The method was simple enough: Warhol loaded a 100-foot roll of film into his 16mm Bolex camera, attached it to a tripod, pointed it at the subject, turned it on and left it running until the film ended. Sometimes, Andy Warhol even left the room, leaving the portrait sitter alone with the camera. It was like a staring contest only he could win. Each roll could film about 3 minutes and that was that. Next in line.
Between 1964 and 1966, with his assistant Gerard Malanga, Warhol filmed 472 “Screen Tests” of well-known personalities and unknowns who passed through the Factory, his famous studio, social hotspot or underground club – according to the time of day – at 231 E. 47th St. in Manhattan. According to Malanga’s explanations years later, the idea of calling them “screen tests” was another example of Warhol’s particular sense of humor: “None of these screen tests amounted to giving those people the opportunity to go on in the underground film world,” “It was kind of a parody of Hollywood.”
Some of the mini-films were used in Warhol’s conceptual projects, such as Thirteen Most Beautiful Women or Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys and in his multi-media happenings from 1966, Up-tight and Exploding Plastic Inevitable, with The Velvet Underground and Nico providing the music to accompany dancers and a psychedelic light show. One of the most reluctant sitters was Bob Dylan, who “charged” for his trip to the Factory by taking one of Warhol’s famous silver Elvis paintings known as the “Double Elvis”. He eventually gave the picture to his manager, Albert Grossman, in exchange for a couch. Years later, Grossman’s widow sold it for $750,000. Let’s hope the couch was really comfortable.
“Beauties in photographs are different from beauties in person. It must be hard to be a model, because you'd want to be like the photograph of you, and you can't ever look that way. And so you start to copy the photograph. Photographs usually bring in another half-dimension. Movies bring in another whole dimension. That screen magnetism is something secret—if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it, you'd have a really good product to sell. But you can't even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen. You have to give screen tests to find out”. – ANDY WARHOL in the chapter “Beauty” from the book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again (1975).
“The resulting films drastically reduced the roles of director and viewer alike. The director’s function was limited to choosing the subject, setting up the shot, turning the camera on and off and deciding whether or not to exhibit the result. And the viewer, for the first time in the history of the commercial exploitation of persistence-of-vision, was relieved of the obligation—perhaps even a large part of the desire—to pay attention to the screen. The standard ‘film-as-wallpaper’ definition of the early Warhol films doesn’t stand up, since their entire meaning and effect spring from the fact of their projection on a screen in a darkened room.” TONY RAYNS, English writer and film critic, contributor for the magazine Sight & Sound from the British Film Institute, in Andy Warhol: Film Factory (BFI, 1989).
“When movies were invented, their critics claimed there was one thing they couldn’t do: capture the soul, the distillation of personality. Ironically, this turned out to be one of film’s greatest capacities. Operated close up, the movie camera lets us read, perhaps more clearly than any other instrument, a subject’s emotions. As his hundreds of sixties, seventies, and eighties photo-silk-screen portraits attest, Warhol was compelled to portray the human face. The Bolex let him home in on flickering expressions and shifting nods, a near-instant raising and lowering of eyebrows, a quick sidelong glance, pensive and thoughtful slow noods, or a three-minute slide from composure into self-concious giddiness–fleeting emotions that neither paint nor a still camera could capture. Andy’s ambition for the Screen Tests, as for film in general, was to register personality.” –TONY SCHERMAN and DAVID DALTON, in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (HarperCollins, 2010).