Baba o’Riley

Baba o'Riley

BAM, Berkeley 2009.


Cinema and light projection: exploring Leonardo’s Last Supper

academic paper by Renato Collu written in Amsterdam 2 February 2009.

“Perhaps the cinematographic spectacle is that after all: amorous geometry instead of simply intuitive volumes and lines that fuse, a bonding between the room and the light beam of projection.” [1]

The art of projection is considered by historians along with the invention of photography and the discovery of the persistence of vision, as one the “three major tributaries that finally – miraculouslybut also inevitably – join up around 1895 to become the mighty river we know as cinema”[2].

The verb to project derives from the Latin word  proicere: “to throw down” and it commonly  means   “the action of projecting images on a screen and the representation of a volume on a flat surface” [3] . According to Dominique Païni, director of the Cinematheque Frances, the origins of projection have to be searched in “the fields  of physics, of geometry, of optics, of psychology, of pictorial representation, of show business [spectacle]”[4]. The projection has been investigated and applied in a variety of contexts: as a tool for surveillance in the warfare and the military complex,   also used for public enlightenment and events in urban spaces,  and for artistic purposes inside museums, galleries and cinemas. In this phenomenon the body and the mind are involved, projection in fact is both a physical and mental activity :  “to the word project, common sense associates the words envision, imagine, premeditate, foresee, as much as eject, expel, throw, push.

Put otherwise, words that evoke the activities of thought as much as of physical or bodily exertion.”[5]  Projection is a medium used in many experiences in contemporary art, along with the progress of technology, the digital imaging, multimedia resources and interactivity, it has contributed in changing the concept of cinema, and the  ‘dispositif’ of traditional cinema into an ‘expanded’ and immersive experience that goes beyond the frame’s boundaries. On this regard Thomas Elsaesser, in his ‘archeological’ investigation on film history, gives us a  enlightening reflection pointing out that: “the different ways in which the moving image in its multi-medial electronic form is today ‘breaking the frame’ and exceeding, if not altogether exiting the movie theater, indicate that we may be “returning” to early cinema practice”[6]. Taking inspiration from Elsaesser’s reflection, in this paper I aim to look at projection as a tool of investigation and re-definition of the space.

My archaeological dig intent will focus on finding relations and correspondences between the contemporary projection art, the perspectival art of the Renaissance  and the early experiences of cinema between 17 th and 18th century. On this regard I aim to demonstrate how the purposes, features, and its illusionistic effects of contemporary art projections, establishes a continuous dialogue with the experiences of the early cinematic period. In the first paragraph I will investigate the characteristics of the space in the Renaissance art, the origin of perspective and the camera obscura. I will investigate the pre-cinematographic experiences of the magic lantern and Phantasmagoria to reflect on the influences they will bring in the art of projection of images.  In the last paragraph the analysis of the case study will highlights the relations and correspondences between bidimensional art of painting and the art of light projection.  The contemporary art of projection has many common aspects  with the early pre-cinematic experiences like the magic lantern, which is the precursor of what we traditionally consider cinema. Modern technologies allows us to recover and re-experience the magic of light projection of cinema.

Thomas Elsaesser in Early Film History and Multi-Media, suggests that  “our present preoccupation with visual magic or virtual imaging is a throwback to the beginnings of the cinema and even beyond”[7]. This expression embodies the experimental spirit of the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway who is searching the roots of western cinema in the modern paintings, in particular we will focus on the  cinematic animation on Leonardo’s Last Supper in 2006.

1. The perspective vision and the camera obscura  

The Western visual culture is based on the rules of perspective a “system of converging lines used to convey depth in a two-dimensional visual image”[8]. The first scientific study on perspective was made by the italian architect Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise De Pictura (1435-36). After Alberti other two great artists of the Renaissance, systematically theorized the perspective: Piero della Francesca in De perspectiva pingendi, and Leonardo da Vinci. Their efforts came to create a rational and geometrical system able to translate on a bidimensional square (the projection surface) a three-dimensional scene from the centre of projection,  called the point of view. The concept of “visual pyramid” symbolically reassumes and explains the way reality was  represented: the origin of this concept is dated back to the early studies on visual perception and on the functions of the eye developed  by the greek philosopher Democritus (ca. 460 BC – ca 370 BC), and the Arab scholar Alhazen (XITh century), whose studies  were well known to the modern thinkers and scientists. For Alhazen the view is the result of a geometrical construction of projected “lines which start from the edges of the surfaces of bodies and, converging from a distance meet in a single point” [9] the top of our visual pyramid which lies in the eye.  This theory was generally accepted throughout the Medieval period and scientifically developed during the Modern age and became the key element for the concept of vision. This central point, the human eye, by now is conventionally considered the “universal judge”, the focus point from where reality can be controlled and ordered. The italian artists of the Renaissance institutionalized the perspective as the predominant mode of representation of the reality. As Nicholas Mirzoeff reports in his book Introduction to the visual culture, Leonardo had a rational explanation about the visual pyramid when he stated that : “Perspective is a rational demonstration whereby experience confirms that all objects transmit their similitudes to the eye by a pyramid of lines. By a pyramid of lines, I understand those lines which start from the edges of the surface of bodies and, converging from a distance meet in a single point; and this point, in this case, I will show to be situated in the eye, which is the universal judge of all objects.”[10]

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci from the manuscript Codex Atlanticus (1508)

The perspective became a conventional system of representation which served specific ends acting as tool of a “system of power/knowledge”[11] . Leon Battista Alberti in  De Pictura described the perspective as a device able to express the  “visual power”where  the point of view, fulcrum of the scene, was the ‘King view’, what Alberti calls the  prince of the ray, was the perfect position in the space to see in perspective. The king, as well as the central viewer, was the ideal observer, the “authority figure for whom the work was made”.[12]

Since perspective gave the modern public the most convincing comprehension of the reality  “spectators learnt to accept this visual convention for what it was, an approximation that adequately met the needs of the viewing situation”[13]. The goal of perspective was to obtain verisimilitude in representation starting from a one unique and stable point of view. The prospectical system ruled the modern vision with relative continuity through the centuries and finds  important achievements in the in the sixteenth and  seventeenth  centuries with the development of the camera obscura. The studies on rays of light and vision by Alhazen (XI century) where the basic principles upon this optic dispositif was created. It became an useful instrument for many artist like Leonardo who described in the Atlantic Code (1515) a revolutionary process of drawing  landscapes and objects which consisted in creating a camera obscura with a pinhole upon one side with a lens on it. In stable conditions of light, the image of the external world would have appeared projected upside-down in the opposite wall in a very clear and precise way.

The camera obscura finally was able to recreate the one point perspectival view through projection of light  establishing a relationship between light and space, in particular interior and exterior space[14]  and defining a relation between the observer and the world. The observed object is considered as a projection  into the human mind, mediated by the visual apparatus.

The French philosopher René Descartes later would also argue  that  ‘the secure positioning of the self with this empty interior space was a precondition for knowing the outer world”. Like the renascence perspective the camera obscura offered an “infallible vantage point of the world”[15]: “In Descartes’ view, perspective is thus a natural law, which can be observed in the images formed by the camera obscura , but also a representation.”[16]  based on the ruling principles of nature, “its linear optical system, its fixed position, its categorical distinction between inside and outside, its identification of perception and object”[17].

In other words the point of view is one and fixed, ruled by perspective and geometrical optics which give homogeneity and unity. To sum up…. the system of representation in the Western art was based on the principles of the perspective, a mono-focal view exemplified  by the camera obscura  “an apparatus that guaranteed  access to an objective truth about the world” [18] in which the observer had  a central, authoritative role. Standing  ‘in camera’ position  he would have been able  to perceive the right  “correspondence  between the exterior world and interior representation”[19].

The camera obscura model would have reign until XIX century and substitute by a more flexible system of representation.  Crary, in Modernizing vision,  illustrates this linear evolution of the scopic tradition of vision  as a  “ technological and/or ideological development in […] which the camera obscura evolves into the photographic camera.”[20]


2. The light projection before cinema: the magic lantern and Phantasmagoria

The Magic Lantern

The passage from eighteenth  to nineteenth-century is a crucial epoch for the development of modern projection. The magic lantern was the mechanical apparatus considered the precursor of modern cinematic projection. It first was conceived by Athanasius Kircher in 1671, and  was able to project images printed on glass plates through a continuos ray of light made by an oil lamp,  a convex  lens and a concave mirror. In this period the first pre-cinematographic shows took place in several european cities, they were played in theaters to large audiences with the aim to “dazzle,  impress, educate, charm, and entertain.”[21]

The development of advanced optics and more sophisticated projection machines allowed the creation of special effects and the projection in rapid series of still images giving the first effects of movement to images. The magical lantern was modeled on the camera obscura, which was based on the monocular system of projection from an unique and fixed point of view. The frontal view of an image required a conventional distance of the viewing subject from the object viewed to have a fully control. The viewing mode typical of the camera obscura was the objective observation of the world, the viewers sight is orientated and depending on the object and can have a full control the visual field. The illusionistic potential of the magic lantern was developed during the 18th century with the Phantasmagoria shows, this were “illusionistic exhibitions and public entertainments in which ‘specters’ were produced through the use of the magic lanterns”[22].

Étienne-Gaspard Robert became famous for its spectral performances when the magic lantern  technology became increasingly accessible to ordinary people and shows where popular and staged in all Europe. The ‘apparition’ of Phantasmagoria coincided also with the emergence of a new concept of vision. The main improvement to the technology projection was the invention  of the  binocular system and the stereoscopy.


These new discoveries signed a shift in the visual  perception that will lead in the crisis of the camera obscura model, in fact vision now became more subjective, light become more immersive involving the immersion of the body in the spectacle, and  the mobility of the image in different planes of action provoked inner psychological stimulations and the involvement of other sense, especially the touch. Terry Castle in her essay Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie, points out the illusionistic and revolutionary power of Phantasmagoria which bring to the destruction the objective and external vision, in fact “ from an initial connection with something external and public  (and artificial produced ‘spectral ‘ illusion) the word [phantasmagoria] has now come to refer to something wholly internal or subjective: the phantasmic imagery of the mind” [23].

In Phantasmagoria the stimulated mind created an imagery dimension working like a magic lantern capable to project images and thoughts into the memory,: ‘afterimages’ a phenomenon closely related to the persistence of vision in the mind, which allows a rapid series of pictures to portray motion, which is the basis of animation and cinema. To sum up, the magic lantern was the most revolutionary devices for the art of projection, it is  historically  considered the precursor of modern cinematographic projectors. Deriving from  the camera obscure model, its mode of representation has  introduced a new concept of vision and changed the notion of objectivity of the real. The viewer, located in front of the screen, experience a viewing immersion into the spectacle and the projection is directly addressed to the audience. The sight and the visual perception is challenged by shocking effects:  the viewing subject find itself immerse into the spectacle, part of an extraordinary experience which involves the imagination and may cause hallucinations, disorientation and loss of control over the visual space. In particular, the Phantasmagoria illusionistic and ghostly performances have illustrated the disintegration of the paradigm internal/external, typical of the camera obscura,  and it called into question the constitution of what is real. The involvement of the mind in creating internal projection of ‘ghosts’ as thoughts,   and the involvement of the body in the realm of perception  caused  a change in the role of subjects of observation and experience new subjective realities.  

2. Projecting Leonardo’s Last Supper: spectacle and geometry

The early projection experiences with the revolutionary illusionistic power of Phantasmagoria spectacle have influenced the contemporary descendent of this art. In the previous page we have seen how the optic and geometrical representation of the real has been the fulcrum of scientists and physics’ efforts from the fifteenth century, and how their discoveries put  the basis for the development of sophisticated devices of projection. Following the lesson of the past ancestors, many contemporary artists have approach the medium and the mechanical art of projection to challenge new possibility of artistic expression and re-investigate the  space.

In April 2006, the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway presented a light projection on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. He created a cinematic animation using colored light, sounds and moving effects on the surface of the original painting. In the words of the artist the goal was to “explore the potential interaction between 113 years of cinema and 8.000 years of painting” . The performance took place after a long process of negotiation with italian cultural institution responsible for the masterpiece, which ended with the official approval of the Italian  government in Rome.  Greenaway in fact was only allowed to stage the show ‘in situ’  for one night  (on the original painting) in Santa Maria Delle Grazie, with the presence of a small audience, due to the strict rules imposed for the conservation of the delicate painting. Later the light performance was re-proposed to a larger public in many occasions (April-June 2006) in another space upon a digital copy, or better called “clone”, of the Last Supper placed in the Room of the Caryatids in the Palazzo Reale of Milan.

Last Supper’s geometry

The new technologies of projection used by the artist served  as a tool of investigation of the structural features of Leonardo’s painting rendering a virtual and non invasive ‘restoration’ by applying cinematographic visual effects. Greenaway’s study of the painting has been very accurate, in terms of light, architecture,  perspective, and interpretation of the scene (gestures, interpretation of movements and sound suggestion), this analysis has been functional to conceive the work of projection. Following the architecture of the Refectory room, Leonardo created a symmetrical composition where  architectural and figurative elements are balanced and centered under the strict rules of the perspective grid and he “delineated a fixed set of relations to which an observer was made subject”[24].

The central and frontal view would give the spectators of Greenaway’s spectacle the full control of the scene, perspective as explained in the first paragraph, was meant to represent the view from a privileged and fixed point, the ‘king seat’. From a cinematographic point of view, the painting was the animated screen, while  the Refectory – the architecture-  is the ‘cinema’ space, where people stand  fixed in front of the screen. According with Christian Metz “analyses of quattrocento painting or of the cinema itself which insist on the role of monocular perspective (hence of the camera)  and the ‘vanishing point’ that inscribes an empty emplacement for the spectator-subject, an all-powerful position which is that God himself, or more broadly, of some ultimate signified”[25].

The perspective system of the Renaissance and later the traditional cinema have developed a “single enduring apparatus of power, elaborated over several centuries, that continues to define and regulate the status of an observer”[26] which identifies with the central point of view of the projection. Reiner Brummelen, director of photography and creator of special effects for the Last Supper installation, found out that the perspective of the painted scene is a bit bigger than the Refectory architecture, as if Leonardo would have reproduced a theatrical stage, like an extension of a physical architectural space[27]. Leonardo used at least two points of light: the first is on the back side, coming from the windows, is the setting sun  irradiating the twilight, made visible through a gradation of blue tones in the sky. The second point of light is external, coming from the window, which corresponds to the Refectory’s wall on the left side.

 The last sources of light is autonomous, personified by the central self-enlighten figure of Jesus, who is in backlight position but shines bright in contrast with the Apostles covered by shadows. Greenaway images came from 3 light projectors, during the performance they followed and emphasized Leonardo’s light system, so the frontal projection provoked  the isolation of the human figures from its architectural context giving a theatrical vision, especially on Jesus silhouette, the left hand side projection from the window reinforced Leonardo’s sunlight with a diffuse white light, and third light source coming from the background expanded the depth of the architecture. In this way Greenaway attempted to  re-enforce the wise use of light by Leonardo with the projected light. “Greenaway’s images punched into the viewer’s perception the strength of Leonardo illusory space”[28] creating  a visual dialogue with the figures and relating the rays of light to the architectural context.

The emotional power of light and its holy significance reaches the most touching point upon Jesus depiction. Bathing the painting surface “light penetrate it at first, then transports it, duplicates it in dematerializing it, sometimes temporizing and sublimating it.”[29] The movement an time effects are created through an atmospherical change provoked by a gradual change of light intensity that signs, along with a elliptic movement,  the passage from sun rising light to twilight and darkness: 24 hours were condensed in  20 minutes of performance. Another moving effect was possible through the isolation of the Apostles with chromatic effects or the attention to details, movements of the hands accompanied by sound of whisperings voices and ambient sounds.

The illusionistic effect of the performance, may remind of Robertson’s illusionistic performance of the early eighteenth century. As described in the previous paragraph, Phantasmagoria appeared “like fantastic luminous shapes, floating inexplicably in the air”, they gained volume in shape and  using dissolves it created the sense of movement and change.

Projection has the magic power to animate the painted scene by giving movement and time effects because “time – according to Dominique Paini –  is consubstantial with the projected image”[30] The projected light provoked astonishing reactions among the audience because it modified the perspectival space creating a live and delighted scene staged in a virtual deep space. Exploring the 3d space of the painting and its perspectival potentialities, the projection brought  forward the production of holograms and 3d effects, and the creation of still sculptural sceneries, volumes of figures came out like in a sculpture tableaux with stained glass effects.

The animation sequences did not take place only  into the painted screen, the observers in fact were call to follow the visual narration out of the boundaries of the frame. They looked in front where the main scene took place but at the same time their look was stimulated in more than one direction. Their spatial fixity is challenged by the surroundings light and sound effects, “also from the wings and from behind the audience, producing the sensation of total immersion in the spectacle”[31]

In Greenaway’s Last Supper intervention viewers were not passive like in the traditional cinema space where they find themselves sitting, here they were called to be aware of what is happening also out of the frame following the  light coming from the side-walls and running down from the ceiling. This ‘expanded’ experience demanded a physical and sensorial interaction with the space and people perception. Through this cinematic animation  the audience had experienced the painting in a new way, they watch a performance  of moving images taking place into the surface, which becomes a screen or a theatrical stage.

3. Conclusions

In this paper I took as a central topic of investigation the light projection. In the first paragraph I described the representation of the space through the perspective and the camera obscure principle in the art of Reinassance. In the second paragraph I investigated the pre-cinematographic experience of the magic lantern and Phantasmagoria, the first ‘dispositif’  represents a ‘continuum’ of the camera obscura model, while the second is bring a new concept of vision where technology of projection play an important role: new systems of projection, bifocal system and stereoscopy,  marked a  visual revolution and the collapse of the traditional  system of representation. Light is the key element of cinematographic art and the basic principle of the art of Renaissance. It is a poetic element of the cinematographic language that can reach the deepest emotional level. In Greenaway’s Last Supper the medium of projection had the power to express the spiritual dimension of light. With this case study I tried to prove how the new technologies and the electronic production of images are constantly dialoguing with the early pre-cinematic experiences: still image projection, magic lantern shows and Phantasmagoria. On this regard I agree with Thomas Elsaesser’s point of view stating that digital and electronic imaginary are not necessarily  breakthrough in the practice of imaging[32] but they establish a connection with the past techniques of mechanical vision. Greenaway projection investigated Leonardo’s spatial dimension,  which expanded  and challenged the perspective model of the camera obscura and broke the regime of the frame on which the painting is based. In respect of the sacrality of the scene and the place, his  performance pushed towards the  spatiality of the painting and the external architecture, adding depth and volumes to the figures, immersing the spectators in an illusionistic spectacle where  chromatic variations, ambient sounds, rhythms and music contribute to create movement effects. Projection also made possible to recover a continuity and exalt the ‘cinematographic language’ of  the painting, establishing a constructive dialogue with Leonardo’s  representation of light, sound and movement in bi-dimension. The art of projection has also shown to have the power to transform a unique painting, an ‘icon’ of the Western world, into live matter.  provoking shocking emotions, contrasting reactions, intellectual and spiritual reactions that are due to the sacrality of the scene, considered untouchable by the italian cultural establishment.

Gene Youngblood, author of Expanded Cinema (1970), wrote that with projection “cinema  becomes a performing art: the phenomenon of image-projection itself becomes the ‘subject’ of the performance and in a very real sense the medium is the message.”[33]   The fascinating, emotional and spiritual power of light  found its celebration in Leonardo’s Last Supper and  in Greenaway’s projections.

To conclude, the opening quote of the paper, written by Dominique Paini[34], clearly explain the magic role of light projection in cinema: it is a medium that shapes the space in which the cinematographic spectacle take place, that is both the external and the internal screen of our mind.

[1]          Dominique Paini, p35 [2]          Thomas Elsaesser’s, “Early Film History and Multi-Media: An Archaeology of Possible Futures?” New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, eds. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2005) p.18; [3]          Dominique Païni, ‘Should We Put an End to Projection?’ October 110 (Fall 2004): 23-48, in [4]          Païni, p.23 [5]          (2004: 23)‏ [6]          Elsaesser 2005, p.19 [7]          Elsaesser, 2005, ? [8]          Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture, 1999. p38 [9]          Lindberg David C. , “Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler”,University of Chicago Press,  1979,  p.159 [10]        Mirzoeff, Introduction to visual culture [11]          Mirzoeff, 1999, p.40 [12]        Mirzoeff, 1999, p.41 [13] Mirzoeff, 1999, p.40 [14]        ‘Project. Towards an appreciation of Ian de Gruchy’s work’ Transition 61/62, 2000, pp. 98–102. [15]        Crary, p.32 [16]        Mirzoeff. p.44 [17]        crary,42 [18]        crary, 32 [19]        crary 32 [20]        Crary [21]        Paini, p.26 [22]        Castle Terry, p 27 [23]        castle, 29 [24]        Crary p 31 [25]        Metz [26]        Crary 1988, p.30 [27]        Catalogue [28]        Jones jonathan [29]        Paini 27 [30]        Paini 24 [31]                    Wedel Michael,  lecture: “Archeology of Projection”. Media Archaeology. University of Amsterdam.  6  Nov. 2008. [32]        “Does the digital image constitute a radical break in the practice of imaging, or is it just the logical- technological continuation of a long complex history of mechanical vision, which traditional film theory has never fully tried to encompass?” p.13 [33]          EXPANDED CINEMA, by Gene Youngblood, Introduction by R. Buckminster Fuller, p.387, [34]        “Perhaps the cinematographic spectacle is that after all: amorous geometry instead of simply intuitive volumes and lines that fuse, a bonding between the room and the light beam of projection.”, Dominique Païni, ‘Should We Put an End to Projection?’ October 110 (Fall 2004).

bibliography l  Attiwill, Susan. “‘Project: Towards an appreciation of Ian de Gruchy’s work’ .” Transition, 2000. l  Burwell, Jennifer Lise, Jennifer Burwell, and Monique Tschofen. Image and Territory, 2006. l  Castle, Terry . “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie” Critical Inquiry 15.1, 1988. l  Crary, Jonathan.  “Modernizing Vision,” Vision and Visuality,  1988. l  Elsaesser, Thomas.  “Early Film History and Multi-Media: An Archaeology of Possible Futures?” New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, 2005. l  Jones, Jonathan. “Feast youreyes on peter Greenaway’s Last Supper.” Jonathan Jones On Art Blog, The Guardian, March 7, 2008. l  Metz, Christian, and Celia Britton. The Imaginary Signifier, 1982. l  Mirzoeff, Nicholas. An Introduction to Visual Culture, 1999. l  Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema, 1970.

The American Avant-Garde Film Collection at the Pacific Film Archive

BAM/PFA Berkeley,2010.

Author Renato Collu

Early Years of the Pacific Film Archive

In its forty-year history, the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) has created one of the most important collections of American experimental films.  It began in the mid-1960’s, when 29-year-old Sheldon Renan, author of Introduction to the American Underground Film (1966), came to explore the San Francisco Bay Area from New York City.

Renan, who would become the founder of the PFA in 1971, began to exhibit films at Wheeler Hall on the University of California Berkeley campus. He was in contact with lecturer Albert Johnson, who was actively involved in many film festivals and also a film programmer for the campus’s Committee for Arts and Lectures, assisted by UC Berkeley student Tom Luddy. The three men “eventually combined their programming efforts.”[1] Renan was conscious that “movies should be available to everyone”[2] and felt encouraged by the enthusiastic response of the young university audience to start an ambitious project: to create a center for film exhibition and collection on campus.

But why in the San Francisco Bay Area? Renan came to the West Coast because it was home to a thriving and influential community of filmmakers coming from all over the country. As PFA curator Kathy Geritz remarked: “Historically, the Bay Area had been a flourishing center for the teaching of experimental filmmaking since the 1940s.”[3] The San Francisco Art Institute was among the first institutions that played a relevant role in teaching[4] and presenting experimental works. Here, young talented people started making new experiments in films, with interesting ideas and challenging techniques.

Furthermore, the first ongoing avant-garde film exhibition showcase in San Francisco, called “Art in Cinema,” dated back to the mid-1940s. It reached the attention of artists from different backgrounds interested in the new medium and showcased the works of artists who had become filmmakers themselves, like Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, and Sidney Peterson, who came from UC Berkeley.

Kenneth Anger

During the decade of 1960s, the San Francisco Bay Area “was already infected with cinephilia.”[5] New venues and theaters opened, like the Cinema Guild in Berkeley. The non-profit avant-garde film distributor Canyon Cinema and the exhibition program of the San Francisco Cinematheque had their origins in filmmaker Bruce Baille’s backyard, in 1961. Soon academic programs in film studies grew nationally and locally, namely the San Francisco State College introduced its film department in 1963 and San Francisco Art Institute followed in 1968.[6]

The Bay Area functioned as a magnet, where pioneers of the underground film world such as Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage made impressive works and spent important periods of their lives. It also attracted a great many artists for temporary teaching positions and artist residencies, all drawn to San Francisco for the art scene as well as the thriving poetry community.

Stan Brakhage

Sheldon Renan’s first attempt at establishing a film center was to approach the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), an institution whose contribution to exhibition in the Bay Area was already oriented to cinema as an art form. But SFMOMA, as well as the Oakland Museum, declined Renan’s proposal. Next, he approached Peter Selz, director of the University Art Museum (today the Berkeley Art Museum, BAM). Selz, previously a curator at The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, agreed with Renan that the creation of a film department would bring a distinctive element to the university’s museum.

Renan’s vision of the PFA was modelled after La Cinémathèque française in Paris (CF). The main mission was to show rare and new cinema from all over the world, to set up a place for discussion and critical debates similar to MoMA’s Film Department, which was a perfect model of integration of fine arts and cinema in a museum. But, in this instance, the PFA would be uniquely oriented to the Pacific Rim – the West Coast independent film and Asian cinemas.

Sheldon Renan

Henri Langlois

In the late 1960s, Renan established contact with the founder and secretary-general of the CF, Henri Langlois, who visited PFA on more than one occasion. Langlois gave his spiritual support to the PFA. Together with Renan and museum director Selz, they signed a goal statement, in which PFA’s mandate was to archive the films of independent Californian filmmakers and to contribute to the preservation and exhibition of those films. Like its Parisian mentor, the PFA aimed to create “a place where cinema patrons, artists, students, and critics could watch the widest range of the world’s films in the best technical and environmental conditions, that would also be a center for study, discussion, and exchange.”[7] Langlois, acting as advisor for the PFA, offered Renan the use of CF’s vast resources and lent rare prints from the CF collection. He became unofficial member of the PFA’s National Advisory Board, which included among others writer and activist Susan Sontag, film critic Andrew Sarris, and editor of Film Quarterly Ernest Callenbach.[8] In 1971, the Pacific Film Archive officially became a permanent department of the University Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

Renan and his collaborators created a “guerrilla bureaucracy” in order to pursue funding sources, fight for recognition, and carry on a systematic fundraising campaign to sustain expenses for the exhibition activities. The Pacific Film Archive wouldn’t be an internationally renowned archive today without the collective effort of the entire staff, librarians, technicians, curators and archivists. In particular, I would like to mention two influential former staff members: Tom Luddy and Edith Kramer.

Tom Luddy, who programmed films for the PFA in the 1960s, became program coordinator in 1972, and director after Renan’s departure, from 1975 until 1980. The 1970s signalled a decade of international recognition for the PFA with the presence of a long list of foreign guests like French New Wave, Japanese, and Italian directors, as well as silent film performers and contemporary avant-garde filmmakers. During Luddy’s leadership, the weekly avant-garde/independent film program was introduced by the new assistant curator Edith Kramer (formerly manager of Canyon Cinema and film curator at SFMOMA). She was appointed initially to oversee the programs because of her curatorial expertise in experimental film.

The Rapid and Inevitable Growth of a Collection

Along with programming and exhibitions, Renan’s vision was to build a true film archive of independent cinema. Edith Kramer, who was director from 1983 to 2005, remarks that Sheldon Renan “from the very beginning had defined the acquisition policy of the Pacific Film Archive to be focused in three basic areas: avant-garde, Asian films, and pornography.”[9]

Before PFA obtained a permanent home and vault to archive films, there were already a considerable number of films on hand. Renan and Luddy were deft in negotiating with major studios and distribution companies in order to acquire, or offer free storage, to retired collections. This process resulted in the largest Japanese film collection outside of Japan and a considerable number of films from Eastern Europe and Soviet Georgia.

During the first five years of activity, 1971-76, it was impossible to purchase new prints for lack of funding. But as Kramer recalls, “The avant-garde collection started to grow in a spontaneous way, mainly through donations by filmmakers who voluntarily contributed, giving their prints to the archive after exhibition. When Renan started his ambitious project, there was no other American archive that focused on collecting and acquiring these particular works. Sheldon Renan’s vision of creating an archive was contemporary, if not earlier, to the Anthology Film Archives, in New York City.”

The creation of PFA’s avant-garde collection was made not only on a sporadic basis through donations by individual artists, but also thanks to federal and private grants.

In 1975, a grant was awarded to the PFA by the National Endowment for the Arts, specifically to “purchase works of independent and experimental cinema from Northern California, with the aim to increase exhibition of American independent films.”[10] The amount was $20,000 and Kramer, who joined the PFA in early 1975 as assistant curator, was given the assignment to build an avant-garde film collection.

Edith Kramer made a selection of representative titles of American experimental film with a special emphasis on the Bay Area. She contacted and persuaded filmmakers to allow PFA to obtain prints. To fit within the limits of the grant’s budget wasn’t an easy task, as Kramer recalls: “Prints were purchased from filmmakers at three times the lab cost, according to a generally used agreement established by Jonas Mekas at the Film-Makers’ Co-operative in New York at that time.”

George & Mike Kuchar

The major focus of Kramer’s selection was on California-based filmmakers but she also included masterpieces of the East Coast experimental scene. The list contains: Bruce Conner (Breakaway, 1966-67; Cosmic Ray, 1961-64), Bruce Baillie (All My life, 1966; Castro Street, 1966), Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley (Schmeerguntz, 1965), George & Mike Kuchar (Color Me Shameless, 1966-67; Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966), Robert Nelson (Bleu Shut, 1970), James Broughton (Testament, 1974), Yvonne Rainer (Film About A Woman Who, 1974), Sidney Peterson (The Cage, 1947), Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising, 1963), Pat O’Neill (Down Wind, 1973), and many more. Kramer also included masterpieces from Standish Lawder (Corridor, 1970), Hollis Frampton (Critical Mass, 1971), Harry Smith (Early Abstractions, 1939-57), Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank  (Pull My Daisy, 1958), Ken Jacobs (Blonde Cobra, 1959-63), Stan Brakhage (Anticipation of the Night, 1958; Dog Star Man, 1961-64), Tony Conrad (The Flicker, 1966), among others.

Bruce Conner

Acquisition grants represent only an occasional event for a film archive like PFA. Strategies used to acquire prints were different from one case to the next. On occasion, the archive’s rental budget was redirected towards the purchase of a new print. “Joseph Cornell’s films we have, in this case” says Kramer. “The rental budget was used for acquisition as well as exhibition. Obviously, this applied to films that were of modest cost to purchase.”

Another strategy that was common in the early years was that PFA invited filmmakers to use its storage facilities for free. This process often resulted in film acquisitions that were made through donations. PFA adopted an open-door policy for deposits of films, providing services for saving the film materials and making available safe storage facilities, without cost or obligation, for the works of independent filmmakers.

Over the course of the past four decades, PFA’s acquisitions policy has changed into a more selective process of long-term deposits, as well as donation of films and materials. This change has come as a result of the fast growth of the collection and consequential limitation of space and resources.

PFA always welcomes new print donations; and if a deposit is accepted, PFA prefers to structure agreements with filmmakers so as to acquire prints. An example was the case of Lawrence Jordan, who readily agreed to converting the deposited films into a gift to the archive, donated over a period of years.[11]

Another important element of PFA acquisition strategies is the current campaign to acquire key films of the history of cinema not otherwise available in good prints from domestic sources. To honor Edith Kramer’s dedicated service to BAM/PFA, after her retirement the museum started to build the Edith R. Kramer Collection, which constitutes a dynamic legacy of works ranging from avant-garde to documentary to international classics.

Recent Preservation Projects of Experimental Cinema

“Edith Kramer’s leadership,” comments PFA Collection Curator Mona Nagai, “represented a change for PFA’s policy towards preservation and archiving.” Kramer played a key role at the PFA because of “her awareness towards preservation and archiving practices. She managed to reach important results in a moment of very tight resources.”

In 1989, PFA joined FIAF as an active affiliate and received its first grant for film preservation in 1990. At that time, a preservation policy was conceived to guarantee appropriate conservation conditions and treatment for motion picture materials in a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault. Since then, many projects have been funded and completed, protecting the major collections of films and video.

Preservation is yet another strategy to add new prints to the collection, since approved prints as well as internegatives are made during PFA’s preservation projects. Over the past decades, PFA has been actively engaged in film preservation with an emphasis on Bay Area experimental and independent cinema, though it has also preserved Japanese features (nitrate) and rare travel footage. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Film Preservation Foundation, the American Film Institute, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, and private foundations have supported PFA’s preservation of experimental films such as Nathaniel Dorsky’s Hours for Jerome: Parts I and II (1980-82), Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) and Reassemblage (1982), and a number of films by Bruce Baillie, including Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963-64) and All My Life (1966).

PFA has restored Bruce Conner’s Crossroads (1976) as well as numerous works by other major avant-garde filmmakers, including Scott Barlett (OFFON, 1968), George Kuchar (The Devils Cleavage, 1973), Gunvor Nelson, and Robert Nelson.  Fake Fruit Factory (1986) is among several films by Chick Strand that PFA preserved. Currently, PFA is completing a collaborative project with Academy Film Archive (AFA) to preserve eight more films by Strand, thanks to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation and AFA support.

Current and Future Projects

The PFA along with thousands of films, has created an extensive collection of film-related materials, including reviews, press kits, festival and showcase program notes, newspaper articles, and images covering from avant-garde to world cinema of the past and present. Many of the documents can be accessed online via CineFiles (, the PFA’s film document and image database.

Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area (1945-2000)

In fall 2010, the Pacific Film Archive will celebrate the history of the Bay Area avant-garde. The publication Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area (1945-2000) edited by PFA curators Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid with Steve Anker, who is chair of the film department at Cal Arts, will be accompanied by a major exhibition of films and videos, and a related gallery exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum. The retrospective, co-sponsored by San Francisco Cinematheque, will take place at several local venues and will tour North America and Europe through 2012. A number of newly preserved prints by PFA will be featured.

The Bay Area today represents a happy island for experimental cinema. Networks of film venues and devoted organizations create opportunities for filmmakers, but also for audiences to enjoy experimental cinema on a regular basis. By preserving avant-garde films, the PFA plays a primary role in this context and helps to protect the historical legacy of this important cinematic heritage.

*article published on the FIAF/Journal of Film Preservation n.82, 4/2010.

[1]   Barbara Erickson, “A Farewell to Luddy,” The Sunday Magazine, Contra Costa Times, October, 1979; unpublished interview with Sheldon Renan, 1971 and 1995 (PFA history files, PFA Library and Film Study Center) quoted by Lee Amazonas, “Guerrilla Cinematheque Comes of Age: The Pacific Film Archive,” The Arts and Culture, Issue #6, Spring 2004, p.148.

[2]   Sheldon Renan interviewed by Stewart McBride, “The Ultimate Movie Theater”, The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 1980.

[3]       Kathy Geritz, interview with the author at PFA on December, 16, 2009.

[4]   “Sidney Peterson taught the first film course at California School of Fine Arts (CSFA, renamed San Francisco Art Institute in 1961) in 1947. Jordan Belson, who had enrolled as a painting student in 1944, showed his first abstract film, Transmutations, in 1947 at the second “Art in Cinema” program, co-sponsored by CSFA and the San Francisco Museum of Art” from Milestones in SFAI History

[5]   Lee Amazonas, “Guerrilla Cinematheque Comes of Age: The Pacific Film Archive,” The Arts and Culture,
Issue #6, Spring 2004, p.148.

[6]   Amazonas, p.148.

[7]   Amazonas, p.149.

[8]   Sheldon Renan mentions the PFA National Advisory Board in a letter to Susan Sontag on October 25, 1970 (PFA history files, PFA Library and Film Study Center).

[9]   Edith Kramer, interview with the author at PFA on December 11, 2009.  PFA acquisition priorities continued to emphasize avant-garde and Asian films, but only in recent years has PFA acquired a collection of pornographic video and film (a deposit of the UC Berkeley Film Studies program).

[10] Quote from the Project Grant Application document, 1975 (PFA history files, PFA Library and Film Study Center).

[11] Mona Nagai, interview with author at PFA on December 16, 2009.