Pixelvision Dreams: Why Michael Almereyda Used a Children's Camera to Make Movies
A long-forgotten camera was the culprit for movies worth remembering.
While many filmmakers' first brush with production arrived while making movies as children with their parents' camcorder, few adult filmmakers have the experience of using a camera designed for children to make their feature films.
Such is the case with a select few, however, including Sadie Benning, Elisabeth Subrin, and Michael Almereyda, each of whom used the long-forgotten PXL 2000—an affordably clunky Fisher Price camera designed for children usage in the late 1980s—to make independent work on the blurry, often pixelated image-capturing device.
New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center and Brooklyn-based Light Industry have teamed up for Flat is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision, a one-week retrospective series that unearths these black-and-white wonders and projects them onto a screen much larger than the filmmakers could have ever expected.
No Film School caught up with Almereyda, known most recently for Sundance hits Marjorie Prime and Experimenter, to discuss his feature films with the PXL 2000, including Another Girl Another Planet (a delightful hour-long story of a man who struggles to find a female companion and instead discovers...an elephant), Nadja (a mostly downtown NYC vampire tale that has as much to do with brother-sister relationships as it does Peter Fonda's long flowing locks as a bespectacled vampire hunter), and At Sundance, (an interview-based documentary that queries the filmmakers of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival about the future of cinema, worth the price of admission for Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater's late night, all-too-raw contemplations alone).
The series runs from August 10th-August 16th and entire lineup can be viewed here.
No Film School: How did you first encounter the PXL 2000 and how would you describe your initial experience with it?
Michael Almereyda: In the winter of 1991, Jonathan Rosenbaum, an old friend, showed me a VHS tape of Sadie Benning's Pixelvision work. He thought I'd be excited by it, and he was right. As I've said fairly often: Sadie Benning is my hero. Within the week I found out about a 1-800 number through which you could buy used Pixel cameras for $45 apiece. I ordered four; three of them worked. My initial experience was very positive. It's the nature of the camera to make everything look heightened, ghostly, shimmering, like a memory or a dream. What's not to like?
NFS: How did you work on editing the footage? Were there any precautions you had to take in the capturing of sound?
Almereyda: I worked with the editor, David Leonard, in a conventional analog fashion, in a midtown suite in the old Sound One building. I should first say that Jim Denault, a gaffer at the time, shot the picture. Another Girl Another Planet was Jim's first narrative film undertaken as a cinematographer, and with a bit of research we found a way to channel the video into a Hi8 deck, rather than using the limited and rackety cassette tape provided with the camera, and we recorded sound independently, as you would on a regular movie, though in fact the camera has a surprisingly sensitive mic.
I wrote the script for Another Girl specifically for the Pixel camera, anticipating how it would look, how it would feel. It's very consciously a film of faces and voices, textures, music.
NFS: Another Girl Another Planet primarily takes place via interior spaces, i.e. the apartment building where our two leads live. Was it a conscious visual choice to keep most of the action indoors to, in effect, accentuate the shadows heavily prominent throughout the film?
Almereyda: Shooting indoors, and mostly in one building, was a conscious restriction, a discipline, and a way to cut costs. But shadows, you know, don't necessarily come with the territory. You have to manufacture them, and Jim was working from my storyboards. We had intentions, and we had lights, plugged into the building's power outlets. Shooting outside would've required a generator. We avoided that.
NFS: The film references a Vittorio De Sica produced film that features an elephant named Nabu. At the film's conclusion, a real, live elephant is featured in your film too. How were you able to pull this off?
Almereyda: The nature of the movie—the spirit of it, and the poverty of the production—required a shared understanding for everyone working on the film. They were supplied with meals and plenty of coffee, and it so happened that almost everyone lived within walking distance, including David the editor and Jim the DP. But no one was paid, that is, except for the elephant, a teenage elephant named Daisy.
Daisy had done a FedEx commercial before; she was very well-trained, very professional. Actually, it's been more than 25 years since the movie was made, so maybe it's time to admit a dirty secret: The film's line producer, the late Robin O'Hara (also an East Village neighbor) insisted she couldn't work for free, and I gave in and paid her, as we badly needed a kind of logistical framework for the shoot, which she wonderfully provided. That said, I think Robin was paid only half of what we paid Daisy the elephant.
NFS: What were the limitations and, as an extension of that, advantages of shooting a narrative work via Pixelvision?
Almereyda: The disadvantage is that the Pixel image isn't considered broadcast quality, so a film shot in this format—at that time at least—was considered absolutely uncommercial, unreleasable, undistributable, and unshowable on TV. But I had the conviction that the camera gives stories something extra, a look and a feeling that are uniquely surprising and haunting, and I'd like to think that the films I made with Pixelvision are as worthwhile as anything else I've managed to come up with.
NFS: How did the PXL 2000 stylistically accentuate your working in "genre filmmaking" as you did on Nadja?
Almereyda: Well, Nadja was shot in 35mm, black-and-white, again by Jim Denault, but key scenes were written to be shot in Pixelvision, specified in the script. The idea was simply to give you the main character's somatic point of view. You know, the woozy, ecstatic, aroused or frightened feeling of an insatiable young vampire. The Pixel image, you could say, has a vampiric quality, draining color, eating away at the boundaries of visibility while infecting a story's nervous system.
Anyhow, it's inherently dramatic, lyrical, and undead. Even a still shot gives off a shimmer of writhing pixels. Even a static scene contains an undercurrent of agitation.
NFS: At Sundance is a nonfiction work that takes on a recurring, consistent structure of filmmakers with a movie in the festival being asked their opinion on the future of cinema. However, there are moments where you cut to exteriors of Park City, Utah, that, due to the PXL 2000, possess an almost alien, otherworldly feel. Did you feel (and intentionally portray) the "world outside of the festival" as vastly different from inside the hotel rooms where the interviews were conducted?
Almereyda: Well, part of the weirdness of the Sundance Film Festival, under any circumstance and any lens, is the openness of the landscape juxtaposed with the closed-in, hunkered-down mentality of people feverishly seeing movies all day and all night. So the difference you mention was built-in, and intentional, but it wasn't forced. We wanted contrast and punctuation.
My favorite shot in the movie was done by Amy Hobby, riding a ski lift while shooting down at skiers gliding across the snow. I chose to marry the image with Beethoven, but the shot was all hers. I also like the part where Abel Ferrara brings out a lighter and offers to set the camera on fire.
NFS: Do you still hold sentimental thoughts for the Pixelvision format? Any chance of an unexpected comeback?
Almereyda: I actually took up the camera again, quite happily, in 2013, following a request to contribute to Chuck Workman's What is Cinema? It's less than six minutes, one of the shortest things I've directed!