Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Interview w/ filmmaker, Allan Brown (Canada)

 "A man from outer space sets out to free his father from a hospital. In the course of his journey, he becomes bathed in his own inner space of emotional closed circuits, alienation, rings, halos, loops, orbits, cycles, echoes and dream logic."  

In 2016 we watched  Silver, a Lo-Fi and experimental feature-length Super 8 science fiction film, at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival by the Canadian filmmaker, Allan Brown. It intrigued us and fired our little brains up. Afterwards, we bumped into Allan and his partner in the queue for another film. They were both really laid back and friendly and so pleased to hear that we liked Silver. We found ourselves discussing the Scottish independence referendum, comparing and contrasting this with the campaign for independence for their own Québécois people. Something about the film and our brief conversation got us thinking that it was finally time for us to try this out for ourselves. So we did a lot of research and got hold of some Super 8 equiptment and stock on eBay and started experimenting with analogue filmmaking.

Later, in March 2017, we screened a short by Allan Brown, Uncle Cluck, as part of the Avant Kinema / Film Panic Moon Moths event in the Scottish Borders.


AK - Who are you? Where did you grow up and where are you now based?

AB - I'm a Canadian, Quebecois, who was born in Shawinigan and has been based in Montreal for 30 plus years.

AK - Could you tell us about the various films you've premiered at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival over the last few years?

AB - I've had 3 films screen at Alchemy (2016, 17, 18). Silver, Re-mesmerizing from Ormstown to parc Lafontaine and most recently Wishful Thinking. Silver was the most significant and memorable since it was the world premiere of my one and only feature film. Alchemy has become an important festival to me. I felt very welcomed and comfortable when I was there.

AK - Could you give us a brief history of your involvement with creating moving image works?

AB - It's a bit of a rocky road but basically I was in CEGEP (junior college) and was a disheartened science student that needed a fresh start. I switched to a creative arts program and discovered filmmaking. A year later I was at University studying film production and becoming disheartened again by the politics of the program so I switched to literature then anthropology and in a long roundabout way found myself in film studies to complete my BA as a part time student. During my studies in literature and anthropology, I continued to make films; working with a group of friends in a similar position. We relied somewhat on NFB (National Film Board of Canada) grant programs for emerging artists for services like processing and mixes. This being the late 80s early 90s, any sort of moving image production was prohibitively expensive, so I came to a crossroads. Thus after completing a few films with NFB grants, I switched my artistic creation to woodworking where I built furniture. I returned to film work in 2004 during the 'digital' revolution. I continued to shoot in film but I was able to edit and finish digitally and most importantly I could work the sound without having to go into a crazy expensive mixing studio for a 6 track mix. Thus, since 2004, I've been producing work on a consistent basis.

AK - What were the major influences in the arts and in life which encouraged you to become involved with this field?

AB - Foundational influences are primarily a couple of amazing teachers in college, a couple of friends from the same era of my early twenties and various jobs in oil refineries and a steel foundry and my birth town of Shawinigan which was the most industrialized town for its size in Canada and continues to this day to be a huge influence in how I see the landscapes of the world.  As for influences from the art world, there are many many but foundational influences are the New German Cinema of the 70s, eastern European writers like Gombrowicz and Schulz, expressionistic painting, musique actuelle, industrial anything and brutalist architecture.

AK - What does the word 'experimental' mean to you?

AB - For me, it's like saying 'independent'. It’s just a way to categorize films for the viewer.

AK - At Avant Kinema we have a particular interest in low budget, DIY or LoFi forms of creativity. What are your thoughts on films, music, zines or other artworks created in this way? Is this a way that you personally like working? If yes, would that be for aesthetic reasons or more because of budgetary constraints?

AB - DIY or Lofi are definitely a choice. I think of my films as artisanal. I have no interest in working in any other way. Budgetary constraints are always an issue no matter the size of the production. The more money you have the more you spend. Things can be pretty upside down now as people can spend loads of $$ trying to make something look LoFi. In the end, it's a choice of control. I don't have anyone telling me how to make my films. If someone gives me a whack of money, maybe I'll change my mind.

AK - What technology or processes do you favour in your work? In what ways do you make use of digital and/or analogue equipment or methods of working? Do you work exclusively with one or the other or do you like to experiment with a combination of both digital and analogue?

AB - I'm not a film purist, so I make use of both. My shooting format is almost exclusively film (S8 or 16mm). My editing is done entirely in digital and my screening format is pretty much always digital except for one off S8 reel projections (in camera editing). For the moment, it works for me.

AK - Do you think that analogue photography / filmmaking still has a place in the 21st Century? 

AB - As long as film stock is being produced, filmmakers will use it. If labs start disappearing, there's a problem. Not everyone wants to process their own stock.

AK - Could you talk us through the whole process of how you generally go about creating a work, from the initial concepts through to the finishing touches?

AB - I don't have a set method because every project has its own way of developing. It will start with a bit image as much as it starts with a sound bite that's interesting. I just try not to force a project. I usually know when it's not working so I leave it be. It'll resurface at some point if it's meant to. I do like to randomly shoot 'events' (horse races, county fairs, demolition derby etc) without any purpose at the moment but could become something.

I jump back and forth between working the image or sound. There's always one that leads the other. Most of my editing is very laborious, so I know what I want to do, it just takes time to get there and lots of trial and error. When it's time to shut it down, I don't labour over that. I think it good to let go without too much trouble.

AK - What methods do you use to generate ideas and stimulate your creativity?

AB - My mind tends to wander and be over stimulated so it's more about focusing down... putting some headphones on, listen to Zoviet France, and read something I know nothing about... well at least that seems to work at the moment.

AK - Could you tell us about your experiences of coming to Scotland to attend the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival for the premier of your first feature, Silver?

AB - Premiering Silver at Alchemy was awesome. Having a feature is a whole different experience than a short. The cliff is higher. It was my first time in Scotland so everything was wonderfully new. Also, the festival being in a town like Hawick made it very special. Everyone was super welcoming and interesting. It felt real.

AK - Have you been able to get much in the way of funding - towards travel to festivals or for your filmmaking in general?

AB - I haven't applied for too many production grants. I've received a couple of research grants and several travel grants. Arts funding is a difficult landscape to navigate.

AK - Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions, Allan. x 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Interview w/ Grant McPhee on psychological thriller, Far From The Apple Tree

As part of a series of interviews and articles on processes of Creative Collaboration, we spoke to Scottish director, Grant McPhee, on how he went about developing a workable script with screen-writer, Ben Soper, during the early stages of his forthcoming feature, the atmospheric, psychological thriller, Far From The Apple Tree. 

In March 2017 we were contacted by Grant McPhee, the Lothians-based feature director widely known for Big Gold Dream, an in-depth and painstakingly compiled 2015 documentary on the history of the Scottish Post-Punk scene, and the Indie record labels, Fast Product and Postcard Records.

Grant had enjoyed reading an Avant Kinema blog post we'd written on our recent
experiments with expired Super 8 film-stock, Caffenol home-processing and handcrafted film. He asked us if we would be interested in joining the shoot for his forthcoming feature for a couple of days to help build an archive of analogue footage he could use in the production. We were bowled over to be invited to take part in a project of this scale and immediately agreed.

Our own short films are generally exuberant, zero budget endeavours, created by a crew of two: us. We write, shoot, direct, usually perform, edit and score everything ourselves. This is our Big Collaboration and it's the way we've always worked. We've never really had the resources to expand our team beyond the binary and we're not sure we'd want to relinquish that control anyway. So, naturally, we were excited to venture into that other, alternative realm and find out first-hand how a full-blown feature, with reasonable budget and professional crew attached actually functions.

It was a fascinating experience, which we plan to write about in-depth in a later article, but essentially our part in the overall mechanism of the production was to join the Second Unit for the first two days - along with performer, Ashley Sutherland, and photographer, Lucas Kao - to work on capturing specific material, whilst Grant directed the activities of the First Unit, shooting scenes with the lead actors, Sorcha Groundsell and Victoria Liddelle. Our own particular remit was to help generate an authentic archive of analogue footage using vintage Super 8 and 16mm cameras and various film-stocks, which we home-processed on-set using Caffenol (coffee, vitamin c, washing soda) and a C41 kit, alongside gaffer / operator, Mihail Ursu. We later handcrafted some of this material by directly scratching and painting the film. 

You can see some hints of this raw analogue footage in the following clip:

Our own particular specialism was only a small part of a much larger whole involving an array of formats, including 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, Betamax, Pixelvision, and Red, which Grant McPhee skilfully captured, over a nine day shoot, in collaboration with his crew.
Unless you're talking about a solo act (the works of some power hungry Auteur Maximus, creating expanded selfies in seclusion) then you could say that all films are, in essence, collaborative ventures. Yes, there are hierarchies in place - the producers and the director are, of course, in charge of keeping everyone focussed on delivering the Grand Vision as successfully as possible - but it really is a team effort.

For Far From The Apple Tree, as with most film projects, the first stage of this collaboration began with the concept and the script.

Before joining the production, one of the producers, Olivia Gifford, sent us the latest draft of Ben Soper's script, which he had written in consultation with Grant. We read this quickly and were both impressed with the vibrancy and the increasingly intense atmosphere captured in the text. Even just as typed words in a pdf file we got a strong sense of this story as a visually striking chiller, very much set in the contemporary world but with the look and the feel of an arthouse 1970s / Wicker Man era horror.
We wanted to find out more about how this intriguing script and the concepts behind it had initially been created and invited Grant McPhee to answer a few of our questions on this aspect. 


AK - Where did Far From The Apple Tree begin? When we got involved in the project, everything seemed to be pretty much in place, as far as the producers, crew and actors. Ben Soper's script seemed to have already gone through several rewrites. At the very start of the project, did Ben bring an embryonic version of the script to you or did you work on the concept together? 

GMcP - I approached Ben, as I've known him for many years, and knew that he and I like similar films, which is always a good start.

AK - Which films and TV in particular do you both share a love for?

GMcP - This is probably more myself, and definitely some Ben will not like, so don't want to do him a disservice with this often uncool list, from the top of my head. All probably have a good chunk in Far From The Apple Tree: Danger Diabolik, Modesty Blaise, Smashing Time, Performance, Fascination, The Living Dead Girl, The Wicker Man, Flashdance, Top Gun, Far From the Madding Crowd, Don't Look Now, Five Dolls For an August Moon, Vampiros Lesbos, Carnage, Pied Piper (Donovan), Nosferatu (Herzog, most of his 70s), Cathy Come Home, Lucifer Rising, The Asphyx, Up The Junction, The Avengers, The Final Programme, Zardoz, Psychomania, Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude, Dr Phibes, Betty Blue, Diva, Phenomena, Stage Fright, Demons, Man Who Fell To Earth, Midnight Cowboy, Demon Seed, Witchfinder General, The Iron Rose, Opera, The Big Blue, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Nikita, Deep End, Tommy, Willy Wonka, Deep Red, Suspiria, Tombs of the Blind Dead, Frantic and ‘80s Photo Fashion Movies.

AK – So, other than this exhaustive list of shared film and TV loves, how did this project get kickstarted?

GMcP - A few years previously I'd read a feature script which Ben had written that I was going to work on as the cinematographer. That film was unfortunately cancelled but I thought the Apple Tree project would be a good opportunity to work with him as I really loved the other script he'd written. I'd made two slightly non-linear features – both experiments in trying to combine my love of music videos and minimalist composers with 60s/70s Euro Horror/Pop Films mixed with Ken Loach. Neither were fully successful as the scripts were never fully realised to the extent they needed to be. I wanted something loose which could be improvised but not, err made up like the previous efforts were. Basically I needed a well written and solid story to base my ideas around, and have them toned down to be a bit more accessible. I thought Ben was the right person for this! A lot of this was all based on whim and feel, which is how a lot of the film was approached. Every film should be more than just a 90 minute DVD, and I like to think of my films as entire projects where the full process is the main desire. A film which people can later watch is a nice bonus, so this is how the Apple Tree project, began and it's still developing.

AK – What did that initial part of the process involve? 

GMcP - Ben is a far better writer than I am, and part of making a film is getting people who can do things better than you. I presented him with some themes and he sent over a few different story ideas which he could base a script on, so I picked the one I liked best. This would eventually become the Apple Tree film.

AK – How did you both move those ideas forward towards a working script?

GMcP - Ben would present further ideas via email and skype discussions with myself suggesting what worked for me and what didn't. Followed by further bouncing back.

AK - Was a lot of that work just the pair of you trying to narrow down exactly what film it was you wanted to make?

GMcP - For these micro features you have to be 100% passionate about what you are doing as it takes so much energy out of you, otherwise you'll just give up, so it's important you get what works for you at the start. After a little while Ben had an embryonic script that felt right and I could put all my effort into. He was incredibly understanding about this slightly unusual situation. It was quite different from the final shooting script.

AK - How long did it take to turn these initial ideas into a shooting script?

GMcP - Ben worked hard but the overall script writing period was very short. Not as short as the one week/two weeks of my other dramas, but short. nonetheless. This would have been in January 2017, and we chose a shoot date of March which resulted in pre-production happening during the script writing.

AK - That's a pretty quick turn around. That level of enthusiasm and forward momentum must seep through the whole production.

GMcP - There was a definite changing of production circumstances reflecting and making their way into the script, which I loved. I like to work quickly as it keeps the excitement level up and having everything else go on at the same time only added. It was purposely never 100% finished. The most exciting parts of making a film, I think, are the moments when you fill in the gaps on set, that's when I think you get into an interesting and creative rhythm.

AK - Were you already thinking of making use of multiple formats, both the analogue and the digital, at this stage? Are you able to picture the shoot or the edit during the scripting stage?

GMcP - During the writing an initial problem arose as one of the main ideas I initially sent to Ben was very much wanting to have a character finding archive footage of a relative, and through continuous watching discovering secret messages hidden within. Because this would feature heavily it opened up the options of the non-linear and liminal structure I wanted and allowed us to play with those missing onset gaps. And this was very important for the script, as we knew there would be refinements and new ideas in the edit. The editing process is incredibly important to me, as that's where a lot of magic happens. So I was very aware of the options available here, and the options available in the writing. In some ways they are the same to me, just at different points in time.

AK - That's an interesting way of looking at it.

GMcP - From working as a crew member I know the importance of shooting for the edit, and tight scheduling, but for me there's an important part of the editing process - trying to fit two shots which don't cut together and coming up with a solution that feels inspired, is often better than planning. Sure, many times this doesn't happen, or you end up with some structural issues but some of my favourite moments came from this, and for that I always leave that option open. It's so important to get a script right, but there are also so many other parts of the process that are interconnected. A good writer and editor can do wonders!

AK - Again, highlighting the collaborative nature of filmmaking.

GMcP - Going back to the messages hidden within the archive, the simple option would have been making them as simple as possible but this did not feel right for the project. The main theme in the script is reaching for something just beyond your reach and I wanted that reflected in nearly everything we did: an opaqueness that felt like there was almost something of meaning there, if you stretched yourself far enough. To further complicate our lives we decided that our main actress would also be playing the person they would be reacting to in these archive elements. The archives were always going to be shot on film, and without time for them to be returned to us from a professional lab, before we finished shooting, that issue offered up the potential for key plot devices to be lost and the story not make sense. Being aware of this constraint massively reflected into what was in the film. Really there was a sense of 'what might happen' being written in, probably coming from my documentary background. Rather than just using a video camera with a film effect in order to guarantee we got the shots needed, the simplest non-simple alternative option of shooting film was using home developed film. Because of the unpredictability of this process the results could be equally damaging if key plots were based around them. We knew we would only have around 10 days to shoot.

AK - Does having the knowledge of those time or monetary constraints hinder you during the scripting?

GMcP - The easy option would have been to write a tight and refined single room horror but we wanted to always be working beyond what we thought could be achieved, and never the easy choice. Obviously some things had to be refined to suit our budget and location, which handily Ben knew. This really simplified the process and made his writing much more vivid – certainly helpful for a director. To a large extent this location – a large country house – dictated a lot of the drama. As a lot of story is set here it also helped production schedules. 

AK – Would you mind telling us which different titles this film went through? When we joined the project the script was entitled Aberration.

GMcP - The Girl in the Mirror and Ghost in the Night were considerations. Aberration was a working title but always going to change. 

AK – How did you settle on the title, Far From The Apple Tree?

GMcP - Far From The Apple Tree was chosen as I liked Far from the Madding Crowd, and is an appropriate line in the film. I'd prefer not to have a phrase, unique titles are preferred for many reasons, but I think it fits well. 

AK - How closely does the finished film follow this script?

GMcP - Overall there were very big differences in the shooting script compared to the end product. All of Ben's dialogue is there, there were very few changes to that. The first two acts follow the same story mostly as the script but the final act, as mentioned, was always going to be adapted to circumstances. In hindsight there are many things which could be refined and added to, though this was due to only ending up shooting for 9 days. We could have had something much tighter and more accessible to a wider audience but I'm glad we stuck to our guns, as this approach allowed us to get things we'd never be able to otherwise. We lost a lot in terms of what could be achieved by being safer but I think what we gained made up for it.

AK - Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions, Grant. x

Tartan 14 - Far From the Apple Tree from Year Zero : Tartan Features on Vimeo.


Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Super 8 at Alchemy + Motion to Scottish Parliament

Press Release for Avant Kinema (Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian)'s performance at this year's Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival


May The Fourth Be With You!

Borders artist-filmmakers, Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian, return to the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival this coming Friday, 4th May, with "Ghost Worlds (Animal Rites)", an Expanded Cinema performance, part of the festival's free-entry "Celebrate Super 8" event at the Auld Baths.

Sarahjane: "We've been experimenting with analogue filmmaking for a couple of years now and we've turned into a couple of Super 8 Geeks. It's shocking! We buy up long-expired filmstock on ebay, shoot our films using vintage cameras, do our own processing using household products and even handcraft the footage by directly colouring and scratching the film itself."

Roger: "Yeah, a year or two ago we uploaded an instructional video to our Avant Kinema YouTube page. It's basically our step-by-step guide to home-processing Super 8 film using the Caffenol recipe (cheap coffee, vitamin c & washing soda). We just discovered the other day that it's had 10,600 views! We had no idea. So that means there's at least 10,600 other Super 8 Geeks out there wanting to spend their days setting up Pop-Up Super 8 labs in their kitchens and bathrooms."

Sarahjane: "It's a growing trend. Anybody can shoot a full HD, high resolution video on their mobile - that's easy! - but it takes determination and dedication to use all these old, abandoned 20th century technologies, filmstocks and techniques to create something fresh and vivid."

Roger: "We've had some great help in this from VACMA (the Visual Artists and Craft Maker Awards) who gave us a grant to buy more filmstock and equipment, including a telecine machine so that we can make digital scans of our films."

The pair also recently received support from an unlikely source when local MSP, Michelle Ballantyne, put forward a motion relating to their work in the Scottish Parliament.

Motion S5M-09501, lodged 12/12/17:"That the Parliament wholeheartedly applauds the film-makers, Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian, both of Galashiels, on being shortlisted for the 2018 Margaret Tait Award; believes that the Margaret Tait Award is the pinnacle of experimental moving image art in Scotland; is aware that the eponymous award is in honour of Margaret Tait, the eminent Orcadian film-maker, who died in 1999; recognises that Swan and Simian have screened films throughout the UK, Europe and North America in 2017 alone, and extends its emphatic best wishes to them in their pursuit of the award and for the future."

Sarahjane: "We were quite blown away when we discovered that on line. We couldn't work out how it had happened, but we're honoured to have our work highlighted in this way."

Roger: "Yes, we're more than happy to accept the support of the Scottish Parliament in our filmmaking endeavours."

Swan and Simian are joined in the "Celebrate Super 8" event by Dutch filmmaker, Jaap Pieters, and Canadian, Kyle Whitehead.

Sarahjane: "We were also invited by Alchemy to host a couple of workshops with local kids on how to put together a video-art installation, along with film-artist, Kerry Jones. It's mindblowing to see the young talent out there. The kids have a real understanding of what makes a good artwork and have come up with some great visual and conceptial material for their installation at the Alchemy Festival."

Fr@gile, by the Young Alchemy Moving Image Makers, is presented between the 3rd tand 6th May, 11am to 6pm, at the Alchemy Space, 39-41A High Street, Hawick, TD9 9BU. The installation "explores communication throughout the analogue and digital ages – the barriers we face expressing ourselves in everyday life and how we perceive and translate words and actions into our own understanding." The project was funded by Cash Back for Communities and Youthlink Scotland.

Swan-Simian Website:

Avant Kinema blog:

Avant Kinema on Vimeo:

Avant Kinema Group on FaceBook: