In a small attic studio above the Blackbird Kid Shop, Andy Smetanka uses an exacto knife to carefully render silhouettes from black paper. Human figures are often the hardest to make. Trees and other inanimate objects come easier. When he's done, he places the silhouettes onto a lit backdrop of glass and colored paper so that the objects create an illuminated scene—the silhouette of a man walking through a forest, for instance, his papery joints hinged by tiny silver nails. Over the silhouettes Smetanka suspends a Super 8 camera on a wooden rack. He takes one shot of the scene, moves some of the silhouettes slightly, and then advances the film for another shot. When he's done with 20 frames, he's captured one second of animation.
"It doesn't take as much time to actually shoot it as people think," Smetanka says. "It's the preparation, the building stuff, the cutting out, the putting little tiny nails in."
Earlier this year, Smetanka worked as an artist-in-residence at the Missoula Art Museum as part of an endeavor to make a new silhouette film. Four months later, City in Shadows was born. It's a six-minute film about Missoula that will screen at MAM for First Friday this week. It's a love letter of sorts, with cutouts of some of the iconic—though not always the most obvious—aspects of the city. It has no people in it, but it features glittering waterscapes made by Smetanka's optical illusions. Its soundtrack is a spontaneous composition done after the fact, recorded at MAM by Shane Hickey of the Volumen. It features a who's who of local musicians: Lisena Brown on piano, Hermina Harold on guitar, June West on banjo, Gibson Hartwell on pedal steel, plus Smetanka, who adds to the otherworldly ambience with wine glasses, singing saw and birdcalls.
Smetanka is known in Missoula for many things: a local artist, caretaker of the Moon-Randolph Homestead, former guitarist/singer of punk band Humpy, singing-saw player and former Independent writer and film reviewer. He's a do-it-yourself doer, the kind of Renaissance man who doesn't depend on technological shortcuts. It's one reason Super 8 best fits his style. Every second of footage adds up to the mysterious landscapes that he has become known for. Over the last decade, he's worked on several film projects including music videos for locals the Volumen and Utah metalists Le Force. For the Decemberists he made vibrant silhouette music videos for songs such as "The Tain" and "The Bachelor and the Bride." A few years ago he tracked down Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin and created work for Maddin's film My Winnipeg. And most recently his work was featured in the High Plains bison film Facing the Storm.
Smetanka began fooling around with Super 8 in the early 1990s without much direction. But then he saw the 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed made by German silhouette filmmaker Lotte Reinieger and was inspired. After 9/11, it seemed like as good a time as any to focus himself.
"After that I was like, 'I just want to do something. What's the sense of waiting around, you know?'"
Smetanka has learned a thing or two over the years. He's figured out how to depict certain kinds of movements, and not to overdo it.
"At first I thought to get the maximum action and excitement in the frame, every silhouette had to be doing something at all times," he says. "The people had to be moving, birds had to be constantly moving around. But if you look at any bird sitting on a telephone line, they're mostly sitting still and then they'll flick their head. So I've gotten better at the rests, not making it totally busy. It's about timing."
He learned a different lesson the hard way when he made the films for the Decemberists. He spent nine months shooting and one month editing the 22-minute video, and when it was done it went straight out the door. There was no period of decompression, and high off the intense process, Smetanka was still feeling too wrapped up in it.
"It's so lonely and so isolating, this work," he says, "and I like it for that, but when it's done it's like, 'Everybody drop what you're doing and look at this and adore it and say a ton of nice things about it.' But enough is never enough. And this led to all kinds of trouble with the Decemberists, because I felt like I wasn't being appreciated, I felt like they didn't know what they wanted, I felt like I was being exploited...I like to say that the Decemberists didn't treat me well but really I was just kind of an asshole...I've learned to finish something and set it down for two weeks and not show it to anybody and just kind of chill out. Finish movie, count to 9 million." He laughs.
In filmmaking, part of the process of learning often entails jumping on the digital bandwagon. That's not a lesson Smetanka's much interested in learning even if Super 8 is far from easy. Smetanka's process: After shooting an abundance of footage, he gathers it together-—five or more reels and sometimes a year's worth—and ships it to Parsons, Kan., which is where all the world's Super 8 film is developed. From there, the film goes to New Bedford, Mass. to be finished. And then he waits. After about a month he begins to watch for the FedEx truck. When it arrives, he says, it's all worth it.
"There's just a specialness that binary technology can't really touch, if you ask me. The randomness that happens, all the things that can go wrong and spectacularly right. The tiny little mistakes, the defects, the moments of senseless beauty that come out of the process of light combining with chemicals to produce this color image. I just don't think there's any substitute for that."
Andy Smetanka's City in Shadows screens at the MAM Friday, September 2, at 7 PM. Free.
do this: FIRST FRIDAY
From what we can tell, the Saltmine Group has a really cool collection of pieces depicting pretty skulls (kind of Day of the Dead-ish), bees and unconventional birdhouses. With a core-member group of artists that includes Karen Rice, Cathryn Mallory, Stephen Glueckert, Edgar Smith, Peter Keefer, and Bev Beck Glueckert, the exhibit at Montana Art and Framing (709 Ronan Street) is going to be anything but mild-mannered—more like a curiosity shop, without any of the dust. Show is from 5 to 8 PM. Call 541-7100 for more details. Free.
Thom Coffman is into metal, but not the music kind (or is he?). The photographer uses old-school darkroom techniques without a smidge of digital manipulation. This exhibit at Yellowstone Photo (321 N. Higgins) shows how Coffman uses silver, copper and brass in the film, which gives his Montana-themed prints an enchanting 3D antique style. Four of the prints will be sold to fund the Grizzly Scholarship Association, and Coffman will also be showing some of his metallic wildlife and nature scenes. Shiny! The show is from 5:30 to 8 PM. Free.
Pamela Caughey and Karen McAlister Shimoda decided to challenge each other, not to a duel, but to a mapping of emotions. The result is Mindscapes, an exhibit at The Brink Gallery (111 W. Front), which will feature wild and colorful abstract paintings. Both artists have local ties: Shimoda got her degree in East Asian Studies from Columbia University but now lives in Missoula. She used ink and acrylic. Caughey is an artist living in Hamilton, who has a BS in Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in painting and drawing from the University of Montana. She used encaustic and oil. How will the two minds meld? Check it out from 5 to 8 PM.