For a long time we’ve heard that analog film formats– for both making and viewing– are on the verge of mass extinction and very soon will be swallowed up by digital photography and filmmaking, never to be seen again. Recent events seem to confirm this prediction– in July, the last manufacturer of VHS players announced that it was quitting the game and shortly after, the Chinese factory where the clunky, black plastic boxes were made for Sanyo ceased production. The end came quietly, and some people were surprised that VHS consoles were still being made at all, since it had been nearly a decade since Eragon, an elf/fantasy movie, was the last ever to be released on VHS. Even before that, Fujifilm had stopped manufacturing motion picture film. As somebody once (pretentiously) told me, books, which are a lot like film in this context, are “nothing more than fetish objects” nowadays.
Actually, it depends on where you look, and if you’re at Mono No Aware it’s alive and well. The Williamsburg-based nonprofit is dedicated to analog motion picture film education, as well as facilitating screenings and art making, with an emphasis on Super 8, 16 mm, and 35 mm film. They’ve been doing their thing around the city since 2007, but now they’re looking to expand by opening a new community center that will serve as the organization’s first permanent physical space and a home for their extensive programming. According to Mono No Aware, it’ll also be “the first and only non-profit motion picture film lab” in the country. Which, like… damn.
Even if you’re the world’s biggest analog film dork and get all warm and gooey inside at the mere mention of a 35 mm screening, you’re probably realistic about the fact that the medium you hold so dear will inevitably vanish. Probably. There’s the depressing question of when, but organizations like Mono No Aware are also asking, “How can we extend its life?”
Mono No Aware takes its name from a Japanese phrase (sometimes regarded as “untranslatable“) that translates roughly to “a connection to the ephemeral.” It’s fitting because the organization is far from being some sort of lofty object fetish club where snobby men get together and gush over their latest lens purchase and get all huffy puffy when comparing developer recipes for some obscure alternative processing technique (yawn). But Mono No Aware isn’t an historical preservation effort either. Instead, they’re interested in making Super 8 and similar formats useful again as a form of artistic expression, but more importantly fun and accessible to anyone who’s interested.
This social aspect– or, as Mono puts it, “working to promote connectivity through the cinematic experience”–means that even if the physical objects of analogue filmmaking will probably go bye bye at some point, the sense of community will remain.
It makes sense that the money to pay for this fancy new “community-use, non-profit motion picture film lab” which will offer professional-grade services and other amenities including processing equipment, contact printing and processing services, projection, and high-quality scanning– will be raised by way of crowdfunding. Yesterday, Mono announced they’re launching a Kickstarter campaign in November. There’s no word yet on exactly how much they’re trying to raise or where the lab will be located.
Since Mono organization was formed more than a decade ago, they’ve hosted workshops ranging from amateur-oriented introductory classes that emphasize basic skills to more advanced ones aimed at more experienced filmmakers who want to advance their technique, learn about a new process, or simply just get to know a bunch of other film dorks.
The Mono No Aware X festival is at the center of all this programming. The two-day exhibition series welcomes Super 8, 16 mm, and 35 mm film submissions as well as video installation work and live performance. (This year, the fest is marking its 10th year with a full month of “special events,” held from November 3 to December 3 at a slew of venues across the city including the Ace Hotel and Anthology Film Archives. More deets TBA soon.)
The Mono No Aware community extends beyond art-film makers and includes artists working with sculpture and performance, among other mediums, and even professionals who use these film formats in a variety of other areas such as medical lab tech. Mono also hooks people up with rental equipment, and hosts artist screenings on a monthly basis.
Until now, they’ve led somewhat of a roving existence, with events held in spaces ranging from MoMA to an artist studio complex in Bushwick. The new film lab will be their “homebase” for all existing programming, but it’ll also serve as a way to expand upon their mission. In a press release, the organization explained that the lab’s “focus will be on accessibility” and will be open to artists, archivists, and students. There’s nothing as solid as a price range just yet for lab use, but we’re guessing it’ll be in the reasonable range, roughly equivalent to Mono No Ware’s existing services.
Accessibility is something that filmmaking sorely needs. Analog mediums especially are difficult to break into if you’re not an art school graduate or relatively well-off white dude with a nerdy streak and preexisting know-how. Newcomers can understandably feel alienated by the insular communities surrounding disappearing art forms and esoteric media, and some people are intimidated enough that they won’t act on their interests. And a lot of people simply don’t have the money– it’s sucky, but darkroom access and analog motion picture film labs are not only hard to find, they’re expensive as hell.
True, both digital cameras and editing software have become widely available over the last decade or so– even as technology has improved, prices have continued to drop. Super easy sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo have streamlined the process of filmmaking even more. Now, the medium is accessible to really anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection. Even some professionals are shooting with their iPhones– Tangerine is just one of the extremely good-looking movies that blew minds across America when it was released in 2015 (trust, I tried to achieve similar results with my phone and failed miserably).
So why press the issue with film? As Mono No Aware demonstrates, there’s a lot more involved with analog filmmaking– lab processing, the physical editing process–stuff that, sure, can be tedious if you’re totally impatient, but it also offers an opportunity for socializing and community interaction that clicking away while staring at a computer screen simply doesn’t allow for.
Even if analog film is a bitty special interest compared to its former self when the medium was sort of just life itself– everything from the way people made homemade family videos to how Hollywood shot movies– there’s definitely at least a small revival afoot. Kodak announced the return of the Super 8 camera outfitted with digital capabilities, the Impossible Project has proven to be not so impossible, and camera makers have recognized a growing interest in analog photography and filmmaking.
We’ll have to see how this all turns out, but Mono No Aware’s expansion is a pretty good indication of where things are headed. By opening the format to all kinds of people, including those who might never have encountered analog filmmaking otherwise, and encouraging experimentalism along the way, Mono’s doing the kind of work that actually might end up saving the medium from total extinction.