Talking Mr. Turner

This post was contributed by Helen-Frances Pilkington, who is currently studying for an Arts and Humanities PhD at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Lifting the lid on some of the mechanics of preparing and filming Mike Leigh’s award-winning Mr. Turner biopic, Birkbeck’s 43 Gordon Square cinema welcomed Dr Jacqueline Riding (historical consultant), Sarah McBryde (production manager) and Tim Wright (artist) for a panel discussion chaired by Birkbeck’s Dr Kate Retford for Arts Week.

Shooting the Royal Academy exhibition scenes

Timothy Spall on the set of Mr. Turner with director Mike Leigh (far left), and art adviser for the film, Tim Wright (centre)

Timothy Spall on the set of Mr. Turner with director Mike Leigh (far left), and art adviser for the film, Tim Wright (centre)

Sequences of the film were set in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Based on the 1832 catalogue and the original invoices, the team reconstructed the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms inside Wentworth Woodhouse by creating a structure inside several of the rooms.

To fill the walls, the team tracked down as many of the identifiable paintings from the catalogue as possible to recreate the actual rooms and hanging layout. To transform the high resolution scans into the paintings, the team varnished over 250 high resolution images.

The scenes in the film highlighted the material and commercial culture of the period: whether your work would sell or be seen would depend upon where it was hung and what it was next to. Varnishing days were opportunities for artists to amend their paintings to try and get them to stand out from the crowd in a highly competitive market-place and, in one scene, Turner does just that by adding a red buoy in his sea-scene.

Painting like Turner

To shoot the film, Timothy Spall (playing Turner) would need to be able to paint like Turner. To aid Spall in this, Wright developed a foundation course in fine art to teach him the basics of drawing, painting, perspective etc. for two years. After this, they studied Turner’s unfinished works and copied others to understand how Turner painted and what personality traits these techniques revealed.

This enabled Spall to bring out the physicality of painting and the different speeds of working. As part of this training, Spall also learnt how to instinctively handle brushes, palates and cloths which was essential for the film due to Leigh’s improvisatory approach.

Understanding Turner

As historical consultant, Riding was responsible for the research coordination of the actors and extras on set. What became apparent from research is that whilst much had been written on aspects of Turner’s life, his familial relationships, especially those with women, had been only slightly researched.

These areas required more research input but also gave greater rein to the actors’ imagination. Riding noted that all the actors needed to inhabit their characters so dossiers were created for all characters. This enabled the actors to develop a naturalness with their character and their props so as to wear their learning lightly in the improvisations. All agreed that the characters in the film were informed by immersive research but were ultimately the individual actor’s and Leigh’s imagination of that individual.

Filming Turner

McBryde’s role was to project manage the logistics of the film including transporting everyone and equipment to the sets, catering, toilets and power. McBryde regaled us with a couple of anecdotes on the challenges faced.

For the Cornwall location which stood in for Margate, the lanes were too narrow to get the power generators down so McBryde had to arrange with the utility company to get a temporary power point installed for the duration of the shoot in Cornwall. For the Rain, Steam, Speed painting, McBryde had to source not only were the engine and carriages from different locations but a track of the right gauge had to be found to maintain the historical accuracy.

After the close of the formal panel, discussions continued over a convivial glass of wine and an excellent evening was had by all.

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Ways of viewing

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s Postgraduate Certificate in Journalism.

Roth_masterclass_allBirkbeck’s audiovisual hub, the Derek Jarman Lab, presented two events in the second week of November. Ways of viewing was an important theme in both. How does the subjective outlook of someone in an audience influence the way that individual views a film? How does the way an audience sees a film differ from the way the filmmakers see it? And what control do filmmakers have over how an audience views their films?

That theme chimed with elements in the Derek Jarman Lab’s current project , a series of films to be launched shortly (watch this space) and referred to in the Lab’s “Masterclass with Christopher Roth”, which a group of film enthusiasts attended on Monday 10 November.

Contrasting approaches to editing

Christopher Roth

Christopher Roth

Film director Roth began the session by contrasting different forms of editing – one (citing Hitchcock’s Rear Window) where the editing of scenes illustrates an explicit, overriding, directorial narrative; the other (citing Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) where the sequence results in something more open, which recognises that audiences tend to find for themselves links between different visuals and sounds with no explicit connection.

The intricate layering of images, words and sounds that emerged from the examples of Roth’s work, as presented at this session, resembled the more open approach.

Finding connections

That way in which viewers find links between different sequences in films could be seen as comparable with the way ancient peoples saw constellations when looking at stars.

In film each viewer may find a particular narrative link in a given sequence of images, so that one film may generate as many narrative perspectives as viewings, with each audience viewing differing from the way the filmmakers view that film.

Bartek Dziadosz, the Lab’s Managing Producer, looked at this tendency of audiences to create narratives in his presentation on Wednesday 12 November, when the Lab presented a session entitled “What Film Can Do For Your Research Career”, part of the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research series on developing careers in research.

Reflecting that filmmakers must remember audiences bring their own outlooks to viewing and their own senses of narrative, Dziadosz emphasised that filmmakers cannot assume their own views of a film will be communicated or accepted by its audience.

He illustrated this later in the session with reference to his own film about Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, describing how some saw the film primarily as a personal portrait, while others viewed it as a ‘sociological essay film’.

Dziadosz also discussed ways of using visual methods in humanities and social sciences, and those with a particular interest in this area should contact him via the Derek Jarman Lab.

Reaching audiences

After Dziadosz, the Lab’s Head of Post-production, Walter Stabb, described how film offered an exciting and, for many, new way for researchers to engage with peers and students. He also looked at some of the platforms researcher/filmmakers could use to show their work, including film festivals, academic bodies, galleries and online streaming.

Platforms for new filmmakers to consider include –

Planning your film

Lily Ford, the Lab’s Head of Production, then offered a practical overview on planning your film, setting out points to consider, ranging widely – from defining intentions, purposes, aims and objectives, and potential audiences, to obtaining funding, to planning a shooting schedule and even groceries for a crew on a shoot, a vital area, because film crews can shoot – like Napoleon’s armies marched – on their stomachs.

Accompanying the session was a handout summarising the points, which could also serve as a template for planning a specific project.

Ford also referred to the Lab’s potential as a source of advice and equipment, open to approaches from those with proposals for film projects.

Next steps for researcher/filmmakers

As the potential of the internet expands, the signs are that new ways of making and using films, combining media, bringing them to audiences and interacting with them will continue to grow, with vast implications for universities.

Those interested in exploring these and other questions further should contact the Derek Jarman Lab and ask about its courses in filmmaking.

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Making video work for you with Birkbeck’s Derek Jarman Lab

This post was contributed by Nick Eisen, an alumnus of Birkbeck’s Postgraduate Certificate in Journalism.

Birkbeck’s Derek Jarman Lab, runs four-day training courses that address the internet’s increasing demand for video in getting your message across. For an example of the Lab’s work see their video Ways of Listening with John Berger and Tilda Swinton.

The Lab says in its publicity that “Film can be a fantastic tool” and “can add greatly to the impact of your work”. As a Birkbeck alumnus working in media, I decide to try the course, which takes place over two weekends.

On the first morning, Managing Producer Bartek Dziadosz shows me to the Lab, in the basement of 36 Gordon Square (entrance round the corner in Endsleigh Place), a few doors north of the School of Arts. Also there are students Nikki and Liz, from Pittsburgh, and Yunus, a Birkbeck economist with plans, one day, to make a film about personalities in economics.

The day begins with an introduction to the equipment – lots to take in, but much becomes clearer with practice.

The afternoon brings classes on film theory referencing Roman Polanski’s Chinatown; an exercise filming a conversation between two gallant volunteers from the Lab team, Bea and Lilly; a class from Lilly on film production, and one-to-ones on the projects we have each planned for the course. Homework is to prepare shooting schedules for our pieces.

Shooting

Next day, we shoot. Nikki and Liz are making films about London; Yunus casts me as Alex from a Clockwork Orange in a tour of Anthony Burgess’s local haunts; I am filming an interpretation of the poem The Spider And The Fly.

Yunus and I start off at a Burgess local – the Duke of York pub. It’s shut. Yunus improvises by turning an interior sequence into an exterior one. He has me standing outside the pub, grinning and holding a glass of milk like Malcolm McDowell as gang leader Alex from Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange. I am surprised how quickly I ignore strange looks from passers-by.

For my project, my main sequence is to speak the poem I’ve chosen to camera. I want to shoot this in a pub, but settle on a restaurant where the staff prove friendly.

Playing a human spider in a crowded restaurant doesn’t bother me. I’ve now grown used to acting strangely in public.

Yunus and I adapt to circumstances through the afternoon – that’s movies… !

Back at the Lab, Bartek downloads our work and gives a class on lighting.

Editing

Left - Right: Walter, Yunus and Liz

Left – Right: Walter, Yunus and Liz

The following Saturday, Walter, the Lab’s Head of Post-production, takes us through editing with a lesson on theory, then an introduction to the equipment – software and computers now, not the bulkier mechanical desks of yore – but we still talk about films and cutting, though celluloid and scissors have practically gone.

Practice brings increasing confidence, and Walter shows how intercutting and juxtaposition of images and sounds can resonate in surprising ways.

Paul, the Lab’s Head of Teaching, helps us with the further editing that comprises the final day, which ends with a screening of some of our work. Nikki has created a beautiful collage of London. Yunus’s use of effects and music suggests a vivid take on A Clockwork Orange, and my interpretation of The Spider And The Fly is kindly received. I can see how I would do it differently now, which of course is part of learning.

The Lab team have been friendly, patient, supportive and encouraging, making for a well-structured, rewarding two weekends.

Taking the course

At £250 (for Birkbeckers), this course is great value, particularly for those with audiovisual elements in their studies, though it’s a significant sum on a tight budget. So maybe start by confirming what you want from the course and how you expect it to give this to you.

To find out more, contact The Derek Jarman Lab.

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