Spotlight on Len Lye's Filmmaking Tools: The Stencil
12 Apr 2017
Guest blogger, Dr. Alla Gadassik, Assistant Professor of Media History and Theory at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada, introduces here one of three kinds of objects Lye adapted or designed to experiment with visual figures of motion.
To filmmakers and film historians, Len Lye is best known for promoting or pioneering several “direct animation” techniques – in which a moving image is composed directly on a film strip.
With direct animation, film celluloid is treated like a long canvas, onto which images can be painted, scratched, or etched with light. This approach can take a small painterly gesture, like a scratch or a paint splatter on a single frame, and amplify it into a huge graphic figure on the screen. For Lye, direct animation offered more room for experimentation and spontaneous improvisation than the more traditional animation approach of carefully tracing and rephotographing hundreds of drawings for every second of film. However, working on a tiny a canvas (a 16mm or 35mm film strips) came with its own challenges, so Lye adapted or designed different kinds of objects to try out different experiments with visual figures of motion. In today's first of three guest posts, I introduce you to one of these objects: the stencil.
Stencil animation was the most prominent direct animation technique that Lye used during the 1930s, including films A Colour Box, Kaleidoscope, Rainbow Dance, Trade Tattoo, Colour Flight, and Swinging the Lambeth Walk (all made in the period of 1935-1939). In stencil animation, a particular sequence of a figure's motion pattern is cut into a thin canvas, and then the resulting stencil can be used to repeatedly spray-paint that sequence onto a film strip. The Len Lye archive holds several original stencils that Lye used in his films, including the metallic stencil featured here. Unlike cardboard stencils, which were made by manually cutting the images into the cardboard, metallic stencils were made by using a chemical process to directly burn a black-and-white silhouette pattern (a “matte”) into thin metal. This chemical transfer method allowed Lye to make finer and more detailed stencils using print typography, photographs, or perhaps patterns he found elsewhere. Here, you can see a photograph of a metallic stencil alongside a test-print that Lye made on a piece of cardboard, using blue spray paint.
Unlike a traditional decorative stencil, whose impression you can see in its entirety after it’s transferred onto a surface, an animation stencil transferred onto celluloid is spread over multiple successive film frames. When these film frames are projected in succession, they turn the stencil into a moving image. At the turn of the 20th century, early film studios like Pathé or Gaumont were already using very sophisticated stencil techniques to add colour to black-and-white photographed film scenes. For Len Lye, however, stencils could be used on their own, to generate vibrant geometric patterns and new kinetic motifs of the artist's design. By breaking down and sliding over sections of the metallic stencil, we can get a glimpse of how this particular pattern can come to life in later projection. A seemingly static and repetitive series of triangles suddenly turns into a pulsing strip of little flags. Notice how, because of the different sizes and intervals of the different kinds of triangles, every vertical column suddenly appears to move with its own rhythm. If you focus on tracking just one column at a time, it will appear to move at a different pace than its neighbors.
If you’re familiar with the traditional metallic stencils used for lettering typography, or with cardboard stencils used in decorative painting and street art, you can imagine how this method allowed an independent filmmaker like Lye to experiment with different animated patterns without carefully redrawing the same images thousands of times. Below we can see this stencil in action in a frame from Len Lye’s film Kaleidoscope (1935). Note how just one stencil is repeated three times (in two different hues: an orange and a pine green) to make a more complicated pattern. This composition was likely made using different layers of paint, but in later films Lye would also experiment with using just one painted layer as a matte for making various coloured layers in the post-production dye process.
Lye could reuse the same stencils not only for different sequences of a single film, but even across different films in new combinations. If you'd like to find out more about the history of the stencil process, and how it allowed Lye to cleverly lend ancient art with modern industrial design, check out my essay on Trade Tattoo in the Govett-Brewster's upcoming book on Lye's work.
The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Christchurch University Press will publish a new collection of essays concerning the work of Len Lye in late 2017.