A Canadian Film Odyssey
by Benjamin Wigley
I am an artist and film-maker from Nottingham, England, and over the summer this year I was able to build a fascinating three–part, month-long, artist residency programme across Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I was given the opportunity to develop some film works as a visiting artist at three different artist film organisations; exploring new organic photo-chemistry techniques at Philip Hoffman’s Film Farm in Mount Forest, digital to film transfer experiments at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers Toronto (LIFT); and finally, writing and editing film at Artscape, Gibraltar Point on the Toronto Islands. I was also fortunate enough to take my family with me on the adventure.
For this project, I was generously supported by the Arts Council England and the British Council International Fund, as well as receiving support from Artdocs Ltd, in order to explore my creative work; learn new skills, use equipment and facilities that are not available here in the UK, and to build new international relationships. I thought it would be interesting to write a blog as a record of my experiences and to share my findings with other people who are interested in the contemporary experimental Canadian film landscape.
I tentatively drove up the gravel path in deep darkness at around midnight on a hot and humid August night in Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada. There was a tangible feeling of anticipation within my whole body. As I asked myself, “Is this where Phil lives? Is this the right place?”. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, a slightly sleepy Phillip Hoffman came directly out of the farmhouse. He slowly accelerated towards me when he saw me get out of the car. We hugged. After nearly a year of organising this project, and well over fifty emails back and forth, we had finally made it to the Film Farm.
The ‘Film Barn’ itself, which is where all of the action happens, is an old Canadian barn that is set back from the main farmhouse, and looks like it has been standing for about a hundred years. A typically huge barn, probably for keeping corn or something in originally, which has since been converted into: a laboratory, a projection space, an editing space, a chemistry lab, and a place where many beautiful and keen minds have created equally beautiful film works. Led and founded by the inspiring and infamous experimental filmmaker Philip Hoffman.
This year, in the year of our Lord 2017, for the first time in the Film Farm’s history, which is around 20 years now, Phil and the Film Farm team decided to have a break in order to do some well needed maintenance to the barn. Fortunately for me, this made way for a new opportunity: The first artist residency programme at the Film Farm.
The central barn, which is where much of the mealtimes occur when the Film Farm is running, was where we cooked most of our food. And the small wooden cabin down by the pond, at the bottom of a hollow path between two fields, was where we slept. We had a sizeable double bunk-bed, which the whole family bedded down in at night, and we made our way back up to the main farm buildings in the morning.
The rough plan for the residency was to work independently, and then get together on some specific days to try some ‘green’ processing out; try some tinting, toning, and just to talk about ideas and thoughts around the work. I had ordered stock in advance from LIFT in Toronto (my next residency), that I wanted to shoot with, and I was thinking a lot about the idea of deep-time, in particular, the primitive soft-membraned organisms that were some of the very first life forms on earth. So, I began by shooting around the pond, looking at the algae and the water-bugs. I was using the print-stock Kodak 3378 that Phil recommended, as it was both cheap and had an interesting high contrast image. You can shoot negative or positive with this stock, depending on the processing, and it seems like an extremely common film stock used within the Toronto filmmaking community.
Phil is an extremely warm and open-hearted artist who shares everything that he discovers. Currently, he has been processing black and white film in the flowers and herbs from his garden and farmland, responding to what is in season, and using those plants. This was a particularly appropriate way of making film for me, as I have been filming my allotment over the four seasons; using some of the seeds and grasses to make photograms, and mixing the seeds and bits of plants into paint and glue, and directly applying that to film. Therefore, using flowers in the processing was something I became interested in learning about instantly.
Hydroquinone, is a chemical used in many developer recipes, D76 being the one that I am most familiar with, but what Phil has discovered — through his collaborations with other ‘green processing’ filmmakers, Dagie Brundert, and Ricardo Leite — is that it seems most natural plants contain a certain amount of hydroquinone. Therefore, you can use plants, along with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), and washing powder, to develop black and white motion picture film; a developer very similar to Caffenol. Some plants contain a higher quantity of hydroquinone, so work better than others. Phil showed me how to make a developer with oregano, which has been a proven success on a number of occasions, and we also tried comfrey, which had not been tried before at all. Both worked, but I preferred the effects of the oregano on the film.
We walked to the oregano patch, trying to avoid the mosquitos that peppered the air, and began snipping no more than 25% off the plant; so that it would keep growing back in the future. Collecting, foraging, or harvesting for the materials needed for making a film, has a magical and meditative rhythm to it; the process is perfect for the proliferation of thought. This is something I had considered when processing film by hand in my garden shed, but adding the collecting of the materials needed for the recipe, was a step further; deeper, into that idea. We boiled up the oregano for about thirty minutes in a large pan on a propane gas burner, outside the barn under the canopy of two maple trees. It began to rain. Then, we let the mixture cool down overnight, as we would need the temperature to be around 75–80 degrees F, 25 Degrees C, for processing the film.
The next day, we brought the oregano and the comfrey chowders into one of the dark rooms, in the basement of the Film Barn. We took out most of the clumps of foliage by hand, and then mixed in the Vitamin C and washing powder (just before we began processing).
I have been using film in my work for a number of years now, and began under the expert tutelage of James Holcombe from No.W.Here Labs, in Bethnal Green in London. There, I learnt to process film in a Lomo tank which keeps each layer of film separate, on a spindle, so that you can get a pretty clean result when hand-processing, if that is your intention. Phil, is a ‘Spaghetti Western’ film-maker, which means he rolls the whole film out into a tub, like spaghetti, and dunks it into the buckets of chemistry with his hands. While in Canada, I wanted to work in the same ways as the filmmakers I met there, and was excited to explore these new, (to me), techniques. We un-rolled the film in the dark, from the spool into a large tub, so that it would be ready for the immediate submersion into the developer. We processed the film in the developer, washed and fixed it. Then hung it up to dry on some of the washing lines that are peppered across Phil’s farm.
Immediately, I was struck by the magical and ghostly effects of the sediments, bubbles, and scratches, created on the surface of the film, almost like semi-transparent photograms on the surface of the image. The materiality of the film is a very important aspect to my work, I think it is something that most celluloid film-makers are looking to explore, and processing with tiny particles and leaves in a bubbly developer broth is a wonderful way of creating an environment for this alchemy to occur. In addition, the flowers from the oregano plant, also added a slight colouration to the image — which is a particular detail that Phil is looking for in his latest works.
Before arriving at the farm, I had ordered some copper and blue Berg toner from B&H photo in New York City, and so we tried toning some of the imagery that I had shot in the Ontario landscapes. Phil had also made a toner out of crushed walnuts, which lay fermenting in a big pot outside the barn, so I threw a piece of film in there overnight too, which became a rich nutty-brown colour. Over the nine days that my family and I spent at the Film Farm, I was able to explore, develop, and create many different film surface manipulations; experimenting, playing, and discussing with Phil the conceptual ideas behind my work. I was thinking a lot about the idea of deep-time, and when the earth was mainly comprised of rock and water, at the cusp of life on earth. I was interested in seeing some of the ancient landscapes and waterfalls of the Escarpment. Phil suggested some local areas to look at, and my family and I, were able to explore those landscapes, waterfalls; and I filmed, processed and toned that footage.
We ended up eating quite frequently with Phil during the residency period, and often socialised with him and his friends, when they visited. We quickly struck up a strong bond, and the kids loved him. Phil introduced me both directly, and through the local film networks, to many other film-makers and organisations that would help me during my time in Toronto.
On the final night, we all gathered together in the barn for a screening. I screened some of my work and Phil screened some of his films. We made popcorn, and watched the sunset through the hatch window, as we discovered each other’s work, and talked about the techniques we had tried out. He showed me some of the rushes he had just got back from Frame Discreet, the telecine facility in Toronto, and he screened the film collaboration with the experimental film-maker Eva Kolcze, to celebrate the anniversary of the Montreal Expo 67. It was an atmospheric and beautiful screening, which we all enjoyed greatly.
The artist-residency had a long-lasting, and positive effect on my practice, as did my time spent with Phil. I was able to generate a lot of content to take forward to the next part of my residency. And I am sure I will return someday.
We made our way to downtown Toronto for the next leg of our adventure. I had organised an airbnb for a few weeks, in walking/cycling distance to LIFT, and close to Trinity Park, so that my family could have something to do close by, while I was working. Toronto is a beautiful and very cool city that is one of the most cosmopolitan in the world. There is a thriving film community: with labs, organisations, and institutions that provide services, screenings, and equipment that is not so readily available anywhere else in the world. Liaison of Independent Filmmakers Toronto, or LIFT for short, is at the very centre of this community. A film co-op that was founded in 1981 by a small collective, and has evolved into one of the best film organisations of its kind, in the world. Each year, there is a number of international and local artist -residency programmes, workshops, and a huge range of equipment (both analogue & digital), for hire. It is led by filmmaker and programmer Chris Kennedy, and supported by very knowledgeable makers and artists in the tech department and production offices.
For my artist residency, I was specifically interested in using the Oxberry film animation stand and rostrum, that had been set up over a 4K digital screen in order to transfer digital video back to film. I was interested in using video shot on mobile phones, on GoPro cameras, and other digital cameras — then transferring that digital footage to celluloid in order to be hand processed. I also used this opportunity to shoot on colour film stock, that was then processed by the Niagara Custom lab, which was a five-minute bike ride around the corner from LIFT. I was given my own room, where I could view the film, edit, and organise the content I had been making; preparing the footage for scanning at Frame Discreet, which is even closer to LIFT than Niagara labs. Frame Discreet, have a 5K telecine scanner, which was sourced from LA, and will scan artist film priced by the foot. The image that comes back is very beautiful and clear.
I hired a bike from Anh who works at the LIFT tech department, which is easily the best way to get around Toronto: if you need to be dashing about to labs, organisations, or to film locations in the city. The tech department at LIFT were helpful and knowledgeable, and Karl talked me through the difficult task of operating: a one third-hacked, a third-obsolete, and third-future machine they had put together, to accomplish this digital to film task.
This was an intensive period of making and developing for me. I was shooting both in the animation suite on the Oxberry, and also out in the cityscapes. I filmed at Niagara Falls, and many other locations where my thoughts and ideas lead me. Niagara labs and Frame discreet were trying their best to keep up with my workflow, so that I could work with some material, when I began my final part of the residency on the Toronto Islands.
During the LIFT residency, Chris connected me to the CFMDC (Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre). Where Jesse, a very helpful member of the team, put together a range of works from some of the Canadian experimental film-makers they had in their catalogue. So I could get a taste of the film landscape there. Earlier, I had bumped into Mike Hoolboom at LIFT, in the film department. I had met Mike when he had visited Phil at the Farm, with another film-maker and her young family. Mike had suggested ‘ the Archeology of Memory’ by Gary Popovich to watch at CFMDC, when we talked about my project. I enjoyed the film. Mike is a very knowledgeable experimental writer and filmmaker, who has shown his work widely. I only spent a short time talking with Mike, but he had a great insight, and a way of distilling observations he made of the world, into something universal and profound. Our conversation lead to how my children were feeding the goats and the chickens at the Film Farm. He said, ‘Yes, children have a very special relationship with animals’, meaning that they have a deep and magical relationship, that only exists in youth and is seemingly lost, along with innocence, as an adult. Mike, also has an incredibly in-depth catalogue online, and his website has a huge number of interviews, that he has conducted with many great experimental film-makers. He also runs the ‘Pleasure Dome’, which is a seasonal experimental Canadian film programme, that runs at CineCycle, in Toronto.
Another event that Chris set up was a screening of my work at the wonderful Pix Film Gallery, ran by the enthusiastically charged, and extremely talented film-maker, Madi Piller. Madi, very kindly, walked me through her fascinating studio. And talked me through how she makes her beautiful abstract film-works, by using mushroom pore prints directly onto 35mm celluloid film, and then making various colour prints, painting film; reworking and re-printing, in a veritable layer-cake of artistic process.
I felt a kindred spirit with Madi, both with the way we worked on film, the interest in the microscopic, and with the hand-crank-projector works that I produced at the National Trust’s Shugborough Estate, in July 2017, which many people in Canada were interested in hearing more about.
“I love the microscopique!”, Madi said to me, in her French-Canadian accent, as we high-fived in her studio, after I showed her some close up photography of the algae and water-bugs.
The showing itself was small but full of passionate filmmakers and viewers. It went on all night, and they asked a great number of questions about my work. John Porter, a senior member of the Toronto filmmaking community, who was also a bike courier for many years, brought to me his hand-drawn map of Toronto, with all of the film facilities marked on, so that I could find the many services on offer around the city. He also brought with him another filmmaker and inventor interested in both journey and hand-crank film projection, Mr. Martin Heath, from the legendary, ‘CineCycle’.
CineCycle, is half a bike repair shop, and half underground, experimental film screening venue. Which is comprised of his two main loves of bicycles, and celluloid film. Martin, invited me to CineCycle the next morning to look at his 1912 hand-crank 35mm projector. He projected his ‘Walking film’, that he had made while walking in the Pennines in 2015.
Martin is originally from Leeds and moved to Canada in the 1970s, to undertake a wonderfully strange idea of an inflatable cinema attached to a van, that travelled across the country, and he has stayed ever since.
The film was beautiful. And when projected, through the amazingly smooth-cogged, hand-crank projector, it created a ghost-like, quivering, illumination of the image, that gently drew you in, so that you were mesmerised by the end. He also showed me his Sinclair camera, which is an old military 35mm camera, that was built like a safe. And his pedal powered machines that he had stored deep within the mechanical engineer’s treasure trove.
I cycled off from CineCycle, eager with new suggestions for improving my own project, that used hand-crank-powered projectors.
The last part of my three-part artist residency, was stationed at the wonderfully idyllic Artscape, located on one of the Toronto Islands. Artscape, is a collection of artist studios available for use in a combination of short term residencies, and long-term leases for artists, writers, and musicians, of any discipline. It is nested on the cusp of Gibraltar point beach, on a large flood-plane. The building itself, crowned by a steel conical shaped horn that blows toward the Island lighthouse, was originally a school for natural sciences. Since the flooding on the Island became a more apparent threat, the school moved across the road, closer inland, to a new building. Artscape seized the opportunity and converted the old school into spaces for artist studios of varying size and scale. I originally had some major setbacks to my trip because of the Island being flooded back in the spring. So I ended up re-organising my entire residency, but I was very happy to be able to stay on the Island for the final week.
We were amoung the first artists back at Artscape. All the re-arrangements and difficulties that I experienced when trying to organise the residency were navigated and facilitated by the extremely dedicated and competent Artscapian, Andrew Lochhead. ‘Not the famous Aston Villa striker from the 1970s?’ I hear you say. No! Not him, but a younger relation of that talisman, with fearsome heading ability. But, it does explain the Aston Villa badge, that has been so lovingly sewn to Andrew’s, super-cool, denim jacket. Andrew gave a wonderfully interesting and entertaining tour of the building at the induction, which explained the history of the Island, and the building. He made us feel incredibly at home.
Our studio was a porta-cabin that had been previously used for a classroom, complete with blackboards, and chalk; with two double beds, a small sink, cooker, and fridge. This was perfect for me and the family, and a huge space to work, and play.
While I was still in residency at LIFT, I had completed most of the production work, and much of the remaining film was at the Niagara Lab being processed, and at Frame Discreet being transferred to digital. So, I spent most of the time organising the footage I had already produced, editing sketched sequences together, and writing words that might go underneath the film work. This was a time to reflect, think about the work, and also have some family time on the beaches and parks on the Island. I went back over to LIFT to process some pick up shots and to gather some sound; but, Artscape does have its own lab that you can use, if you were to just have an artist film residency there. It is where Eva Kolcze, the film-maker who collaborated with Philip Hoffman on the Expo film, conducts some film courses. It was Phil I have to thank, again! For originally putting me in touch with Artscape, when the Film Farm was cancelled at the beginning of 2017, it was a fantastic opportunity to stay there.
Artscape, seemed to me to have a great atmosphere, which allows for artists to interact and cross-pollinate. The central kitchen acts like a hub for connecting with other artists — which you constantly bump into while going about your residencies. I met an artist (Dan), and film-maker (Serena), both from New York. We talked, and exchanged knowledge, and ideas around our work, for a while in my space. I told them that my feature Film, ‘Paa Joe & the Lion’, will play at the Margaret Mead Festival NYC in October. So, I hope to re-connect with those guys again there. I was also interested in experimenting with different voices on the film I was making; I wanted a Canadian female voice. So, I just walked outside the porta-cabin studio, and there was Stephanie, a sculptor, who was drying some driftwood she had washed, and was planning on weaving for a sculpture. So, I asked her to read a few words into the microphone, and she gladly obliged. This is an example of the kind of small connections and cross-pollinations that can support and help artists when making work, and was a great place for us to be for that final week. The situation was great. We regularly swam in the lake; had campfires on the beach; cycled about the Island; hired a canoe, and genuinely felt re-charged and well by the end of it.
I would say that the structure of the three-part residency could not have been ordered in a better way, (despite it being turned upside down because of the flooding). I was able to develop my initial concepts, experiment, and produce a decent body of work at the Film Farm. I then put my ideas into production, creating more digital to film content at LIFT, processing and transferring, and scanning all the film I had shot, at Frame Discreet. Finally, the Artscape epoch was the post production/writing part of the residency. I was able to stand back from the content and think about it. I organised and edited visual sketches, and then I was able to grab pickups, both in sound and film, write words; and I was also able to enjoy a retreat with my family, which was also needed at that time. I think I will look back at this residency with a great fondness, and I have developed further as a filmmaker because of what I have experienced. The work that I have produced is being edited into a larger-scale project that I hope to finish soon.