Former painter, now filmmaker, draws the art from old film prints

Morrison's films and works have been collected by MOMA and the Library of Congress

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

When film decays, the damage appears in the form of scratches, blobs, discoloration, holes. To the casual viewer, it's an obstruction. For New York City filmmaker Bill Morrison, a former painter and animator, it's art.

"You can see individual paintings with each frame passing by," he said.

Morrison has found a niche by creating new films and shorts, however abstract, out of decomposing nitrate stock. He will speak and show some of his films at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Silverbow, as a guest lecturer for the Alaska Design Forum and the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association. Admission is free.

"I'm making an analogy between the mortality of film and the mortality of the human body," Morrison said.

"What's confusing to people is they think the films have gone through some sort of digital intermediary," he said. "All the effects are from decay. I simply used digital editing tools to demarcate where the negative should be cut. For all the work, we go back to the original source material and print it optically."

Morrison will show two shorts, "Light is Calling" and "The Mesmerist." Both have been edited from the Library of Congress' spare copy of the 1926 James Young film "The Bells." In the original, Lionel Barrymoore's character murders a Jewish salesman, steals gold and is thereafter tormented by bells. Boris Karloff also stars.

In "Light is Calling," Morrison slows down a scene between a boy and a girl, double-exposes the print and sets it slightly off-sync to the tune of a Michael Gordon composition. The effect is ghostly. "The Mesmerist" is similarly hypnotizing.

Morrison's work has been collected by the Musem of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. He also hopes to show "The Film of Her" and "Decasia," a 67-minute opus assemblage of found decaying stock. The film is made of nitrocellulose, a volatile combination of nitric acid, camphor and cotton. It was widely used before 1950. Since, its tendency to combust has been blamed for innumerable fires, Morrison said.

Bob Curtis Johnson of the Anchorage-based, nonprofit Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association ( has been trying to bring Morrison to Alaska since catching his "The Film of Her" three years ago in the touring Black Mariah Film Festival. The short chronicles the experience of Howard Walls, a Library of Congress clerk who was determined to protect a vault of prints from destruction.

"It seemed to be a message about the soul of preservation, and why anyone would bother preserving film and video," Johnson said. "I was ecstatic and started wondering how I was going to get this guy to Alaska."

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