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Drop Frame Portsmouth



If you think life is passing you by, you’re right. But it passes by much faster in this artistic amateur documentary about everyday life in Portsmouth, NH. Yet Tom Clark has managed to both accelerate time and preserve history.




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A video by Thomas Clark

I’m not quite sure what to say about this unique production. It almost defies categorization. Drop-Frame is not a narrative film. There is no sustained plot or characters. It is not a commercial video guide that tells you where to go and what to see in Portsmouth. It isn’t even a typical documentary.

It reminds me only of Koyaanisqatsi, the hauntingly beautiful time-lapse unnarrated 1982 film by Godfrey Reggio. Koyaanisqatsi – the name comes from a Hopi word meaning "time out of balance" – was the first of three artsy documentaries featuring the hypnotic music of Phillip Glass.

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Thomas Clark has done something similar and smaller focused on Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Drop-Frame shows boats speeding around the Piscataqua like water bugs. It shows fast-moving traffic, new buildings rising, people buzzing through the city like bees, the sun rising and setting while shadows cover city buildings like a blanket tossed over a bed. It is intriguing, sometimes moving, sometimes frustrating and always different.

Clark has wisely broken his film into edible chunks and a few can be seen on When the artist tends toward art, these clips can be fascinating. The 15-minute raising and lowering of the Memorial lift bridge takes only seconds. The full arc of Market Square Day is reduced to little more than a minute. The sped-up burst of evening fireworks is spectacular.

When the director turns from art to documentation, there is less energy. The repair of the North Church steeple, the last days of Peavey’s Hardware Store, the rise of a new hotel and the new public library are important historical artifacts, but not quite entertainment. This is less a film than a collection of segments connected only by their style and subject matter. Shot in individual frames without pin-registration, the visuals have a home-made quality.

The abiding question the viewer must ask is – why? A project like this clearly absorbed countless hours in both production and postproduction. Clark anticipates this question and responds in his web site:

"I was driving to work one day and a building that had been around my whole life was torn down within a week's time. Another came down a week later. That was the final straw for me because things that reminded me of being a kid were going away."

The result is really a two-part production. If the goal is to archive moments in time, Clark has succeeded. He has captured and preserved and condensed key changes in the life of a town. But the best moments are the day-to-day artistic clips, shot more smoothly with more effective camera angles, better lighting. While the documentation of local buildings is of interest to local citizens, the generic sequences can resonate with any audience.

Unfortunately, time moves on. More buildings are rising and falling every day. Clark suggests on his web site, that he might keep shooting, in Portsmouth or, perhaps, in other towns. That would be a good thing.

As a former videographer, I’m always interested in how projects like this can make money, or at least pay for themselves, and reach a wider audience. Clark could apply for grants based on his work in Drop-Frame. Or he could approach the people who need his unique documentary service most. Just as we require an archaeological "impact statement" and payment to builders who destroy the history embedded in the earth, we might require developers to pay a fee to record the changes a new structure makes to the surrounding city surface.

I’d like to see commercial building owners pay Clark to document the construction, demise and renovation of future projects. The city would forever benefit with a time-lapse video of, for example, like the renewal of Islington Street, the new Portsmouth, federal building, the expanding harbor walkway, the renovation of the Memorial Bridge, the work at the Naval Prison, the destruction of the Parade Mall and the creation of the new conference center, the next bicycle criterion and downtown road races, the building of the next gundalow at Strawbery Banke, the restoration of any historic house, a ferry tour of the Isles of Shoals, and more.

Private, government and nonprofit groups would be wise to hire Clark at a solid rate to chronicle and then encapsulate these projects for the public record. Clark could then use the funds to buy fancier digital equipment and a good tripod and underwrite his more artistic endeavors. Seen as a prototype, Drop-Frame presents Portsmouth and any town with the opportunity to preserve history in a YouTube-sized clip while making art at the same time. With additional grant unnderwriting, Clark might turn his hobby into a career. -- JDR

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From the Drop-Frame Producer:

Drop-Frame™ is a documentary about life in Portsmouth, NH made out of time-lapse photography. You'll see events, scenery, car and foot traffic, demolitions, commerce, random people, and everything else there is to show what it's like to live in Portsmouth.


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Monday, February 19, 2018 
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