On two warm summer nights, a fellow film student and myself shot a light painting film. We did it with a Bolex and 100ft of 250D, 16mm, color movie film. We wanted to push the limits of light painting, creating movement, rhythm, character, and conflict. So with the help of a few friends, we began our luminous conquest, one frame at a time.
And Danny and John said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Danny and John saw that the light was good.
If only it was that easy.
I think it’s safe to say that I am perhaps obsessed, to some degree, with light painting. Obsession isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can take you to some interesting places. During the summer of 2010, my obsession brought me to an interesting place.
It was warm. The weather was beautiful. I was delivering pizzas, getting over an ended relationship, enjoying a break from classes, and surfing the Lomo galleries whenever I could. Life was too slow, so the creative itch found its way into my brain. I had the idea that I wanted to shoot an entire 16mm film, by single-frame exposure light paintings. I knew it would be intense, and intense was what I wanted.
I sought out a partner for the project. It needed to be someone as obsessive as myself, and as committed to the concept. This wasn’t my first attempt at shooting 100ft of 16mm light painting. I had tried during the winter with classmates and the project was a disaster(someone passed out on set and we had major camera errors). Enough time had passed since that negative experience, so I was ready to try again and I was pretty sure I knew just the guy for the job.
Enter Danny Beard. As a proud Irishman, and an enthusiastic filmmaker, Danny was the perfect partner to join me in the light painting marathon. He had his own Bolex, and was willing to make the film as a collaborative effort. So we chose a clear night, and headed out into the woods. Chautauqua park of Boulder, Colorado was our location. When we found our spot, the sun was still going down. We decided that a time lapse into and out of the light painting sequence was the perfect way to bookend our film. We began shooting, one frame every five seconds, one frame every ten seconds, one frame ever fifteen, etc. Then it was dark.
A couple of friends hiked up to visit us after the sundown, and to see how shooting was going. We convinced them to stick around, and to join the experience. So the four of us, equipped with LED lights: one red, one green, one blue, and one white (oh and a Diana Mini Flash), began scribbling illuminant doodles in the black night. Danny and I would take turns operating the camera and stopwatch, and then participating in the actual light painting. We had a long night ahead of us. 16mm film runs at a rate of 24 fps, so that means that in order to complete shooting just one second of viewing material, 24 individual light paintings is required. Our goal was to make a film the was roughly 3 minutes. The process was slow. Very very slow. Extremely slow. Painfully slow.
By 2am, we had barely completed shooting 40ft of film. We had 60 more feet left to shoot, and our bodies were already beginning to shut down. Our comrades were also worn down, so we set them free, and continued the conquest as a duo. Danny would shoot, I would paint. Then reverse. As we’d paint over time, eventually our eyes would see the prior designs floating in the dark, as a faint memory of a past instant, and after awhile it became hard to focus, and hard to remember what this was even all about. Danny and I began to dismantle our perceptions of time and space. We no longer knew time. We didn’t even really know where we were. It was pitch black outside, so the only visible thing was whoever was painting with an LED. The world had stopped, and we were now part of some filmic wormhole ritual. We were slaves to color and to the camera, and we were still obsessed. We were now obsessed with finishing the project so that we could understand what it meant.
4am came around, and we had only 60 feet completed. There was no way this film was going to be shot in one night. We admitted defeat, and decided to complete the film another night. The next day Danny and I planned the second shooting session and decided that a local train crossing was perfect. We rested, and then set back out. The second night moved faster than the first. We knew the technique, and we now had a system. On the second night of shooting, just the two of us completed the final 40ft. The last 10ft of film we saved for the sunrise. As the sun came up we were exhausted, and still very unsure of what exactly we had created. We unloaded the Bolex, shipped the film out, drank a few beers, and slept.
When Danny and I finally watched the 16mm work print a week later, we were blown away. Filmmakers aren’t always encouraged to be outwardly emotional, but for this one we reacted with cheers and I think Danny shed a tear or two(or maybe it was me). We had invested so much time into the damn thing that there was just no way we weren’t gonna like it. The color and movement were exactly as we planned, and the exposures were nearly spot-on. The digital transfer that I have uploaded to show you is an unfortunate compromise of the image Danny and I were able to see, but it is still an excellent representation of the final result. (The cut I uploaded onto Vimeo is nearly the entire roll, displayed in the order it was shot, with the exception of two repeated segments)
Ultimately though, even after viewing the film, I think questions still remain… like: What the fuck was this all about? Why shoot 16mm? Why try this at all? Why not stare a screen saver to get a visual fix?
I don’t think these are questions that can, or even should answered. When it comes to art, I guess the only relevant question is “why not?” Confronting the creative itch is sometimes the only way to live, and during the Summer of 2010 I needed to do something really difficult, and complete it. It wasn’t for love and it wasn’t for money(perhaps the opposite?). It was just two guys in the woods with some colored lights and an old camera. It was intense, really fuckin intense, and it was exactly what I wanted.