I do not have time for subtleties anymore, especially as we live in a world that is so obscene. I find them to be inauthentic and representative of the bourgeois state of “experimental film.”

AK: At Avant Kinema we have a particular interest in low budget, DIY or LoFi forms of creativity. What are your thoughts on films, music, zines or other artworks created in this way? Is this a way that you personally like working?

MW: I do not treat working low-budget or DIY as a badge of honor, but rather as a necessity. I am not capable of buying or receiving the same resources as many other “experimental filmmakers” so I’ve had to draw out my process over the course of a decade. Sometimes that means not having the money or the wherewithal to process film to months or years later. Sometimes that means not having the resources to complete a scene or a movie until years later. I think the plight of the underground filmmakers, the working filmmakers, those who have to make work in their free time – because we do not have the opportunities of our bourgeoisie counterparts – is not something to celebrate necessarily. It is just the way we have to do things. If I’m given a budget, I will immediately take the money. I want as much money as possible. The ideas I have are feature films, ones that I want shot on 35 & 16mm. I don’t buy the premise that more money means less creativity. I think we sometimes have a tendency to use low budget or DIY as a badge of honor. In reality, at least for me, it is a constant struggle, and if I had the resources that I see a lot of our bourgeoisie counterparts have, I would be more prolific and more easily able to put out the work that has otherwise taken me 13 years to bring to fruition. However, the thing that binds us – those of us bound to create despite these limitations – is an inherent ingenuity, and an obsession that transcends our financial situation. Even I, however, recognize that despite living paycheck to paycheck (if that), I have more resources and more opportunity than many who remain voiceless because they do not have the wherewithal to contribute to our art. In that sense, I am a champion for underground and emerging art, especially from those who share the struggle to make their work.

AK: What was your earliest experience of using analogue film, video or photographic equipment?

MW: My first experience using analog film was in a Fisher-Price toy 35mm camera when I was a child, but I began to use it seriously at the age of 17 when I was an intern at Chicago Filmmakers – which hosts the Onion City Experimental Film Festival. I learned how to use Super-8 from playing around with an old Elmo Super-8 and that footage served as the basis for my upcoming feature film, Disneyworld. I was taught to use 16mm by Jason Halprin, initially, and then at NYU I made my first 16mm shorts in Joanne Savio’s Sight and Sound Film Class under the tutelage of Geoffrey Erb, a cinematographer who had worked on Law & Order. He’s now passed away, but a lot of my cinematographic tricks come from Geoff. I started on an Arri-S while I was in school, but soon began working with the school’s Arri-SR, and I managed to purchase my own Beaulieu R16, and later a Bolex when the R16 broke. I still shoot 16mm on a nearly daily basis – having hoarded film when I was eligible for a student discount. I also shoot super-8 with a Beaulieu 4008 ZMII, which I love. Because I am a film scanner at my day job, I can scan my own 16mm for free, but super-8 is actually an added expense. In 2013/2014 I began to process my own film using the facilities at Negativland in Brooklyn, and while I mostly lab-process my footage these days, I’ll occasionally bucket-process, especially for Kodak 7363 Hi-Con B&W stock, as it is quite simple to do so. My favorite film stock is 16mm Ektachrome, and I’m rapidly depleting my stock, but I am quite happy to do so. I used to be precious about my film reserves, but I now realize there’s no time to wait. Just shoot.

AK: Where did these initial steps lead?

MW: Because I began to use 16mm on a regular basis, inevitably I was shooting more than I was capable of processing or scanning, until I was lucky enough to land a job as a film scanner. Having cut out that expense, I was able to transfer a decade’s worth of 16mm in 2016, and that led to the completion of 16+ short films that were in limbo awaiting finishing funds. I have four feature films – three of which are in post-production. All of which mainly use 16mm or super 8 film as the medium, with 35mm, 2.5K, and other video formats mixed in. The first, I just released, Dailies from Dumpland, will be premiering in Europe in October, but this summer I’m looking to complete the next titles, Commodity Trading: Dies Irae & Disneyworld. The fourth feature, Melencolia, is the one I’ve been working on the longest, based on a novel I started writing at 15, and it will be released sometime in 2019 after 12 years of production. My use of 16mm has evolved to include a lot of in-camera editing, multiple-exposures and other effects, and I’ve continued my practice of constantly changing framerates, usually switching between the extremes of single frame, 12FPS, and 64 FPS. I use a Blackmagic Cinema Camera for any scenes requiring sync sound, and by sending letters and a prospectus I was able to use an Arri 535B Sync 35mm camera for the climax of my film, Melencolia. In addition, I exercised some stock options from my time as an Apple retail employee to purchase an Arri 35 IIC camera. (Once I get some funding, I plan to put that camera to good use.)

AK: Did you have any guidance in using this technology or did you work it all out for yourself?

MW: I definitely had guidance from some folks as I mentioned above, but even those who mentored me knew that the only way you learn to shoot film is to mess up, to learn for yourself, learn your own set of rules for how to light or work with available light, etc… and so I feel they guided me to all of the basics, but gave me enough encouragement to figure out the more important parts on my own. I am typically a very shy and reluctant person – especially when it comes to anything that could cost a lot of money – so I needed the push from these other filmmakers to throw caution to the wind. Now I shoot with confidence – enough to experiment regularly and push the limitations of the medium.

AK: What was it that drew you to analogue as a creative tool?

MW: Initially I was drawn to analog because of the false sense of nostalgia I could evoke, by the ability to change framerates and shutter angle easily, by the ability to hand-manipulate, decay, age, and otherwise intervene with the physical medium. There are a few reasons I think film still handles better than digital – in terms of creating an illusion of a physical location/experience. The fact that the grain is three dimensional, despite being so minute in scale, creates a depth in the shot image that is otherwise not recreated with a digital sensor. The organic process, the randomization of the grain as opposed to the grid of pixels, the ability to animate by hand… all factors in my decision to continue in analog. That being said, because of limitations in resources, I am not precious about finishing in analog. I have a few pieces that do, but it does not make financial sense for me to create prints, IPs/INs etc… and I am not lucky enough to have ready access to an optical printer or contact printer. Instead upon scanning in film, I retain many of the characteristics I’ve described above, but I’m also able to mix freely, explore editing the film and digital manipulation in a way that is under-utilized in the world of “experimental film.” There are some venues that are particularly dogmatic about film, but for me it is like oil painting is to acrylic. There are uses for both, and I like to make messy collages.

AK: What specific models of analogue equipment / stock do you favour, and why?

MW: Mentioned above! But I love the Bolex for its lack of battery and its ability to simulate a mechanomorphic consciousness. I think of my Bolex as an extension of myself now. I’ve got a beautil Rex-5 I found for $200, and it’s my 4/5 Bolex. I really wore out my previous ones. My new favorite stock – other than Ektachrome – is the Kodak 50D & 250 D, but I still do a lot of multiple exposure work on 500T. I’m using up the last of my Fuji reserves, which is sad, because Fuji green/red is a beautiful combo. But I am more than content shooting on those Kodak stocks. Especially the 50D and 250D seem to have so many stops of latitude that my multiple exposure experiments come out just as I imagine them.

AK: In what other ways to you experiment with analogue film?

MW: One thing I haven’t spoken on is my hand-manipulation. I use a mixture of Synchromatic transparent dyes, india inks, scotch tape, acrylics, liquid acrylics, razor blades, X-acto knives, and bleach. Sometimes I’ll use other household cleaners to degrade film – Windex and Ammonia soaked and then washed off and dried. On 16mm and 35mm films I collage in Super 8 & fragments of 16mm/35mm frames. I’ll use both motion picture as well as still picture for this practice. The resultant collage creates several frames with the illusion of motion. This is seen most prominently in my films Disneyworld, Post-Panoptic Gazing, and Commodity Trading. Currently I’m working with 120mm film which I’m scanning in a flatbed scanner – 4-6 frames at a time – after having directly manipulated the film; I’m collaging in Aldo Tambellini’s Black TV & Black Plus X – two films he gifted to me as prints in order to use as collage material for my upcoming movie Commodity Trading: Dies Irae. I’m using E-6000 glue to adhere the film. What’s best about that is if you glue super 8 onto 16mm motion picture, it will still project, so long as you’re careful with the amount of adhesive used. It’s definitely a difficult and tedious technique, but the results of multiple film gauges running at once within the frame creates an oscillating effect between materiality and the illusion that jumps from it. It reminds me of the shot into the projector gate at the beginning of Bergman’s Persona. Seeing the material jump to imaginary life and then fall back into material.

AK: Have you shared any of your skills in the Analogue Arts with others through workshops, tutorials or other forms of training? How was this experience?

MW: I actually wish I could, but whenever I reach out to places in the US they don’t seem interested in me! Lol. I teach evil digital moviemaking – Adobe Premiere and Virtual Reality. I’ve never gotten the opportunity to share my analog stuff!

AK: You also use digital technologies and processes extensively. Could you talk us through your involvement with these and how you use them?

MW: I think of the digital as being my new optical printer. I don’t heavily stack effects or anything like that. I’m not heavy into compositing, but I still heavily digitally manipulate work. I like to stick to certain processes – for instance, quick cutting between multiple lines of action, using blend-modes to pull apart an image into its positive and negative twin, data moshing and corrupting files to create keyframe errors (or eliminating the keyframes altogether), resequencing picture… I often times employ these methods – almost as if they were employed in a film lab. There’s a certain automation. For instance, when I data-mosh, I’ll data mosh an entire movie, then layer that data-moshed movie ontop of its previous iteration and begin to selectively edit. I take a process very similar to William S. Burroughs and Francis Bacon. There are layers and layers of brutal expression. Layers of automation – for instance datamoshing is an automatic process once you remove the keyframes or alter the code & similarly layers of chance/randomness – there’s chance in the destruction of the elements, there’s a randomness to a certain degree no matter how well you compose a multiple exposure, or if you bucket-process the film, the resultant scratches and nicks in the emulsion. Upon allowing in some chance/randomness/automation, I’ll then edit, to regain control over the image. And 99% of my work follows this process. Writing is the same way. Painting is the same way. I never come out with something that’s just perfect for me. I need to beat the shit out of my work.

AK: The Digital Revolution has opened up the World of High Quality, Low Cost filmmaking and photography for a lot of people. It's still relatively expensive to use analogue movie or stills stock and it's also generally a more time-consuming and complicated way of working. So, what's the attraction? What is it that makes the expense and effort worthwhile in the 21st Century?

MW: Actually, I disagree. If you factor in the cost of hard drives, and shooting on a Black Magic Cinema Camera – for digital right now, at least in my opinion, there’s really one viable option. Shooting RAW. And RAW is huge!! So even in the digital space there’s a lot of expense. I go through hard drives in no time. With film, I’m more economical. The restriction of the roll forces me to think about what I want to shoot, and the juxtapositions on the roll serve as my in-camera edits. I don’t have as much room for error and it’s like my brain kicks in. If you’re driving in a video game, you tend to make more mistakes than when you know your life is on the line. Now I cannot understate the privilege I have of access to a film scanner. The film scanner has changed my entire work. It is the sole reason many people know who I am now, or know any of my work. I had no way to scan thousands of feet of 16mm. So, mind you, I’m coming from the perspective of a person who can get film scanned for free. But beyond that, I really do think good quality digital is ridiculously expensive. (I use my iphone, of course, but with the intention of compromising the quality or using it for still-image stop motion and the like. Truth is, I still feel I have more control over the image I create in analog than in the RAW digital capture.)

 AK: What kind of future do you see for analogue creativity in a digital world? We can see analogue-digital hybrid art becoming an interesting new form that filmmakers and artists can experiment with. Is this something you like to do with your own work?

MW: For this I have to shout out to my good friend, Karissa Hahn. Karissa shoots analog films with digital subjects and finishes analog typically. I shoot analog and digital hybrids trying to arrive at an organic reality, and often depicting mechanomorphic and digital degradation, which is then matched by my process of automation/randomness/corruption/brutal re-ordering. I think we have complimentary processes in that way. I think the truth is we live in a hybrid world. Digital will always have to negotiate the analog/organic, and the analog/organic is too tedious for humans to replicate as material, so digital has its benefits in simplifying and codifying the infinitude of our being. Both are fatally flawed – and in that way both represent characteristics of human consciousness. Both methods degrade no matter what. The analog is needed, however, as a foil for the ever-digital world. The objecthood of an analog piece is a statement – although sometimes a nostalgic one – against the infinite serialization of the digital “object”. I think these are like oil and acrylic, though their DNA is slightly more complicated; but I use them for their strengths, I exploit their weaknesses, and then I try to manipulate my audience based on their aesthetic/emotional attachments to various media. We all have an individualized understanding of what it is to be experiencing super 8 or 16mm or 35mm, though many folks cannot verbalize it – and many cannot even perceive the difference. But I do believe there is an unconscious connection we have to these varieties of motion picture, and, for those of us who shoot, we begin to see the nuances of cameras, lenses, stock choice, etc… In the end, I want as many tools at my disposal as possible. If I’m dirt broke and all I have is an iphone I’ll use that, but, for instance, if I want to create an all-encompassing illusion, with a density to it, with the perception of “being there” in the film, I’m going to go for 35mm or 16mm. If I wanna shoot all day without worrying too much about cost, digital is the happy medium. And it’s so much easier to record sync sound to. Super-8 gives me a tool for playing with nostalgia, placing an illusion out of a contemporary context; the ability to wear it down. But, in conclusion, the medium itself is of no matter. It’s the main thrust of the piece that chooses the medium for me, and all of those aesthetic considerations are taken into account based on a wholistic approach to the work and the thematic/philosophical underpinnings that have brought it forth in my consciousness. Beyond that, the medium coordinates with the meaning, and it is through that symbiosis that I create. I never make aesthetic considerations above thematical/theoretical decisions. They should happen in tandem. For better or for worse, a tree or flower does not grow the way it does for its own aesthetic admiration. It grows as part of its function; in the same way I view art as a process reflective of the innate function; without the function, there’s no point to discussing the medium or the aesthetic tools used. 

AK: Thank you very much, Michael, for taking the time to answer our questions.