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Experimental Film is an interesting label covering a wide range of motivations and innovations. These can be divided into two main streams of activity: (1) the desire to explicate a story – telling a story by means of pictures, locations, characters, sequence and plot; and (2) creating a film that can be seen as an exploration of the medium itself, and of its effects on the artists/director and on its audience.

Fred Camper has pointed out some of the pit-falls of trying to define Experimental Film:

“About naming, no one has ever come up with a satisfying name for the body of work that includes Ballet mécaniqueUn Chien AndalouMeshes of the AfternoonDog Star ManThe Chelsea GirlsQuick BillySerene VelocityZorns Lemma, and Journeys from Berlin/1971, to say nothing of all sorts of more recent work by filmmakers such as Su Friedrich, Janie Geiser, Louis Klahr, Brian Frye, and others. “

Camper goes on to list a set of six qualities, or ‘tests’ that might assist in defining experimental or ‘avant garde’ film. These include in brief:

1. It is created by one person, or occasionally a small group collectively, working on a minuscule budget most often provided out of the filmmaker’s own pocket or through small grants, and is made out of personal passion, and in the belief that public success and profit is very unlikely. “Minuscule budget” means something very different from what the phrase might mean in theatrical narrative filmmaking; here it refers to a figure in the hundreds, or thousands, or in rare cases tens of thousands of dollars.

2. It eschews the production-line model by which the various functions of filmmaker are divided among different individuals and groups: the filmmaker is the producer, director, scriptwriter, director of photography, cameraperson, editor, sound recordist, and sound editor, or performs at least half of those functions.

3. It does not try offer a linear story that unfolds in the theatrical space of mainstream narrative. [The hypertrophic counter-example that proves the rule here is Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice, which does tell a “linear story” — but the viewer receives that story by reading hand-printed script pages that are piled one after another on a table, not by seeing the script’s story enacted on screen.]

4. It makes conscious use of the materials of cinema in a way that calls attention to the medium, and does not do so in scenes bracketed by others in a more realistic mode that would isolate the “experimental” scenes as dream or fantasy sequences. [Examples: scratching or painting directly on the film strip; cutting rapidly and unpredictably enough that the editing calls attention to itself; the use of out of focus and “under” or “over” exposure; extremely rapid camera movements that blur the image; distorting lenses; extreme tilts of the camera; placing objects in front of the lens to alter the image; time lapse photography; collaging objects directly onto the film strip; the use of other abstracting devices such as superimpositions or optical effects; printed titles that offer a commentary that’s different from simply providing information or advancing the narrative; asynchronous sound; the cutting together of spatially disjunct images in a way that does not serve an obvious narrative or easily reducible symbolic purpose. I can think of at least one filmmaker — Brakhage — who has done all of these.]

5. It has an oppositional relationship to both the stylistic characteristics of mass media and the value systems of mainstream culture. [Thus in a found footage film using footage from instructional films, the original will be reedited to create some form of critique of the style and meaning of the originals.]

6. It doesn’t offer a clear, univalent “message.” More than mainstream films, it is fraught with conscious ambiguities, encourages multiple interpretations, and marshals paradoxical and contradictory techniques and subject-matter to create a work that requires the active participation of the viewer.


These are excellent pointers to the diversity in this fascinating sector of creative activity. But at Visioneca we are broadening Camper’s definition, to include a much wider range of creative motion-picture work now possible in the digital, networked arena of current new media.

For example, these new media that incorporate motion-images include Projection-Mapping, Augmented Reality, VR, Games, Simulations, Immersive environments, interactive documentary, multimedia works, crowd-sourcing and collaborative online work, filming or reconstructions or records of performance works, interactive and ‘hypertext’ films, etc.

In the Story of Experimental Film, I try to cover the huge range of innovation and experimentation that marks the very beginning of motion pictures and the cinema, as well as introducing some of the diversity of avant-garde film-making, and of course, some of the ways that digital media-makers are exploring the use of the motion image in contemporary, 21st Century new media.


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