National Museum of Women in the Arts films

Responses by Merete Mueller, director, Smartypants.

Background: The National Museum of Women in the Arts commissioned us to make a series of films profiling eight artists from its collection. These films are each around three minutes long and give museum visitors a glimpse into the artist’s process and an introduction to some of the themes and questions they explore in their work. The films are published online, and also—which is particularly exciting to me—they’re on display in a three-screen triptych video installation at the museum created by Artprocessors.

Design thinking: I’ve made a lot of short artist profile films that have been published online, but this assignment was different and exciting because we knew the films would also be displayed across three screens in an immersive, physical space in the museum. Usually, online content uses quick cuts and interesting camera moves to keep viewers engaged. However, I knew that any handheld footage or quick camera moves might feel dizzying for viewers surrounded by three large screens. Our cinematographer Shannon Palmer and I wanted to develop a visual language that would let museum visitors sit with each artist and really sink into their processes in this uniquely intimate space.

Challenges: We were so inspired by these artists and by the museum’s mission, but we also had to work within a very tight nonprofit budget. For most the artists, we only had one shoot day—for two of the artists, we only had a half day—and we had to capture enough visuals to cover three screens for a three-minute film.

Visual influences: When we were prepping, Shannon and I watched a lot of short films and music videos that had a slower, more thoughtful pace, looking for ways to keep each shot visually engaging and interesting enough to play for a little longer than we were used to. We staged long, locked-off shots where the artist moves through the space, hitting multiple marks that we blocked out ahead of time. We also used a lot of slow zooms and slow dolly moves.

We were really inspired by the films of director Céline Sciamma, including Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which gave Shannon the idea to stage mirrors throughout some of the artists’ spaces. This let us see them from multiple angles as they moved through a single shot, as well as see their faces while also watching what they were working on.

Favorite details: Even though we developed a strong visual aesthetic going in, I’m really proud of the moments where each of the artists’ individual personalities came through.

Sometimes, these moments were planned. For the film we made about artist Ambreen Butt, for example, we decided to film a lot of match cuts of her working at her desk during the day and at night. This helped represent how painstaking her process is and the long hours she puts into her work.

Sometimes, these moments were completely spontaneous. For the film we made about artist Delita Martin, just as we were about to film an extremely wide shot of her working on a painting on the floor of her studio, a sunbeam came through a skylight and painted a perfect swatch of light on the wall right above her head. I’m so proud of these frames, which, to me, feel like standalone moments of art worthy of being displayed in a museum.

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