Lake view: Ellen Lake of Oakland specializes in building the small film. (Photo by Chris Green, courtesy Ellen Lake)

Ellen Lake's Miniatures Fit Right In

Michael Fox February 11, 2009

The distribution of films over the Internet, a.k.a. digital delivery, is the hot topic du jour. When the day arrives that we’re all watching movies on the most expedient of platforms—our mobile phone—Ellen Lake will be at the head of the parade.

The Oakland filmmaker has completed some 30 pieces since 2000 ranging in length from 30 seconds to eight minutes. As you’d imagine, she has a number of works in progress at any one time, including the latest additions to "Collectible," a collection of films about collectors and their collections. "I tend to work in series," Lake says. "It’s always hard to know when it’s done because I keep on going. I hate to stop."

"Collectible" includes Lake’s very first film, "Ian’s Collections," a survey of the various accumulations of then-housemate Ian Golder, who leapt from obscurity two weeks ago to an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" with an impressive selection from his daunting macaroni ‘n’ cheese set. In the works are pieces on a Santa Cruz fireman with an affinity for hydrants, and a singularly ambitious gentleman who’s engaged in obtaining a takeout menu from every Chinese restaurant in the land.

Lake, who grew up in Washington, D.C., during the Reagan years—and what a good time that must have been—moved to the Bay Area in 1995 and subsequently earned her MFA at Mills College. She started out shooting in Hi 8, but switched to successively new formats—including cell phones—as they emerged. In addition to lending itself to her preferred mix-and-match aesthetic, each technological innovation was cheaper to work with than the last.

"Fiscal sponsorships are typically for longer pieces," Lake explains. "You’re not going to get fiscal sponsorship for a 30-second experimental piece. So I have to make them on a super-low budget, like under $200, and you don’t want to spend a long amount of time in your studio editing. I like having an audience, and I like having other people see them. But I don’t feel the same pressure because I’m not spending a lot of money on them, and in that way it’s kind of liberating."

It would be incorrect to suggest that Lake’s miniatures are best seen on a tiny cell phone, and don’t hold up to the scrutiny afforded by larger screens. "Let’s Not Keep Score" was included at the Disposable Film Festival a few weekends ago (and her previous movies have screened at the Pacific Film Archive and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), and Lake’s work has been shown in continuous loops on single- and double-monitor presentations at the Walker Art Museum, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and numerous other museums and galleries.

Her latest project, "Call and Response," blends new cell phone imagery with 16mm home movies her grandmother shot in the late 1930s on a kind of Kodachrome stock that didn’t fade. Lake was fascinated to discover that the family films weren’t blurry, unwatchable exercises but copied the carefully staged scenes of Hollywood movies.

"What interests me throughout the [history] of filmmaking is I don’t think there’s much of a difference between people who consider themselves professional filmmakers and people who have the time and equipment and energy but don’t call themselves professional," Lake says. "The first films that came out more than a century ago – actualities—were a minute long, kids exercising or workers leaving a factory, and the things people are shooting now aren’t so different. That’s part of what I like about putting together the old films and the new technology and letting them interact."

Yet another of Lake’s ventures is "Minutopia," a program of 60-second silent documentaries she’s curating with Elliot Lessing of the S.F.-based Center for Outdoor Contemporary Art (COCA). Consider that the first actualities Louis and Auguste Lumiere produced were intended to promote their new motion picture cameras; it took the brothers a little while to realize that there was as much money to be made showing movies as selling equipment. Today, conversely, the hardware for watching (and making) movies is in everybody’s hand. In the checkout line, on the bus, in the waiting room, there’s ample time to take in a colorful vignette. Go to for a glimpse of the future.

Notes from the underground

Before Dean and Britta took the stage for the "13 Most Beautiful…Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests" show last week at the Palace of Fine Arts, SFFS programmer Sean Uyehara revealed to the crowd that the annual silent film-live music program at this year’s SFIFF will pair Dengue Fever with The Lost World (1925).

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