Shannon Kelly

It's often very difficult to have a linear conversation with a deeply creative person. This is especially true of Shannon Kelly, filmmaker and sometimes DJ. When I first set out to interview him, I knew nothing of his filmmaking and was bent on doing a mini-profile for a perhaps larger piece on the explosion of the new DJ culture. About halfway through the interview and as I was just about be be discouraged by his cringing and apprehensive responses, Kelly dropped what felt like a bomb. I didn't even realize it for a few minutes, but slowly, and very un-bomb-like, it exploded. I soon came to realize that the scraggly, rambling man sitting across from me had skills and talent far beyond what I had ever guessed.

Shannon Kelly makes films. Inspired, beautiful and poetic films. I pieced this together simply from the way he talked about his work, from the way he could never really finish a sentence, and from that certain familiar, far-away look that would wash over his face as he tried to recall the acts of processes of his work. When I actually had the occasion to see one of his short films, I recognized it immediately by his description, but was just as immediately overwhelmed by how breathtaking and beautiful it was.

You can see his short, "TRANS-" for yourself Sunday, Nov. 20th, 7pm 2005 at the Starz Film Center at the Tivoli in Denver and at the Denver International Airport, on the concourse A mezzanine after January 2006. Until then, let's get to know him a bit, shall we?

Shannon Kelly in motion.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Denver... Brighton.

And you're still here?
Yeah. I spent some time abroad for a couple of years. I figured that counted for getting me out.

Why did you come back to Denver?
Well, school was here. There was a film program in Boulder at CU. I understood that one of the premier experimental filmmakers from all over the world taught there.

Who was that?
Stan Brakhage. It was more by reputation that I knew him, not really seen his films. It really intrigued me so I thought that CU wouldn't be a bad choice to get the well-rounded background and to dabble in film, too.

[I asked him question after tedious question about his djing and then...]

A lot of road signs seem to be pointing me towards doing filmmaking and things seem to really be working out that way. It's almost a struggle to go out and keep djing.

You're moving into filmmaking ... tell me more about that. What exactly do you DO? ...You're working for a company called Kino Eye?
That's my company.

Really? Tell me about that.
I really just have one big project going on which is the impetus for forming the company. I wanted the name to evoke something of the tradition of film, but still revolutionary, too, in a communist sense. "Kino Glas," I think is the Russian translation. Dziga Vertov, a Russian film theorist and filmmaker came up with this revolutionary way of viewing the world. Having a sort of mechanical eye that could convey something to a mass of people and portray something in a way that hadn't ever been seen from that way before. Part of it too, is that I didn't want to come up with a cheesy name, something too techy or too silly.

I'm working on a fairly large-scale avant-guard project. I got a grant through the Mayor's Office of Culture and Film... But let's take a step back about four or five years. I did a short film that will be part of a larger video installation piece at the airport [D.I.A]. Before I graduated, I applied for this grant and I found out upon graduation that I got it. I had this big, elaborate plan to go back to Europe to film it. I wanted to do a piece based on my own experiences of living and traveling abroad, and I had a small collection of film I had taken from when I was in Germany. Something about being in a different environment and conveying something of that atmosphere through some sort of medium... I was using Super8. There were rumors across Europe that they were going to stop producing Super8 filmstock and there was a camera supply store down the street from me where I picked up a cheap Super8 camera that I've used ever since.

Are you transferring Super8 to digital?
I was going through this whole tortuous process of optical printing going frame-by-frame, re-photographing to 16mm.

Oh man.
Yeah, a ten minute film has thousands of frames. Some of the scenes I did multiple exposures where I would rewind the camera, run another sequence through and rewind it again, expose it again. There were some sequences that I did two or three times to get it to flow the right way. Yeah, it's sort of tortuous, but what is important is the process. It would have been much easier just to have grabbed a video camera and done it that way.

Does it give it a different quality having done it the way that you did?
Definitely. I'm shooting black and white, which is already transforms whatever you see. It's really grainy, really lo-fidelity. It's home movie filmstock.

What's the project you're working on now?
Well, when I was looking through my old film books, [looking for a name for his company] there were some stills from a Dziga Vertov film that were very similar to some of the footage that I captured when I was in Europe when I was going through places and even IN Russia. I would go by these amazing factories just outside of Moscow, for example, that are just monstrous. Not that we don't have our share of industry here, but it's something about the environment there... Everything is just huge in Moscow: the buildings are big, the subways are gorgeous. The best parts of the city are underground. It's very Russian; it's very upside-down. And the idea of the subways was that Lenin wanted the subways to be an extension of the city, but underground. So, he wanted it to be as nice, and in many respects nicer than what it is above ground; using imported marble, beautiful mosaic work and sculpture.

Yeah, so some of the footage I was coming up with seemed to have that similar quality. Old, grainy, black and white.

The present project is ... well, the first project kind of seguewayed to finding out about the Convention Center/Hotel – that's being built right now – needing artwork and there was a call for artists to submit applications. So I applied for it, and I was selected as a semi-finalist, and made a presentation to a panel (one of the scariest moments of my life). It's one of those things that I've sort of blanked out, so I can't really say how it went.

Well, they accepted you...
Yeah, something went well.

Do you live off of the grants to do this or do you do other work?
The previous grant probably covered about a third of the cost of making the film. But I have a backstock of footage that I plan on continuing the series, taking that ten minutes as a part of a half hour, maybe forty-five minute long film. It all kind of evens out I guess. I put a lot of my own money into it, like with the traveling in Europe, for example.
The present grant, however, I'm living off of. It's big enough that I have the amount of time and space that I need to focus.

How much time a day do you think you work on the film?
Depends on the day. I'm always thinking about it. There's almost not a moment ...[trails off]... yeah, but some days I try to get away from it just to refresh myself so I can come back to it from another angle. There are enough things going on, too, that I can juggle between the paperwork and some of the hassle and some of the regular, real-life things I need to take care of. Then I can come back and take a few days and go and check out a bunch of books and do research and gather materials together so I know where I'm coming from and where I'm going. It's sort of a strange process.
For the other film at D.I.A. –that's going up mid-March, maybe April – all I had to do was make the film, and they're in charge of location, the technology they're using; but for this, I'm doing both. I came up with my own arrangement of screens; met with architects, for example, to go over some of the ideas, even just to find out the dimensions involved. It's a really tight space. It's just big enough to squeeze these screens in.

Did you ever imagine that you would be doing something like this?
Never, really.

You went to school for film, what did you think would happen; what did you expect or want?
It seems like this is almost the exact kind of thing that I would have wanted. Well, of course, I DO want it. It's the most amazing thing. I can't think of anything better to do, really.

What's some advice you can give to someone else who has the spark to create something like you?
I would say it's important to explore the larger world; to really try to gain a broader perspective and to really foster that desire to expand your world and have as many experiences as possible. To keep some sort of dissatisfaction seems to be kind of important.

That's a good one. If everyone was happy with the way things were, there would be no creation. There's got to be a resistance to what IS in order to make something new and different.
Exactly. I would also say... have a greater sense of purpose and don't let go of that. And put something of yourself into whatever you're doing.