From Scientist to Filmmaker...
It’s the question I’m asked the most, ‘How did you make the jump from working in a lab to making films?’
So here’s the brutal truth. There was no singular jump. What there was, was being open to chance, grim determination combined with a series of stochastic steps, frequent faith on my part, often on the part of others.
I love science – let’s get that chestnut out of the way. There seems to be a dated notion that those who leave the bench are somehow seeking an escape. In my experience, that’s rarely the case. During my second post-doctoral position, the need to explore creative ways of expressing my love of science simply became irrepressible.
At home, I began writing articles, purely for myself. This was when I started testing the power and elegance of words. To realise that, devoid of jargon, it was entirely possible to entertain and inform curious minds about the beauty, imagination and limitless reach of science.
Completely naïve to ‘how these things worked’, I started reaching out to people to try and get the articles published – not for money, just to see my words somewhere other than my own mind and computer.
The Naked Scientists, ran by polymath Chris Smith, was the first to take my articles and ask for several more.
Simultaneously, I began experimenting with film. A random encounter with a work colleague, showing clips of his new baby on his new video camera wowed me. An unapologetic technophile, others cooed while I was far more intrigued by the idea of being able to obtain such a camera and make my own films. That was the moment I fell in love with the idea of making films.
Even then, I was brutally pragmatic. There was no point having a camera if I couldn’t edit what I shot. Apple had just released Final Cut Pro. So I bought it, a ridiculously over specced computer and taught myself how to use them both. Archive.org provided limitless material to download and practice on - I’d spend hours reworking old films, creating mashups to entertain myself whilst learning the literal ins and outs of editing.
Then came the camera, a dinky, 3-chip affair that promised great colour and excellent sound. It cost a small fortune and I couldn’t have been happier – this was my gateway drug, the key to unlimited creative expression.
Initially, the films I made were more like play; films like Photo Synthesis which were experiments with stop motion, archive and little bits of reality mixed in. This was a time of BT’s getoutthere and Channel 4’s FourDocs, nascent web platforms encouraging a new wave of creative expression as the art of filmmaking moved from Hollywood to suburbia.
FourDocs was where I first met the inspiring Patrick Uden, Emily Renshaw-Smith and Charlie Philips, now Head of Documentary at the Guardian. Charlie was, and still is, a person whose passion for and experience of documentary is something I deeply respect. I’d entered a competition, pitching to make a film. The film was made as a collaboration between us all and at the time it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done in my life.
Talking about film always excites me this way. The exploration of ideas, the attempt to capture imagery and sound then weave it together to produce poetry, drama, horror or beauty is intoxicating. This creative process is the most intellectually complex and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
As confidence grew, I needed to get my camera out of the bedroom and into the real world. As much as I adore a blockbuster, it was the idea of documentary that drew me in. Reality is everywhere and I wanted to catch it, play with it, share it in new and experimental ways.
An old friend, Sue Hordijenko, was working at the, now British Science Association. I went in to meet her and some colleagues, essentially to sell my wares as a filmmaker. They had no budget (I didn’t care) but they did have an event coming up in a couple of months to explore the issues surrounding stem cell research and the ethical questions surrounding it. ‘I could make a film about that!’, I breathed at them, eyes wide.
A couple of weeks later, I was on a train to Newcastle, having taken a day off work, to meet Miodrag Stojković at the Centre for Life to do my first ever interview. It was ridiculously exciting – I was living the dream. I’m amazed he said yes to the interview but it did instill a ‘just ask’ approach to my filmmaking. It’s precisely how I managed to get an interview with Sir David Attenborough, years later.
Once Miodrag was ‘in the can’ I needed voxpops, the opinions of real world people discussing their thoughts on stem cell technology and its implications. Leaving the house with a camera to interview people was, then, nerve wracking. And what I didn’t know then is that voxpops are a baptism of fire – people ignore you, look irritated by you, evade your smiles and pleas for a moment on camera. It’s brilliant experience.
One man I interviewed, sitting in a park, revealed the power of documentary. He went off topic, yielding to the confessional quality of the lens. He shared the fact that his wife died a year ago, that he had since become an alcoholic, that he was now sleeping in this very park. That a single, random encounter could possess so much depth and pain and story inspired and moved me.
The resulting three minute film, was used to introduce an evening’s talk on stem cell research at the Dana Centre. Sitting in the audience, this was one of the first times I’d been able to watch my own work on a big screen. It’s a seductive feeling that has never worn off. In the audience was a woman from the British Council. She saw and liked the film – how it had been used within the context of stimulating conversation. She asked me to make a similar film for the British Council’s ZeroCarbonCity project. It was my first professional gig and ‘digitalis media’ was born.
Resigning was actually pretty easy. Thinking more about films and words than enzymes and cells, it was simply the right thing to do. My parents thought the decision unfathomable and I heard the word ‘brave’ more frequently than at any other time. Still, it felt like walking through an open door.
The first major piece of work I had as a freelancer was to write The Rough Guide to the Brain. This came about, like most things looking back, simply by being open to possibility. Rough Guides put out a call for titles – that was it. I submitted four; three months later I was having lunch with Andrew Lockett (a meeting I almost missed because I wanted to go to a talk about independent filmmaking). You can read about the yearlong process to write the book here.
Immediately following the book, there was a sense of having drifted too far from film. That, having taken the step to becoming a freelance filmmaker, I’d ‘lost a year’ to words and needed to immerse myself back into a more visual world.
That’s when I became aware of Sheffield DocFest. Now the largest documentary film festival in Europe, they were running a pitching competition and, fully warmed up from a year of creative writing, it seemed like a no brainer to enter.
Along with around 10 others, I found myself in Sheffield, having got through to the final of the competition. Chance had it that my group was sitting with Andy Glynne, a highly experienced documentary filmmaker, producer and founder of DFG, the Documentary Filmmakers Group. We pitched, received feedback and I considered it miraculous to be sitting with someone who actually made films for a living.
Following the session, Andy suggested we meet in London. This triggered the next and one of the most significant phases in my filmmaking life.
Working with Andy and the team at DFG, I was able to make a film for the Channel 4 and BFI collaboration, Britain Recut. Back in familiar territory, this allowed me to play with archive footage combined with newly shot film to tell a playful story of Britain’s inability to moderate its own diet.
Buoyed up by this relationship with Channel 4, Andy suggested we pitch a series for 3 Minute Wonder. Under his guidance, we managed to win a pitch for a series of shorts that became known as Life After Coma, a turning point in my career. Each film was tremendously special: Still Here, Work in Progress, Blah Blah Blah and Thomas Turns 50.
In essence, each short followed people whose lives had been dramatically impacted by coma. The combination of access, intimacy, emotional power and kindness I witnessed when making these films changed me. It was a privilege to be so close to so much pain, so much hope, so much humanity.
The rough cuts I provided were worked on by professional editors, Siv Lamark and Anton Califano, providing me with some of the most informative lessons I’ve ever had in front of a screen. Another year, another project focused almost exclusively on the brain.
During a holiday to Canada, chance alerted me to a masterclass by the late, great Albert Maysles. So off I dutifully went to listen to one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers discuss his life of work. A couple of years later I visited Al in his studio in New York and he echoed something that he’d said in Canada – short films are like poems… At a time when shorts were perceived as little more than time-fillers (how things have changed), this resonated powerfully with me. In everything I make, I’m constantly seeking that poetic layer, that quality that elevates a film.
With an insatiable interest in interdisciplinary work, I found myself back in the UK, applying to go on a five day Crossover workshop; a brilliant assemblage of characters and disciplines geared around the invention of an entirely new multimedia platform. It was here I met Mike Bennett, a hugely friendly and generous man.
Months later, I received a call from Mike, asking if I’d be able to meet a couple of people to discuss a film that was being made. At Crossover, I’d being showing people Life After Coma and Mike had suggested my approach might be helpful.
So, sitting with these two strangers from Minds Eye Productions, we discussed an idea I could barely get my head around. It seemed to involve an online fusion of games, documentary and drama – but you were never quite sure where the drama started and the documentary ended... Whatever, the overall theme was genetics, so it sounded pretty cool.
The one jarring moment in the conversation came when I realized that, rather than asking me to be second camera to an overall director, they were actually asking me to direct, film and edit all eight of the short documentaries to go with the project. Precisely. When I got home, I told my wife who asked how much I’d get paid at which point I confessed I’d been so surprised I hadn’t asked.
The result was the award-winning Routes, starring the wonderful and now immensely popular, Katherine Ryan. On the day I appeared to film in her home, I was terrified. Terrified of the responsibility, of forgetting to press record, of getting the audio right. Of pretty much everything. But then, as is now, once that camera is on, so am I and the day became a blur of footage.
Part funded by the Wellcome Trust, it was purely by chance a pal asked if I was applying for their job to be a ‘Science Multimedia Producer’. By then, I'd been freelance for five years, so figured why not apply. Two days before the closing date, I did.
During my time at Wellcome, the work I rate highest recalls the days of Life After Coma. It’s my web-series about mental illness, Last Chance Saloon. It’s the film I made about ageing and mortality, Until. It’s the film featuring the beautiful Colin Froy in The Pain Detective, who gave some of his last days on Earth to help me make a film about where drugs come from.
All I know about where I go next is that it will be poetic. It will be full of beauty and humanity and hope. Because when I look down a lens, that’s all I can see.
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