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Making Films, One Frame at a Time

  • Jodie Mack is a filmmaker and associate professor of film, teaching animation at Dartmouth College. January 14, 2016. Mack makes animations on film using recycled materials. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Associate professor of film Jodie Mack rides a bicycle powered zoetrope, in the Black Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Thursday, January 14, 2016. The zoetrope is a spinning drum with slits through which a series of images can be seen in animated motion. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/26/2016 10:01:02 PM
Modified: 5/26/2016 10:00:58 PM

Jodie Mack, a filmmaker and animator who teaches in the department of film and media studies at Dartmouth College, lives by the following code: no unfinished projects.

“I can’t leave something undone. It’ll eat at me until it’s done,” she said.

In the case of the feature-length film she is now making, Mack calls it the most ambitious project she’s yet undertaken, one that could easily take her two more years to complete.

She returned this spring from a three-week trip to India, the most recent in a series of grant-funded trips she’s made to Mexico, China, and parts of the U.S. to research such critical aspects of textile production as trade, capitalism, treatment of workers, and how people assign cultural and economic value to hand-crafted goods versus those that are industrially produced.

“It’s so complex, I’m basically uncovering the history of fabric,” Mack said.

While in India, Mack zigzagged between the cities of Mumbai, Bangalore and Surat, and the state of Goa. She shot 16 mm film for eight to 12 hours daily, using a Bolex camera, which she likens to an old Singer sewing machine.

In Patan, in the state of Gujarat, Mack spent time with a family that has for generations handmade and hand-dyed the intricately-designed silk saris known as patola, where the warp and weft are tie-dyed before weaving. (In Indonesia, the same process is called ikat, which may be a more familiar term in the U.S.)

“It’s amazing, seeing something so exquisite and hand-loomed. It takes about three years to weave a sari,” Mack said.

As someone whose life’s work involves the meticulous piecing together of frames of film, it’s fitting that Mack is fascinated by another body of work that also demands a rigorous discipline, hours upon hours of labor, and carefully thought out patterns.

“All of my work starts from the material. The material is the message. There’s a lot more to say about the surface,” she said.

The contradiction inherent in both the art of patola, and the kind of experimental animation that Mack makes, is that, for the viewer, the enormous effort that goes into them is, in a sense, invisible. The beauty is visible, of course, and appears effortless, but the actual physical and mental discipline it takes to see both through are not.

Rich Fedorchak, a filmmaker and film programmer who lives in Thetford, is a friend of Mack’s. He admires “the absolute inventiveness of her work and the absolute rigor that goes into making it. She has an incredible work ethic.”

Discipline is everything.

“This isn’t for the faint of heart, you have to be really tough. It is really a slow and laborious process,” Mack said in an interview in the Black Family Visual Arts Center, where her office looks out directly onto the five vertical panels in yellow, green, blue, orange and red designed by the late Ellsworth Kelly.

Mack, who lives in Lebanon, is dark-haired, with bright blue eyes and a sparky way of talking. Her mind seems to go at warp speed, leaping rapidly and intensely from one subject to the next.

Mack likes the Kelly panels, although not everyone greeted them with huzzahs of acclaim. “I think modern art can make people feel stupid,” she said. But she’s noticed that in the morning the panels cast slightly-tinged shadows on the wall of the hallway outside her office, which relieves the tedium of institutional white paint.

“It’s a beautiful use of a facade,” she said. “Do you want to look at a brick building or a rainbow?”

Posters for domestic and international film festivals hang on her office walls, and the shelves up top are lined with boxes containing scores of fabric swatches she’s brought back from her travels. Drawers contain reels of her films.

You might call Mack’s work experimental or avant-garde, the categories into which her films are usually slotted. But experimental can sometimes be confused with impenetrable or opaque, which Mack’s films are not.

They’re exhilarating, often funny, with tactile, kaleidoscopic imagery, pulsating rhythms and clever wordplay. The cuts from one scene or frame to the next seem both logical and instinctive, and after a few seconds patterns emerge. With patterns come mental associations, and step by step Mack takes you on a surprising ride. It’s unlikely that you’ll get bored watching her films: she crams a lot of life into a short span.

“I think about time on such a microscopic level. I think of time as 24 frames a second. I feel everyone is very conscious of their time and how little of it they have,” she said.

In the 2008 film Yard Work is Hard Work, Mack writes, films and performs an animated musical about the quest for love and companionship, with figures, sometimes celebrities, sometimes not, cut out of magazines and advertising.

Like any artist, Mack draws from a deep well of influences: the 20th century animator Oskar Fischinger, the British feminist and filmmaker Lis Rhodes, and the New Zealand-born, London and New York artist and filmmaker Len Lye.

She also adores such musicals as Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand, the 1964 French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and not least, the 1957 film version of the Broadway musical The Pajama Game, starring Doris Day and John Raitt.

“I love The Pajama Game. It’s awesome, it’s a musical about labor relations!” Mack exclaimed.

In such shorter films as New Fancy Foils, Persian Pickles, and Unsubscribe #4: the Saddest Song, Mack uses fragments of lace and paisley, patchwork, paper, dollar store gift bags, junk mail, the interiors of security envelopes and intercuts them, turning film into eye-popping, Op Art canvases that make even the most mundane material take on the gleam of new life.

For the 2013 film Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project, Mack drew on her childhood and adolescence, making a film about her parents, in particular her mother, who were British immigrants to Florida. Mack was born in England in 1983 and spent the first eight years of her life there, until the move to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area in the early ’90s.

Her parents had a printing business, which included printing concert posters for rock bands, a business that eventually failed. Mack had a sister who died when Mack was 11, and her parents eventually divorced. The fallout from these events worked its way into Dusty Stacks of Mom.

“When you hear other people’s stories, and realize what people have gone through, you realize you’re not alone,” Mack said.

Mack was always interested in theater as a teenager, but didn’t begin to make films until she went to college, studying at Berkeley and then returning home, where she earned a B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of Florida. She went on to receive a M.F.A. in film, video and new media from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and taught at both DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Chicago before coming to Dartmouth in 2009, a move that was not easy.

“I definitely mourned that for a long time, but there are people hidden out here doing interesting things, their own thing. I’ve met so many fascinating people here,” she said.

To get an idea of how Mack thinks about pushing at the confines of the medium, she pulls out one of her early films, a short showing the sun going behind mountains.

It was a camera-less film, Mack explained. To a lay person the idea of films made without cameras is mind-bending, even counter-intuitive. But it gets at the film frame in an almost sculptural way, building 3D images on a 2D surface.

In this case, Mack took clear black film strips and glued images of the sun, as a child might draw and color it, onto each frame, using the celluloid as a canvas. It took her two months to complete a two-minute film. She likes the way it has a “a great feeling of liveliness and ebullience. The image looks like a jack in the box, or a jumping bean.”

That exuberance is part of why Mack’s work stands out, said Adam Hyman, the artistic director of Los Angeles Filmforum, which has screened Mack’s work. “There’s a tradition of experimental films being very serious and important in the way you’re looking at the world,” he said.

But Mack’s films work on a different level, Hyman said. “They’re entertaining, not in terms of distraction, but in terms of engagement. The audience needs to be reflective about it.

“You can break them down and think about the things she’s using and the materials she’s using. ... I like the way she has a variety of elements that she incorporates in her films that are recognizably hers.”

Spencer Topel, a composer and professor in Dartmouth’s music department, works with Mack on the college’s “Eyewash” project, which began in 2011 and brings experimental video, film and music annually to campus. In the process of collaborating on “Eyewash,” Topel learned more about the world of experimental animation, and watched Mack’s films.

She brings, Topel said, “a quirky combination of playfulness and seriousness” to her work. Audiences see in her films “a juxtaposition of things that are normally paradoxical but co-exist in a challenging and inviting way,” he added.

Academia suits Mack, she said. She always wanted to teach, because it provides a level of artistic and economic stability. “I can ignite ideas within students while having the freedom to do what I want. I don’t want to sacrifice my freedom.”

She gives no thought to making money from her films: “I have no interest in commercial films that are used to buy and sell products in a homogenous way. ... I don’t want to participate in the art market. I do all the sound, film, editing, distribution. I do everything alone. Films don’t have to cost millions and have a top-heavy infrastructure.”

Most commercial filmmaking has left analog technology behind — no more movie reels, no more 16, 35 or 70 mm film or film projectors, no more clackety-clack as a 16 mm print runs through a Bell&Howell projector. Digital technology has its marvels, and it’s made film more accessible in many ways to filmmakers, and audiences.

But there’s still a place for a filmmaker like Mack, who, with little money to play with, creates movies that find the right audience by dint of the kind of imaginative work she does. That’s neither digital, nor analog: that’s art.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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