50 Feet of String: Interview with Leighton Pierce

Laura Coombs

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

One year ago, I viewed Leighton Pierce's 1995 film, 50 Feet of String. As a student studying architecture, and a newcomer to film, I was initially enamored with the film's abstract representational quality and its construction of domestic space beyond the recognizable and mundanely familiar.

50 Feet of String is composed like a piece of music with twelve intertitled segments, or movements. Filmed only in daylight, one has the impression that perhaps these twelve segments not only make up 12 hours of daylight and daily routine, but also act as a clock to reveal the repetition and rhythm found in a set of domestic events—chores, delivery services, play etc. In most segments there is an appearance of the string, pulled taught diagonally through the screen, a recurring graphic motif drawn across the frames.
Spatial representation is hypersensitive to minute details, the movement of things (from the passing of a car on the street to the incremental sway of a blade of grass), and the provocative plasticity of objects when shot in close or unfamiliar ways. Pierce constantly allows for a re-framing of familiar space into something new. 
In Pierce's work, the filmed picture acquires abundant meaning with sound. The artist first studied music, from electronic to jazz, and then moved into making films. He is still likely to say that the most fulfilling part of making films is the act of composing the soundtrack (and that the best thing about digital video editing is its likeness to sound editing). In 50 Feet of String, specific and diffuse sound is composed over images undulating from crisp and plastic to blurred and abstract. Sound begins to control the meaning and effect of these painterly compositions, and together they mold into an image that evokes memory and imagination.
Pierce uses one obvious and repetitive camera technique, the manipulation of depth-of-field to systematically select varying degrees of detail to come to focus on screen. In this way, most of the film is not so much a window into the domestic, but a canvas made from observing and documenting domestic space, geared towards creating magical puzzlement as images begin blurred and unfamiliar and slowly transform into recognizable objects, emerging into focus from thin air.
Pierce uses his subjective analysis of his domestic reality to find his place within the world. By making film, composing sound, and tracking thoughts and memory, he orchestrates a synthetic narrative construction that is associative and absorbing. I watch and participate with my own thoughts/fiction, biases and memory of domestic environments not too dissimilar.

Since the 52-minute 50 Feet of String, Pierce has created many shorter films and digital videos. Viscera (2004), like 50 Feet of String, is a construction containing three approximate movements defined by motif, color sensibility and sound. Its twelve-minute duration is saturated with digital layering and montage effects—so much so that the idea of a single composed shot is replaced with a continuous flow of image and rhythm in repetition. The experience here is still interpretive—the digital video is best engaged and navigated with an open imagination. The last "movement" seems to be shot almost entirely within water or in the interface between water and air, invoking associations of changing states of matter and emotion.

Pierce recently completed his first site-specific digital video installation, Warm Occlusion (2005). Video projections are aimed towards the six rectangular columns of a museum space, two projections each spanning opposite corners of a column. Since a similar image is projected from two angles onto the same column, the column itself seems to disappear. Multiplied through all the columns, the room itself seems to lose its structure, and the space is transformed into glowing projections floating in black space. As projections change and visitors move through the space, the columns' multiplicity of images seem to create different physical configurations as a somewhat magical side effect.


Interview: May - October 2005


Laura Coombs: When and where did you start making films?

Leighton Pierce: I did video at The Museum School in Boston in the early 70s. I did music during that time and studied jazz in Boston privately for a short period of time. I left school for a few years and eventually went to Iowa to finish a degree, thinking I was to be a composition major—I studied electronic music and started making films then.

LC: What provided early inspiration?

LP: In my formative years I was inspired by Steve Reich, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Anthony Braxton etc. in the music realm. Filmmakers that inspired me then were Godard, Dryer, Bresson, Michael Snow, Bergman, Tarkofsky, Van de Keuken, Bill Viola, you know, the usual.


Details and structure

LC: What was the intended function of text in 50 feet?

LP: An early edit was one of continuous flow. There were no discrete segments, just one shot cut to another. In that version, I felt that it went too fast; some moments were obliterated by the events that followed. So I added black in between. Then I added text (intertitles) to bracket the short segments—to give them a unity of their own. This changes the perception of flow in the piece. It also serves to highlight the individual segments. Text ends up functioning more like a book of poems rather than one long poem. There is a cumulative effect and there is space within the piece to reflect and to anticipate.

LC: Can the film's narrative segments be re-sequenced or cut?

LP: They were re-sequenced a lot in editing. I suppose they could still be re-sequenced but only some of them. The ending is clearly an ending, for example. Some sequences could be cut. In fact, I have a 35-minute version that I have presented in certain situations. If I remember correctly, I cut out Two Maples, .29 inches and implement.  It isn't that I like those segments less, it is just that those were the ones that could be cut while retaining the integrity of the rest of the piece.

LC: If I understand correctly, you were confined to a specific space while filming—anywhere 100 meters radius from your kitchen. What prompted the idea to work within this framework, and how did this rule affect your filmmaking?

 LP: This rule has been somewhat mythologized. It is true that most (not all) sequences follow that rule for image. Sound was gathered as far away as Paris. However, by stating the rule, I do point to an attitude in the filmmaking process. I do believe that one needn't go far to make a film (or any art for that matter). It is a question of careful looking and close looking and, really, careful consideration of the feel of a potential shot—not just looking, but the temporal aspect of any shot (what happens and what moves) and the off screen markers of space that are included within the shot (depth of field, fragments of objects, focus, etc.) None of this is really about confined space in my mind. Well, now that I think about it, I guess it is about a confinement of sorts but it is really about a kind of emotional confinement rather than a physical one. This is a thought that I come to through analyzing the film, not one that was guiding me in the making of it.

LC: There is also the filmmaker in question. What drives the discipline of working passionately and making works?

LP: Ah, this is getting to the heart of things. I do see filmmaking (now video making) as a way of finding my way through the world. I am not, however, convinced that I see things all that differently than others. Maybe I do, maybe I don't. I just don't take that as anything that matters as I work. All of my work is a kind of situational analysis. That may sound kind of formal and scientific which could be misleading. I shoot a lot when I feel like shooting. I shoot what I am attracted to or interested in—my kids, my environment, water, the sky, and my wife. In that sense, almost everything I have done except for parts of 50 ft and another film called Glass, is a kind of nonfiction shooting. But then in editing, something else is created. The real work for me is the editing of picture and sound; shooting is just a preliminary step. I construct a dream out of sound and picture images while editing, much as we create dreams from images floating through our minds when we sleep. Then, once the film is finished, I spend a few years trying to analyze the dream I made. I see very different truths in 50ft now than I did 10 years ago.

Basically, I shoot my life because it is there and by choosing what I shoot, I learn something about my relationship to my life. I choose to edit images that I am interested in and can stand to look at as a way to learn more from juxtaposing one thing with another. And I show it to people I don't know because I hope there is something in the experience of watching that might trigger people to figure out something about their own lives. Look at my new digital work, Viscera especially, and this may become clearer (or at least provide another angle).


Sound and image

LC: In relation to sound and image, how do you imagine that an audience could participate in the film?

LP: This is very interesting. I play with ways to get the viewers mind to ask questions that can't be simply answered. Visually, it is sometimes the question, "What is that exactly?" With sound it is even richer. All sounds come with a question built in: "What is making that sound?" We answer these questions often very quickly—it is the phone ringing, it is a window fan, it is the rumble of a truck—or might it be thunder? Sometimes it is harder to answer. When we see a picture with a sound, there is a process called synchresis (a term from Michel Chion's book Audio/Vision)in which we attribute the sound to that visual source. So that allows me to use the sound of surf against a picture of blowing trees to make a sound that is more like blowing trees than a recording of blowing trees. It also allows me to put in a sound of a string being plucked by a drop of water that seems right but is physically impossible. It is another way of making things strange just a little. It is that strangeness that I hope frees the viewer to engage his or her own imagination (and avoid filmic identification). I think viewers (auditors) MUST see the film as a construction. The string that keeps appearing as a double triangular mark across the frame is a mark of an author. This points to the fact that the film is constructed, while at the same time, through the use of conventions of editing and sound design, the film seems kind of naturalistic. It was reviewed in LA years ago as a failed mystery film—they embraced it as narrative primarily and it failed to reveal the mystery. Weeks before in San Francisco, it was written up as a documentary—they embraced the truthfulness of it and liked it for that. My view is much more complex and includes aspects of both but I really think of it as a composition with 12 movements. I want it to have an affect the way music changes us without distractions of narrative or truth.

LC: So overlaying a specific sound with an ambiguous image (or vice versa) begins to dictate the meaning of the image?

LP: Yes it does while adding more ambiguity in a different way. How can one explain the sound of the real tractor over the image of the toy tractor working its way through the too tall grass? It both is and isn't the sound that goes with that image. It is something more—added value I hope.

LC: What is your process of putting sound to image?

LP: I edited the entire film without sound but with rhythmic and textural ideas about sound. Then I constructed the soundtrack once I had achieved picture lock (more or less). I use the image as a kind of score to compose on top of. It limits the almost infinite possibilities of sound.


Memory, perception and emotion

LC: If the film contains images and sounds that you have already experienced, then what happens to these elements when others perceive them? Is it possible for an audience to watch 50 feet without referencing their own memory or domestic ideal? What happens inside the film as opposed to what happens on the outside?

LP: I want what happens inside the film to stimulate the REAL event that happens outside it in the mind/imagination/memory of the viewer/auditor. The images cannot be defined by an analysis of any frame in the film. The images are already mental constructions. We can say what we see but always in combination with what came before and with the sounds. The image is much more than the simple visual. It is sometimes a space but I really want it to be a space that includes the imaginer's own images. That is one reason the pace is as it is. Currently, I am working to make nonobjective cinema. I do not want audiences to identify and escape into the film. I DO want them to experience themselves somehow while watching and listening. I hope that the domestic setting doesn't limit that too much in 50 feet. It might. I'm not sure. Another point, these images were not experienced by me before their construction. Shooting the tractor in the grass was nothing like the first time I looked at it nor was it the same as when I started playing with sounds. I experienced the composite images before anyone else since I edited the film but there are not images in the world that I represented. There are only images in the film that I sculpted.

LC: Describe your editing process, or at least what you remember from making 50 Feet.

LP: It is really no longer a representation of my actual (former) house. Typically, when I edit I have images from a particular place and I edit them in a way to construct a sense of a place. I would have to look at that film again but as I remember, I freed myself from the knowledge of the actual architecture and instead edited based on rules of continuity in film. In other words, I organize my bin of shots according to movement in the frame. I can make a match cut between a bus going left to right shot through a window and a bus going left to right shot through grass outside. It is the continuity of the bus and the direction that create new temporal and spatial relationships between the two shots. They may have been shot weeks apart, but edited this way they now represent a contiguous space and continuous time. Sound contributes to this sense of continuity by matching the sound of a bus to the two different acoustic spaces as it passes over the edit. This simple act of creating continuity where there was none in life has always fascinated me.

LC: What is the difference between space and place? In terms of perception, was the film at any point a reversal or inversion of the normal (with blurred vision, drugged movement and close details)? Or is it a celebration of the normal?

LP: I think of place as definable, specific—attention surrounding it in a centripetal way. Space is centrifugal—going out from a point of view, without edges, not graspable fully. In this film, and maybe in others since and before, I am using images that are clearly place like (the window defines a solid structure) in order to push toward a more space-like feeling. In that sense I am making the normal abnormal—not just in myopic imagery or blurred or masked images but in sound. We see details that we would normally not rest our attention on; we also hear sounds that are isolated and foregrounded in a way that we probably wouldn't hear. It is not a reversal of ordinary perception. Rather it is an exaggeration of normal perception. We do, very quickly, isolate our attention on things (sounds and images, feelings, touch, smell, taste etc.) as we move through a day. Everything hitting the retina is not attended to. Our mental map of a walk through a place is not the same as what CAN be seen. Imagination is always at work filling in what can't be seen but is implied. Memory is at work too. Desire too—some things we are attracted to for a whole host of reasons so they become more "in focus" mentally even though that object of desire may not be the most clearly visible object in the visual field. Anyway, I think I am mimicking perception, which is a mental act, not simply a sensory act. So I guess the answer is "yes" the film is celebrating normal perception but it is a normal that might not normally be attended to.

LC: Why did you shoot mostly in daylight?

LP: Actually I did shoot at night for that film but didn't use the shots. I got interested in creating the illusion that the time span in any particular day was limited and the same (always representing 10am - 2PM). The mailman always comes at 12:30; the bus goes by at 35 past the hour. Night shots shifted me away from that too much and they just weren't as interesting. Currently in my work with digital video, I shoot a lot at night. This is partly because the mini-DV cameras can see at night.


Time and rhythm

LC: Can you speak about the concept of time, as presented in 50 feet? What is the significance of repetition?

LP: Time and rhythm matter a lot. A friend of mine clarified it for me when he saw this film and said I had made a kind of organic clock. You know how there are all those gears and little rocking things moving at different rates inside a mechanical clock? That is what happens in 50 feet. The bus keeps passing, the mailman keeps coming by, the water keeps dripping, things move forward but not really, they kind of loop around in a never ending spiral. I'm still working on that idea as you can also detect in my digital video work. Repetition matters because it is never really repetition. When you see something for a third time it is familiar, sort of, but also new. It brings with it associations from the first two times you saw it. It is a way of reassuring the audience ("some things are stable—don't worry") while building vertical complexity.

LC: I've read discussions of this film indicating the string as a metaphor. What are your feelings on this reading?

LP: Metaphor is something I like to avoid. I know that in viewing this film some tend to think metaphorically or maybe even symbolically about the images. However, I never shoot with metaphor in mind. Nor do I really edit with it in mind. I do wonder about what things mean after I'm done. It is like dream analysis. When I look at 50 feet now, I have a whole complex metaphoric/psychological viewing based on my emotional/psychological state at the time. But that is mine. I'm not sure what water means to me but I can't stop using it. Nor do I understand why I like cars and boats crossing the frame so much but I do. I have to keep using these things until I figure it out; then I can move on.
At the end of the film, however, the string is cut and that is a kind of metaphor I guess but I do cringe a bit when I hear that. It is a kind of failure on my part to allow that reading. I think metaphors actually close down the film. I love the idea of a spatial analysis of the film. I would dread a metaphoric analysis.


The camera and its technical implications

LC: By employing technical operations like depth of field adjustment, you continuously move between a film image that is a window, and one that is a painterly canvas. Are these processes about seeing, or about aesthetic qualities?

LP: I am continually making canvases as I look through a cinematic window. The technical stuff is really always aesthetic. It is about depth of field on a lens. It is about light being bent by solid objects close to the lens and out of focus. It is about polarized light. It is about filming at a very high frame rate, which, on projection, creates a slowed movement and what seems like a heavier movement. And, as I mentioned earlier, it is about the magic of continuity editing (just like Hollywood). To achieve these things, there are technical things I had to do—shallow depth of field on a bright sunny day depends on very long lenses and filters and the high frame rate. For this film I had the use of a camera that had a superb lens and a gorgeous fiber optic viewfinder.

LC: How often during the filming process were you looking through the camera while shooting? How often was the camera placed and allowed to record without your seeing through it?

LP: I looked though the camera a lot on this project. Those frames are very carefully composed and attended to during filming. However, that is not totally true. Several times I am in the frame (at the very end cutting the string, up the steps). For those I still carefully composed the shot and then entered it. Still, the camera was never really left to gather images without my painterly hand involved.

LC: Do you think that objects in seemingly mundane surroundings always have the capability of reacting beautifully in light, or appearing beautiful and plastic depending on how they are shot?

LP: Yes. This film is also an exercise in making whatever is at hand meaningful and interesting. That might not include beauty. Anyway, the making of a good image with sound and light has to do with the attitude and approach rather than the thing in front of the camera. This is a pretty tough thing to teach. Personally, I find it more difficult to make a film in the face of overwhelming beauty in the world.The experience seems full so there is no need to make a film.

LC: In an essay by C. Day Lewis on the poetics of film, he makes the suggestion that a poetic image is a sensuous picture in words that elicits human emotion. There have also been other ideas about what defines a film as being "poetic." For example, it could be a film's ability to say more with less ('so much depends on the red wheelbarrow'), or the pursuit of seeing the world in a new or unfamiliar way. What constitutes your idea of the poetic image in film and how do you achieve this?

LP: I like the Lewis idea. For me it is all about emotion—finding an emotional patina in an image and polishing it with editing and sound. So much does depend on the red wheelbarrow. Getting to emotion and not squashing it often means doing more with less. And in order to feel something personal from a film, I think it also requires a shift away from the familiar.


Digital work

LC: Since 50 Feet you have moved into digital video making. How has the digital medium changed your way of thinking and making?

LP: The most exciting thing about digital is the way it has made picture editing more like sound editing and mixing. I can have multiple picture tracks that I mix together (and see the result immediately) in different levels of opacity. I can manipulate speed and do the layering I do to smooth out an image (layer the same image over itself to create smoothing effects). In doing these things, it allows me to see the image track as a flow rather than a sequence of shots—and a flow with verticality. In other words, it is the digital editing environment (for me Apple's Final Cut Pro) that allows me to compose harmony (the visual layering) and melody or maybe counterpoint in the image track. It also lets me repeat things with variations at will. It is very much like the way I have been editing and mixing sound for many years. The big thing is that whatever I do I see the result as it will be seen in the finished piece right away. All of this is a new medium—not the same as film at all.

LC: Do you still shoot film as well or are you completely computerized?

LP: I haven't ruled out shooting film again at some point. However, I imagine I will always edit digitally even if I do shoot film.


 Viscera (2004)

LC: What is the meaning of the title? Did it come before or after the making of the video?

LP: Title came after—as they always have. Viscera is where feelings/emotions arise from.

LC: Viscera is faster in disorder and montage in comparison with 50 feet, but there is still a strong presence of your fascination with repetition and rhythm. How has your interest in repetition and rhythmic relationships changed in your new work?

LP: A lot changed in the 10 years between these two pieces. Anyway, at the stylistic level, 50 feet is all about shots and how they connect and how graphic elements and even events repeat. In Viscera, the idea of the "shot" is eroded. Instead it is all about flow. I wouldn't call it "disorder." It is a different kind of order—one of layering and flow rather than the more metrical order of 50 feet of String.  I have been interested in loops and repetition since my early days studying musique concrête (Steve Reich's Come Out) at the Museum School. In fact repetition and rhythm are interests that are consistent in all my work.

Things do change faster in Viscera, it is true. It might have to do with personal changes (moving toward more direct emotional expression instead of the almost buried expression of 50 feet.) Instead of providing a single shot that has some transformation or event within it, I am now making cascades of images—tumbling and falling and reforming. I think the image track is becoming more like music in a way—in the way that music is a flow and has no discrete elements except those that exist in time. Michel Chion talks about this theoretically in Audio/Vision when he says that there is no equivalent to the shot in the soundtrack. I am kind of working toward making no shots in the image track. Even in repetition, such as the red umbrella loopy thing in Viscera, there is no clear beginning and end to any one looped occurrence—the beginning and end are always shifting and blended. However, it is still clearly a repetition. And that has an effect of slowing time in a way. When you see an image once it is part of a perceptual stream. When it repeats more than 3 or so times, it loses its significance as a single entity and gains significance as a graphic rhythmic element. So in a sense, repetition functions as an abstracting technique. It changes the way one engages with the film. Ideally, assuming it doesn't irritate the viewer first, a repetition can function like a mantra. That is what I use it for really. In Viscera, like in Fall, the structured repetition happens at a point of transition in the piece, a point when I'd like the viewer to shift the way they consciously engage with the experience.