Around this time last year I was in West Wales for the making of a film about my novel, ‘Telling the Sea’ [which was about to be re-issued as an e-book]. The film, 'Wild and Wonderful' was made by Shrewsbury-based short film makers, media company R & A Collaborations. Recently I was in the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse with them, reminiscing about our three day shoot beside the wild Welsh sea and talking about their work as film-makers, in particular their interest in filming artists, writers and craftspeople.
R & A Collaboration, in person, are Shrewsbury-based photographer Richard Foot and digital media artist, Arron Fowler, whose studio is based in the centre of our town. They first collaborated for the Power of Making exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, producing short films about weaver Helen Foot and stained-glass artist Nathalie Hildegarde Liege. Their style was highly distinctive, born of Richard’s background in photography and the constraints on time under which they worked. As much a form of craft as the works they were filming, it will come as no surprise to anybody who’s seen R & A’s films that they beat stiff competition to make the V & A’s final selection. Being featured in the Power of Making exhibition was a fantastic start to a working collaboration. R & A have been creating, filming and developing ever since.
‘We literally banged out those first couple of films,’ said Arron, ‘We had a day each in which to do them, that was all. If one had been accepted we’d have been thrilled. Only forty places were available out of over two hundred entries, but when the whole thing went live we found that we had two slots. Both films in. Amazing.’
Arron described the experience as hitting the ground hard and fast – and that’s what R & A have been doing ever since. In the early days, working largely with artists and craftspeople, they’d create a buzz by producing a film in a day. Shooting, reviewing footage, recording interviews, putting it all together – the pace was frantic and it produced a certain kind of film, immediate, lively and very intimate.
R & A’s first ten films were made this way, and they all have this passion and immediacy. ‘We called it the 5-5-7 Project,’ said Arron. ‘Five makers, five films, seven days. A week of almost non-stop filming to produce a distinctive body of work. It was an experiment. A mad, mad project that stretched our practice to the limits. But then that’s what R & A is all about.’
R & A are passionate about working within the craft community, engaging the public in the ways in which craftspeople work. Their films aim to capture personality and purpose. This was achieved with great aplomb in the 5-5-7 Project. ‘We knew we’d been successful in what we’d set out to do, but by the end of the project we both felt about to die,’ Arron said.
This willingness to risk all in the name of film is something to which I can attest. Last winter, over two tempestuous days on the windy coast of West Wales, Richard and Arron staggered over cliff-tops lugging equipment whilst I sounded off about writing in general, my novel, 'Telling the Sea', and its new life as an ebook. The resulting film was remarkably successful, or so I’ve been told, in bringing to life something that spoke for me as an author as well as my work.
‘I feel as if I know you,’ wrote the Belizean writer and academic, Zee Edgell, after seeing the film. ‘When you came down those stairs, said Su Barber of Mmm & Co I knew you immediately in a strangely intimate way – and it was because of the film.’
‘Telling the Sea’ was written about a very special place in my writing – and indeed my family – life. I’d expected it to be difficult to share, but R & A made the process fun. Particularly notable were the opportunities they provided for me to think, and share out loud about my writing practices and what novel writing, in particular, means to me. Every shot was carefully considered, yet there was a wonderful sense of spontaneity about it all. This was another way of telling story, and it fascinated me.
‘Foremost in our minds when we film artists, writers or craftspeople, is that the film itself needs careful crafting,’ said Arron. ‘There are some horrendous examples of craft film out there. If a maker is serious about their work, they’ve got to be serious about the crafting of films made about them. If not, well it’s a bit like working in a linen shop, but not doing any ironing. The product is on display, but to no one’s credit. People think that any publicity is better than no publicity, but that’s wrong.’
What Richard and Arron have discovered over the years they’ve spent filming makers is an open, friendly and very talented community of people, largely driven not so much by ego as their work itself, which is produced in most cases with an extraordinary degree of humility. All of these people, R & A contest, though they may not realize it have fascinating stories to tell. And by means of film, R & A are attempting to tell those tales. They’re championing makers who may not always appreciate the true value of what they’ve got. They’re tapping into inspiration and sharing it around.
‘What we’ve done as much as anything,’ said Arron, is help to nurture a sense of community life for people who may until now have been solitary workers. For many of them Facebook and Twitter are a part of a process that we’re able to help them develop. Once you get started with making links and connections it’s amazing where you can end up.’
Recently, Richard recalled, R & A had spent a couple of days filming for Texprint in Paris. That had came about through a little film they’d made for Flash Fiction Shrewsbury. Somebody had come onto the R & A website looking for a film about the jeweller/craftsperson Alexandra Abraham, whose work is beginning to make some serious waves. Their eye, however, was caught by the way that R & A handled Flash Fiction as an event and the next thing R & A knew they’d been hired to go to Paris with twenty-four graduates for the massively influential textile industry fair, Premier Vision.
‘These were specially selected graduates from all the top UK universities,’ Arron said. ‘They were at Premier Vision to be given exposure. Our job was to interview them and their sponsors, and make a film about all twenty-four designers that were part of Texprint. All twenty-four of them. We had ten days notice. We were already booked to do two films with Confessions of a Design Geek, a blogger, as part of the London Design Festival. So we knew we were going to be under pressure.
'We hit Paris on the Wednesday and returned that night for filming in London. The first London film was ready by that same Friday, and the second by Saturday. Paris was more complicated and took longer. Something less succinct was required, and more open ended. Even so, we had the Paris Premier Vision film out by October.'
‘We never storyboard,’ Richard said. ‘Over-planning takes the fun out of the thing. There’s a danger of losing spontaneity.’ By remaining fluid and flexible, and by being determined not to become formulaic, the small two-man outfit of R & A have produced a staggering thirty-five films in just two years. Their common denominator, the thing above all others that makes R & A films distinctive, is that they aren’t shot using video but instead use stop-motion photography. Partly this is done, Richard explained, because they feel that the camera provides them with better image quality, and partly because it enables them to work in the middle ground between Richard’s skills as a photographer and Arron’s as a digital artist.
‘We can create an effect that we wouldn’t get on video,’ explained Arron. ‘The way we do this is a form of craft in its own right. We can construct our films literally frame by frame. This provides us with some great opportunities that we wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s all to do with playing to our strengths.’
Richard knew almost nothing about editing before he and Arron joined forces. Now he knows a lot. ‘The way we work,’ he said, ‘every second counts. All the time we’re getting better – and quicker – at what we’re doing.’ Aaron, in return, has learned a lot about photography – and about people. ‘My experience has been that they’re almost exclusively lovely,’ he said. ‘They can be challenging at times, but rarely are they awful.’
Arron has engaged in a number of community projects over the years. Currently he’s extending the educational side of his work by making films with young people and seeking opportunities to curate video shows for craft fairs. Along with Richard, he’s preparing to go out to Milan for a major ‘Science of Stuff’ project entitled ‘Light Touch Matters’. The aim of this project is to bring together scientists and designers, and R & A’s role is to film what happens when they do.
This is a typical R & A adventure. They’re always interested in ideas and in new things going on. Interested in people too, and seeing how they grow and develop. ‘We came to Alexandra Abraham at a pivotal moment in her career,’ said Arron, ‘and there have been others too. Kate Gilliland for example. What we’re doing, we hope, is not only enriching people’s working lives but their personal lives too. We, like all the makers we film, are vulnerable people taking risks. But there’s self-compassion in the way we work.
‘A lot of people don’t seem to understand about self-compassion,’ Arron said. ‘It’s easy for them to think they’re not worth much, and for expediency's sake to sell the things they make on the cheap. But when they do that they undervalue not only themselves but the whole craft community. It’s important for that community to recognise and truly appreciate its worth. That’s what R & A Collaborations is all about.’