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For the Toronto-based, Houston-born avant-garde filmmaker Blake Williams, the past few months have been a whirlwind.

“It’s been a weird and wild ride so far,” the 32-year old says. His first 3-D feature-length film, Prototype, premiered at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival last August before screening the next month at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Wavelengths section, home to some of the world’s best experimental cinema. Unexpectedly, the astonishing but decidedly non-commercial Prototype was picked up for U.S. distribution by New York-based Grasshopper Film and has since garnered attention and acclaim from critics and audiences.

A work of science fiction that brings the artist back to his Texan roots, Prototype’s starting point is the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the introduction of a strange televisual device through which we are immersed in dazzling abstraction, bringing up questions of origins, history and technology, and how those things intertwine.

Still from the film Prototype.

“I was surprised enough that there were festival programmers adventurous enough to invite it,” Williams says . “When I was making it, I sort of got completely lost in my own head for two years, at some point emerging back into the world with an object that even I was mystified by. I wasn’t sure if what I’d made was even a movie people were talking about, and writing about it as though it were.”

Somehow, amid all the postrelease excitement, Williams was hard at work curating a survey of 3-D cinema titled Stereo Visions, which recently screened at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., sharing his invaluable scholarship of 3-D that extends far beyond his own practice. Predominantly a music festival, Big Ears might seem a strange home for such a program. But in 2016, the Public Cinema in Knoxville, run by Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes, was brought on board to extend Big Ears into new territory, adding a film component that would match the adventurous, risk-taking spirit of a music lineup that ranges from free jazz to electronic to noise rock – and just about everything in between.

Some students at the University of Toronto, where Williams teaches an undergraduate course on 3-D cinema, are already familiar with the breadth the program offered. While the director himself cannot recall the “whys” or “hows” regarding the origins of his relationship with the format, Williams adopted the format after postconverting Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) into 3-D in 2011. With Bachelors and Masters degrees in studio art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the University of Toronto, respectively, his production education has been virtually self-taught.

Williams made four shorts in anaglyph 3-D beginning with Many a Swan (2012), a film about folding inspired by the Japanese origamist Akira Yoshizawa, which uses found footage of the Grand Canyon. In the years following, he has become a prominent figure in avant-garde filmmaking in Toronto and beyond. For him, 3-D is about perpetual discovery. “I wear 3-D glasses while I edit,” he says. “Every time I sit down, I have a new-to-me encounter. I see a kind of image I’ve never seen before.”

Although 3-D has only been a multiplex mainstay since James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar (2009), its history goes back decades and has been used in disparate ways with different methods. It’s not simply a sensationalist money grab for commercial films, although most 3-D films screening in theatres right now are lazily postconverted into the format. A notable few are made deliberately in the medium, including Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) or Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014); the latter was featured in Stereo Visions and stands as Williams’s favourite. “It’s the closest a movie I didn’t make has come to encompassing essentially everything I believe in,” he says.

Containing works made between 1935 to 2018, the Stereo Visions program ranges from the obscure to the surprisingly mainstream, introducing viewers to the surprising diversity of 3-D films, the format’s untold history and the work against its reductive reputation as a gimmick. Alongside three shorts programs that featured work from notable artists such as National Film Board animator Norman McLaren, Paul Sharits, Jodie Mack and Lillian Schwartz, the other features included Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Ken Jacobs’s Seeking the Monkey King (2011) and even Jackass 3D (2010).

“Most artists work with a fraction of the budget that studio filmmakers work with, so they have to use more creative, poetic and inexpensive means of making images. These alternative formats have developed over the last several decades for various purposes,” Williams explains . One of the pioneers is legendary New York filmmaker Jacobs, who patented his own method for glasses-less 3D, creating an illusion of three-dimensional space and continuous movement by alternating rapidly among three similar images.

“It’s one of the most rapturous sights one can see in a movie theatre,” Williams says .

After 10 years of short-form work, Williams has long been appreciated by a niche audience, but with Prototype’s unlikely success as a certifiable crossover hit, he has become one of the most talked about avant-garde filmmakers of the moment. So there was a palpable sense of excitement about his program at Big Ears, whether for cerebral screenings such as Goodbye to Language or the purely sensational, such as Jackass 3D.

“If anyone came out of viewing this series with an altered perception of what 3-D as a format was capable of, or useful for,” he says, “then that’s amazing.”