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FAMLAB: Experts talk about film, archive & music

  • FAMLAB panel

FAMLAB panel: Ian Neil, Robert Ziegler, John Maclean, Mary Burke, Jeanie Finlay, Briony Hanson. Photo by Jahel Guerra Roa.

Feb-Mar 2016 | BFI, London

Wendy Mitchell reports on highlights from the first day of our Film, Archive & Music Lab, including a case study of Paul Kelly and Saint Etienne’s How We Used To Live and a discussion between film and music experts.

All this week we're staging a Film, Archive & Music Lab (FAMLAB) [full info here] as a training and inspiration partnership between British Council's Film and Music teams alongside BFI and PRSF.

Kicking off on 29 Feb, 16 participants from East Asia and the UK have been treated to expert advice and tales from the front line of filmmaking, including a case study of Paul Kelly and Saint Etienne’s How We Used To Live.

The 2013 feature is an archive project celebrating post-war London, directed by Kelly in collaboration with the band Saint Etienne. Band member (and author) Bob Stanley co-wrote the script with author Travis Elborough, and fellow bandmember Pete Wiggs composed original music for the feature.

Kelly said that the team had made some music-related films before (such as Finisterre) and was inspired to try an archive film after seeing Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City. “I was fascinated by it. I told Bob about it, we watched it a couple of times. We thought, 'There has never been an archive film made about London.'

"Because we’d done three films together, Making a film with archive seemed like half the film was already done,” Kelly added with a laugh. He later warned that it would have been easier to shoot all-new footage.

The project originated with the idea of looking at London across the 20th century, as it was depicted on film, but Kelly soon realized he wanted to concentrate on colour films from after World War II. The story evolved in themes, not in chronological order. “When we first started we were trying to let the narrative lead the film, but you are limited with the archive footage you are using, you have to let the footage lead,” Kelly said.

Wiggs added, “When it was chronological that presented a kind of problem. When it switched to jumping backwards and forward (in time), that freed it up. I wanted to make a kind of timeless sound.”

Elborough explained that Ian McShane’s narration was meant to be “the voice of memory in a way… With Ian’s voice, you can sense he’s lived that period with gusto and joy and the youthful explosion of those times.”

The team did extensive research in the British Film Institute’s National Archive, taking several years. As Stanley noted, they saw way too many scenes of Piccadilly Circus or the royal family. “We had this dream we’d find all this rare stuff, and there is a lot of footage but much of it looks the same,” he said.

Kelly added, “A lot of footage you’ve imagined you’ve seen and maybe it was a photograph…You invent a lot of footage through memories.”

Kelly wanted to stay true to the archive films they found. “You let the archive lead, look at the footage before you start imposing your ideas". They did some grading to help the clips flow together, and changed the frame rate from 24fps to 25fps but otherwise wanted the authentic old films. “We were quite strict about keeping it as authentic as possible.”

The film has subsequently toured with live performance of the score. As Elborough said, this has opened up new audiences, especially non-Londoners, “People were seduced by it more, rather than it just being an archive film about London.”

Music and film experts

Monday afternoon also welcomed a panel of experts talking about commissioning or selecting music in film: directors Jeanie Finlay and John Maclean, BFI Film Fund senior executive Mary Burke, music supervisor Ian Neil and conductor/arranger Robert Ziegler.

Slow West director John Maclean, who is well versed in music from his years in the Beta Band, said that he drew on his own extensive collection of vinyl records when starting to think about the music for Slow West. “I started with making little mix tapes…it was Alan Lomax and child ballads, and trying to find European music that was in America at the turn of the century. I would just listen to it now and again when I was writing, but never be directly influenced by it.”

In fact, he said he “keeps music off it for as long as possible,” certainly on set and even at rough cut stage. “If you cut to music it can become a bit music video-y. I wanted the scenes to work without music and then you add it and it elevates it,” he said. He eventually secured Jed Kurzel to compose the score.

During her work at Warp prior to her current role with the BFI Film Fund, Burke pointed to synergies between the film and music divisions there, noting that she was able to ask Broadcast to score Berberian Sound Studio because she knew the band's music had a similar vibe to the film (set in 1970s Italy), and they could also fit the budget. “Broadcast sounded like they were the 1970s anyway," Burke said. "Those marriages of creativity can sometimes come together between the idea of the film and the artists you know.”

Working with an artist that’s not a usual composer for hire can also benefit the production, she added: “The hunger of a band can be really exciting and infuses an excitement into the process of making a film.”

Music supervisor Ian Neil warned that sometimes you can have “too many opinions” on the music, with producers and the director not always agreeing, and not always being realistic about what their budget allows. “Our job is there to get good music in - on budget,” he said. “You need a hell of a lot of compromise.”

Working on Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. recently, the team had about “400 songs in the edit bin, of which 11 ultimately got used.”

He said making a great film was always the main aim. “You shouldn’t steer it to make a great soundtrack, you should make the best film.”

Robert Ziegler, who has worked on films such as Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood, said the composer working on a film should be treated with as much respect as the screenwriter or DOP. “For the shower scene in Psycho, Hitchcock didn’t want any music. Bernard Herrmann said, ‘You’re crazy, use this.’ It’s partnerships like that - Hitchcock and Hermann, Spielberg and John Williams - those directors depend on those composers…as an essential part of the film.”

Finlay, is a director who frequently directs documentaries about music-related subjects, for instance the singer Orion (Orion: The Man Who Would Be King) or an independent record store (Sound It Out).

She says on average her films have “at least 25 cleared music pieces in them.” "That’s not just to sound cool," she added: “the music I include in film is a marriage of pragmatism, storytelling and narrative…I want to work with the music creatively.”

FAMLAB continues until March 4, in partnership with the BFI, PRS for Music Foundation and HOME in Manchester. Other speakers in the programme include the BFI National Archive’s Robin Baker and Bryony Dixon, composer John Altman, and filmmaker Penny Woolcock and Martin Noble from British Sea Power talking about their collaboration 'From The Sea To The Land Beyond,' plus more screenings and performances.

The 16 FAMLAB participants are artists and producers from the UK and East Asia – including music makers, film makers and video game composers: Lisa Meyer, William Doyle (East India Youth), Masaaki Yoshida (Anchorsong), Ruth Paxton, Jessica Curry, Roly Porter, Shiva Feshareki, Nick Abrahams, Jay Bedwani, Owen Wang, Aoura Chandra, Nguyen Manh Duy Linh, Fikri Fadzil, Chunhwi Park, Thanapol Setabrahmana and Jeremy Mayall.

Read Ian Haydn Smith's scene-setting essay about the perfect balance between sound + vision here.