An Interview with Margaret Honda on Spectrum Reverse Spectrum and Color Correction
By Jordan Cronk
Color Correction and Spectrum Reverse Spectrum played Sunday, January 17 at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2016.
With a background primarily in sculpture, Los Angeles–based interdisciplinary artist Margaret Honda has only recently turned to filmmaking––and it’s filmmaking of a very fundamental sort. Both experiments accomplished without cameras, Honda’s first two films, Spectrum Reverse Spectrum (2014) and Color Correction (2015), were borne of similar impetus and material interest. Inspired by the conceptual capacity of the celluloid frame, Honda found herself drawn to the curious character of timing tapes, the narrow rolls of punched paper used to implement color corrections on an original camera negative. For the 21-minute Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, this resulted in the creation of a unique 70mm timing tape which Honda carefully measured to act as a palindrome of the entire visible color spectrum. The 101-minute, 35mm Color Correction takes the concept one step further by appropriating the timing tapes from an unidentified Hollywood feature. By divorcing the tapes from the negative, an “imageless” film of pure optical depth and pristine material sensation arises as a shadow of the original, suggesting that behind every image lies a second (or third, or fourth) narrative to be conceived of only in the mind’s eye.
Honda and I recently sat down to discuss her first forays into cinema and how these films took shape as works of tactile intrigue, made with no way of knowing what their eventual onscreen appearance would be.
Reverse Shot: Let’s begin with Spectrum Reverse Spectrum. Was the concept––moving back and forth across the spectrum of colors––predetermined, or did the film develop as a result of your interest or encounter with timing tapes, only later to be conceptualized as a purely visual experience?
Margaret Honda: I didn’t know about timing tapes until I started making the film. Spectrum Reverse Spectrum is the first film that I made, and it came about because I was really thinking about something other than film. I was really thinking about photography and fabric, oddly––like, large rolls of things. Then later I was talking to someone about photograms, which I wasn’t really interested in. But because this person mentioned photograms I started thinking about them in relation to film. I’m not sure what came first, if it was the idea for 70mm or working without a camera. I didn’t go to film school––I don’t know how to load a camera. But that paradoxically pushed me in the direction of 70mm, which just seemed like the most extreme case, in a way. So I thought if I don’t have the camera, can I just run the print stock through the printer? And it turned out that I could. Then there was the question of what would be on the print stock and somehow I figured out that because it would just be the lights being adjusted it could be the entire visible color spectrum. And I initially started with idea of the spectrum going from violet to red, but then because one roll of 70mm print stock is something like 2500 feet, there was enough space for the reverse, the return from red to violet. Plus the head leaders at either end, so the entire spectrum fits on a single roll of 70mm print stock.
RS: Was the reasoning behind the utilization of 70mm mostly, like you say, because it was the most extreme format?
MH: Well, 70mm and 35mm would be two gauges that I, in some ways, have the least amount of access to in a very sort of conventional way. I can maybe get an 8mm camera or a 16mm camera, but the idea of shooting either 35mm or 70mm is just totally foreign to me, and would have been extremely expensive and extremely difficult. So I thought, well, why not just figure out a way to work with it?
RS: Did you encounter any difficulties with the format along the way?
MH: No, luckily FotoKem, the lab that I worked with in Burbank, is now the only lab in the world that processes 65mm and prints on 70mm. And at the time I began working with them, which was probably three years ago, there was just one other lab just outside of Paris. They were really interested and they were super helpful. There wasn’t any problem getting either the materials or the time to actually work on the film in the lab.
RS: How did you go about creating the timing tape for Spectrum? Did you have any prior experience working with timing tapes?
MH: Well, the timing tape was actually created at the lab by a man named Vince Roth, who’s the head of large format operations at FotoKem. I worked very closely with him on the film, and he actually had to generate the timing tape to print the film. We thought it was going to be fairly straightforward, but I think one of the reasons Vince was interested in working on this project was because it kind of allowed him to see things he had never seen before, in terms of how the machinery operated, how far you could push things. And I think there was some difficulty in jumping, like there would be jumps between colors that had to be smoothed out. So he was able to work on that. Or like the lights valves couldn’t go from totally closed to totally open, they had to be really gradually opened, and he had to work that into the timing tape.
RS: So when you approached the lab, the concept was already set? You basically just proposed what you wanted to do?
MH: Yes, and they looked at me like . . . [laughs]. But for both films I worked with labs where I would explain what I wanted, and there would be these long pauses, and then finally they would say, “Okay, I think we can try and do that.”
RS: Though it’s a short, there’s a kind of endless quality to Spectrum. But I imagine the film has mostly shown in a manner similar to how I first saw it, as a short before a feature. Perhaps this plays into your decision for 70mm, but was it a concerted effort on your part to exhibit the film in a theater, rather than as an installation or in a space that could let it run for greater lengths at the discretion of a projectionist?
MH: I did envision it as a cinematic experience. And that’s important for several reasons. One is that I was really thinking about the film as coming out of a whole ecology of how it would be produced. So first the lab itself. But also because it’s such a difficult film to project––not only do you need a 70mm projector, but you need a proper screen, one that’s not super high gain––also someone who knows how to operate the projector. So I was thinking about all of these people and the relationships between the equipment, the materials––all of that needs to be in place in order for you to see this film. The film is never going to be transferred to digital. It always has to be shown as film, and it was constructed as a palindrome, so it could be shown from either end, and you can’t really do that with digital.
RS: How did Color Correction develop from that initial experiment?
MH: Color Correction developed while I was working on Spectrum Reverse Spectrum. When Vince explained the timing tapes to me, I realized that that was essentially the negative for the film. There was no camera negative. The original, so to speak, is the timing tape for Spectrum Reverse Spectrum. So I thought, if that’s the original for this film, can’t a timing tape be an original for another film? And so that’s where the idea for Color Correction came from––really just a different way of thinking about what an original is for a film. What I was thinking, then, is that I could go out and find a set of timing tapes. I was very interested in the idea of there already existing in the world an original for another film.
RS: Did you sift through a lot of old timing tapes, or how did you ultimately decide that this would be the one to work with?
MH: Well, I knew that I didn’t want to know what the film was from which the timing tapes were made. I have a friend in the commercial film industry that was able to get me an entire set of timing tapes. And I told this person, I don’t really care what film it is, I don’t want to know what film it is. The only requirement was that it had to have been made between the years 2000 and 2013, because I wanted the print stock to essentially be the same print stock that would have been used with these timing tapes. Any earlier and it would have been slightly different.
RS: So it’s from a Hollywood studio film? And your friend somehow had access to these tapes?
MH: Yeah, it is a Hollywood studio film. That much I know. But I’m not sure exactly how my friend got it. I didn’t ask [laughs]. I just told several people what I was looking for and if they could help me out. So I do know the film is from the U.S., but I don’t know what year. I only know how long it is [laughs].
RS: You’ve described this process as making a film “by ceding all control over it.”Which is the exact opposite of how you produced Spectrum Reverse Spectrum. Were you worried the results wouldn’t match your vision, or that it would be too ill-defined to work as a cinematic experience?
MH: I didn’t actually have a preconceived notion of what it would be. And that was a big part of this film. I wanted to cede control over the kinds of decisions that a director normally makes when making a film like the one the tapes were made for. You have these ideas about what you want things to look like, how you want things to flow, and how things are edited. And those are decisions that had already been made, essentially, and were part of what the tapes were. So I didn’t want to make any kinds of those decisions. So in that respect I was willing to accept whatever the tapes gave me.
RS: How would you like the viewer to ideally engage with the film? Do you want them to see or imagine a film on screen? Or note the editing patterns and saturation levels and conceive of a narrative that satisfies themselves? For example, I remember after the film premiered, someone in the audience commented to you that they thought the tapes came from an action film.
MH: I remember that. I think what they said is that they thought it was a violent film. But everyone I’ve talked to who works in film has said that it’s most likely not an action film because it doesn’t really cut fast enough, though there are sections where it does. But I thought that was really great. Just as I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what it would look like or how I wanted it to appear, I also leave the response up to the individual––up to the people who are watching, because you’ll get a range of people. Someone who attended that same screening who has worked in film a long time said that he saw colors in the film that he had never seen before. And that was an amazing thing to hear, because this is someone who has really looked at stuff like this for a long time. I know other people who have made or written about film have said that they begin to see certain editing patterns, moments of shot-counter-shot, things like this. And then you begin to wonder if there’s, like, a really long take happening: Is this a chase scene or...what is it? What are you looking at? Because you don’t have a sense of the camera moving at all, and it actually may be moving quite quick. So there’s a film that you’re seeing on the screen––my film––and then there’s probably another film unspooling in your own mind.
RS: I did notice a lot of blue, which made me think of underwater scenes or even nocturnal sequences.
MH: There are some very dark blue scenes and I have no idea what it is or what’s happening.
RS: What did you think the first time you watched the film? Did your conception of the piece meet what is ultimately on screen?
MH: It’s interesting. I had actually written about the film before I ever saw it. And then once I saw it, my writing about it changed. I couldn’t have foreseen what happens when you’re watching these colors, and I couldn’t have imagined what happens in terms of time. Because with this film, one color is on the screen, and then it changes, and you don’t know how long the next color will be on screen before it changes again. And then there’s this odd retrospective aspect to the viewing, because when the color changes––and you know the color has changed because there was a different color before it––you’re then trying to remember what that color was before it. So you’re going back and forth between what you just saw and what you’re now seeing. That kind of jumping around I hadn’t anticipated. And also the fact that the colors––at least for me––all have an equivalent weight onscreen. Not always, but in terms of a scene in a traditional film, if something is short it might carry less weight than something longer. And in terms of the color corrections, even if something is on the screen for quite a bit of time, it feels just as weighty as something that’s on screen for maybe thirty seconds. Dealing with the film in real time is something that surprised me, because it had previously been so contained as an idea.
RS: How do envision these films evolving over time? For all their static qualities, the films will presumably look much different in ten, fifteen, twenty years. So much is tied up in their presentation and preservation. Is the plan to continue exhibiting the films over the years to watch how they change and, by extension, how you and your audiences’conception of them changes?
MH: Right. Anything shows up. Any speck of dirt––any scratch. I am trying to get more prints made because I would like the experience of viewing the film to be as––well, I’d like it to look as clean as possible. But the films don’t screen that frequently. So if there is a period of months between screenings I usually clean them right after they’ve been screened so they’re not stored with dirt on them. As much as possible I try and maintain that experience for the viewer. I don’t think I’d want to show the films scratched or dirty. I also recognize that there may come a time when you won’t be able to see them again, if there aren’t any projectors left or if there isn’t the proper set-up available. So there may be a limited projection life to these films. Because they do only exist as films, and they are only projected as films.
Photo courtesy Margaret Honda