Joseph Ernst has created a unique project: a documentation of Londoners in the 21st century which has eschewed the usual high tech approach in favour of an old hand cranked wooden 35mm camera. This short film is accompanied by a soundtrack by Bat for Lashes that emphasizes a warm hearted feeling at odds with the more familiar tales of rioting and isolated disfunction. I spoke with Joseph to find out more.
How did you pick the scenes you shot?
From the very beginning, we wanted to focus entirely on crowd shots, and try to fill every frame with people. This forced us to focus on certain locations, at certain times. We started with a much longer list of locations. And we shot in most of them, although not every location made it into the final film. Interestingly though, it was usually the locations that I thought would be impossible to film in that were the least problematic (for example, at the royal wedding, or outside the Emirates Stadium just before a match). Whereas some of the shots I had assumed would be easy, were much more complex such as train stations – I won’t name which ones!!!
Why did you choose the beatific tones of Bat for Lashes as the musical soundtrack? it creates a very relaxed and laid back ambience, even when we are at notting hill carnival. What do you hope this achieves?
That was a bit of luck actually. I was looking for something piano based, to allude to the old silent films – something timeless. I found a CD of instrumental tracks by Bat For Lashes and gave Moon and Moon to editor Adam Marshall to use whilst we were working on the cut. We needed a mesmerizing instrumental track, to pace the film whilst we edited. And this just worked so well, much better than anything else we tried over the following weeks. So we approached their record labels with the project. It is fitting that the artist (Natasha Khan) was born in Wembley, not far from where we filmed some scenes at the Ace Café.
There’s real joy to some of these scenes with people really enjoying the interaction with the camera – was that a surprise in this day and age of mass documentation?
No. That was always the intention. Or rather, that was what I wanted to try to demonstrate. It was a bit of a gamble, as there really wasn’t much precedence for this kind of thing. Most people shy away from a camera, ignore it, hide from it, turn away, especially in the era of the digital camera. And here we were, trying to get people to look at the camera, to interact directly and freely with the lens, in the same way they would have 100 years ago. But I was convinced that it could be done, with the right set up.
However, I should probably point out that the first 4 or 5 set ups we did resulted in near zero interaction with the camera. And it was pretty scary as for a moment I thought this whole project might be a total failure. But we had bought the film, and we’d assembled a great team of really talented people, so there was no choice but to go on, and refining our set ups, locations, angles, etc. And by the end of day one, we shot the scenes at Oxford Circus during rush hour, and I knew we would be OK.
Was it important to you that people responded to the gaze of your lens? You don’t try to hide it. Why was this?
Yes, absolutely. To capture people reacting to the camera, happily or not, but reacting directly into the lens. I had stumbled across the incredible films of Mitchell and Kenyon (from around 1900), and wondered if it would be possible to produce such a document today, about this day and age.
So this was the thesis of the project – that people would react. At times it was hard to achieve, in other instances it was very natural and infectious and we wouldn’t have to do a thing. But each time was unique. I knew I wanted to focus on crowd scenes, not on portraiture, but we never knew what we were going to get, and we only really had one take per setup. Initially I wanted to use the exact same camera Mitchell and Kenyon used, but that wasn’t feasible. I knew it had to be an original old wooden hand cranked camera though. I would never have got this kind of footage with a digital camera, that is for sure.
Does it surprise you to learn that I spotted two people I know? Despite it’s vastness London can also be a very small place sometimes…
Wow! Two people? Yes, that is surprising. But then again, on roll one of day one, I also caught an old friend as he cycled past on his way to work! So you are absolutely right – London can be small. (mine were both on bikes too! – Amelia)
What did you learn through the process of making the film?
Technology is a wonderful thing. When filming on a 100 year-old wooden hand-cranked camera, the limitations are quite real – so whilst it was an amazing experience to make this documentary and work with 35mm film in such a hands-on way, I don’t think I would do it again. The process is so complex and expensive, it just doesn’t make sense. Digital is the way.
Why did you decide to do this project and where do you hope it will lead?
I do lots of projects, all the time. I normally have around 10-15 on the go at any one time. Some of these projects naturally come together, but most fail or die along the way (which is probably not a bad thing!). I particularly like working on film projects. I love the way you can show things from a completely different perspective (my first film – Feeder – was filmed entirely inside a mouth!). But film is also the most time consuming and expensive medium to work in, so I have to be very picky about which film projects to press ahead with. And a film is no one-man-show either, so you really need a great team to help pull it off. This particular film would probably not have been possible without the help and support of the brilliant producer Gwilym Gwillim, and DOP Oliver Schofield, and my ex-colleagues at Channel 4. Lets just hope this project leads on to many more!!!
Follow Joseph Ernst‘s projects on his Londoners facebook page and on his main page as well.
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