using still images

In this project, I’ve come up against the challenge of how to use still images in a film. So many of the beautiful archival imagery of Homestead, PA is in the form of still photographs. In the beginning, I thought that using still imagery would make a film look “flat” or, even worse, like a power point presentation. But I had fallen in love with so many of these old photographs during my research, and I was determined to use them somehow.

Still photos also held a certain importance in the film because so many of my interviewees brought along old photographs to show me, and used them almost like memory references throughout our interviews. They would leaf through old photographs and smile, listing the names of old friends or co-workers or parts or pieces or tools in the mill.

In a lot of my film I wanted new and old imagery to interact. I wanted the idea of ghosts to also be present in my film. And so I’ve been experimenting with layering still archival images and video that I shot. There’s a nice “lulling” feel to how these scenes slip between old and new, black & white and color, motion and stillness.


working with images


Murch on sound

“The danger of present-day cinema is that it can crush its subjects by its very ability to represent them; it doesn’t possess the built-in escape valves of ambiguity that painting, music, literature, radio drama, and black-and-white silent film automatically have…


thus the responsibility of filmmakers is to find ways within that completeness to refrain from achieving it….


by choosing carefully what to eliminate, and then reassociating different sounds that seem at first hearing to be somewhat at odds with the accompanying image, the filmmaker can open up a perceptual vacuum into which the mind of the audience must inevitably rush.”

–Walter Murch


Murch strikes on a very interesting facet of film when he talks about how “complete” it can seem. To truly question the audience and push filmmaking to its full potential, the filmmaker must consider sound differently, and not allow sound in their films to fill all the gaps. Instead, filmmakers need to search out new ways to play with sound and image’s close relationship in order to purposefully create a “perceptual vacuum”. This practice takes patience, restraint, and an ear for metaphor.

In my own work, I try to not let sound simply serve as a “wash”. Sound should click with the image, but not always in expected ways. Instead, sound needs to breath a glimmer of restraint and mystery into the image, especially in today’s torrent of video, media and representation where certain images can be drained of all their power.

some more notes on Bresson…

Reading through Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, several of his musings on film and life struck me as very much related to my own work. When it comes to sound, Bresson says two very interesting things:

The noises must become music

Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence.

I am drawn to this idea of the beauty in silence and the sounds of everyday life. While I am still unsure whether I will be using any music in my project, I know that I want it to be a quiet film, one that makes the viewer search out her or his own sense of rhythm and tone. I want my images to play a music of their own, and I want the soft timbre of human voices and the daily sounds of Homestead to become their own sort of chords.

Bresson also addresses the idea of poetry and a film’s intention in two other notes that I found to be germane to my own project:

Your film–let people feel the soul and the heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands.

Something that I love about film is how tactile it is–something that made shifting to video from film so difficult for me. But even in the video world, I think of filmmaking as something being made, something you must put your hands to and work at. Like gardening, or cooking, or cleaning, or even steelmaking, film is a labor. I take Bresson to heart when he asks for your film to “be made like a work of hands.” Despite all the tools involved, filmmaking should, at its core, be a hands-on, handmade art. Without that sense of a filmmaker’s hands behind what we see projected, I think a film loses the personal, the fingerprint, the humanity of what is being made.

Bresson also notes:

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

Sometimes, the most poetic moments in cinema are the ones that are unassuming,
unplanned, or unnoticed. There’s a beautiful scene in Warner Herzog’s Grizzly Man when Timothy Treadwell, in the middle of a trying to perfect a take for his own film, leaves the screen for several minutes. The camera, alone, records the tall brush blowing in the wind. The image is almost magical and what makes it so, according to Herzog, is that it’s unprompted, uninhibited, and genuine. Without trying to, Treadwell captured a moment of the ecstatic beauty of nature that had been driving him all along.

Who knows what epiphanies lie waiting in what the camera saw without our taking notice.



documentary influences

Sleep Furiously, Gideon Koppel 2008

I love the color palate of this film, and its quiet, unassuming flow. Koppel finds poetry in simple events, landscapes, and compositions, and while his subject matter is quite different than mine, themes of time, its passing, and the loss of a former way of life are important in his film.


For this project, I’m going to be drawing from many sources of imagery to reflect upon the MEMORY of steel mill labor in Homestead. I will be using archival black and white footage of steel production, US Steel commercials, and the town of Homestead. I will also be using current day footage of the town and landscape. I also am in contact with a home movie archivist in Pittsburgh who has at least preliminarily agreed to allow me to use some of his collection of family and amateur films from the area for my project. Lastly, I have the actual interviews I shot of former mill workers, although I plan to use mainly the audio and not the actual video.

Between these varied sources of imagery I hope to draw out a common thread, a vein of poetic resonance and reflection on memory. I want a hazy, almost sepia color palate to infuse my imagery, and I want to utilize black leader as a form of “rests” in the film, allowing the viewer to focus more on audio.

Here are some frames I have taken from my own footage as well as some of the archive films I plan on using.

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What do the memorialized stacks and mill remnants that dot the parking lot of Homestead’s new mall prove? What do they tell us about what was once there? What purpose do they serve in preserving memory? These are questions that don’t have one right answer. The process of memorializing and commemorating the past is not a clear-cut task. The problems arise, perhaps, from the tension between memory and history. 

My taped interviews are, in fact, historical documents in one sense or another–they are concrete objects that speak of something that once was. But the voices of those interviews and what they speak of are only memories: vulnerable to deformation, forgetfulness, and misinterpretation. They are just one perspective in a myriad of so-called historical “truths.” I do not want my project to claim to portray any one “truth” in contemplating Homestead’s past; rather, I want my project to consider the fluid quality of memory, and how we must consider both history and memory if we want to gain real insight on our heritage.

Pierre Nora, a French historian and writer, tries to define how memory and history differ, and how that gulf between the two maybe growing in today’s society in his essay “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Nora speaks of how memory and history seem to be in “fundamental opposition” today. Here is an excerpt form that essay:

“History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past….Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again.”