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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

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Photo credit: Kino Lorber

Documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison serves up a genuine found footage films in "Dawson City: Frozen Time," which uses hundreds of old nitrate films unearthed from the permafrost under a hockey rink in Canada.

Episode 120: 'Dawson City' Serves Up Real Found Footage Film

Experimental and documentary filmmaker Bill Morrison serves up a cinematic fever dream with "Dawson City: Frozen Time," which uses nitrate film unearthed from the permafrost under a hockey rink in Canada.

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Podcast Episode 120: 'Dawson City: Frozen Time' Revels In Real Found Footage

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.


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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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