I have been working frame by frame for several years in both 16mm film and video. Although I do not consider myself to be an animator, I use single frame shooting to elaborate and control what are sometimes very complex multi-layer works, made both in-camera, using a 16mm Bolex, or by using Premiere to generate very short loops from single jpegs that are cropped and re-framed according to an overlapping pattern.

The most complex piece so far is Risoni (2005).  The work consists of a double 16mm celluloid film loop, in which near-identical layered images generate unstable surface effects. The film grain contributes to the effect, indeed, the project was motivated by the desire to try to simulate grain movement, which always has a certain degree of visual autonomy from the image, even though it is the image. The image was generated from a tray of risoni ‘big rice’ pasta, made for putting in minestrone soup. The pasta was arranged on a flat surface and filmed frame by frame ten times (five pairs) on the same strip of film. Each exposure is lit from a different angle and two oppositely lit layers dissolve in and out of each other in an eight-frame dissolve cycle. This was all done with a Bolex camera and involved winding the film back to the beginning after each pass. Two prints from the negative were looped, one of 239 frames and one of 240 frames, or ten seconds of projection time at 24 frames per second. These were then run through the same projector. Each time the loops start a new cycle the conjunction between one loop and the other shifts by a single frame. It takes about 50 minutes for all the permutations to play through.

The interplay between the two loops generates contrasting surface effects: dramatic, zoom-like plunges alternating with oscillating, dancing surface movements, see figure 1 and 2. In Risoni the aim was to integrate the simulated grain and the actual grain into an organic, interactive whole, even though in the end they do not behave in the same way. The task of simulating grain precisely is compromised by the process of imposing a regular structure of movements onto something much more chaotically turbulent. Nevertheless, the unpredictable effects generated by the interaction of the two leads to a pulsating unstable image surface and to this extent the piece works. It is important that the work is on film, since the light that shines through the filmstrip is diffracted by the celluloid and the emulsion layer – the image. This is consistent with the diffractive character of the film surface as projected: light is reflected, refracted, diverted, absorbed. With the double loop deployed here, these effects and processes are multiplied. The work becomes a total light play in which the additional effects created by the image-generating apparatus are implicated as much as is the image per se.

Figure 1. screen shot from Risoni (2005) showing the plunging, vortex-like moments. Image created by the author.
Figure 2. Screen shot from Risoni (2005) showing the surface oscillation moments. Image created by the author.

In a more recent work, an additional parameter is introduced to the structuring system in Four Corners (2024). Four Corners was shot on unsplit Standard 8mm celluloid film, which comes in a 16mm width that’s compatible with a 16mm camera. As with Risoni (2005)it is a double loop work in which one loop is one frame shorter than the other. An L shaped form is positioned in one of the four corners of the image. The film is exposed four times, once for each of the four corners: top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right. The shape is filmed for two frames, then there is a gap of between 4 to 24 frames, determined by throwing dice. The negative and a print of it are projected simultaneously through the same projector. Unlike 16mm, which has one sprocket hole per frame, 8mm has two per 16mm frame, making it possible to cut one end of the loop on the frame line and the other end through the middle of the frame, so that every other time the loop goes through the projector, the frame line appears in the middle of the frame. In the same way as with Risoni, one loop is 239 frames long and the other is 240 frames, so that each time the loops go round the conjunction of frames shifts by one frame. But the additional parameter is that the frameline shift every ten seconds for each loop. Whereas in Risoni it is oscillations and image micro-movements that disturb the surface, here in Four Corners (2024) the rapid, momentary appearance of the various large, flat shapes in negative, positive and superimposed causes the eye to skid around on the surface: there’s no depth in the image. Although one can grasp the totality of the frame, the movements within it are elusive and, in any case, virtual: no movements, only jumps of position, appearances and disappearances, see figure 3, 4 and 5.

Four Corners could also be projected on two projectors, one for each loop. This would introduce a further parameter of shifting, because no two film projectors run at the same speed. The constant jumping around of the image has the effect of making the celluloid film surface very present and palpable, apparently separable from the image, even though it is both materially and visually congruent. This is partly because the film was developed by hand and printed using a Bolex camera as a printer. I was deliberately sloppy with cleanliness as the accumulated water marks and scratches provide a counter current to the geometric shapes from which the image is composed. The image is never complete or final, rather it’s an ongoing movement in time, so that completion is endlessly deferred. There’s also a tension between the apparent predictability of the image, given its limited elements, and the very large number of variations, which are mainly the result of the constantly shifting juxtapositions between negative, positive and superimposition.

Figure 3. Screen shot from Four Corners (2024) showing neg-pos superimposition in the bottom righthand corner. Image created by the author.
Figure 4. Screen shot from Four Corners (2024) showing frameline in the middle. Image created by the author.
Figure 5. Screen shot from Four Corners (2024) showing the join in the loop. Image created by the author.

Nicky Hamlyn is Professor of Experimental Film at University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, and a tutor in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. He has had one-person shows at LUX, London; London Gallery West, Film Gallery, Paris, Ann Arbor Film Festival, San Francisco Cinematheque, EXIS, Seoul, and [S8] Periferico, A Coruña. His book, Film Art Phenomena (2003) was published by the BFI, and he co-edited Kurt Kren (2016) and Experimental and Expanded Animation (2018).