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Science

Film wars: 'Celluloid offers possibilities that digital can't'

Not all that is digital is gold. Richard Tuohy, an award-winning Australian experimental filmmaker who runs the Artist Film Workshop in Melbourne, tells DW about the digital / celluloid divide.

Watch video 01:42

Richard Tuohy talks us through an Artist Film Workshop at Melbourne's NGV

DW: What is the Artist Film Workshop?

Richard Tuohy: The Artist Film Workshop is a community-based and artist-run film lab in Melbourne, and its basic mission is to encourage artists to include the use of celluloid film - moving images - in their art. Now, for me that means making experimental films, but other people include a bit of film projection in performance art or in installations.

You've got film wrapped around your neck as we speak. And it's not a common sight - seeing, hands-on physical film, celluloid. We're so used to digital these days - just pressing buttons. Tell us a bit about the way you use this "old school" technology and how it meets the new technology.

Well, I'm not going to talk about the new school just yet. The world has changed slightly for the use of celluloid - early motion picture film. These days, a large percentage of people using it are using it in a very hands-on way, which is a change. Partly this is brought about by the way the film industry has changed, meaning that laboratories around the world are closing down and it's getting harder to get commercial work done. However, at the same time, there is a growing international movement of small, artist-run film labs, and these are very hands-on places where artists do 100 percent of the work with the film themselves.

We do all of the film processes ourselves. The advantage of that - and the opportunity of that - is that there are a whole lot of interventions and variations to the conventional procedures that you can employ when you're doing it yourself. You can mix chemicals up in different ways, you can interfere with the way conventional machines are meant to work - for instance, the printing machines or the way projectors work. But I like to concentrate on the laboratory stuff. And you can play with gear because it's become redundant to the industry and all of a sudden what would have been extremely fancy gear has become available to people like us to play with. So I see a new horizon involving cine film.

Film Workshop in Melbourne

'Old-skool' film processing is much more hands on than digital cinema technologies

These processes can be very time consuming. And yet your workshop is very much focused on the process. I've heard some members will even recreate digital effects using analog techniques. I suppose you end up with a different product?

Yes, there are a lot of words that can be used to discuss the relationship between film and digital, but it's not a topic that fascinates me. I don't expect the members of the AFW to go to the lengths that I do, with making experimental films exclusively on film. What I want them to get is an understanding of the range of possibilities that this - I'm going to call it old - medium has, in particular in contemporary art practice, which involves integrating it in digital work. There are possibilities that this film stuff has that digital doesn't have. And the way to explore those possibilities is with your hands, which a lot of people find very productive and a real counterbalance to having to sit in front of a computer. A lot of people find the practice opens up a part of their brain and their thinking, creative processes.

One thing that's curious is that a lot of young people are involved in the AFW and with Nano Lab [Tuohy's Super 8 processing business]. Most of our customers are young people, too. These are people who have come to using film after digital. You know, they've grown up being videotaped and digitally filmed and USB-sticked - and I don't know what - by their parents, but now they're discovering their granddad's camera and are thinking about the possibilities it has, and I find that quite interesting. It's not what I was expecting, though, when we started the Super 8 Lab.

Is that changing the images and the films we get to see, this rediscovery of different technology, let's say, rather than older technology?

I think what is changing the type of images or the types of experiences we are getting from cine film is the fact that there is much more hands-on DIY interventions and processes involved.

You might be solarizing the film - turning the lights on while you're processing. You can spend a lot more time layering different images on top of each other in the dark room. You can do things with printing under a piece of glass with a flash light. So, with regards to the question of digital, what can I say? I just like looking at film images.

Film Workshop in Melbourne

At the NGV workshop, kids scratched and drew on film to make their own experiemental works

Is it possible to get hung up on the process - in the sense that we get hung up on whether a process is fast enough, or efficient and convenient enough? Are we still focusing enough on what we see in the end?

Obviously to someone like me, the reason the world moved away from Super 8 for home movies to video (VHS) was not for quality. Super 8 was always far superior to VHS, and yet everyone adopted video. Why? Because they could put it into their machines straight away when they got home and watch it. I think that's the same reason we moved to digital. It's not because it's better. It's just there is some convenience aspect to it. So, yes, using celluloid film does take a lot of time, or it take's more time than using digital video. And I think you can see that extra time in the work on the screen. It sets up a different relationship between the practitioner, and their process and also sets up a different relationship between the images on the screen and the audience. I think the audience sees things that were worked on film differently because of the time it took.

What is your response when you go to your workshops at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and are surrounded by kids of the digital age playing with physical technology?

I think it's completely foreign to them. Many of these little kids are iPod babies and they're used to looking at magazines on a screen. I think they're finding it inexplicable that you can have something physical, and turn it into moving images. They're saturated by moving images, but I don't think they've ever seen them generated this way - which is kind of sad (laughs). But, also, I think, it's important for them to get it, because this is understandable as a technology - even though I just said it was inexplicable - as opposed to digital reproduction which is completely opaque.

Richard Tuohy is an experimental filmmaker based in Melbourne. His film "Iron-Wood" won first prize (ex aequo) at Abstracta 2009 experimental film festival in Rome. He is also a founding director of the Australian International Experimental Film Festival.

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