Mar 272003

by Jonathan Culp

First of all, there’s no such thing as a free movie. Every film costs either money or free time or probably both, and hence rests on the exploitation of some form of privilege — even if it’s somebody else’s privilege. So nyaah nyaah, bourgeois artistes…there, phew, that’s over with. Now on to the fun part: you CAN make movies cheap and easy. Here’s some examples of scrounged, found or otherwise desperation-induced filmmaking methods.


The first video I ever made, at my high school in Grimsby. Some of my friends had the same spare as me, and I wanted to do a movie, so I dashed off a sketchy plotline about Santa Claus and his goon kidnapping rock star Elbow Vox. Intrepid students hustle off to save him; one turns into a superhero and another into a giant rabid eagle.

Wanna make a movie? Go to school. There’s all this equipment lying around, and you can do anything you want and pass it off as “education.” My friend stole the school mascot for the eagle; I used their VHS camera, edited between two of their VCRs, and post-dubbed the sound through my own mixer, though it too could just as easily have been theirs.

Post-dubbed? Ah yes, this was integral to my spontaneous method. In order to shoot a 15-minute short in two hours, I was forced to dispense with pretensions like matching lips to voices (the voices were all done by three people), dialogue (improvised in post), second takes (I stood behind the camera pointing and screaming “Now do this!”), and acting (one of my friends didn’t show so I grabbed some kid I never saw before or since and made her do it). That most of the movie consisted of people running around was a great help, given these strictures.

This was also where I learned that permits are not really necessary. At one point a teacher came out and — seeing a cameraman running after seven students and a mad eagle — murmured “Hey, slow down.” That was about it. Result: masterpiece.


At the St. Catharines Library one day in 1993, I saw that they were selling off two dollies full of 16mm films. They said they would sell me all of them cheap, and to this day I gnash my teeth that I didn’t take them up on it. Instead I cherry-picked 34 interesting titles for 25 measly bucks. I knew they would come in handy sooner or later.

One title was Somalia — at that time the Canadian peacekeeper fiasco in that country was unfolding (What? Are we not pure?) As I watched the other films, I saw that they were not just ridiculous, but also revealing, in the way that each contained elements of both propaganda and contradiction that bore directly on the “Somalia affair.” This is how collage filmmaking works: you really do not choose the subject matter, the footage chooses it for you. I’m serious. Just accept it and you will save yourselves years of grief — “No, my concept will not be complete unless I also find footage of THIS and THIS.” Forget it!

In this case the editing, which I did at LIFT (film co-ops can be very cheap and helpful), took five years from concept to screening. I made a huge mistake: I edited the original 16mm films. This is a no-no and I now regret it, because many of the originals were quite hilarious in and of themselves — like these Humber College public speaking films. Also, the tape splices make the image jump when it runs through a projector, and these show up on the final edit and made synchronization hell.

Audio is a whole other adventure. At least I had the foresight to dump all the soundtracks to DAT before I started snipping; then, because I was editing in 16mm, I had to dub the sync audio to magnetic stock (swiped from a production house warehouse job). Then, when the edit was done, I dubbed BACK to DAT; then took it to a friend’s house who had this Atari sound recording system with like half a byte of drive space, and threw on music and sound effects without having any picture to look at.

After all this, I quit my job and had no money to finish on 16mm, so I had to go to video, which I should have done in the first place. As should you, unless you can get a goddamn grant or something. Beware: several of those five years were spent waiting around for good-for-nothing grants that never came. Instead, I found a housing co-op with a closed circuit TV station and paid fifty bucks or something for a day on their non-frame-accurate, hellish VHS editing system. These days you can get a better deal on digital editing from the aforementioned co-ops.

After all that, the video was a hit and it is still among my most-requested items.


I went to the Metro Days of Action and everyone and their dog had a video camera. I thought: wow, wouldn’t it be cool to ORGANIZE all this footage? So I put a call out in Now magazine for tapes. I got ten responses or so, gathered the cassettes, and held some meetings.

At first I wanted to devise a collective editing process, but everyone there discouraged this, and told me to run with it. While I’m sure self-interest was a factor (theirs as much as mine — editing takes a lot of energy), this was some of the best advice I have ever received. Maybe someone will take me by surprise, but all I’ve seen to date suggests that we edit as we dream: alone.

So, after much tape logging, I came up with a script. Good thing I was still naïve in 1996, otherwise I would have worried about the stuff that got left out like the bank occupation, the bully marshals, etc., but like I said: when you’re doing collage, you just gotta let the material dictate the shape. In this case I decided to use a more obvious structural device: I ran a Joan Grant-Cummings speech from beginning to end and decorated it in real time with other audio and video stuff. I still think that was a smart decision — it was much more intense and convincing than jumping around from speaker to speaker would have been. Don’t try to represent everything — just try to catch the spirit.

This time I edited the soundtrack FIRST — by running audio out of my VCR and into my cheap old 4-track. After that it was back to that housing co-op, which let me use their stuff for free because it was an activist project. Always remember that activists support each other — and don’t be afraid to play the solidarity card!

So I got it done — I think the total budget was $15, for the SVHS master tape — and screened it one year to the day after the protest. Never forget the need to find an audience for your stuff. At one of my screenings, I met the people with whom I eventually formed the illustrious Toronto Video Activist Collective. So there.


Okay, there’s lots more but let me finish with this, because it’s another case of use-what-you-got.

I had just taken a very cool cottage workshop on hand-processing Super 8 film, and wanted to get some low-risk footage to experiment on. Well, I was going to the Lincoln County Demolition Derby anyway, so I decided that would be my subject. I rented LIFT’s Super 8 camera — $5 for the weekend! — bought some film and went to it.

(I should mention that Super 8 stuff is everywhere. You probably know someone with a camera moldering in their attic. Some of them should be pounded into ploughshares, but if you get lucky you can find a good one. My sister’s friend’s mom GAVE me a sound Bolex camera that basically works great — too bad you can’t get sound film anymore. Splicers and viewers are also all over the flea markets; if you don’t go to flea markets all the time, well you should. But be patient. Don’t buy unless you can get it cheap, because it may take a few tries before you get something that actually works. I digress.)

The demolition derby was fantastic as always. Came home with my friend Chris — assistants are good for hand-processing. Basically it’s the same chemicals as regular darkroom stuff — fixer, stop bath, etc. The only esoteric thing is reversal bleach — basically sulfuric acid, so be careful — hard to get, maybe you can find someone who works in a lab. Anyway, the common stuff alone will produce a fine negative image.

The thing is, the more you process the more you save, because one batch of chemicals is good for up to 400′ — 8 rolls — of Super 8 film. Anyway, I don’t wanna get into the details; check out Helen Hill’s fine zine Recipes For Disaster for all kinds of suggestions on handmade filmmaking.

One reel didn’t turn out, but that left three that did — five minutes of scratchy, contrasty excitement. All I needed was a soundtrack. After playing some free-association games, I equated “demolition derby” with “Mike Harris” and used his teacher’s strike speech. Commentary was provided by a cheap bluegrass record and another steal from TV, the previously unheard and truly mind-boggling televangelist, Brother Jessie. Televangelists are a bit of a cliché though, don’t use them unless they’re really far out. Ernest Angley, for example. Always keep a tape handy to record weird shit off of your TV!

Once again, though, I edited on film — I never learn — combined with the scrunched-up hand-processed film, there were a lot of jumps, so I had to re-edit things once again — digitally this time, thank Christ. Final running time — 90 seconds. Size does not matter!

Jonathan Culp co-runs the video distro, Satan Macnuggit, and tours all over the place with his many indie flicks. Get in touch with him if you want to host an event in your town.

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