"Stereo Visions" at Big Ears Festival: A Three-Dimensional Interview with Blake Williams

The director of "PROTOTYPE" discusses his program of bold 3D cinema guest-curated for the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Daniel Kasman

more than everything

For those who love their live music to be risk-taking and cutting-edge, the Big Ears Festival, a 4-day event each March in Knoxville, Tennessee, is the place to be. For those who like their cinema of similar boldness and eclecticism, Big Ears is becoming a destination for that, too. Focusing on experimental work and inspired retrospectives, the film section of Big Ears is now in its third year, programmed by critic Darren Hughes (who writes regularly for the Notebook) and filmmaker Paul Harrill (Something, Anything), who together run The Public Cinema, a non-profit screening series shown at the Knoxville Museum of Art that operates year-long. Big Ears' film program is an exciting extension and expansion of The Public Cinema's initiative, which brings international art cinema like Hong Sang-soo's On the Beach Alone at Night and Valeska Grisebach's Western, as well as American independent cinema like Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris - The New York Public Library, to audiences who otherwise wouldn't be able to see such films on the big screen.

The 2018 edition of Big Ears showcases the growing ambition of the festival as a destination for filmmakers and moviegoers with its focus on American experimental animator Lewis Klahr and a survey of regional American cinema between 1960 and 1989, as well as two guest-programmed retrospectives, one of the highly influential San Francisco avant-garde film collection Canyon Cinema, programmed by David Dinnell, and "Stereo Visions," a survey of 3D cinema curated by critic and filmmaker Blake Williams. A passionate practitioner and teacher of 3D cinema, Williams is showing his great 2017 feature debut—the sensorial techno-hurricane film PROTOTYPE—at Big Ears, alongside other films ranging from feature-length big name experiments (Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Godard's Goodbye to Language) to some of the best 3D work of the contemporary avant-garde, including Ken Jacobs' glasses-free masterpiece Seeking the Monkey King, Lillian F. Schwartz's pioneering early computer animations, Johann Lurf's cacophonous Hollywood logo mash-up Twelve Tales Told and Takashi Makino's immersive 2012.

Through email, Williams and I discussed his interest in 3D technology and aesthetics, how he introduces the format to his students and new audiences, and highlights from his Big Ears program.

NOTEBOOK: You teach 3D in cinema; you've been making films in 3D for several years now; and now you are presenting a lavish and incredibly varied overview of 3D moving image art at Big Ears. Can you remember the first 3D film you saw and your reaction? And what originally sparked this pursuit of the third dimension?

BLAKE WILLIAMS: I think the first 3D movie I saw was probably something at Disney World or a Six Flags theme park? Amusement parks and roller coasters were one of my first true hobbies—at one point I wanted to ride every coaster in the world; I never did get to but a few outside of Texas—and I remember seeing T2 3-D: Battle Across Time I think on a class trip to Disney World in the mid-90s. I remember having the standard reach-out-and-grab it reaction when an object came out of the screen in negative parallax, but I don’t know that I was really enthused by that experience. Actually I’m not sure I can remember what sparked any of this. 

What I do remember is that my current 3D kick started shortly after I saw Michael Snow’s Wavelength for the first time on 16mm in 2010. Later that year I downloaded one of the bootleg copies of it off the Internet and tried to post-convert it into 3D, to kind of literalize the depth experience of the film by shaping the room in the film into a 3D box that the camera pushed into until the movie becomes 2D again at the end, as we come face-to-face with a printed photograph. I spent two months on it—working frame by frame, folding the image into a stereoscopic box—but it was such a slow and tedious process. I probably only finished the first four minutes of it, and gave up. But, that experience with folding the video plane, creating virtual 3D forms out of images, is what led to my first 3D short, Many a Swan, which takes found footage of the Grand Canyon and folds the video plane into various 3D shapes, origami-style: a paper airplane, a swan, and other abstract forms.

NOTEBOOK: It sounds like your forays into 3D were, in a way, based on improving—or perhaps more precisely, expanding—upon cinema's two dimensionality. Is your work in 3D first and foremost something for you to play with or an experience you want the audience to encounter?

WILLIAMS: I don’t know if is was a desire to improve or expand as much as it was an impulse to virtualize, perhaps to alienate. The 3D work came right after I’d just made two pieces—Coorow-Latham Road (2011), a trek down an Australian dirt road via Google Street View, and Depart (2012), a mutated attempt at a performance piece with fireflies in my studio—both of which bare the seams of spatial representation in digital environments, and acknowledge the algorithms and interfaces that go into these constructions. So if anything, I’d think of pieces like Many a Swan or the failed Wavelength conversion as an attempt to capture this ambivalent sensation that one often gets with 3D imagery: that the world being presented feels more real and actual, but at the same time feels more virtual and artificial and immaterial and distant. And I think this desire is certainly mostly geared toward discovering the kinds of experiences that these images can offer, but of course it requires a long process of testing things and playing with effects, in order to find out what’s affecting and evocative.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the experiences that 3D images can offer, do you feel like there is an ideal use or expression of the medium that the best are working towards? At their core, is Jackass 3D and your film PROTOTYPE after a similar phenomenological experience?

WILLIAMS: Not an ideal one. I hesitate to speak of ideals when it comes to speaking about a medium or format, because ideals shift constantly; an ideal for one piece can be totally different from the ideal for another. Like, the use of 3D in Goodbye to Language is extremely different from its use in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In some ways they’re even antithetical. But in each case the format was used in a way that was ideal for what was needed.

Jackass 3D is expressing something about tactility and bodies and pain empathy that the 3D might be enhancing. In the first two films, these expressions were already there, and already quite visceral. But the 3D raises the question of how vision informs our full, sensorial system. Is the film more odorous, foul-tasting, and viscerally painful because of the added visual depth? In terms of its intentions, it's a real ‘feel bad’ movie, perhaps the most forwardly ‘feel bad’ movie ever made. Yet we also laugh at it, because it’s hilarious and juvenile and ridiculous, and because we know that it can do us no real harm. So there’s a sense of safety and security that is also at play in these movies—actually, it’s there in a lot of the 3D movies I’m drawn to, or that I’m making lately, including PROTOTYPE. This sense of danger, disaster, aggression, and how that aesthetic experience imposes these threats on us in a way that asserts the safety of our distance from the actual experience.

NOTEBOOK: You're showing this program to audiences that probably have rarely, if ever, been exposed to 3D cinema outside of the multiplex. I imagine that your students are in a similar position when starting your class on 3D cinema. What is your approach to introducing new audiences to the range of expression that exists outside the mainstream?

WILLIAMS: I’ve been starting my classes by screening Dial M and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (both in "Stereo Visions"!), because they both address, in their own ways, a number of important points about the history of 3D and the way the format is used. My students are always surprised to learn that 3D films were possible before the 90s, so we burst that bubble right from the get-go with the Hitchcock. These films also allow me to address the institutionally-imposed conventions that we regularly see in cinema—its ties to theatre, to narrative, to representation—so we can then think about how the 3D format has been utilized in mainstream cinema and sold to audiences, and why it so frequently comes in and out of fashion. This is all a way of setting the table for our eventual break from these expectations, when we start looking at films that are more interested in tactility, embodiment, and abstraction. Once you understand that narrative and character psychology and even spatial integrity aren’t ontologically linked to what cinema as a medium is, it’s much easier to warm up to the nuances of 3D’s unique aesthetic vocabulary.

With "Stereo Visions," I can't rely as much on this development; most people won’t see the entire program, they’ll just come to some of it—maybe even only one or two of the shows—so I’ll give a bit of context before each screening, just so everyone knows what I was I thinking. But I have complete trust in Big Ears audiences. Their taste in music is as adventurous and accommodating to abstraction as any I know, so I think they’ll be game for most of the challenges this program has to offer. 

NOTEBOOK: In that context, what are some of the wilder films in the program you are excited to be showing? Some of the pieces are very rare, and all the more so because they need to be projected in technical circumstances many cinemas or festivals cannot provide.

WILLIAMS: So many! Well, I have to start with the four Ken Jacobs films we’re showing, which are among the most beautiful and the most rigorous in the program, and make a strong case for why he’s still considered such a major and influential figure after so many decades of 3D experimentation. Takashi Makino’s 2012 is the only film we’re showing that uses the Pulfrich method; it’s 30 minutes long, and one of the most hypnotic films I’ve ever seen. The 3D effects it generates are also highly unusual, almost spectral, and it reveals something fundamental about vision that I’d never encountered or considered before. Rainer Kohlberger's more than everything—which actually just had its world premiere in Rotterdam this January—is also something quite special. I’ve been a fan of his digital work—he calls it “noise” art—for a few years now; he’s really a master of the pixel, of algorithmic manipulation. more than everything is his first stereoscopic piece, and it creates an extremely unstable sensory experience by delivering unique visuals to each eye. 

But honestly, every piece is worth mentioning—each is vital to the bigger picture and was included because they’re exemplary and singular. And as you say, they’re so difficult to see properly projected and with the correct kinds of glasses. Lillian F. Schwartz’s pieces, for example, are frequently shown in galleries, and her ChromaDepth works, along Kerry Laitala’s piece that we’re showing, are all ravishing, mind-melting experiences that really benefit from the big screen. As does Willy LeMaitre’s Insight’s Cataract, which stretches and ripples its footage of nature and the mundane in a way that recalls Futurist paintings and pre-cinematic experiments with chronophotography.  Then you have Simon Payne’s NOT AND OR, which establishes infinite planes of depth simply by toggling between glimpses of flat black-and-white quadrilaterals, and it completely consumes you. When I first saw, I forgot where I was (I was in Windsor). I should stop, but really I could mention everything.

NOTEBOOK: I'm glad you started with a recommendation for Ken Jacobs, whose Seeking the Monkey King, is for me one of the great films of the decade. But I'd like to come back to you: Last year you premiered your first feature, and it explored the possibilities and sensorial experiences of 3D in a completely remarkable way. Are you planning on continuing to work in the medium? What did PROTOTYPE teach you about utilizing 3D and what would you like to see next from your own work in the medium?

WILLIAMS: For now I have no intention of making anything that isn’t stereoscopic. I feel like I share some sort of kinship with the format. Some filmmakers develop these relationships with certain formats, whether it’s with 16mm, super 8, or whatever, and that’s how I feel about 3D. I prefer 3D images to flat ones, I’ve accepted this, and I feel like I have to stand up for the format when people dog it. I so often watch new films and wish they had been shot stereoscopically—not all films, but a majority of them for sure. 

I don’t know what PROTOTYPE taught me about 3D. More clear is what it taught me about how I work with longer durations, and what I might do differently in the future in terms of shaping the temporal experience. I did really love re-photographing 3D footage off of the old CRT monitor; I’m excited to explore that technique further in the near future, with a color screen—perhaps in my next film, which looks like it might be about aviation. And PROTOTYPE was also the first film that I (partially) shot with GoPros, though it’s not a very GoPro-y movie. I’m curious to see what else I can do with those cameras. 

NOTEBOOK: Okay, now I must ask: What film, above all, do you wish had been shot stereoscopically?

WILLIAMS: Sorry, I have to give you a list: Tati's PlayTime, still 70mm; any Buster Keaton. I desperately want Claire Denis to make a 3D film. Her close-ups? Yes. Certain Philippe Grandrieux films, and some of David Lynch’s darker films. Also a lot of avant-garde work, naturally. Warhol’s Chelsea Girls is one. Benning would be amusing in 3D, especially his landscape films, like 13 Lakes and RR. Actually, a lot of films where the depth illusions would feel especially out of place or redundant (hence my Wavelength effort). For example, I can’t help but wonder, while I’m watching them, how Lewis Klahr’s films would translate to 3D. Flatness is so important in his work, so it would change the experience quite a bit. All those paper cutouts, how they play against the actual three-dimensional objects in the frame…it could be very nice. And sacrilege, I know, but I’m convinced that if Nathaniel Dorsky made a stereo-16mm film the world would stop spinning and the sun would burn out. If anything on this planet could initiate the rapture, it’d be that.

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InterviewsFestival CoverageBig Ears FestivalBig Ears Festival 2018Blake WilliamsRainer KohlbergerKen JacobsSimon Payne
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