Bay Area Memories

Bill Yahraus

Assemblage was conceived of by Richard Moore and Merce Cunningham sometime in 1967 as a collaborative piece between dancers and filmmakers, set in an architectural space.  The basic idea was that Merce would choreograph pieces for the various spaces in San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, and that the filmmakers would interact with the choreography and dancers, pretty much on the spot.  I wasn’t in on the original planning, but that is how Richard presented it when he brought it to the KQED Film Unit.

The KQED Film Unit was my first professional experience and the one that formed my philosophy of filmmaking.  The Unit was an egalitarian group of filmmakers where each member’s opinion was valued.  There wasn’t a creative hierarchy, in the sense that we valued one task over another.  Our credits were always “A Film by” without specifying who did what.  I point this out, because it is important to understanding the filmmaking approach to Assemblage.  On the other hand, there was certainly seniority in the Unit, and I, pretty much fresh out of school with only one KQED project under my belt, was one of the new puppies.

As head of the Unit, Richard put together the team of Philip Green, William Winans, and I to work with him on the project.  Merce and Richard had already “scouted” the location, so when Merce and Company arrived the group pieces for the large open spaces were already choreographed.  As the filming progressed, Merce came up with new ideas for areas like stairways, rooftops, and doorways.  Each morning, before the Square opened, we would get together with the dance company, see what was to be filmed and decide how to do it.  Sometimes it was straight proscenium, but mostly the filming was interactive, with cameras moving through the choreography.  We also filmed some of the individual movements from the larger pieces in a room with seamless paper, to use as silhouettes  with a color background.

I was to do the postproduction on the project and was already thinking of expanding the architecture element to also be reflected in the architecture of the image on the screen, to alter it so that it was not confined by the 4X3 format with on one image at a time.  I had been thinking of split screens, but when we shot the silhouettes I thought that maybe we could print them in high contrast and use them as traveling mattes. So I ran a quick trial at the lab, and it was a success.  Next we tried shooting high contrast print stock in the camera.  That worked, but it jammed quickly and we limited using it for architectural elements like the sign and lampposts.

The “effects” in film, my idea of altering the architecture of the image, consist of split screens, super impositions, and printing two images bi-packed in the printer.  The ones I still love the most are the images created using the high contrast hold back mattes of the dancers or the architectural pieces and bi-packing them with live images.  They are the most startling.  But every effect was a surprise, because each involved multiple passes, either with an overhead camera or through a printer, before the film was processed.  So I never knew exactly what they would look like until they came from the lab.  There was a large element of randomness to all of it.  In fact, the split screen is almost totally random, as I determined the order of the images by putting the shots on cores, throwing them down a set of stairs, and picking them up in the order they landed.  The shapes of the mattes and their durations were determined by using random number tables.

The idea of randomness came from John Cage.  The soundscape for the score was put together from San Francisco sounds collected during the shooting by Gordon Mumma and David Tudor.  The three of them put the score together in New York, while I built the picture in San Francisco.  With the length of each determined by the NET air time, they were put together without either of us seeing the other’s work.  So the relationship of the picture to the sound is totally random…at least now.  I have to confess to a faux pas on my part.  When I first got the sound, I thought that the “train sounds” would go better with the images in another part of the piece, so I moved it.  When I took it to New York to show John and Merce, I caught holly hell.  Needless to say, I put it back where it belonged.


Merce Cunningham Centennial Assemblage Screening
This program is part of the Merce Cunningham Centennial.