Interview with Guy Sherwin

It's the people in the dream who make the dream happen

por Francisco Algarín Navarro

Messages (1981-1984)


About Messages

We would like to start talking about your film Messages (1981-1984). What is the genesis of Messages? What is the factual starting point?

The factual starting point of Messages was having a young daughter, spending time with her, watching her develop, learn to speak and write, and to ask questions about the world. Maya was born at 1978. While she was growing up and was discovering the language and was talking I shot and took some notes. I found her questions fascinating and often quite hard to answer. It’s as if she was a child philosopher questioning the very nature of things. I had a camera, and I was very familiarized with working on 16mm. So I took notes of everything Maya said, the things that could inspire me for shooting a certain image particularly.

The title in the beginning is: “first version”. How many versions of Messages do exist? Did it take you three years to shoot this film (1981-84)?

It took three years to shoot, to print (by hand at the London Film-Makers Co-operative) and to edit the film. In this period, from 1981 to 1984, I was recompiling a series of materials not knowing very well what to do with them. It came together slowly, organically; and all parts of the process were happening around the same time and throughout this time period. But there is only one version of the film. It was intended to have a second, sound version, and I gathered a lot of sound material for this, but it never happened. If I ever get time it still could happen, possibly. It would be a very different film with sound.

The film starts with the projection of the shadows of the trees on a blank notebook. The film works around the ideas of projection, inscription and printing of a series of natural, mechanic or human materials. How did you come up with this idea of covering every process? And how did it take form, structure?

As I mentioned the structure came together slowly and organically. It was the first film that I’ve made that had a clear theme, although even that theme didn’t properly emerge until halfway through making the film. But the interesting thing is that differently from others of my projects, in this case I had a concrete subject from I could work: the way in which a child sees the world for the first time, because he or she doesn’t know it. And how it can be this process of adaptation to the world. By this reason the black book with the white pages could work almost like some kind of metaphor about a child who experiments the world when he comes in it for the first time. I think this is like an association montage, because this was the only possible method regarding the footage I had shot. Much of the film is made in the editing. I think of it as a kind of editing by association, and this was only possible by looking at the material I had shot and making connections between images.

In which moment did you become aware that this film could be made? In which way did Jean Piaget's book, The Child's Conception of the World and Maya’s notes come together or start to be alike?

First, I conducted a series of interviews with many people about how children of different ages could understand how the world works and its mechanics: why the moon changes shape? Issues of this kind. Thus they develop some ideas about animism at different ages. Children think for example that a bike is moving because it is alive. Ideas like this.

Piaget’s book was something I felt I needed after starting to make the film. I do not know his work too much, but I think he developed a narrative of child psychology at different ages. I think there's a kind of poetry in such matters and a kind of poetry in children's responses. I found it interesting and wanted to make a reference to something that came out of the experience of my own daughter. After all, it is a film about her, but it is that so much I think there was the danger that Messages could be too much a home movie, and that was not my purpose. As we usually say: never make movies about kids or animals! And I do just the opposite.

I think the meeting with Piaget was for me the way to be a little more objective, because to film one’s own child (even though she is hardly seen in the film) runs the risk of sentiment and lack of objectivity. The material from The Child’s Conception of the World provided a measure of distance. I was struck by how similar Maya’s comments and observations were to the children as quoted in Piaget’s book. But then that is one of the lessons of the book, that children from whatever culture go through the same basic processes of culturalization.

Messages (1981-1984)


Focusing on one word after another, printed on a sheet of paper, and leaving the rest out of focus, we can read in the beginning of the film: “Names are what you see when you look at things”. There are several shots after that: a leaf that is hard to identify, an out-of-focus tree, a scholar notebook, drawings next to the word “tree”. Did you find a certain counter-pedagogy in Piaget's book? Did you look for a pre-symbolic, materialist state of the cinema?

No, I didn’t want to react against the pedagogy or propose a contra-pedagogy. Words like “pre-symbolic” and “materialist” are quite loaded for me. One would have to define exactly what was meant before replying to that. However, the film does embody, I think, a sense of “wonder”. By myself at the development of the child, and by the child at her discovery of the world. And wonder too at the phenomenon of film and its capacity for capturing the most fleeting of visual impressions of the world.

But your film shows nature, and how your daughter draws nature. It is like she reacts against the form in which the kids are taught by pedagogy, imposing its own vision and its own imaginative shape.

Maybe. It’s true, we see the names of the things we are seeing and of the things. They are the pressures of socialization: the color of this table is pink and it has the shape of a rectangle, for example. It is a way of moving in a world so confusing that you have to create and identify objects and things if you want that they have a sense. And you have to learn a language specific or develop a series of cultural habits, which allows you to convert yourself in an adult and in this way you can socialize. And, in the same way, this is also a limitation. In some way, we can say that it glorifies the possibilities of the childhood and opposes to the restraint of one only way of being, a too high dose of socialization.

In these shots, at the same time, we pass from a representation, the drawing of the tree, to another, the filmed tree, out of focus and then swayed in the wind, like in Lumière's short films, also present in Malcom Le Grice's After Lumière —L‘Arroseur Arrosé (1974). Then we can read: “Why can´t you see the wind?”, “You can see through the wind”. Were this question and Lumière's film important for you and Le Grice? Which role did your materialist conception of cinema play in that?

I wasn’t particularly thinking of Lumière or Le Grice in making the film though both have had their influence on my work in a general sense. You are right when you say that the film does draw attention to, and make use of, various kinds of representation of objects or materials in the world. However, I would hesitate to call this a materialist film, at least not in the way that Le Grice would have defined that practice.

No, we are not making reference to Le Grice’s sense of materialist film. For example, in these shots, what are we seeing? “Do we see the wind or the tree moving?” With this question it is the invisible within the visible which is suggested. In the same way, the celluloid vibrates when you are trying to focus on the tree, as if the wind would fight against the sharpness of the image. Is it possible to arise the own materiality of film this way?

With this sequence I was using the camera lens to focus through the air, from words disturbed by the wind, from a tree in leaf to the same tree in winter – a tree that one can see through, that lost its leaves to the wind, and so on –. Thus throughout the film there are references to the act of filming and to the material qualities of film tied together with what is being filmed.

Messages (1981-1984)


In Messages we read: “The wind comes from the trees”. We see through the light a series of layers, as if the film tried to register the wind coming from the tree. Did you try to show the aphorisms of Piaget's book or the comments of your daughter Maya?

I can’t remember exactly which quotes are from my daughter and which are from the Piaget book, so I guess the answer is both.

In a moment of the film, we see that Maya draws in the sand a rabbit, and after that we see the engraving of a rabbit and several drawings of animals on Maya's notebook, that we suppose she has copied. The same happens with the shot of the baby and Maya's drawings. In which way do these cases articulate with the different materials of this constellation? Which was the process of collaboration of Maya in the film keeping this development of her language in drawings and words?

I wouldn’t call Maya’s drawings copies. She might make a drawing of an animal that happened to look like a rabbit. But to me that drawing in the sand could be any kind of animal! (Maybe this is a case of the “Kuleshov effect”, whereby having that particular drawing next to a picture of a rabbit makes the viewer assume that it was a rabbit). At some stage I found an old Hindi (I think) picture alphabet and used that to suggest various connections with the drawings that Maya was making.

In one of the scenes a hand takes a stone from the river and the sky, the clouds, your camera and yourself are reflected on it. That reminds us of the processes of emulsion and developing of the celluloid. And soon after that, we see them. This image, which shows an image of the world, was in some way a center of the film?

You might be partly right. I like your description and the connections you make. But I had more in mind that the empty pages of the book might be central to the film. This is an image that returns several times.

Messages (1981-1984


Even the image of the pebble in the river is related to the baby: “the pebbles are round because the water makes them swell up”. Was this a comparison with the way in which that images are born in the developing process, or in the perception of Maya?

Yes, I suppose. It’s also true, of course that pregnant women swell up. Bear in mind that with this form of associative montage there could be several equally convincing interpretations of the connections between images. This is similar to the way some forms of poetry might suggest multiple meanings rather than one fixed one.

In one take, we can see what seem to be the very notes of the film, talking about the meaning we’re seeing as a perpetual process of successive moments. It says that a still camera make possible for us to begin to see stones on the bottom of a river. Or the way that running water makes a mutation in what we see, even in the lights reflected on the water’s surface. A hand sinking into the water and changing its size, shape, texture, or its details. The impressions are erased by the next image. None image is the right one, or a stable representation of the object. By these notes, we see Maya’s hand holding the stone. When did you write those notes? Why did you decide to include the very process of filmmaking in the film, in proximity with your daughter holding the stone?

I didn’t write these notes! They come from a review of an early showing of the film, written by Gillian Swanson, that appeared in Undercut Magazine (the magazine of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op) at the time. I shot the film and then this review and included it in the film. It describes the film itself. Next to the review was an image taken from the film, which is in fact my hand taking the pebble out of the water. By including an extract from a review of the film within the film itself I was able to include a different species of text (i.e. text as critique) as well as (perhaps ironically) demonstrating the open-ended process by which the film was made.

Then you had to search again the pebble you had used. It will remain as a secret if it is or not the same, but this reflects very well the open process referenced, this idea of ​​“version”, being shorter this second version, compared to that one projected that did not include that this shot. In Messages we see a leaf over the river, and then on the ground, with an inscription, as if you were reminding us that paper comes from trees. Was this your intention?

Yes partly. But perhaps this is better expressed in the opening shot of the film, the shadows of leaves playing on the empty pages of the book.

We also see the hand writing.

It happens in the same editing: we come from the stone that is quite gray and then brilliant. There is a relationship, a metaphorical association between the images, the film is constructed like that. You can say that it is an associative editing, that they are assembly associations.

They are memories.

And also visual connections.

We also see some messages written on the rocks, on the stones, on the slate, blackboard, on the sand, on the paper, by some drawings, and they can be read upwards, backwards…(as Maya’s) Were you thinking about a film about different ages of writing? The typography in quotes, and Maya’s drawings, the different alphabets (birds drawings), occidental reading in opposite to Maya’s (as it’s hard to read upwards for us, as memory have to work memorizing letters)? We even see a sheet in braille…

Yes, thinking about the development of language in different cultures and about the development of language in the child. It is about this stage of the life of a child in which to write a letter is like a great trip: you have to reach the top and then down to the bottom. And one can understand the fight that is trying to understand these poems and capture them, so you can relate it with different writing systems in the world, or different materials. If you write about the mud, you develop a series of patterns of writing; if you do it about wood is different.

There are also written words in sand.

Yes, in sand, that’s right. But I mean that the different materials the cultures have at their disposal for writing can create writing formats and different shapes. So I think that yes, there is a connection.

Through superimpositions, in one of the takes of the trees, we can see how you draw, with an effect that looks like Chinese ink, branches which look like the fingers of a hand where we’ll later see the typewriting alphabet, and, later on, the numbers and the letters provided in another way, next to the article “the”; in another take, the alphabet is drawn on a leaf, and afterwards those rhymes with word “light”: tight, might, fight, sight… How would you define the relationship between messages and their impression, or between alphabet and nature?

This is too hard to answer because all the terms, “messages”, “impression”, “alphabet”, “nature”, have as I said multiple meanings. But the relationships came after watching the footage. The links came from looking at the material I’d already shot, although on occasions I might have shot something in order to bridge gaps between shots. Overall this film has been made in the editing, retrospectively, and was not pre-determined.

This relationship between men and nature, between destruction and the sweet rhythm of surviving, remind us to the very rhythms of cinema. Do you feel any kind of affinity with Jack Chambers’ The Hart of London (1970), in its echoes and associations between the several natural elements of the film, or in the takes where Chambers is shown with his son and the deer (which can remind of yours with Maya)?

I did see the film once, many years ago, in London. That was some time after I’d completed my film Messages. I don’t remember feeling any particular affinity with the film though, except perhaps in its use of associative montage. Maybe if I saw it again…

In the film there are a series of circular shapes: on the sand, on the carousel, the sun itself, the float on the tree that rhymes with the clock without hands. How was the process of finding these resonances? Were they already premeditated before shooting, or did they appear in the process?

All these circular forms also appeared during the process of creating the film.

Behind the clock with no hands (“Are there times when there aren’t any hours, or are there always hours?”), and its echoes with toothpicks, chimneys and fingers, we see another possible reference to Lumières and their images of people passing by the Arc of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe [1896]), especially if we think about the quote: “why is the shadow of the stick longer than the stick?”. Did you think about the relationship between shadows and the possibility of imagining the time of the day depending on the incidence of sunlight over the stick, and the shots that follow, with your daughter Maya trying to catch her own shadow?

I’ve never seen Lumiere’s Arc de Triomph film. To me that’s a bizarre connection to make, but then, why not? All the connections between sun, length of shadows, sundials, are there to be made, as you describe.

Messages (1981-1984)

Eye (1978)


In Man With a Mirror (1976), you talk about images that come undone, that go forward and backward, that meander, but there's also the gesture of holding the mirror “live” in front of the recorded mirror. This performative gesture is repeated in Eye (1978), part of Short Film Series, over the pupil changes, holding the camera with one hand and the lamp with the other one. In Messages, we find this idea when you show a glass plaque where we can read “Why don't our looks mix, when they meet?”. Could you talk about this concrete gesture in which you hold an object while you're filming it, causing changes in it?

I suppose it’s part of an interest in the reflexive response of an audience to film, by which I mean an awareness by the viewer of the processes of viewing, while viewing. This gives another dimension to the film and adds complexity to the process of viewing, hopefully in a productive way.

Regarding that concrete shot in Messages, is there a double glass layer? How do you get those effects between the text surface, the camera and its reflection, the foreground and the background, the effect of the text shadows, focus and out of focus, light variations and texture?

There are no special tricks here. If you hold up a piece of writing on glass in front of a mirror then the reflection of the back of the writing is the same way around as the front of the writing. This came as a slight surprise to me, but the discovery of it led to me making the shot in this way. I guess it’s a case of trial and error, or serendipity. Much of my film-making has resulted from little discoveries like this made along the way.

When you’re completely dead, I´ll have to carry you and put you under a tombstone in Abney Park”. After reading this quote, we watch the grooves of a log cut in half. What does this quote mean? Is it from Maya? Does it refer to the trees and their age?

Yes, Maya did say this, and I’ve just worked out that she’s was the same age as my son Kai is now. Abney Park in North London is more of an overgrown cemetery than a park. We used to visit it occasionally. I imagine Maya was trying to understand what happens to people when they die.

In Messages there are references to the clouds, the traces of smoke from the aircrafts, the smoke of the factory chimneys. Then we read a text: “It’s the people in the dream who make the dream happen”. What's the origin of this text? How is it related to the smoke in the sky and the shapes it draws?

This quote is from one of Piaget’s children, i.e. the children he interviewed. Towards the end of the film the quotes have more to do with society and the man-made world rather than the more elemental world of nature that the film begins with. I didn’t have a specific meaning in mind for the connections you describe.

Why did you decide to finish the film with the image of that sort of fish tank reflected in a screen where the liquid is indistinguishable from the solid (glass and water), before moving to the spiral and, finally, the blank pages of the notebook? After all, this is a circular movie.

I think there are plenty of lines and rectangles in the film as well as circles. The film does return to the image of the empty book but I think that functions more as a reminder of the journey that we’ve undertaken in watching the film than any other notion of circularity. I have used cyclical structures in other films though, notably Cycles (1972-1977), also Bicycle (1975-1998), from the Short Film Series.

You've said sometime that you've been influenced by Arnheim's book Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954), which shows that you can't trust what you see. What is the relationship between the illusion in your first relief paintings where the colors of the foreground are the same as the shadows, playing with the light and the spectator movement in films like Tree Reflection (1975-1998), where you combine “the storm, the trembling of the sea and the meteorology of the Earth”? Are you interested in artists like Turner or Rothko?

Yes I like both those artists. But in Tree Reflection there is no sea trembling, only a canal rippling, and there is no storm. I’m intrigued that the upside-down reflection might suggest that there is, unless you are thinking of the film Filter Beds (1998), which does have a storm.

About Filter Beds

No, no, we were thinking in Tree Reflection, in something like and “indirect storm” caused by the optic effect. We would like to talk precisely about your film Filter Beds. In it, the illusionist effects are made with a few images, through out of focus, masks, superimpositions, playing with the surfaces placed on first and second term. We get the impression that at the beginning of the film some of the tricks are shown (the in focus and out of focus) and others are hidden (the superimpositions). Was this the working process?

Yes, pretty much. Most of the film is seamless, all the transitions are made either by pulling focus or by dissolving from one shot to the next.

The film plays with the static (water) and the dynamic (the plane, the branches from the trees). The sound of water seemed to join those levels of first and second terms in the same image, while the sound of the plane reveals the superimposition of several layers of different images in one (the reeds, the puddle, the wire, the sky, the plane through the trees).  Did you work the sound as another bed of filters?

Yes I’m glad you noticed that. Initially I had in mind that moving gradually through sounds, from one sound to another, might be like gradually moving the point of focus through the air, from the foreground to the background. I’ve always been interested in those kinds of visual/aural correspondences, and how one can draw them into some kind of dialogue with each other. There were three stages to making this film, all equally long. The first involved shooting the images and printing them, the second recording the sound, and the third editing the two together.

Filter Beds (1990-1998


The passing of the plane seems to cause the movement of the stagnant water.  Then, the opposite effect, the thunderous noise of the plane against the tranquility of a bird, disconnecting the space of one and the other, how do you work those reverberations of the sound on the visual through different terms that reveal themselves as only one?

I hate a literal use of sound, i.e. when it appears always to come directly from the image. At the same time I wanted all elements in the image, i.e. trees, water, airplanes, to have an aural equivalent. I worked out ways by which what you were looking at and what you were hearing at any one time came from two different sources, although they might seem to belong in the same space. Or the sound might extend the space in the image, much in the way you describe. When it came to sound dubbing however I had a lot of trouble getting the sound man to pull back on the sound, of wind, for example, whenever he saw trembling in the trees. Doing one’s own sound mix on computer is so much easier.

Sometimes you get to film the branches mixed up with their own shadows. How did you work those effects of in focus and out of focus and the superimposition of an in focus image over a previous out of focus one?

The editing was done on a Steenbeck edit table using A + B rolls, i.e. two image tracks which are overlapped whenever you need a dissolve between adjacent images. Much of what you see I had to imagine as you don’t get a chance for a preview using this method of editing 16mm film.

For us, this is a film about movement, about shadows that go from the first term to the last and vice-versa, even if it is in an imaginary way through superimposition.  Did you try to show this way the very own material essence of film? Like for example, when the rain hits the river we perceive the snow or the noise of the video-image?

Ah, an interesting connection. Filter Beds was made as a 16mm film and has only lately been put on video, so any connection with video snow is fortuitous. However, in many of my films the material character of film and its content are deliberately in some kind of dialogue, and this film is no exception.

The editing of the film suggests that every image takes you to another one the moment the first one loses its sharpness. It’s always been said that water or fire, because of their dynamism, are difficult elements to shoot. In that difficulty, were you trying to melt the animated and the inanimate, the small and the big (bird and plane)?

Yes I think there are connections between birds, which are small but which might look as big as planes, but also between wires and branches. Or, in general between things that are man-made and things of nature.

About Flight

In Flight (1994-1998), you work with the very material of film (that strongly reminds us of the shades of coal from the old orthochromatic film). What film did you use?

Shades of coal sounds good! I can’t remember the camera film I used but I did all my own printing and used the same print-stock as in Messages and Short Film Series, i.e Agfa ST8 optical sound recording film, which is a high contrast, grey-based film-stock designed for making optical soundtracks.

It also seems that the movement of the bird, the sound of its wings, keep a close relation with celluloid. Finally, you decide to slow down the movement of the second bird – in a superimposition, it was because it really is the first one – as if it was a ghost, the photographic noème – as Barthes used to say, the reference: «I can never deny that the thing is there, it would be what it had been, the impossible». How do you work that specific object of study, at the same time a pictorial subject, a work about the time and movement and the exposition of the film itself, that reminds us of Muybridge?

Actually there are two birds and no superimposition. One bird remains on the branch throughout. The other was seated beside it and had just taken off. I only captured that little fragment of film (it was actually an out-take from the film Filter Beds) because at that point the film began to run out, and we see light-fogging erase the image. That doubly ephemeral character of the shot (bird takes off as film runs out) really intrigued me. I set out to make a film using this one shot as the starting point. And this became the principle by which I made the subsequent series Animal Studies (1998-2003).

Flight used a very crude form of optical printer. In fact it was an Eiki projector that shone the individual frames of the film onto a wall. I then re-filmed them using my Bolex camera. The projector was set on pause so I could inch the film through frame by frame. This method enabled me to change the framing, speed and rhythm of the original shot.

About Prelude

Why did you title your film Prelude (1996)?

Well it’s partly about childhood which is a prelude to life. Initially I had in mind to use various interpretations of Bach’s first prelude from the Das wohltemperierte Klavier (48 Preludes and Fugues, 1722) to accompany the images. As it turned out you only hear it once, and very quietly, towards the end of the film. However that idea, of using different interpretations of a single piece of music, I did carry out a few years later in my film Da Capo: Variations on a Train with Anna (2000).

A prelude is at the same time what precedes or introduces something, something you play to exercise your voice or try the instruments or to fix the tone, or the previous moment to the performance of a musical piece. Can we apply all of this to your cinema? Do you conceive your work as a musical composition in which prelude would be an overture or a short symphony and free of forms? What would it be a prelude to?

No, I don’t think of my films as a prelude to something else. Some of the films might feel more like an exercise than others, or be more experimental in intention, but all of them (i.e. the ones that I show) are considered as complete pieces in their own right.

Prelude (1980-1996)


In Prelude, you worked with the variation between the contrast of the images and the cuts in the film. In one of the shots we see a ball bouncing and after that a cut in which time, camera angle, sounds (trains, helicopters, frogs, cars) and the contrast have been altered, while the ball returns to his hand. Was this a way of suggesting that there is a previous reality to the camera, and it can be developed through memory and cinema?

Yes, and it sounds very poetic the way you put it. I do consider these particular films that I made in the ‘80s and ‘90s as a form of visual poetry. In cinema we are inevitably watching events that occurred in the past yet at the same time we are in the present moment of watching. Someone described this as the ‘historic present’. In Prelude I was particularly interested in maintaining the same frame throughout the film (the backyard where I was living at the time) in order to highlight the changes in light, time of day, and even the year - the film was shot over a period of years. At one point in the film we see a child’s swing appear in tshe yard. On the wing is the same child, Maya, now several years older. But the framing is the same throughout.

In the film, we can think Maya waters the shadows of the leaves, and the water, expanding, reminds of the very own film and its emulsion. In other shots, water and shadows get mixed up with the floor. At the same time, we see a changing diagonal line that separates the light and the shadow and marks the different times of the day. On those levels of representation, were you trying to show the own materiality of cinema, the way you show it at the end of the reels, where the light is exposed purely like in a projector?

Yes, I have kept what are normally regarded as mistakes, the flare-in of light at the beginnings and ends of reels. There is a connection here with the sunlight as it swings around the yard, effectively turning the yard into a sundial. Without light we cannot see what is in front of us, and without light the film cannot be made.

Do you agree with what has been written about the film: “the fixed camera position reminds us that events in any film take place as a form of shadow-play”?

Yes, I haven’t seen that quote. Where is it from? But it sounds about right.

The filmmaker Nick Collins wrote it.

About Views from home

You have shot Views From Home on super 8 and you have edited it digitally. What has determined that choice? We are thinking mainly about length reasons and it strikes us the plentiful use of music.

Editing with sound on super 8 is very problematic. Also when I shot the film it was simply a case of gathering material over a long period of time and then sifting through it to see what might work. At the time I didn’t know how to finish it, not did I have a strong idea about the sound. It was only much later after I’d acquired a computer that I found a way to complete the film.

How did you do the speed ups digitally? Aren’t there limitations in the manual control of the speed versus the traditional editing? Every shot seems to be at the same speed...

Most of the original shots are time-lapse. They were recorded on a Nizo Super 8 camera that has a lot of control over time intervals of shooting. The only modification to the shots that I made on the computer was to the speed of those time-lapse shots. That’s very easily done – you just type in 80% and it slows the shot down by that percentage. In this way I had a lot of control over the rhythmic connections between shots, often maintaining the same speed of light through the rooms. However the speed is not the same throughout, there are some passages where the light passes quickly and others more slowly.

We think that in this film, every surface (walls, objects) projects light instead of receiving it, and thus, revealing time. In that way you also work with the two fruits cut in half, do you agree?

That’s an interesting idea. In the shots of fruit I wanted to combine two time periods within one shot, i.e. the real-time shot of the fruit being cut moving seamlessly into the accelerated time of the fruit drying out or turning brown.

How long did it take you, more or less, to shoot every shot? In the shot of the bath, why doesn’t the water evaporate after such a long lapse of time?

It took somewhere between one and three hours for each shot. I often set up the camera with a framing that might yield something interesting and then left the house. Hours later I would come back not knowing what might have been caught within the shot. And water doesn’t evaporate that fast in London! I think in one shot the bath does empty a bit but that’s probably because the plug was leaking.

In the shot of the puddle, at the end we see that over the images shot on super 8 a digital superimposition has been made of the absorption of water. Is it so?

No, there are no special effects on that shot, or on any other. We are simply seeing the effect of light and shade on the puddle, often in rapid succession and that gives the impression at times of something artificial. You are not the first to point this out.

Some other questions

Prelude’s date is 1980-96. Filter Beds’ is 1990-98. Flight’s is 1994-98. What do these dates due to? The shooting dates? Sound recording? Editing? Why do you take such a long time to finish your movies?

I wrote about this at some length in the notes to my DVD/book Messages (2010, published by LUX, London, UK). Often the film is shot over a long period of time, and I might take a long time to edit. Sometimes I’m not sure how to complete the film so I leave it for a while. Sometimes I get distracted by a more pressing project. And sometimes real life intervenes!

Why do not Messages, Prelude, Flight or Filter Beds take part of Short Film Series? Is it only a matter of length?

Short Film Series consists entirely of three-minute camera rolls. The ideas are compressed into those three minutes. They are also all silent. By maintaining these restrictions throughout the Series the films become freely interchangeable and malleable. To include longer, edited films, such as the ones you mention, would put the Series as a whole out of balance. However, those other films do have many common features with the Series, for example the same dialogue between material and illusion, as well as the same ‘look’. And all the films were hand-crafted in a way that puts them outside normal production methods.

Did you film material for different series simultaneously? Did any of Short Film Series’ materials end up in any other films, such as Animal Studies, for example? When shooting, do you have a clear idea of the use you are going to give to the material you are about to get?

I consider the Short Film Series to be at the centre of my practice as a whole. Over the years other projects have developed from it, for example Animal Studies, as you suggest. In fact there are certain films that fit the parameters of both series, and I include them in both, Tree Reflection and Cat Sleeping are two examples. When shooting for Short Film Series I have an idea about how the new film might work within the series as a while but it’s not till I see it printed that I can tell whether or not it belongs. Bear in mind that all the films in the series are interchangeable, there is no fixed order or pattern, or meaning for that matter…

How did you pace each of the Short Film Series’ pieces, in the sense of the limits of duration? Were you conscious of that limitation in the very moment of shooting or was it rather related with the reel’s duration? Was this limitation creatively positive or did you rather think of the sessions and the projections, and in the way a piece fits to another?

Some of the films in the Short Film Series were carefully set up at the time of shooting. Others are more spontaneous and free-wheeling. I wanted to keep a balance between tight and loose, between control and chance. I think this is an interest that runs through all my work.

In some ways, with Short Film Series, and also with your performances, we think you made Henri Langlois’ dream of filming with a projector come true. With this series, at the same time you film, you are proposing a precise film program in which its movies have very strong relationships previously conceived. Optical and Sound Films is a large series of movies, optical soundtracks, some of them handmade, such as Cycles (1972/1977/2003) or Railings (1977). How did you organize all of these materials and discard others? Did you conceive them in a series such as Short Film Series while the shooting and the compiling process?

One advantage of producing a DVD of one’s work is the chance to organize it and make sense of it. This is for the benefit of the viewer as well as for myself. Thus the DVD probably gives the impression that the whole cycle of films has been pre-meditated in some way. In fact many of the connections and organizing of the material happened in 2006-2007, when I was putting the DVD together.

Regarding the films of this series, Optical and Sound Films, in Phase Loop (1971) you relate sound to the emergence of light circles in different synchronies. In Sound Shapes (1972) this association of different sound forms is rather an artificial relationship. In Cycles the sun and moon phases on the white screen or on a black frame, and light gets into dark or vice versa. In Newsprint (1972) the information flow (the sound frequency), which gets into images through different saturations of typographical characters until they turn into no more than printing points (black ink spots). In At the Academy (1974) the accumulation of film tails, numbers, draws, words, that go from the dissimilar to the identical until they get into different and recognizable forms, as if they had been filmed, and shadow effects and relief in marks and fingerprints. In Soundtrack (1977) the comparison between frequency and sound waves with railroads (the sound and the landscape speed). In Musical Stairs (1977) the contrast between light and shadow zones, where white comes to silence and black to sound, where stairs are like piano keys. In Railings the relationship between sound and image through accelerations and slow motions, synchronic correspondences, scrutinizing the frame and the decomposition of the rails’ movement and sound, the human and the mechanic velocity. In Night Train (1979) the work with light waves, substituting verticality for horizontality, where light from outdoors confuses with the reflected from the wagon’s window. It is hard to guess the film and the train’s speed in it. In Intervals I (1974) and II (1974-2007), the relationship between the double screen and the limit of frame and sound. How did you seek the relationship between all these movies where sound is like fluctuating light?

I think particularly in these films I was driven by simple curiosity – “What would happen if…?”. Like wondering as a child what would happen if I put my foot in the blurry spokes of my bicycle wheel as I cycled downhill – which I found out to my cost! With the Optical Sound Films, once I’d realized that light could makes sounds, I was intrigued by how certain images would sound. I went out of my way to search out the kinds of patterns that my camera could film that might make interesting sounds.

Many of the Optical and Sound Films have been projected in performances. Do you consider these pieces as finished movies or you rather feel that they are movies in a process that changes while performing?

In the last few years I’ve moved away (perhaps temporarily) from wanting to make finished movies. Rather I prefer to see the performances as guaranteeing that each screening is a unique event, and one that allows the possibility of the ideas evolving in a later performance. A finished movie can feel as if it has died, hence the term I use for my performances “Live Cinema”.

How do you work with Lynn Loo in the multi-screening of these and other pieces, specifically in the sound mixing during the performance, in Sound Cuts (2007) or Mobius Loops (2007), for instance?

Lynn and I work together on the sequencing of the images, how the projectors might be moved during a performance. Lately Lynn has been doing the hard work of moving the projectors, for example when we performed Sound Cuts with 6 projectors at Kill Your Timid Notion in 2008. On that occasion I was working the sound mixer. In fact I’m currently enjoying working with live sound. Sometimes when Lynn is not available I’ve performed Sound Cuts by myself. At Flatpack Birmingham (2009) I worked with a reduced number of projectors, four only, and divided my time between the moving the projectors and moving the sound via the mixer. This is actually more in keeping with how the work was conceived, that the image and sound would appear ‘at a stroke’ in one simple action, in this case by cutting through the film.



E-mail from Guy Sherwin.
13th June 2011.

This interview counted with
the complicity and support of Miguel Blanco and Felix García de Villegas.
and had been revised by Miguel García and Francisco Algarín Navaro.


Messages (1981-1984)