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Color photograph of a older man chipping away at a piece of marble with a chisel in one hand and a hammer in the other. Img 7599

Making a Video about Making a Sculpture

The Creative Process


The sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822) is renowned for the idealized beauty and pristine finishes of his marble sculptures.

The exhibition Canova: Sketching in Clay, however, focuses not on those marbles but where they began—the intimate clay models the sculptor made as he raced to translate inspiration into form—and how those small clay works were transformed into magnificent full-sized carved marbles. Curator Emerson Bowyer and digital content creative director Kirill Mazor wanted to bring visitors deeper into Canova’s working methods, so they decided to make a series of short videos that outlined the artist’s creative process. Luckily, they found Fred X Brownstein, a sculptor who works in marble and was not only already familiar with some of Canova’s techniques but was willing to learn new ones.

All they had to do now was condense a four-months long process into a few four-minute videos.

We asked the sculptor, the director, and the sound designer for a short behind-the-scenes look at some of the challenges and pleasures of making these videos.

I like to think of the artist as a performer giving a performance that no one sees.

—Fred X Brownstein

Fred X Brownstein, sculptor

When people look at a finished marble sculpture, all they see is the final product. They don’t see how it got there. If I tell you that Canova, an extremely fine craftsman with an entire studio of helpers and apprentices, could take five years to make a statue, you’re going to say, “Are you kidding me?” This project—creating a replica of Canova’s Venus—all done by hand—took four months, working all day, every day.

For my own work, I use some similar techniques that Canova used, such as making many preliminary sketches and studying proportions and using models. For this project, I started with a clay model, which I used to make a plaster bust, which I then used as the model for the marble.

Photo showing the monitor of a video camera that displays a clay bust that an older man is working on.

To transfer the measurements from the plaster bust to the block of marble, the filmmakers wanted me to demonstrate three separate techniques on the same sculpture: plumb lines, calipers, and a device called the “machinetta.” This was a big challenge as I normally use one technique and go all the way through.

Canova’s workshop used plumb lines. I wasn’t familiar with the technique but found a text written in 1802 by a man named Francesco Carradori. I speak Italian well enough and translated the chapter on the plumb line technique, so I knew what I had to do in order to recreate it as best as possible.

I had a very fine carpenter friend of mine make two frames and two tables that were exactly the same size and same height. Everything had to be exactly equal in order to transfer one point from the model to the marble. It had to be precise.

I also learned the caliper technique, which is still in use today, though it’s very slow. You need three measurements from three different calipers for every single point you want to transfer from the plaster to marble. This technique too is being lost because it takes so much time.

One big difference is that Canova didn’t have the macchinetta, what people call the “pointing machine.” It was invented during Canova’s time by two people in England. They tried to introduce Canova to it, but at that time, it was a bulky, heavy thing, and the Canova studio didn’t use it. It’s very accurate if you know how to use it, but it takes a lot of practice.

Photo showing an older male sculptor using a device called a machinetta to measure details on a marble sculpture.

Using the machinetta to transfer measurements

Going from one technique to the next would not translate perfectly, as it would using the same technique all the way through. There’s more chance of making an error. So I made an agreement with the filmmakers. I said, “We have to have a perfect Canova.” So with the pIumb line technique, I just roughed it out and left a little more marble. Then I went to the calipers, taking it down some more but not all the way to the surface. Finally, I used the macchinetta, which was very accurate and could be trusted.

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Note the machinetta on on the plaster model.

When working with marble, Fred wears a paper hat to protect his head from the dust. He folds a new one everyday from newspapers he gets when he visits Italy.

I work in marble, a dying art form. The people who taught me this in Italy, who really understand this tradition, are in their 80s. The beauty of this film is that we’re preserving the process used to create so many works of art. I like to think of the artist as a performer giving a performance that no one sees. In fact, this film is the first time I’ve ever watched myself working. So, from an artistic and historical point of view, it’s very satisfying that this performance has been preserved. I hope it will give people an appreciation of the time and labor and skill that went into the creation of each work, and that in the end, they have a deeper understanding.

—Fred X. Brownstein, sculptor

We’ve routinely seen people watch the videos and then turn directly to an artwork and study it, as if seeing it in a new way.

—Kirill Mazor

Kirill Mazor, creative director

Curator Emerson Bowyer and I wanted to show Canova’s process in the most elegant way possible. We didn’t want to explain anything, just show how it was done. Instead of trying to fully describe the entire process, we chose to focus on specific details, to get a palpable and intimate sense of the work involved.

From the start, we worked with filmmaker Chelsea Knight, an alumni of the School of the Art Institute graduate program who also happened to be Fred Brownstein’s neighbor, as well as with a cinematographer from Boston, Terrence Fitzgerald Hayes, to capture what Fred was doing on almost a daily basis. In the end, there were over 300 hours of footage. That’s a lot of footage, especially for a few four minute videos.

Filmmaker Chelsea Knight and cinematographer Terrence Fitzgerald Hayes record Fred as he makes a sketch out of clay.

The big challenge for us was showing the full process while keeping the videos interesting and concise. It was really up to Logan Chappe, our video editor, and Chelewynne Shuart, our digital content intern, to select the best moments and build our narrative.

For example, let’s say there are 20 hours of footage on just one small step in the process, say chipping away at marble. How do you determine the best moment? Sometimes it leaps out at you. Other times it’s more elusive. Sometimes, we’d show the footage to our curatorial partners and if there was a moment when their faces lit up, when they had an emotional reaction, we’d take note. Often these were moments we also felt strongly about. So we knew our audiences would respond to them as well.

Examples of the clips, representing countless hours of labor, that were selected for the final video

In terms of presentation, we wanted to integrate the video seamlessly into the exhibition experience. Instead of the traditional format of the horizontal video monitor mounted on the wall in a room full of benches, which is great for some of our other videos, we wanted the monitors to feel like part of the exhibition design. To do this we had the displays oriented vertically and built into the exhibition walls with hidden speakers, truly incorporating the content into the space.

And as the exhibition focuses on the artistic process, we broke the video into three sections and included each relevant section in the gallery that featured that part of the process. In this way, people could actually turn from the video and see the results of the process right next to them. We’ve routinely seen people watch the videos and then turn directly to an artwork and study it, as if seeing it in a new way.

Photo of a gallery in the Art Institute that shows a video display built into a wall next to a series of display cases.

It’s amazing to watch Fred work using these centuries-old techniques, keeping this lost art alive. I don’t think that people really comprehend the amount of time and care that goes into creating a sculpture like this. On another note, I imagine that most people probably have no idea how much work and time goes into making videos like these. From start to finish, we figured that we collectively spent over 300 hours in total, just like Fred.

Through the process of making these videos, I definitely find myself looking at sculpture through different eyes. It was equally exciting meeting Fred in person and getting to know his family and the significance of the project to all of them. It’s my hope that these videos help people appreciate his skill and artistry.

—Kirill Mazor, creative director of digital content, Experience Design

The idea that a stone naturally plays a chord is pretty fascinating stuff.

—Devin Davis

Devin Davis, sound designer and foley artist

Kirill and I knew early on that we were going to have to create new audio for the video. The audio from the location had a lot of distracting noise, such as an air conditioner, unrelated off-camera activity, talking, etc. But more than that, we wanted the videos in the exhibition to be immersive and meditative, to inform a viewer’s direct engagement and not compete with background noise and ambience.

A foley artist creates sound effects for movies and videos. I come from a music and recording studio background, but have worked in sound design for some commercials and short films, such as a series of videos about Gauguin’s artistic processes.

From my experience, foley seems to exist in our collective awareness mostly as the art of making sound effects with objects dissimilar to those they are intended to represent: celery stalks as bones breaking, coconuts as horse hooves, etc. Using A to sound like B and so forth. Canova required extreme realism, so I had to find and assemble a very particular set of materials to create believable sounds. Luckily, I had almost everything in my workshop at home. 

Photo showing an overhead view of objects such as a mallet, shoes, and rocks used to create sound effects for video

A compelling argument for not throwing things away

A lot of the shots in Canova are extreme close-ups of hands. Recreating that sound means one sound for the moment a finger hits, another sound for it moving across or through the clay, and then another sticky sound for the release.

Many shots were of both hands doing long, really complex movements simultaneously, so I would often have to isolate working on each individual hand, so it was very arduous, and extremely unforgiving. If my sounds weren’t lined up exactly, or if I missed any movements or action, it could spoil the illusion.

Canova Devin Video 1 Thumbnail Copy

Breaking down the different layers of sounds

As I worked chronologically from start to finish, the sequence with the marble at the end always loomed as the biggest challenge. I could hear the stone distinctly producing resonant tones in the location audio, almost playing a chord, so I knew that I would have to recreate that in order for the whole project to work. And even though I had a piece of real marble and the same tools and was sanding it and striking it correctly, the piece I had just wasn’t big enough to resonate like the large piece that Fred had. I realized, pretty quickly, that I would have to recreate those artificially. This turned out to be the most fun part of the whole project.  

Photo showing a table with a hammer and chunks of marble used to create sound effects for video about sculpting marble,

Foley table with marble

Conservation scientist Giovanni Verri provided a small piece of marble to pulverize.

I used the spectrogram feature of Izotope RX to identify the exact resonant frequencies of the marble in the original recordings. It ended up being three notes; a fundamental tone, and then a fifth and seventh above that (a G, D and F on a piano). I then used audio software to process each of the marble sounds I’d made, three times each, and then mixed these back in with the original recording to create the final sound.

Canova Devin Video 2 Thumbnail Copy

Marble sound spectral audio demonstration

It was a great relief, and tremendously gratifying, to hear from Fred that my sounds passed his test. I’ve had a few fascinating emails back and forth about how marble “sings.” He has said that Italians say marble will “suona campanile” (ring like a church bell).

He also said that marble without structural defects will ring more prominently and that it can depend on the type of stone, as well as the quarry. I’ve been digging into this a little, trying to find some academic material about the science behind this. The idea that a stone naturally plays a chord is pretty fascinating stuff.

It’s worth pointing out that if I’ve done my job correctly, someone watching will not, even for a second, think that the sound is anything but the result of what’s really happening on-screen.

—Devin Davis, director, AudioVisual Solutions

Watch the full video to see the entire process—and listen to the marble sing.



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