NADJA and the Rise of Vamp-O-Vision

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Michael Almereyda’s 1994 feature NADJA is renowned among cineastes and photographers for its cinematography – and rightly so.  Though the lush photography, with its velvety true blacks and flickering gray-scale, casts a hypnotic spell, a few sequences shot on something with less definition than the 35mm Ilford stock Almeyreda favored provided an eerie dissimilarity with the rest of the film.  These scenes share the high contrast of the scenes shot on film, but the blurry, out-of-focus images, with their blocky pixilation, trailing images, tracking lines, and other video artifacts, put us squarely in the titular vampire’s perspective.

Working with DP Jim Denault, Almereyda shot the “vamp cam” scenes on the PXL-2000, a toy video camera manufactured by Fisher-Price for less than a year in the late 1980s.  Though the camera was too expensive and not sufficiently high-tech for its intended audience, it eventually became a sought-after piece of equipment among experimental and independent filmmakers in the following decade.

The PXL-2000 camera was created in the mid-1980s.  Over a casual dinner at his studio in Cedar Park, New Jersey, industrial designer James Wickstead spoke with his team of engineers about creating a beginner video camera for children.  The team came back with a yes, on the condition that they could record both sound and image on an ordinary audio tape.

While developing the product and selling it to potential manufacturers, keeping the camera simple and straightforward was their biggest challenge. Wickstead’s aesthetic sense, informed by kid-friendly directors like Ingmar Bergman and Jean Cocteau, allowed him to see some of the camera’s technical limitations as strengths.  For example, his team worked long hours trying to fix a gray-scale flicker that occurred when sensors detected an intermediate level of light.  ”My people were spending all this overtime trying to solve that, and I was saying, ‘No, this is great! Stop!”’ Wickstead recalled in a 2000 interview with the New York Times. 

After their development period, Wickstead Design sold the PXL2000 to Fisher-Price.  Nine months and $250,000 later, the camera and its accouterments debuted to great acclaim at the 1987 Toy Fair.  Due to its short shelf life, the causes of its eventual failure have been subject to discussion and debate.  Some claimed that the crude image quality – especially when contrasted with the product’s splashy ad campaign (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvmK0y3H4-A) – alienated its intended audience.  (Sanyo, the camera’s Japanese manufacturer, reportedly disliked the grainy, monochromatic images it produced.) Wickstead claimed that kids enjoyed working with the camera, and that it had even been introduced into middle school audio/visual classes.  Fisher-Price representatives claim that the camera wasn’t successful enough to keep it in circulation, and the company’s sale in the late 1980s halted its manufacture.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity.  Experimental filmmaker James Benning gave one to his daughter Sadie as a Christmas gift, allowing her to make a series of striking video diaries.  The sleeper hit SLACKER featured a scene shot on the PXL, and Peggy Ahwesh used the camera as her primary source for her documentary STRANGE WEATHEREven the downtown tastemakers Sonic Youth got in on the fun with the video for their song “Mote”.

Michael Almereyda quickly became the maestro of the toy camera.  After the commercial failure of his directorial debut TWISTER, he had the chance to see Sadie Benning’s shorts, and fell in love…both with her work and with the camera on which she shot them.  In a 1993 essay for the film annual Projections, he spoke of the bewitching images: “You have the sense that you’re watching something intensely fragile and secret, on the threshold of visibility.”  A chance encounter with a fellow PXL enthusiast led Almereyda to purchase three gently used cameras.

Inspired by the PXL’s required simplicity, Almereyda shot a low-budget feature, ANOTHER GIRL ANOTHER PLANET, in 1991.  The film never got picked up for distribution, but its status as the first feature shot on a toy camera led to festival screenings and a meeting with David Lynch, who would eventually produce NADJA

Though Almereyda shot most of NADJA on 35mm, his intermittent use of PXL didn’t go unnoticed.  Writing in the New York Times, Caryn James noted: “The Pixelvision sequences, used sparingly for those emotional vampire moments, at times approach the abstract imagery of experimental videos. They enhance the film’s eeriness.”  The film wasn’t an immediate success, but its presence on VHS and cable allowed it to find an appreciative audience.  More importantly, it also allowed Almereyda to continue working with the toy camera.  His shorts THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER and THE GREAT GATSBY IN FIVE MINUTES were both shot using the PXL, and the title character in HAMLET used the cameras as a video diary.

In the two decades since the release of NADJA, the PXL2000 has maintained its cult status.  The annual PXL THIS festival has been going strong for over twenty years, and Fisher Price still fields the occasional phone call about the camera.  Even as the audio cassette on which it records goes obsolete, James Wickstead is working on a new iteration of his beloved camera.

Editor’s Note: To read more about the PXL 2000, read Michael Almereyda essay here.

 

Chelsea Spear is a frequent contributor to Popshifter.com and is the Latin Alternative correspondent for The Spill Magazine.  Her byline has also appeared in Bust Magazine and at The Boxx.  She lives in Somerville.

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