Two artist filmmakers (Ben Jeans Houghton and Sophie Michael) were commissioned by Northern Film & Media and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art to write and direct a new short narrative film. Here they have been documenting that process.
Sophie Michael: Early Bird - The Shoot
A lot has been packed into the small window of time since my last blog entry; pre-production and the shoot. Casting eleven year old Bethan Oxley as my lead brought a much needed new lease of life into the film, which had up until then only existed on paper. In preparation for her performance came the set build, which was gruelling month or three on the part of Maisie Henderson of carbooting, ebaying, skip /attic raiding, begging, borrowing, crafting by any means possible the exact objects which would together set the scene. Usually this is something I would insist on doing alone, and at the beginning of the commission I felt conflicted about handing over this to somebody with different eyes and sensibilities. But Maisie’s background in sculpture, determination that everything is achievable, imagination, shared passion for objects and unflinching belief in the project meant that I am not sure how I will build another set again without her. Her acute attention to the detail of the story mean that nothing was in place without a reason – she knew what I had envisioned in my head better than I did.
Despite my lack of experience everyone was extremely patient with me learning on my feet, and happily there was a relaxed feel on the shoot. In being forced to hide my nerves, I fooled myself and ended up enjoying and getting a buzz from the four days. They say directing is addictive – I can understand why. This was of course also down to being supported by extremely capable and hard working crew - James McAleer made operating the camera look like a walk in the park, for our generous gaffer Dave Morgan any change of lighting was ‘ni bother’. Eve Kershaw so did a wonderful job with costume and continuity. In turn I felt completely at ease and freed up from the usual technical worries to concentrate entirely on the choreography of the scene and performances – this was a real luxury.
One thing I struggled to some to terms with was how quickly things on the shoot had to happen, especially on the day that we shot all of the exteriors. Usually I would spend hours composing one shot, but I realized quickly that there is a limit when you are working against the clock. I felt very aware of the pennies and the patience of the kids running out. This is when I most appreciated having James act as both producer and cinematographer, as he managed the time perfectly. Placed in the middle of both practical and artistic positions, he knew what we still needed and perhaps more importantly when to stop. I also think it was a good call on James’ part to keep the crew small, because children could forget we were there more easily, giving more natural performances. There was next to no dialogue so at times the atmosphere felt very focused in on their subtlest of actions.
Right now I am spending time getting to know the footage, tinkering with rough cuts and working up to composing the next vital half of the film; the sound and edit.
Sophie Michael: Early Bird
The Artist’s Cut scheme appealed to me because for a number of years I have found myself walking backwards into a world of narrative filmmaking; my attention turned towards every element of film making but the ‘story’.
This began when I enlisted the help of a young girl called Astrid to make a film. Inevitably, she outshone anything else in the frame, and moved into the central focus. I have ended up with a series of films that performs her ‘tweenage’ years in constructed retrospective spaces that are as artificial and nostalgic to her as they are to me. Astrid may have started out as an agent in animating the objects in my sets – like in-camera effects - but our collaboration has woven a narrative into the films that is far trickier to unpick.
The Artist’s Cut has taken me by the shoulders and turned me around to face what I have been doing blindly and develop it – naming those things was the first step - script writing, and collaboration. The first few weeks of the scheme we were spoilt with a series of workshops, lectures, one to ones, all with industry professionals at the top of their game – it will take me years to process all of it. I felt like I was undertaking an intensive course - only I can think of few institutions that could invest so much time and support, and that combine teaching of traditional narrative filmmaking with an expectation for us to break the rules, stir it up with the practices that we have established already.
As I was learning, I also developed a story and script with Kate Leys. I started very much from scratch as there was a huge black hole where a story should be, so the research and incubation period took a good couple of months of talking to people, looking through educational film archives, reading, writing endless notes and ‘brain dumps’. Writing does not come naturally to me, but Kate was fantastic at suggesting very visual and concrete methods of attacking the story. I covered the walls of my studio in colour coded post-its, sat around the kitchen table pretending to embody different characters, drew maps, imagined walking around the landscape of my central character in order to really get to know her; a ten year old girl.
I have decided to set the story in 1965, because I want the film to take place during a period during the 20th century that is close enough for me to have a relationship with but no actual experience of; but that is also far enough after WW2 for this not to be in the lived memory of the ten year old lead. My parents’ generations were children in the 1960s, so there is no shortage of brains to pick. My next door neighbor recalled watching the launch of a satellite nicknamed the Early Bird at Easter time that year as a child on a home-made television, and I saw the promise of a story; what would a world of live television and communications mean to a disconnected child of that ‘space-age’? I was curious about what might happen when these new live areal images of the planet collide with a moment during the tweenage years that Kate talked about – a shift in perspective to ‘the helicopter view’. It turned out that only was does she have a wealth of knowledge about script writing, but also children, having three of them.
The launch of the Early Bird Intelsat 1 became the historical event around which the girl’s drama revolves around and eventually, as Kate kept assuring me, the script wrote itself. I can’t thank her enough for her patience and incredibly considered feedback on even my most fragmented and muddled pieces of text.
The more I learn the more I realize that and everybody seems to play to a different set of rules – Samm Haillay has been incredibly helpful on this front. He has encouraged me to stick to my guns and formulate my own; push for things I feel strongly about and question everything that could potentially dilute the project. This advice is coming in very useful now as I find myself at a point where I am taking stock and making decisions – pre production.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment I have had to make to my own perspective so far is that directing is not autonomous as it so often is with making art. It is made up of many voices – and this has certainly changed the way I view films – like trying to listen for each individual in a choir. I can’t deny that it will take a few attempts at falling backwards before I fully believe that others will catch me, having held so tightly onto the reigns up until now. And with so many aspects of this process being new to me, I find myself stood quite a long way out of my comfort zone. But my fear quickly dissolves when I remember that every person I have met during the scheme so far has been hugely inspiring, experienced, and passionate – including producer and cinematographer James McAleer, who I feel very excited and lucky to be working with over the next two months. Casting of three children is next on the agenda – perhaps the most crucial / fun part…
Ben Jeans Houghton: That Thin Place
I have been making films on and off since I was 15, starting with a mini Dv camcorder, then using bigger dv camera’s, then super 16mm and found 35mm slides. Over the last few years I have using found footage and video enabled HD Digital SLR’s, namely the Canon 7d and 5D, that take a variety of old analogue SLR lenses with manual aperture rings, which are my preference. My film ‘That Thin Place’ for The Artists Cut is the first time I am handing over the camera to somebody else who will be shooting the film on a RED Scarlet as I direct.
This step away from the camera is a huge thing for me to do, because so much of my film making happens in the filming. I discover my ideas by chasing them, like a pig that sniffs out a truffle it can’t yet see. I wander around researching virtually and physically, travelling to suitable environments to find places or conditions where things will unfold and when they do I record them. These environs also act as a stage and by spending time in them I start to realise what has and does go on there and what could, searching for the fictive protagonists that will open up these landscapes and subjects. For me film making is about exploration and most effectively it happens without any one fixed agenda to start from.
But thanks to the gentle and wise persuasion of executive producer Roxy Bramley and Producer Samm Haillay (Better Things), who are both involved in the mentoring aspect of this opportunity, I have realised that just because I can and do do a lot of what constitutes a film on my own I need not do it all by myself every time. The Artist's Cut has helped me to step away from some of the methodologies I rely on giving me access and space to my ideas in a new way, and for that I am very thankful.
The thought of leaving my camera aside and floating above and beside it has been daunting to say the least, but with the help of my other mentor Kate Leys (Trainspotting) I have learned so much about story and narrative, about editing content before it exists and in this sense my horizons have expanded not shrunk as was my worry. I now understand that a lot of narrative drama is about saying what you need to in as little time as possible with as little extra information that detracts from what you are trig to communicate. Those details come through in the visualisation of the story but the story itself needs to read well, without everything else that will help it do what it needs to along the way.
I think writing a story is almost like finding or even hearing a story. In this sense I believe much of film making is about fostering and bowing to the directions of a kind of inner compass, about going places and asking questions of them before knowing what you really think. These places can be areas and ideas of inspiration but also areas and ideas that may cause concern. I have learned more faster about the world by questioning the problematic than by simply aspiring to capture and communicate beautiful imagery.
The Artist’s Cut has been an invaluable opportunity to step away from the lens and lend my thinking to a wider perspective, giving me an inimitable opportunity to gain critical distance which is something I know I have struggled to foster in the past when I am wholly absorbed in the kind of thinking you need to enter into during cinematography and camera operation. Especially when realising narrative drama.
Making films for me is in ways intuitive, a giving of your self over to the momentum of the idea or story you are trying to communicate, in this sense you become like a copper wire connecting the thing of interest to those you hope may be interested. In the same way a spiritualist medium creates a connection between an other worldly thing and a person ready to receive it, cinema for me is about using narrative to communicate something ineffable, and is about understanding the way people see and think, using your audience as much as a tool as any other part of your apparatus.
This is not just devisive though, there is a dialogue and often the hope I have for my films is that they hold a mirror up to those who watch them so that they may better see how amazing they are as implicit collaborators in the generation and digestion of meaning. Films don’t exist without a person to watch them, to love or hate them or to be indifferent.
By making at once complex and simple visual structures that unfold through an arc, ideas can be communicated that can not simply be talked about or expressed in a static image or object. Ideas that exist within time as we do, that have many facets, echoing the pacing of our lives, but in a condensed way.
The reason this opportunity to create narrative film and learn from industry professionals along the way is so important to me is because I see story telling as the bedrock of communication. Fiction is such a useful tool to communicate complex ideas that can be so easily miss represented by trying to remain unbiassed and representative. I share Werner Herzog’s sentiment that he coined “Ecstatic Truth”; to get closer to the truth of things through a fiction, than say a documentary could.
In the same way the Greeks used the fantastical imagery of mythology to mediate and express complex ideas very much rooted in our everyday reality, I believe that through fiction something essential may be transmitted and made tangible. We get a kind of snow blindness to images and ideas, our sensory numbness can betray chances to gain clarity and understanding and by seeing a fantastical, surreal or really banal version of them unfold on the screen we can side step our blindness to the essence of fundamental things that affect our lives.
Films help us to learn in a very similar way to dreams. The nightmare about being late or not passing your exam or hurting somebody serves an incredibly practical purpose, to prepare you for something by putting you through your paces without coming to any real harm or harming others along the way. You wake up and bar the psychic echo still palpable in your waking mind, you remain pretty much unscathed and the repercussions of those realities bare little physical affect on your life. But the point is you learn from them if you take notice and you change.
So in that way films can teach us things, in situations we need never truly be in, and because we are sentient and can empathise and invest in them despite their not existing in the reality we tend to give precedent to, we can make great progress in our lives and concrete our decisions about who and how we want to be, based on the leaps of thought and emotion we are granted at the hands of a film.
I was never taught to make films by anybody, but I learned so much about what I wanted and didn’t want my films to do from watching a lot of cinema and tv. It was important for me not to adhere to any one school of thought when thinking about how to go about communicating something through films. I feel like by being open in a different way to each project I have managed to abate some of the anxieties that are inherited from learning someone else’s art. In this sense I have had a freedom to do what I want and how I want it. Almost everything I hold dear I have learned through my own trial and error.
Over the years my film making is becoming more simple and self reflexive, I have got better at finding what I want and letting it lead me to communicate something of itself to other people and a lot of this is about humility in the face of things I find far more interesting than myself.
My admiration and respect for directors like Werner Herzog, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Chris Marker, Harmony Korrine and David Lynch has always given me hope that other ways of seeing, being and making are indeed achievable and more so that these people have found a way to go beyond the weighty conventions of representation that are endlessly replicated in Hollywood.
If I had a manifesto it would be something like “to abate, or at least not contribute to, the hyperventilating dystopia of dead imagery that is endlessly replicated to the point we can no longer see our selves in the sexless sex and the loveless love that saturates our eyes from all angles”. These hollow forms are created by those invested in steering peoples lives to someone elses agenda. I don’t want to walk around a museum and gasp at stuffed animals, I want to see them in the wild and in those moments learn to know something of myself. Which is why it is such a fantastic opportunity to be given to take everything I have learned from making art and bring it into the world of film.
Having attended a plethora of wonderful events and educational opportunities hosted and provided by NFM, I feel very humbled that in collaboration with BALTIC, who continue to support my practice through exhibition opportunities and conversation, I am getting the chance to make this next chapter of my work and inevitably reach more people.
Now I just need to make all of my dreams a reality, and I can’t think of many better things to spend my days doing.