Featured Artist #18: Ryan Scammell

Ryan Scammell

A Length of Time Is Measured by the Space Between Two Hands

After screening Ryan Scammell’s “A Length of Time Is Measured by the Space Between Two Hands”, we wanted to know more about the inspiration for the piece, his apparent fascination with memory and history, and any other core interests that drove his work. And after browsing through his website, which is subtitled Writing in Sound, we hoped he would describe his relationship and various attachments to writing, sound, and video. Below is his meditation on these and other questions.


The idea that really sparked “A Length of Time” is the story that opens the film. Both my mother and my stepfather were at that Beatles concert at Shea stadium in 1963, and I was fascinated by the idea that here at age 13, you could be sitting right next to, or a few rows away from the boy or girl who 30-some-odd years later you would marry. At the time I started work on the piece I had been thinking about all the random runs-in we have with people we know on the subway, on the street. It seems improbable, maybe even impossible that in a place like New York City, or wherever, in places of millions and millions of people we should randomly find ourselves in the same space in the same time as someone we know. And then to take that a step further, for every one of those chance encounters, how many of those encounters do we miss? How many times is a person one car away, or passing the same street corner only seconds too late.

The section of the piece called “to my father” was an idea I had been playing around with for a few years. It was inspired by a girl I had dated for a number of years whose mother had left her when she was very young and she hadn’t seen the woman in maybe 10 years. Running with the same idea, I wondered what amount of time would have to pass for you not to recognize your own parent on the street. These were the ideas that were stirring around in my mind, and from there, starting with these fantasies, deeper details emerged, the story expanded. Strangely, in the ways it became more and more fiction, the more real the ideas and the characters became for me.

As far as the stylistic influences, La Jette and a few other short films I had seen had given me the idea to make the film entirely out of still photographs. Where those films were essentially emulating the zoetrope effect by using still photographs to sort of fake a motion picture (as in: a picture of a man picking up his fork, then a picture of a man spearing a piece of chicken with his fork, then a man eating the piece of chicken—it suggests motion without actually being in motion), I saw the still photograph as an opportunity less as a way to break-down motion but as a venue to embed more and more information into a film. I figured that this film was most likely going to be viewed on the internet, and as a result I could add additional elements into the images (more text, specifically) that a viewer could ignore if they wanted or if they were compelled they could pause, rewind and read. It allowed for the film to have more layers than could possibly be available in one viewing and, ideally, would be a pay-off for the viewer who liked the film and wanted to watch it a few times over.

But to be honest, most of the reasons behind using the stills was economic. Though I used to make motion pictures, film just costs too much money to make. I came up with the idea of doing everything with still images simply as a way to afford to make it. [Just as an example: the last motion picture short film I made, cost $3000 for a 15 minute film with free actors, a free camera, free food, free lights. (Compare that to the audio work that I’m primarily doing now: in total I’ve invested about $1500 and now I have all the gear --assuming none of it breaks-- that I’ll ever need to make any number of audio pieces from here to eternity.) There’s not really any money in making short films so where does someone dig up $3000+ to make a film that has no market?

Film was my initial love, but I’ve always been interested in language as well. I found that it’s very hard to work the kind of language that’s appropriate for the literary medium into the film medium. As dialogue, it sounds over-the-top and as voice-over narration, it tends to sound pretentious. So, when I started writing audio stories I found that even though that medium also wants narration (similar to the dialogue in films) to be generally conversational, there’s a little more wiggle room. As an audience, we’re a little more willing to hear literary language when a story is being read to us. The conversational tone still helps the audience connect to the speaker, but if used sparingly you can get away with much more poetics in audio than you ever can in film.

The thing that I’ve grown to love about the audio as a medium is that it marries high level multimedia production (and how that can create an artificial world around an audience) and the way a reader projects him/herself into a book. Specifically, take this as an example. In a film, you see two lovers on a beach. It’s a very specific beach on a specific island, and you as the audience are a voyeur safely behind the fourth wall watching this couple. But in audio, I introduce the sound of the waves, a seagull passes by. When you hear this (without a specific visual analog) you project a beach that you’ve been to. Through your own imagination you add your own details and theoretically as a result you drift deeper into the story as the story becomes more real in your mind. I also tend to think that the physiology of listening to a narrator (especially in headphones) affects one similarly to hearing our own voice in our own heads. And as a result, the physiology of how we hear it forces a sort of empathic connection to the narrator. That’s, of course, totally theoretical, and is probably totally bunk but if someone does a study at some point and I turn out to be right, I want credit.

So my website www.writinginsound.com is pretty audio-centric. But, and this is just my personality, I tend to get bored of things quickly. I like to try a lot of new things. And so as a result, I make an active effort to challenge myself to explore new mediums in new ways—I do some fiction, some non-fiction. Some stuff is serious, some is funny. Though I’ll continue making audio, I’ll still make occasional films. As it is I’ve recently done a few pieces of radio theater. Whatever is appropriate for the individual piece.

The same goes for themes. I hesitate to say that there’s one particular theme that ties together all my work. The reality is, I’m still very young, and my work is just starting out. It’s hard for me to know what directions I’m going to go in long term and what themes over time I’ll be compelled by. I guess for now I’m focusing mostly on trying to write stories that try to balance breaking cliches and at the same time find something universal that people can connect to, but isn’t that what all art is trying to do? Find some simple truth about the human experience? I want to say that all my work is about trying to get at those little truths, but I’m afraid that I’ll sound kinda pretentious and cliche for saying it, so I won’t say that, even though I just did.

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

Illinois Arts Council Logo

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.