The Genealogy of Small Gauge

In this entry to the small-gauge roundtable, Kevin T. Allen explores the genealogy of the term "small-gauge" inside and outside of its media contexts, and discusses its applicability to his own work.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Before we begin to define small-gauge scholarship, it seems important to acknowledge the rich genealogy of the term “small-gauge.” It communicates not so much fast speed or keeping pace, but a smallness in scale and a pliability to charter new territory. This is most obvious if we consider its early usage in railroad construction. A train on a small-gauge track cannot possibly outpace other trains, but the small tracks are more flexible, require less real estate and can be laid out in zigzag patterns, allowing it to travel across precarious territory and climb insurmountable peaks. They are not the fastest way to travel between point A and point B. Rather, they are circuitous, inefficient and remarkable. In 2006, Jen and I undertook a three-month sound ethnography of trains in South America, culminating in the new media project, American Transit. One particularly memorable small-gauge ride was in Peru on the Tren al Cielo (Train to the Heavens). Weaving through the Andes it was at the time (its title now usurped by China) the highest elevated train tracks in the world. It was a slow but marvelous journey. At the summit my head was swimming with soroche (altitude sickness).

More to the point, it must be stressed that the term small-gauge already has a rich meaning and deep history in the terrain of filmmaking that still resonates today. Shortly after Eastman Kodak invented motion picture film, circa 1885, the standardized gauge for moving images became 35mm. Anything smaller was considered “small-gauge.” In 1923 Kodak introduced 16mm film as a small-gauge alternative, unleashing a radical new tool kit for documentarians, home movie enthusiasts, and avant-garde filmmakers. Kodak subsequently introduced 8mm film in the 1930s and in the 1960s it introduced our format of choice, super-8mm.

However, I would argue that the concept of small-gauge filmmaking even predates the format of small-gauge film. If we look back to the 1890s, both Thomas Edison (with great aid from W.K. Dickson) and Auguste and Louis Lumière were inventing new cameras to put Kodak’s new 35mm film into practice. Yet their practical strategies could not be more different. Edison’s kinetograph was so gargantuan that it had to be housed in a customized building called the Black Maria. Edison had to bring his subjects into the black void of the Black Maria to be photographed. In contrast, the Lumière brothers’ hand-cranked cinematographe was so small and lightweight that it was able to travel to its subjects and shoot “on location.” Rather than boxing the world into the confines of the Black Maria, the cinematographe journeyed outward to encounter and collaborate with the world.

It’s also worth noting that this versatile camera also served as a projector. This allowed the Lumière brothers to travel the world projecting their films, selling more cameras (not films) and launching a culture of amateur filmmaking. We’ve likely all heard the perhaps-apocryphal story of viewers running in fright to dodge a train while watching the early Lumière film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). Yet what impressed viewers most about those early films were the small details. For example, in the Lumière film Baby’s Lunch (1895), we see a couple spoon-feeding their baby at a table outdoors.

On one hand, what was captivating about this film was the intimate capturing of daily domestic life. But what left audiences most in awe was the subtle rustling of the leaves in the background. For audiences accustomed to the painted backgrounds of vaudeville, these tiny and seemingly inconsequential animated details were what made cinema exceptional. The Lumière brothers and their small camera told radically small stories in which the background was as important as the foreground.

In the world of filmmaking, the term small-gauge is a reference to the format you shoot on, but it is also an ethos. It is a commitment to working on the fringes of representation; using imperfect tools that are not suited for telling big stories but allow for small encounters with small things that usually fall between the cracks. When an activist filmmaker such as Jem Cohen includes the phrase “support small-gauge filmmaking” in the end credits of his films he is not promoting a particular format. Rather, he is invoking a DIY anti-establishment, anti-totalizing approach to cinematic representation.

I came to small-gauge filmmaking in the late 1990s in the Pacific Northwest. Although digital video was widely available, cheap, and generally regarded as superior to film, this largely craft-oriented and DIY community embraced super-8mm filmmaking. It was a cartridge-based and user-friendly format of filmmaking that Kodak intended for the home-movie market. The format was regarded as consumer-grade and the cameras were wildly unpredictable. As its popularity grew over the decades, cameras came out with more and more features such as built-in time-lapse, variable frame rates, double exposures, timed exposures and animation. In 1997 Kodak discontinued production of super-8mm sound film and so the super-8mm format also became “silent.” My community saw a format rich in imperfections and now incapable of sync-sound as the perfect rebuttal to the standardized idea of fidelity that digital video offered.

Along with like-minded friends, I co-founded the Tiny Picture Club. As a collective we shared equipment, ordered film in bulk and hand-processed it together in our basements. We recruited people in our community, many who had never imagined making a film, held informal workshops and handed out equipment. Once a month we held a public screening based on a theme. In the darkness of art house cinemas we projected our tiny super-8mm films while local musicians improvised a score and sound effects. There was something resonant about the flickering ephemerality of these screenings that made me ponder the deeper potential of small-gauge filmmaking.

At this time I met Jen, who had also avidly fallen in with the local super-8mm filmmaking community. We were both interested in how the small-gauge format might provide an ideal theoretical framework for nonfiction practice. As we began to make work abroad, traveling to destinations in Asia, Europe and Latin America, small-gauge filmmaking seemed further suited as an ethnographic tool. Reacting to a trend in ethnographic filmmaking toward immersive and hyperrealistic documentation, we appreciated the distance, disruption and incompleteness of “being there” that it offered. Ethically, its built-in “limitations” were also in line with our belief that an ethnographic film should not propose to tell whole stories, but small fragments of stories; that the means of production should be visibly written into those stories; that background should be as important as foreground.

In 2010 Jen and I officially registered as Small Gauge in order to house our future and past projects. Since that time we have been theorizing, publishing and producing small-gauge work in many formats. Since I have unpacked and narrated a small genealogy of small-gauge filmmaking, I will now let Jen tackle how our practice has evolved theoretically and our thoughts on small-gauge scholarship.

Photo by Maurice Chédel

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