Auteur filmmaker Guy Maddin is famous for cinematic experiences that are throwbacks to the silent film era, like the neo-surrealist The Dead Father and the large-budget effort The Saddest Music in the World. But Maddin has also crafted films that function as art installations. In his latest cinematic installation, Seances, Maddin explores ideas such as data-driven cinematic storytelling and the reality that 80% of silent era films have been lost.
Collaborating with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and Nickel Media, Maddin and his co-creators—brothers Evan and Galen Johnson—built an algorithm that remixes 30 films that the director shot especially for the project. Seances allows the audience to interact with the film through the algorithm, which builds a never-before-seen ephemeral film that will, like lost films, never be seen again.
Upon entering Seances, the audience walks up to a flat-panel monitor arranged like a table top, where they can choose clips and still images and move them into the center where there is a title generator. These selected images then collectively generate a title for the film the viewer is about to see. The algorithm also selects which films will be remixed together, then allows for various other video and audio clips to intrude on the film.
“It gets generated on the fly by an algorithm, so it’s programmatic storytelling,” Nickel Media’s Jason Nickel tells The Creators Project. “We’ve got all of these clips and films that Guy Maddin shot. They’re all interstitial, so they work together and can go in and out of each other. We’ve got a story arc that we programmed with an algorithm so that these stories get created following a set of rules on what to tell and how they flow. So every time, you’ve got a film that has never been seen before and will never be seen again.”
The team built Seances on the video rendering program Imposium. Used for marketing campaigns in the past, they evolved this iteration so that clips can be tagged with metadata for what they are composed of, and then positioned in a semi-random way for how they fit into the story arc. Imposium applies visual effects like datamoshing, sound interruption, sound flowing, motion tracking, and rotoscoping on the fly. Nickel describes this iteration of Imposium as a sort of a programmatic After Effects.
“It’s this huge long formula where we’ve placed in certain sections where these interruptions will happen,” Nickel says. “It follows a set of rules and decides within those set of rules where they will happen using parameters such as how often it will happen and the timing of where it will happen.”
While Maddin wasn’t involved on the technology side of Seances, he and co-creator Evan Johnson conceptualized the project. In fact, it was Maddin’s idea to explore what would happen if Imposium could move in and out of all of these short films he directed, and do so in an interactive way. Seances required about a year of prototyping, with the team moving into production this year.
“It’s an algorithmic director,” says Seances producer Dana Dansereau. “It’s set in place by rules made by us interpreting what Guy and Evan need, and you let it go and see what it does. The first few were kind of eh, but then we refined, refined, refined until it was roughly the thing we wanted.”
Maddin and the brothers Johnson didn’t really want a didactic, one-to-one experience, where viewers get exactly what they chose. They wanted more of an element of surprise.
“You’re essentially battling or competing with other viewers at the table to basically get your influence in… but like any good seance, it’s not exactly what you asked for,” Dansereau says. “So when you go to a seance you ask to talk to your grandmother. You might talk to her for a second, but the rest of it’s like here’s Elvis Presley. So what we’re doing is allowing you to kind of select some things, but we then kind of shift it on you and say, ‘Here it is’.”
“Guy was really into the fragility of [old films]—he wanted to be as fragile as possible, and we all wanted that really,” he adds. “So when he was at Lake Winnipeg he’d be dialing in CBC and listening to it on his old radio, but every once in awhile a Detroit station or the Regina station would push its way in and just take over his radio for a second. He loved that ephemeral weirdness, so what is the digital equivalent of that?”
Dansereau says that some might wonder why Maddin is talking about the films from the 20s being lost in 2016. But Maddin wanted to conjure the notion of the fragility of Seances, as well as the fragility of interactive art. “Culture is changing rapidly, and what does it mean to watch a giant IMAX film on [a smartphone]? What is an MP3 now?” Dansereau prompts.
“Seances calls into question the whole nature of these things, so we wanted to put an overlay on what was the most dominant thing on the internet. And the most dominant thing is YouTube, which just kind of pushes its way into this film. So you’ll see a character in this film wiping the screen, and then you’ll see some Lego characters moving across the screen and some other weird, weird stuff.”
Seances appeared at Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, and will next screen at PHI Centre in Montreal in June. See it online here.
Click here to see more of Guy Maddin’s work.