Find out what we’ve been up to, where we’ve been and what we’re thinking.
We are close to releasing our very first feature length documentary about the brilliant painter John McLean. Made by Chris Morphet and Michael Proudfoot, “Which Way Up” will be screened in Soho for an invited audience on 31st May.
Michael Proudfoot and I started making this film in December 2014. It was something we had talked about for many years. So on the spur of the moment, we just began filming John, as he lives in The Barbican near Proudfoot HQ. At one stage of the first day’s filming John said “My attitude to my work is more like that of a farmer, taking his tractor round and round the field, getting it all done and then hoping the crop comes out well”.
All our work on this film has been for free. Michael and I firmly believe in John, and his still on going talent. So we felt we really had to make this film. Every bit of filming that we have done has felt enjoyable and most importantly positive, from the paintings themselves, which continually delight and surprise, to John himself and his unshakeable belief in what he does.
When we started, John’s medical diagnosis was Parkinsons, but this was then updated to Multiple Systems Atrophy. This has not been fun for John and his wife Jan. Yet John’s determination to continue and create more paintings has shone through heroically. However, our film has not really been to exploit this angle by going for the struggling painter in the face of adversity. We are much keener to show our love for what John does, plus the appreciation of colour that his playful paintings give us.
There are many colours and a variety of rough geometric shapes: crowns, crescents, triangles, whorls, suns, moons, etc. John magically explores the tension and relationships between these elements through his uncanny choice of colour.
With John’s paintings there is a constant change and development taking place, they never feel static. Having a few of John’s canvases in my home, I can vouch for their life enhancing presence. Every home should have a McLean on the wall as they somehow give a great sense of well being. I sometimes have an afternoon nap and wake to the sight of “Séance”, appearing in my vision on the wall opposite. It’s a continual sense of wonderment and trying to work out just how the overall balance and juxtapositions make the painting a successful whole.
We can never quite work out how something which starts as initially very un-promising ends up as such an unqualified success, through a process of John’s eye and a magical alchemy. We hope the film succeeds in shedding some light on this process. I have been particularly enthralled as a cameraman when seeing the paint and colours being applied to the canvas in close up, and observing how the paintings should be viewed and change when contemplated and observed at different distances.
Near the beginning John did say several times that only good could come out of us making the film. John and Jan have been gracious contributors and a joy to be around, even if Jan has tried to avoid being filmed where possible. She has been a fantastic support to John throughout and they are what can genuinely be called a lovely couple.
It’s all good.
When I first worked in Soho as an assistant film editor it was still possessor of its rakish charm. The cutting rooms that my editor, Keith Judge, had hired were in “Hammer House” – yes, that Hammer, famous old home of British horror classics. The editing room had a lot of old brown furniture; the equipment was rickety but functional in chipped Hammerite paint with Bakerlight knobs. Film editing was done standing up at a Picsync using a Movieola and a Steenbeck to view on. There was an old swivel chair like the ones newspapermen have in “B” movies; I fantasised that Hitchcock or Alexander Korda had sat on its worn, horsehair-sprouting leather upholstery. In the corridor, thirty-five millimetre film bins hung with the trims of soft core porn films and the whole place smelt of film, coffee, unswept carpets and long dispersed BO. The film we were working on was “Upgrading Fire Precautions” for the COI (Central Office of Information). One day Keith sent me off with some graphics to get rostrum camerawork done. He gave me an address in Meard St and with a wink, said, “Be careful”. It transpired that the rostrum camera studio was sandwiched between the upper and lower floors of a brothel; a rather nice looking West Indian girl asked me if I wanted any “business” as I rang the bell and a much older, peroxide blonde asked me the same as I left. In those days proper Italians ran the coffee bars, it was one of the few places you could get a decent coffee in London. Occasionally you would see people like Sir John Gielgud sashaying down Wardour St on his way to a voice over. It was summer and Keith and I used to go up onto the roof of Hammer House to eat our lunch, one day we saw three girls sunbathing topless on the roof below. In another cutting room (where Agent Provocateur is now) we were opposite a violin maker’s workshop and as I sunk up rushes I watched old chaps in white shirts and black waist-coats carving tops and gluing the instruments together. Any errand out on the street was to be amongst the bustle of the film industry – feature film editors rolled towers of film cans on hand carts to dubbing theatres, pasty-faced editors made their way to the Blue Posts or Sandwich Scene for lunch. Producers and directors trailed assistants who looked like supermodels.
I was put in mind of all this, as I always am, when I visit my barber in Soho. To protect the innocent I will refer to him as Carlo. Carlo is second generation Sicilian, he speaks with a London accent but when one of his countrymen comes into his shop, he reverts to rapid fire Italian. Whenever I am there, an ever-changing cast of characters pop in for a cut, a shave or just to say hello. There is an octogenarian chap who comes in to be ribbed about his much younger (50s) girlfriend and his discovery of Viagra. Another chap talks of his flat being raided by the police the previous night on a search for drugs and working girls, he is of course, innocent but has spent a night in the cells. Once Carlo was charged with looking after his teenage nephew but had allowed him to stray into the lap dancing bar up the road where he had been “lost” for some hours. I was in Carlo’s for a trim a couple of weeks ago just after Arsenal had been knocked out of the Champion’s League (Carlo is a huge Arsenal fan). A man in a dark overcoat slipped through the door and embarked on what can only be described as a Pinteresque monologue about the frailties of Wenger’s side, goading Carlo about his loyalty to such a flawed team, “How long do you think the Gooner Massif will put up with this existential management?” – his genius knows no bounds, keeping his best player on the bench like that?” All the time the man kept his eye on the street as if watching for a traffic warden. Eventually he left with a friendly sounding, “Anyway Carlo, I leave you to think on that”. As the man left another kind of customer arrived, a rather too smart man of about thirty wearing an expensive suit and tailored shirt, no tie. He didn’t look as if he needed a haircut. Rather than wait his turn like the rest of us in the guilty pleasure of reading the complimentary copies of The Sun, The Mirror and Corriere dello Sport (that Pink, Italian football paper) he strode up and down making calls on his mobile in three languages including Russian.
The barber’s shop is a family business originally started by Carlo’s uncles who were definitely part of the old Soho; they once held the contract to barber all the Savoy’s waiters. One imagines that they shaved and singed and trimmed all manner of jazz musicians, strip club low-lives and plain, old fashioned, London gangsters and maybe the local bobbies too. Only one of the original uncles remains, still giving great haircuts, an immaculately turned out silver fox of a man who must have had matinee idol looks in his youth.
Carlo is gregarious, he is a very good barber but part of the reason for going there is to hear his non-stop banter about wives, cars, football, sex, Soho, Sicily and porn (he once had a short fling with a porn star). His energy for chat, as good as any improvising stand-up comic, is extraordinary. I have never heard him repeat himself. Win or lose, his enthusiasm and cheerful acceptance of the ups and downs of Arsenal are a constant, which seems to have won him friends in high places. He occasionally talks of being invited to the director’s box at the Emirates. I don’t think he has Facebook page but if he did he would have a lot of friends.
In the back of the shop they have a 1958 Gaggia machine and if you are lucky you get offered a coffee. Carlo believes it makes the best tasting brew in London and is full of stories about the search for parts and finding engineers who can craft solutions to the machine’s survival.
Like the Espresso machine, Carlo’s barber shop is frozen in aspic. As Soho has been “cleaned up” and corporatized, the character of its streets changing from the nicely sleazy world of film and sex to the more serious and truly sleazy world of television and new media, Carlo’s has endured a sanctuary of old-style maleness – only the cost of a haircut has changed.
“Tonic, sir?” says Carlo.
“It doesn’t seem to be doing much good Carlo”, I reply.
“Yes, sir, but think how much less hair you would have without it”.
It seems wrong to single out a highlight among so many in The Rolex Arts Weekend in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, which included inspiring talks by Oscar winner, Alejandro G. Iñarritu and his protégé Tom Shoval and between visual artists, Olafur Eliasson and Sammy Baloji, extraordinary music by composers Kaija Saariaho and Vasco Mendonça, and lovely readings presented by the Literature pair Michael Ondaatje, Miroslav Penkov and the actress/ex mentor Kate Valk.
But one performance blew our collective Proudfoot minds. Interestingly it was a collaboration between the dancer / choreographer Myles Thatcher and his fellow Rolex Protégés; architect Gloria Cabral (Mentor was Peter Zumthor) and lighting designer, Sebastiàn Solorzano Rodriguez (Mentor was Jennifer Tipton). Myles actually presented five of his dance pieces – all of them were terrific. Anyone who thought they might not enjoy ballet would have been entertained and transported into their multi linear narratives by Myles’ wonderful choreography.
The piece that really rocked was Thatcher’s latest, Body of Your Dreams, (more…)
Apropos of nothing and probably of no interest to anyone except those interested in the history of recording (like me) the vocal microphone that we have been using at the recent recording sessions of my band is an AKG C12-A. Kenny Jones, our engineer/co-producer, sometimes has to come into the “live-room” to squirt some kind of WD40 like substance onto the contacts until it’s “warmed up”. The C12-A is “powered” up in the control room by quite a large box that has old style valves in it.
The more astute among you may have noticed that we’ve got a new website. The site has been designed by the talented Tom Williams and has provided us with a useful punctuation point in our company’s journey, giving us a moment to reflect upon who we think we are and what we offer our clients. It’s difficult to avoid the kind of formal ‘business speak’ that we try to discourage in our films when writing copy for the various pages of the site, but we’ve done our best to try to represent our personalities and reveal our passions. We’ve also decided to create a new space for our films to be shown. We’ve always tried to make films for clients that are intriguing for people, even if they’ve arrived on their screens ‘cold’. Someone who watches a film about the way architects have restored a Victorian pottery might also be interested in seeing how a musician constructs their songs, for example. Ultimately, we want people to be moved and informed by our films and we want people to see them. That’s why we’ve made The Frame, a place where you can browse our archive of films using tags that don’t discriminate between technical and creative pursuits, because we believe the people, processes and products involved are often no different.
Chris Morphet and I are making a film with the painter John McLean. McLean is what you might loosely refer to as an “abstract expressionist”. There is something bewilderingly beautiful about his work; shapes in just-right colours that could be half-moons, crowns, swirls, circles, float in voids of curious depth created by many layers of paint that almost reveal their story on close examination. If you own one (we’ve got one in the office) you learn something new about it every time you look at it. Maybe you are learning something about yourself too. McLean’s paintings have lovely, poetic names like, Velodrome, Chiara-Luna, Altiora and some of the titles of the works give away his Scottish childhood like, East Neuk, Claikie or Peasiehill.
We were filming in his studio a few weeks ago observing as he spent about fifteen minutes choosing a pot of acrylic colour and then mixing it with a pumice medium. John likes to use old house painting brushes that have seen better days. Just before setting a paint laden brush on a half finished canvas, he announced, “this could bugger it up”. He delicately formed the shape he thought he wanted on the canvas and after a longish pause said, “Fuck, I have buggered it…….but I think I know what I am going to do to save it”. On the first shoot he had said to us that sometimes he feels a bit like a farmer husbanding something that is already there.
The film we are making has no client, no broadcaster and no sponsor, we can do what we like when we like. Chris and I got quite excited by our day observing John in his studio. We seemed to be witnessing and recording something not often seen and rarely understood and that is; the process of making creative decisions and their consequences. McLean is making hundreds of tiny decisions every minute, he gets as much pleasure out of the wrong ones as he does out of the right ones. The creative process appears to be a kind of adventure for him and the outcomes can be equally infuriating, ecstatic or intriguing. The key thing is the “outcomes” are never known to John and he rarely plans a painting. If he knew what the painting was going to look like at the outset he wouldn’t bother to begin it. The tensions in all this are probably what we, as viewers, like looking at in a John McLean painting.
John is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and this has slowed him up somewhat. Doctors’ appointments, voice therapist appointments and travel difficulties have interrupted his love affair with painting but he is determined to carry on and with he help of his wonderful wife, Jan, he will. I hope he won’t mind me saying that the slowing of his pace has helped us see what goes on with his work in our film; a bit like watching the replay of a great goal on Match Of The Day we can see the curve of the ball and the swell of the net when he scores.
My first day working at Proudfoot I was immediately told that I would be working on the new Ford Mondeo Project, and that in a couple of hours I would be going with Michael and the director Jeremy to a meeting with the Ford clients. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting such an abrupt start to my internship, but I was happy to be given something exciting to do.
When we arrived at the meeting I honestly wondered what the hell I was doing there, and not just because I was the only one wearing jeans and trainers. The two hour long meeting was all about the technicalities of the project, punctuated with car jargon that went way over my head. Given the fact that two days earlier I was selling organic frozen yogurt in Paris, wearing a t-shirt with the face of a cow called Thérèse on it, the contrast felt slightly surreal.
Nevertheless I went along with it and nodded appropriately as the meeting unfolded, and by the end of it I had a vague idea of what was going on.
The next few days (weeks in fact) were very hectic, (more…)
In our Best Western hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria, they advertised a ‘Sky Bar’. Customers at the otherwise ‘average’ hostelry were urged to visit this penthouse drinking lounge that offered beautiful views across the city. On arrival at the Sky Bar, myself and my crew, Alex Fouracre and Stuart Wareing, found ourselves to be the only customers. The Sky Bar was a symphony of plush white leatherette and chrome, there were indeed panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows showing the glittering lights and possibly more salubrious parts of town than our own in the distance. In the middle of the room was what looked like a white piano converted into a cocktail bar, in fact it was an electric keyboard embedded into what looked like a Hollywood baby grand. A microphone and PA system awaited a Sinatra and a Grace Kelly who never came. We arrived on a Wednesday so maybe understandably the Sky Bar was quiet. We left on a Sunday; on the Saturday night before, we were again the only customers.
Taking a taxi into the city centre, our driver spoke proudly of his country in broken English, all the while gesturing to landmarks as he went – the socialist realist sculptures in the Borisova park, now a favourite with skateboarders, the Eagle bridge, the beautiful Russian church (sadly covered in scaffolding else we would have got a shot of it) and then the turning for the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the university, and the modern, slightly, kitsch statue of St Sofia. The writer, Miroslav Penkov, with whom we are making a film with his mentor Michael Ondaatje tells us that the city of Sofia is named after a tiny orthodox church and not Sofia herself – Sofia actually means ‘Holy Wisdom’. Miroslav knows the labyrinthine history of his country so thoroughly and tells it so engagingly that it makes me think that he should front a series for Bulgarian telly….or even UK telly for that matter. It was Bulgaria that invented Cyrillic script; the country has had at least two empires, survived Ottoman rule and several Balkan wars. Bulgaria became part of the German Axis in World War Two but declined to send its Jewish population to the concentration camps. They finally succumbed (if that is the right word) to Soviet communism in 1946 (apologies for the précis of a very complicated history). One landmark our driver didn’t point out was a billboard for Marks & Spencer, as sure a sign as any of the death of the Soviet era.
The next day we filmed in the Alexander Nevsky cathedral with Michael and Miro. Michael was fascinated by the characters depicted in numerous paintings and frescos, Miro giving him a running commentary on their contributions to Bulgaria’s huge, entwined religious and political history. Even the avuncular Bishop came out to greet us and thankfully asked for the lights to be put on so that we could bring the ASA down on the Canon C300. We filmed an interview with Miro at his parents’ apartment. Mr and Mrs Penkov are both doctors who started their careers in the soviet system; they treated us to a lovely tea of Baklava and other Bulgarian sweets.
On the last day of the shoot we visited the Rila Monastery, about an hour and half outside of Sofia, with its wonderful, complicated frescos showing Orthodox Christian scenes and depictions of hell that might well have made you think twice about sinning before the age of mass media. On the way back we stopped at a country cemetery, not just because I am fascinated by graveyards (see previous blogs) but to get some shots to go with a piece Miro read us from one of his brilliant short stories. The graves in Bulgaria are still post-communism secular, many have cans of beer and Rakia, offerings from friends and relatives missing their drinking companions.
As we left Sofia’s brand new, Tracey Island-like airport, I find myself thinking that apart from Marks & Spencer’s, how wonderfully different Bulgaria is from the UK and only three hours away.
In the streets of San Francisco lurk the legends of my youth, or at least the ghosts of them. Here to film the remarkable dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher, we stayed at a hotel situated a short walk from the City Lights bookstore – the hangout of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Kerouac. As I waited to check out with a book of slide guitarist Ry Cooder’s short stories, a young English chap asked the cashier whether they had a book called ‘On The Road’ by someone called Jack Kerouac?
Jim, our local, Korean-born sound recordist, guided us to a restaurant on Fillmore, the original location of the famous music venue of the West Coast scene: Fillmore West. The venue was run by notorious rock-manager-hard-man, Bill Graham. I used to read about concerts there by The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mountain, Cream and The Allmans in my inky NME while chewing on Maynard’s Wine Gums; a Thursday treat in my teens.
Our hotel was at the bottom of Taylor Street; at its vertiginous hilltop is where Steve McQueen gunned his muscle car in ‘Bullet’ (Directed by Brit, Peter Yates, btw). Frisco was also the scene of The Band’s last ever concerts, at The Winterland Ballroom. If you are ever disconcerted about the state of modern pop you can cheer yourself up by watching Martin Scorsese’s film of these concerts, ‘The Last Waltz’, maybe the best rock documentary ever made. The Winterland is now demolished so no point in asking Jim to make a detour to see it.
For an American town San Francisco has a bohemian vibe unlike other places on the west coast – a short stroll out of the hotel means being accosted by “Veteran here!” panhandlers, prostitutes, drug addicts, the mentally ill or a combination of all. Jim tells us that a few years back the Governor closed the state mental homes and now they populate the streets in a fairly benign way if you don’t mind saying no. Some of these street people look like old hippies wearing faded ‘Deadhead’ T-shirts, straggly beards and faraway eyes – they probably went to some of the concerts I read about in the inky NME. One night Bill Turnley, our NY based cameraman, was offered ‘tricks’ by both male and female hookers on a short walk to get a cold drink. Bill loves SF as he has fond memories of hitchhiking from Indiana to work on a Mexican college friend’s prune ranch after graduating.
But San Francisco is changing as a new elite bohemia has risen up around Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple – the new bohemians drive BMWs and if they have addictions they are expensive and come with even more expensive cures. House prices are on the up, and to an old hippy (sort of) like me, it seems the place might lose the very thing that makes it special.
San Francisco is also home to one of my favourite contemporary rock artists, Chuck Prophet. Prophet is a surviving bohemian of the old kind, a never-really-made-it-big performer and songwriter who relishes his freedom and, that rare thing in an American, his cynicism. Chuck’s last record, ‘Temple Beautiful’, was about the fast-disappearing SF of old: each track documenting incidents, both political and social, from its recent history. Bill tells me about the gay district known as Castro – Chuck’s song ‘Castro Halloween’ is about a vicious attack on an annual gay celebration and also about the gay mayor, Harvey Milk, murdered by a political opponent who managed to legal his way to an innocent verdict.
Chuck is in the UK and Europe this October. If you really like music go and see him – he is also very funny. Chuck’s new recording, ‘Night Surfer’, is another excellent 45 minutes, worth anyone’s money: download, CD or vinyl.
Next stop, Bulgaria.
There has been quite a lot of controversy about sound of late. Audiences of the BBC’s Jamaica Inn complained of poor audio quality: the actors were mumbling and the dialogue was lost under music and sound effects, they complained. More recently the Beeb have come under attack for the same kind of problems with their retro crime series, Quirke. When I saw the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis at a London cinema (who should have known better), the sound delivery system was wrongly set up, rendering most of the dialogue inaudible (there was nothing wrong with the Coen brothers’ sound mix because I checked it on the DVD). So sound, and the skills surrounding it, are mostly forgotten or ignored until something goes wrong. Soundmen have long accepted that they are the second-class citizens of the crew compared with their more glamorous counterparts in the camera department.
Many of you will know I am of a certain age – an age before the luxury of digital. After leaving The Royal College of Art film school I was apprenticed to some film editors in Westbourne Grove where I slaved over sixteen-millimetre film bins and brown magnetic sound stock of the same gauge. I also made tea and coffee and answered the phone expertly. After seven years of art education I felt I had reached my true metier, dear reader.
We edited films on the trusty Picsync, a Moviola and a Steenbeck. Both picture and sound were cut and joined using heavy-duty film joiners with specialist Sellotape. The joiner had two blades; one made a straight cut for the picture down the edge of the frame, the other blade made a diagonal cut in the sixteen mm sound stock – magnetic sound signals are diagonal apparently. The joiners needed regular adjustment and cleaning with an evil-smelling solvent; my job as well. Syncing up the sound and picture to the clapperboard was also my job and the editors I worked for wanted it done quickly and accurately. The synced-up rushes would then be numbered so that the editor could keep track of the sync while hacking things up to make the story work.
As you might imagine dusty trims bins and constant re-cutting of the sound track made for a fairly inhospitable environment for the analogue sound signals embedded in the flimsy brown mag stock. In hot weather the glue from the tape would make its way onto the tracks and would have to be gently cleaned off with the evil smelling solvent. We quite often had to re-transfer sound from the original location-shot quarter-inch tapes.
When the cut had been approved and we had ‘picture lock’ the cutting room became a sound track-laying suite. The editor would spend the best part of a week (for a sixty-minuter) laying all the sound off onto separate tracks using the Picsync, which had a gang of four tracks so you could see and hear each different effect. In between each section of dialogue, effects or music, all on separate tracks, we laid in blue Mylar spacing.
At the end of the week we would arrive at the sound-mixing studio with at least six or seven film cans containing up to twelve tracks of sound the same length and in sync with the picture. Another one of my jobs was to produce a ‘dubbing chart’ – an A3 map of exactly what we had laid and where we had laid it – neatly labelled and coloured-in using crayons (I knew that art training would come in handy one day.) The dubbing mixer was another skilled person who was carefully recruited; one of the editors I worked with, Charles Davies reckoned there were only three really good mixers in the London area and he would wait until his top men became free to mix the films he edited. Charles edited our award winning documentary The Enigma of Nic Jones.
So this is a ramble and I’m sorry, but what I’m trying to say is; before digital, which revolutionised sound in terms of quality and what you can actually do with audio, we spent a huge amount of time getting sound right. What you could hear and how it sat in the mix was argued about, done and re-done again until it was as right as the brown stuff and sticky tape would allow us to get it. We always played tricky sections through the small TV-sized speakers on the desk rather than the huge studio quality speakers under the screen. If anyone was mumbling, then all sorts of EQ-ing and other measures were brought into play to make sure the audience could hear the mumbler. If it was drama then there was always the final straw of Foley where the artists could re-voice their dialogue completely.
Some editors are going to get upset with me now… I never became a film editor but I served an apprenticeship (a proper one not the reality TV thing). One of the disadvantages of the digital film future we all now live in is that certain aspects of craft training have been lost along the way. So now we have some really fantastic picture editors who don’t really understand sound or what the sound mixer will have to do when it comes to the very last (and possibly most important) moment in a film’s production. The sound mix is the last chance to polish the narrative and add other layers of experience to the story. It is also the last chance to sort out the problem of the mumbling actor or noisy background. More importantly, there is now a whole generation of producers and directors who have never experienced sound in film as another dimension as important as 4K Alexas, drones, Steadicams, 3D and so on.