Experimental filmmaker Michael Robinson got into the art form in a roundabout way. As a child, he would close his eyes at night and become mesmerized by the oscillating, iridescent forms of phosphenes, the colors and shapes that play on the back of eyelids.
“I first became interested in images because of phosphenes,” says Robinson. “I used to study them at night and gently influence the forms they took. With practice, I could make out colors and soft apparitions of detail.”
Robinson, whose father was in the military, moved around a lot a growing up. He spent time playing with VHS cameras as a boy and again when he was older, in the military with a Sony Hi8 in nightmode. It wasn’t until he began experimenting with Adobe After Effects and the compositing/rotoscope application Commotion that he started creating visuals out of 5-10 second renders. This was also about the time he got into electronic music on Warp Records and other labels.
In 2006 Robinson began volunteering at Moviate, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based film and sound collective. Here he was influenced by friends Caleb Smith, Tara Chickey and James Hollenbaugh, absorbing their stunning archive of Icelandic nature films. It was in this collective that Robinson created a visual identity.
Robinson likes to take his time with a piece of music before transmuting it into visual form. A slow absorption followed by a visual expression of the music. “There’s usually an internalization period similar to just enjoying a record,” says Robinson. “The more time I’m given to digest, the more I’m able to move into the marrow of the music.”
Having previously worked with Solar Bears and Bibio, Robinson had autonomy to “discover” the images. “The processes of pre- and post-production overlap and blur together,” says Robinson. “There’s more room to dream in it this way.”
Solar Bears – She Was Coloured In
Ultimately, Robinson is after an audio-visual journey full of surprise instead of “stilted, assembly line” production. “I feel it’s a more honest approach to working with music,” he adds. “And what a particular film project needs to be isn’t really clear to me until it’s done.”
And so it was with the Supermigration short film, a collaborative project with the Dublin-based electronic duo Solar Bears.
Though Robinson wants cinematic imagery to be as spontaneous and immediate as sound, anyone who has worked in the medium understands the inherent difficulty here. Film needs to be developed, edited and then projected. Digital cameras and software are breaking down this barrier, but the organic qualities of film are at risk of being lost in that evolutionary transition.
“David Lynch once said something to the effect that image lags behind sound, but that image is catching up,” says Robinson. “Sounds can be generated in a real time situation. The nearest to creating a picture without the use of pre-recorded material is directly through the use of projected light.”
Robinson personally discovered that technique by accident years ago, then went on to learn from the likes of experimental filmmakers Thomas Wilfred and Jordan Belson. He sees real-time generative digital imagery as carrying on that tradition.
For Robinson, the natural correlation between how we measure the visible spectrum of light and the frequency of sound is important to his process. “Color divides itself into highlights, mid-tones and shadows just as there are audible frequencies that are high, mid and low,” says Robinson. “There are frequencies we can’t hear just as there are wavelengths that aren’t visible to the human eye. The best intersections of sound and image are usually when they naturally fall into place and connect on their own.”
Instead of focusing on one particular track for the Supermigration project, Robinson and Solar Bears set out to create something that represented the album on a conceptual level, while building “a space to dream in.” They wanted the film to be an experiential door into the new album’s world.
Stills from Supermigration:
“The record is its own rewarding experience, and if I’ve done my job properly I’ve taken care to respect it every step of the way visually,” says Robinson. “My instinct was that the best approach was something in the short-form format, and there are only certain tracks that are featured in the film itself.”
Robinson spent several weeks with a copy of the album, and then decided to do as much in-camera work possible. The idea being that the post-production process would go smoothly because of the uniqueness of adapting the Solar Bears album as a short film.
“It was a direction I was already headed in with Bibio’s ‘Excuses’,” says Robinson of his mind-bending work on that music video. “For Supermigration, the digital workflow was reduced to cuts only. There weren’t any color adjustments of lab scans nor any compositing in post.” This required forethought on Robinson’s part but allowed for randomness to invade the process.
Bibio – Excuses
The first exposures were a series of light and color washes shot by Robinson and Caleb Smith.
“I worked with Solar Bears’ John Kowalski and Rian Trench and Mike Paradinas of Planet Mu to identify the music after putting together a silent edit,” says Robinson. Following the mix, adjustments were made to mold image and sound together in the best possible way.
Kowalski and Robinson then went through frame selections for the album art, designing the album’s visual appearance. “John had a vision for some typefaces to use from the beginning, and we worked to get the type to gel with images,” says Robinson. “We then worked with Ben Curzon, a super talented designer, who took care of the layout while I simultaneously cut the film.”
Robinson went primarily with small-format film cameras due to cost factor, but also because it was a matter of ethics. As it turns out, Supermigration also became something of a farewell. During the production of Supermigration, Kodak announced that it would be discontinuing Ektachrome film stock. Fortunately, Robinson had one last roll of E100D that was pre-exposed to evening light. On a whim, Robinson decided to capture flares of sunlight as the second exposure.
“I ran through that roll pretty fast, shooting loose and off the cuff,” says Robinson, who found the results surprising. “Jewel-like forms appeared in the highlights—the closest I’ve come to phosphenes through a waking eye.”