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Drift

Chris Welsby
1994
17min Colour Sound 16mm

Drift

The idea for this film comes from the experience of three winters living in the Kitsilano district of Vancouver. Walking out along the ocean front is a rewarding experience at any time of year, but in winter the fog moves in and the landscape assumes its quintessentially Pacific North West appearance. It is at this time more than any other when, lacking a clearer point of reference, one's attention is drawn to the large cargo ships which anchor in the bay.

Sometimes, in clearer weather, the ships dominate the landscape. At other times, when the fog moves in, the landscape dominates the ships. On some days they assume a monumental, sculptural presence, testimony to the technological domination of the environment. At other times they are no more than grey, ghostly shapes, only half-seen in the swirling fog. At times they appear to be so large they look as if they may be about to run you down. On a different day they look like children's toys or partially drawn pictograms on grey paper.

The film comprises a series of panning shots from numerous camera angles and in a variety of winter weather conditions. The camera pans slowly from the left and from the right, as if searching for something in the fog. At times the fog is so dense that viewers of the film will be unsure if they have seen anything or merely invented a ghostly shape in the air. At other times a ship pans into view, large and very solid in the low, winter light. Shooting in different degrees of visibility has created the sensation of time passing—by, for example, dissolving a shot of a clearly visible ship into a shot of a dense fog bank and vice versa. The focal length of the lens varies from shot to shot, creating an ambiguous sense of scale once the material was edited together. Panning rate also varies from shot to shot and each shot will be a different length. This enabled me to build a rhythm into the material at the editing stage.

The visibility is never sufficiently good for the opposite shore to appear on film, the background is always cloud and ocean. However the tree-clad headland of Stanley Park, so very evocative of the Pacific North West, does briefly materialize out of the swirling fog.

On the sound track can be heard the deep, resonant tones of an offshore fog horn. Sometimes the sound is clear and at other times indistinct as it is carried away on the wind. This rhythm is placed in counterpoint alongside the rhythm established by the visual material. There is also the continuous sound of water lapping against the shore, the screech of a distant sea bird or two and occasionally, the almost imperceptible 2 bass rumble from a distant ship's engine.

The overall feel of Drift is sombre and mysterious; a study of winter light falling on the surface of water, metal and cloud. The dominant colour is grey; grey infused with a multitude of ocean blues and greens. There is little land in this film and very few landmarks from which to navigate from one space to the next. The picture plane is in continuous motion like the ocean which, on the surface at least, is the subject of Drift.

On one level Drift is a film about the ocean, about winter light and about ships at anchor in a sheltered bay. However, it is also a metaphor, an essentially filmic metaphor about time and space, about being and perception, a metaphor for the act of looking, looking at film and looking at the World.

Installation Version 2001

Drift was made with assistance from the Arts Council of England and the National Film Board of Canada.

Sound mix by Robert MacNevin.

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