John Smith – ‘Playing with the Power of Language’

John Smith is an artist filmmaker. He began making films when he was 18, at a time when ‘people were wanting to make work which was in opposition to mainstream cinema and particularly undermine the illusionism of cinema, and were reminded in whatever way that you were watching a film.’


The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)

He simply recorded what was going on in the street and then wrote a script which added voice-over directions to the film. I appears as if the actions you see in the film are being directed by an unseen film director.

  • ‘A film like The Girl Chewing Gum is in one way fitting into the ideas of that time. But it’s also playing with the power of language to condition how we actually see images, and that has a kind of humorous outcome…although it is a very, very serious film.’
  • ‘When I am editing, in my head I’ve got two parallel things going on, one is the image and one is the sound.’
  • ‘The dynamics of the film come from that relationship between image and sound, how one can be dominant at one point and one can be dominant at another…It’s completely intuitive. It’s just to do with how it feels, those balances between different things.’

Hotel Diaries (2001-07)

He was eager to take on the possibilities of the spontaneity of using handheld video cameras. Something that had not been possible when working with film.

The six year series of videos came about by accident while in Ireland for the Cork Film Festival. Britain and the US had just started bombing Afghanistan. He switched on the TV in his hotel room to find the image had frozen

  • ‘something which was possibly just a technical glitch was actually…I was finding traumatic…in my head I was thinking just how different my reality was from the innocent people in Afghanistan who were having bombs dropped on their heads.’
  • ‘having these contradictory things going in my head, I just got my camera out and just filmed the TV screen and had this stream of consciousness.’
  • ‘I really wanted to make work that looks like anybody can do it. I thought if I can make something which looks like a home video and I just forced myself to actually not edit it at all, so I’m going to say stupid things that I’m going to regret, I’m going to mess things up, and stuff like that, this should undermine any kind of potential didacticism.’
  • ‘and the work kind of intended to be conversational on an equal level with the audience, so like a lot of my work really, those videos were saying I’m bothered about this, what do you think?’

Dad’s Stick (2012)

His father showed him a cross-section of a stick he used to paint the house with, so you could all the different layers of paint.

  • ‘I found it really poignant. In a sense I felt like there was a whole history, an important part of someone’s life, that were encapsulated in this tiny little object.’
  • ‘When I put the stick in front of a magnifying lens, it become even more poignant for me, because I realised I was looking at colour that I remembered from fifty years ago.’

In recent years, his work has become shorter.

‘I like to think that I’m sort of distilling things down, that I’m making haikus now. But it might just be that I haven’t got the energy…’


List of references

TateShots (2018) ‘John Smith – Playing With the Power of Language’ At: (Accessed on 15 October 2018)

Reading: ‘Notes on the Cinematograph’, Robert Bresson

While browsing through the bookshelves of the Irish Film Institute bookshop this week, I discovered a copy of Notes on the Cinematograph by the French film director Robert Bresson. Although I have been aware of his name for many years, I am not familiar with any of his films.

Notes on the Cinematograph contains a series of brief notes and fragments that Bresson wrote to himself while making films over a period of several decades between 1950 and 1974. On the back of the book, John Semley says ‘Half-philosophy, half-poetry, Notes on the Cinematograph reads in places like The Art of War for filmmaker’, a point which became very apparent as I began reading. At less than ninety pages, this is a book that can be read in one sitting, but demands that the reader invests far more time and thought than this to fully appreciate what is being said.

A distillation of his theory and practice as a filmmaker, the Notes on the Cinematograph is full of cryptic aphorisms and practical, common sense advice on all aspects of filmmaking, from cinema, writing and working with actors, to photography, sound and lighting.

Below are just a few of the many ideas in the book that I found particularly inspiring.

‘My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living person and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water’ (Bresson, 1986:11).

‘Not to use two violins when one is enough’ (p.13).

‘The noises must become music’ (p.16).

‘The cinematographer is making a voyage of discovery on an unknown planet’ (Bresson, 1986:18).
I find Bresson’s idea that filmmaking is a process of self-discovery for the director/filmmaker, who’s role on set is ‘not to direct someone, but to direct oneself’ (p.5) a very interesting approach to making films.

‘Catch instants. Spontaneity, freshness’ p.19).

‘Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses)’ (p.21).

‘Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way’ (p.21).

‘Forget you are making a film’ (p.24).

‘Unbalance so as to re-balance’ (p.25).

‘Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden’ (p.25).

‘Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to which it is added’ (p.28).

‘The soundtrack invented silence’ (p.28).

‘Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them’ (p.29).

‘Bring together things that have never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so’ (p.29).

‘Dig into your sensation. Look at what there is within. Don’t analyse it with words. Translate it into sister images, into equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the more your style affirms itself. (Style: all that is not technique)’ (p.35).

These are just a few of the ideas that woke me up to the essence of what it means to make a moving image.

This is a wonderful book to discover so early on in my own journey on this course. I now need to watch some of Bresson’s films in order to fully appreciate what are, to me, quite radical and eye-opening ideas.


Bresson, R. (1986) Notes on the Cinematograph, Introduced by J.M.G. Le Clezio. New York: New York Review of Books.

Into the Woods Installation Shots, Ellie Davies

I recently discovered the work of photographer Ellie Davies, whose work has opened up a whole new perspective for me on how the forest setting can be used to great effect within still images.

Her approach is very immersive and involves spending time getting to know and feel the forest before starting work on an image. Talking about her process, she says ‘each series will start with walking, sketching and note-making. Walking allows me to familiarise myself with different areas of the forest and select places that suit each image I am hoping to create. I carry a lightweight kit and I usually sit for a while to get used to the space before starting work, listening to the birds and seeing how it feels to be there. You start to hear the leaves falling and the trees creaking’ (Bradbury, 2016).

She then spends hours hand making or painting props and attaching them to the trees, before capturing the perfect image. The resulting shots challenge the viewer to ‘consider mankind’s relationship with nature and to explore our cultural perceptions of forests in popular culture, folklore, literature or film’ (Bradbury, 2016).

Fig. 1. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ 2010


Fig. 2. ‘Stars’ 2014-2015


Fig. 3. ‘Come With Me’ 2011


Fig. 4. ‘Between the Trees’ 2014

The magic within her work is in ‘her knack of turning reality into a dream-like vision that verges on hyper-reality’ (Bradbury, 2016).

In some of her projects she introduces elements into the scene, such as clouds of smoke, painted trees, fern pathways, or even galaxies of stars, superimposed over forests. There are no people or animals in her photographs. The landscape itself is the character.

In her artist statement, she explains how her work ‘explores the ways in which identity is formed by the landscapes we live and grow up in’ (Davies, n/d) and that the landscape images she creates ‘are a reflection of my personal relationship with the forest, a meditation on universal themes relating to the psyche and call into question the concept of landscape as a social and cultural construct. Most importantly they draw the viewer into the forest space, asking them to consider how their own identity is shaped by the landscapes they live in’ (Davies, n/d).

Like Davies, I too am interested in identity and how it is formed by the environment in which we live and grow. I like the way in which she creates images that are reflections of her personal relationship with the landscape. I also like the way she describes her work as ‘a meditation’ on universal themes. In some way, I would like to create moving images that do the same: that reflect my interest in identity and place; that are reflections of my personal relationship with specific places; that are meditations on universal themes.

Looking back at my first assignment and follow up research on the cultural meaning of forests, I think this could add a new dimension to my approach when working on new projects. Particularly in terms of creating moving images that challenge our perception identity and place.



Bradbury, N. 2016 ‘Ellie Davies’ In: Sodium Burn [website] At:

Davies, E. ‘Statement’ At:

‘Stars’. In: Lens Culture [website] At:


List of illustrations

Figure 1. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ 2010

Figure 2. ‘Stars’ 2014-2015

Figure 3. ‘Come With Me’ 2011

Figure 4. ‘Between the Trees’ 2014

DVD: ‘Archipelago’ (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg

In the context of my work on assignment two, which focused on the creation of a strong sense of atmosphere and feelings within a short film, my tutor suggested I look at Joanna Hogg’s film Archipelago (2010).

I was impressed by Archipelago, right from the beginning. Hogg’s shooting style is very economic, both in terms of image and sound. Most of the shots are static, wide and lingering. The sound, both ambient and dialogue, is natural, punctuating the silence in which it occurs. It reminded me of the tone and style of the films of Eric Rohmer.

In the opening sequence we are introduced to the location, four of the characters and the family relationship between three of these characters. Within only a few shots, we are taken from the landscape, to a family reunion and to the rented holiday home in which the family are staying. It’s a sequence in which every shot counts and contributes to moving the narrative forward.


Fig. 1.

What is particularly striking about the opening sequence is the way in which Hogg uses long, lingering shots. The film opens on the canvas at which an artist is working, then moving out to show both the artist and the landscape in which he is working, which helps set the geographical context for what follows.

There is then a close up of the artist working his brush in the paints. From there we cut to another view of the location, possibly the road below the artist’s elevated position. A solitary bicycle moves slowly along the empty road. We watch as the bicycle gets further away, while at the same time we hear the sound of an approaching helicopter, which eventually comes into frame in the distance.

In the following shot, the helicopter has landed on an airfield and the passengers are disembarking. One of the passengers is greeted at the gate by his sister and mother. Their dialogue is drowned out by the sound of the helicopter. Instead of hearing their conversation, we watch as the characters greet and embrace each other. Their body language telling the story.

The use of body language continues into the next three shots, as the characters make their way along the road, the young man in the back of a small lorry, smiling at his sister and mother who are cycling behind, smiling back. This joy of this moment is very endearing. The wide shots, although moving, adopt the same pattern and pace as the preceding long, lingering shots.

We then cut to an exterior shot of the two bicycles leaning against the walls of the rented holiday home. This is quite a long shot, in which nothing happens. A single static wide shot of the scene. At which point I got the sense that this was going to be the general style and pace of the whole film.

We then cut to an interior scene, in which the three characters are standing on the upstairs landing discussing sleeping arrangements. It’s an awkward conversation, in which the young man is reluctant committing himself to choosing a particular room. Again, the action unfolds within the frame of a single static wide shot.

Hogg adopts this approach throughout the film; allowing the action to happen within single static wide shots unhindered by the constant cutting from shot to shot that we are familiar with in most films.

After watching the film, I carried out some research in order to gain a greater understanding of Joanna Hogg’s approach to filmmaking. An online search of the UCA Library using the keyword ‘joanna hogg’ provided me with a list of eleven articles, mostly from Sight and Sound magazine, that discuss her three films Unrelated (2008), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013).

Hogg’s approach in Archipelago is one in which the artificiality of shooting master and coverage shots for a scene is removed, leaving the viewer to watch the action within the frame unhindered by the usual conventions. In an interview with Graham Fuller for Film Comment, she says: ‘I don’t like to repeat a scene from different angles. I’ll do a primary master shot, so to speak, but then I don’t want to then re-create artificially with a close-up what I’ve just managed to capture very naturally’ (Fuller, 2014).

Hogg goes on to say that ‘it’s also about my interest in body language. The movement of a body in space often tells you more about a person and what they’re feeling than a close-up. I think you feel more by seeing things from a certain distance’ (Fuller, 2014).

This is an interesting idea and one that places the viewing experience of the film in a similar sphere to that of watching a stage play. Watching the whole body moving in the space in this way on screen, in a single wide shot, uncut, was unexpected and a little strange to watch at first. However, it soon became apparent that watching this film was meant to provide the audience with a different viewing experience than they would be familiar with. The long wide-shots and lack of close-ups contribute to that experience.

Of Hogg’s cinematic style, Jonathan Romney says: ‘the still camera and long takes create a sense of analytical detachment, but this is countered by a lovely looseness in the dialogue. We feel we’re spying on real people with their defences down’ (Romney, 2010:27).

Another feature of Hogg’s film is its visual texture. The characters are framed in a ‘downbeat natural palette [and] the house’s aquarium-like grey-green semi-darkness matching the tones of the surrounding country’ (Romney, 2011:49).

I was interested to discover that art is an important influence within Hogg’s work. Archipelago is ‘distinctive in its interiors, echoing the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi. His muted, claustrophobic rooms provide models for images such as a shot of Edward at Patricia’s bedside, head turned three-quarters from the camera, daylight touching his neck – a concise picture of intimate desolation’ (Romney, 2011:49).

Fig. 2.

Vilhelm Hammershoi used a limited colour palette of greys, desaturated yellows, greens and other dark hues in his paintings. His pictures record the simplicity of everyday life. The figures are often turned away from the viewer.

Fig. 3. ‘Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor’ (1901)

Fig. 4. ‘Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30’ (1901)

I’m also interested in Hogg’s very different approach to screenwriting. She says: ‘the writing I do is not conventional screenwriting. I have endless notebooks on the go and rather than translate these into a neat screenplay, which would kill my ideas stone dead, they get poured straight into the film as it is being made. This is via a document that reads more like a piece of prose or fiction, illustrated by my photographs’ (Hogg, 2011).

While I like the idea of preparing a ‘document’ based on endless notebooks and illustrated by photographs, I think I’ll still go that one step further and write a screenplay which then becomes the blueprint for a moving image.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable film and the research I have carried out in response has given me the confidence to look beyond the obvious and conventional. Joanna Hogg’s approach to filmmaking is definitely one I will consider when planning my own moving images – the notebooks and illustrated ‘document’; looking at artists for inspiration; and cinematic style.


Archipelago (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg [DVD] UK

‘Interview: Joanna Hogg’ (2014) Fuller, G. In Film Comment At: (Accessed on 15 August 2017)

Hogg, J. (2011) ‘A very ordered image’ In: Sight and Sound 21 (3) p.49.

Romney, J. (2010) ‘The Scilly season’ In: Sight and Sound 20 (11) p.27.

Romeny, J. (2011) ‘Island records’ In: Sight and Sound 21 (3) pp.48-49.


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Archipelago (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg

Figure 2. Archipelago (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg

Figure 3. ‘Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor’ (1901) Vilhelm Hammershoi

Figure 4. ‘Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30’ (1901) Vilhelm Hammershoi


Screening: ‘Out of Body’ – Irish Film Institute, Tuesday 25th July


Last night I attended a screening of nine experimental films from 1943 to the present day at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. Curated by Irish artist and filmmaker Susan MacWilliam in response to the exhibition As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics currently showing at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Out of Body presented a selection of films that explore the psychic and physical spaces of body and landscape.

The theme of ‘physical spaces of body and landscape’ is of interest to my own practice as a filmmaker, particularly in light of my first two assignment films ‘Blue Jacket’ and ‘Ataraxis’, in which I was exploring ideas of person and place, though not as effectively.

The nine films screened, of which only Maya Deren and John Smith were names with which I was familiar, were:

Psychic Edit, Susan MacWilliam, 2008, Ireland, DCP, 14 second looped

Witch’s Cradle Outtakes, Maya Deren, 1943, USA, Digibeta, 10 minutes

State of Mind, remix #4, Mairéad McClean, 2005, Ireland, DVD, 10 minutes

Faint, Susan MacWilliam, 1999, Ireland, DCP, 4 minutes

The Black Sea, Jordan Baseman, 2010, USA/UK, Blu-ray, 3 minutes

Mountain Mist, Susan MacWilliam, 2002, Ireland, DCP, 8 minutes

Om, John Smith, 1988, UK, 16mm, 4 minutes

Ray Gun Virus, Paul Sharits, 1966, USA, 16mm, 14 minutes

The Last Person, Susan MacWilliam, 1998, Ireland, DCP, 11 minutes

Although the ‘psychic’ aspect of the theme of last night’s screening doesn’t resonate with me as a filmmaker, the nine films were excellent examples of experimental moving image practice between the 1940s and today. Using a variety of techniques, the films challenge our perception of the physical body and physical place/landscape.

One particularly interesting technique that figures in many of the films is the use of repetition and pattern. For example, the 14 second looped Psychic Edit (MacWilliams, 2008) establishes a pattern of images that repeats over time, building into a repeated extended sequence of family footage and a woman’s smile; a female figure repeatedly fainting beneath a tree in Faint (MacWilliams, 1999) establishes a pattern of movement and action that builds into a mesmeric, trance-like sequence; the single-shot of moving waves in The Black Sea (Baseman, 2010) generates its own graphic repetitions and patterns which, over time, appear to take on the appearance of a living, breathing form; and, by contrast, the highly charged sense of pattern and repetition that is established in Ray Gun Virus (Sharitts, 1966) exerts a strange hold over the viewer in a trance-like retinal experience that seems to engage with your own body in a way that none of the other films do.

In Mountain Mist (MacWilliams, 2002) the use of time and space plays a key role in the film’s structure and form. In a single-shot, in which the camera is locked down on a view of a mountain side covered in trees, space remains constant throughout, while time is manipulated through the use of time-lapse. We see birds flying, mists dispersing and rain storms passing in real-time, intercut with changes in the landscape such as clouds passing, fluctuations in light, and a sunset, in time-lapse.

Some of the films have no sound attached to them at all, such as Witch’s Cradle Outtakes (Deren, 1943) and The Last Person (MacWilliam, 1998). As a result, the absence of sound places all the emphasis on the visual experience of watching the movement and action within these two films. Even to the point that you become more acutely aware of the sound of your own body in the silence of the room.

To see these nine films in their original formats as they were intended to be viewed on the cinema screen was a real treat. Particularly, the 16mm prints of John Smith’s Om (1988) and Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus (1966), which I now realise is a rare privilege.

This screening has left me with plenty of food for thought. Once again, as with my discovery of Vivienne Dick’s work a couple of weeks ago, a whole world of moving image practice has opened up for me.


As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics, Exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 13 April – 27 August 2017

Faint (1999) MacWilliam, S. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Psychic Edit (2008) MacWilliam, S. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

The Black Sea (2010) Baseman, J. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Ray Gun Virus (1966) Sharits, P. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)