Interview: Chicago's Manual Cinema Reveals How Its Shadow Puppets Became a Defining Feature of the New 'Candyman'
Having already made box-office history, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) is deeply rooted in Chicago’s history as it not only critically considers racial violence and the city’s problems with gentrification but also draws in local artists, like the prolific and talented team behind the performance collective Manual Cinema. In a new interview supported by Colossal Members, editor-in-chief Christopher Jobson talks with co-artistic director Drew Dir about the studio’s role in the cult classic horror film, from the production process to using a traditionally lighthearted medium to convey such complex and traumatic stories:
By telling those stories through shadow puppetry, which is about as far from naturalism or realism as you can get, I think that gave (DaCosta) a way to represent that legacy of violence but also filter it through the critical lens of metaphor. The puppets allow the viewer to keep a critical distance (that’s something that puppets historically have been very good at!) and to consider the historical and social forces at play, so the viewer doesn’t lose themself in too much repulsion or fascination with blood and gore.
In the conversation, Dir discusses the unprecedented process of using shadow puppets as a major component of a blockbuster live-action film, experimenting with the technical limits of the medium, and what the studio is working on next.
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We shared footage of the mesmerizing mycelium networks pulsing underneath our feet back in 2019 to mark the opening of Louie Schwartzberg’s Fantastic Fungi, and now the dedicated director takes viewers behind the scenes to show his painstaking process. Filmed throughout a 15-year period in his home studio, Schwartzberg’s timelapses zero in on myriad spores as they burst open, sprawl in every direction, and morph in color and texture. They’re a compelling visual representation of time and nature’s cyclical processes, which he explores in a new short film produced by WIRED.
Most of the challenges in capturing the footage center around predicting where an organism will grow to keep it within the shot and understanding the frame rates of different lifeforms. Schwartzberg explains:
For example, a mosquito on your arm, having a little drop of blood, takes a look at that hand coming towards it in ultra slow motion and has plenty of time to take off because its metabolic rate, its lifespan, is way shorter than our lifespan. And our lifespan is way shorter than a Redwood tree’s lifespan. This reality of real-time human point of view is not the only point of view, and that’s really the beauty of cameras and time-lapse cinematography. It’s actually a time machine.
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A modest house nestled into the bucolic countryside of Uxbridge, Ontario, is home to a premier sound facility behind an impressive array of films, TV series, and video games. Brimming with an eclectic collection of objects and antiques, Footsteps Studio has aided in the post-production audio effects for projects like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Big Short, and The Handmaid’s Tale all generated by a small team on the unassuming grounds.
In a short documentary, director Jeremy Benning tours the workspace— each room of the house functions as a recording studio and is insulated by an elaborate outer wall engineered to act as a buffer from outdoor noises—and speaks with three Foley artists responsible for enhancing audio experiences following filming. Benning goes behind the scenes with the company to demonstrate the laborious snd surprising methods used to artificially intensify the sound effects, whether as the clatter of a skateboard, the gnashing of a zombie feast, or the deviously subtle clip-clop of high-heeled shoes.
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The Gaze: Barry Jenkins Directs a Stunning Non-Narrative Film that Preserves the Legacy of Black Ancestors
At the heart of Barry Jenkins’s extraordinarily moving new film is “the Black gaze; or the gaze distilled.” The Oscar-winning director shot the standalone project while filming the TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which premiered on May 14. Notably titled The Gaze, the parallel project isn’t an episode of the series but rather a compelling collection of non-narrative portraits captured spontaneously alongside the show.
Early on in production, Jenkins says in a statement, “I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record. Without thinking, we paused production on The Underground Railroad and instead harnessed our tools to capture portraits of… them.”
Presented in the same order as the series which moves from Georgia to Indiana, the vignettes spotlight both principal and background actors who wear striking period costumes by Caroline Eselin—the designer also collaborated with Jenkins on his lauded films Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. Each shot is an intimate and evocative portrayal of imagined kin. “We halted our filming many times for moments like these. Moments where… standing in the spaces our ancestors stood, we had the feeling of seeing them, truly seeing them and thus, we sought to capture and share that seeing with you,” the director says.
Jenkins writes that he was inspired by Kerry James Marshall’s “Scipio Moorhead, Portrait of Himself, 1776,” which is an earnest rendering of the African American artist who actively painted throughout the 1770s while he was enslaved. Marshall’s homage secures Moorhead’s legacy in an urgent and necessary act of visual documentation that Jenkins replicates:
We have sought to give embodiment to the souls of our ancestors frozen in the tactful but inadequate descriptor “enslaved,” a phrase that speaks only to what was done to them, not to who they were nor what they did… This is an act of seeing. Of seeing them. And maybe, in a soft-headed way, of opening a portal where THEY may see US, the benefactors of their efforts, of the lives they LIVED.
Jenkins notes that The Gaze contains only abstracted scenes so it won’t spoil The Underground Railroad. Watch the entire film above, and read the director’s essay describing the project on Vimeo. (via Kottke)
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“I saw the need to build cultural awareness by helping to revise and redefine American art,” says the renowned professor, artist, and curator David Driskell in Black Art: In the Absence of Light. His words echo throughout the new HBO documentary—which was directed by Sam Pollard, with executive producers Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Jacqueline Glover—that uncovers the rich and underappreciated lineage of Black art.
Structured chronologically, the feature-length film was released earlier this month and stems from Driskell’s revolutionary exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which opened in 1979 at LACMA and surveyed more than 200 works dating back to 1750 from 63 artists. The formative show went on to major museums in Dallas, Atlanta, and Brooklyn, breaking attendance records despite its unenthusiastic response from some critics and institutions, including two in Chicago and Detroit that rejected its visit entirely.
Two Centuries of Black American Art, though, had a widespread and profound impact, which the documentary explores through interviews with artists working today. Many conversations begin with Driskell, who died last April from the coronavirus before Black Art‘s release. The film probes a vast archive from Chicago artists like Kerry James Marshall (previously) and Theaster Gates (previously), alongside Amy Sherald (previously), Kehinde Wiley (previously), and Jordan Casteel, among others.
Through a multi-generational lens, the documentary examines the nuanced effects of these figures’ contributions to the broader field of contemporary American art as it shares footage of their practices and reactions to their works. For example, Fred Wilson unveils what’s hidden within museum collections, while Wiley and Sherald both comment on the profound experience of painting the Obamas’ official portraits. Additional insights from Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden, who also is a consulting producer, are woven throughout the film.
Beyond galleries and museums, much of Black Art centers on the value of representation and unearthing a narrative that’s been obscured or outright dismissed. In particular, it considers the role of collectives like Sprial, which was founded in 1963 by Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis in order to highlight the work generated by Black artists in the Civil Rights Movement. While Sprial drew attention to otherwise ignored projects, it was largely dominated by men, a problem Faith Ringgold speaks to as she describes being rejected from the group. Sprial only admitted one woman, Emma Amos.
The final segment focuses on the importance of collectors investing in Black artists, in addition to the long history of spaces like Studio Museum and historically Black colleges and universities. These institutions continue to foster communities that honor the legacy of those who’ve come before while backing those forging new ground, prompting questions like this one from Theaster Gates: “We are part of a continued renaissance—it’s been happening. What I’m most excited about is, do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light?”
Black Art is streaming on HBO Max through March 17. Educators also can download a coinciding curriculum with research tools and discussion prompts, in addition to another filled with activities designed to spur creativity.
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The Wolf House: A Horror Film Plunges into the Disturbing Mind of a Child through a Blend of Stop-Motion Animation and Murals
Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León descend into the psychologically disturbing world of a child escaped from religious fanatics in their feature-length film The Wolf House. Layered with audio of unsettling voices and the quiet mutterings of a young girl, the grotesque animation seamlessly blends horror and documentary as it recounts some of the tragedies of the Colonia Dignidad, the post-World War II colony that was established by Germans and Chileans under the dictatorial rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Founded in 1961, the isolated area was infamous for torture, internment, and murder, and The Wolf House showcases its impact on a child who takes refuge in a strange house.
Fans of filmmaker Daisy Jacobs and artist BLU will recognize some of the methods used in Cociña and León’s work, including classic stop-motion techniques and painting directly on the walls of the set. Characters shift constantly, whether between two and three dimensions as they morph from murals into sculptural creatures or as they contort their bodies from life-sized forms to massive heads and from human to animal.
Cociña and León, who are from Chile originally, have been collaborating since 2007 and lead the Santiago-based production company Diluvio. You can stream The Wolf House on ScreeningRoom, and see more of the duo’s genre-bending work on their site and Vimeo.
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Editor's Picks: Art
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