Ken Jacobs is the greatest filmmaker you've never heard of. For 50 years he has made movies that reveal how cinema works - how it casts its subtle illusion on the brain. Films such as Ontic Antics Starring Laurel And Hardy, which uses found footage of the comedy stars, and his epic Star Spangled to Death, have made him one of the most important figures in the American avant garde. 'He helps us realise what cinema is capable of being,' according to Jacobs scholar Simon Field. Jacobs (right) doesn't tell stories. His focus is the rich minutiae of film that's usually ignored by filmmakers. With the aid of his special projector, the strobing 'Nervous Magic Lantern', he examines the textures and shadows of cinema. He also celebrates the myriad ways that the light hits the cinema screen and bounces back into the visual cortex of the viewers. 'I'm interested in exposing the means of creating illusions,' Jacobs says at this year's New York Film Festival, where he's screening Capitalism: Child Labour and Dreams that Money Can't Buy. 'My films are about looking. They are about seeing, and about valuing what's being seen.' Jacobs' approach to filmmaking has much in common with painting. He has a background in fine art and says abstract expressionists were a major influence. Artists such as Jackson Pollock were interested in revealing the mechanics and processes of painting in their work. Jacobs liked the idea and decided to apply it to film. 'The paintings that were happening when I was coming of age were paintings that showed the process - brushstrokes on canvas,' he says. 'Not pictures of cows in the meadow, not naked ladies, but paint applied with a brush. And you saw that. This was very important to me. I made a shift from seeing the illusion of the painting to seeing the process of painting itself. But I was still concerned with the illusion, even though I knew how it was made. That dramatic contradiction became very important to me.' Jacobs dissects the mechanics of cinema, but his films don't destroy the illusion they gives us. 'Even though I know how a film is made, I still get caught up in the illusion of cinema. It still makes me cry,' he says. 'Filmmakers cry at the movies - it's in the nature of film. A part of the brain can't understand it's watching a movie. Movies are too recent in the history of humans for the subconscious to realise it's looking at something that's not life. There are hundreds, maybe millions, of years of conditioning which tell that what we see is real.' Jacobs is fascinated by the fact that actors and objects in films are real people and real things. As we talk, he works on a new version of his 1969 film Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son. This film 'examines' a 1905 film shot by Billy Bitzer. Jacobs has become fascinated by a face he's noticed in one of the crowd scenes. 'I come across a film and it's literally a historical artefact,' he says. 'But it's history with a difference - history that captured a life within the frame. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to find a street scene in which people are walking around thinking of everything else except for the fact that they are going to appear in a movie in a hundred years' time. That is really amazing. You can see them walking, doing whatever they are doing. And, with a bit of empathy, you can even see them thinking. Their minds are occupied. They are really there.' Jacobs uses actors in his films - they're not all abstract or found footage. But although they have to act a role, Jacobs likes to be able to see the real personality of the performer underneath. Many of his films feature the late Jack Smith, an underground actor and filmmaker known for his wild epilogues. Smith could act, Jacobs says, but he was no marionette. He had a vibrant personality, and it showed through. 'The real person is very important to me,' Jacobs says. 'Not just the part that they are playing. When you see a movie today, you hardly see the actors. 'When you pierce through the skins of modern actors, you just find a method, a process. The person who is the actor has been subsumed within. It's like peeling an onion skin. Underneath there's just another layer of onion skin, and under that another layer. It's become harder to find the real person. Actors are all process today.' It wasn't always so, says Jacobs, even in Hollywood. 'In early talkies, you can find the actors. Like James Cagney, or Joan Blondell, the actress who appeared with him quite a lot. You can sense where they are coming from. They are real people in a movie. You can sense the actual person as well as the process. The real person didn't arise from acting school. It arose from life.' Jacobs' Dreams that Money Can't Buy has no actors. It's an abstract cinema performance. Mutating shapes, projected on and outside of the cinema screen, prompt viewers to use their imagination, complemented by an electronic score by Rick Reed. Jacobs, who has spoken of cubist cinema, approximates a 3D look - '3D without spectacles, available to single-eyed people', the filmmaker says. He projects it himself with his Nervous Magic Lantern, which has a strobing effect. The film helps viewers exercise their nervous systems, he says. 'Watching the tangle of cinema is an exercising of the nervous system,' he says. 'There are many multiple activities going on in a film. It's like a human nervous system. My work is very much about understanding the optical nervous system that is connected to the brain. Cinema exercises the nervous system. It makes us work when we're watching it. I used to look at paintings that made me work. The easy stuff didn't really engage me. I liked to work at it. That's carried over into my films.' Experimental films are often purely concerned with film form. But Jacobs' films have a socio-political thread. His 1959 work Star Spangled to Death, now available on DVD, covers aspects such as race, religion, the monopolisation of wealth and the dumbing down of citizens to make them happy to take part in wars. 'If the work allows it, I'll make social comments. But that's not my primary idea. I'm not that good a person, I'm not that socially conscious. When I made Star Spangled, I was a younger person. When I made that, I thought it was a sin to do a purely abstract work. But the primary motivation has always been to bring something alive, to make something that has vitality.' Life is what it's really all about he says, mentioning his actor friends Jack Smith and Jerry Sims. 'Jack and Jerry are living people on the screen. They have a vitality. The films have my own vitality in them, too. They're not just pictures of life - they're expressions of life.'