Kerry Laitala is an experimental filmmaker who is interested in how films are made — one frame at a time. Laitala hand-builds her films, manipulating the surface of the celluloid and exposing each frame individually to create works that stand at the edge of both film and art. Spark follows Laitala’s painstaking work on her ongoing tribute to the film medium itself, “The Muse of Cinema.”
Film is a strip of celluloid. Until the 1950s, celluloid was produced with nitrates and was highly flammable. Today, film is usually manufactured on a cellulose acetate or ester base, which is not combustible. Although it comes in varying lengths and speeds, all film is comprised of identical individual frames. Film has light-sensitized silver halides coated in an emulsion that forms images when exposed to light. The images are invisible to the human eye until the film is processed and the images become visible.
For “The Muse of Cinema” series, Laitala produces direct films, exposing the film directly with a light source, not a movie camera. This method often physically alters the surface of film. The techniques Laitala uses include placing objects directly on unprocessed film stock, then exposing and developing it. Filmmakers using this method also paint, scratch or otherwise manipulate processed film. The resulting images, though photographic, retain a handmade, unrefined quality that characterizes the direct film aesthetic.
As a practice, direct manipulation of film is a slow, laborious process because of the number of frames required to make a film of any substantial length. Film that appears normal is shot and played at 24 frames per second (fps). Increasing or decreasing the fps can change the perception of motion, blur the images or cause the images to shake. Laitala’s cranking speed usually ranges between 8 fps and 24 fps, and she intends for “The Muse” to be feature-length (60 to 90 minutes), requiring her to produce more than 3,000 feet of film.
“The Muse of Cinema” is an ongoing project that began when Laitala found a box of early-20th-century magic lantern slides at a flea market. Slides such as these were used to entertain audiences during technical difficulties, giving the projectionist a chance to solve a problem with the projector. Laitala transferred these slides onto 35mm motion picture film, which became the first footage for her project. The rest of the film is being shot on orthochromatic film intended for use in an X-ray camera, a type of film that is not sensitive to red light.
Working under red light in her apartment, Laitala places a variety of objects on the celluloid, then exposes the film with the help of a flashlight. She then processes the film using a hand-cranked processing tank. Laitala’s interest in the tactile, hand-manipulated qualities of film extends to the way in which her films are screened. For “The Muse of Cinema,” Laitala purchased and restored a vintage 1928 Acme film projector, which is hand cranked, requiring the projectionist to move at just the right speed in order for the motion to be perceived as the filmmaker intended.
Laitala studied film and photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and the San Francisco Art Institute. She has screened work internationally and has won various awards including the Princess Grace Award. She also held residencies at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany.