One Thousand Layer Cinema: A Conversation with Takashi Makino

The Japanese filmmaker, who makes immersive films of profound abstraction, discusses his practice and his latest film, "Memento Stella."
Matt Turner

Memento Stella

For nearly two decades, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Makino has been making entirely abstract films. For him, it seems, abstraction is less of an aesthetic mode and more of a philosophy, a way of creating a space for the viewer to engage with his sonic-visual material as they see fit, Some viewers may choose to actively participate in reading and shaping the meaning of the images he presents, while others will be more interested in passively receiving them and enjoying them on a sensorial or emotional level. What is important, is that in either case, the viewer feels involved. 

As he writes on his website, “what fascinates me most about film expression is the potential for what is presented on the screen to collide with each individual viewer’s emotional landscape, and the new ‘image’ created inside the viewer’s mind resulting from this collision.” For Makino, abstraction offers a space for imagination, free from the limitation posed by direct representation, free from the imposition of applied or linear meaning. Abstraction offers freedom, and once experienced, freedom is hard to give up.

Most of his many films assume a somewhat similar form. He collects a mass of recorded material that he shoots himself—its origin kept a secret that only he and his collaborators are allowed in on, as is what he was thinking about when shooting it, what it might mean—and then edits its together, layering masses upon masses of individual images together to make a new plane of abstract “hybrid images.” He then adds an accompanying soundtrack, provided by a musician (Jim O’Rourke, Cal Lyall, or Carl Stone, for instance) or that he produces himself. The films are usually densely textured, colorful, and complex in appearance—big, dramatic cinematic canvases that have a real sense of scale and grandeur. 

Since 2012 (2013)—in which a mix of celluloid and digital film sources are blended into a stormy, scratchy canvas that dilates alongside a dense drone—he has been experimenting with performance, and from Space Noise 3D (2014), with expanded elements too, using 3D glasses with one lens cut out to change the effects that his film produce, and the experience the audience has. Though each work is fundamentally similar, he continues to find ways to experiment and to further expand upon the ways the films are produced and presented. 

In a Q&A at a screening some years back, he explained his style succinctly. “Most filmmakers make cinema with one or two layers,” he said, before pausing then laughing. “I am making one thousand layer cinema.” While avoiding revealing too many of his secrets—like any self-respecting magician of moving images should—in the below interview Makino explains some of what goes into making “one thousand layer cinema,” focusing on his latest work, Memento Stella. Having premiered it as a film at International Film Festival Rotterdam in January, he is now traveling the world with it, presenting the work in the form of a performance, most recently at Sheffield Doc/Fest and Filmadrid.

NOTEBOOK: Maybe you could start by describing how you go about making a film in general, and how what you do results in what we see? 

TAKASHI MAKINO: I’ve made around 40 short films before. Memento Stella is the longest one. Each time I have an idea, or a background story, and then make an abstract film from it. My main purpose with filmmaking is to create a situation in which the audience and my film can collaborate with each other, and find a space for imagination. This is why I take an abstract approach every time. For me, abstraction is a very creative format to take, as you can see many different things within one single screen. I like facilitating this creative relationship between the viewer and the screen.

Up to around 2004, I only used celluloid materials, 16mm film and Super 8, but after that I used both of those, as well as digital materials.

NOTEBOOK: Why did you change?

MAKINO: I studied film in University in Japan, but I had no knowledge about video. In 2002, I started working for a company, the oldest Japanese development lab and post-production house. I was part of the first team that was using the HD telecine machine. Working there, I realized that I could use both materials, and that by fusing analogue film with digital video, I could make more work, and better work. When I used only film, I was experiencing technical limitations. If I wanted to shoot something over 100 times, with film, it just doesn’t work. But if I shot on film and edited digitally, I could do almost anything. For me understanding this was very useful.

After 2015, I switched to a completely digital process. I could try many more things and experiment further. Recently, I’ve been interested in utilizing more lens work, and not just the camera’s sensor. By doing this I think I can make more creative, softer images, images that resemble film but that are achieved by using a completely digital toolset.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like you are trying to get back to the feel of celluloid film then, when you say about trying to recreate the look or the texture?

MAKINO: I really like the material—and the materiality—of film, but I feel if we use completely digital equipment, it will improve our knowledge of the gear. If you use a 4K sensor, and a flat GoPro lens, for instance, you can achieve a high resolution while countering the flatness of the digital image, and create something much more interesting. I like to make images that have a rich depth to them, and I think that lens work has been very helpful for achieving this: a richer depth, and a richer contrast. 

NOTEBOOK: Within that, a rich image means more things for the viewer to find maybe. You touched on this a bit before, but is the viewer’s perception something that you are interested in exploring, how people see things differently? I’ve been watching Rainer Kohlberger’s films recently, and he is very interested in this, how his audience sees his work in different ways. I was wondering whether it was something you had in common?

MAKINO: His work is very hallucinatory. Our work is similar visually, but the biggest difference is that he creates every image with a computer. Even his computer he made completely by himself. All of my images come from the real world. They’re organic captures. But both of our images sometimes look similar, so we have an interest in each other. 

Memento Stella

NOTEBOOK: Related to this, I wanted to ask about your collaborations. Sometimes you work with a musician, such as Jim O’Rourke, and sometimes you make the music yourself. What decides this, and when you collaborate how does the relationship between image and sound come together? 

MAKINO: Every time I make the image first. After I’ve completed the image, I start thinking about music. If I feel like I can make the right music myself, I do that. But If I think it’s going to be too difficult and I can’t make a soundtrack for the film, I start thinking about who might be the right person for the project. I’ve collaborated with Jim O’Rourke many times, eight times in fact. His soundtracks are very creative, because he doesn’t just follow the images. Sometimes he ignores the images entirely, which creates a different dynamism altogether. 

When I collaborate with a musician, I always explain everything about the film. I tell them all the details behind my thinking, what images I’ve recorded, and why I’ve made the film. Sometimes I write a graphic score for them also. But I ask them to not just follow the image, because that’s not so interesting. I want a relationship, not just a soundtrack.

The other reason I collaborate with musicians is that I need a new view on my images. When I’m editing I’ve seen everything several hundred times, and everything is repeating and repeating, and I start to hear the sound in my head. I really enjoy the moment when I receive the soundtrack, to see if it matches with my expectation or not. Sometimes I don’t accept their vision at first, but I like having something I can’t control, and after watching my images with their sound several times, I usually see what they are thinking, and remember that I have to trust them or it won’t work.

NOTEBOOK: Do you ever worry that the music might affect the mood of the viewer too much? Music can be very emotionally manipulative, and with abstract imagery, it could influence the tone.

MAKINO: Recently, I haven’t made this mistake. I used to make it often though. It was very difficult to explain my feelings about the films, and this clear communication of the idea is key. If I ask them to make a super strong sound, and they make a really heavy soundtrack, the supplied file can’t be played in a cinema. Sound-mixing for film soundtracks is completely different than for normal music. I always check if the musician I’m working has experience making soundtracks, and If I work with someone who hasn’t had experience mixing soundtracks, I use a sound engineer.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask about your performance-based work. You’ve also made a 3D film. What do these extra elements bring to your work, and what is it like to share the space with the people that are viewing your images? 

MAKINO: For 2012 and also Space Noise, I used the Pulfrich effect. This way of making a 3D effect is very creative because it doesn’t happen in front of our eyes, but in our brain. That effect is almost 100 years old, discovered in Munich by a physicist called Carl Pulfrich. Each frame of my film has a different shape, and it’s also changing very quickly because I had to make it at 30 frames per second, because at 22, 24 or 25, it’s too slow. I tried the Pulfrich effect on it, and I found that if you hide one eye, the image turns to one side, but if you cover the other eye, it turns the other way. Each viewer can select how to watch my work, left eye, right eye, or without the glasses at all. This way, everyone can see several different films from a single screen.

NOTEBOOK: Would you make a film in virtual reality?

MAKINO: Yeah, I tried once. A 360 VR film, but the resolution wasn’t high enough for my work. Resolution is very important to me. It affects the canvas. If the canvas is large I can do many things, but if it's smaller, I’m much more limited. I was told I could do a 4K VR image, but when I tried it, you can only see a portion of the 4K image, which isn’t the same. The resolution was too poor, and the frame rate wasn’t high enough, so I stopped making it.

NOTEBOOK: Maybe if the technology improves, Space Noise VR could still happen? 

MAKINO: I like seeing my work in the cinema. Surround sound helps you to feel the depth of the space, and I like the sense of freedom the room has. VR is like a prison from which you cannot escape. I don’t know the future, but it’s not right for me at the moment.  

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like there is anything specifically Japanese about your work? 

MAKINO: Rei [Hayama, Takashi Makino’s partner, and an artist and filmmaker also screening in Sheffield’s New/Japan strand] and I often talk about this. I am Japanese and I live in Japan. I cannot escape from myself. My purpose with filmmaking is that I want to make art which can go beyond borders and beyond races, countries and languages. I think that art can do that. I make films for this reason. I don’t care about “Japanese-ness” as such, however I think that my work is very strict, and sometimes too long, and I am often thinking about what it means to receive so much information at once. When we are overwhelmed by an abundance of information we turn towards nothing. All of these things are very Japanese.

NOTEBOOK: When somebody watches your films, do you want them to try to think about them, and try to work out what it means and what is happening? Or are you happy for them to be less active, and just let themselves be hit by the images, and have more of an immersive experience perhaps? 

MAKINO: I don’t want to say anything specific to the audience. If I say something strongly, it is too much. Every way is okay for me.

NOTEBOOK: With the new film, Memento Stella, where did this focus on the stars came from? it seems a natural point for your work to lead into. What got you thinking about the stars?

MAKINO: The first strong trigger for making Memento Stella was the Fukushima disaster in 2011. At this time, a number of wars were also starting around the world, and many other sad, cruel things were occurring. People were dying. I was so depressed about the world, but I wanted to make this one film, in my way. I wanted to reconnect with and believe in this world again.

I was thinking about how I’m living with my films, and I’ve been showing them in so many countries and cities around the world. Half my year is spent travelling. I’m lucky to be able to travel with the films, and go to places and meet people. So, I decided to capture the landscapes, the people, and other materials from nature, water reflections and forests and things that I was seeing. I really wanted to capture images that were not identifiable by where they were shot. I wanted to find and collect the common landscapes and the common light in this world.

I edited them together, working with so many layers. This work is like a crystallized image, in which I could find a new materiality and create a new landscape through combining all these elements of the world. I really wanted to get back to the world again through this film. I really wanted to create a situation where we can share a film without any language, that has no acting and no narrative, and where we can share the light from this world, and share these stars. In English, “memento stella” translates to “remember we are stars.” It means that we are all living on one planet. It’s actually a prayer for peace. It’s too big a dream really, but I wanted to try.

NOTEBOOK: I think that comes across in the film. Some of your other films can seem quite harsh, the image and sound carries more aggression perhaps, but this one felt more like healing. There was a baby in my screening, and even the baby seem relaxed amongst the stars. 

MAKINO: In Rotterdam? Yeah, it was my friend’s baby.  

NOTEBOOK: The baby was very calm.

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