Filmmaker Rick Pukis documented his search for family in Lithuania

It started with his grandmother. Rick Pukis describes her as a Super 8 film buff who took continuous footage of her family.

So it’s no wonder that when he looked ahead to a future film project, this child of Lithuanian immigrants looked back to his family history.

“My dad was of the kind that said, ‘We’re going to raise you as an American and you are not going to speak Lithuanian,’” Pukis said. “So my Lithuanian is very poor.”

That didn’t stop him from getting on the plane. He thought he’d bus-hop among the three largest cities in Lithuania — Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipeda — and explore.

“I basically just went there and got a room,” he said. “I was hoping to meet some people who could help out a bit.”

As it turns out, the language barrier wasn’t the only obstacle. Pukis shoots almost solely in Super 8, a film format most known for the flickering home movies many families remember from the ’50s and ’60s. The film itself isn’t sold in stores — Pukis orders it directly from Kodak — so he had to stockpile the 15 rolls to take with him.

Security at airports treats his square boxes with suspicion. The rolls can’t be X-rayed for explosives. He couldn’t buy more in the country — he tried — so he had to conserve the rolls he brought with him. While some digital videographers shoot 40 hours of film for a 10-minute story, Pukis doesn’t have that luxury.

“Sometimes the logistics of working with the format itself is a challenge,” Pukis said, mildly. “It’s actually much harder to shoot film than it is to shoot video.”
Talk about an understatement.

Not only can he make few mistakes in planning, as the small-gauge film only has a minute margin of error for the F-stop — the correct exposure. But he also can’t see what he has accomplished at the end of the day. Unlike videotape and digital files, film must be sent to a professional processor, like film photography. Film also can’t record sound and requires a separate audio track.

On top of that, it’s offensively expensive. A roll of film costs between $10 and $25, depending on the stock. Processing and transfer adds another $10-$20 a roll. Transferring the images to digital format for editing, another $150.

“You’re talking about $200 for six minutes of film,” Pukis said, which leaves out all but the most obsessive hobbyists.

And if something breaks, there’s no one around to fix it.
“You get a new camera,” he laughed.

Many filmmakers moved to digital formats due to the expense of film. But for many, it’s also a matter of skill level. Some of them can’t even spell F-stop.

But Pukis teaches those skills at Augusta State University, where he is a faculty member in the department of communications. The television studio at the university is equipped with robotic cameras and three editing bays with Avid and Final Cut Pro software. Put simply, he could make it easier on himself.

“But there’s something wondrous about doing it the old-fashioned way, getting your hands on the camera and hearing the film click through the shutter,” Pukis said.
Film is also better for archival purposes when properly stored.

“Some of these films I make, sometimes I use orphan footage that I’ve found that’s maybe 40-50 years old and it’s still usable. I can transfer it to digital format and manipulate it,” he said.

His method also offers better color saturation, true blacks and vibrant colors that rely more on nature and less on resolution.

“If I’m lighting something, I can have the lighting impact the scene much better than I can on digital video,” he explained. Film gives greater depth and overloads gracefully when things get too light or wash out. It mimics the human eye.

He’ll showcase the end result of his exhaustive efforts at the New Space Gallery. The 30-minute documentary about his trip to Lithuania, “Iki Kito Karto Lithuania,” will debut on Oct. 4, along with some of his experimental shorts: “Cold Turkey,” “Dam Bikes,” “Acceleration Nation,” “Un Film De,” “Bikini Blast Surfout” and “Chicago 1981 16mm Footage.” The films will loop continuously six days a week until the exhibit ends Oct. 31.

Pukis called filmmaking an “organic” experience. An avid outdoors enthusiast and student of Eastern philosophy, he seemed detached from what he called “this digital world.” Perhaps a little discontented.

But then he readily admitted to being an Apple/Mac enthusiast, detailing the superiority of the company’s products over Microsoft, from accessibility to design. And let’s not forget that he is skilled enough to teach digital filmmaking to eager 21st century boys and girls.

But it’s more than a preference for him. It’s a passion. And he has a point.
“All these new digital editing software packages and special-effects packages — a lot of them will have a filter that makes your digital footage look like film. It’s funny that they don’t have a filter that makes your film look like video.”

“On the Way Home: Converging Images of Movement and Stillness”
Filmmaker Rick Pukis and Photographers Anthony Faris and Timothy Ghiloni
New Space Gallery, Washington Hall
Augusta State University
Oct. 4-31
Artist Talk, Oct. 9 at 4 p.m.


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