INTERVIEW WITH NORBERT SHIEH

WASHES

a film by Norbert Shieh

What inspired “Washes” and what were the circumstances under which you made the film?

I made it early when I started at Cal Arts. I was living in Los Angles, nearby a car wash and was fascinated by Southern California car culture.  As the owner of a car, you inevitably go through a car wash from time to time; if you go through an instant car wash, those are very interesting. The space feels very strange – you just sit in your car and the machines do all these crazy things. What you see on your windshield looks to me something like abstract painting.

Right, the space is strange and rather isolating, too. It’s easy to see the connection to abstract painting. What impact do you want this to have on a viewer?

One of the things I like doing with the films I make or the projects I take on as a DP is to focus on observations, things that you might not normally perceive except through the mechanism of a camera or cinema. You know, this is one of those (mundane) things that, if you don’t think about it, you might not notice. So this is very routine, everyday; and at the same time, it’s very beautiful and full of unexpected moments, so one of my goals is to focus you on that.

Yes, the formalist and neo-formalist theorists argue that de-familiarization of the ordinary is a primary function of art. They have a term – ostrane, I believe – which refers to the process of making the familiar new, fresh, even strange. This sounds like what you are intending.

Yeah, well definitely, taking the everyday and making it, if not uncanny, definitely something you will notice.

What filmmakers have influenced this film, and, in general, what filmmakers have influenced you?

Well, you mentioned James Benning. “Washes” owes something to his formal approach. For example, RR, (a 111 min. film featuring 43 static shots of trains passing through the frame) has structural similarities to “Washes.”  For the visuals, experimental animators like Oskar Fishchinger, or other experimental filmmakers, even Stan Brakhage, have influenced me for their purely visual qualities – texture, light and color.

GD: Yes, the plastic properties we often associate with painting.

NS:  Yes.

What about other filmmakers that influenced you?

There are narrative filmmakers that have influenced me because of the observational aspect of their work. Some of my favorite filmmakers are Hou Hsiao-hsien, Ozu, Antonioni, or Tarkovsky. Not only does observation play a prominent role in their films, but also, they pay so much attention to the visual dimensions of their work. I would say this is what attracts me personally, whether we are talking about a narrative or experimental film.

You talked about light earlier. How much did you manipulate the light in “Washes”? Did you light it?

I relied on the available light of each location. There were a few locations in which I shot at night. There, the only light would be from the cars passing through, refracting through the beads of water collecting on the windshield, or, during the day, when something passes a few feet in front of the car and refracts colors, like a filter, through the windshield.

Yes, there’s one remarkable moment in the N. Vermont Ave segment when an orange glow passing through droplets emerges from the black roller brushes like a sunrise. This is wonderfully complemented by the play of sound and silence. Under what screening conditions do you want people to view this film?

I started collecting a bunch of these vignettes in car washes, just collecting them. It wasn’t until one of my professors at Cal Arts, Thom Andersen, told me I should submit it to a festival, so I sent the film to the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant Garde, and it was accepted.  At first I was thinking it might be more for an installation or a museum, or multiple channels where you can see a bunch of them side-by-side. But I think in terms of single channel presentation, a theater would be great, just because on a large a screen, you can see the details so clearly.

You shot this with both 16 mm film and video?

Yes.The ultra-slo-mo Finch St. segment (last vignette) was shot with a Hycam in front of my house. This is the only staged car wash in the film. I couldn’t sneak in a Hycam and power it in the car, so we had to recreate it. We did it also because shooting at 500 frames per second, the timing had to be so precise.  This was shot on Kodak Expression 800-T film. There’s also another segment shot on film, the Los Feliz one, which is an intervalometer shot (stop motion).

The segments are all different lengths. Were the lengths dictated by any sort of structuring concept, or are they random?

I would record the whole piece, starting at the beginning of the car wash to the end. The different car washes had similarities, but also, each was unique. Rather than repeat the same thing over and over, I tried to find the most interesting segments in each piece and use those.

So, how much editing or postproduction manipulation was applied to each segment?

Other than choosing an in and out point and adding titles, there’s not much manipulation. I may have increased my contrast on the film portions when I took them to telecine, but not much else was done. The sound mix is basically whatever sound I recorded live on a Sound Device recorder.

Sound seems such an important component in this film. I found that silent moment, punctuated by an identifiably liquid flash reflection on the windshield, especially powerful. It seems that the sound is quite calculated. Was it?

When you move through the wash, you are in a bubble, not able to hear traffic or any other exterior sound, only the sound associated with the water, wipers and machinery. When the machines transition from one cycle to the next, there’s almost dead silence. So I didn’t need to manipulate that.

How does “Washes” fit in with your other work?

Going into Cal Arts, I was more orientated towards narrative, but I still had an experimental “edge,” just wanting to play around and try things out.  This definitely was one of my first very formally and observationally shaped pieces, with no narrative through-line.  What relates it to my other films is that it is based so heavily on locations. Locations are very important to me. The location has to have some sort of interest for me, or some resonant theme that relates to the project. So, to skip ahead, the project I am currently working on (Preserves) is based on farmlands in Taiwan. The location and the way these spaces are being utilized, the weird cartography, all drew my attention.

What do you see yourself doing in, say, five years?

Well, the conundrum is that I do both filmmaking and cinematography. I’m hoping the cinematography can fund the filmmaking; but this is difficult, especially in a large market like Los Angeles. In five years I hope to be working on larger projects as a DP, where the directors and I have had long term working relationships, and still work on projects like WASHES or PRESERVES for myself.

NORBERT SHIEH (謝明洋) is a Taiwanese-American filmmaker and cinematographer exploring new perspectives on the quotidian through delicate and formal observations.

His films and collaborations as a director of photography have screened internationally in festivals and venues, including the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Beijing New Youth Film Festival, REDCAT, LACMA, Anthology Film Archives and Paris’ Centre Pompidou. His experimental short film WASHES (2011) premiered at the New York Film Festival and won the Jury’s Citation Award at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival.


Shieh is based in Los Angeles and holds both a Bachelor’s Degree in visual arts from the University of California, San Diego and a MFA in film/video at the California Institute of the Arts.