Filmmaker Focus: Scott Nyerges

For this exclusive edition of Filmmaker Focus we get insight into the hand-crafted film practice of Scott Nyerges, a NY-based filmmaker whose recent film "Polar" screened at the 46th AAFF.

"There's always been an environmental sensibility to my filmmaking, whether it's planetary (Means and Meditations, 2003), seasonal (Flow, 2005) or climatological (Polar, 2007). I find the natural order of the world to be both a source of endless inspiration and a logical means of narrative organization — even for abstract films such as mine. At the same time, I've always been fascinated by the
larger universe, of which our world is but one tiny part. Chalk it up to being born in the 1970s, that golden age of space exploration, and a lot of time spent watching Carl Sagan and documentaries about NASA on public television.

These two interests intertwine in my current project, tentatively called Cosmos and inspired by the book of the same name by Giles Sparrow. I began working on the film shortly after I returned from this year's AAFF. Most of the imagery is derived from traditional direct-film technique — specifically, painting on celluloid filmstrips — that I've been working with on my past films. Whereas in other works I'd limited my palette to a few basic colors (yellows and greens for Flow, blues and greens in Polar), for Cosmos I'm stretching out to include reds, oranges and yellows as well. I expect Cosmos will be far more colorful and intricate than previous works.

My method is fairly straightforward: I apply a few drops of paint or ink to a strip of clear 35mm leader, perhaps a solvent of some sort to loosen the pigment as well. Occasionally, I'll agitate the pigments to start the blending process. Finally, I apply another layer of 35mm to seal it, and let the magic happen. Over the course of 12 to 36 hours, depending on what media I'm using, the inks and paints will continue to react with one another in an organic chemical process. The best strips resemble satellite images of rivers, channels, deltas, peaks and valleys — held up the light, I'm awed by the uncanny resemblance some of the strips bear to the interplanetary imagery on the pages of Sparrow's book (or, for that matter, any satellite imagery).

Once the strips are painted, they still must be animated. I'm particularly interested in how the computer can emulate the optical printer, and in discovering what happens when digital and analog meet. I use a garden-variety flatbed scanner, Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Nothing else. I'm sure I could use a more sophisticated program like Motion, but I like how this relatively unsophisticated software retains at least the trace of analog grittiness the strips themselves possess. I can emulate many of the functions of an optical printer, with the added advantage of digital compositing and color manipulation. Colors and layers blend and merge in ways that bipacking or masking can't quite reproduce. I also find the computer retains the sharp detail of the painted filmstrips better than film would. I can scan a filmstrip at such high magnification that what might be four or six frames on a strip becomes 12 or 24 or 36 frames in the computer. Much as the earth looks one way from outer space and another from an airplane, this magnification expands the filmstrip's potential.

The biggest challenge, not just with Cosmos but in all of my films, has simply been chronological. I'm still going frame by frame in Final Cut, just as I did on the old optical printer in Boulder, Colorado, where I first studied film back in the 1990s. Digital, I've found, is no faster than film. It took me three months to create all 94 seconds of Polar; I've no idea when Cosmos may be finished. Then again, the real cosmos has taken billions of years to unfold; by that comparison, I'm moving at light speed."

To learn more about Scott Nyerges and his work, visit: http://www.nyerges.com/

Posted on December 08th, 2008