Portland / Seance

Dennis Nyback, Master Projectionist, On Heaven And Earth Magic


One of the most powerful cinematic imaginations in American film history is on full display in the stop motion masterpiece Harry Smith made alone in his New York apartment, on an animation stand he used at night as a bed. Heaven And Earth Magic tells the story of a woman, a watermelon, and a toothache. Dennis Nyback researched Harry’s expanded cinema projection techniques, and will be recreating them at the Harry Smith Seance on May 16 at the Hollywood Theatre.

Anne: What do you think of Heaven And Earth Magic?

Dennis: Heaven And Earth Magic is one of the greatest animated films ever made. I hope a lot of people come to see it.

Anne: Harry told interviewers Heaven And Earth Magic is supposed to be shown with four projectors. What did he mean?

Dennis: There really isn’t much information available about how Harry projected his films. One of the few leads I had was a P. Adams Sitney article that said Harry had built a projector that incorporated “filters, gels and masks”. There is no way to put an image filter in line before or after a motion picture image and have it all hit the screen in focus. After a lot of head scratching it occurred to me that he could have put the film, masks, filters and gels on the screen using multiple projectors. Because of the very large screen at the Hollywood, I will use a Marc 300 short arc 16mm projector for the film and a Xenon slide projector for the masks. I will use a conventional slide projector for the filters.

Anne: What was Harry after with that layered image on the screen, and multiple projectors?

Dennis: I think it goes back to his witnessing Lummi Indian rituals when he was a teenager and seeing their use of art, music, and dance, all combined with smoke and shadows, to make a whole spectacle. Compare that to motion pictures, and movies seem pretty two dimensional. He might also have known how animation could add a third dimension through the use of multiplane cameras. A multiplane camera could shoot through several layers of animation cells to give a 3-D effect. A very early example of that was Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures of Prince Achmed in 1926. Ub Iwerks built the first four level multiplane camera in 1933, and used it in Willie Whopper and other cartoons. Harry probably first saw multiplane cameras in use in Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons by Fleischer. He couldn’t have missed Disney’s use of them in Snow White and Pinocchio.

If Harry had been the sort of person who worked well with others he might have gone to work for Disney, or UPA, and that would have been that. Instead he made stop motion animation all by himself. A multiplane camera was out of his reach, but he saw that he could create multiple images layered on a screen just by using multiple projectors. Cigarette and cigar smoke in the small theaters Harry preferred could help with the effect as well as use of peyote and other drugs by the viewers, which gets us back to his early interest in Native American rituals. Just as he used modern portable lathe cutters for recording Lummi chants, he saw that modern mechanical devices could be used to enhance art.

Anne: Have you ever seen Heaven And Earth Magic on the big screen?

Dennis: Never. This will be my first time.

Dennis will be projecting Heaven And Earth Magic on May 16 at 7:00 PM at the Hollywood Theatre. Rani Singh, the director of the Harry Smith Archives at the Getty Institute, will introduce three of Harry’s films:  the austere, mystical, cut out animated Heaven And Earth Magic, and two gorgeous handpainted Early Abstractions. Matt Carlson and Jordan Dykstra will provide live accompaniment. Sound design by Andrew Ritchey.

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