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Emerging talent (Part 1)

Ayoade with Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige. Photo Stuart Crawford.

In the wake of the interest around Film4 productions such as Richard Ayoade’s Submarine and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, a recent Guardian article by Jane Graham identifies what she sees as a trend of innovative films made by “industry outsiders with little or no formal training [in filmmaking]”. According to Graham, the forays of artists (Steve McQueen), comedians (Cornish, Ayoade, Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand) and photographers (Anton Corbijn) into film directing mark a deviation from the traditional route which has involved “years of earning your stripes in the theatre of TV drama”, the route followed by the likes of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom, Christopher Nolan and Tom Hooper.

It certainly used to be the case, in the early history of Channel 4 as well as at the BBC, that the pathway from theatre to the writing, producing and directing of film as part-financed by television (and television’s role was clearly far greater than merely that of ‘facilitating intermediary’) was opened up by permissive and imaginative producers, script editors and commissioning editors who themselves had experience in the theatre or in TV drama (we can think inter alia of David Rose, David Aukin, Barry Hanson, Peter Ansorge and others). The influx of creative talent from theatre or TV drama is no longer so discernible, which is not to say that it no longer happens of course.

Since there is a long history of actors getting behind the camera, and since the boundaries between cinema and television are increasingly porous, there is little that is new about much of the trend of TV performers or stars becoming directors. There are myriad examples of comedians becoming film directors; Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (the latter a talented animator as well as a comic performer) emerged from television comedy to direct the Monty Python films, and given this continuity their involvement in TV comedy can hardly be thought of as an ‘accidental’ apprenticeship!

It is perhaps more difficult to think of film directors who started out as photographers, perhaps due to the fact that there is a greater cross-over between photography or photo-journalism and documentary film but I stand to be corrected.[i]

Undoubtedly new voices and fresh and innovative approaches to storytelling can emerge from documentarists moving into fiction, from theatre creators, from fine artists, from aspiring animators, and from graphic/web designers. To chart and contextualize the routes that ‘emerging talent’ take to get behind a camera is difficult simply because these routes are shifting all the time. It also requires a broader historical scope than can be accommodated within a short journalistic article, as well as some consideration of the political economy of the media industries and the impact of converging digital technologies. Perhaps over the course of this project this blog can be used to sketch in some of this history, and in this respect what follows is merely an initial foray to mark out some of the territory. In particular one area that I will highlight here is Channel 4’s support for new British independent animation.

Firstly though, in using this article as a springboard for an exploration of the apparent diversity of routes which have been/are being pursued by aspirant filmmakers, we should not overlook the comments to the article, which allude to the danger that celebrity culture and nepotism in media circles are inhibiting the emergence of genuinely new voices. ‘Thecatisachat’ noted that Joe Cornish could hardly be described as having had ‘little or no formal training’ as he studied film production at Bournemouth University, one of the UK’s most respected film schools (it is simply that he got into directing through a circuitous route involving short films, TV sketch comedy and radio DJing with his collaborator Adam Buxton), and that Shane Meadows is a better example of a true industry outsider. Richard Jobson, the former singer with the Scottish punk band The Skids is identified in the article as a relative newcomer to film (his directorial debut was 2004’s 16 Years of Alcohol) who is currently signed-on to make the sequel to Quadrophenia. However ‘graemeflick’ noted that he produced BSkyB’s Tube Tales (1999), a portmanteau of nine 10 minute films directed by Ewan McGregor, Jude Law and Bob Hoskins amongst others (the directorial debuts of McGregor and Law), which followed the real-life experiences of passengers on the London Underground.[ii]

As quoted in the article, Richard Jobson argues that the fact of not being part of any tradition (i.e. a film school) actually meant that he had a more liberated and unconstrained approach to filmmaking. There is something to be said, of course, for retaining an open-mind and not having preconceived ideas; in this sense what the novice filmmaker lacks in ‘craft’ is made up for in willingness to experiment. Clearly film is no longer the preserve of those with access to film school equipment and formalised training. However it is also important not to underestimate the influence of internationally renowned film schools like the NFTS in the UK.

Given that the article mentions only debuts by figures with established careers in television or the arts, the crucial problem is that we are left with no examples of films by actual ‘novices’ who are breaking new ground and getting their work screened or broadcast despite lacking a network of contacts in the UK media industry.

Whilst digital technology is democratizing access to artistic production, the broadcast outlets for the work of new writers, producers and directors, are still limited, despite the flourishing of digital film culture and the DIY aesthetic on independent websites, on Youtube and on mobile media. The question that arises is whether aspirant filmmakers (particularly beyond the field of documentary) now look to television as a medium in which to find an outlet, especially in this digital era, and especially with the support and exposure that film festivals can provide. Even twenty years ago, an article in the industry magazine Televisual revealed some of the doubt and antipathy felt by the current crop of college graduates towards television. Christine Fotheringham, an MA animation graduate from the Royal College of Art expressed her doubts about having her work commissioned for television:

I don’t want to have my work on TV because it fits it into a certain slot….Films stand on their own at festivals. If I made a film for TV, the broadcasters who put up the money would dictate what they wanted.[iii]

It is interesting that the only exceptions cited by Fotheringham on UK television were Channel 4’s The State of the Art and Animation Now. Despite the scarcity of truly experimental work in its output, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Channel 4 has a good track record in encouraging and promoting emerging filmmakers, which it still maintains. Coming Up is the Channel 4 talent scheme where new writers and directors have the opportunity to make an original film with a guaranteed network broadcast. This is currently the only talent scheme in UK where emerging filmmakers have this opportunity, and Channel 4 have described this as evidence of their “commitment to innovation, experimentation and new voices”. Whereas previously the Channel 4 had supported a thriving workshop sector, it is now with this kind of scheme that Channel 4 seeks to fulfil its original mandate under Section 3(1) of the 1980 Broadcasting Act; to “appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for [by ITV]”, and “to encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes”.

Channel 4 have traditionally fulfilled this mandate through a longstanding co-funding agreement with the British Film Institute, match-funding through a subvention both a low-budget feature film production fund and a ‘New Directors’ short film fund. It is also important to highlight the role of the Arts Council, which has a history of funding artists’ film and video, often in partnership with Channel 4′s Indepent Film and Video Department. Another important initiative of Channel 4’s was the Film Four Lab, an experimental film-making arm of Film Four which was originally set up in 1999 to support filmmakers making shorts or about to embark on their first feature. Film Four Lab was founded by Robin Gutch, previously the Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video at Channel (and deputy CE for this Department from 1994), who is now Joint Managing Director of Warp X, Warp Films’ start-up digital ‘studio’, which has produced innovative low budget feature films (such as Dead Man’s Shoes, Four Lions, This is England and Submarine) with funding from Film Four, the UK Film Council, East Midlands Media and Screen Yorkshire. Film Four Lab is a crucial initiative that we will return to in the pages of this blog.

Some of Channel 4’s most interesting initiatives have been in the field of animation, and it is a shame that C4 does not blow its own trumpet about its commendable support for British animation. To quote the indispensable blog on British animation The Lost Continent:

That great benefactor of British independent animation, Channel 4, is regrettably tight-lipped when it comes to online coverage of its animation history; there is no single page on the channel’s website dedicated to its notable contributions to animation. Nevertheless, there are several smaller sites that are well worth looking at, not least because they contain animated shorts available to watch online. One of them is the Animate Projects site, run by the Channel 4/Arts Council England-funded organisation of the same name: a vast amount of short films dating back to 1991 can be viewed there. The 4mations YouTube channel contains a selection of animated shorts both old and new, while the 4mations blog provides a good look at new work from rising talents.

In June 1990 Channel 4 set up an award in collaboration with the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI), in which four animation students spent three months each year as ‘animator in residence’ at MOMI, working in fully equipped studios viewed by the public (the ‘goldfish bowl’, a three metre square glass box in the heart of the MOMI), and receiving tuition from independent producer Lisa Beattie, with the potential of having work commissioned at the end of the scheme. The brainchild of Channel Four Television Commissioning Editor for animation, Clare Kitson, this scheme moved to the National Medium Museum in 2004. The current Animator in Residence Will Becher has created a website called ‘Man in Mid A-I-R’, which combines an online diary (documenting what it is to be a ‘human exhibit’ or ‘one man museum’) with material which charts the progress of his new film, including storyboards, a ‘making of’, working drawings and previews.

In 2000 Channel 4 set up MESH, the UK’s first ever national funding scheme to identify and nurture talent in computer generated digital animation. Established by Camilla Deakin and Ruth Fielding and run by Glasgow-based Blackwatch, it was intended for animators who – in the words of Clare Kitson – “had neither the traditional skills taught by college degree skills nor the artist’s desire to experiment but nevertheless aspired to use the new technologies creatively”. As she related in her book “British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor”:

The new project was originally designated the ‘digital animation scheme’ until, within a few short years, it became apparent that the vast majority of all animation had become digital. So it began to characterise itself in terms of its constituency: what were termed ‘convergence’ artists, i.e. games designers, graphic designers or people with computers in their bedrooms who were teaching themselves. People who were not coming through the animation degree courses.

Ultimately the scheme did struggle to achieve this aim, as the ‘convergence’ artists were often weak on narrative, which meant that arts college graduates tended to win the commissions. This was due to the restrictions imposed on the animation slot, which determined that they could not be abstract pieces:

[Channel 4] needed these films to run in the slot after the news – which had been deemed a narrative-only slot – and were at this stage still looking for ideas with potential to develop into longer-form comedies… But the ‘convergence’ people were not strong on plot or character. In later years it turned out that many of the successful submissions were coming from the animation courses at the RCA and other colleges – and were not that different from the constituency that was applying to the AIR [Animator in Residence] scheme.

This demonstrates that the restrictions or dictates imposed by a broadcaster can be just as important a determining factor on film than technology or training. Nevertheless the scheme produced some fascinating work, the complete list of which is here, hyperlinked to the actual films on YouTube.

From Campbell McAllister's 'Wrong Turn'

Having provisionally sketched some of Channel 4’s important work in supporting animation, I’ll conclude by mentioning a related subject, the importance of the short film as a training ground. Whereas a generation of filmmakers cut their teeth by directing commercials in the 60s and 70s, subsequent generations have developed their skills through making music videos or shorts. Once perceived of as the domain of the avant-garde, the industrial documentary or the student film-maker, the short film has proliferated online and has been incorporated into mainstream filmmaking and PR (with the notion of ‘viral’ marketing) as the dynamics of the media industries have changed. The short film is still a platform for experimentation and pushing boundaries, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate finely honed skills (with all the constraints that the short form drama imposes), in order to produce a ‘calling card’ that may open doors and secure future funding. To this end it could be argued that Channel 4’s longstanding support for short form and first-time drama and animation has represented a far greater intervention in terms of giving voice to new talent than the film debuts of established TV personalities, however innovative.

Ieuan Franklin.

[i] This cross-over can be linked to the use of lightweight 16mm cameras in both fields, which allowed for the creation of a gritty and atmospheric aesthetic which was immediate and distinctive. Unfortunately, with Soho Film Laboratories discontinuing their production of 16mm (under the orders of their now owners, Deluxe), 16mm is in danger of extinction; it is not an option that filmmakers or photographers can utilize (see the article by Tacita Dean here and the response from film archivist and curator/artist Stuart Heaney here). Whatever the merits of celluloid vs. digital, the boundaries between photography and filmmaking, however, will continue to blur, as, in the words of documentary filmmaker Danfung Dennis, the advent of relatively cheap yet sophisticated digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras with a video function of “unprecedented image quality” is allowing photographers and filmmakers to achieve “the image quality and narrative style of feature films rather than the conventional video look of many typical documentaries”.

[ii] Interestingly, Tube Tales was actually the first offering from Sky Pictures, created in 1998 when Elisabeth Murdoch (then director of channels and services at Sky) advocated setting up a film funding and production unit along the lines of BBC Films and Film4 Productions. Sky Pictures invested in both low-budget and mainstream British film, but this operation was scaled back and closed in 2001, due to a lack of success and the departure of Elisabeth Murdoch to set up her own production company, Shine.

[iii] Quoted in Sylvie Basley, ‘After School’, Televisual, 1991, 34.

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2 Responses to “Emerging talent (Part 1)”

  1. Interesting piece. Can I offer Ken Russell as an example of a filmmaker who started out as a photographer? His images of Soho in the 1950s were shown last year at The Photographers’ Gallery, and he worked for various pictures agencies before being taken on by Monitor at the BBC at the end of the decade,

  2. Good example, John. I’m looking back through newspapers at the moment and it seems that Ken Russell’s film on Mahler spurred the BBC on to consider financing films for cinema release as well as TV exhibition in 1974.

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The University of Portsmouth's Channel 4 project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run in partnership with the British Universities Film and Video Council.
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There is still a suspicion that the co-funding, the admirable open-heartedness about cinema exhibition, and perhaps the budgets, tend to produce an animal that is somewhere between the traditional television “play” and a “real” feature film, but the successes are already frequent enough to justify Film on Four… — Peter Fiddick, “Channel Four: Champion of Alternative Television”, Campaign, 1st November 1985.