These foraged inks travelled from the wilderness to seven countries for a new documentary
Brian D. Johnson's dreamlike film The Colour of Ink uncovers the fascinating history of the form
Cutaways is a personal essay series where filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This TIFF 2022 edition by Brian D. Johnson focuses on his film The Colour of Ink, which takes a trip around the globe with inkmaker Jason Logan.
I never set out to be a documentary filmmaker. Though I love the medium, I don't like the term "documentary," which sells it short. Even at a time when Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago stash bestows the word documents with magical properties worthy of Disney's Fantasia, "documentary" sounds dry and empirical — an airless adjective that's been pounded into a noun. And it's a misnomer for a genre-fluid, compulsively promiscuous art form.
Even some of the most investigative docs, like Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line or Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, cast an almost metaphysical spell. They don't document reality so much as transform it. And as a writer and journalist who has spent much of his life taking notes — literally documenting in ink — it's the shape-shifting quality of the moving image that drew me to make films.
The eureka moment happened about 20 years ago when I was playing with the video button on one of those early point-and-shoot cameras while on vacation. Recording at just 15 frames per second, it made everything look like it had happened half a century ago, abstracted into instant nostalgia. Apple's iMovie editing software became my gateway drug as I sat in a log cabin on a lake, discovering the pleasure of writing without words.
The cameras got better, the software more sophisticated. And now two decades later, after spending much of my career as a film critic, I'm launching my second documentary feature at TIFF — The Colour of Ink, a movie about ink co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and shot in seven countries during a pandemic.
How on earth did this happen? I put it down to serendipity, another five-syllable word that is the essential corollary to "documentary." My first film, Al Purdy Was Here (2015), originated when my wife, writer Marni Jackson, asked me to cut a reel of archival clips featuring the late Canadian poet. The film was meant for a benefit concert organized to restore his A-frame cabin as a writing retreat. At the last minute, I suggested filming the show — the archival voice of the dead poet haunted me, and the fresh footage of artists drawn to his legacy called out to me as scenes in search of a movie.
While making the Purdy film, I learned that the poet's statue in Queen's Park had its own Twitter feed. Its anonymous author turned out to be Jason Logan, an art director that I'd worked with at Maclean's. At the time, Jason was reinventing himself as an inkmaker, using natural ingredients foraged from the world at his feet — beginning with a harvest of black walnuts that had fallen from a tree overlooking the Purdy statue.
Balding man carrying two takeaway cups of coffee and smiling. Healthy green weeds. Almost raining.—@statueofalpurdy
Jason's tweets from the statue's POV found their way into the Purdy movie as episodic moments of zen, and we even filmed him making black walnut ink in his kitchen. That last shoot ended up getting left on the cutting room floor — but it became the seed for The Colour of Ink, which follows Jason's quest to rediscover the power and beauty of our oldest visual medium.
In other words, I'd already begun shooting my first two documentaries before I knew I was making them. And one gave birth to the other, a pair of unplanned progeny seven years apart.
Jason and I had both spent most of our lives in publishing, creating work in the mainstream print media that would end up as ink on a page. He never set out to be an inkmaker, and I never set out to be a filmmaker. He picked up a black walnut; I picked up a digital camera. Somehow our rabbit holes aligned, and we ended up on the same path, following a line of ink to see where it went.
But The Colour of Ink was more premeditated than Purdy. As a larger production, it required intricate planning, from endless pitch documents drawn up for funders to a shooting schedule on three continents. And it was more deliberately composed. We treated Jason's ink as our silent protagonist. As it made its way into the hands of visual artists around the world, from a Brooklyn cartoonist to a Japanese calligrapher, we mapped out a narrative that would unfold as a road trip structured by colours rather than chronology.
But the pandemic had other ideas. After filming on location in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, we had to shoot remotely with local crews in the U.K., Italy, Norway and Japan. Fortunately, even though Jason could no longer travel, his inks could.
They flew through mail, landing in the hands of an Islamic calligrapher in London, a wildlife painter in Oslo. Covid also stretched the shooting schedule from six months to over two years, which deepened the story. We discovered several extraordinary artists late in the game who took the story in a direction we could not have foreseen.
A documentary never goes according to plan, even without a pandemic. That's the whole point. Much like Jason foraging for ink ingredients in the wild, the camera keeps going down forks in the road to see where they will lead. And only after the shoot is wrapped does the story finally get written, in the editing room, with a mix of surgical intent and happy accidents.
Over the course of making The Colour of Ink, Jason and I came to realize that his inkmaking and my filmmaking followed the same basic process: scout, forage, sort, combine, intensify, test, package, present. In both cases, our material was a fluid medium that kept mutating with an unpredictable alchemy. Jason creates what he calls "living inks" that can change colour over time; when he combines ingredients in vivid ink tests on the page, the ink sometimes seems to move with a mind of its own. And what moved me to make this film was the prospect of training a macro lens on that cosmos of ink and seeing it magnified on the big screen.
In both writing and filmmaking, I've always rejected the aesthetic hierarchy that elevates fiction above non-fiction. Documentary can be as dreamlike, and dramatic, as drama. And I've always gravitated to the liminal zone where the forms overlap. With The Colour of Ink, I tried to avoid documentary tropes of exposition, talking heads and narration. Our cinematographer, Nicholas de Pencier, favoured composed frames rather than run-and-gun zooms whenever possible. And I never saw Jason and the artists in our film as subjects, but as characters and collaborators.
In the end, I was hoping to create the kind of experience that I was always looking for in my years as a critic — something that would take me by surprise and show me a world that I'd never seen before. Something that cannot not be documented.
This year's Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8–18. Find showtimes for The Colour of Ink here.