Pixilated reality

Joni Taylor talks to Michael Bates

Russel Garbutt, The Projectionist, Michael Bates

Russel Garbutt, The Projectionist, Michael Bates

With the launching of The Projectionist Australian filmmaker Michael Bates is able to put to screen his most elaborate and finely produced piece of work so far. This captivating exploration of a projectionist’s final night is the latest in a line of exciting and award winning short films, including Etecetera in Paper Jam (1993) and Famed (2001), that utilise the process of pixilation, or ‘human animation.’

Pixilation animates human bodies in the same way that puppets or drawings are worked on in stop motion animation. It is a painstaking and time-consuming process, with the actors having to move extremely slowly. Bates explains: “The actors are photographed one frame at a time. The camera exposes a frame. The actor takes a step forward and resumes their pose. Another frame is taken and so on and so on. Instead of allowing the camera to run at normal speed (24 frames a second), it is stopped every 24th of a second to allow a change in the scene, the movement of an object or of an actor between frames.”

The effects are startling, creating a surreal and fantasy-like appearance without the use of any digital technologies or after effects. Actors seem to glide or fly through the settings, and backgrounds are saturated with intense colours and shadows.

The technique is intrinsically connected to the skills and abilities of the performers, therefore Bates works with experienced movers. “People need to have skills at being able to change tempo, knowing every part of the movement they’re creating, which elements need to be slowed down or sped up. Russell Garbutt [who plays the projectionist of the title in the new film] has a great deal of experience working in physical performance.” Garbutt, Julian Cope and Carlos Russell worked with the group Etcetera and appeared in Etcetera in Paper Jam, where the 3 are virtually held hostage in a corporate office, stalked by a psychotic photocopier and other office paraphernalia.

Bate’s history as a filmmaker goes back to working professionally as an animator for studios such as Hanna Barbera in traditional 2D cell animation. In 2001, he spent a year at the Australian Film and Television School workshopping his technique of ‘human animation’ for his Masters Degree. “I needed that whole year to fully explore, test and workshop; and that was revolutionary. I knew that when I went into the film school I didn’t simply just want to make a film, I wanted to explore the technical installation. I knew it would be complex in terms of the way it was going to be shot, the cinematography, execution, process, in terms of the kind of ‘look’ we were hoping for, I ran a series of workshops where I had a number of actors come in. I then created the short film Famed.” Famed went on to win the Sydney Critics Circle Award for Best Animation (2001) and the Kodak-Australia Award for Best Cinematography in a Student Film (2002).

Despite the level of control inherent in most forms of animation, the attributes of pixilation often lie with elements of chance and accident, especially when it comes to nature. Bates explains, “Part of the appeal of live action animation and what gives it such an edginess and feel, is the fact that it is incredibly risky! Because it’s so slow to shoot, you can’t see the end results in an [on location] video monitor. Watching the rushes is extremely exciting, you get such a buzz! For example one of the scenes in The Projectionist took 23 minutes to shoot, and we couldn’t go for a second take because it included the sunrise. It’s the final image you see in the film.” With pixilation, the environment is more than just a background to the action, at times having a life of its own: “You end up with inanimate objects coming to life…there’s an energy that fills every image and it comes through in the colour saturation as well. And to a degree humans become more robotic and more lifeless…I think particularly in Famed you see the crossover…and that lends an alien quality to the film.”

Bate’s affinity with music is apparent in all his films just as sound plays an integral part, creating a rhythm for the action as well as guiding the story. The technical process means that sound can never be recorded at the same time as the live action. So how does Bates work on his scores? “I have a great love for classical music, soundtracks and film scores. I think to a large degree I am often thinking music and hearing music. Walking through life I hear music, it is there all the time. Sometimes I’ll use music to assist me in creating the images and to get a sense of the rhythm. For example, for Etcetera Insurance (1998) it was a piece by Dvorak, so I knew I had to really hit the button to get the kind of imagery that would accompany it: the rhythm and pace, not so much of every scene but of every shot. In Etcetera Paper Jam the music was ‘written in’ afterwards, but the music I had in mind when dreaming of the film is nothing like the music you hear.”

This kind of inspiration can be seen in The Projectionist where Sergei Rachmaninov’s The Isle Of The Dead creates a haunting and melancholic backdrop to the story. “I don’t know what came first, the music or the concept, but I do know that the Rachmaninov and the original artwork [Arnold Bocklin’s painting of the same name that inspired the composer] connected strongly with the story for me. I was always fascinated by the idea of projection, Jungian projection, the theory that we are constantly projecting ideas and impressions about people onto them…So I was fascinated with that and the idea of someone who had passed through life, seen and done a great many things and has certainly suffered, but that his life is invisible to anyone else but himself.” In the film the projectionist leaves the cinema where he works and mentally projects images from his past onto the cityscape.

These ideas were developed even further with producer Anna Messariti, performer Russell Garbutt and production designer Jennie Tate. “We wanted to make sure there was something solid there, even if people don’t necessarily follow the story from A to Z. They would get a sense of the projectionist’s personal history through the attention to detail. Jennie was asking me many questions throughout the filming, such as, ‘The man who appears in the door is a violinist, why is he a violinist?’ and I would say, ‘The violinist is part of the ensemble where the projectionist played the piano, the violinist played the violin, and the projectionist saw the love of his life on the dance floor.’ We had to think about those things very, very carefully and much of the imagery is drawn from dark corners and brought out into the light.”

Literally and figuratively, Bates’s use of the hidden and dark corners of Sydney, especially round The Rocks area, is astounding. “I actually love the fact that these places are decaying. I think it’s absolutely fascinating and I still believe to a large degree that because of development they are killing the Rock’s ghosts. There’s no law against killing ghosts.”

Categorising Bates’s work as animation hardly does it justice given the range of techniques involved. It certainly sustains the spirit of experimental filmmaking in a remarkable way.

See Keith Gallasch's review of The Projectionist.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 13

© Joni Taylor ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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