Video & Filmmaking

New Documentary Turns New York’s Subways into a Dreamland

May 18, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Most of us who rely on the New York City subway choose to remain oblivious while riding the trains: We bury our heads in a book, block sound with ear buds and music and avoid prolonged eye contact. Videographer Edin Vélez says he can’t do that. “I find the faces in the subway too interesting. I try to figure out their stories.”

Vélez’s 15-minute video, “The State of Rest and Motion,” is the culmination of years of observing and recording video in subway stations and on trains. By collaging footage that he’s digitally processed to soften shapes and enhance colors, the Brooklyn-based artist has created a dreamy, meditative study of the subway and its riders. “The State of Rest and Motion” recently premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City during its Doc Fortnight 2017 festival of nonfiction film.

Vélez says his approach to digitally altering his video grew out of his early attempts to compensate for the technical limitations of the low-resolution video cameras he had used at the start of his career. Vélez, who directs the video program at Rutgers University, made his first video of commuters streaming down an escalator in the early 1980s. He had been making still images even earlier. Growing up in Puerto Rico, his father, a graphic designer, taught him to shoot using a 4×5 camera. “His way of babysitting me, which I didn’t think was odd at the time, was to take me to a darkroom,” Vélez recalls.

After he began working as a filmmaker and video artist in New York City, he put still photography aside, and his video work was shown in the Whitney Biennial, Art Basel and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. In the late 1990s, while shooting video with mid-level camcorders, he decided to make frame grabs. “They were very low res so I started to digitally repaint them,” using the fingerpaint tool in Photoshop. “They became—and I hate this word—‘painterly.’” The result was a hybrid, he says. “It didn’t really look like painting, and it didn’t really look like photography.” Softening lines and edges in Photoshop helped him  overcome the problems of trying to print low-resolution images. “If you took your own sweet time and did it very carefully, pixel by pixel, somehow you could blow [the image] up to any size.” He mounted a show of the prints in 2000, as part of his artist-in-residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Stux Gallery exhibited the work later that year.

© Joaquin Font

Edin Vélez (left), his daughter and a fellow subway passenger. © Joaquin Font

After he got his first Sony Cybershot in 2010 or 2011, he switched to shooting panoramas on the subway. By then, he was using third-party plug-ins for his retouching. With a busy teaching schedule and a commute to New Jersey, he says, “My personal work suffered,” but he carried his camera with him wherever he went.

“Anyone in New York who carries their camera constantly will find something amazing,” he says. Reviewing his subway footage, he realized he had a subject for a film.

He set himself rules. “I would only shoot in a station or a car. I’d never shoot outside,” he says. He would handhold his camera, or sit with the camera resting on his knee while the subway was moving. His focus, he says, was usually “the landscape of the human face.” Vélez insists that New York City’s subway is unlike other urban transportation systems. “It’s only here that you see an 80-year-old woman dressed in wonderful colors sitting right next to a homeless man. This is the only place where those juxtapositions exist in such quantities.”

He has been enterprising in his pursuit of new footage. Most modern cars in the subway system no longer have clear windows that allow you to peer ahead through the tunnel. But one day, when Vélez was loaded down with shopping bags, an old train on the C line pulled into the station. “I immediately got on the train and began running through the cars to get to the front, thinking: ‘This is a great opportunity.’” One summer afternoon, he heard thunder, and ran out of his house in the rain to his local train station, which is above ground. “I shot footage of water just pouring down,” covering the windows. “It looks like a special effect,” he says.

© Edin Vélez

Vélez focused on capturing “the landscape of the human face.” © Edin Vélez

Vélez notes, however, that he spends much more time sitting in front of a monitor than running around the subway. He describes the process of retouching video clips frame by frame as “unbelievably laborious.” He breaks each second of video into 30 frames. “I had a folder of thousands of individual frames that made an entire clip,” he says. He used three third-party plugins at once to alter and blur the outlines in each frame, then batch processed the frames. “And then the computer would freeze. It was a very tedious process.” Sometimes, he says, an effect or layer applied to still frames didn’t look right once he saw the moving image, “so I had to start over.” He estimates, “If there are 30 seconds I want to process, I’ll consider myself lucky if I have a finished clip in four days.”

To create juxtapositions, he composited two or three clips at a time, each shot in different locations or at different angles. A crowd of people walking through the station is juxtaposed with a shot of a train heading towards Manhattan on an elevated track. Footage of subway workers cleaning the tracks is composited with footage of trains speeding past a platform. To make the composites, he would process and enhance clips individually, then combine them, softening the edges and decreasing the opacity where the two pieces of footage meet, “so in the best cases, you can’t see the transition from one image to another.” He also used a rig of GoPro cameras, created to capture 360-degree video, but cut it to make 180-degree, fish-eye views of subway stations.

Vélez estimates that he shot about 100 hours of footage over the years, from which he pulled close to an hour’s worth that was combined into the 15-minute video.

He recorded ambient audio—of engines, rumbling wheels, and subway preachers—using his camera’s mic. Then in editing, he altered the sound. “I wanted everything to have an off kilter feel.” He would slightly slow or speed up the sound, and at points he added music. “For subway riders, it sounds familiar and yet unfamiliar.”

To give viewers a chance to see the familiar in an unfamiliar way, he also slowed the video. “When something is slowed, you tend to see more nuance and detail. If someone twitches, or has a particular look on their face, it’s enhanced.” He also kept his cuts long, so the viewer has time to view what’s happening in all parts of the composite before the scene shifts. “What I was trying to do is give just enough [time] to get a sense of what you’re watching, and then move on. Which is like riding the subway: Some eccentric gets on and says something, then two stops down, they get off the train and move on.”

In the years he’s been shooting on the subway, Vélez says he’s never had any unpleasant encounters with human or beast. So far, no one has recognized themselves in one of his videos or stills. The closest was when a woman at an art opening recognized some coworkers. She noticed that he had captured their characteristic body language and interactions in his photo, “and said, ‘This is who they are.’” Vélez notes that he tries to be respectful in how he shows his fellow straphangers, and viewers can see that. “People get the fact that it’s not, ‘Look at the freak show,’” he says. “This is a wonderful alternative universe in which the subway becomes a magical place.”


Innovations in Visual Storytelling: Moving Beyond the Linear Narrative

Choosing the Best Distribution Platform for Your Film

How to Improve Your Video with Better Color