Bye, Bye Birdcage/ Visual Motifs in My Work

Hey Guys,

   So, last month, something wonderful happened which I hadn't expected. I got regular work at a production agency called Dynomite Productions (who I mentioned briefly in my last post) which meant that, after publicly moaning about having to do a non-creative day job, I was finally able to leave it.

   It was amazing and disorientating to walk out of those doors for the last time. It was a place which I felt had become a part of me - albeit one I was unhappy with - and I was facing a brand new chapter, which is always daunting. But at the same time I felt peaceful, which is rare for me, and it's a feeling that hasn't gone away yet.

  So I'll be doing at least three days a week at Dynomite, and monitoring Night Owls or looking for freelance work around those days, as soon as I've finished my most recent commissioned videos for The Oramics Machine and Wan2Talk

   (You can hear me talking about taking the plunge and leaving regular work, in the latest episode of Luke Kondor's The Storyteller's Podcast.)

(Above - bird cages in Ashes and Night Owls)

   And I realised something recently; one part of this big change, this new chapter, is that I'll have to retire one of my filmmaking motifs. You see, I made a vow that every time I made a film while I was still 'trapped' in a job I disliked, I would feature a birdcage, or similar imagery within that film. As it happened, I was only at that job for just over two years, and since I tend to release one film every two years, I only managed to use this imagery twice - in Ashes and Night Owls. Ashes featured birdcages heavily on the wallpaper, and Night Owls' set designer Anya Kordecki did work a bird cage into the dressing for that film, but it'll be shown most blatantly in the close-ups of the female character, Mari, because she has a large birdcage pendant attached in her hair (thankyou MUA Charlotte Price!). 

    I didn't manage to work this imagery into any of my client videos during this time - as these films weren't expressions of my self - but I did manage to suggest using bird cages in the set dressing of Neil Oseman's latest film, Amelia's Letter (which I was costume designer on), when he said he wanted a visual theme of the lead character being trapped.

   Retiring one visual motif isn't too bad a thing when I have quite a few I use, and will continue to use. And here's my opportunity to celebrate (and deride) those motifs. If anyone's watched more than one of the films I've worked on, you may have spotted the following reoccurring images...

1) Writing on the Walls

(Clockwise from above: Concept art for Fireworks, dir. Ollie Caswell; Still image from Jar of Angels, dir. Crash Taylor; on-set photograph from Ashes; Concept art for Stop/Eject, dir. Neil Oseman)

   This is more of a production designer motif of mine, but also the one which I've probably used the most. I've discussed this motif in a standalone blog post, so I won't go into too much detail about it here. Basically it's inspired by graffiti, by a love of words and the semiotics behind them, and it all stems from a scene in Forces of Nature which has been stuck in my head ever since I was a kid. This can perhaps be seen as a writer's motif as well, as I worked wall-words heavily into the plots of Jar of Angels and Ashes when I wrote those screenplays. 
(Above: typed word in Deep Red Sun)

   Looking even further back, to some of my earliest work (one of which - a fanmade music video for Tori Amos' Lovesong cover, which I've never shared online), I have featured close-ups of written words, be they hand-written or typed on a screen. You can blame Baz Luhrmann for that inspiration!

2) Isolated Central Female Characters (Often Accompanied by Voiceover)

(Left-right: Deep Red Sun; The Opening Night; the Ashes teaser trailer; Ashes)

   This was a reoccurring theme in the films I made as a teenager, and also the first three films I made under the Triskelle Pictures signature - Deep Red Sun, The Opening Night, and Ashes - a trio which I affectionately nicknamed the 'Lonely Girl Trilogy'. Narration would often be used vocalise their thoughts, partly because it gave me the opportunity to write poetically, and partly because it helped to make the characters look isolated - for whatever reason - to the point that they'd rather listen to their thoughts than talk to other people. 

   All three parts of the 'Lonely Girl Trilogy' had an element of myself in them, and were exaggerated reflections of events from my youth, so that's why they revolved around a central female character. I think I've got all of this out of my system, closing on Ashes, the most disturbing of the three. Night Owls features two equal characters, male and female, and is dialogue-heavy rather than relying on (the somewhat easier) voiceover. But it's a technique I still fall back on in my commissioned films, as you'll see in the Wan2Talk promotional video when it's released.

3) Roses

(Left-right: rose imagery in Lovesong; The Opening Night; Ashes - roses in the set dressing, and burning in the end credits)

   I love roses - I love the classic romantic symbolism of them, and the stereotypical way they're used in gothic imagery. And I'm sure that watching American Beauty in my late teens only made this obsession worse. That's all there is to it - and that's the only reason roses appear in a lot of the films I've directed. But I do like the irony of using them in scenes where romance turns sour, as I did with the dying/burning roses in Ashes.

4) Mirrors (and Water)

(Left-right: Deep Red Sun; behind-the-scenes on The Opening Night; Ashes)

   I'm a sucker for mirrors in films, and I love the visual power of reflections as well as the symbolism. I can't imagine this motif going away any time soon - I love it when the characters take the time out to really look at themselves, and evaluate who they are at that exact moment, for better or for worse. I think this was inspired by Alain Resnaiss' Hiroshima Mon Amour, although the first film I properly used it in, Deep Red Sun, used visuals inspired by the work of Maya Deren.

(Left-right: water in Lovesong, Deep Red Sun, and Night Owls)

   Another similar image I've used less regularly is that of water, which could be seen as a natural mirror. This is more a motif from when I used to write novels (something I'd like to return to one day); I realised that in my writing, whenever a character was about to reveal or discover something, there'd be water involved - an ocean or pool, heavy rain fall, or someone would have a glass of water. Purely by accident, water became a symbolism of truth, and I used it frequently in my teenage films as well as Deep Red Sun. It was used in the original Night Owls film I made - then called I'm Your Lady - and returns now, with the introduction - the revelation - of Mari in the rain.

   Taking this all into account, you can understand why I was so chuffed to work as costume designer on Anglo Klaxon's The Trial - a sci-fi film where people need to be submerged in water to gleam the truth from them!

5) Picture Frames 

(Clockwise from above : Deep Red Sun;  The Opening Night; me, photographed by Rei Bennet; Ashes opening credits;  photo of the Stop/Eject set dressing by Tommy Draper)

   I think this is an extension of the mirror imagery, as they often feature good frames. But using frames also represents that this is a glimpse into people's lives - or a snapshot of them. And I like putting people inside frames - as I did in my 2011 promo shoot with Rei Bennett - because it symbolises film as a 'moving painting'. Or perhaps I just like frames, and all of that is a bit of a crock?

6) Old Music Players

(Above: tape players in Crash Taylor's Jar of Angels, left, and Neil Oseman's Stop/Eject, right)

   This isn't one of my motif's per se - more of a notable coincidence - but both the films I produced in my early twenties (sans Ashes, because I toned down my producer credit there) featured tape cassette players. Stop/Eject used a tape recorder throughout, going beyond the role of hero prop, and Jar of Angels featured a tape recorder heavily in one of the most memorable and scary scenes. 

    The tape player in Stop/Eject was the brain child of director Neil Oseman (and resulted in me doing calligraphy on hundreds of tape cassette inlays for the film), so I didn't cause it. But I was co-writer on Jar of Angels, and I did write the tape player into that film. I started my work on Stop/Eject the day before Jar of Angels went into production, so neither one inspired the other; it really is just a coincidence. But, as I was production designer on both films too, I suppose it's also become an accidental designer's motif!

(Left-right: the debated record-player shot in Halo Haynes Unplugged; screengrab from the Sheena Holland promo; a similar shot in Night Owls)

   Although I've not worked tape players into any films I've directed (and I don't intend on doing - I've seen enough tape cassette imagery to last a life time!), I have featured record players three times, and prominently. The opening shot of the Halo Haynes Unplugged music video was her putting on a record player. This was shot purely because there was a beautiful old record player in the antique centre where we filmed - and I used it as the opening shot of the video to show that music was about to start. But feedback on the video criticised the fact that a) there was no record on the turntable, and b) when the music did start, it came from Halo's guitar, not the player.

  So, when Night Owls featured a record player scene (as it has done from its early days as I'm Your Lady), I said to DOP Neil "make sure you get a close-up shot of the record on there, to show that it is there!!"


   With my first feature film in the script stages now, I wonder how many of these motifs will pop up there. As with previous drafts of the screenplay, it appears that I'll be using all of them to an extent. Apart from bird cages. When I walked out of that day job for the final time, I said goodbye to that motif.

   So what will replace birdcages in my films? I don't know; I never intentionally set out to start using a motif (apart from the birdcage one itself). I have a feeling it might be feathers, since I have a lot in my hair now. It seems an appropriate thing to follow on from a birdcage - they could represent freedom, after all. But, since Mari has a great number of feathers in her own hair in Night Owls, perhaps I've already started using this image, and I'm yet to know what kind of motif it will turn in to, if it will turn into one at all.

   Right, time to get back to my commissioned edits. I hope you've enjoyed this lengthy insight into my work. But I'll leave you with one piece of news:

    Neil and myself discovered recently that our beloved Stop/Eject got into Raindance, the biggest independent film festival in Europe! Obviously this is amazing news (and worthy of a bigger blog post if I find time) so I invite all of my readers to join us at this prestigious screening. Information and a link to buy tickets are here - the screening is just over a week away, on the 30th September, so you'd better be fast if you want to come! Whoo!



Popular Posts