In the early 1990s, I inherited an 8mm Bell & Howell cine camera and, with my flatmate Martin O’Shea as actor, began making short films in the East End of London.
We had a two-bedroom flat near Mile End Tube Station (which we could somehow afford on a student grant), walking distance to Bethnal Green, Brick Lane and Limehouse, areas synonymous with names such as Hawksmoore (the architect), The Kray Twins (local crime lords) and Jack the Ripper (local ripper).
The area is incredibly historic, and well worth a walk for local historians, psychogeographists, or anyone with a passing interest in this less salubrious quarter of London.
Walk is what we did, one Saturday night, up to Victoria Park, down to the street markets of Brick Lane and back home via the city farm at Stepney and a visit to St Dunstan and All Saints Church, where we had a lovely chat with the vicar. He was in his working outfit, white, pressed and clean … us, none of the above.
This was where we decided to film what was, I believe, our first film together, ‘A Day Well Spent’, and I think this would be Spring 1992.
Now the technical side. 8mm film lasted four minutes in total. The film had to be thread, in a figure 8 shape, in the camera, then reversed after 2 minutes. This meant keeping careful time, and not shooting anything vital in the dying seconds before the film ran out.
The film was silent and the camera, I believe, had no zoom and no auto-aperture; the light had to be set manually. Basically, it was a ‘point and shoot’ affair. Close-ups had to be physically close, long-shots, far away.
So, we had four minutes to tell a story, beginning, middle and end. Martin plays a tramp, a happy-go-lucky, Chaplinesque character. He awakes, on a rubbish heap, scratches himself, looks around and gets up. He wanders through the City farm at Stepney
Naturally, he’s hungry and seeing the chickens gives him an idea; he has to ‘procure’ an egg for breakfast, without being detected or suffering an avian assault. With his cunning and agility, he is successful, and celebrates his victory by holding his prize aloft as he runs past St Dunstan’s.
However, when he searches his pockets, he only has a fork with twisted prongs … not a suitable implement to eat his breakfast. Disappointed, he throws the egg away, and decides to go back to sleep.
We also had a recurring event, namely a visit from the rozzers (London slang for police). One burly boy in blue was curious what we ne’re-do-wells were up to in his manor. To see a young guy, in trenchcoat, asleep on a rubbish tip alerted his instincts. And we had a recurring escape, namely I showed my camera and all became clear … “Oh, they’re making art,” heavy irony on the pronunciation of ‘art’, and that sarcasm has repeated through the years.
Or maybe, like most people of my generation, he would have seen some short compilation films on BBC1 after 5.30 pm and before the 6.00 pm News. This was how so many of my friends were introduced to the world of Harold Lloyd.
Everyone knew Chaplin, most people had heard of Buster Keaton, but Mr Harold Lloyd was totally unknown. That all changed with a series of 20-minute programs featuring scenes from his silent films … and all my school-friends were knocked out by them. You would even hear people shout out as they left school, “Don’t forget to watch Harold Lloyd.”
Harold Lloyd, referred to as ‘The Third Genius’ was, and remains, a major influence, especially in how to tell a story by images alone and how comedy works. This photo from ‘Safety Last’ (1924) is iconic … and even more amazing when you know that Lloyd lost a thumb and finger in an accident on a film set.
His films and many clips are available on YouTube. I used to show them during break time to my Kindergarten class, and they loved him … I was able to silence 15 hyper-active kids with a silent movie star.
Meanwhile, Mr O’Shea is busy in Berlin with a massive project: to put all our 8mm and Super 8 films onto computer, add commentaries and upload them on social media. Wish him luck, and take some time to watch Harold Lloyd … you won’t be disappointed
‘Shadow Sonata’ was my first film shot in London since the early 1990s, and how things have changed. I started with a Bell & Howell 8mm cine camera, splicing film by hand and playing back on a projector; now I was working on a pocket digital camera and cutting on computer.
The title is a reference to the short story collection ‘Shadows of a Sound’ by the Korean writer Hwang Sun-woo, an author mentioned in the Korean film ‘My Sassy Girl,’ and the book plays a key part in the film. The influence of Asia and Asian culture should be discernible throughout.
‘Shadow Sonata’ is a non-linear story of a man living in London, obsessed by an old love affair, while dreaming his way out of his depression. The topography of London helps the viewer place the action in the past, the present, and what could be the future, or pure imagination.
The Man starts by meeting his blonde girlfriend by an old museum in Walthamstow, north-east London. From the sunny exterior we move to the inside of his small London bedsit, decorated with Asian posters, and full of books by Asian writers.
He walks around London, alone, the city appearing grey, cold, emotionless. He keeps seeing a beautiful Asian lady and feels very attracted to her … if only he could meet her.
I shot this film over two days on my Samsung W200, a camera that cost me around 80 UKP. It lasted until 2017 when it just died on me but anyway, mobile phones now have better cameras (I currently use an iPhone 6s).
Furthermore, I was very lucky with the weather; I had bright sun for the flashback sequence and dull wet grey rain for the present.
The was for the old love affair was played on an instrument I encountered in Sweden, a nyckleharpa:
The dream or future sequence uses ‘Oriental’ from Granados’ ‘Spanish Dances’, while the melancholic ending is a late String Quartet by Beethoven. These small scale pieces fascinate me, especially considering they followed the epic 9th Symphony … but that is possibly a theme for another blog or film.
As always, thanks so much to the actors who gave their time for free:
Mr Martin O’Shea, Ms Michelene P. Heine, Mr Stephen Grey, Mr Alex Loveridge, Ms Angie and introducing Ms Emily Yue.
From medieval Florence to modern-day Berlin, a film shot on both Super 8 and digital video, with a professional actor and professional sound engineer / cameraman. And all on no budget, as usual.
This is a retelling of ‘Inferno’ or Hell, an epic poem by Dante.
Dante Alighieri born around 1265 in Florence during a turbulent time of political infighting. He studied to be a pharmacist, and books actually were sold in pharmacies at this time.
Dante is most famous for his Divine Comedy, a three-part poem, starting in Hell, Part 2 in Purgatory and finally Part 3 in Paradise. Of these, ‘Inferno’ is by far the most widely-read.
The poem starts with Dante in a dark wood, having ‘lost his way’. The poem is full of allegory and symbolism, the dark wood representing uncertainty and danger, as he has stepped off the path to God and salvation. He meets the Roman poet, Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC), who acts as a guide. Virgil will help to get Dante back ‘on the right path’ but this will mean going through the Inferno.
What follows is a journey where Dante sees the souls or ‘shades’ of the dead who are being eternally punished, in appropriate ways, for their sins on Earth. The Inferno is arranged in nine circles, the ninth being reserved for Lucifer.
As the two poets descend, the crimes, and the punishments get worse, until, finally, in the lowest circle, Dante sees the Devil.
This poem is a major work of European and World art, inspiring countless artists, including the German Gustav Dore, who etched these pictures.
Dante had an idealised love, a young lady called Beatrice, and her purity gives Dante the courage to continue his horrific quest.
In the film, I have a young lady (Katerina) who reads by a small river holding a lily (the symbol of Florence). A man sees her and goes to speak to her, but she goes, leaving a book behind – the book is the Aenid by Virgil.
The Man then walks through modern day Berlin, to reach his salvation.
I used the new dome of the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, to represent the circular arrangement of Dante’s Inferno, and the Man walks over, or by, several rivers, symbolising the rivers of Hell.
For the crimes against nature, I updated the book to mean environmental issues; the Man walks against a skyline criss-crossed with electric wires and factory smokestacks, like Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’.
We also filmed at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which is in north Berlin, to represent the unspeakable horrors of genocide, all genocide perpetrated by any nation against any person due to race, religion, sexuality or politics.
Many thanks to my team who all worked and contributed their time and talents for free:
Mr Martin O’Shea, Mr Philipp Pressmann, Ms Manuela Fresard & Ms Katarina Worner.
All the technical, digital camera-work and editing was done by Herr F.T. Pen, and the incredible foley artist Herr Max Bauer.
This film, finished in 2014, was shot in 2008 while I was living in Berlin and I attempted to give it a 1920s feel. It’s based on the famous novel by Hermann Hesse:
The novel, which was published in 1927, is a book within a book … a young man finds a diary written by an older man and it is this diary which forms the bulk of the story. As readers, we are free to choose how much to believe of the ‘diary’; is it all true, all fiction, a combination of truth, half-truths and wishes ?
The book certainly has a surreal quality to it, moving from realistic descriptions to a final sequence which seems to resemble a dream or fantasy.
The main character, Harry Haller, refers to himself as a steppenwolf, that is someone who craves human companionship yet is painfully introverted and uncomfortable around people. This dichotomy is central to the book.
For the film, I choose areas of Berlin that were more historic and evocative of the 1920s, as well as selecting some ‘modern’ classical composers who were contemporaneous (Martinu from Czech Republic, Hindemith from Germany), along with W.F. Bach (who is mentioned in the book). The film plays out with a melancholy solo guitar piece by the incredible gypsy-guitarist Django Rheinhardt.
I also used colour filters towards the end of the film, as in some silent classics, indicating that the sequences may or may not be ‘real’ … it is up to the viewer to decide.
The film style was heavily influenced by German expressionist cinema of the inter-war years, directors such as Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and mostly F.W. Murnau.
Mr Molnar Levente, a Hungarian actor, was in the highly successful ‘Son of Saul’ film, while Mr Martin O’Shea has appeared with Kenneth Branagh and Bill Nighy in the Tom Cruise film ‘Valkarie’.
Ms Willow de la Roche gave, I feel, an amazing performance. I’m so sorry it took so long for the film to finally be cut.
Technical details: I shot the film entirely on Super 8, then had to transfer onto a compatible disk for cutting on a Windows-based laptop. At the time I was moving between Berlin, London and Sweden and furthermore, I had to learn computer editing from scratch.