Onstage conversation with Pat O'Neill, at AMPAS


On Thursday, April 21, 8 p.m the Academy Of Motion PIcture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) presents an onstage conversation with Pat O’Neill, followed by the premiere of a newly preserved print of “Water and Power” (1989) from the Academy Film Archive.

Since the 60’s, O’Neill, one of Los Angeles’s master avant-garde filmmakers, consistently developed new techniques for his personal films, while also working in commercial movie production.
His self-invented experimental optical effects (floating mattes, optical printing, intricate compositing and montage techniques) offer lyrical narratives of ghostly-layered image (as in his Hollywood themed masterpiece “The Decay Of Fiction.”)

As O’Neill moved into digital technology, his brilliant mattes were replaced by even more sophisticated compositing layers. “Water and Power” layers multiple exposures, computer generated and stop motion scenes, all referencing Los Angeles streets, the Owens Valley, the surrounding deserts and water pipelines. His images seem to infer several meanings at a time.

O’Neill’s essay is a reverie of sustained dissolves, clips from biblical movies and color saturated images. Silhouetted figures, animation, intertitles and a sound track of jazz, old sound tracks, narrative bites and found sound create a powerful ambiguous tone poem. He has described the process thusly “Almost everything was shot not knowing how it would be used.  One image leads to another. And I’m always taking it apart and putting it back together.” and labeled the ambitious film as an attempt capture “geographic time.” In gallery notes he observed ” We’re constantly being influenced by people who have an agenda to advance. Perhaps one of the things you can do with art is stand a little bit outside of that and produce another kind of record. In a sense, it’s basically a desire to get outside the world and get some relief from it.”

One of the founding faculty members at the CalArts film school, his students became the first generation of modern special effects specialists.

O’Neill received a $15,000 grant from the NEA to develop computer controlled time-lapse photography. He used the grant to begin “Water and Power” and eventually spent over $100,000 of his own money to complete the award winning film.

72- year old O’Neill is also an artist and sculptor. His film referencing sculptures were shown at the Rosamund Felson Gallery (2008). The Santa Monica Museum of Art mounted a mixed media career retrospective in 2004, which also exhibited drawings, collage-drawings and “Still images.”
O’Neill described the images exhibited at Felson “The distinction between the motion pictures and the static ones is that the static ones require us to make our own movie. We confront an image for a few minutes as our attention moves from place to place as we try to become located. When this process is complicated by contradictory or ambiguous clues, our perceptual movie becomes a transition, like a cinematic dissolve or wipe, one idea replacing another. What I find interesting is not primarily the subject matter, but the process of receiving it.”

His collaged still images (as haunted by Max Ernst and Wallace Berman as those of Bruce Conner) echo the masterful optically printed images at the heart of his filmmaking. Pop art also surfaces in his work. His brilliant sound techniques reference John Cage. In the 60’s, O Neill contributed images and film material to The Shrine’s resident light show Single Wing Turquoise Bird (SWTB). In the late seventies, O’Neill was one of the founders of the LA screening organization Oasis.

O’Neill began making films while studying design and photography in graduate school at UCLA. As he continually refined his technical abilities, O’Neill expanded the boundaries of avant-garde film by creating highly graphic, layered and reflexive assemblages that frequently combined found footage, abstract material and his own cinematography. Making extensive use of optical printing, time lapse, motion control and other techniques, O’Neill interwove these materials into montages of unusual complexity.

At the same time, O’Neill has worked extensively in the mainstream feature film industry, contributing to the optical effects on such films as “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “Dragonslayer” (1981), “Return of the Jedi” (1983), “RoboCop” (1987), “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “Tank Girl” (1995) and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997).

O’Neill’s first 35mm feature, “Water and Power,” won a Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990 and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2008. By using a series of visually and aurally dense tableaux created with advanced motion control, optical printing and animation techniques, the film explores the complex battle for natural resources waged between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley. The soundtrack was originally designed for stereo but mixed to mono because of cost and technical restrictions; this presentation will be the first to feature the restored digital remaster in stereo.

Host David E. James is an Academy Film Scholar, author and professor in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. A prolific author and editor, his two books on experimental film making, “The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles”  and
“To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground” are invaluable additions to the small but growing canon of books on the subject.

James has served on the editorial boards of Cinema Journal, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Now Time, and Art Week. His films have screened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles Filmforum and San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema. A former scholar at the Getty Research Institute, his awards include an NEH Fellowship for College Teachers, Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in the Humanities at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Associates Award for Creativity in Research at USC.

Directed and produced by Pat O’Neill. Cinematography and Film Editing, O’Neill. Motion Control Software Design by Mark Madel. Optical Printer Operator Beth Block. Sound Design and Music Design by George Lockwood. 1989. 35mm. 54 minutes.

Images courtesy of Pat O’Neill.

Linwood Dunn Theater
Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study
1313 Vine Street
Hollywood, California 90028
$5 general admission/$3 Academy members and students with a valid ID.
Doors open at 7 PM.


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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