It was with great excitement that I got the word a few weeks ago that my latest short film, Across the Sound, has been selected for the Portland International Film Festival.
Across the Sound from Brian Libby on Vimeo.
It was with great excitement that I got the word a few weeks ago that my latest short film, Across the Sound, has been selected for the Portland International Film Festival.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of my friend Ned, five of my new short videos are now conveniently available for viewing online. I had a deadline of Friday for entering these into the Northwest Film & Video Festival, so luckily it was a chance to put them on Vimeo as well.
Three of the five films are travelogues, while the other two scrutinize everyday household environments. Of the three travelogues, one takes place in Beijing, one in Kyoto, and the third in London, all made using footage I shot in the last year or two while visiting these places.
The Beijing video is called Forbidden City Rewind and consists of footage I shot in one evening. Although the production values are low, and the action just a few staid shots, I think of this film as symbolizing the past, present and future of China: its imperial, Communist and democratic/capitalist eras. The piece is comprised of three parts: first in the Imperial Ancestral Hall inside the Forbidden City (where I attended a fancy banquet last year while on a press tour for a museum opening), then outside the Forbidden City at the famous Mao portrait overlooking Tiananmen Square, and finally outside a row of small retail outlets.
In the first section, I used some repetition and backwards-footage to render the costumes and pomp of China's ancient imperial times slightly absud. That techniqe stops in the second portion, although the key shot is a long zoomout from the Mao portrait, with the iconic dictator fading into the distance.
The Kyoto-based video, called Kyoto Diner, is humbler in its ambitions. It simply captures about three minutes inside a 24-hour restaurant where I was eating during a trip there last year. All the shots are taken from my table, and offers a very localized focus on the wait staff and kitchen workers. (Update, 10/8/08: This film has been chosen for the Northwest Film & Video Festival at the Portland Art Museum/Northwest Film Center in November.)
The London video, Battersea to Chelsea, is more like a montage of sites we visited along the Thames, from a ceremony at St. Paul's cathedal to skateboarders to a view of the stunning Battersea Power Station. I particularly like the St. Paul's moment in which the priest, unseen by the camera, asks everyone to pray for the world "...in all its glorious diversity." Christianity can be so much more attractive when it's inclusionary and not privy to an us-or-them mentality. Even so, the film's long shot of Battersea Power Station, decaying and empty, feels just as spiritual to me.
Web Swingers is the smallest idea and shortest of the films. Last winter, I happened to notice one day several huge spider webs outside my house, swaying back and forth in the wind and rain. So I spent about a half-hour filming them, and voila. There is the least amount of editing and filmmaking in this short, but its simplicity and subtlety, the way it captures nothing but pretty webs and then stops, has its appeal.
My favorite of these five shorts might be Range of Motion, which is the one I spent by far the most time making. A couple years ago I got the idea to try and film the burners on our kitchen stove coming on and off in the dark, so as to render them as an abstract pattern of four circular forms. Later, I wound up filming various foods cooking on the stove as I cooked dinner. The food you see in the film wasn't created solely as video props. Valarie and I ate all of it. Although I think I consumer all the bacon myself. The music was done by Elias Foley, who has composed music to several of my past shorts as well, including Above & Beyond, Hello Nassau, Avenue & Interstate, and Electric City.
Watching these shorts online, some of them look darker than I intended, especially Range of Motion. But it always feels very exciting to see the little video pieces I've tinkered around with for so long see the light of day.
Pardon the self promotion, but I wanted to put the word out that my short film, Demolition of the Rosefriend Apartments, will be playing this Saturday in the Portland International Film Festival as part of the 'Made In Oregon' shorts program.
As you can see if you watch it online, the five-minute film is basically just a collection of raw video footage taken of the building's facade being torn down by a giant crane. I considered putting it to music, or having voice-over interviews or other audio about the story behind the Rosefriend Apartments, which as many may recall stood at Broadway and Jefferson downtown across from The Oregonian and Higgins restaurant until being torn down last year. But ultimately I just decided to keep it as simple as possible and with no embellishment.
The Ladd Tower is under construction on this site now, and for those of us who had hoped the Rosefriend could be saved, I think now those passions are better directed towards the future. But I had an affection for the building and felt compelled to film some of its demolition.
In the film festival guide, the title was erroneously called The Destruction of the Rosefriend Apartments. I love the NW Film Center, and I don't want to split hairs, but I actually think that 'Demolition' is an important distinction from 'Destruction'. It's similar to how Return of the Jedi was originally set to be called Revenge of the Jedi, but George Lucas made the change from 'Revenge' to 'Return' because he decided that revenge wasn't a Jedi concept.
I'm certainly no Jedi. Probably more like C-3PO. And by no means would I compare myself George Lucas - although we do share a birthday. But I distinguish 'Demolition' from 'Destruction' in a similar way to revenge/return.
Even so, filming the demolition that day, as I stood in a very large crowd of men seemingly giddy to see the crane do its work, it seemed like I was surrounded by people with an appetite for destruction, to borrow from Guns & Roses (not that I'm a fan). I was one of the gawkers, of course. But I also felt a little guilty, like staring at a car accident as you drive by. Let’s face it, though: destruction is fun to watch. I guess it’s that weird irony that made me run and film that day. That and a desire, however corny it may sound, to not look away when the moment came.
The 'Made In Oregon' shorts program screens at 2PM Saturday at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium.
You are cordially invited to a screening of my short films Thursday evening (June 7) at the Northwest Film Center/Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium.
The show, called "Brian Libby: Travelogues" and scheduled for 7PM, consists of 18 short films made over the last four years. It's part of the NW Film Center's ongoing 'Northwest Tracking' series. The films were shot while traveling in a host of different locations: Tokyo, London, Amsterdam, New York, Nassau, Los Angeles, but especially here in Portland. The idea was to capture spontaneous, real moments as I experienced them - a kind of visual reportage or diary, but done in a more abstract way.
For example, one of the films, Route 23 (pictured), is a time-lapse of a double-decker busride through London. It wasn't something I set out to film. I just happened to be in the front row of the bus while traveling there last year, then set my camera down on the inner ledge in front of my front-row-seat to record the ride. When I got home, I simply sped up the footage to compress a half-hour ride down to a quick 5 minutes. Another, Roppongi Crossing, is a montage of Tokyo cab drivers' faces as they wait at a red light. Portland Project #1 captures our city's Central Eastside, while Tianjin Highway observes the massive barges passing from the Columbia to the Pacific at Astoria.
The pieces are unified, I think, by a desire to document the landscape, be it manmade or natural. I love watching skinny row houses of Amsterdam go by in Golden Bends, but also seeing the Three Sisters in Western Travelogue #1 (my first film). Most of all, though, I seem to have viewed architecture, engineering and infrastructure with the kind of eye that a little kid looks at a Tonka truck or a model train set.
About two-thirds of the films are set to music by Portland composers Eric Schopmeyer, Ned Howard (both of whom have had compositions screened at the Sundance Film Festival), and Elias Foley. The rest rely on natural audio. These are what you'd call 'experimental' films, and not for everyone. If you only go see summer blockbusters, you might be slightly out of your element here. But they're pretty accessible little films, I think, because most of them are basically just music videos.
If you're interested in the films but can't make it to or don't want to come to tomorrow night's screening, DVDs are available for a $10 suggested donation - or for free if you really can't spare it.
I've been lucky enough to receive a couple of good reviews from two local papers, and I hope it's not too crass of me to pass them on:
Marc Mohan of The Oregonian writes, "Brian Libby...definitely has an eye for images. His short films manage to meld the quotidian and the sublime, or rather perhaps expose the one within the other...Libby's camera forces the viewer to reconsider familiar sights, [and] to capture unexpected glimpses of the sublime."
Mike Thelin of Willamette Week writes, "Libby does his best work charting the mundane, such as the quiet industrial landscape of Portland's Central Eastside or the flight patterns of a resident bird flock at the Darigold Creamery...The montage of images makes for an engaging exploration of physical space, infrastructure, and the transportation systems that dissect them." In the Portland Mercury, reviewer Chas Bowie calls the work "lyrically investigative footage" and makes the screening a starred pick.
If you're able to make it, don't hesitate to come say hi before or after the show.
Earlier today I had the good fortune and humbling experience of seeing one of my films play at the Portland International Film Festival. It was part of a group show called 'Short Cuts III: Made in Portland".
The first film in the program, called Scardeycat, was by a good friend of mine, Andy Blubaugh. Andy's film also recently played at the Sundance Film Festival. My friend Ned did the music along with Eric Schopmeyer, who also did the music to my film playing in the same lineup today.
Scardeycat is a very compelling first-person documentary based on Andy's experience being attacked a couple years ago in an episode of random violence. In the film, he confronts his own demons about being obsessive-compulsive, fearful, and maybe even guilty of unintentioned racism. The honesty with which Andy looks at himself and ties his own journey to larger societal issues is breathtaking. I've known Andy for a few years now, and he also edited one of my previous films, and it's been amazing to see him progress as an artist and, through his artwork, even as a person.
There was also a film called Finca El Injerto that portrayed in beautifully evocative super-8 and 16-mm film the workers of a coffee plantation in Guatemala. The project was produced by Stumptown Coffee to shed light on the relationship they share with coffee farmers. But a huge amount of credit goes to Stumptown owner/founder Duane Sorenson for choosing two experimental filmmakers, Trevor Fife and Autumn Campbell, in order to make something other than a routine documentary. Although short in information, this film captured the spirit of place very well.
My film, Route 23, was one of the simpler, shorter and less ambitious works in the lineup. Consisting of a single time-lapse shot, it condenses a half hour double-decker bus ride through London to about four minutes. It's also enhanced significantly by a wonderful score by my friend Eric that's like a more whimsical version of Steve Reich: very rhythmic to propel the speedy action onscreen, but without a strong melody that threatens to compete with it.
More important than the content of the film, though - today anyway - was the surreal experience of crossing over from having written about films and filmmakers for several years and then being on the other side it. Putting your work in the spotlight can be very frightening, and I think more critics ought to appreciate that.
When my film first came on the screen, I was focusing on the things that didn't feel right, like the volume being way too low or the video looking more grainy on a big screen. Still, a couple of times I caught audience members responding positively, and that felt great. There's one shot where our bus (and by extension the camera) comes just a few inches from the back of two other buses, and the frame becomes split with just a sliver of London viewable through the alley of light between the buses. A few chortled just a bit like one does watching those point-of-view roller coaster shots. I love this, precisely because it's something totally different from what pushed my own buttons visually as I made the film.
Ultimately you make the film for yourself, not for an audience or the honor of having it screened in a film festival. At least that's how I approached it. I feel unburdened by the need to have people like this stuff - the fest notwithstanding. But it is a very invigorating feeling to have strangers respond to something one created, I must say.
At the end of the show, they had a Q&A session with the filmmakers, and one audience member asked me about the process of making the film: how many times did I ride the double decker bus before I got the idea to film it? The answer was zero: I just take my camera places with me (especially on vacation) and capture authentic experiences spontaneously. Having the chance to tell the audience about that felt as good as showing them the film.
It's not about this, but I also wanted to give a special shout-out to my old friend Joel Dunn. Joel has two young children and also teaches and coaches varsity basketball at Woodburn High School. In other words, he's really got his hands full. Just spending an hour with his adorable little tikes is exhausting to me, let alone shaping teenage minds all day. I told him several times it was no big deal to come, and that if I were him I'd use any available spare time just to relax. Joel also is not at all a follower of local and/or experimental film. He had to ask me for directions to the Portland Art Museum like five times. But there he was with a Woodburn High jacket, an open mind and a pat on the back. Thanks Joel.
Over the last year after giving up film reviewing, I've hardly watched any movies at all. I think Casino Royale and The Departed are the only 2007 films I've even seen. But it's invigorating to go a screening where the people sitting behind or in front of you made the films you're seeing. Every show like this of local work has its ups and downs. At least one film in this lineup had me looking at my watch a lot. But the do-it-yourself spirit can be very contagious. It's a continuous epiphany to me when I see a film or a piece of music or painting and think, 'I may not be able to or even want to make something just like the other guy did, but hey - I can do this'.
Over the last few weeks I've been putting together a DVD compilation of the six completed short films I've made over the last two years. One thing I decided to include was liner notes about each of the works. I thought I'd include them here:
Kerra Skola consists of a single continuous shot: a trip through an automatic car wash. I simply mounted a video camera onto the dashboard of my car, paid $5 for the Triple Polish, and hit the ‘Record’ button. During editing, Rob Tyler and I employed techniques such as the motion-blur to render the machine’s brush twists and water sprays in a more abstract manner. I’ve always found carwashes to be a kaleidoscopic diversion from everyday life: a performance you watch through the windshield. And that was what I hoped to portray. (The title, incidentally, is Icelandic for “car wash”, or at least “car” and “wash”. I happened to be flipping through Rob’s Icelandic dictionary as we were editing.) Most of the audio is existing sounds from the carwash picked up with the microphone on the camera, which Rob then manipulated similarly to the visuals. We did add one external bit of external audio: radio transmissions from Soviet cosmonauts, which again was meant to emphasize the otherworldly atmosphere.
Tsukiji 5AM was shot entirely at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo on my first morning in the city. I’d woken up very early at my hotel with jet lag and remembered the market’s main period of operation was around 4-5AM. It was very important personally that I only minimally edit what I shot (everything you see comes in chronological order) to preserve the integrity of the original experience. With Andy Blubaugh’s help, I simply paired about fifteen minutes of footage into about seven, removing the redundant or otherwise unwanted shots. All the sound comes from what the camera’s microphone picked up. I also omitted narration or other ways of imposed storytelling. I wanted Tsukiji 5AM to retain the same wonder and bewilderment that I, as a foreign visitor, experienced being at the market. It’s an extraordinarily impressive operation, with so much coordinated chaos. But at the same time, seeing so much butchering makes the film, however unintended, an essay on human consumption.
Western Travelogue #2 consists of a series of images, most of them unrelated, that I shot with a Super-8 camera. I got in the habit for several months of taking the camera on various outings: a boat ride in Yaquina Bay on the Oregon Coast, or a walk through Portland Central Eastside industrial area. Each shot is followed by a couple seconds of black screen, because I think of this film as a kind of a moving slideshow, where each image is loosely related to the whole, but considered on its own as well. Although it’s completely non-narrative, there is still a kind of sequential change from urban landscapes at the beginning to natural ones later. The end montage of pigeons in flight is a good example of a recurring personal style: attempting to mine beauty from seemingly tattered, tarnished subjects, often with localized scrutiny that takes the subject out of its context to be viewed as more abstract physical forms and patterns. Mercifully, none of those pigeons managed to make a direct hit on me or my clothes. The music is a collaboration with Eric Schopmeyer, who skillfully articulated and transformed my vague ideas about melody, instrumentation and mood.
Super Terrific Shinjuku is a companion piece to Tsukiji 5AM. Shot on the same trip to Tokyo in June of 2004, it chronicles an evening I spent in the Shinjuku neighborhood, with its flashing neon and spectacle of shops, clubs and many, many people. I loved seeing so many neon signs in a language that I not only couldn’t understand, but didn’t even know any of the characters from. It made the patterns of light and color stand out to me all the more. I feel a little guilty about including the performing monkey footage, because I feel sorry for the poor animal. But in the end I just couldn’t resist.
Western Travelogue #1 is the first film I ever made. Shot on super-8, it chronicles three distinct landscapes: city, mountains, and beaches. It also includes narration in Japanese without subtitles; I’ve always been fascinated by the musicality of languages I don’t understand. I imagined this resembling a documentary about Oregon that I might have stumbled upon in a junk shop or thrift store on a decaying old film reel. I enjoyed the idea of viewers filling in the blanks, seeing images of towering fir trees or horses trotting along a ridge and imagining what these voices are saying about them. Thanks to Ned Howard for his work with not only the narration, but also the recurring waltz music in the background. The middle portion of mountains and forest land was photographed going to and from my aunt Laura’s funeral, and is intended as a tribute to her.
Nocturne began the same way as Kerra Skola, with my video camera affixed to the dashboard of my car. This time, however, the occasion was an 8-minute drive from my home in Southeast Portland at 3AM to a bakery in the Pearl District, crossing the Willamette River via the Hawthorne Bridge and passing through Downtown. What I hoped to convey was the juxtaposition of solitude and eeriness that came from traversing a dense urban environment that is all but devoid of people. Unlike with Kerra Skola, I didn’t use any editing techniques to enhance the action onscreen. With this film I wanted to maintain a greater sense of the reality from which this moment was born. That said, Ned Howard’s ambient musical score is essential to the film’s haunting tone.
A few weeks ago I wrote about learning how to edit digital video and how much fun it was to finally, after a couple years of playing around, be able to create short films on my own from start to finish. And that process is still going, with me regularly in the basement for a couple hours a day, editing travel footage from Tokyo, London, Edinburgh, and Portland's Central Eastside Industrial District.
As the weeks have gone by since first setting up an editing area in the basement this summer, I've come to find that experience affecting how I see everyday life.
While editing travel footage, my work consists largely of reducing several hours down to, say, a half hour. I prefer to keep the succession of shots in their original order rather than juggling them around, so without that Pandora's Box opened I focus instead on cutting out little chunks of time, anywhere from a single second to several minutes. Much of what I shoot on vacation has been from trains, so while editing that footage I look for passages with particularly striking rural or urban landscapes, or perhaps some audio cue that has its own time frame that needs to be honored, like the beginning and end of someone talking. And watching the film, collectively I want the succession of shots to have a kind of rhythm. Jim Jarmusch has often compared film editing to music, and while I'm practically microscopic in filmmaking stature compared to him, in principle I couldn't agree more.
Even when I'm not editing, I often find myself watching a particular moment transpire and considering what aspects I would alter, be it banal as waiting at a stoplight in my car or some historic moment like seeing a friend's new baby. Maybe there's a light shadow on a building, but I want to increase the contrast with a few clicks of Final Cut Pro. At that stoplight, I might get impatient waiting for it to turn green and imagine everything happening at ultra-high speeds, as with the time lapse sequences I've occasionally tinkered with.
I think we forget what an infinite amount of ways there are to view any situation, and filmmaking--especially the editing stage--really reminds one that. The time of day affects the angle of the sun and the quality of light you see. Whether you're moving or sitting still determines the pace at which you see particular places or objects move in and out of view. When I'm anywhere outside, I'm reminded that the environment will look completely different just by the time of day being different and the sun coming from a different angle.
Editing also resembles memory itself. In a sense, memory is just a few key moments one has experienced boiled down to their essential and most compelling personal meaning. And so when editing footage, while it's true what you've shot, however artfully, probably will never replicate what you see in your mind's eye, it also brings the luxury of limitless replays that can be altered with the click of the button.
Now if only I could find the right software to edit my actual memories and not what I've shot. There's a botched chance at scoring a touchdown in 5th grade pee-wee football that has always haunted me, and I'd like to see it on the cutting room floor.
For years I’ve been shooting video footage with the hope of someday learning how to edit it together, be it from my Tokyo trip last year or a few minutes of raindrops on the front steps. But I never knew how to use Final Cut Pro, i-Movie, Premiere, or any of the other digital software platforms. And I've never been satisfied with a collection of footage in its own right. Just like writing, I don't think the work is complete until it's been edited, until it's been made sense of.
Over time, I’ve watched as filmmaker friends churn out short films on their home computers, particularly with Final Cut Pro software. Slowly, I've picked up tidbits of technique: loading footage from camera to computer, cross-fading between two shots, or dillydallying with maxed-out memory banks. And recently, I finally got the nudge I needed to take the plunge and really to do it myself: My friend Rob gave me his old Apple G-3 with the appropriate editing software. Other friends, Ned and Andy, patiently taught me the way with a few additional FCP pointers. And suddenly...I can do this!
After just a week or two at my makeshift editing table in the basement, I’ve got five different short films in the works. One is a travelogue of Tokyo’s neon-filled Shinjuku area. Another condenses a 35-minute ride through London atop a double-decker bus into about four minutes. An Amsterdam canal boat tour has produced ten and three-minute video versions. Some impromptu video I shot of a blimp in the Central Eastside, if I edit it right and choose the right music, could be equally whimsical and haunting. And additional footage of electric stove-burners turning on and off in the dark at ten times the normal speed amounts to, hopefully, a kind of abstract version of the electronic Simon childhood game.
What’s been most surprising about the fun I’ve had editing all this footage is that I’ve decided the intended audience is really only me. As a movie writer, I’ve always focused on a filmmaker’s work finding public audience. If a good film didn’t get seen, I counted it as, at least on some level, a tragedy. But now that I’m on the other end making films of my own, it doesn’t necessarily seem so crucial to seek out people to watch my work, aside from the occasional friend or relative. Mainly, just playing it on my own television is enough. It's not that I lack confidence about how an audience would react. Rather, I feel like their feelings are secondary. I'm still very experienced at editing, but for one reason or another I trust my instincts. I know what I want to see, and I sense that that's different from other people. I gravitate more and more to a sparing, meditative style that I know others find boring. Freed from the expectation of pleasing others, I can follow my own instincts. That feels tremendously liberating.
Today, because cameras and editing software are so affordable and easy to use, anybody can make a movie. That proclamation in and of itself has become a cliché, but I mean it a little differently. It’s not just that anyone with consumer-grade equipment and desktop software has the opportunity to make a feature that gets picked up at a film festival by a studio for millions of people to see. What I find most fascinating is that cinema—until very recently a visual language only a few lucky people with the resources of producers and studios could employ—is now a part of everyday lives. I know people have already been shooting video for more than a generation. But when you start editing, it’s not just a meaningless succession of footage. It’s a whole other level of visual expression.
When I finished the first cut of my Shinjuku video, I honestly felt like that ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey who joyously heaves the bone into the air. I suppose that kind of euphoria never lasts, but hopefully the reverberation will continue indefinitely.