Posts tagged film


In 2013, I completed the feature film From Sea To Shining Sea – a contemporary portrait of the United States of America experienced via a cross-county time-lapse video and audio collage. This incredible landscape diversity – through twenty-two eco-regions, from the Atlantic, over the Rockies, and to the Pacific – is united by a common visual element: the Interstate Highway System.

By watching the film, one essentially takes the journey itself, and gains a greater appreciation for the sheer beauty of the American landscape. My co-pilot on the journey was the Australian journalist Matthew Clayfield (“The Caucasian Semi-Circle: A Journey Along Russia’s Exposed Nerve”), who documented the filming in his Kindle single “Hauling Ass”.

While shooting the film, Matt and I visited many places along the interstate that were oriented exclusively toward serving those making the same journey. These towns and truck stops such as Beckley, West Virginia, Haubstadt, Indiana, and Radiator Springs, Utah are places to stop to get gas, grab food, take a shower, etc. These towns exist only within the context of driving along the interstate, and are virtually unknown within the greater day-to-day American experience. These places represent a cultural landscape – an ecology – that only exists because of the framework of the interstate.


The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the present geological epoch during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment. I believe the United States Interstate Highway System – due to its impacts on geology, habitat, and microclimate – is clearly an example of the Anthropocene.

This month, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) will host the 2016 International Festival of Landscape Architecture in Canberra. Part of the program is a short film competition about the Anthropocene. I submitted a video for consideration revolving around a theory that the Interstate is a cultural ecology and a natural evolution of an ancient biomigratory ecology – a physical manifestation of the Anthropocene. The piece has been shortlisted and will screen during the anthropoScene event during the festival.

In my video Sic Erat Scriptum – as personified by this character of instructor (preacher?) Melvin McNally – the development of the interstate highway can be traced back to its precursors: the United States Numbered Highway System followed the routes of the railroads, which in turn were built over the routes of the pioneer wagon trails that originally followed the paths established by of Native American footpaths made over generations following the migratory paths of buffalo and big game – and presumptuously – back to the era of the dinosaurs, where the clusters within the fossil record of these thunder lizards correlates with the towns along the interstate.


So, the next time you are driving across the country playing the license plate game, say a little prayer of thanks to the dinosaurs who made this all possible.

The-Assassin-Hou Hsiao-hsien

This is probably the most interesting comment I’ve ever heard in response to a movie:

“…it is such a stunning movie that its beauty can lull you to fall asleep one moment; yet it is such a magical  piece a moment later its allure earns your undivided attention.”

However, after personally experiencing The Assassin by filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien unfold on the big screen, I now understand the truth of the comment.

The story is fairly simple, based on a short legend from the Tang Dynasty. The tale tells of a young princess abducted by a nun from her imperial family, raised to become an assassin in Weibo to kill the powerful and corrupt. After her training and failing a mission, she’s punished by being assigned to kill her own cousin Tian, the most powerful man in Weibo, who also happens to be her childhood lover.

There are only a few lines in Hou’s first wuxi film, The Assassin. Most of the time, the viewer is left listening to the sound of crickets, leaves, flowing water, and the world around the story’s characters. Together with Hou’s famous long takes and slow panning, it is not surprising to discover some moviegoers with their eyes closed. However, from my perspective it is this unhurried meditative state of The Assassin‘s which makes the movie special, in essence capturing nature and traditional Chinese landscape.

long take 1

The effect is intentional. Hou Hsiao-hsien chose to shoot the film in 35mm, rather than digital. All sound, lighting, wind, fog, and environmental effects were done using practical techniques – no filters, no post-production special effects, no artificial landscapes. The crew traveled through China and Japan to find ideal landscapes to use as backdrops, waiting months for the right time to capture the trees’ leaves turning yellow, when fog would flow between the mountains, and those fleeting moments when birds would fly over a lake to create the film’s spectacular visuals. By capturing nature truthfully, the nature depicted in the film captures the viewer.

Left: A shan shui painting by Ming Dynasty artist Shen Zhou, 1467; Right: A painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Gao Kegong (1248–1310)

Left: A shan shui painting by Ming Dynasty artist Shen Zhou, 1467; Right: A painting by Yuan Dynasty artist Gao Kegong (1248–1310)

Pomo shan shui, the traditional Chinese style of landscape painting featuring layered wash brushwork, is vividly displayed in the film’s cinematography. Clouds and layers of mountains are both classic Chinese aesthetic motifs in both poetry and shan shui painting, based upon the idea that Yi  – the abstract form or atmosphere – exists higher than Xing  – accurate form or figure. These ideas are deeply embedded in Chinese philosophy and also projected within the film’s mise-en-scène.

the-windAnother common motif in the film with origins rooted in traditional Chinese art are waving curtains. Hou spent much effort in making these delicate curtains to play a prominent role in his historical drama. There are many scenes where characters are standing between separate layers of curtains, flowing in the foreground and background. Similarly shadows fall across actors’ faces and  candlelight  flickers inside a bedroom.

Some viewers are left perplexed by these quiet scenes where movement and dialogue are absent. But it’s important we as viewers are not left thinking we’re watching nothing. Hou is showing us the flowing wind, the sparkling light, the changing temperature,  giving forms to unformed existence, and a context of time passing silently.

While the movie is visually glamorous, I recognized a sadness inherent throughout. At one point Yinniang tells a story about a king with a beautiful bluebird, a bird that never sings. The ruler was told when a bird sees another bird, only then will it sing. The king uses a a mirror to offer the vision of another bird in hopes of hearing its song. But upon seeing its lonely reflection in the mirror, the bird sings one last songs then dies.

Birch Woods

In a later scene a bluebird is visible while Yinning walks alone through a birch forest with her master standing on top of a fog covered cliff top. Hou explained in a recent interview the mirror and the bluebird are “interchangeable metaphors for the self, and the deepest sadness, and loneliness…describing the emotional quality of someone living in solitude.”

The use of long takes and slow panning across the landscape communicates a strong sense of the comparison of scale between the grandiosity of nature, the ephemeral nature of human life, and the emotions of solitude.

Films need people more than stories.
Landscapes also harbor emotions.
Music can blow like the wind through a scene.

—Hirokazu Kore-eda, Things I Learned from Hou

Hou Hsiao-hsien once joked during an interview he wanted to go back in time to observe life during the Tang Dynasty. Thanks to his artistry, movie goers can experience a glimpse of those times without a time machine.

Crossing the Continental Divide in "From Sea To Shining Sea"

Crossing the Continental Divide in “From Sea To Shining Sea”

Two themes that have permeated all of my films have been the concepts of travel and journey. This explains the extensive use of animated cartography and dashboard perspectives in my work, an extension of my love for maps, animation, and computer graphics.

Approaching San Francisco in "From Sea To Shining Sea"

Approaching San Francisco in “From Sea To Shining Sea”

Illustrating this love: while funding From Sea To Shining Sea, I put together a compilation of clips from my films – maps from Beijing to Baton Rouge. These include the animated TripTiks® in Fansom the Lizard; the Buckydome from Scenic Highway (and later A Necessary Ruin); Matt Clayfield’s backwards Dutch pidgin speak coupled with a bit of winklecomplexen in 39-A; and Lobot’s journey across Asia, Europe, and the Atlantic in I Am An Artist. There are also clips from Vert, Pavlov’s Bell, Pavillion Dans Les Arbres – and of course the Telly-vision army marching across the UK in Telly.

I am currently working on some beautiful animated maps of Iceland for use in Hringvegur.

Closing bonus: As a landscape architect, I have the opportunity to spend my days creating site plans – aka maps.

Hringvegur_Contact Sheet

In addition to chronicling my recent circumnavigation of the Icelandic landscape via the production of a feature film, we also took plenty of still images – digital and analog. At each stop for camera adjustment, file backup, or leg-stretch, we whipped out our trusty Polaroid OneStep 600 Express instant film camera – because is there really a better format to capture the subtlety of this jaw-droppingly dynamic landscape of geysers, glaciers, and gas stations?

One issue: where to get film? I got puzzled looks from the Walgreens downstairs from the office; apparently sold out. By chance, I overheard a conversation on the Red Line – two patrons talking about a place on the internets called “the Amazon”. I rushed home and fired up my Hayes Smartmodem 300, logged onto CompuServe, and eureka – my dream of shooting Polaroids in Iceland would come true – and at only $2.81 a pop!

Upon our return these archival quality prints were scanned and cleaned up a bit in Photoshop – a painstaking process documented in the accompanying video below.

Once you have absorbed these prints in all their high resolution glory, you will probably feel as if you have also experienced the dreamlike Icelandic landscape itself.


Kevin Lynch’s seminal text from 1960 – The Image of the City – is seemingly required reading for any landscape architect working within the urban realm. Lynch studied with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin and later became Professor Emeritus of City Planning at MIT School of Architecture and Urban Planning; in The Image of the City he used the cities of Boston, Jersey City and Los Angeles as urban templates to explore large-scale design theory.



The terms coined by Lynch – node, path, edge, district, landmark – are used ad nauseum to characterize site analysis and design solutions.

This short film is a freewheeling adaptation of this classic text; set in Los Angeles and embellished with toy robots, beat poetry, and priestly ants. Whether these terms are being used as Professor Lynch intended is grounds for another post. Enjoy!