The term "film" usually means a moving image in a rectangular shape, with sound. You watch them at home or at a movie theatre. Dietlinde Stephan has helped create a new form for the moving image, though. Her company, stephan communications in Berlin, Germany, has guided the creation of silent movies in an L shape, on the side of an energy-company building. stephan communications facilitated the process through which three student films are being shown nightly as part of the Vattenfall Medienfassade (media façade), 18 windows that double as projection screens at night.

Stephan will be showing animations of the three winning films as well as presenting background on the media-façade project at MidCoast Fine Arts' Film Flam activities this weekend. Her program will be part of a collection of short films showing Friday at Nova 6 in Moline and Saturday at the Quad Cities Brew & View in Rock Island. Films start at 7 p.m. each night. While Stephan and the films she's bringing come from Germany, the short-film component of Film Flam is primarily a showcase for filmmakers with local roots. (See sidebar for program details.)

Stephan's media-façade work shows how versatile the film format can be, and also how important context and form are to the filmed image.

Movies shown on the Vattenfall media façade are unique to the building. Films are exhibited on 18 panels, five running down the left side of the building and 13 along the bottom, forming the shape of a capital letter L. The films are projected - in 18 separate segments - onto a special glass that turns opaque when a liquid inside is electrified.

This configuration requires an adjustment on the part of filmmakers and viewers. We're used to making and watching films that fit a natural space - typically the rectangle of a television or movie screen. The L shape of the media façade means that conventional aesthetic theories - such as where to put things on the screen and what attracts the eye in a composition - don't apply. And the shape raises big questions: How does one tell a story in an L shape?

The technical aspects of the façade are interesting but by themselves don't amount to much, Stephan said. "You can easily install the projectors," she said. "The most important question is: What do you project?"

That question stems from having such a media-saturated world. The public is so bombarded with images that only the most striking stand out. "You have screens everywhere, but nobody watches them," Stephan said. "Media is everywhere."

And that was also the experience of the energy company before stephan communications took over the media-façade project. The company had tried several films on its building but wasn't happy with the content or production. So it hired stephan communications.

The company was very specific with what it wanted. It requested films that would work as a tool for creating a corporate image within the company as well as with the public. The project was also meant as a bridge to the art community.

Stephan created a partnership with the famous HFF film school, and four teams of students submitted proposals in the form of storyboards for the media-façade project early last year. The winning selection (chosen by a jury of five that included two people from the energy company) was in production for three months and debuted in August 2001. The two runners-up went into production this spring - also for three months - and premiered in August 2002.

The student filmmakers were given a three-part charge: The film must flow across the 18 panels; it must develop a story; and it must make a bridge between art and energy/technology. Put simply, the filmmakers were asked to turn energy into art.

Those, obviously, weren't the only constraints. The technical limitations of the space also affect content. "You have no sound," Stephan said. "You have an L form. You have a public."

The latter element might be the most crucial - especially for film students. Most student films are shown in a class or in a festival and are then never seen again. They can be experimental and edgy, and they're free to push the envelope because of their limited audience. The façade films, on the other hand, are shown continually for several hours each night. And unlike in a movie theatre, the patrons probably aren't there to see the movie; they just happen to be passing by. "Each night it gets shown to a broad public," Stephan said. "We have thousands of visitors if we open a new film."

And the public forum allowed the winners to say something few film students can: "Let's go to the façade and see my film," Stephan said.

Yet there's a contradiction. While the films are very public, they're also entirely site-specific. They will most likely never be shown in their proper format except at this one building in Berlin. "These films can never be shown on anything else," Stephan said. "You can't show them on anything but an L shape."

The winners did receive a cash prize, but the big reward was the money and resources to turn the storyboards into finished two-minute films. The energy company (then known as VEAG) provided money for film, a special film-developing process, and post-production. Stephan said the company wanted to ensure a level of professionalism and technical sophistication because of the public nature of the project and the unique presentation requirements. The winners also visited an electricity-generation plant for inspiration, and that bonded workers to the project, Stephan said.

The filmmakers took different approaches. The film that won the initial prize, "PULS," is an animated movie that unfolds linearly from the bottom right-hand corner of the building. Objects ranging from an elephant to a butterfly to an astronaut move through an electricity cable, across the bottom of a building. When they emerge, they float out into the universe, up the side of the building. The film is fun and appealing to kids, who will probably try to figure out what each object is by its shape before it comes out of the cable and reveals itself. The approach is simple, but the treatment is smart and charming.

The other two films on display are also stunning, although more sophisticated in how they use the space. "energie[ge]laden" has its visual focus on a woman lounging in the lower left-hand part of the building. Her hair flows up into the side of the building, where a man is formed. The film explores the different elements of energy: wind, water, fire, and earth, with humans as the "fifth element."

And "Flora Impact" is like a mostly obscured panorama, showing images more expansive than the L-shaped "screen." Viewers get slices of flying electric lights, an animated electrical storm, and the sun setting over a field of poppies before it explodes into fire.

An additional challenge for the filmmakers was to create films that reward repeated viewings but aren't hard to follow. "It must be difficult to understand, but easy to understand," Stephan said. Viewers should "always discover new things" when they watch one of the movies.

Films Scheduled for Film Flam

· Films shown as part of the Vattenfall Medienfassade: "PULS," by Ulu Braun, Benjamin Cantú, Jan Koester, Lars Krüger, Anet Jung, Lena Meyer, and Alexej Tscherneyi; "energie[ge]laden," by Ludowika Mann, Friederike Hagen, Lorenz Trees; and "Flora Impact," by Petra Böschen with production assistance by Christine Haupt, Ulrike Thiele, and Sarah Weber.

· "Biped Boingo" and "Swimmingly," by Terry Rathje. Two four-minute computer-animated films from this Quad Cities mixed-media artist.

· "Evolution of the Chair," by Pete Schulte. A three-minute animation that's part of the local artist's "Is Your Vessel Damaged?" public-art campaign.

· "You're the Reason" and "Addict," by Dingeldien Philms. "You're the Reason" is a six-and-a-half-minute music video of the song by the Iowa-based rock band Index Case, filmed at two locations in Iowa. "Addict" is an eight-minute music video of a song by Curt Smith, lead singer of Tears for Fears.

· "Great, Great Grandfather & Me," by Jason A. Harrington. An experimental five-minute film exploring the New York-based filmmaker's family heritage through found and manipulated images.

· "Hammock Over the River Wapsi," by Joe Kelly. Film, music, and interviews tell the story of an art-installation piece over the Wapsi River in this seven-minute documentary by the Davenport artist.

· "Jazz & Blues Restoration Project," by Todd McGreevy. A 20-minute music documentary featuring performances and interviews with area musicians and Quad Cities natives Bill Bell, Donald Meade, and Franz Jackson. (McGreevy is publisher of the River Cities' Reader.)

· "American Gothic B," by Jeremy Bessof. Mixed-media artist from the Quad Cities uses live action and 3D animation in an eight-minute story about a man trying to kill magical creatures.

· "Window Shopping," by Frey Billington. A fast-moving, 22-minute stream-of-consciousness piece on past loves and lusts that's been screened a various film festivals around the world. Billington completed this film as a thesis for her master's degree and is now a post-production supervisor for the BBC.

· "The Robot," by Adam Burke. A one-minute animated short by this Quad Cities native.

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