By Loren Means

The images you are seeing were created by painting directly on 8mm film stock. Painting on film is not really a new concept—the first color film was hand-tinted frame by frame at the turn of the century, and the practice of painting the length of the film strip without regard to frame lines was developed by the avant-garde animators Norman McLaren and Harry Smith in the 1940s. Abstract-expressionist film painting was pioneered by Stan Brakhage in the 1950s. Not only did Brakhage paint on film, he even put butterfly wings and other objects from nature between pieces of clear celluloid and projected them, causing radical discontinuities from frame to frame. Brakhage’s abstract-expressionist film painting differed from previous methods in the basic aspects of its approach: in the complexity of the images and in the filmmaker’s use of chance. Even though Smith and McLaren could not predict exactly where a particular shape would appear on the screen when the film was projected, they did control the character and size of the shapes themselves, and their relative distance from each other. Both filmmakers tended to use the simplest of shapes—dots and lines—and were able to maintain such a level of control over their medium that McLaren in particular was able to design his hand-painted films to accompany preselected pieces of music. This amount of control was rejected by Brakhage, who chose instead to allow total frame discontinuity. His films bore no resemblance to any form of animation, since animation relies on very strong similarity from frame to frame.

At the time of his experiments with film painting and pasting, Brakhage was still working in 16mm film, as had Smith and McLaren before him. Painting on 8mm film renders the possibility of animation-like effects an order of magnitude more difficult, since the frame size is four times (not twice) smaller. When you can’t see what you’re doing with the naked eye, chance becomes a dominating force. The painter has to surrender to what Kandinsky called "the will to form of matter" and let the forms create themselves.

I founded the F8 Filmmakers’ Cooperative in 1967 to provide a forum for filmmakers who believed, as I did, that film was a fine art medium of visual expression, rather than strictly a narrative form, and that 8mm was an ideal medium because its cheapness freed us from practical constraints. We provided 8mm and Super8 projectors and held open screenings on a weekly basis. At that time my films were still content-oriented, rather surrealistic melanges using juxtapositions of staged and found footage. My film titled Wolfenstein Franks the MeatWoman, consisting entirely of clips from purchased footage, won third prize at the Saginaw, Michigan 8mm Film Festival. At one of the first F8 open showings, a rather unprepossessing fellow in his mid-thirties named Ron Morrissey showed a film that he said he had made by painting on 8mm film stock that he had dug out of a garbage can behind a film processing lab. Ron said he made his living by cleaning houses, and he created his movie by using household bleach and discarded nail polish to paint on the found footage.

Ron's fifteen-minute-long film opened with an arresting blast of bright-colored slashes, then quieted to sporadic bursts of shape against a soft blue background, and suddenly the screen exploded into an overwhelming succession of staggeringly complex forms, each on the screen for a duration of approximatley 1/16th of a second, none seeming to relate in any way to the ones before or after, dashing across the screen from no predictable place, the only constant being the almost unendurable shortness of duration which rendered concise perception impossible.

I was mightily impressed with Ron's film, and invited him over to my studio to teach me how to paint on film. Ron opened our session with a definitive statement: "I am not the artist. God is the artist. I am only the paintbrush in God's hand. I can't take any credit for the film, but I'm glad you like it."

Ron then showed me how he had created his film by creating another while I watched. He took a roll of garbage-can-found 8mm footage and tore it into strips about the length of his arm. He then painted the strips on the emulsion side with nail polish of various colors. He seemed to take care to make the marks as minute, varied and multidirectional as was comfortable within a fairly flowing, continuous style. His attention was focussed on the lengths of film as wholes rather than concentrating on individual frames. Then he pulled the strips through a shallow saucer of bleach. As soon as the bleach began to affect the emulsion (which was almost immediately, and was evidenced by bubbles forming on the surface of the film), he washed it under running water and wiped it dry. Ron then borrowed my splicer to splice the strips of film together (in arbitrary order), threaded them onto a reel, and projected the finished work. We both marvelled.

The resulting film consisted of three elements: opaque shapes where the paint was applied; a white halo surrounding the opaque shapes where the bleach did not get washed away; and the unpainted section of the emulsion which had been acted upon by the bleach. Depending on the amount of emulsion present on the film initially and the amount of bleaching action, a spectrum of color was available in this section from yellow (lightest bleaching) through red and green to blue (heaviest bleaching).

I began creating my own films using Ron's technique, and after I got over the initial shock at the power of the imagery, I began to perceive what I took to be a limitation in the approach. Looking at the painted footage, a rainbow of colors appeared, but when the film was projected, the colors on the screen tended to be mostly black and blue. This was great for a while, but I found myself yearning to see the colors I had put on the film projected on the screen, and wondering why that wasn't happening. So I asked another filmmaker, the physicist Day Chahroudi, for advice. Day told me that the colors of the nail polish weren't projected onto the screen because the nail polish was opaque--they blocked the light from the projector. What I needed was paints that were transparent, so that they would color the light from the projector. He sent me to the art supply to buy transparent paints, which worked so well that I further modified Ron's technique by bleaching the film before painting it, so more of the paint would dominate the original emulsion.

When I bleached the film stock before painting, I found that I had to fill most of the film area with images, so I began to organize my paint to have the greatest intrinsic shape-producing potential possible. I applied another approach I'd learned from Day when we made a film together, the concept of non-miscible media, the principle responsible for the multicolored grease slicks found in parking lots on rainy days. I also learned some more about the physics of paint materials when I took a job at the Los Angeles Chemical Company, where I could get my hands on a wide variety of substances to try.

Commercial paints are formulated on terms of two kinds of bases: water base and organic base. Some common water-base paints include: concentrated water colors, food coloring, acrylic paint, India ink, acetate ink), and printer's ink. Organic-base paints include glass stain, light bulb paint, oil paint (but only those manufactured with dyes rather than pigments), nail polish (but only the clear base, colored with aniline dyes), airplane dope (but not enamel), and the best film paint on the market, a self-crystallizing laquer available in hardware stores and called Crystal-Craze, (buy it clear and color it to desired strength with aniline dyes.) Since water base and organic base paints are not miscible with each other, they can be applied simultaneously, on the same brush, without mixing to create brown or black.

This simultaneous application is aided by the use of a common solvent as a separating and shaping agent. A common solvent tends to be miscible with both water- and organic-based materials, but only to the extent of breaking up their molecules and causing them to intermingle. Thus, for example, when Crystal-Craze and food coloring are placed in a pallet with a common solvent, the food coloring is caused to form shapes reminiscent of the patterns found in microscope slides, while the size and shape of the crystalizations will also be affected by the solvent, as will be the arrangement and dispersion of shapes within the frame. Some readily-obtainable common solvents include denatured alcohol, acetone, methanol, turpentine, and ethyl alcohol (tech.).

I spliced my films together and showed them at our weekly F8 showings. The audiences seemed to be divided into people who could hardly watch the films at all, and those who loved them. The lovers all turned out to be users of psychedelic drugs, an implication I didn't want to explore in depth. The people who expressed problems with the films confessed to being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of imagery. As Ron Morrissey put it, "You can really show the mind if you run one of my films at standard speed: images run together so fast that you slip into a euphoric dream world and the whole thing seems to smooth out. It's coming at you so fast, especially when there's a long chain of quite similar objects or shapes, the whole thing smoothes out and appears to be moving just gradually around instead of this jerky thing with fairly well-defined spaces between it which really jerks you apart."

Another problem I found with my favorite painted films was that the amount of paint on them rendered projection nearly impossible. The film would get caught in the projector and catch fire, burning a hole in the film and depositing goo in the projector. A fellow on the staff of the Changing Scene Theatre in Denver told me he had worked out a system for projecting one of my films--it consisted of grabbing it at one point and yanking it past a bumpy spot.

Since I had been formally trained in film production (I was a film major at San Francisco State), I had formed the habit of splicing film using an editor, a device which allows the filmmaker to stop the film at an individual frame for cutting purposes. This device wasn’t really necessary, since I had never developed a strategy for editing abstract films. But one night I happened to look into the editor when it was stopped on a particular piece of film, and found that I couldn’t stop looking at it. This, it turned out, was the most ideal way to view abstract painted footage. The editor was ideal for viewing the films on which I had applied paint on both sides, since I could adjust the focus and thus travel in and out of areas of focus as well as travelling from frame to frame. I finally realized that the work I had created in the medium of the motion picture really belonged in the medium of the still photograph, where elements of the continuum of flowing imagery could be parsed out and contemplated in stillness. In this way the overwhelming kinetic qualities of the film medium could be replaced by the kinetic consciousness of the viewer, with the experience structured by the viewer rather than by the medium. These images satisfied a craving I had for visual environments which can be inhabited by the perceptive consciousness, with new discoveries and interactions at each encounter.

It took this circuitous route to arrive at images of the complexity you see here. Artists have been painting with non-miscible media for hundreds of years--the process is called "marbellizing". But the use of the solvent, which Ron discovered in trying to get rid of the old imagery on his found footage, acts as a catalyst in the creation and dispersion of shapes. And the fact of the extremely small size of the 8mm and Super8 film stock--too small to really be perceived adequately with the naked eye--is essential to the creation of imagery of the complexity seen here. I've used the same techniques with 35mm slides, for instance, and the mysterious tempestuousness of the 8mm cauldron just isn't there. The interaction of the paints and solvents in this miniscule environment produces imagery of an intricacy and invention that I could never hope to match with my own painterly skills. Consequently I approach this work as another audience member. Whereas Ron felt that God is the artist, I think the art form itself is the artist, and the images bring themselves into being. Any film painting session is an adventure, because no two pallets are the same. Since no paint is created for this medium, the search for optimal paint materials is ongoing. One day I was walking down Market Street with a non-filmmaker friend when Ron came running over to me shouting "I've finally found a masculine yellow! I poured iodine on my film and there it was!" and was gone. When my friend asked with some incredulity, "Who was that?", I was proud to reply "That was the greatest film painter of them all."