Podcast Episode 120: 'Dawson City: Frozen Time' Revels In Real Found Footage
Director Bill Morrison talks about the nitrate treasure found in the Canadian permafrost
Beth Accomando: Welcome to another edition on listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I'm Beth Accomando. Let's face it. Found footage has become a tired trope in horror but those films all manufacture their supposed found footage. That kind of fakery holds no interest for experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. He is interested in the real deal, genuine footage that has been unearthed, uncovered or just waiting to be found and brought to light. Bill Morrison: What interests me is that this is the flotsam and jetsam of time that we see on the frame and they have washed up on our shores now that's what I find really remarkable is how time is evinced in this old footage and the image underneath is just one layer and everything that has happened to it once it was shot is another layer or several layers. Beth Accomando: At a time when everyone seems to be using digital technology to clean up old images, Morrison revels in the decay and damage of old archival footage. He does not see this as marring the original image so much as altering it to create something new, or maybe as altering it so that we have to explore like digging through layers of sedimentary rock to find evidence of something that came before. But his exploration has some intoxicating and mind-altering side-effects. Bill Morrison: Well, I am aware of the effect and that's why I call my production company Hypnotic Pictures, I think you are trying to find an image underneath those flickering layers. Somehow those flickering layers are massaging your brain in a way that you are not aware of and you do get into some kind of altered state with that. Beth Accomando: His new documentary is Dawson City: Frozen Time, which uses hundreds of nitrate films from the early 1900s that were discovered in the permafrost of the Yukon territories in Canada. I missed the opportunity to see Dawson City at the TCM Classic Film Festival in April, because ironically I was filing a story for NPR about the projection built at the festival being upgraded to show nitrate prints, but the film looked so deliciously tempting that I had to get it for Digital Gym Cinema here in San Diego. I also wanted to talk to man who made this unique and absolutely genuine found footage film. Morrison is both the documentary and experimental film maker who works with found footage that he repurposes to tell new stories. He believes in the spell bounding quality of those found images and creates films that are cinematic pumps [Phonetic] [00:02:59]. In one of his early films Decasia, he uses decaying archival footage to create a creepy and haunting meditation about the transient nature of all things. And some of those images are more nightmare-inducing than most horror films. In the Great Flood, he uses silent film images to recount the stories of the Mississippi River flood or 1927. And in The Miners' Hymn he also employs archival materials to look at the ill fated mining towns of Northeast England. The seeds for Dawson City: Frozen Time were sown years ago when Morrison first [Indiscernible] [00:03:42] tales of a cache of films found in a swimming pool in Canada. Initially, he thought it was just a myth that wouldn't die. But in 2013, he met Paul Gordon, who does digital migration for the Library and Archives, Canada, and found out that they were getting a 4K digital scanner to import the Dawson City collection. Suddenly, the myth was turning into reality. And the timing seemed perfect to start thinking about how to turn that footage into a film. Male Speaker: This is fascinating. These are world series shots from 1917 to 1919, and Canada just getting a whole of these video; that's fascinating, ah. Male Speaker: It was an incredible story. Beth Accomando: His documentary looks to both the history of cinema and the history of Dawson City itself, which boomed during the Yukon gold rush at the end of the 1800s. Bill Morrison: And it became the Paris of the North. It was a rollicking gold rush town that had caviar and champagne and had electric lights before any other town in western Canada would be overnight the largest city in Canada, west of Winnipeg whereas - again two years before there had been some mouse bear and some reindeers. Of course, there is a lot of money and a lot of the people who were working were working and the other people were kind of drifting. And there was a lot of idle time and entertainers came through there to mind the miners as everyone was trying to do. And, these theaters were also [Indiscernible] [00:05:12] showman and eventually movie projectionist who would come with their movie projectors and their limited library of films. And over the years after the [Indiscernible] [00:05:24] as they were called moved down to Norm or to other places maybe Hollywood, the town was left with sort of a functioning mining town of maybe 1000 or 2000 people. Those theaters remained and became the endpoint of a sound film distribution chain. And they were too expensive to ship them back. Of course, nobody had the same historical value for films that we have today. They were considered sort of like old newspapers or comic strips - even the comic pages. No distributor want to pay to have them back and the studio who cared about having them back and they were told just to dispose them. So, the way to that that was the easiest which is throw them in Yukon River. And I think many, many, many thousands of films were thrown into the Yukon River. Some were burnt in controlled nitrate bonfires that was also a very hot and dangerous. And some were inadvertently ignited just through spontaneous combustion or improve handling, but there was a certain cache that accumulated in the basement of the Carnegie Library there in town in Dawson City, a library which actually had suffered its own fire and was now vacated and as the banks came – the local banks came to control the film while it was in Dawson. It was the agent for the studios. And all these films started to accumulate into the basement of Carnegie Library. And so, there wasn't any room for them there either. And at that point kind of an amazing conversions happened where the local hockey rink which had always suffered from being in the wintery hockey - make it in the summer at the swimming pool, because of that, it always had sort of uneven surface on the ice. There was always a bulge where the part of swimming pool was underneath. And hockey league decided to fill in the swimming pool in 1929. And the treasurer of the hockey league is also the bank manager, a guy named Clifford Thompson. And he arranged to have – after writing to distributors and saying, do you want it back? And they all said no. Then he arranged to have all these hundreds of reels of films carded into the dry swimming pool and then covered with earth and then covered with planks and ice silver. For once in the town's history they had a nice flat ice skating rink and everyone forgot about it for the most part. I mean there were accounts of the films somehow working their way up through the ice during certain thaws And kids knew that they were down there, but by and large people forgot about this huge nitrate films that were underneath the hockey rink until 1978 when a construction that was going to rebuild a new recreation center and a backhoe was working its way through those planks and uncovered this enormous cache of 35 mm nitrate film. And before too long, a deal was struck with a National Film Archives in Canada to restore 533 – 35 mm nitrate film reel which represented 372 title which already make of the other copies that existed also in the world had either been thrown out or gone up in fires or decayed beyond recognition. And, these 533 reels were the only things that remained of these titles. And they were restored in 1978 and 1979, they - between United States Library Congress and the Canadian National Archives now known as Library and Archives, Canada, they each received copies of these films and they made duplicate for each other. They have sat in storage for 38 years. And to the best of the knowledge, not too many people looked at them since that. Beth Accomando: So it's amazing that film – that they could have actually restored some of these films to the point where you could watch them. I mean if they had been buried for that long, it attest to how durable that film stock must have been. Bill Morrison: The film stock was durable. I was also inadvertently was a really perfect storage medium for them because it was ice cold. It was permafrost 12 months of the year and there was no oxygen. It was dark and cold. And so these films actually probably looked pretty good had they been exhumed by professionals and immediately restored back in the summer of '78. They could look very different than they do today. But the situation was such that they were been taken out into hot summer afternoon and the change in temperature and the change in humidity meant that – and motion was really dripping off the base. And they were been handled by amateurs. Not to say they were been handled badly, but they were in the process of identifying what these reels were which instrumental for them to receive the funding to restore them. But nonetheless, what should have been done was they should have been just in case in some plastic and then soaked immediately. And then professional rewashed and dried and stabilized. That didn't happen until November of that year when the pros in Ottawa received a big Hercules air transport of these films. And again the difference in temperature and humidity was such that they were extremely fragile because of the preservation work they developed the technique whereby putting it through a Photo-Flo solution and rewashing these films, they were able to stabilize them. But the Dawson City collection is very unique in how it look. Most old nitrate film collection show an extraordinary amount of nitrate film decay. That's not the case with this collection. This collection shows almost universally water damage to the sides of the reels. Beside on either side of the frame, you see these white - tenderly-like fingers reaching towards the middle of the frame, and that is known in archive circles as sweater because it's unique to how this collection was discovered and handed. Beth Accomando: So for people who may not be familiar, I did a podcast talking about nitrate film, but if people didn't listen to that or don't know what it is, nitrate was the film stock that was originally created and it's a highly unstable. But in your film, you kind of go into the process of making nitrate. So, explain a little bit about kind of what nitrate is and why it has a certain kind of romance to it. Bill Morrison: Tagline of my film is film was born of an explosive. And in nitrate film, nitrocellulose is gun cotton. It was developed as an explosive. You would some cotton and combine it with nitric acid and sulfuric acid. And you have this thing that once it dried and when lit, it burnt very quickly and entirely. If you think of like flash powder, that's what this is. And it wasn't until camphor was added to this explosive that was used in those military warheads all through the 19 century that the first plastic was developed. And that first plastic was the base of film. It was what we called nitrate film. So, really the vehicle, if you will, the thing that transports our entire cinematic history from the very, very beginning from 1894 until 1950 is an explosive. It's an explosive median. And it was more flexible and more durable than anything they could come up with the ensuing wherever that is 58 years. So even though there was a safety base that was developed as early as 1910, it was specifically the domain of amateur films because it couldn't handle the heavy distribution that the nitrate films couldn't maintain its flexibility. Despite the fact that very quickly people realized that you are going to have a lot of loss of life and lot of loss of film collections, they still embraced nitrate films a medium for our entire film history, and that is why we have very little of it left. No one can be quite sure what the number is, but sometimes its 75% of our silent film history has been lost. So, we have basically a quarter of what was made left. And I won't be surprised if that number was actually quite a bit less than that. But in anyways, it's an amazing medium. I love it. And what it does do besides bursting into flames, and that's what its most famous for and sort of most as you say romanticized for, is that people think any time you look at it, it is just going to explode. Actually, the case is more that it off gases and then its stored in tight containers and that gas forms pressure to the point that if there was a spark, then you would have an explosion. And once this stuff catches on fire, all of it burns in its entirety even submerged under water. It's just that flammable. But I have played around a lot with this stuff. I regularly go down at least once a year to the nitrate parts of the Library of Congress where they put aside some of the reels that they are going to throw away and [Indiscernible] [00:15:11] the last stop for these reels, they - if I don't want them, then nobody wants them. So, there is often times collection of ossifying reels of nitrate film and a little posted sticker with my name on it and designated them for my last approval. So it's - a lot of my career has been formed from making art from these nitrate reels. But in the case of Dawson City, that's a very different type of decay what you are seeing. As opposed to it, nitrate decay is you are seeing a lot of water damage on the side of the frame. So, it's a different type of decay. Beth Accomando: And you actually have footage of like nitrate film being made back in the day. And I had never seen anything like that, that was really fascinating to see that. Bill Morrison: Oh, yeah. Well, there is a film I believe Columbia Pictures has made called Romance of Celluloid, and it's part of their whole romance series of educational films. Yes, it's a – actually as I edited it quite poignantly because it starts with sharecroppers harvesting cotton. And then that comes – that cotton becomes films and eventually end up with beautiful movie stars in the films. That particular film needed quite a bit of editorialized new arts be made appropriate for my film. Beth Accomando: Your film takes a unique approach to kind of the documentary format. Most people think of documentary, oh, we're going to get talking heads or we're going to get being interviewed and you set up some of the information like that. But for the most part, you're film is kind of this fever dream of memories of these old silent films. So, how did you want to take all these clips and put them together? I mean when you first kind of decided to do this, what were you thinking your approach was going to be? And how did that change as you kind of started to assemble this? Bill Morrison: My approach was always to make the Fever Dream. People who are familiar with my work were quite stunned to see talking heads and a baseball shows getting in my film. And they were like what the hell is going on with this guy. He is sold out. But it becomes very clear within 5 or 10 minutes that you are back in the same type of editing rhythm that you're accustomed to with my earlier work. I always thought that this was a film that was going to have a lot of lyricism to it. And between the Heg's [Phonetic] [00:00:08] photographs and nitrate that was buried in the swimming pool and the paper print collection from the time and the archival footage that supports the area, there was just going to be an footage and that I would trove through century with every decade being represented in some way by footage and tell the story of the American century through this - combing lot of this film collection. Beth Accomando: And because most of this film or all of it was silent, there was no soundtrack that comes with the movie. So where did you get the music from and how did you create kind of the soundscape that went with these images? Bill Morrison: I worked very closely with a composer named Alex Somers. People might be familiar with his work if you saw the film Captain Fantastic last year. He did that soundtrack as well. But I came to him through the band Sigur Ros, which – the Icelandic Band that he is closely associated them and has produced with them for many years. And so, he was familiar with my work and we met backstage at a Sigur Ros concert in Ottawa maybe in 2014. And few weeks after that, I had him up to my apartment in New York and I showed him the films. And he had the idea of bringing his brother John – John Somers in to do sound design. And the two of them worked very closely to create a sound design that would dovetail with the sound track and sort of enhance it and also be a counter point to it while supporting the images. So between the two of them, they really created some – a different world which was really what I wanted with to not mimic old movies, but to create sort of this fantastic voyage that would take the viewer on. Beth Accomando: Oh, it's fabulous because it really does have this kind of like you are watching it and you feel like you are some of sort of drug-induced state. You get completely taken away. Bill Morrison: It's nicer that you can still drive home. Beth Accomando: In assembling it, how much footage were you going through to kind of pare it down to this? Bill Morrison: I would say all folders, I think half a million – which would be around $100 of footage. I certainly looked at all the newsreels and I didn't look at all the fiction films, but I looked at a lot of them and I was able to kind of gather them based on what descriptions were available of them and I could sort of run searches based on key words that I needed for my narrative. And in this way I started to accumulate a sort of a stock library of this footage on various hard drives. Dawson City is a fairly well mediated town from its very inception. So again we had this paper, print collection spanning all the way back to you know the very beginning of cinema, at least the first couple of years; the shift leading to through the gold rush, you know loading horses for the Klondikers the summer of 1897 out of Seattle and then following the San Peters up to Dawson City there's footage you know in the mines and on Front Street incredibly. So that's sort of the very beginning of cinema and then of course Spanish-American war was going on and footage of that war was a huge draw in theatres there and you can work your way through up, through to where the films started arriving in 1907 and they were showing sort of a depiction of what was going on out, the reality films were showing what was going on elsewhere in the world and then as newsreels came in, in 1911 sort of the labor conditions and the type of labor issues that would interest the common moviegoer to be a worker. And in that way I was able to start piecing together these different decades that each gave a unique portrait of the 20th century and also specifically of the Americans role in the 20th century. So all through the century, Dawson City always saw itself at sort of this mythologized town through the lens of the gold rush and it always when looking back at the gold rush and comparing itself to how it used to be and responding to the outside world image of it as the gold rush town and first of the a real tough town and then as a rich town and then as a sort of forgotten town and there was footage that supported that for every decade of the century. And I feel as I started my research and I just came upon more and more footage that sort of lined with the entire narrative ark of birth and death of this town and indeed the birth and death of our country. Beth Accomando: So in going through all this footage was there anything that really surprised you or anything that you kind of just fell in love with based on you know what you had seen before and that it was different? Bill Morrison: It quite a bit of it surprised me and there was an enormous amount of film, I loved it, every shot in there is a shot that I'd fallen in love with in some way or the other because there is so much, I wasn't able to include. If anyone has been following this film over the past couple of years it made a splash in 2014 when I found footage of the 1919 World Series and that's the same Black Sox Scandal World Series in which "Shoeless Joe" Jackson and his teammates on the Chicago White Sox accepted bribes to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. What was remarkable about it is that this particular newsreel devoted almost half of the 20 time to this World Series not knowing that it was depicting a notorious or criminal sporting event, it was just depicting the news as it were. And one of the innings that it happened to not only photograph, but also include as part of its edit within the newsreel showed purportedly a - one of the players that had been circled and testimony in the court hearings that showed the White Sox failing to make what would have been a routine double-play. So, it's sort of a smoking gun footage that astounded the baseball world and so that was rather amusing because I had to keep explaining to people that I wasn't actually making a baseball movie, I was just making a movie about a fascinating collection of which this baseball footage was proof of how fascinating it was because if you can find something like that on the very first day, well there must be a lot of other stuff buried there too. And indeed there was, I mean there was a lot of newsreel stuff that I just found intriguing, especially because it really all happened a hundred years ago from now. So if you look at the summer of 1917 a lot of people were trying to go off to war and are mobilizing and you have the great migration of the African-Americans taking place and fulfilling both jobs in the North and there is definitely an enormous amount of racial tensions. There is lot of mob violence against African-Americans and then changed. And then there was this incredible parade that was photographed on Fifth Avenue, the silent parade organized by W.E.B. Du Bois on July 28, 1917 in which thousands of African-Americans staged the first civil rights protest in New York and really maybe the second in the country walking down Fifth Avenue carrying signs wearing white clothes and being completely silent, it's called the Silent Parade. So, that was a remarkable newsreel find. The same year a few months later 12,000 women protest for voting rights and so this was a great Suffrages parade that happened only three or four months after the Silent Parade and that was instrumental for women to gain voting rights. So there is a lot of things like that there is obviously I couldn't include all this stuff. I did include that in my film, there was a lot of stuff I couldn't include in my film. I couldn't include the incredible bloody summer of 1919 in the race riot and I couldn't include, you know all the incredible scientific discoveries that are depicted, but anyone who is interested in what was happening exactly a hundred years ago, well this is a very timely collection to take a deeper look into. Beth Accomando: Did you come to this with a lot of knowledge and love of history as well or did you kind of get into that as you started researching the footage you were finding? Bill Morrison: Oh I did come here with a lot of love of history. I've made two documentary films that are historical documents, one about the coal miners in specifically in northern England of the miners hymns and then more recently a film about the 1927 flood which was another chapter of the great migration called The Great Flood and those few films were what prepared me for this massive story with Sean - even though it tells sort of the humble story of the loss and recovery of a film collection that's just the template to tell a bigger story about the rise and fall of our country. Beth Accomando: We've talked mostly about the newsreel footage what about some of the films like the Hollywood films and things like that? Were there any ones that had actors or performers that we don't have much footage of them because it's been lost, but were there any things there that you found that you were really happy to have uncovered? Bill Morrison: It is a remarkable collection in that you know a lot of these, there are some well-known stars, there was Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle and Lionel Barrymore and – and there is you know a number of sort of household name actors, but it's not the point of the film to dwell on those that might be for another film historian to take that on. I was more interested in how to use those narrative films to tell the story. There are remarkable coincidences throughout it all, one of them being that there is many expositional thropes that happened in silent films that are repeated throughout the whole genre. So you will have people opening doors and closing doors or listening at the doors, or writing letters or talking on the phone and this is a way of advancing the plot. And by taking all of this footage as a whole I started to go through it and you know make sequences that had you know that either had like images or like sequence or like actions and these became sort of my stock library with which I could tell the larger story. Beth Accomando: And now that the film is finished what kind of a response has it been getting? Have you been surprised by any of the reception or just like what kind of feedback are you getting? Bill Morrison: The response has been very good you know. I think people are really surprised by the film. They are surprised that it's a true story that seems to take all these twists and turns and kind of has a Dickensian quality and that you meet characters early on in the film and they come back and you think you're being overloaded with too much detail, but the most details come back in the second half of the film to support a larger story. And so I think a lot of people you know find that remarkable. There's a lot that hasn't been explored in this collection. I feel like in some ways this film is the first real effort to try to understand what this - the breadth of what this collection holds. One of the really remarkable shots that are in it is of the Solax film factory on fire. Part of what's remarkable about that is that this footage of the Solax film factory catching on fire it's a nitrate film fire, was buried in a swimming pool underneath which a movie theater was burned down from a nitrate film fire. So it was protected from a nitrate film fire happening a few feet above it while it was buried in the permafrost for 50 years. And that happened to be the studio of Alexski [indiscernible] [00:31:15] in narrative film development. A lot of people don't know her name, but she really invented narrative film as a storytelling art. Before that it was sort of - it came out of the Bob [indiscernible] [00:31:29] form and she understood that these images could also tell stories and Alexski made 1000 titles until that film factory fire basically wipe out her career at age 47. So really an amazing person and to find this kind of this extraordinary footage of her factory on fire, a footage that had survived and had been underneath another nitrate film fire I think is just incredibly ironic. But there's other female directors who were represented in the collection as well including Ida May Park and Lynn Reynolds and Lois Weber, all of them were directors in the silent era. So it's pretty extraordinary to think that the fledgling art of cinema was open to anybody who could make sense of it and these young geniuses were quick to take the reins coming out of the literary background and are you know we are much indebted to them for shaping what we know as narrative and fiction film today. Beth Accomando: Hollywood has recently made a lot of these fictional found footage films were mostly horror, but you know where you find footage and then it's you know cut into these movies. Your film is like the real thing, like this is really a found footage film. What is it about that kind of a format that attracts you and that you enjoy working in? Bill Morrison: Well I come out of painting and the plastic art, so you know I come to film out of the collage art and interested in seeing the evidence that it's a physical medium and that each one of its pictures are single plastic static pictures that have the illusion of motion. So I've always been compelled by that idea that we are looking at a number of pictures passing by and anything that betrays that and gives that evidence that picture what you are looking at I've always found, I've always been attracted to. I don't know how that genre that you're describing got to be called found footage, because they appropriated the name that has absolutely is not found footage, first of all it is not even footage and it's not found it's created. So it's sort of a gimmick or something and I don't know how they've used that word, but they have. Anyway, this is footage that has been found quite literally and you know to my mind that term is always like archival footage. Beth Accomando: Do you have another project lined up at this point? Bill Morrison: Oh yeah. Well, you know I have the have a big stock floor and there is always different projects that I want to work on. But one came to me while I was working on this one in the last summer, I don't know if you remember, but a fisherman pulled a lobster trap out of the sea, 20 miles off the coast of Iceland and inside that lobster trap was a Russian film from 1969. And when they unfolded that film they figured out who the actor and director was, then he was actually a guy who had a long history as a Soviet film actor and later a director. So I'm exploring his story and how it related to the Soviet century and so Dawson City is my exploration of capitalism's relationship to silent cinema and this one will be my relationship to of common [indiscernible] [00:35:01]. Beth Accomando: Oh, I want to thank you very much for your time. I really enjoyed your film. It was just such an amazing experience and, we are going to be showing it here in San Diego, so I'm very excited to be able to show it to people on a big screen. Bill Morrison: Yes, it will be at the Digital Gym there and concurrently it will run at the Nuart in Los Angeles. So if you can get to either theater you have your choice. Beth Accomando: And it's still playing, I mean you still have plans to show it at other venues as they keep coming up, correct? Bill Morrison: That's right. And if you check with [indiscernible] [00:35:34] website it will be coming to a theater near you. We're very encouraged by our opening weekend, so hopefully we will get it to as many towns as possible. Beth Accomando: And what was the screening like at the Turner Classic Movie festival? Bill Morrison: Oh, it's fantastic. You know in Turner Classic Movies what happens is the movie starts and whenever the star who is the star in the picture appears for the first time the entire audience burst out in applause right. So, whoever it is when they make their first appearance it's almost like theatre. You know they - everyone gives them a big round of applause. So in my film there wasn't quite the opportunity for that, but when Sid Grauman appears we are in the Grauman Chinese and everybody burst into applause and I realized I really found my demographic there. You know where Sid Grauman gets a round of applause that it seemed like the perfect place to show it. But that was a wonderful trip because I showed, first they showed the film on a Thursday in Hollywood right on Hollywood Boulevard and then exactly a week later I brought it to Dawson City and showed it in the Klondike Art Center to a much smaller house, but just as enthusiastic. So to go from Hollywood to Dawson City was a great tour. Beth Accomando: Oh this is the first film of yours I'm seeing now I have to go seek out the rest. Bill Morrison: Okay, well if your film has an entire box set you can find just about everything I made for $50, so… Beth Accomando: All right, well I will check that out. Well, again thank you very much for your time and best of luck with the film. Bill Morrison: Oh, thank you. It is a pleasure talking to you, Beth. Beth Accomando: That was Bill Morrison, Director of Dawson City: Frozen Time. In an era of digital technology and on-demand viewing, you can sometimes forget the romance and magic of the physical medium of film and its power to enthrall us. Morrison's film reminds us of all that. The experience is so rooted in sound and image that words fail to capture its unique allure. All I can do is urge you to venture out and sample this delicious cinematic fever dream for yourself and may be then you'll fall in love with movies all over again. Coming up I'll be talking about Hitchcock on TCM and hopefully speaking to Edgar Wright about Baby Driver. I will also be revisiting David Cronenberg's Crash for its 20th anniversary by digging up an archive interview with the director from when the film first opened. I also urge you to check out my recent podcasts on David Lynch and Queer Horror coming-of-age. You can help support this podcast by donating at kpbs.org/feedthejunkie or simply by going to iTunes and leaving a review. Until our next film fix, I'm Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie. [Audio Ends]
Found footage is a tired trope in horror but those films all manufacture their supposed found footage. That kind of fakery holds no interest for filmmaker Bill Morrison. He’s interested in the real deal, genuine footage that has been unearthed, uncovered or just waiting to be found and brought to light. His latest film, "Dawson City: Frozen Time," finds treasures in the arctic ice.
"What interests me is that this is the flotsam and jetsam of time that we see on the frame and they have washed up on our shores now that’s what I find really remarkable is how time is evinced in this old footage and the image underneath is just one layer and everything that has happened to it once it was shot is another layer or several layers," Morrison said.
At a time when everyone seems to be using digital technology to clean up old images, Morrison revels in the decay and damage of old archival footage. He does not see this as marring the original image so much as altering it to create something new, or maybe as altering it so that we have to explore like digging through layers of sedimentary rock to find evidence of something that came before. But his exploration has some intoxicating and mind altering side effects.
"I’m aware of the effect," he said. "That’s why I named my production company Hypnotic Pictures. You are trying to find an image, underneath those flickering layers. Somehow those flickering images are massaging your brain in a way that you are not aware of and you do get into some altered state with that."
His latest film is "Dawson City: Frozen Time," which uses hundreds of nitrate films from the early 1900s that were discovered in the permafrost of the Yukon Territories in Canada.
Morrison is an experimental filmmaker who works with found footage that he repurposes it to tell a new story. He believes in the spellbinding quality of these found images and creates films that are cinematic poems.
The seeds for "Dawson City" were sown years ago when Morrison first heard tales of a cache of films found in a swimming pool in Canada. Initially he thought it was just a myth that would not die.
But in 2013 he met Paul Gordon who does digital migration for the Library and Archives Canada and found out that they were getting a 4K digital scanner to import the Dawson City footage. Suddenly the myth was turning into reality and the timing seemed perfect to start thinking about how to turn that footage into a film. His documentary is about both the history of cinema and the history of Dawson City that boomed during the Yukon gold rush at the end of the 1800s.
For more on nitrate film check out Cinema Junkie Podcast 117.