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To Picture by Michelle Deignan











To ‘Picture’ 

In 1998 I began earning a living in London working as a freelance video editor for broadcast television, editing everything from light entertainment to documentaries. A couple of years later two artist friends from Ireland asked me would I be interested in making work for an exhibition and publication they were curating titled TV Project. They recognised the exceptional position I was in, as an artist with insider knowledge of and access to UK broadcasting. Up until then it hadn’t crossed my mind to make a work about television. I had been making and exhibiting works that were moving image documents of transitional and exhibition spaces. These works were usually devised around camera movements in or through a space and were often unedited one take works. Any human activity in them was incidental. With the invitation to make new work for TV Project I started to think about television work spaces and more specifically television studios. I came across Capital Studios in south London, an independent set up with two fairly substantial TV studios – Studio A 60 x 50 ft and Studio B 50 x 40 ft. I found out Studio A was the home of one of the longest running British TV quiz shows broadcast Monday to Friday on Channel 4, ‘Fifteen to One’. Some post production facilities across London would let young filmmakers use their facilities for free or a reduced rate during down time so I took a chance that a production space would work in the same way. All it took for me to get access to Studio A was one phone call.

When I got there, the studio was stripped bare apart from a tatty blue screen for chroma keying drawn around the edge of the studio’s back wall. There were a couple of studio cameras in the space and the lighting rig on the ceiling was still installed. I came armed with broadcast quality video equipment, a detailed shot list and print outs of screen grabs. Knowing I was documenting the ‘Fifteen to One’ studio, I had digitised one episode and broken the entire 24 minutes of it down into individual shots with writen details on the focal length, framing, camera movement and shot duration of each. So at Studio A I recreated every shot from this list in the empty space one at a time. Markings from the original Fifteen to One set on the studio floor helped. Throughout my day of filming the studio staff moved in and out of the space much like they would anytime the studio is not in use – people were shown around, cleaners came and went and conversations took place in and around the studio mostly out of shot. My final work ’15:1′ was an edit of the shots I captured that day placed in the same order and length as the original quiz show. I edited the sound from what I recorded in the studio and used it to create the illusion of a continuous recording. The effect is as if the production equipment (cameras, mics, lights and vision mixer) were automated to film and record Fifteen to One live without being aware it was everyones day off.

TV project, curated by Maeve Connolly, Orla Ryan and Val Connor became a group exhibition in a domestic setting in South Dublin called “Captains Road”. Orla and Maeve also produced a publication called “The Glass Eye: Artists and Television” with Project Arts Centre as part of the project. For the publication I made a photograph of another TV studio, Studio 3 in Teddington alongside a shooting script from a live performance by Sting that was broadcast on The Des O’Connor Show on ITV. O’Connor’s producer Colin was a work colleague of mine and was very amenable to me using the script. And I had also worked for the Medical Channel based at Teddington so it was easy to get access to the studios over a weekend. TV Project kick started a body of my work that engaged with TV and film production. Over the years my work developed to include narrative elements with scripted voices overs, actors speaking to camera, dialogue, characters, sound effects and music. The subject of my work also developed beyond television to look at art practice and other forms of cultural activity and engagement. But my interest in revealing the processes behind an activity, including the processes of making the film itself, became a reoccurring motif.

Nine years after making ’15:1′ when on a residency in Berlin I spent a day filming at popular tourist location, the grounds of the Schloss Charlottenburg in the west of the city. The footage from that day became the core material I used in ‘Journey to an absolute vantage point’ a two channel installation. One channel features a story constructed with the footage filmed at the Schloss, the other shows the film composer and the musicians in a performance of the film’s music in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The two channels are projected back to back so both images are not visible at once but the sounds of the story, the park and the music can all be heard together. When I filmed at the Schloss I was thinking about mainstream cinema’s use of Berlin as a backdrop to stories about espionage and betrayal and I imagined a voice over narrative that featured two fictitious characters who meet in the park to exchange information. During filming I had caught two photographers that were unknown to each other, mirroring each other’s movements as they positioned themselves to get their perfect shots of the Schloss. It was a beautiful clip that became the centrepiece of the final looped work where the narrator’s story hinges. As we see the photographers taking their photographs, pointing their cameras directly towards us, the narrator enacts an argument between the fictitious couple in the park.

The strategy of writing to picture is common across expository documentary filmmaking and also in TV news reporting. For example when I was editing news reports it was important to create a direct relationship between what is being said and what is seen in the film, with the text often acting as a descriptor of the images. In documentary film the type of relationship between the voice over and image varies, some opting for a descriptive relationship, others a poetic one. The timing and word count of a voice over script in conventional film making is crucial, as it must work within the time frame of the corresponding images. It can be a tricky thing to accomplish. I’ve had so many documentary film editing experiences where a director would speed-read their lengthy voice over script in a desperate attempt to try and get it to fit the footage. Rewrites were inevitable. And there were many rewrites of the ‘Journey to an absolute vantage point’ script, even with the decision to just have that one crucial point of correspondence between image and text. The work’s form, sequence and story were made during the process of filming and editing. Much like documentary making how the film worked was contingent on the images captured.

Working in a responsive way to the footage is also integral to the production of documentary film for broadcast and cinema. But in order to secure commissioning or funding the industry demands industrial processes that insist on a rigorous story plan. Documentary directors must write an outline script at the early stages of their film’s production for review and approval by the executive producer(s). This script will include what the director envisages the interviewees will say for example and what the voice over script will be. When the film is being edited the director revises and edits this original script and this continues until the film is ‘picture locked’ and the script is finished. You could view this first script as a scaffolding that the director uses as a foundation from which to build the documentary film. Or you could look at it another way, that this insistence on putting the script first forces the director into a mindset of fixing mistakes as they repair the original script throughout the filmmaking process. No matter whether the script is an obstacle or a building block it makes text the starting point of the film. In broadcast documentary once you get to the end of the post production process you have the master film, the logged and transcribed rushes (the original filmed material labelled according to it’s content) and the final script detailing all that is said, seen, and heard. Scripts, logs and transcriptions are essential for archivists to identify film content for future licensing (per minute) for inclusion in other films.

Describing or detailing how a film unfolds before it’s made isn’t something I have much experience of. I’ve never produced a conventional film script, a technical document that all of the film’s personnel can reference. In truth I’ve never had enough personnel involved in one of my films to feel it necessary. Also, up until now I have steered away from making film storyboards and the closet I got to that was making screen grabs for filming ’15:1′. My strategy of keeping parts of the filming process open to chance has been a thread through all of my works since. I create and find images, performances, sounds and music to edit with and I make or get these using organisational and creative processes used by both artists and film and television workers – researching; selecting locations; conducting recces; compiling shot lists; writing dialogue; auditioning and rehearsing with actors; selecting costumes and props; hiring spaces; hiring film equipment; getting insurance; selecting and organising interviewees and interview spaces; selecting and hiring a Director of Photography, camera operators, sound recordists, photographers, composers; filming; sound recording; licensing archive footage etc. Each film I make begins from a different starting point, which could be location first, research first or dialogue first for example. I avoid fixing a vision of the entire film until the very end. Up until now this approach has for the most part worked for what I have wanted to do.

In 2013 I directed a feature length documentary about the London Irish Women’s Centre, a feminist organisation that had a big impact over it’s twenty nine year history. Unlike the majority of other films I’ve made, this documentary was a commission. In 2012 the London Irish Women’s Centre was closing and through the help of another Irish filmmaker the Centre got a £10,000 grant from UK National Lottery towards the production of a film about their history. My films came to the Centre’s attention when one of my moving image works was included in their final contemporary art exhibition. After seeing that work they asked me to write a proposal for a documentary on them and to then have a meeting to discuss it. They liked what I had written and what I said. I asked a small local production company to get involved to look after contracts, budget and logistics. We proposed a budget of £25,000 to the Centre and they said yes, funding the rest of the production using some money from the sale of their building. We agreed I would make a 25 minute film. After a working on it for a few months it was obvious to me that 25 minutes wouldn’t be long enough. The duration of the final film was 63 minutes.

Looking back over the written proposal that got me the commission I’m actually impressed. It suggests a film with the authority of televisual pedagogy mixed with a dash of urgency and a hint of “call to action”. I use the word fascinating. A lot. The text does have a relationship to what the film became but unlike most of the documentaries I’ve edited it doesn’t say much about the films form or content. Basically it reads more like a proposal for an artwork, describing more about what the film will do rather than how it will do it. I was lucky – the London Irish Women’s Centre was an inexperienced film commissioner so didn’t ask me to produce a film outline script or storyboard at any stage during the production. The film producer I brought in didn’t demand those either. So this meant I could approach making the film in a similar way to how I’d make my other moving image work, discovering the form, sequence and story during the process of researching, filming and editing.

Five years on and I am now in the process of developing two long form works, one with gallery exhibition in mind, the other for a cinema context. It will be necessary to secure funding and distribution before I start to make either film because of the scale and ambition of both works. Though they will be made for different spaces audiences, each demanding different things, it’s clear that in order for them to get them funded I have to produce written documents that give a detailed account of what each film will be. The cinema work has to be explicit about the film’s storyline, the exhibition work has to be very clear on the film’s subject and objective. Both project proposals need clear plans detailing how they will be made. Devising work on this scale has by necessity put writing first. It’s now my primary creative tool in working out what the films will be.

Michelle Deignan 2018

(MExIndex Curator in Residence 2018)

Published on: 21/07/2020