Waterfall (Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, 1984) is a true film-maudit: an Australian film in an art form dominated by “entertainment” films from America or “serious” works from Europe; a short film in a culture which evaluates and discusses mainly feature films; a serious, formal, experimental work at a time when structural works are in disrepute.
Humorous, linear, narrative, easy-to-digest (the word “entertaining” is relevant here) experimental films are more likely to be given credibility, to be written about, as if accessibility were a virtue. This can be seen as a reaction against the structuralist and semiological works of the recent past which were often unfathomable and overly long. However, the Cantrills’ works should not be confused with these films, as theirs are formal rather than structural. They may require a different frame of reference to mainstream cinema, but this is what makes the films experimental.
As Ross Gibson states, “Square Bashing [an Australian super 8 film made by Stephen Harrop in 1982] is particularly difficult to describe in words” (1). This is the problem which exists for works of an experimental nature: they are difficult to analyse. Most of the analysis of experimental works consists of either straight descriptions of what is seen on the screen, or an explanation of the technological process involved in the filmmaking. It is often difficult to explain the complex emotional or intellectual reaction one has to the work. If the films are abstract, there are no themes which can be analysed. The best experimental (and other) films are works that need to be experienced. Cinema is, as Samuel Fuller said, “emotion”.
Waterfall is ten years old. Scan film publications and the majority of the articles are about new films. Film culture is about an appraisal of the latest; it is rampant consumerism. There seems to be an unwillingness to discuss older works and audiences seem to be unwilling to reassess these films as well. Retrospective programmes are less and less able to attract audiences. This can be illustrated by the relatively poor attendances at the BFI/Piper Heideseck Restorations at the Melbourne International Film Festival [in 1994].
To compound this problem, Waterfall is made by filmmakers with a substantial body of work dating back to the early 1960s. In an era where only the latest technologies and the newest filmmakers are considered of value, old is old hat. As Sight and Sound notes, “The phrase ‘young film-makers’ carries a certain mystique. Not so ‘old film-makers’, though there are obviously more of them around.” (2)
Yet the Cantrills continue to survive as filmmakers and continue to publish the extraordinary Cantrills Filmnotes [until the end of 1999]. They are the veterans and it is due to their vision, their tenacity and their love of film that they continue to survive and thrive in an area of filmmaking where few people do survive. Very few Australian filmmakers of any era have a body of work comparable to theirs and this is what makes Waterfall worthy of serious discussion. It draws attention to the art of the Cantrills, and illustrates their concerns and working practices.
Waterfall is an 18-minute sound film made by the Cantrills in 1984. It is a three-colour separation study of MacKenzie Falls in the Grampians, Victoria. The red, green and blue separations were shot on 16mm black-and-white negative, and were printed with colour filtration onto Eastmancolor print stock. Due to the time differences between the filming of the three pieces of superimposed film, there are slight changes in movement and registration between the three exposures. The colour appears to flare around the edges of the leaves on the trees, the grass, the waves and the splashes of water.
In their early three-colour separation work (Waterfall is their fourteenth colour separation study), the Cantrills were careful to have as little movement in the frame as possible, fearing the technical artifacts. But by 1979 they began incorporating more and more movement to further develop the time-colour relationship. Waterfall is the most dynamic of their three-colour separation series.
One of the most extreme examples of the lack of registration of the separations occurs towards the end of the film, when tourists, viewed in the distance, who are visiting the MacKenzie Falls, appear as three sets of ghostly figures. This illustrates the ephemeral nature of human activity and the irrelevance of humans to much of the Cantrills’ work. If humans are present, they are usually shapes with no life of their own beyond the temporal and spatial limits of the film. It is the inanimate objects, the rocks, which are bold and full colour. These have a permanent quality.
As Arthur Cantrill states in issue 45/46 of Cantrills Filmnotes, a slow shutter speed was a feature of 19th Century still photography. This caused a blurring of any images in which movement occurred, and especially of waterfalls in which each image was not a representation of individual drops (or falls) of water so much as a representation of the volume of water which had fallen before the camera during the period of the exposure. With their three-colour separations, the Cantrills have recreated this effect, and the blurred rush of the water can be seen as a metaphor for the vertical movement of film through a film projector.
As an extension of the above, Waterfall can also be seen as homage to the early developments of colour motion-picture film. In 1974, the Cantrills visited the Eastman House Museum of Photography at Rochester, USA. They were impressed by the display of early work in colour photography and film, and, in 1976, with Three Colour Separation Studies – Landscapes, they began exploring the first three-colour system to be used in still photography.
The principles of photographic reproduction of colours were first described by Clerk Maxwell in 1855. He showed that if three negatives are taken through red, blue and green filters, the negatives yield positives which, if projected through their appropriate red, blue and green filters and superimposed on a screen, will give a picture of natural colours. There are methods by which this can be achieved in the movies. One is an additive process, the other is subtractive. The first three-colour (and two-colour) films were made with the additive process and consisted of recording and projecting three (or two) consecutive images.
Initially, these images were recorded on separate frames of film, but eventually a process was developed which allowed three (or two) small images to occupy a single frame area. All of these processes suffered from defects such as colour fringing, due to a lack of registration of the component images projected through multiple lenses (creating an effect similar to that which the Cantrills achieve in Waterfall), and poor definition.
In earlier two-colour processes, where the camera was run at 32 frames-per-second (double the normal silent film speed – another intersection with Waterfall), and alternative frames were projected through a rotating filter disc, the two successive images were merged by the persistence of vision. But fringing occurred on moving images due to the slight difference between consecutive images.
The Cantrills’ deep knowledge of the history of the early cinema reinforces and reflects their desire to rediscover the nature of the recorded image. This film’s allusion to tinting is another example of this. Before colour film, the hand colouring of images, known as tinting, was used, and the imprecise hand application of colour to still images – either photographs or movie frames – caused a bleeding around images reminiscent of the fringing of the colour in Waterfall.
A portion of Waterfall was filmed in slow motion at 12 fps (half normal sound speed) and down to as slow as 1/2 to 1 fps using the time-exposure facility on their spring-wound 16mm Bolex camera and a greatly-reduced f-stop. When these images are projected, the image of the water is speeded up. During these moments of the film, the camera is in close to medium shot, and the sound of the waterfall is very loud, obscuring any other ambient noises.
The sound of the film tends to follow a relatively traditional notion of the function of a soundtrack. The sound is a “real time” mix of the noise at the waterfall, depending on the closeness or distance from the waterfall. At a distance, other bush noises are discernible. Up close, the deafening rush of the water obliterates all other sounds. Perhaps the conventional use of the soundtrack acts as a hook for audiences in search of a more traditional film form, thereby allowing them to appreciate the unique nature of the Cantrills’ approach to filmmaking.
What the Cantrills have achieved throughout their careers as filmmakers, through persistently questioning and exploring the medium of film, is a pursuit of the essence of the filmic experience. They have identified film as a mutable art form, one in which nothing has to be what it seems. They manipulate light and transform film stock so that they can look at familiar objects and perceive them in ways which can reveal texture, shapes, light and movement and elucidate new meanings.
The Cantrills display a love of film which sees them regularly attending a wide variety of film screenings. They are aware of the expressive power of the components of film, something which the great mainstream filmmakers are also aware of. As Corinne has stated, “We want to create a new awareness of visual and aural beauty”.
But beyond being filmmakers interested in the history and processes of the cinema, the Cantrills are also great poets of the Australian landscape. Their films feature many of the landscape icons of Australia: the Grampians, Uluru, Stradbroke Island, Coober Pedy, Katatjuta (The Olgas), Eltham, and Point Lookout. Much of this work was made in the mid-period of their career. These films turn away from the découpage approach of the earlier works to a more mature mise en scène type approach to film, a more sombre, austere and reflective attitude towards filmmaking.
The three-colour studies can be seen as a dissection of the elements of film images. This is a process of discovering images. A repetition of sound and image in these films creates an accumulation of the emotional impact of the work. It is simple in appearance yet its ramifications are complex. The visual concept behind a film constitutes its entire content.
It is impossible to understand Waterfall without seeing it in its entirety. The meaning of the film is intimately bound to the visual elements of each image and cannot be adequately verbalised. The landscape images gathered in the film have subtle differences and the structure of the film makes us aware of the differences. The camera animates the rocks, the leaves and the water, and assembles them so that the viewer can experience the colour, beauty and power of nature.
The Cantrills found that, by using a three-colour separation process, they achieved startlingly realistic colour, superior to ordinary tri-pack film stocks, with unreal displacements of colour occurring where there was movement in the frame.
These observations can only be made on film, and with a relatively pristine print. Most of the emotional power and strength of the film would be lost by viewing Waterfall on video or on a heavily-scratched or faded print. Television would alter the colour of the film and would destroy the impact of its texture. One could speculate on the connection between this and the well-known dislike by the Cantrills for television and video. It should also be reiterated that this work is a three-colour separation. Television/video uses a three-colour addition process and is the only major form of this process. All of the other major colour processes are three-colour subtractive processes (3).
- Ross Gibson, “Square Bashing”, Cinema Papers no. 100, August 1984, p. 18.
- “The Business”, Sight and Sound vol. 4, no. 8, August 1994, p. 4.
- Two major articles were consulted in writing this piece: Arthur Cantrill, “Waterfall”, Cantrills Filmnotes no. 45-46, October 1984, p. 2; and Andrew Pike’s substantial essay, “The Cantrills – The Art of Seeing”, Mainstream: A Survey Exhibition of the Filmwork by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, 1963-1979, Melbourne, 1979.