If there's an upside to the Seahawks' city-clogging, traffic-spawning, taxpayer-gouging new downtown stadium, it's David Russo's eight-minute short film Populi. Commissioned by Paul Allen's First & Goal company and the state's Public Stadium Authority (PSA), the movie has become a staple of the festival circuit, first winning the Judge's Award at last fall's Northwest Film and Video Festival in Portland, then earning an invite to the indie Valhalla of Sundance in January '02. It was screened without fanfare at SIFF this spring, but Bumbershoot will offer your best chance to see it—and you should—at 7 p.m. Mon., Sept. 2, the closing night of the One Reel Film Festival. (Get there early! Lines are always long.)
Russo and his beloved Mitchell.
Even in advance of that showing, Populi is being run on the Seahawks Stadium's array of video kiosks and scoreboards—both inside and outside the venue. You might think that professional football and avant-garde cinema are unlikely bedfellows, but Russo is nothing if not delighted by the union. The voluble filmmaker has been practicing his craft with little notice since graduating from Juanita High School in '86. The 16mm Bolex camera he inherited from a teacher there supported his limited output of shorts—plus the occasional music video for bands like Tad—until he heard about the PSA's call for site-specific stadium art works in '99 and wrote a proposal.
Jackpot! Russo was shocked to find himself in the money, along with 11 other artists. (His total budget for Populi ended up around $50,000.) The first thing he did was to run out and buy a 1958 Mitchell GC 35mm stop-motion animation camera capable of shooting up to 170 frames per second (normal speed is 24 fps). "I've been waiting my whole life to get one," Russo gushes of the vintage camera—which is, ironically, still considered state-of-the-art.
What's Populi about? Shot on various locations around the Northwest (including Russo's North Seattle home/studio/backyard), the gorgeously hypnotic time-lapse and stop-motion film is set to the grandiose "Mars: Bringer of War" section of Holst's The Planets, as a human-faced idol is first carved from a stump then toured around the Northwest. Soon the thing multiplies into a cluster of impassive heads that even goes sledding and water skiing! "Populi is just a riff on people," Russo explains, "very simple and accessible."
Russo set his editing rhythm to Holst ("It's like Black Sabbath, only a century before"), then made most of his edits in-camera—meaning the film must be painstakingly rewound, with exposures adjusted, before passing before the shutter again. "You have to commit," he says. "You show your mistakes."
Then there were the giant steel mooring buoys he rolled around Seattle (one weighing 400 pounds) and all those ominous, expressionless heads. The cops were concerned, Russo recalls, and part of the daily production grind became "convincing authorities on a daily basis it was not a bomb."
So how does the artist define his nonexplosive film? "It's like a time-lapse documentary. The way it started was with a stump. All it is is showing me working on this art-thing for 15 months. Content just kind of comes out of that." What about the football stadium? "The idea was just to show the areas around it."
Fifteen months is lot of time for eight minutes of film, but that's stop-motion for you. "The way I film, it's as cheap as 16mm," Russo concludes. "Not being prolific helps."