The New York Times' Opinion Column Where Words Don't Matter

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Jeff Scher's animations bring whimsy to the newspaper's otherwise serious section.

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A still from Scher's Oct. 12 "Leaf and Death" piece for the New York Times

If you've never seen artist/filmmaker Jeff Scher's New York Times Op-Ed columns, that's because they live exclusively on the web, which is a shame for those who only read the paper. Yet it would not be possible for Scher's quirky pictorial commentaries to be seen in the Times if not for the web, since they literally move about. His columns are animated contributions to the "Opinionator" blog section, combining old film techniques and experimental digital technology with personal impressions of New York life, the most recent being "Leaf and Death," a Busby Berkeleyesque dance of the season's fallen leaves. It is an example of what Scher calls a vest-pocket epiphany: "The little things that represent the bigger picture of living now in New York City."

Scher's imagery premiered on Opinionator in May 2007, a month after the Times made what Scher calls "a crazy offer to make short films of my choosing for the online opinion page." With a passion for puns, his first was "L'eau Life," about people in water. It garnered a good response, and he was asked to make more. "I think the pieces lighten the otherwise inherently cranky nature of the Opinion section by providing a kind of reassurance to the reader that it's still okay to be a member of the species," Scher says. "My films are akin to flowers at a funeral, or maybe a flower in the buttonhole of the undertaker. I get occasional letters thanking me for the relief they supply."

"The pieces lighten the otherwise inherently cranky nature of the Opinion section ... My films are akin to flowers at a funeral"

He rarely plans out these works: "I just jump in and start making them." In fact, the process is an attempt to re-discover the act of discovery and find common experiences that unite his audience in "a kind of anthropological way," Scher says. They also give him a chance to "revel intensely" in a subject, like when he made a Halloween film about Greenwood Cemetery. It was an excuse to spend a week of afternoons wandering around one of the best cemeteries in the world. "The films are also ways to organize piles of observations, like Cornell boxes," he says. "They get arranged in the time container to create little picture and sound poems without words that ultimately resolve to a shared emotion."

Often, Scher's films are born of a tech or painting idea. His "Spring City" grew out of the observation that images taken with an iPhone can be bent by wiggling the phone while you take them. The film developed out of his appreciation of that technical flaw in the camera.

After working with film stock for dozens of years, Scher now embraces the digital. "It's profound how hard it was and how easy it is now," he says. "It was expensive and slow and sinful how environmentally unsympathetic the chemistry was. The cameras now weigh nothing; film cameras weighted ten pounds or more, so it's possible to always have a camera now. Shooting is now far more spontaneous and less precious." He relishes in the immediacy of digital: "You to see what you're doing while you're doing it. This is a game changer."

Scher's stop-action, quick-cut, and often roughly composed cinematic experiments are further informed by history. He is an admitted film nerd who has seen certain movies so many times that they are part of his DNA. "All of my films are made from the shadows of my predecessors," he says. "And because cinema is as close as we've gotten to time travel, I think about how every film is a window back to the moment it was photographed." His favorite films change as quickly as his cuts: Last week it was Destry Rides Again. This week he's been obsessing over Fassbinder's Chinese Roulette. "But if I had to pick one it's got to be Ballet Mechanique by Fernand Leger and Dudley Murphy," he says. "It's the film that taught me that you can make music with moving pictures."

No wonder his Times films are a delightful balance of uplifting music (scored by Shay Lynch) and alluring image. He made the recent "Leaf and Die" because, he says about his interest in nature, "I thought it would be fun to choreograph and score it by animating it, with a dash of Busby. If I'd had the time and the hands I'd have had hundreds of leaves animated under a camera on a big crane swooping around. But then, simple is nice too."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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