VIP - VideoChannel Interview Project

O’Donnell, Michael

Michael O’Donnell
US videomaker


Interview: 10 questions

1. Tell me something about your life and the educational background.

I grew up during the 1940s and 50s in the United States. Subjects as diverse as biology, mathematics, and the industrial world had a strong influence on my sense of esthetics and what art could be. Early encounters with prejudice and racism influenced my ethical development, ultimately leading me to focus on issues concerning the human understanding of reality, the relationships people have with each other, and the effects of different cultural world-views.

I was educated in philosophy at Emory University and in industrial design at Pratt Institute.

2. When, how and why started you filming?

In the mid-1960s in New York I designed immersive interactive light and sound environments that included devices incorporating machine language, motion detection, multi-channel projection, live acrobatic movement, and experimental film. At that time, I felt that a radical alteration of physical environments could elicit a benign alteration of conventional awareness.

3. What kinds of topics have your films?

The topics are diverse: racism and war, memory and illusion, abstraction and emotive perception, and the effect of one’s linguistic structure on narrative thinking. These topics are not overtly expressed in the work, but underlying themes.

4. How do you develop your films, do you follow certain principles, styles etc?

A definite formalism is involved in the expression of the film’s meaning. Within that formal framework, chaos may evolve, affecting the framework itself. The work is a mixture of still images and live footage organized and composited to express and elicit both thought and emotion.

Film and music are very similar to me. The film audio is often a mix of natural, human, instrumental, and machine sounds, similar to what we hear in real life. Although the audio can be highly processed, I strive for a sense of naturalness. The relationship between auditory and visual elements can become quite complex, with one influencing the creation of the other in unforeseen ways.

Attempting to illuminate a particular aspect of reality may require a unique stylistic approach, and I try to let the subject matter tell me what is needed.

5. Tell me something about the technical equipment you use.

I used a Bolex camera in my early work, with all edits made during shooting, and I drew directly on film. Audio was all analog then, reel-to-reel and cassette tape recorders, turntables, microphones, and so forth. Numerous electro-mechanical items from military/industrial salvage were used to create the luminaire devices.

After a long hiatus from filmmaking, I began using a Panasonic digital movie camera. Currently I use a Canon dslr, a Marantz field recorder, multiple microphones and other a/v equipment. For editing and camera-less compositing I use Final Cut Studio, Logic Pro, and Photoshop. Hardware is a Mac Pro and NEC monitor. Quality equipment can certainly help, but other things are more important.

6. These days digital technology is dominating also video as a medium. In which way is the digital aspect entering the creation of your videos, technologically and/or conceptually?

Creation and tools naturally influence each other. Some work could not be made or perhaps even conceptualized outside the digital realm. And the same is true of the analog realm with its inherent physicality. There are advantages to each.

7. How do you finance your films?

The short films are self-financed. Longer projects utilize outside funding.

8. Do you work individually as a video artist/film maker or do you work in a team?
If you have experience in both, what is the difference, what do you prefer?

Our company, Loose threads Cinema, produces all our films. My job is director. My partner in work and life, Wendy Hacker, is the producer, and her exceptional ability to analyze films and other dramatic media has been indispensable to the work.

The right mix of people can make collaboration a very creative and productive experience.

9. Who or what has a lasting influence on your film/video making?

Childhood experiences, definitely.

The great directors and photographers who have so incisively probed the human condition: Ingmar Bergman and Andrey Tarkovsky, Dorothea Lang and Margaret Burke-White. Jet Lowe for his sensitive depictions of industrial America. Also in my mental background are the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, revealing their insight into perception.

My musical influences vary widely, but all capture a certain sense of human transcendence: the 12th century music of ‪Hildegard of Bingen‬, traditional African music and art, and the contemporary works of Arvo Part and others.

10. What are your future plans or dreams as a film/video maker?

A longer, more involved project titled Outside of Time is now in production. Several short films intended for eventual installation are underway, and a multi-layered animation project will be started later this year.