Interview with Paul Bush

Mike Sperlinger

6 Mar 2013
With his debut feature film Babeldom opening in the ICA Cinemas from Friday, plus a programme of his short films and Q&A with the director himself on Sunday.

With his debut feature film Babeldom opening in the ICA Cinemas from Friday, plus a programme of his short films and a Q&A with the director himself on Sunday, we are pleased to present this contextualising interview with experimental filmmaker Paul Bush. In an edited extract from The Animate Book, Bush talks to Mike Sperlinger of LUX, discussing the filmmakers that have inspired him, his fine art background and the definition of his eclectic practice.

Mike Sperlinger: People tend to classify you as an animator. Do you feel connected more to someone like, say, Eadweard Muybridge, than the names most people in animation would invoke?

Paul Bush: Well, I think Muybridge didn't know what he was doing! He didn't know what consequences it would have for film and animation. I'm sure he had no idea that his books would become textbooks that animators would look at in order to study movement. But my whole background in film, learning film, was through looking at work of the 1970s, primarily by American experimental movie-makers – some of whom, like Paul Sharits and Stan Brakhage, were doing single frame work. Also Tony Conrad, and later Chris Welsby – there's no way that Chris Welsby would call himself an animator, but he did do a lot of single frame work and time lapse.

MS: So your influences came from quite a specific area of filmmaking, rather than from the general history of animation – in particular via the London Film-makers' Co-op.

PB: Yes, that was where I learnt to make films and that's when I was suddenly discovering lots of people who had made films which played around with time, and the single frame is a fantastic tool for exploring time. ... All my early work tended to be of very long duration shots – I was very influenced by Jean-Marie Straub, for example. Straub had these shots that were held for an enormous length of time, so long that sometimes you actually started noticing the grain of the film – they were held too long for the information that they imparted. And then, without doing any films with normal kind of cutting in between, I ended up making films in which every frame changed. It's at the edges that film tends to reveal itself as an artificial construction – it tends to be when you hold shots too long or if you start breaking it down to the single frame. They're at completely different ends of the spectrum, but they're actually achieving a similar thing, which is to reveal the artificiality of film.

MS: How much was your background in fine art an influence on your filmmaking?

PB: I think it informed, or cemented, an aesthetic about how things should be visually, particularly about economy. At Goldsmiths we had a lot of teachers who were involved in Conceptualism and Minimalism, that was the ethos. The king then was Jasper Johns. It wasn't necessarily that I was going to carry on doing the kind of work I did in college, but I learnt things like economy of means, absolutely the opposite to Baroque and Rococo. Because there's another strong movement in avant-garde filmmaking which is psychodrama – Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, George Kuchar, Derek Jarman – that kind of aesthetic was the complete opposite to what I was doing.

MS: If you were trying to characterise your work generally, including the animated and the non-animated, do you think it's possible to identify common concerns?

PB: I think it's a mixture of things. Going back to this thing about Minimalism, I do think that the reworking of things that already exist is something that's always interested me. I remember a film I saw from the American experimental movement, Tom Tom the Piper's Son (1969-71) by Ken Jacobs, where he reworked a tiny piece of found footage. He zoomed in, re-filmed little episodes and so on, and turned it into a two-hour film. So reworking something that already exists and not feeling that you have to produce something fresh, but rather to revisit something and re-present it, whether that's archive footage or a text or a Gustave Doré engraving – I think that's the common factor, something that's in all the films.

MS: Is animation really just a label of convenience for you?

PB: There's always been a big battle with these terms, less among the practitioners and more among the curators. As far as artists go, I don't think we like classifying our work! But there is a big battle for what animation should be – should it be cartoons, or cartoons and puppets, or should we let CGI in? And so on. What's happened is that the animation world has gradually accepted these new techniques, and for me to move into the animation world was to be allowed to make experiments and for people to want to see them. There are people who want the animation world to be very small and exclusively about cartoons, but they're in a minority, and that means that the animation arena has become very rich because lots of people with diverse practices have been included. That means the festivals are interesting, the college courses are interesting… And even understood conventionally, when you look at an animated feature compared to a live action feature the scope of the story is greater – because animation compresses time. An actor requires a certain amount of time to cross a room but a cartoon character can do it in a different way. Certainly within British cinema, drama is rooted in neo-realism, and the notion of documentary is quite journalistic, not personal or essayistic, and there are limits in terms of the way that visual language is used to communicate. In animation that's blown open, because of this ability to squeeze and stretch action, movement and time, to use shorthand, to tell things with a single line – it's an arena where there seem to be fewer rules, and that's why I am working in animation. So I don't deny that I work in the animation field, it's just that the animation field has opened up for people to explore visual language in a way that's impossible in other areas.

Interviewed by Mike Sperlinger from The Animate Book ed Benjamin Cook & Gary Thomas (LUX, 2006)

Babeldom opens on Friday 8 March. A compilation of Paul Bush’s award-winning short films is being screened on Sunday 10 March, followed by Babeldom and a Q&A with the director.

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