Ad Astra's Experimental Film Inspirations: Gregory Zinman Interview

Luminare 1 768
October 12th 2019

There are few paths toward a Hollywood career that put one at a greater disadvantage than pursuing a degree in cinema studies. One of them is earning said degree with a focus on experimental media art. And yet a few years ago, scholars Gregory Zinman and Leo Goldsmith found themselves in the employ of 20th Century Fox as consultants on Ad Astra, James Gray’s $80-$100-million-budgeted science fiction film, as advisors to the filmmaker.

While in pre-production, Gray sought to develop a fresh visual grammar for depicting life among the stars. His search led him to the Museum of the Moving Image, where the exhibit “To the Moon and Beyond: Graphic Films and the Inception of 2001: A Space Odyssey” shed light on Kubrick’s own designs, correspondence, and methodology for creating his film’s now standard-bearing depiction of space. Goldsmith and Zinman curated a black-box loop of computer films from the 1960s to accompany the exhibition, a sort of coda to their 2013 series “Computer Age: Early Computer Movies, 1952–1987.” Gray reached out, and soon the duo began to send the filmmaker packages of visual material and notes for inspiration.

On Saturday, October 12, Goldsmith and Zinman return to MoMI to present “To the Stars: Experimental Inspirations for Ad Astra,” a concise yet spectacular selection of work sent to help Gray and his team conceptualize the film. To preview the event, Zinman, an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, took the time to speak to Screen Slate’s Jon Dieringer. (Zinman, Goldsmith, and Dieringer regularly cross paths in the latter’s capacity as Technical Director of media arts nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix.) They discussed Zinman and Goldsmith’s history of programming collaborations, the origins of computer animation, the ethics of introducing often marginalized work into a commercial sphere, the curatorial choices behind the program at MoMI, and Brad Pitt’s newfound interest in pottery.

Jon Dieringer: I wanted to start with the initial series you and Leo did at the Museum of the Moving Image back in 2013. How did that come together?

Gregory Zinman: That was a show of early computer films from the 1960s. It went over several days, and we invited speakers like Lillian Schwartz, who was there in conversation with Rebekah Rutkoff, and that had gone really well. We had taken a version of "Computer Age" to the Ann Arbor Film Festival a year later and did a couple of shows as part of that festival. And so [MoMI curator] David Schwartz already knew about that work, and he thought it would gel nicely with the Kubrick stuff, so he asked us to put together a show there that ended up running most of 2016. So it had a robust run at the museum, which we were really happy about.

Were those programs tied into a book, or another project you were working on?

That really just came out of shared interests, just stuff that Leo and I had been watching together or sending to one another. What we were trying to get at is, when you really think about it, the origins our digital mediascape can be traced to the early abstract experiments in computation. We thought that if we could begin to trace a line between things like John Whitney's work and Stan VanDerBeek's work and Lillian Schwartz's work — which is related to music, it's related to painting, it's related to poetry, all these experimental practices — and say, actually, you don't get to Doctor Strange and Iron Man and Grand Theft Auto if you didn't have these experimental works at their genesis. So we were trying to make a historical argument about the development of computer animation.

It's interesting that you can go even further back in experimental film history and see a relationship between corporate interests and avant-garde art by looking at sponsored films by people like Hans Richter, Len Lye, and Oskar Fischinger. And then later you have the development of computer animation at places like AT&T's Bell Labs, or Larry Cuba working on Star Wars.

Absolutely. I think one of the important things to pick up there is the relationship between the engineer and the artist, and that in the mid-to-late '60s you have places like IBM where John Whitney's working with Jack Citron, and Bell Labs where Ken Knowlton is working with VanDerBeek. You have the beginnings of a contemporary media production culture, where you have these collaborations. These are not just artists working in isolation, but working with programmers and engineers. And you can see this in the phalanx — I mean, just look at the credits of Ad Astra, or any other movie. You see all this division of labor, all these different people tasked with contributing to an overall look and feel, which was unified as a process at that moment of the engineer and the artist coming together in the early 60s.

Do you feel, historically, that the roles of the programmers and engineers have been acknowledged in the creation of a lot of work from this period? Or do you think we tend to focus more on the individual artist, like the Stan VanDerBeeks or Lillian Schwartzes?

I think that's because many of us — and I don't mean to paint with a terribly broad brush — I think many art historians, media historians, and film historians are conditioned to write about heroic individuals. So when we write about Jeff Koons, it's not often that people point to his his gigantic army of visual assistants and technicians and craftspeople and fabricators, instead they just talk about Koons. But the way those things are actually made, the way they're actually produced, there's a workflow involving dozens if not hundreds of people. So I think that's one reason why sometimes the engineers and programmers have been eclipsed by the artistic collaborators. Another is that I think for a lot of film, media, art critics and historians, they don't actually understand how the things were made. So for many people it's difficult to talk about the material and technical contributions of those programmers.

I think sometimes it can be difficult for people to appreciate the generative aspects of certain works, or the elegance and nuance of designing and executing code. I'm thinking particularly of early work by Larry Cuba, or Nam June Paik's experiments at Bell Labs with A. Michael Noll.

Absolutely. I think it's very hard for people in 2019 to appreciate how hard programming was in 1966 and '67 — how buggy and strange mainframes could be, how much trial and error is involved. When they see a John or James Whitney film, maybe they think they're simplistic, or they're geometric abstractions, and they're familiar with geometric abstractions. But some of the things they were actually trying to do were to find correspondences between form and math, or form and in James's case meditation. And so what they're doing, it's very forward-thinking and futuristic in its employment of the machines and the tools of the age. But they're also thinking about really old, even ancient ideas. And if that stuff isn't contextualized, yeah, you're just like, oh, that's a pretty and maybe simple thing. When in fact, it's much deeper and much more complex than that.

Maybe we can talk a little bit about getting involved in Ad Astra. From what I understand, James Gray was familiar with the work that you and Leo did at the Museum of the Moving Image and just kind of reached out.

Yeah, that's right. My guess is that he was very interested in the Kubrick stuff for very obvious reasons. He's working on an epic-size science fiction film, so he's going to go study any and all material related 2001. And so my guess is that he stumbled upon our program, which was in a black box theater at the museum, and he got in touch with us right away. I think he went within the opening days of the show. He just asked, can you tell me how artists have thought about or envisioned space? I'm trying to think of new ways to to envision space. And so it just started with a very simple email, and the conversation grew from there.

So were you basically working on contract for the film production at that point?

James sent the initial query in the spirit of casual inquiry and conversation. And Leo and I thought, well if we're really going to take this seriously, and if James going to take us seriously, we would like to actually work on the production. So yes, we got a contract together, we had to sign a fairly extensive NDA regarding plot points and things like that, because we saw an early draft of the script, which changed considerably, as you might expect. But once we had the script, and once we talked to James, or to the producer, Anthony Katagas, we started to get a sense of what they were looking for. What James was really interested in was, yes, he wanted to explore what futuristic space travel might be like, and so he had a whole host of technical consultants, but then he really wanted to think about aesthetics as well, and themes.

One of the things that he told told us after the film came out is that we managed to do something that conjured a sense of the void. And that was one of the things we were trying to help him with. A lot of things we showed him didn't have human beings in them. One of the things that Ad Astra wrestles with is the place of humanity in the cosmos. And I mean, spoilers, but it comes to the conclusion that we're really all we've got, and there's nothing else out there. How how do you visualize that? So he was very interested in isolation, in loneliness in the moods that would accompany the states of intense reflection, and tense isolation. And then what would those landscapes, or lack of landscapes, look like? And so I think you get a sense of that from looking at the final film.

Yeah, definitely. It's like, even if there's not a one-to-one aesthetic or surface relationship between Ad Astra and the things that you sent to James, there's a fundamental tonal relationship.

Leo and I were talking about it the other day — I think we basically got paid to make a very large and very expensive mood board. And I mean that in the best way, because one of the things I was really happy about in seeing the film was that James synthesized the things we had given to him and the production team, rather than lift stuff or rip anybody off. I think I would have been pretty upset. I think the artists involved would have been pretty upset if certain visual motifs or ideas have been taken whole-cloth. And so I was pleased that you can see things around the edges, or in the totality of the way things look. James took it very seriously. He was nice enough to say that we were "utterly invaluable to the film," and I'm not sure that's entirely true, but I'll take it.

I mean there is this fraught history of mainstream culture, or art institutions, basically just ripping off media artists and experimental filmmakers. And at least to me, being familiar with the work you sent to James and having seen the film, that's pretty clearly not the case with Ad Astra. But can you talk about the sensitivities you and Leo had to that possibility, or try to speak to James's recognition of that dynamic?

Yeah, I mean so, experimental media and film is Leo's and my life's work. We take it incredibly seriously, we feel close to the work and the people who make it. We teach the stuff, we study it, we write about it, we show it. So we're pretty intent on not doing a disservice to that work. James, to his credit, understood that entirely. He understood that he was working on a different kind of film. He was looking for inspiration, not to piggyback on work that already been done. He stressed again and again that he was trying to develop a new way to show things within the context of a relatively big-budget sci-fi film. So he was incredibly sensitive to it, very aware of the political, economic and ideological valences of looking at this experimental work in the service of what he was doing.

Can you talk about the selection that you made for the screening tomorrow, and how you and Leo worked on paring down the selections you made to a single program?

We had come up with a total of about 40 or 50 works for Ad Astra, so we had this wealth of material. We thought, how can we highlight some of the things we wanted to highlight? Some of the things we were thinking about were textural. So we want to make sure that we have some stuff from the 80s, like John Sanborn and Dean Winkler's "Luminare" to give a sense of that early, Paintbox [software] kind of effect, that video from the 80s. Weirdly enough, "Luminare" also deals with moving through strange spaces that keeps shifting, and that seemed to work well. We wanted to show Jennifer West's "Salt Crystals Spiral Jetty Dead Sea Five Year Film," because at one point we sent that to James when James was having particular difficulty with some visual effects shots. And he was struggling with the digital sheen of some of the work he was looking at. He was wondering if there were analog means of basically making the invisible visible, and so we showed him a bunch of flicker films like Kubelka and Conrad, and there's some flicker in Jennifer West's film. But it also deals with decay — the film itself is a film that she submerged near Spiral Jetty, and it wore away at the film, and then she digitally photographed the desiccated 70mm film that she'd submerged, and it creates a sort of pulse of decay and this play of life and nature, and then mediation through both analog and digital means. And I thought, well, that's all thematic resonances with what James is trying to do here. And he didn't end up throwing his film in saltwater or anything like that.

He didn't travel to Utah?

Yeah, you know, he didn't do that. But I think even just thinking around those ideas, to think about breakdowns, right, and the ways that the filmic material was breaking down, and he wanted Brad Pitt's character to have his psychological walls come down — we were trying to think about it like that. There are also some very fun things and beautiful things like the Jodie Mack, which is in 3D. We knew that James and [cinematographer Hoyte] Van Hoytema were dealing with light and reflection a lot — you know, where are the light sources when you're on the surface of Mars or on the moon? And we thought this is a lovely meditation on light. And then crowd-pleasers like [Earth, Wind and Fire music video] "Let's Groove" directed by Ron Hays, who had spent time at WGBH messing around the Paik-Abe Synthesizer, but also was a pioneer of the Scanimate system. His work just doesn't get shown very much, and certainly isn't written about very much. But I think he really helped define a kind of dreamy, proto-digital aesthetic. And it's also got this Afrofturist sensibility, which is really compelling. And let's just face it, the song slaps. We wanted to show that the enterprise wasn't just dour and stuffy meditations on dads and sad sons.


We had some fun too.

It's interesting, because a lot of this work exists on various margins, whether it's the kind of false dichotomy between an experimental film and video art, or commercial work and underground work. The Hays piece is a great example of that. It's something that's not part of the artistic canon of video synthesizer work.

It's interesting the way these things circulate. Thorsten Fleisch, we're showing this film "Energie!," and I think he did effects for a Gaspar Noe title sequence. [Ed note: Fleisch provided electrophotographies for Enter the Void and its titles. Read more here.] "Luminare," the Winkler/Sanborn piece, that showed on Night Flight on the USA Network. But it also showed in galleries and nightclubs in New York City. Like they would show that at Danceteria or the Palladium. And someone like Jennifer West, who works between analog and digital technologies, is primarily a gallery artist. So her work usually shows in looped digital projection. So you're right, these works are showing in a variety of venues for a variety of audiences. And we wanted to capture a bit of that.

Is there anything else you want to share about the program or the process of working on Ad Astra?

I think one of the things that Leo and I are happy about with the show at the museum is that we are getting a chance to highlight the artists involved, and so they're not just being papered over by all the other coverage of Brad Pitt as a star, or James Gray director, even though those are interesting and really great subjects. We're just really happy that we are able to showcase these artists, and that James was really cool with it. From the beginning we said, "it'd be really nice if we made sure that people knew about this work," and he said, "of course." We also talked to the artists about doing the show, and some people were not aware that we'd sent their work to Ad Astra were excited to hear about it and were excited to participate in the show. When you get a chance to bring experimental work to a wider audience, that's always one of the most exciting things for us as as scholars and as programmers. To make those connections between the ways that experimental culture and mainstream culture intersect and collide, and that doesn't have to be always a terrible, imbalanced nightmare of late capitalism. But it can be illuminating and pleasurable.

Yeah, totally. Awesome. So, uh, did you get to meet Brad Pitt?

No. No, I'm bummed about that.

I'm sorry. I couldn't not ask.

Yeah. Yeah. Brad's gotten really into pottery, I believe.

Whoa, really?

So I regret not having the opportunity to go to his studio and throw pots with him. I don't know, maybe that's down the road.

Yeah, definitely.