Q&A: Tim Wright on Constructing and Deconstructing Film

Until his mid-40s, Tim Wright pretty much saw the world unaided by the interpretive lens of a camera. But while teaching social studies to seventh graders in Roxbury, it was just by happenstance that he picked up a Super 8 camera as a way to capture a project his students had created. One thing led to another and he was making films, ultimately earning film festival accolades for a documentary.
These days, the Parkside resident is more interested in analyzing media than making it. He’s the founder of blinktank, a group of media analysts and producers specializing in media “construction and deconstruction,” and schooling aspiring filmmakers and producers in media production and literacy. In his spare time, the Jamaica Plain resident is engaged in other sorts of building: reconstructing a prairie in Wisconsin and making music with his clarinet. He took some time out in his home studio to talk about his evolving passions.

Your interest in visual arts and video, how did that come about?
It was odd because I was implacably hostile to media, even photography, because I thought it was cowardly to put a lens between you and actuality. So I achieved my mid-40s without hardly ever taking a picture and not owning a camera. But I was doing these torn paper murals with my students. They were pretty elaborate, about 30 feet long and 8 feet high, on subjects of American history. I was complaining to a friend that the pieces were beginning to fall off because when the kids changed classed they’d run up against them. She said, “We have Super 8 cameras here at English High that nobody uses.” The problem was I couldn’t get far enough away from the mural because the halls were narrow and the mural very wide. So I ended up taking a series of close-ups of the mural and I was so astonished by the difference between the film of the mural that I pretty much never stopped after that.
I started a film club with my students. Ultimately I was able to get all the cameras from English High School for my own use and my students. I started these film projects with my students. And then I got laid off. Nothing personal. Eight hundred of us were laid off in the early ’80s as result of Proposition 2 ½. So decided to teach myself filmmaking and took a couple of classes with the Boston Film and Video Foundation, and then started a collective: Jamaica Plain Newsreel.

What did the collective entail?
It was me, who did all the editing, my then girlfriend, who was a good camera person, and another friend, a talented sound guy. Collectively we made these strange little five-minute newsreels. The Super 8 cameras were silent. We had what’s called “wild track sound.” We’d record the sound on audio tape recorders. So we never have lip synch. We had a lot voice over. We showed these things in front of rented 16-millimeter film. Since JP didn’t have a theater, some guys had the idea of renting feature films in 16 millimeter and showing them down at the high school. We made these newsreels originally to go in front of those rented films.

How did you gravitate toward making documentaries?
I was good at two things: editing and interviewing. Documentaries seemed a crime not to do if I was good at those things. When public access video came to Boston around 1983, it seemed reasonable to get paid for what I was doing for nothing. So I became an access coordinator for the Boston Neighborhood Network and I set up an access center at the Brewery. At that time the Boston-area network was decentralized and I did the JP office. I trained a lot of people in the community how to shoot and how to make videos for the access channel. Then I got involved in making a documentary myself about the demolition of the old elevated subway. It turned out to be a really interesting story. . . I quit the job and pursued the documentary. I went to Japan and shot it in Japanese steel factories where they melted a lot of the steel and followed it back to Compton, California, where a steel importer had imported the semi-finished products and then sold it to a fabricator in Phoenix, Arizona, who used some of it to make a rather lovely suspension bridge over the Salt River. So we documented all that. It took pieces of eight years and ended up winning the New England Film Festival in the late ’90s and another film festival as well. It was called Conservation of Matter: The Fall and Rise of Boston’s Elevated Subway.
I went on to do other stuff, and started teaching at access channels. I became a freelancer. I made videos for hire and edited for hire for other people’s projects. I taught and created these classes, which I taught mainly at access centers and independent media centers like the Boston Film and Video Foundation.

Can you talk about media deconstruction?
Over the years, I developed an interest more in media literacy. That is, how to watch media, and how it was put together and how it was taken apart. You’ll notice my card says media construction and deconstruction. At this point I’d say I’m more of deconstructionist than a constructor.
My own perspective on it comes very much from editing. I’m very interested in the juxtaposition of various images and how that changes the meaning and creates meanings that didn’t exist in either of the parts of the footage that are put together, things like that.
Now I’m teaching visual literacy as well at an architectural school. Now I’m more into writing and teaching. I teach at the Boston Neighborhood Network in Egleston Square: classes like Images and Sounds, a basic media literacy class. I’m also teaching a class on interviewing styles and techniques called Talking Heads, and one on the history of documentary film; shooting styles and techniques; and editing styles and techniques, so intermediate level production classes.

You’re really giving students the underpinnings of how to think about what they’re doing.
Yes, that’s what interests me more and more.

Were there any moments of your documentary making period that really stick with you, maybe an interview or an image?
There are lots of images. If you look at Conservation of Matter, you’ll see a shot of a pigeon crossing the tracks one hop at a time. I slowed it down and used it as a transition shot. I thought that was particularly beautiful. Part of the reason I was attracted to demolition is that there are three things guaranteed to look interesting on film: that is, fire, water, and wind. And that had all three. They were burning the wires with acetylene torches and the fire department was spraying water so the cars underneath wouldn’t catch fire. Meanwhile, the wind would be blowing the smoke from the torches. It was just intrinsically beautiful.

It's interesting that the documentary also involved deconstruction.
I’ve always been interested in the way things come apart. I was a destructive kid. I used to make model planes and blow them up shortly after I finished them. In a way, that relates to the deconstruction of technology. I think that’s what intrigued me about the process of the subway demolition, which went on for two years.

When you watch a movie, whether a documentary or feature film, do you automatically go into editing mode?
No. I’m always surprised that I don’t. I have to see it again if I want to analyze it. I’m really able to really be innocent of any knowledge.

What about filmmaking?
It’s not that I’m not going to make films forever but I’m less interested in the hands-on filmmaking. When I’m filmmaking, I’m doing it with a flip-cam. I have high-definition video equipment but I’m much more interested in $150 camcorders than I am in the high-end stuff that I have.

Now you’re into making music.
I’ve taken up clarinet again—mostly classical. And my wife and I bought land in Wisconsin. I have a lot of roots in Wisconsin and we’re building a little vacation house there. We’re restoring a tall grass prairie, which is totally different from anything here. So that’s another learning curve for me.

What are some recent documentary favorites?
I just saw a very interesting one at the Coolidge Corner Theatre called The Arbor. It’s about a very young English working-class playwright who died at the age of 28 of drug abuse. They took her diaries and her writings and voiced them with actors. It was kind of a docudrama but it’s very compelling. Very grim and gritty.
To tell you the truth, I haven’t seen many films in theaters in the last couple of years. I think the best work I know is This American Life. Just wonderful stuff. And HBO is doing some very interesting work like The Wire. I’ve really gotten into Glee, of all things. It’s the one thing my daughter, my wife and I, who all have very different sensibilities, enjoy. . . Hollywood movies and even Hollywood imports are not currently the best things being made, particularly in documentary.

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