Making Tracks: an interview with Kingston University
As part of Making Tracks at FRAME: The London Dance Film Festival on Saturday 11 June, we were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to collaborate with graphic design and dance students at Kingston University. Out of this partnership was born Consequences, a cabaret-style performance fusing moving image, dance - both onstage and on-screen - and live music.
Working closely with Rachel Davies and Jason Piper, the university tutors leading the project, we have seen this piece shimmer into life over the past few months but much has remained a mystery. Eager to learn more, our creative director Katie sat down with Rachel and Jason for a chat about how the project has emerged and what to expect on the night.
K: Welcome to this interview about Consequences, Rachel and Jason. Maybe you could start off by introducing yourselves.
R: Hey guys! I’m Rachel Davies I work at Kingston University I run the film side of the graphic design BA course, which has just been chosen by the Guardian as the best Graphic Design BA in the country. I work as a filmmaker but I don’t necessarily work in film at Kingston. Anything that sort of moves on a screen - communication.
J: My name is Jason Piper, I am the acting head of the School of Performance and Screen Studies which comprises media, film, TV, music, dance and drama. For 9 years I ran the dance course, which was happily also award-winning and has done some really wonderful things producing a variety of student outcomes that we weren’t expecting, One of those big things is collaborating and expanding into new areas where you wouldn’t normally expect to find a dancer.
K: Ok - that brings us nicely onto the next question. In your own words, what is Consequences?
J: It was primarily Rachel’s idea!
R: Yeah I had to come up with it I seem to remember, around the table very quickly! Consequences is a collaborative experiment between the designers and the dance department, and a set of live musicians [The Cabinet of Living Cinema]. We wanted to do a little show which is very honest about the fact that a lot of the people who are making it are new to the medium of dance-on-screen. The theme of the piece is ‘the history from Muybridge to now of dance-on-screen’. In the loosest possible way! We’ve got a dash through nine or ten different eras and there are nine little 3-minute pieces which are loosely inspired by something of the era.
Consequences Teaser from Whirlygig Cinema on Vimeo.
K: What can people expect on the night?
J: I think people can expect the unexpected! One of the strengths of the project was that we weren’t overly strict or overbearing, for logistical and artistic reasons. Happily the artistic mantra of letting the students run free also suited with us doing a little bit less work, and actually that was the best bit because they’ve come back with some fantastic work. Rachel and I both trust our students to get the job done.
On the night, we’re still getting a picture of what that is. There are some very innovative animations mixed in with live action and there will be live real human beings dancing on stage as well, in sync with some of the films. We’ll also have some fantastic musicians, and we’re working closely with them now to make sure that they’ve got the information they need. Sometimes [the music] is so tight it’s pre-recorded by some of the students who have created their own music. So we’re learning about everybody’s ability to go beyond the remit of being a musician, dancer, choreographer or filmmaker. And we’re finding there are some very happy overlaps and lovely synergies. So what you’ll see on the night is the result of some very nice collaborations and hopefully they’ll go on beyond that evening as well.
K: Tell us about the creative process. What is the relationship between the graphic design students and the dance students?
R: Initially we kind of laid down this theme and it seemed the sensible thing to break half an hour - which is the entirety of the piece - into short pieces for lots of practical reasons. So first off it was a case of forming teams and then those teams being given a brief which is an era of time, for example 1970 to 1985. The way I teach on graphics is to go with quite a clear idea, and try to then see if the work will express that idea rather than drift off too much into its own little world. So collaboration is quite a new thing for our course in this sense. I think designers are used to being more controlled, so it’s been quite a challenge and a good one in lots of ways.
J: I think the students are appreciating that there’s no hierarchy in collaboration, unless you’ve got the money. When money’s involved and you’ve got budgetary control, but even then you might surrender that idea to someone with better ideas. You know, if you’ve got the money it doesn’t mean you’ve got the good ideas. So I think the re-labelling has been incredibly important because you’ve got dancers who make films, you’ve got dancers who make music. We’re all very humble about entering into territories and I think the students have gained some confidence from that. I always been utterly shameless in crossing into territories where I’m particularly unwelcome, and surprised when it isn’t absolutely awful, and that’s something you can’t teach. They have to experience it - they have to cross the tracks themselves - and that’s a beautiful thing.
K: Rachel - because it’s not a traditional filmmaking course that you’re teaching, do you think your students have approached the brief differently from a typical film student? What have they brought to the project which is unique?
R: I think essentially the difference between these designers and ‘filmmakers’ as a specialism is that they can take more of an outside look at it and see what it does for the audience. We’re very interested in audience, how [work] communicates and being succinct. Design is all about very clearly articulated messages.
K: We’ve talked a little bit about challenges but can you talk more about the challenges you’ve faced with this project so far.
R: Challenges have been around communication and getting together. I think that takes confidence. We are all capable of crossing over and doing these things and having shared ideas but there’s a very unknown territory so people are finding that they’re a bit adrift. We are in the era of the collective - last year a collective won the Turner Prize. It’s not all named artists and geniuses, it’s a band of people who want to work together which is a very positive thing in all senses. And that’s because you can make a film with this now [holds up phone], you don’t need to have lots of burly blokes carrying equipment and being all sort of “only I can carry this equipment, dear”. That’s a really freeing thing. It’s all about the ability to have conversations now, and knowing how to manage those conversations creatively so you get somewhere.
J: The only thing I would add is we are trying to produce semi-professional work within an education environment. There are all sorts of pulls on the students’ time, and you’re looking at the currency of assessment, and the extra percentage points. So aligning the goal of an assessment with a show that happens just a couple of weeks after was a really good thing. The most entertaining piece isn’t necessarily going to be the one that gets the A, so they need to do both. I think working within an educational environment has been challenging timewise, but also they’re learning how to schedule their lives, and they’ve probably got part-time jobs as well.
R: I would say it’s so much about that - about time management, because they have a lot thrown at them and they have to keep all the balls in the air at once. So I think that’s the main challenge!
K: My last question is, what are you most excited for in seeing this project come together next week?
R: I’m just worried about what shirt I’m gonna wear. I’m going to be spinning a zoetrope on stage so i’ve been waiting for this moment myself.
J: When you get into a theatre in a way that doesn’t really happen at a film premiere - and I’ve been lucky enough to experience both - when you’re in a theatre and the job is about to be done, being done and then is done, there’s that sense of completion, family, number-swapping, hugging. I can’t think of another place where it does happen - I’m not going to talk about football! When you get to the theatre, all those emails, all of that hair pulling, these grey hairs that I’m developing - it all makes sense. Even if you’ve lost fingers, toes and sanity in the process…
K: You forget about all the pain you’ve gone through.
J: Yeah you do! The idiocy of artistry. I mean we are so stupid and we will kind of go “Oh why am I doing this?” and then next year you do it all over again and make it even bigger for less money. Money doesn’t matter, it’s all about the art and that’s why we do what we do - we love causing ourselves great pain. I’m looking forward to seeing it all in one place.
R: The live productions I’ve been involved in are definitely the best times. I love that thing where everyone’s kind of tech-ing just before and you’ve got the music coming out the speakers, judging levels and things. I find that a really beautiful thing where everybody’s in a team. I’m very romantic like that.
J: It’s the ultimate communist Olympics, where you all have to cross the finishing line at the same time. If anybody goes early - the sound, the lights, or whatever - it’s the only race where you can’t win. I love that.
R: It’s true, we can leave increasingly isolated lives, where we do everything from behind a screen, so I think it is a wonderful thing. It’s just people together doing things - a shared vision.
K: Brilliant - thank you so much Rachel and Jason.
Consequences will be performed during the second half of Making Tracks on Saturday 11th June at the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames. Find out more and book tickets
Making Tracks: an interview with Gabriela Tropia
There are only a handful of days until the return of Making Tracks, where musicians from The Cabinet of Living Cinema will re-soundtrack a series of dance-based short films as part of Kingston's international dance film festival, FRAME.
Joining the programme is Gabriela Tropia with her video triptych This Is How. Gabriela specialises in dance filmmaking and also works as a lecturer at the London Contemporary Dance School. She directed the short Units of Action, which has toured more than 20 countries, including the Live Screen event at Sadler's Wells in London. Her most recent project is an experimental collaboration with contact improvisation dancers, shooting and editing short films within a strict and limited timeframe.
In April 2015, Gabriela showcased her work at the performance-themed edition of ourSpotlights series, screening films including Units of Action and her most recent film Under the Cobblestones, which was awarded at the Passion for Freedom Arts Competition in 2014.
On seeing the call for submissions for next week's Making Tracks, Gabriela decided to make new work to complete her series of three films: This is how you made me feel, This is how my thoughts flow and This is how you sound.
this is how you made me feel from Gabriela Tropia on Vimeo.
We chatted to Gabriela about the story behind the videos, her reasons for submitting and the wider question of what makes a 'dance film'.
It’s been over a year now since we featured you at our performance-themed Spotlights event in April 2015. What have you been working on since?
Well… the main project I’ve been working on is growing a baby. Haha! It’s been going quite well! Baby Maya is 10 months old now. Apart from that, I’ve been trying to keep in touch with work during my maternity leave by lecturing at a few workshops and going to a conference on practice research. I’ve also done a bit of curating for the first time in early 2016. I’ve been asked to make a selection of student dance films for Dança em Foco, the biggest Screendance Festival of Brazil. That was actually really interesting and I might try to do more curating in the future. You can learn quite a lot about making films when you have to select the most interesting ones from a big pile of options. And I’ve also directed the third instalment of the This is How series that will be screened at Making Tracks in June.
We are screening 3 vignettes at Making Tracks, one of which was made with this event in mind. How do these films relate to each other?
The first film of the series This Is How You Made Me Feel was made in a burst of creativity. The idea for the movement material came to me very quickly and in quite a finished form. So I called my brilliant performer and friend Mariana Camiloti and on the next day we were shooting in Waterloo Bridge. Yet the thing that makes them all a series for me is the fact that they each represent a snapshot of a feeling or a state of mind. They are very short and there is not a lot of time to elaborate, so they are a bit like a punch in the face. They also have a similar aesthetics; they were shot at night with very narrow depth of field and have very defined formal structures in the montage.
Your work has been re-scored by The Cabinet of Living Cinema once before at a previous Making Tracks event; in August 2011 we screened your dance film Old House. How did you find the experience, and why did it inspire you to make new work especially for our event in June?
The re-scored Old House was the best version of that film, in my opinion. I really enjoyed the anticipation of watching my film with a completely new live score; a soundtrack I hadn’t heard before, being performed right then and there with musicians and instruments. I loved the feeling of being surrounded by the sounds.
Regarding the new short, I guess I felt inspired by the challenge of making a silent film to be played in that setting, a film that would lend itself for that format. The band plays live and, from what I observed, there is usually quite a lot of improvisation. So I started to imagine how I could structure the film in a way that creates a rhythm but also that allows the band some freedom. That is how I came up with the repetition and variation montage. It’s a bit difficult to describe. I guess people will have to go and experience it live!
The films you submitted for Making Tracks involve abstract movement, rather than a typical choreographed dance routine. What, in your opinion, makes a ‘dance film’?
Wow… This is such a complex question. Many academics and practitioners from the past few decades have tried to delineate the form and every now and again the issue of defining the genre pops up again. I try to be generous here: If you tell me that your film is a dance film, who am I to say it’s not, right?
Having said that, there seems to be a shared frame, a certain attention to movement and composition that is common in dance films. On one end of the spectrum, you can have a very well choreographed piece of dance that has been recorded and edited in a way that very much respects the continuity of the action. On the other end, there are some brilliant works in which there are no human bodies at all, or in which the human movement has been so manipulated by montage that the choreography exists in the edit, as opposed to the body. I see value (and try to create) within the entire spectrum!
Making Tracks will take place on Saturday 11th June at the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames. Find out more and book tickets
Making Tracks: an interview with Jules de Niverville
In two and a half weeks we will head to Kingston for the 14th edition of Making Tracks, the first since January 2014. The event will form part of Ballet Boyz' inaugural FRAME: The London Dance Film Festival and will give ten filmmakers the chance to see their dance-based short films with a totally live brand new soundtrack performed by The Cabinet of Living Cinema.
One of those films is Jules de Niverville's sensational TWITCH, an experimental performance video incorporating contemporary dance, contortion and acrobatics. According to the synopsis, the film "chronicles the life-pulse of a creature in conflict: its stirrings / twitching / convulsions, its agonizing missteps and battle with demons; an ode to overcoming dark energies that lie within". The film was awarded the Audience Award for best short film at Quebec's IMAGE+NATION LGBT film festival in 2015, and the Golden Sheaf Award at the Yorkton Film Festival in 2016.
TWITCH teaser from MSFTS productions on Vimeo.
Jules de Niverville is a Canadian-born visual and media artist with a background in photography and film spanning 30+ years. After starting out as a set decorator in the American and Canadian feature film industry, his career shifted to cinematography and editing, primarily contributing to short dance and circus based productions. Although his photography has been exhibited internationally, TWITCH is his first film as a director/producer.
Jules will be travelling to London in June to attend the festival and experience TWITCH with its audio makeover. We interviewed Jules about the film's original soundtrack, his interest in circus, and why he wanted to have his film re-scored at Making Tracks.
Why did you submit Twitch to Making Tracks?
A friend and colleague who also has her film screening at Making Tracks (Marites Carino – VANISHING POINTS) had spoken to me about the event as the deadline approached. I loved the idea of having TWITCH re-scored, and felt that such an opportunity would be rich with possibilities in exposing me to what else could have been. As filmmakers we become so locked into a particular vision when a project matures throughout the post-production process, that the idea of having the work re-interpreted was immensely intriguing… my film potentially existing in an alternate universe.
Part of your background has involved working on circus-based productions. What is it that draws you to circus and acrobatics as an art form?
Circus arts involve risk taking, pushing the limits of movement in performance, and with coexisting moments of extreme vulnerability and ecstasy, they can create very visceral (if not emotional) empathy. The energy that an acrobat/circus artist can harness also makes for great visual fodder for the screen. I find working with such performers very inspiring as I attempt to adapt their artistry into a narrative or experimental expression, mirroring my concerns and themes touching on the turbulence of life.
Tell us about Twitch’s original soundtrack - how did it come about?
The process for me ended-up working backwards, and felt counter intuitive. I initially had a track in mind when scripting and storyboarding the film, but by the time it was all shot, it had evolved so much that the original soundtrack no longer fit. As an editor, I prefer cutting to music, so I now had to rethink the whole process. I collected sound bites that I found from various sources to map-out and punctuate the emotional read to the film, giving it its rhythm and mood that allowed me to edit. Once the cutting was final I then brought in a composer to score on top of my pseudo soundscape, and recompose using what I had laid out as a guide track. I was very fortunate to find such a talented composer willing to work this way, but it was far from ideal as a work flow.
On the 11th June, you will sit down to watch your film with a totally new soundtrack - one that you will be hearing for the first time and will have absolutely no control over. What are your hopes, fears and expectations?
Firstly, having no control over it will be extremely refreshing. I always worry as to whether an audience will enjoy TWITCH, but somehow this time that stress is shared, so it lets me relax a little! Mostly I hope the musicians enjoy the process and that the film inspires them to freely tap into their creative talent. Other than that, I really have no specific expectations, other than enjoying the moment, and really look forward to how The Cabinet of Living Cinema interprets the film.
Making Tracks will take place on Saturday 11th June at the Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames. Find out more and book tickets
Photo credit: Toma Iczkovits
Whirlygig heads to Standon Calling
From 31 July to 2 August we are at Standon Calling, a music festival just north of London, where we are curating three hour-long short film programmes for the late night cinema slot in the stupendously riotous Autumn Shift tent. On Friday and Saturday we present CHANGELINGS, a programme in two parts exploring metamorphosis, transition and transformation in fitting with the festival’s theme, A Town of Two Faces. Then on Sunday we will send everyone home laughing with WHIRLYGIGGLES, our handpicked comedy showcase of work by some of the UK’s funniest filmmakers.
Our programme will include work by filmmakers we have supported previously at our events, plus a few new names. Our line-up includes: David Baksh, Howard Cohen, Aaron Dunleavy & Joseph Ollman, Carolina Giammetta, Ed Hartwell, Olivia Humphries, Kate Jessop, Martinus Nick Jordan, Klemet, Ben Mallaby, Matt Mead, Spike Morris, Jobie Nam, Jackie Nunns & Angie West, Louis Paxton, Andrew Rowe, Tom Shrapnel & Cameron Lowe, Lily Smith, Andrei Sopon, Tea and Cheese, Franck Trebillac, Victoria Vaughan and Andrew Whittle.
Come and join us! Day and weekend tickets for the festival are still available.
Whirlygig Cinema @ Standon Calling: Call for Shorts
We are thrilled to have been asked to programme the late-night cinema slot in the Autumn Shift tent at Standon Calling festival this year on 31 July-2 August. Consequently, submissions are now open, and we are looking short films that explore metamorphosis, transition and transformation to fit in with the festival's theme: A Town of Two Faces.
We welcome films that address these themes not only through their content and subject matter, but also through their style and structure: films that start in one place, but end up somewhere entirely different; films that lull you into a false sense of security before leading you into dark and sordid places; films that are not necessarily as they first appear.
Submissions should be under 15-minutes long and completed in the last 5-years. All genres and styles are welcome.
To submit, please fill out our online form by Friday 10 July 2015.
Review: Spotlights - Performance
As the days grow longer, we reach the final Spotlight the season, with a focus on Performance, and three filmmakers whose work explores the creative and narrative potentials of the medium.
Gabriela Tropia, a Brazilian filmmaker who focuses on contemporary dance and capturing movement in new ways, showcased her work first. Starting our as a dancer, she came to London to do her Masters in Dance for the Screen, and is now working here, both as a teacher and filmmaker. The first film she showed, Old House, was shot in Singapore for a commission, and shows her early interest in capturing dancers in locations, and drawing the eye to the body and movement in interesting ways. The second film that she showed was called Units of Action, which has been shown in over 20 countries, and explores choreology and Labans’ Unit of Action theory. She finally showed two of her pieces which are part of a series in which she shoots footage of Contact Improv dance, in which she sets herself a time limit of shooting and editing in two hours. Her films are lyrical, evocative and elusive, each one exploring different themes and ideas, but always compelling.
Next up, Isabelle Sieb changed the pace, opening with her comedy musical College Romance. It was her first short film, shot at her university and using student actors. Following that, she showed Secret Life of a Quiz Master, which was a mockumentary, and following a pub quiz master who believes he's a celebrity. The film is warm and funny, with excellent wit and timing, and even has a music video over the credits! Isabelle is a diverse creator, however, ranging from fashion films, comedy, and musicals to horror or thrillers. She is enjoying exploring different genres and styles, her sense of visual style, musicality and timing are incredible.
Finally, David Baksh took the microphone, talking about how he has been a director for over 20 years, but found that “film is the most useless medium for creating anything, if one thing slips away, the whole thing crumbles”, meaning that he often had great ideas that never came to fruition. He found that when song writing he didn't have this problem, and used this perspective to change his approach to films. For example, in his films The Butterfly and The Bombay Highway Code, he explores film as more of a visual poem, with his soothing voice speaking over the images which tell the story that his camera has captured. His films are also quite theatrical in this sense, having a performative quality, or, as in the case of Introducing the Trio Dali and Nobody's Guests, actually capturing performance and allowing the performers a platform to talk about their work and process. There is something about his films that feel warm and a bit decadent, with a focus on performers captured to music and poetry.
As the three directors finished showing their films, Katie brought them all together for the Q&A, opening with the question: What are the benefits of film for capturing performers? As David pointed out, as his work has been curated, he had never noticed how much he focused on performance and performers in his films before. “That's the benefit of curators”. Gabriela adds that starting out as a performer herself, “film makes your brain explode” with possibilities. New ways of looking at the body, of capturing movement, editing and the ways that location bring deeper meanings. Isabelle says that as someone who started out in film, by contrast, she is drawn to musicals, ever since she saw Singing In The Rain as a kid.
Tropia went on to talk about the nature of working with a choreographer, saying “it's like taking a piece of writing and working it into a script”. Although the choreography is an important starting point, she finds it easier where possible to not have the choreographer on set, so that she can work from what they have set in place, and still be creative as a film maker. This is not always possible on a commissioned piece.
Moving on to editing, David talks about story, saying “you choose how you're going to jump through time, you're careful that you hit the beats, and the camera becomes the choreography”. In his more poem based films, he adds, that he finds his story after he has filmed the visuals, and feels out the music and words in post. Gabriela adds, that like the Tartovsky quote, editing is like sculpting with time, “you cut away til you have what you want.”
Sieb was asked about working with her composer, and said “she really gets what I want to do... I'd send mood references, instruments, what I'm looking for”. She works with someone who she feels comfortable understands her and who she can communicate well with, and she has stuck with using the same composer because of this. Talking about music, Gabriela spoke about her use of music. She doesn't like to use pre-recorded music, and feels that capturing location sound is really important, and sometimes works with a composer. In her latest film, Under the Cobblestones, she uses Bellatrix, a well known beat boxer, and has no other music.
So, do the directors prefer to be more structured or use improv? Tropia says that she's a very “structured and organised person”, and therefore her films tended to follow that trend, but her two hour Contact Improv projects combat that tendency in her and stretch her as a filmmaker. “It's about being open and not being able to plan” she adds. When it comes to the question of who their target audience is, the answers are not so definitive. Baksh says that his audience “is primarily me! After it's done, I put it up here or there: if you like it, that's great.” Tropia says she has been struggling with that the last couple of months. “The natural audience would be contemporary dancers, dance film festivals, but I really want to widen that audience for those not into dance specifically.” This is partly why her more recent films have been more political and that her next film has more narrative function like “drama and dialogue”. “My audience might be women in their 20's? Who like musicals?” Isabelle jokes, adding that short films are made for yourself, but features need to be more focused on an audience to be commercially viable.
What's next? Baksh is working on more commercial propositions, including a feature documentary about a co-operative yoghurt facility where all the workers are mentally ill, and which is also the largest producer of yoghurt products after Yoplait and Danone. Tropia will keep on working as a lecturer and promoting Underneath the Cobblestones, before going on maternity leave. Isabelle is in preproduction of a short film, with the support of Creative England, as well as developing Mannequins into a feature film, and working in Germany and LA on different projects.
Then the tables were turned, as Gabriela asked Katie, why is this the last spotlight? Don't worry, Whirlygig will be back in some guise, Katie says, pointing out that after 3 years, it's time to reflect, rest and to think about future directions.
Written by Hermione Flavia
Review: Spotlights - Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Coming in from the brisk blue of a London Spring evening, this months’ Whirlygig Cinema's Spotlights was another success, with three directors showcasing their work in Sci-fi and Fantasy, with themes ranging from the spiritual to the romantic.
Dannan Breathnach, an award winning filmmaker, showed a few of his films, ranging from whimsical fantasies about milk bottles falling for each other in A Love Story In Milk, to dystopian futures where a woman is brought back to life from the past in sci fi short The Question. Breathnach's films show an interest in science fiction and the futuristic, with questions about religion, spirituality and what it means to be human, but he can also, on the other hand, can be wildly funny and irreverent, often in the same film.
Following on from him, Aurora Fearnley, took the stage to tell us about her work. A co-founder of the production company Left Eye Blind, she has made award winning films including Life in the Line and Shades of Living, amongst others, which she showed. Both of the films were quite different, the first being urban and the second being provincial, showing a definite range of interest, but both displayed a sense for the supernatural and fantasy, with themes of death and renewed life and told with lyrical images. Her films felt moving and personal.
Finally, Jamie Stone, whose work ranges from the animated to the orbiting, with an interest in family and humour showed two of his pieces. He started by showing an episode of a web-series titled Space Travel According to John, which was an animation made using soap powder to illustrate the thoughts of a little boy called John as he speaks about what he thinks about outer space. The second, Orbit Ever After is a love story between two young lovers who have never spoken, but who both orbit the earth with their families. It's almost steampunk and humorous in it's portrayal of family, though also beautifully sad in ways as well.
So, what drew these three to the sci-fi and fantasy genres? Breathnach says that he does not feel that he is only a sci fi director, but is drawn to story and characters. He wants to feel like he can create and explore the world of the script, but as he is drawn to sci-fi worlds, he added jokingly “maybe I should specialise?” Fearnley said that she likes sci-fi as a genre because she “is a huge geek, I grew up on comic books!” She went on to say that in this genre, you can talk about any theme or idea, whether that's science or politics, “and take it 100 years into the future, to its logical or extreme conclusion”, where you can construct the entire world of the story and create the rules of that place. “Having a big budget to explore that world would be great!”
When it comes to casting, Breathnach opened with a thought about choosing actors. “When you write you have ideas, you see the characters”, he explains, saying that when he’s in the audition process with his casting director and actors “With actors they become this person you haven't even seen in your head, your own perception can be challenged, can be a constantly evolving, embryonic thing.” All three directors employed a casting director for the casting process, recommending it as opposed to doing it on your own. Aurora adds though, that it can be seductive to want to choose a name who will automatically guarantee you an audience and sell your film, you also have to think about the best person for the role, as that will ultimately make your film. In her case, she was quite taken with a runner as the lead for her film Life on the Line, though she had to convince the casting director that this was a good idea. Stone found working with a casting director was especially useful during Orbit Ever After, because he could ask for his ideal actor, and they would find someone like that. In this case he was lucky enough to get almost exactly the cast he had idealised.
“I was going to have a giant cow, but I had to settle for three sheep” Jamie laughs, when the talk turns to production design. For Orbit Ever After, there were no rehearsals so the actors drew a lot from the production design of the ship the characters lived on. Inspired by the slums of India, where dwellings are cobbled together and tenements in 30's Glasgow where whole families live in one room, the set is quite a design feat, being both a family home and a space craft. The set was simply “turned inside out” for the exterior shots, and the whole design was almost wholly practical rather than CG. Breathnach had a longer experience of production design for his film The Question, as his visual ideas went from being steampunk imagery to a CGI phenomenon over the 2.5 years he was in pre-production. He was largely limited by budgetary concerns, though this does not come across in the film, which looks very professional. He feels that it's important not to have CGI at the expense of story, pointing out how CG companies took his idea and wanted to run with them, but in the end they proved way too expensive and did not further the story.
When asked why they do what they do, Fearnley pointed out that “storytelling is the most important thing you can do, it's shamanistic” because people process life and make meaning of it through story. It's an important function for people because you can change lives and perceptions through a movie. Breathnach agrees, adding that he's always loved films and originally wanted to be an actor when he was a child, so he goaded and cajoled his friends and family into helping him create movies, and found that he had a talent for making people go along with him and do ridiculous things. “It's not always as easy career, and sometimes you have to work for money in order to work for your dreams.” Fearnley works as an editor on other films, and Stone did commercials and music videos as well, though he now works in TV drama, sometimes enjoying that that kind of work is not just an expression of his own ideas, but also of others, as he does not write these scripts and they are part of the wider series.
Finally, the question was asked, what's next? What are you working on now? Breathnach has a few different feature films in the works, he has a pilot script for a BBC drama which he hopes will get picked up. He says that he used to try to do everything on different platforms, from online to ads, but found that focus helped, following one path, but warns that you should beware of getting branded by the success of your first break through piece. Fearnley is working on a film called Pulsar, which is a futuristic retelling of Jonah and the whale. She also has been working on a film called Murmur, about two women escaping life in a cult. Finally, Jamie is prepping a new sci fi drama for E4 called Tripped, which is “Quantum Leap meets Spaced”. He says that he started to write commissions, but found that it stifled his creativity, so he now does it secretly so that it remains fun for him. Hopefully all their dreams and stories will come to fruition, because these are three directors to watch.
Written by Hermione Flavia
Review: Spotlights - Documentary
Audience watch Angie and Jackie's Mark Bunyan: Very Nearly Almost Famous at Spotlights: Documentary. Photograph courtesy of Fahmi Safa.
Coming in from the cold of a London February, the Hackney Attic was cosily packed and candlelit for this month’s Whirlygig showcase, featuring some very talented filmmakers with their different takes on capturing the world around them through Documentary.
Angie West and Jackie Nunns were the first to take the stage, with their explorations of Gay and Lesbian communities and related issues. A delightful couple, they seemed almost surprised by their success as they explained that they fell into filmmaking after spending time at lots of film festivals watching unimpressive shorts, which made them feel determined that they could do better! Their film Angie & Jackie: Final Cut documented this process, their first foray into film making, which showed their first steps, the search for ideas, working with kids, and the importance of the director having the right haircut. They followed this with an excerpt from their film Mark Bunyan: Very Nearly Almost Famous, which originally started as an interview with an over 60’s trampolining champion, who they soon discovered was an unsung hero of the Gay and Lesbian movement and a pioneer of Pride. There was something delightfully playful and adventurous about their works, but also simple, perhaps a little naïve in their straightforwardness, which gave an honesty to their works which was profoundly moving.
They were followed by Asmita Shrish who shyly took the stage to introduce herself, her halting tones almost apologising for her films, which belied the power and incisive vision of the extracts which followed. Her interest is in global social issues, often touching on education and family, with characters centred in the landscapes which were shaping their lives. Initially, a clip from her film Kaloo School was played, in which children in Afganistan were shown making their three hour journey to school, making a powerful comment about education and lifestyle. She followed this with a sample of her film English Class, which felt more personal, with little close ups and cutaways, showing ex-Ghurkas learning the language of their new home. Her documentary Auntie Ganga was the last extract she showed, following her Aunt and Uncle, Nepalese immigrants who had served in the British Armed Forces, which was a poignant look at their experience, both laughter and tears.
Finally, Victoria Fiore showed her works, which sit on an intersection of music, documentary and re-enactment, whilst always focusing on true stories and experiences. Initially desiring to become a musician, Fiore claimed that stage fright had left her feeling that films could help her tell her thoughts and explore her world with a greater sense of confidence than performance. Her works feel quite theatrical in scope and framing, and focus on trying to capture the experience of the subject, not just the filmed reality. This is most clearly seen in her animation Anaesthesia, which uses puppets and shadow imagery to illustrate the recorded story of her father’s memories of being in a coma. Her other works explored feelings of displacement and estrangement from social norms, through a dancer’s performance of what her epilepsy feels like, displayed on public transport and streets, and a father re-enacting his cultural past in order to make his son fall in love with their Gypsy heritage, in her film Gadjo. Through all these works, music shadows and mirrors the emotions, becoming a cacophony to demonstrate confusion, or a family performance to show the past and unity. Her focus is on the kinetic and the individual experience which speaks about larger social issues in a personal way.
Finally, Katie strode up onto the stage and started the Q&A section of the evening, starting with a query about why the filmmakers felt drawn to the Documentary format. As Nunns explained, in their case they had fallen into filmmaking, and their first film was about them making a film, but that said, they are now moving into telling true stories, through fiction. Victoria joked that “to come up with ideas and stalk people, I’m better at so that’s why I went to documentary”, but went on to point out that documentary as a format gives a way into people’s lives and experience. Asmita felt that as an introverted visual artist, it took her a long time to find the medium she now wants to spend the rest of her life working in, and that filmmaking is an inward journey for her, “it’s a kind of good way for me to get exposed to people and get connected to people”.
So what are the challenges of the genre? Jackie Nunns pointed out that she and Angie both work full time, so time and money are their biggest constraints. As for the technical skills that they didn’t have, Youtube was a handy reference and “the filmmaking community have been immensely supportive”. In contrast, Fiore felt that her biggest challenge was access, but felt that her passion and determination meant that she was able to rise to the challenge and even enjoy it. For example, in Gadjo, the Roma community were very reluctant to allow her to film, but she convinced them after 8 months by allowing the patriarch to almost entirely direct the film, as she got the shots she needed and guided the project forward. Asmita quietly assessed that her challenge is that she feels she is still learning the technical aspects of the film medium. She went on, when asked about whether her subjects were self-conscious about being filmed, that they saw her as a “little girl” and that as she was there for over ten classes, their shyness has melted away.
“I want it to be fun” says Fiore, as she talked about what she wanted her films to achieve. She wants to show them as much as possible, and get people thinking, but she always wants people to enjoy watching them. Nunns joked that as originally they had just wanted to go to film festivals, and now they have been all over the world and had their “shallow experience”, they are hoping to capture the stories of the Gay and Lesbian communities, as there is a wealth of material there. Asmita spoke about wanting to touch the audience, and make them feel something.
“Documentary is becoming so exciting right now, especially with hybrid documentary. More documentaries are being put in the cinemas now than a couple of years ago.” Fiore enthuses, when they are asked about the direction documentary is taking and how the genre is defined. Asmita added that as a genre it can be many things, but revolves around the subjects’ awareness of the camera.
Finally, to look to the future, Asmita is about to embark on her third non-documentary film, whilst also travelling back to Nepal to research and shoot a film on climate change in the Himalayas. Fiore is determined to gain access to a city which is closed by the KGB, but also working on 3 or 4 hybrid documentary films, which foreground classical music. And Jackie and Angie are working on two future feature projects that “just burst out of them”, and collaborating with new friends from all over the world. “I just want to say,” announces Jackie, “that I’m having lunch with Lorraine Chase tomorrow, which we’re dead impressed about. The next star in our next short!” Sounds like the future is very bright for our documentary filmmakers.
Written by Hermione Flavia
Review: Spotlights - Art & Beyond
Nick Abrahams discusses his work at Spotlights: Art & Beyond. Photograph courtesy of Fahmi Safa. See more photos of this event.
Hi everyone! Another cracking event at Whirlygig this month with our Showcase on Dec 3rd: Art and Beyond. Three very different filmmakers with approaches that all defied easy definition were up to show their work and talk about their practice.
In the centre of the screening room, Erica Stanga’s 16mm projector stood strident over the proceedings, like a cinematic relic from a more romantic era of cinema. She likes to work on film because she feels you get a more interesting, filmic effect than on video, plus you can “scratch the film up and throw it in the washing machine” to get all kinds of interesting effects. Showing a strong influence of 1930’s films, from the look to the subject matter, her films range from the purely organic to the loosely narrative, always experimenting with the form and delving into the mythic, religious and nature itself, all accompanied by the gentle hum of the projector. Her films feel dark, with light alleviating or illuminating at times, and with splashes of red. Indeed, Erica herself was wearing black with bright sparks of red.
From there, a man in a cat suit and a lumber-beard danced over to me and gave me a fortune cookie, and we were cordially invited into the whimsical world of Nick Abrahams. Claiming that he likes to be outlandish to hide his shyness, there is a delightful sensitivity and spirituality that emanates from this man. Showing us films about the way in which the music of Depeche Mode became a spiritual experience for the modern Russians, to a film about a man who finds he is lost and is guided by a snail and befriended by a fox, with a soundtrack by collaborators Sigur Ros. His films range from the more utilitarian documentary style to the more filmic and fable like, but always show a sensitivity for the humanity of his subject and grounded in music to create meaning.
Another change around, and the delightful Noriko Okaku glided to the front of the room to introduce us to her work in animation. Music seems to be an influence here too, as she creates videos for bands and other commissioned works, as a freelance animation director, so that she can spend six months of the year “creating for herself”. Her works are colourful, designerly and full of movement and meaning. Sometimes they are bright, colourful, other times dancing like a Busby Berkely musical number, and then changing again to explore our place in nature, but always taking found elements to create the pieces, which she then recycles by turning the bits into jewellery.
From there, our lovely Katie took to the stage and started the Q&A with questions about why the creators chose film as a medium. While Okaku also works in other formats than animation, and recently used painting in a group show, she realised that she is largely out of practice and likes to have more than one frame to express her ideas. In contrast, Erica likes to experiment with film, and dislikes the overly digitised look of video, though she did in fact start out in film by recording the changes in sculptures over time. And, of course, you can’t throw a video in the washing machine to see what effect it has, or paint on it with nail polish, like you can with a reel of film, she points out.
“Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinema blew my mind. I don’t think I would have got that watching it on the TV at home.” Says Abrahams. So how does the audience receive your work differently if it’s in a cinema or a gallery? As Abrahams pointed out, the location and the kind of place you watch the works can heighten the meaning and impact. Okaku points out that her films in a gallery allow for multiple viewings and different layers of meaning to be created, though perhaps it’s a long time for people to stand. Stanga added that she liked to film people watching her works, and felt that galleries offered a different kind of viewer or audience than a screening.
So what are their inspirations, and what are they working on next? Stanga says her range of inspiration is huge, and it “would be easier to explain how I breathe”. At the moment she is finishing her last film and reworking a few things. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” she laughs. Okaku says she takes her inspiration from everyday life and the world around her, feeling that she internalises and processes events in her life through visualisation and metaphor, which inform her work. At the moment, she is working on a documentary in collaboration with another artist, which will be using a lot of collage techniques. The trailer looks really incredible! And Abrahams, is working on some feature scripts. “It’s all very commercial! I don’t know why, but I want to make longer films now.” I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!
Written by Hermione Flavia
Review: Spotlights - Screenwriting
Hello all, from Whirlygig Cinema!
With the bitter colds of winter apparently here already, spending an evening drunken and warm and discussing these short films has never felt so good. This month's Spotlights event focused on screenwriting, with a line-up of great filmmakers to suit.
Dee Meaden's career has spanned ten years of evolution though fine art, sculpture, experimental film and eventually onto our stage as a producer, writer and director. Dee opened the evening with segments of her films Sibling and Some Things Mean Something, both of which I rushed home to view in their entirety after being captivated by her intense and mysteriously emotional directing style (cheesy, I know, but I really did love them!).
While my notes of the evening are fairly consistent, I find an irritating blank page from Zak Klein's turn on stage; I was quite honestly chuckling too much to remember to write. First warming us up with his surreal and hilarious comedy shorts, we saw a clip from Facebook-crisis-comedy Deleting Emily, which managed to keep the laughs coming and Then came The Followed, a dark and twisted drama about a stalker victim support group. Zak then rounded off his time with the brilliant meta adventure of The Elevator Pitch. Jolly good show!
Spending his impressive career ascending through film production as assistant director, writer and director, Paul Murphy introduced himself by confessing that he often struggles to enjoy the writing process, focusing his work around the performances of his cast. First came the charming Crossed Lines about a relationship coming to blows through a sexual advice radio broadcast, followed by his moving and beautifully written STOP. Then came Wipeout, a love story of obsessive compulsives that provided a playful end to the evening's shorts.
Our Q&A began with a question of how our directors first put pen to paper, their process of concept and techniques of developing these concepts into film. Dee explained how Sibling was a concept that she had slowly come up with over a six month period without writing anything down. In this way she was able to easily adapt the narrative of the film to any new ideas that came up.
Zak's recently finished sci-fi script had been a two year process of step outlines as taught in his Screenwriting MA, despite previously resisting this technique of thorough planning before sitting down to write.
Dee's opinion was that her love of preparation created her love of plot outlines, and that “vomit drafts” can lead to a writer committing to early concepts that quickly become integral to the plot, becoming difficult to remove.
Paul's focus on character and performance are what drives his narratives when writing, asking only what might be natural to come next for this character. This quickly opened up the discussion to the origins of characters and their development. Zak stood firmly in the camp of writing for plot and structure, using characters to service the story he wants to tell. Only when writing later drafts would he figure out their finer details and nuances.
Dee's technique usually consists of creating “A character WHO...” and of granting them one defining characteristic to serve the story, separating character and plot and then developing further with her cast on set, being open to dialogue and scene changes through collaboration.
The subject of improvisation was brought up, testing the directors on their creative flexibility as the discussion continued. Dee had described her openness to this flexibility and to alternative styles of narrative, clearly demonstrated in her film Sibling and its many quirks, whilst Zak found himself a virgin to the territory, rarely straying from his script.
His counter measure to this approach is often to re-draft after rehearsals, allowing for fresh creativity without jeopardising the shooting schedule - something of paramount importance to an independent filmmaker.
Paul agreed that logistics can often crush the opportunity for experimental filming or improvisation, going on to describe his expectations of a cast to build upon his scripts: “If you get really good people then trust them and they won't let you down in a hurry”.
The topic of the editing process was brought up by a curious member of the audience, asking whether our directors' stories had ever evolved during this part of the filmmaking process. Dee found this part of the production cycle to be her least experimental. Her main focus during editing is usually on trimming scenes as much as possible, while Paul has found that his style of minimal plot and maximum character has allowed him great freedoms in the editing suit: “There's a film you write, a film you shoot and a film you cut”.
As a first timer to Spotlights, I must say I was delightfully surprised at how entertaining the evening was, so a big thanks to all of you who came out and to our film-makers, Dee, Zak and Paul. We hope to see you next month!
Written by Charlie Smith