Orland Nutt and film poetics

The filmmaker talks about his life, art and upcoming program at the Northwest Film Center

I attended Southwest Portland’s Lincoln High School with filmmaker Orland Nutt from 1994 to 1998. We became fast friends. We’d chat between classes about Peter Jackson’s early movies: Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive and Bad Taste and reenact our favorite bits from Seinfeld episodes—Orland even dressed in lounge suits and made Kramer-esque room entrances. On the weekend we powered up camcorders, trained them on baby dolls we’d set on fire and record the transformation. There were wheelchair races to be had, avant-garde music shows to attend, and long, goofy nights of coffee and fries at Dot’s or coffee and pie at Montage.

Orland Nutt in his film: Dear Peter, Song

Orland Nutt in his film: “Dear Peter, Song”

After high school Orland attended CalArts where he studied experimental animation and filmmaking. We stayed in touch via telephone and email. After college he headed back to Portland, got a job doing post-production commercial work and started in on his own video projects. I’d lend a hand on his movies whenever I could. I still do. For Orland’s movies I’ve written a song from the point of view of a dead fish, performed ‘50’s style voiceover narration, contorted my face in uncomfortable ways, and walked up public stairwell after public stairwell—never quite sure how he would piece it all together.

If you follow experimental filmmaking in Portland, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Orland’s animation and filmmaking. He was a mainstay in the Peripheral Produce Invitational portion of the now-defunct (sadly!) Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival where he was crowned “World Champ” by audience vote in the last two years of the festival. His work has been shown at the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival and at the Portland International Film Festival, where he has received Judge’s and Audience Awards.

Orland received a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council last year. He has just completed the primary project funded by the grant—a film version of the James Broughton poem Bear of Heaven. To mark the occasion, a retrospective of his most outstanding work to date, including the world premiere of Bear of Heaven, will show at the Northwest Festival Film Center this Thursday, July 10, at 7 pm. It has been dubbed: An Evening With Orland Nutt.

Still from Bear of Heaven.

Still from “Bear of Heaven.”

Last weekend, as Orland was wrapping up the finishing touches on Bear Of Heaven, I stopped by his apartment where we enjoyed slices of pizza and a chat about his process, experimental filmmaking, poetry and divine fate. Here is our conversation—transcribed and edited for clarity.

Well your big night is fast approaching. Is there a special thrill to seeing your work projected on a big screen? A lot of people end up seeing it on the internet…

Yes, it makes a huge difference. I put a lot of work into the color and the details and the fine grain that goes over everything. A lot of that gets lost through compression when it’s shown on the internet. You really feel the texture of everything a lot more. It’s more detailed and more what I made.

I guess you describe your films as sort of experimental film or leaning that way. What does that mean to you versus…not…experimental?

My work has been experimental in that, for the most part, I have to experiment a lot in the process of making it—trying to figure out what it’s going to be. And I don’t really always know if it’s going to work. Like, for the movie You Come Home To This, I started shooting the houses and through the process of trying to animate them, by sequencing all the images, the animation started to appear but I didn’t really know how well that would work. By a lot of accidents in the process of sequencing them I would find new ways of animating them. It was through experimentation that ultimately the whole structure of the film came together.

And that could be said for Trinity of Three Dragons as well. I had a decent idea of of some things that might work but it was a lot of experimentation in editing that made that piece come together. As opposed to my newest piece. Not experimental. Maybe a little bit, because it’s featuring performed poetry which is kind of an odd thing… But it was storyboarded, planned, an animatic was made—the full, normal filmmaking process.

From: Trinity of Three Dragons

From: “Trinity of Three Dragons”

I think the term “experimental film” kinda scares some people off. They think it might be boring…

Mmmhmmm.

But you make experimental films—or out of the ordinary, non-narrative films—and you’ve seen a lot of films like that. What appeals to you about that kind of moviemaking? Even just as a viewer…

There are so many types of experimental… I guess some that are just purely visual, where the content is just a visual experience. Like Stan Brakhage movies where you’re just getting paint on film or they print the leaves on film—they’re just beautiful to look at. It’s a visual art that requires time and to be shown on film. Those are beautiful. Others have concepts that can only be communicated that way. This Is It, the James Broughton movie, is one of my favorite movies, long or short. I watch it a few times a year and it makes me really happy every time. It’s just a child running around and it’s again—I guess there’s a poem recited over the top—but it’s just communication of a feeling and a concept. That movie is about God in everything and kinda philosophical and grounding in a good way. Through non-narrative, non-traditional storytelling it’s able to put an idea forth and share it in a way that normal cinema storytelling couldn’t.

Speaking of James Broughton, your big premiere in this screening coming up is based on his poem Bear of Heaven. What about this particular poem made you want to visualize it in a movie?

It was actually the first poem that I ever wanted to make into a movie but it was so complicated that I had to wait for years to have the opportunity to do it. I needed funding and the right person to do it and all that stuff came together.

When did you first came across that poem?

It was probably 5 or 6 years ago when I was working on my first poem movie.

So you had an idea then?

Yeah. I really wanted to work with this poem. It’s probably the most—I don’t know the right word—it’s erotic without being explicit. But it’s also spiritual and I just really love the poem. The possibility of transforming it into a purely devotional poem that was a spiritual narrative rather than one that was just lust and human eroticism and into one of more…spiritual bestiality…

That’s a good way to put it! You’ve visualized other James Broughton poems. It seems like he’s a pretty big influence on your work. What about his poetry and films draw you in?

I just really love his voice and his attitude towards life—his celebration of joy—and he has kind of a light heartedness that I really relate to.

You’ve adapted poems by other people. This seems to be a source: poetry. Is there a particular reason for that?

It started because I was finding poetry for the first time in my life, around 25, that I actually liked. I had read a lot of poetry throughout my life and just hadn’t really come across anybody’s voice that really moved me. I started finding some that really did it for me. I think I wanted to share those voices in case they might do it for somebody else. It’s hard to just come across that kind of thing because people don’t generally recommend them. I can’t remember the last time anyone has ever recommended a poem to me.

It doesn’t seem like it’s the most popular reading material on the bus does it?

Nuh-uh. So that was a factor. Also, I was just finishing a bunch of work that had taken me a really long time in post production and I was wanting to make some simpler, easier projects. At first they were 1 to 3 month projects, but then they quickly turned into the same, 1 to 2 year, insane investments.

Can you give us a basic breakdown of the steps to create Bear of Heaven?

I think it really came together in the process of applying for a grant. At that point I really had to figure out everything that the project was going to be. To also figure out the costs and what was going to be necessary to make it. In terms of the pre-production it was pretty accurate but there was a lot more compositing and animation that I hadn’t planned for. I think that’s my own….it’s just because I can’t help myself! I could have made a much simpler movie but I just kept adding things and adding things and kept filling it up. I think that comes from working in advertising. I can’t let any moment go untouched.

After finding out I got the funding I needed, I got to work meeting with all the collaborators and starting them on the projects we would need. I worked on the storyboard—refining it more and more. I looked at a lot of anime and Bollywood movies for actions and types of motions and really trying to figure out the action of every shot in the movie. Jennifer, the actress, had a bunch of performance ideas also. We fine tuned the choreography and got it to the point where we were ready. We shot the live action part and then probably 6 months later we shot all the set elements. Those were totally separate. The live action was all on a green screen sweep and the set was also on a green screen sweep. I shot simply to so it wasn’t too complicated to figure out camera positions that would match between the live action and the miniature set.

Bear of Heaven still

“Bear of Heaven” still

How big was the set?

The set was about ten feet wide by about four feet deep.

What materials were used to make the set?

It had a foam base and everything else paper….paper…and….er what was that stuff called?

This is really a question for your mom I guess…

Yeah, my mom made the set. She’s a paper artist. She’s always worked in 2D and I’ve always liked her work and I thought it would be interesting to have her try her hand at a 3D environment and she did an amazing job. Once all that stuff was on the computer it was about 6 months of really intensive compositing. Making the shadows work, making the colors match between the elements of the live action and the set.

I’m not sure people know what compositing is necessarily…

Removing the green screen so there’s a matte on the objects and then marrying the elements together. Cutting out foreground elements so that I can place the performer between the foreground and background parts. Then there are the animation effects and then the color correct to create a look over the top of everything.

It’s very complicated! You said earlier that you were waiting for the right person to perform Bear of Heaven how did you come to select Jennifer Sindon who flew up from Los Angeles?

I had known Jennifer since I was 18. We had lost contact for a while, started talking again a few years ago and I found out she was making movies. I really liked her work and she really liked mine and so we started working on some projects together. As I saw her strengths as a performer it became really clear that she was the person I had been waiting for to have in this movie. She is a powerful, witchy, shamanic woman.

You work in advertising. What do you do exactly?

I work at Bent Image Lab, a production house that primarily does animation. I do post-production there and I’ve worked on stop motion jobs, live action, CG and special effects projects. I’ve learned a lot of the skills that I’ve utilized to make my own films from working there over the years and working with different directors who all have really exciting, different styles.

Some of your work has been all live action, some all animation, some has been a mixture of the two—how do you decide which techniques to use?

It’s just because of influences and outside stimulus for where I go…what kind of project I make. Like the dance piece, Trinity of Three Dragons, I was really inspired by a movie by Peter Kubelka: Pause!. It was pretty incredible to me as was the Butoh dancing by Tatsumi Hijikata. I was really engaged by that for a while so I wanted to make a dance piece or a movement piece. I feel like the flow of projects is all just random inspirations, whatever has been exciting me in the years leading up to whatever project.

You’ve made movies in many different styles. Do you think there’s some common thread to your work?

Looking at all my work recently, the thread i’ve seen is this attempt to thwart meaning or cause people to reinterpret meanings. My earliest work I would not put language in and avoided language at all costs. In You Come Home to This I tried to show architectural motifs but without presenting any of the names of them even though most of them have names and identifications. I tried to create purely visual categories through animation that would just exist temporarily.

In the dance piece Trinity of Three Dragons I tried to create categories of motion through editing that were not named but you would still feel them as you saw them. And then, as I started to put language into the films, I tried to apply reinterpretations to spaces. In Equanimous Passage I took public staircases that people climb and made that into a religious experience, or spiritual experience. With the poems I’m trying to, at least with the recent ones, take very erotic poems and turn them into something else. Recontextualize and just change the presentation of them.

So Bear of Heaven

Yeah and I Am Into Your Fire. That’s very much an erotic love poem and instead I made it into a crazy mountain woman’s personal ad or something.

Still from: "I Am Into Your Fire"

Still from: “I Am Into Your Fire”

Let’s go back a little here. When did you know you wanted to make films?

I think it started in high school, doing some video projects for a Humanities class and finding how fun it was.

Well, I was there with you, and these were not assigned video projects. You could make whatever you wanted, you could have written an essay but you happened to make these amazing videos that everyone was blown away by. How did you know even how to do it?

I did an internship where I working doing some compositing and post-production. I was getting into video at that point I guess.

How did you get that internship?

I have no idea. I don’t know why that happened! I think it was like a college thing: it’s good to try to get an internship. So I thought, well, what should I do?

What led you to get an internship at a video place?

I have no idea.

Alright. I’m going to accept that as an answer.

Divine fate! I have no idea…

The Dear Peter series is one of your more popular series of movies. One of them was voted by the Portland International Film Festival audience in 2013 as the best Oregon made short film. How did your Dear Peter series start? It seems to have evolved beyond just a letter to Peter….

It started with emails between myself and my high school friend Peter. We were good friends and had a lot of correspondence. I don’t know how it happened—we started sending letters to each other but not normal letters. They were often drawings or just short, odd statements about our lives. Peter would talk about his desire to eat a sandwich in the shower but then would send a letter days later about how he decided not to get a sandwich. We would send each other packages. I sent him a box of dirt from around one of the places I was living. I think there were probably cigarettes and garbage from the ground around just to show him that this is what I see every day—this is how I’m living. So it was kind of a conceptual exchange not a typical…well maybe it is typical but just in a different format.

That led to eventually making the videos, and then they started growing and changing and became a good venue to just present an outlook—present a way of experiencing something, even as mundane as a pile of wood chips or a weird figure in an alley, and turning those into stories. Turning them into an experience whereas you could just pass them by and have no reaction.

Would you say, in a way, that we’re all Peter? That you are trying to communicate these ideas to the world at large and not just Peter?

At this point, you could say that. They became a public thing…so yeah. But I do think the voice is definitely tuned to him. Like when sometimes people write they think of a specific audience. I am definitely thinking of him as the audience so I’m sure that affects the outcome.

What is the earliest film in your retrospective?

I think it’s 2000.

So you were in college?

Yeah there are two films in there from when I was in college.

Two from college and one that you are going to be wrapping up in the next few days… What has changed in that span of time? In terms of your approach?

Outlook, skills, interests, influences, everything.

So you’re better now?

Yeah.

Ok I think that covers all the questions I wrote down here…

That seems like plenty!

 

Note: You can see Orland’s work on his website and on his Vimeo page but I’d suggest holding back for now and attending An Evening With Orland Nutt at the NW Film Center Thursday, July 10th at 7pm for maximum impact and the world premiere of Bear of Heaven!

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