By Richard John Seymour
I’m sitting in the Royal Albert Hall in London. I scan the crowd to my left, spotting some familiar faces—Prince William and Kate Middleton, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman.
I’m sitting with my crew of one—myself—and my girlfriend, trying to enjoy this moment as best I can. Wondering how it must feel to make an acceptance speech in front of this crowd. In the small chance that my self-made documentary Consumed wins the BAFTA Award for Best Short Film, I may soon find out. The moment comes for my category, and a camera crew descend the stairs next to me, pointing a camera at me inches from my face–I do my best to ignore them as the nominees are announced.
The whirlwind journey that Consumed took me on didn’t have a fairytale ending, but as the only documentary to be nominated, I feel immensely proud of what it achieved, and the experience will always form a milestone in my life and career.
I’m writing this article because No Film School was a big source of knowledge for me in the making of my first short film, and I wanted to give back to the community in the form of sharing my story.
My name is Richard John Seymour. I’m a trained architect and artist, working with photography and film to tell stories about how we affect our environment, and how our environment affects us. In 2014 I joined a collective called Unknown Fields on a trip to China. Unknown Fields is a group of artists and designers based in London focused on investigating the strange spaces and activities that serve our consumer habits. I joined this trip during my master’s studies in architecture as a way to document the spaces that interested me through photography and film, to show my research, and help present my thesis project when I got back home.
Industrial spaces have always fascinated me. They are the cathedrals of our time, they represent the pinnacle of engineering, and operate to serve what is essentially a shared-value system, in our age that happens to be globalized capitalism rather than religion.
Throughout my architecture studies I’d been using photography to document places that inspired me, but I knew that to understand the processes and places, sounds, and atmospheres of these spaces, film would be the best way to bring my research to life.
Run and Gun
In 2014, options for a no-budget film were starting to arrive on the scene. Blackmagic had released its Cinema Camera 2.5K and there were plenty of DSLRs shooting decent but heavily compressed footage. I didn’t have a budget to buy a camera, but I already owned a Canon 5D Mark III, and I was introduced to Magic Lantern through a number of articles including this one by David Kendricken showing how Hunter Hampton Richards had made his 5D look like a top-of-the-line cinema camera.
Seeing his footage convinced me that my camera had the power to compete with the best, in a package that could travel with me anywhere.
Essentially, Magic Lantern is a firmware “hack” that unlocks the ability to shoot raw footage on Canon DSLRs. Since I already had the camera, I had nothing to lose except my time, and after making some test footage, I loved the results and went from there.
Being able to achieve such a high-quality image, I also wanted to give the film a smooth cinematic look. Handheld footage is the natural choice for most documentary filmmakers because it’s practical, fast, and flexible. However, most of my subjects were part of some sort of mechanized process, and I wanted to explore the spaces they were working in, to really let the camera do the talking. This being the case, smooth camera moves were important, to create reveals, lead the viewer through a scene, and raise the production value of my footage.
I used a Manfrotto fluid tripod head and a cheap Glidecam knockoff that fit in a backpack. It was also small enough not to look professional, which was a big advantage I’ll come to later. Sound was handled entirely by a Zoom H4n fixed onto the top of the camera.
It’s important not to overstate the importance of gear when it comes to filmmaking, but at the same time, if it weren’t for me keeping up with new developments in the low-budget filmmaking world, then my film may not have achieved what it did. A 35mm full-frame raw look was something that didn’t really exist in 2014, and I believe that one of the best ways to make your work relevant is to do something that feels different from what else is out there at the time.
It’s tempting to try to replicate other filmmakers’ “look” when starting out, but I would really advocate for taking a leap of faith and trying to do something a bit different, whether that’s through lens choice, camera, or cinematography/lighting techniques. Do something that makes people wonder, “How did they do that?”
The size of my 5D meant that I could do shots that would be impossible for a larger cinema camera, like literally putting it on an assembly line belt while filming, or fitting into tight spaces, or in some cases even hiding that I was filming.
Sites like No Film School are an endless resource for filmmakers and make it so easy to keep up with the frankly crazy pace of developments in the world of cinematography.
Ask for Forgiveness, Not Permission
One of the questions people always ask me about this film is, “How did you get access?” To that end, I owe a lot to Unknown Fields.
They had a series of ingenious methods for getting into factories, onto cargo ships, and seeing the dark underbelly of the consumerist lifestyle. For instance, we traveled to a city called Baotou in Inner Mongolia to see Baotou Tailings Dam, where the waste from all the nearby steel factories ends up. While in the city we saw lots of trucks carrying coal and decided to follow an empty one that led us up to a private coal mine. We were able to film there for an hour or so before being spotted and asked to leave by some aggressive security guards, who forced us to show them our footage and then delete it.
What they didn’t know was that because of the way Magic Lantern works, my camera couldn’t preview the footage saved onto the memory card, so I pretended to delete my footage and then showed them a blank screen that looked as though the card was empty.
To access the factories, Unknown Fields founders Liam Young and Kate Davies would pretend to be representing a group of Western buyers looking to make big orders. If there’s the chance of a big sale, factory owners are only too happy to show you around. Since we were a group of several people, they couldn’t keep an eye on all of us, and I would take the opportunity to film the sections of Consumed that featured assembly lines and workers who spend hours doing mundane tasks. This is also where having a small camera was a huge advantage. Turning up with an ARRI Amira or a full production crew would have set off alarm bells, but one guy wandering around with a DSLR would have looked relatively harmless, and the factory owners were too busy trying to make a sale to care too much about what I was doing.
Werner Herzog’s mantra of “ask for forgiveness, not permission” really holds up here. I highly doubt we would have got permission for most of our filming if we’d asked first. With any documentary filmmaking, access can be the difference between documenting something superficially, or really creating a compelling story that has value. Accessing each location had a different story and required some creative thinking, but being open to following any lead was really important in the making of Consumed.
Finding My Film
As I alluded to earlier, I didn’t really go into this project knowing what the output would be. It was only when I got home and saw the power of the imagery I had collected that I knew that this had to be shared and couldn’t just live on my hard drive to be used as support for my thesis project. I knew I needed to make a short film to tell some of the stories I witnessed.
Approaching the structure of the film like a supply chain, I started with the raw materials in the landscape, followed by processing, assembly, and export. Thanks to the help of some of the other members of this trip who spoke Chinese and conducted some interviews with workers we encountered, I was able to write a fictional voiceover based on the sentiment of all of these interviews.
The pace of Consumed is much slower than most documentaries. Subconsciously this was probably to do with my background in photography. I wanted the images to carry meaning themselves, and to do that I think you need some space to think and interpret the scene in front of you. This also helped give an idea of how monotonous the experience of working in these environments is.
I would not consider myself a natural storyteller, or writer. But I felt like this was a story that needed to be told, and the voiceover was a great way to add another layer to the film. China is a huge, complicated, and contradictory place and it wouldn’t be fair to omit a sentiment we heard multiple times that people really see a positive change in their country and their lives. For many Chinese, leaving their rural life for the big cities represents a dream of climbing the social ladder to the middle classes. This information was difficult to capture purely through imagery so I felt the best way to introduce the idea was with the voiceover.
One of the members of Unknown Fields, Chapman Kan, made lots of audio recordings while we were in China and manipulated the sounds of industrial machinery into beautiful soundscapes and rhythmic music. This worked perfectly with the pace and atmosphere for my film and luckily he gave me permission to use his work.
I also used two tracks by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. After the travel costs, this was my biggest expense, and I had to think long and hard about it. I explained to their record label my situation and they were really supportive, and understood that I didn’t have a budget for music and was paying out of my own pocket. After some negotiation they offered me a good deal on a festival license. Of course, with hindsight, I should have negotiated a series of deals in advance, because when the film was nominated for a BAFTA, they could have really screwed me by asking for a huge fee to show the film when my festival license expired. Luckily they were very good to me, but this can happen.
Spending money on a good soundtrack was a way for me to legitimize my film, since I was not known as a director, and didn’t have a production company. Much in the same way that seeing a familiar actor in a film can draw you towards watching it, I felt that the music I used could have that same effect.
Approaching record labels is much easier than it seems, and for me it helped elevate the status of my work in a way that would have been difficult to do otherwise.
This project was made up of two trips to China. For the first, I simply paid myself, but for the second trip I had to make a Kickstarter campaign.
I received an amazing response here, and managed to meet my relatively modest goal of around $3,500. For an unknown filmmaker, this was amazing to me, but it really helped that I had collected some compelling footage on the first trip to prove myself. Apart from the score, I literally did everything else myself, from editing, to sound, to color grading. I even designed my own posters.
Naturally here sites like No Film School and YouTube were invaluable resources, but my training in architecture was really helpful as I had some experience with graphic design, typography, and aesthetics that helped to professionalize the materials used to promote Consumed.
Getting It Out There
Throughout writing about this process I’m reminded of all the happy accidents and coincidences that occurred along the way. However, probably the biggest stroke of luck I had was after I’d finished the film. I didn’t know much about the film festival circuit, and certainly didn’t have a festival strategy, but I knew of Sundance Film Festival and applied there. The film didn’t make the official selection, but did make it to the Sundance Short Film connection, an online selection of films that don’t quite make the physical festival, but that are featured in an expanded online program.
It was here that the festival director for Sheffield Doc Fest saw my film and asked me to submit it, and that’s how I ended up qualifying for the BAFTA Awards.
In the end, I chose to release Consumed on Vimeo for free. I was approached about a number of distribution deals, some of which I took, but as soon as these embargoes were lifted I knew that the best chance of people watching a short film like this would be to put it online for everyone to see.
My journey from making a film that I didn’t even really intend to make, to walking down the red carpet at the BAFTAs isn’t really replicable, and that’s definitely not the takeaway of my story.
The real lesson that I learned and think applies to all new filmmakers is to maximize your resourcefulness.
Every filmmaker has their own specialized knowledge, access, and abilities, and making the most of the resources you have around you, as well as your own network of friends, colleagues, and family, will force you to be creative in telling your story, and your film will inevitably have your own signature embedded into it.
No man is an island, and neither is any film. This film wouldn’t have been possible without Unknown Fields and the collective and collaborative spirit of their traveling studio concept. Nor would it have been possible without the amazing support of the Kickstarter backers who allowed me to finish the film by making a second trip to China.
I took on a large amount of the filmmaking process myself, but there is so much value in working with others. The film industry is full of amazing and passionate people and good collaboration can add a dimension to your work that’s impossible to achieve on your own. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that new filmmakers try to take on all of the production roles themselves, but for anyone not connected to the industry, Consumed proves that regardless of budget, experience, or contacts, if you have a story to tell, anything is possible.
Consumed is now live on Vimeo.