Thursday, 7 December 2017

Constructing and Deconstructing Cinematic Worlds: Sound design and urbanism in Playtime and Themroc

Here follows a quasi-academic essay I wrote in 2015. I hope that somewhere within the bap of my ignorance, amongst the void where the burger of knowledge and understanding should be found, readers might at least stumble upon a gherkin of curiosity. It's a bit over 3,000 words, or a 12 minute read.

“The economy, with its iron collar of archaic forms, has always smashed revolution by means of freedoms, modelled on the freedom of commerce, which because of the inherent constraints of the law of profit swiftly become the building-blocks of new tyrannies.” (Vaneigem, 1983: 10)
Two films either side of May ’68, two visions of an alienated post-war Paris détourned, deconstructed and destroyed by its inhabitants.

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967) is an ironic modernist utopia, the city as a machine for living in, unwittingly exploited by Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. His casual clumsiness reshapes Paris as a playground in which human connections can be made in spite of the passive-aggressive urban engineering of his time.

The eponymous anti-hero of Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973) lives in a post-’68 Paris where the illusion of a progressive utopia is no longer maintained. As a construction worker in a palpably bricks-and-mortar society, Themroc represents the very fabric of the city – a fabric being pulled to ripping point by inhuman corporate and political forces.

They are fascinating for their contrasting critiques of modernist/post-industrial urbanism, the state of mid-twentieth century western capitalism, and the effect of both on the individual and on groups. Set in Paris at almost the exact same point in history, the city is nevertheless unrecognisable from one movie to the other.

The third key text, from which I will take my cue to interrogate these movies, is Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life – published in the year of Playtime’s release and six years before Themroc. Vaneigem was part of a group known as the situationists (although he notes that “situationism is an ideology that the situationists were unanimous in rejecting. The term “situationist” was ever only a token of identification. Its particularity kept us from being mistaken for the throngs of ideologues.” (Obrist, 2009)

Vaneigem was critical of existing economic powers but specifically their complex entanglement with cultural customs, rituals, and artefacts – ways of life the common individual regards as ‘natural' but which are in fact the building blocks of our oppression, shaped and guided by living history, vested interests and complacency. He notes that dystopian literature such as Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 alienate us from meaningful critique because they relocate today's oppression into fears of the future: "Compared with my present imprisonment," he writes, "the future holds no interest for me." (Vaneigem, 1983: 34)

Intriguingly, both Playtime and Themroc operate on the borders of speculative fiction (if not science fiction), although both are set in contemporary Paris. Playtime does it by pushing existing technologies and infrastructures to absurd extremes; Themroc, by positing an alternative dimension in which Parisians speak to each other only in grunts, and physical laws are subtly different to our own. For example, the antihero Themroc gains superhero strength after he revolts and, likewise, the other revolutionaries find themselves immune to tear gas (characterized as ‘HASH PROLETARIEN'). But both movies essentially locate their critiques in an identifiable here-and-now and offer semi-serious strategies for the subversion and overthrow of an everyday life that is easily taken for granted.

“I am not a Communist. I could have been if Communist history were not so sad. It makes me sound old-fashioned but I think I am an anarchist. Great things were done historically by anarchists.” – Jacques Tati (Hester, 2011: 4)

The tension of the situationists’ outlook was in the ambivalence of its protagonists’ desires. On the one hand, our way of life is fundamentally flawed, and we would ideally start from scratch. On the other, the bricks of our new society are to be retrieved from the rubble of the existing one. Vaneigem’s text is presented as political philosophy, but it is just as sad as it is angry. The predominant emotion is despair, but its being written was an act of hope.

Look at the names of two situationist exhibitions held in Denmark in the 1960s: ‘Destruktion af RSG-6' and ‘Operation Playtime.' One fantasized about nuclear war; the other hints at situationism’s ludic tendencies (Rasmussen, 2015: 14). Situationism appeals to the guts and to the intellect. Everyday life is not to be considered from a purely political standpoint: it is animal, absurd, physical and ritualistic.

This is what makes cinema, with its multiple forms of sensory communication and invocation, a suitable instrument with which to dissect it. Cinema can look and sound like everyday life, but with unfamiliar perspectives, structured narratives and re-configured physicalities (for example, Hulot's characteristic walking style, which expresses his childlike innocence while inspiring the audience to consider how each of us actually walks around the city. It is a form of Brechtian alienation). 

Where Playtime and Themroc excel in this pursuit is their respective use of sound design, framing, and minimal narrative to jerk the viewer from a complacent reading of each movie and reconsider it in the light of their own political circumstances.

“The endless minuet of humiliation and its response gives human relationships an obscene hobbling rhythm. In the ebb and flow of the crowds sucked in and crushed together by the coming and going of suburban trains, coughed out into streets, offices and factories, there is nothing but timid retreats, brutal attacks, smirking faces, and scratches delivered for no apparent reason.” (Vaneigem, 1983: 16)
The soundscape of Themroc is murky, unpretty – but not imprecise. Playtime – or the first half, before the extended restaurant sequence, at least – is composed of isolated, laboratory-fresh foley objects.

Both films begin with journeys: Themroc rises, gets ready for work and takes the commute; the figure of Hulot, on his way to and from an important meeting, is juxtaposed with a gaggle of tourists on their way from the airport to their hotel. 

The key sonic motifs of each of these sequences are opposite in approach but equally dehumanizing. Workers leave Themroc’s apartment block whistling indecipherable tunes, mount their squeaking bicycles and lean on each other for support, already becoming an indistinguishable mass. By the time they reach the Metro, their footsteps begin to mingle together. This is not a march, though it is drilled in: the daily shuffle, ingrained in muscle memory. The roar of the footsteps mingles with the roar of the trains, mechanized, impersonal, a mass tragedy. This roar echoes the opening title sequence in which animalistic human growling is echoed by growling engine sounds. Our economy didn’t become industrialized: people did.

Footsteps are essential to Hulot’s sonic journey, too, but are kept in the realm of the absurd. Where Themroc’s Paris is post-industrial, Playtime's is modernist. The clean, sterile surfaces of the airport and office buildings invite the individual click-clacking of shoe heels. Silenced by their steel glass exteriors, these structures seem robot-built for comfort and security, but this only makes them isolating. They create the illusion of wealth, are revealed to be both economically and socially inefficient when it takes several minutes for two characters to meet in a long corridor (click-clacking all the way). 

And of course what we don't see, is the inversion of this urbanism: in a city where space is at a premium, such luxurious (if alienating) use of space comes at the expense of the banlieues that are only hinted at by the presence of assorted misfits loitering around the city, unattributed to any structure (the rockers who disturb Barbara’s photo opportunity, the kids who whistle at the glaziers). For whom was such a city built?

“In his films, the voice is not an emphatic vehicle for text; the voice instead helps to shape the character's physical being, in much the same way as do the character's costume and physical behavior. And if we can compare the size of a voice to the visual space it "occupies," we may say that Tati's voices are always smaller than the shots they inhabit. The voice in Tati avoids dominating the image[.]” (Chion, 1999: 82)
Hulot finds his voice in the restaurant scene: the first time we really hear him talk is amidst the party, in English, as he gives street directions to a drunken foreigner who then mistakes the veins of a faux-marble pillar for the continuation of a tourist map. Running his finger along the abstract ‘roads,' the tourist cannot know where he is pointing, but he points nonetheless rather than just staring: he is following some emotional or aesthetic instinct rather than the practical, economically-motivated routes advised on the dropped tourist map. 

Intentionally or not, Tati calls to mind the dérive (drift), the situationists' ‘psychogeographic’ technique of wandering around the city in ignorance or subversion of prescribed routes (or laws) in search of currents of feeling. Among situationist practitioners of the dérive, techniques included intentionally using the wrong map (i.e., for a completely different city) and creating new maps based on emotional (psychogeographic) responses. 

But how to interpret this clearest incidence of Hulot's voice in the movie – in English? Perhaps to hear Hulot speak in French would make him too identifiable to local audiences. To finally hear our French hero speak, only in English, is to play down his importance: he might as well whisper, or be drowned out by passing traffic.

Themroc finds his voice in the crowd. Not a leader by hierarchy but by example, the first hint of his calling occurs when his cough, a city cough that has troubled him since the opening of the film, evolves into a primal scream. Others, although apparently out of earshot, are all the same inspired to growl along. Later, when his neighbours gradually follow Themroc’s lead and demolish the outer walls of their homes, feelings of outrage, jealousy and fear give way to a swell of solidarity and liberation.

Another key vocalisation in Faraldo's movie is the hiccupping of Themroc's mother. From the moment that Themroc cups his sister's exposed breast – the realization of a previously latent mutual attraction – their mother, whom they are taunting, begins to hiccup, and the camera will return to her at odd moments throughout the remainder of the movie to show how her hiccupping continues as the days pass.

The rhythm of her hiccups evokes the hourly rhythm of the family's cuckoo clock, at once equating the conformist mother with the mechanics of capitalism and evoking the idea of the hiccup as a natural rhythm, a fundamental feature of the human animal that she keeps locked up in her apartment while her children revert to primitivism. While Faraldo is not literally condemning the taboo of incest as a tool of social repression, this reaction represents another visceral, necessarily irrational scream of frustration at the social conditioning that forms the very fabric of our day-to-day relationships.

“The modern world has to learn what it already knows, become what it already is, through a great exorcism of obstacles, through practice. We can escape the commonplace only by manipulating it, thrashing it into our dreams or surrendering it to the free play of our subjectivity.” (Vaneigem, 1983: 17)
We never see Hulot’s home, but we can assume he continues to live in the run-down but charming suburban dwelling the character inhabited in an earlier film, Mon Oncle (Tati, 1958).

We see and hear what a home is for a certain class of Parisian in Playtime’s universe primarily through the ‘ideal home’-style exposition into which Hulot unwittingly stumbles near the beginning of the film. (The glass-fronted modules that form an apartment block he later visits echo the absurd idealism of the expo, and by chance form an ironic counterpoint to the open-fronted apartments of Themroc’s world – open-fronted, in this case, because Themroc and his neighbours have demolished their walls with sledgehammers).

Central to the expo’s ideal domestic life is the concept of cleanliness. The slogan “thro out greek style” is pasted above a display of flip-top rubbish bins shaped to look like ruined Greek pillars. The mechanics of the bin, all the same, surprise us by creating the same familiar metallic clatter associated with an ordinary kitchen bin. It is a subtle way to draw attention to a disconnection in modernist culture: we cannot acknowledge, and will not take full responsibility for, our own shit. A bin is a bin, no matter what aspirations the marketing companies pin to it.

This sonic joke is reversed when Hulot becomes embroiled in a misunderstanding at a display of domestic doors. This time, the slogan reads ‘Slam your Doors in Golden Silence,' and again the message is about the social awkwardness of shit – this time, our emotional shit. The irony emerges when the display's own representative finds himself unable to express his anger – he slams the display door, and the viewer has the strange cognitive experience of seeing it shut silently.

This type of silent – silenced – frustration is at the core of Themroc. But Themroc’s domestic situation is not clean-lined, the innovations (cuckoo clock, coffee grinder) are outdated and failing. The camera stays in the kitchen as Themroc prepares his breakfast (coffee and crumbs falling everywhere, compounding the Sisyphean struggle of ‘keeping up’ a home). He goes to the bathroom and the flush is exaggerated even from a distance, a grotesque echo of Playtime’s deluxe metallic bin. But when he eats, the sound of him chewing is eerily silent. When he spies on his naked sister, we hear just the low ambient sounds of the apartment; and later, Themroc’s flashbacks (as he works) to previous iterations of his daily routine are in complete silence. 

These are somehow Themroc’s most personal moments: his sensual pleasure, his delight, and his despair. And like the silent-door representative of Playtime’s ideal home expo, they go unannounced: of no economic value, they are oddly muted into a sonic invisibility.

“The decision to live is a political decision. Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?” (Vaneigem, 1983: 18)

Here we locate the crucial fissure between Hulot’s world and that of Themroc. Hulot has made the decision – or, perhaps like the great mass of western capitalist society, defaulted to the decision – to live, to play by the rules, to work and be fed. That he frequently subverts these rules, resulting in joy and astonishment (both for Hulot and the audience) is a result of his clumsiness and the inherent absurdity – disharmony – of the mechanized world in which he lives. 

Hulot prods innocently at the fabric of society. It is his childish curiosity that inspires an (everyday) revolutionary fervour in the audience. We trust Hulot. A leading man in the mould of, for example, the situationist Guy Debord, would be less effective: we would sense his agenda.

Debord chose a more suitable form of cinematic expression for himself: détournement, essay, tirade. Manifestly political works, we accept them critically because there is an agreement that we are giving audience to an activist. Hulot, like Debord, is a flaneur, only Hulot has probably never heard of the word. Debord provokes revolution. Tati inspires it.

Themroc chooses to become a revolutionary, not the revolution of everyday life, but something more total: the destruction of our way of life. Like Hulot, his rebellion is not intellectually motivated; but whereas Hulot’s subversive curiosity seems innate, Themroc’s violence has been cultivated by years of everyday oppression.

Humiliation is “the basis of a combative lucidity in which the critique of the organisation of life cannot be separated from the immediate inception of the project of living differently.” (Vaneigem, 1983: 34)
“[T]he only way to make revolutionary cinema in France is to make sure that it escapes all the bourgeois aesthetic clichés: like the Idea that there is an auteur of the film, expressing himself. The only thing we can do in France at the moment is to try to deny that a film is a personal creation. I think Playtime is a revolutionary film, in spite of Tati: the film completely overshadowed the creator.” - Jacques Rivette (Hillier, 1986: 319)
Tati's Hulot, although a rebel, by no means realizes Vaneigem's full program. He is neither martyr nor activist: Hulot does not "raise his desire to achieve unity with the world and himself to the level of coherent theory and practice" (Vaneigem, 1983: 43)

But Tati, the filmmaker, does indeed offer this ‘coherent theory,' and his sonic and visual aesthetic forms a tool by which the audience can begin its practice. Tati's isolation and caricature of everyday sounds, his de-familiarization of everyday objects, redefine our relationship with the world around us. Each 'thing' loses its status as mere furniture and becomes an artefact to be reconsidered, renegotiated, repurposed for our own emotional, physical and economic needs – to return to Vaneigem's disdain for science fiction, this would be ineffective within an alien time setting. Shoes, rubbish bins, chairs, doors, corridors, buses, and streetlamps assume a negotiable identity thanks to the undue aesthetic focus and subversive repurposing that Tati affords them.

Faraldo's theory lacks – rejects - coherence. While he genuinely seems to call for a revolution more physically violent and complete than Tati's, the fact that Themroc's revolution is physically impossible (i.e., without the superhuman powers the rebels develop, they would quickly be crushed by the authorities) is a bitter acknowledgement of the flawed idealism of Faraldo's freedom fighters. 

Rather, Faraldo's aesthetic is angry: a dirty, free, messy explosion of camera movement and editing, with a rumbling, guttural soundtrack. It is not meant to be a guidebook to the revolution, but a visceral urge to break from one's routine and question the structures that inhibit us. 

Vaneigem refers to the ‘dangerous charm' of such fantasies (1983: 47). But however wild it appears, the film is not undisciplined, and Faraldo leaves clues for the audience to interpret the movie: the silences and surrealisms and of course the non-language of the characters, all of which echo Rivette's call to reject bourgeois aesthetic clichés, legitimize Faraldo's text without canonizing it.

In both cases, these are movies and filmmakers of supreme personal integrity and individuality utilizing that most overlooked – or tastefully assimilated – of filmmaking tools, the sound design, to express outrage at the insidious materialization of oppressive economic powers in the environments of our everyday lives; and to inspire hope, responsibility and subversive action in defence of the audience’s emotional and economic freedoms.


Chion, Michel “The Voice In Cinema” Columbia University Press, 1999.
Hester, Diarmiud “Somatic Geometry” One+One Filmmakers Journal Issue 7: 2011
Hiller, Kim (editor) “Cahiers Du Cinema 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood” Harvard University Press, 1986
Obrist, Hans Ulrich “In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem” e-flux: 2009
Rasmussen, Mikkel Bolt & Jakobsen, Jakob “Cosmonauts of the Future” – Nebula, 2015.
Vaneigem, Raoul “The Revolution of Everyday Life” – Second Revised Edition, London, Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1983.

Sunday, 1 October 2017


The final day of the shoot, and we are sent reinforcements from Bandits-Mages and beyond: Olivia Earle and Julien Record (an appropriate enough name) join us from our host organization, while Lola Martin and Anna Woźnica join us from the ranks of ENSA. Their assistance is invaluable following Decerle and Delevacq's departure yesterday, and Leray's 11am flit today (all three need to get back home in time to prepare for the new school year).

What the rookies miss in being new to the set, they more than make up for in enthusiasm and initiative. Earle and Record immediately go to work preparing body-length smoke suits for a cast of five, while Martin and Woźnica decorate our model of Bourges Cathedral with the tin foil flames that cause the smoke. Leray passes on some newly-learnt lighting tips to Record before his departure, and we get the cathedral inferno scene over with in good time, allowing us to get some pick-ups of a scene by our multi-purpose Roman rampart wallpaper before break time.

After a lunch of delicious baguettes (Niemczyk's catering has been delicious and plentiful throughout the shoot, and somehow we've filled our bellies to bursting without any real encounters with the dreaded post-lunch slump) the afternoon rolls relatively smoothly. 

My brain (and I'm sure those of the other long-term crew members) is beginning to creak and groan after a month in this studio, and this cardboard universe. Fortunately most of the afternoon's scenes are based around more or less the same set-up, the climactic showdown scene in Jacques Coeur's historical pantry, in which Harley Byrne finally catches up with his quarry - who is discreetly recording the ambience of the room. The process is disturbed by noises rising up from the graduation expo at the art school downstairs; some of the more droney sound art works we decide we just have keep in the background of the dialogue and perhaps even use as the 'ambience' which our hero seeks; this works fine at least until the drone is followed up with a hip-hop number in the middle of our delicate finale.

Somehow we negotiate the noise and the fatigue and Mrs Coeur's cartoonishly over-sized hat, which has been a real engineering issue all week, and particularly in the cramped and turbulent showdown scene. We get the scene done with a couple of minutes to spare before our ultimate kick-out time of 6pm; but so long as we have our wonderful 'Real Ursinus' actor Ethel on set, I decide we should push our luck and get one more cutaway of her performing the title track of the movie. Thankfully, the guardian of the building is a friendly and accommodating chap; he is able to factor our needs into his locking up route, presumably at the cost of the noise artists downstairs. There's probably some irony that UNIVERSAL EAR villain Being would find in that. Anyway, we tidy the studio as much as we can between goodbye hugs and getting our rare flamenco albums signed by Felipe, our multi-talented guest star. Then we swipe some costumes for the evening's fancy dress do, and hotfoot it to the Pub Jacques Coeur for some fancy pints in an appropriately named setting.

Thursday, 28 September 2017


Bourges is known for its tendency to erupt into flames: today we replicate one of the many times the cathedral has blazed, as hero Harley Byrne is tempted into a cross-element empathy experience by the mysterious Mrs Jacques Coeur. The sequence requires no small amount of desk fan breeze, tin foil flames and slinky dancing, except for the poor old character of Saint Ursinus, a statue, who has been played with uncomplaining stoicism all week by local performer Felipe, forbidden to speak or move any part of his body except his eyes. The good humour and friendliness Felipe has shown on set is the absolute inverse of the look in his eyes when the camera rolls. The power of constraints!

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


We spend the day in the house that Jacques built - the Palais Jacques Coeur, which France's richest man commissioned and had erected just in time for a brief tour before he was trialled and exiled. Well, the real thing doesn't have much colour these days, but Niemczyk and team's replica is bright and warm - it's only a shame it too will be drained by the black and white film stock. 

Still, it's a pleasure to shoot shot after shot against more or less the same background, with just small re-arrangements to place us further along a corridor, or more intensely menaced by quite-possibly-sentient statues (and stained glass window). By the end of the day, my brain is spinning and I struggle to string a sentence together - perhaps the underlying structure of the building, or the pattern of the wallpaper, is indeed cursed, with the curse to be replicated wherever those structures are re-composed.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017


This morning: trying to film an intrigue and adventure sequence in a featureless white room, the inverse space of the cursed tympanum. It proves a mindboggler to orient the characters from shot to shot as the camera angle changes. Where the heck did the 180-degree line just go? 

In the spirit of the creators of the Bourges Cathedral, we decide to add 'just a little bit more' and recall our One-horned-gazelle and Monkey cherubs to perch in the studio's ready-made tympanums. They wind up playing a key role in the resolution of the confrontation scenario, if the performers - art department interns Decerle and Delevacq - are at first a little disappointed to neutralize the scene's villain with a hug rather than karate chops. Anyway, they help the rest of us find our way around the scene.

The afternoon is mostly pick-ups with the two Ursinai, shots that we missed on our madcap Saturday opener. Things run relatively smoothly. As we point out more than once today, another six months of this and the team'll be functioning like clockwork.

Monday, 25 September 2017


Worship the sun, and invoke the wrath of the rain. Well, that might be utter rubbish, but the project is certainly suffering from a severe case of hubris after yesterday's glowing successes, as today the crew arrives drenched by an 8.57am downpour. More seriously, this morning's guest actor slips on the way to the studio and, after a cup of sweet tea and the reassuring gazes of half-a-dozen medically incompetent filmmakers, returns home to rest it off: she will return tomorrow only if she's feeling much better.

But after that, the rain seems to have quenched its thirst for misery and misfortune, and instead becomes a pleasant background to our day's work, cocooning us in the studio and make the team feel a bit better about a day with the shutters mostly down.

Lockwood even begins to hibernate, after our first shot of the day - in which Harley Byrne is trapped in a tomb in the foetal position and believes himself on the brink of death - runs without a hitch. He's in a difficult place at the moment (emotionally rather than geographically - he's quite charmed by Bourges) and this moment seems important to him; we leave it as long as we can before removing him from his tomb so we can strike the set and set up the 'Bourges streets' scene. A respectful nod, for that first shot, should also be directed at intern Arthur Leray: on every shoot, there seems to be one person who gets roped into playing 'unidentifiable body parts' - yesterday he was a shoulder in a Manchester postal workers social club, and for today's opening shot a holographic saint's hand.

The 'Bourges street' shot takes up a serious wedge of the day which, as we reflect, could be considered somewhat daft, seeing as how the street itself is just around the corner but instead we've flown two artists and two actors across Europe to shoot it in shoddy cardboard replica in a studio five minute's walk away. But that's sort of the point, somehow. And Niemczyk's art and draughtspersonship, and ex-intern Yuan's legacy Palais Jacques Coeur replica, conjure a certain kind of magic in the studio when the whole wonky perspective shot is put into place.

Leray and soundie Queissner (who is stranded on set amidst mainly silent scenes today) team up to set-wrangle a simple close-up that just begged for a little complication. We add a row of houses, a moon, a reflector and some authentic Berry fog to the scene, and I only regret we didn't add any foliage. 
The city that Niemczyk built.

After that, it's back to trying to create a floor made of liquid hologram - or quicklight. It's an athletic feat, since working with a projector, a Super 8 camera with no monitor, and a hand-held vase-as-wonky-lens actually involves building up a sweat on this chilly Bourges afternoon. Lockwood, too, is pushed to his limits as he must replicate fighting for his life while sinking through a cross between quicksand, liquid light, and malevolent, dissolving floor tiles, no doubt dreaming of a warm, comfortable tomb in which to sleep once this trial is over.

Sunday, 24 September 2017


After yesterday's catastrophe of light, today a gift. For the only day of the shoot, today we are away from our regular studio - The Chapel - and working in the café space of the Nadir arts venue instead; one of the downsides of this Sabbath-honouring shift is that today's space has high up windows that are pretty difficult to cover, leaving our lighting options (supposedly) limited. But as we recreate the Manchester working person's club from where hero Harley Byrne introduces each episode of UNIVERSAL EAR, we discover that the morning light flooding through the window is perfect for the scene, and the finite splendour of its glow causes us to work with such pace and attentiveness that we manage to complete three charming shots in the time it took us to go home and get the costumes we forgot yesterday. 

A special nod goes to visiting German guest Valerie, friend of our soundist Nina Queissner, who - aside from her general assistance - stepped up to play a blinder as the waitress serving Byrne his tea. ('Should I have any expression on my face?' 'Sort of... Mancunian.' 'Ah, I think I know what you mean'.)

It all means we have time to bask in the surprise late September warmth as we prepare for an afternoon shooting something altogether less kitchen-sink: the cursed tympanum itself. Tuesday Betts will utter her first lines as the enchanted Mrs Coeur, poly-authentic incarnation of the wife of famous Jacques, who offers Byrne a helping hand (OR IS IT?) in our hero's quest. Betts has previously pointed out how big the real Mrs Coeur's hat was (in the same email that she asked whether she should prepare a French accent; I forgot to reply) so when Decerle wheels in her absurd millinery monstrosity it should be no surprise that it is impossible to keep balanced on Betts' talented head.

Costumier Gallane Decerle with her ridiculous hat.

We have the brainwave of strapping the thing to the background of the set and letting Betts kind of stand underneath it instead, offering her the reassurance that in Hollywood, no leading lady is expected to support the weight of her own hat. It proves to be the random factor we require for the sequence in which Mrs Coeur, transformed into a statue alongside Harley Byrne and Saint Ursinus, is the only one left with any mobility whatsoever: indeed, even when she turns her head, her hat remains fixed.

The static nature of the scene makes it reasonably straightforward, if it is the most complex costume set-up so far. Costumes are a lot easier than holograms, though - not least because they're not my responsibility. Still, I hope on a future project we can cross the costume/tech department divide by lowering in one of Betts' hats on a drone and having the thing carry it around over her head for the duration of the episode.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


Shoot day 01. It starts promisingly as we are warmly welcomed to the Chapel by the building's guardian, forced out of bed on a Sunday - it makes a big difference to get a smile and some kind shrugs about my French language skills rather than the tuts and sighs I probably deserved. Next, an upbeat meeting between our assembled crew, all together in one place at one time, and augmented by Lockwood, our leading man. I establish some rules: clean up after yourself; one take for each shot; never forget where you last saw me put my folder (because I will). 

As regular readers will know, the UNIVERSAL EAR set opens each day with a performance of the L'Institute Zoom company anthem, Fat Larry's Band's 'Zoom'. The French contingent take to this ritual with admirable enthusiasm, although it is a crime of culture that none of them have heard this classic before (leading lady Tuesday Betts, who arrives in the evening, puts the British familiarity with this song purely down to the ubiquity of Smooth FM in our cafes, streets, schools and prisons).

Only once the song is finished do things start going downhill. It turns out I have forgotten to bring not only the clippers to do Harley Byrne's 'do', but his entire uniform; Leray and I are dispatched in different directions across Bourges to rectify this. The guest cast begins to arrive in my absence, little suspecting the wait they will have ahead of them, since on my return our efforts to perfect the hologram effects that we require for all of today's shots prove unsatisfactory. Over the past few test weeks, we managed to get the fx to what we considered to be something like 70% perfection; today, it proved a gross overestimation.

The complexity of the script was another mis-judgement; naturally, it's pretty hard for the French cast, with mostly a limited grip on the English language (though far better than my French, as the common and disingenuous disclaimer goes), to understand the esoteric and pretentious dialogue, let alone memorize it and perform it with the required (albeit limited) level of nuance.

While the togetherness and doing-ness of the day was still very valuable (we're not here to make a movie, after all, but to make a movie), it was a huge blow to lose the time that could've been spent with these wonderful performers figuring out how to best create their characters - instead we just wound up trying to get the shots. We'll try to use these shots as a skeleton and add some flesh together in the week, where schedules allow. After months of script work worrying about words, it turned out to be light itself that we had neglected.

One nice touch: Robin-Tyrek steps up to be our smoketographer; she buys a vape machine and fluid from a local tobacconist, and it is magical to discover the smoke in our movie will be of the 'Berry' variety. It turns out that this refers to the flavour of berries rather than a specific vaping blend local to the the Berry region in which we are stationed, but sometimes authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.

In the evening, Tuesday Betts arrives via both Liverpool and Manchester airport, having turned up wrongly to the former and caused a security alert at the latter, and having eaten nary a Wagon Wheel since 11am. Believe it or not, more mischief and chaos may be just what the production needs. Niemczyk, whose lunches and dinners have fair sustained our bellies and souls since long before the Canon 814 rolled today, does not disappoint with her baked roots.

Friday, 22 September 2017


A day off for the interns, since tomorrow we shoot - and we don't stop again for the next six days. So mostly Niemczyk and I in the studio, with the freedom for the occasional selfie inbetween ritual clearing-up and preliminary set assembly. Queissner and Robin-Tyrek also appear for constructive meetings. In the evening, Lockwood arrives - if not raring to go, at least pleased to get off the bus.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


Sometimes you just need to get stuck in. In the A.M., Leray and I finally build the nerve to experiment with the effects for our 'holographic floor' scene - a routine in which heroic Harley Byrne becomes trapped in a form of 'liquid hologram' known as quicklight. With a bit of lens trickey, an old net curtain, and plenty of goopy light, the effect is far simpler to achieve than we had feared.

The afternoon is mostly costume fittings and video tests with the actors, who have a similarly 'getting stuck in' sort of attitude, with one after another of them seeing the studio for the first time before sighing and saying something along the lines of, "I did say I'm doing it for a new experience...". Anyway, every one of them is amazing as I force them to perform isolated emotions from the toes up. Niemczyk and Decerle are fast becoming toga virtuosos in the costumes department. And either the hats are getting bigger or everything else is getting smaller.

Queissner, our soundist, is similarly game; she has already begun foley for the film not yet shot, mostly with an analogue modular synthesizer, which is admirably panelled in cardboard. Now, if only we can find her some microphones to record Saturday's opening scenes...

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


Another day of heavy scheduling (thankfully Robin-Tyrek - who, along with Niemczyk, is keeping this daft boat afloat with her/their renaissance-girl adaptability - has taken over this task, it being her 'specialism'), video tests with actors, and trying to rebuild the city in miniature ahead of Saturday's tournage.

Four more actors on set for costume-fittings and video tests finally convince me that we may have something here, if only we can catch their wondrousness on film (it seems to work on video). The progressive nature of the shoot, we learn, will also be augmented by the use of a live vaper on set to behave as a human smoke machine, where Panic & Disgust's cigarette-smoking (Bosnian) smoke machine now seems passé and somehow politically incorrect.

Robin-Tyrek: a lawyer disguised as a painter.

Leray: an intern disguised as a prisoner.

Niemczyk: a unicorn disguised as a horse.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017


The day begins with a confusion of keys which results in me walking to the studio by myself in the rain, a delay that I try to exploit as thinking time in which to resolve both the problems at the studio and a broader existential malaise; it is my birthday, after all. Well, I only have thirty minutes to walk, so I don't get very far with either pursuit. Mostly I wonder whether it might be good human management to make fun mandatory in the studio on my birthday.

Yesterday, however, Leray and I managed to hurtle our way through creating an entire shot list and storyboard, meaning today we each face the challenge of tedium: it's time for me to attempt to start scheduling, leaving Leray in the hands of the Tangibles - and our art team unfortunately have to delegate the less inventive jobs to their temporary ensigns (in this case, stencilling wallpaper).

The shot list seems to be quite completable in the eight days we have assigned to shoot it. Unfortunately, the matter is complicated by the varying availability of our enormous cast and our studio space - questions that I hope will be resolved over the next 24 hours, since the illusion of feasibility that comes with a draft schedule is like a warm hug in these nervous pre-tournage days.

Preliminary sub-hugs come in the form of our first actors-on-set: Felipe, who will play a security guard (and quite possibly the only biologically authentic human in 2187 Bourges) and Josephine, who will play the late Brieanne Morelle - the disgraced former heritage minister responsible for the state in which hero Harley Byrne finds the city. With their presence comes, if not the illusion of feasibility, at least the reassurance of some sort of inevitability.

They are both game, and we drape them in some preliminary costumes before attempting the canning of emotions - the back-up technique used by all major contemporary serials to ensure they can always complete the show if one of their actors should wander off or become otherwise unpresentable. It is a technique we first tried with enormous success with Stewart Lockwood/Harley Byrne himself.

This is actually a very challenging way to act, starting from a discrete emotion (hungry; outraged; numb) with no dramatic context or scenery. But it's a splendid way to get to know each other and to start figuring out the talent's metaphysical topography. 

It's also a great way to ensure the actors don't get too carried away with the ol' "method", and engage instead with preconceptions and stock characters. This tends to make Lockwood/Byrne look rather absurd as the only person who's trying to really get inside his character and create a nuanced, sensitive and sympathetic portrayal. He would never 'play' a villain, for example, because nobody believes they are a villain - just a person with certain wants, needs, and insecurities. Josephine, on the other hand, jumps right into being an awful Tory teen, and I find myself measuring her attempts at her given emotions against those of Theresa May (who is actually a great study figure for the 'I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way' type).

Midway through the day, before Felipe's arrival, our daily screening of Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers is interrupted as the Bandits-Mages team invade the studio with cake, sparklers, pink booze and other surely contraband materials. Somebody clicks play on iTunes and by coincidence, Lockwood's singing voice rings out as the track happens to be cued up to his guest vocal on Duett's Running Scared. Niemczyk is noted to have made herself quite at home in the studio, since she is wandering about in her socks (in fact a result of the rain/wet shoes). She hunts out the giant pink monster-feet slippers that Chaillou has found for her, and wears them around the impromptu party, apparently being all about the mandatory fun. Getting nervous, I draw the fun to a stop before Felipe walks in on us: there is already too much to explain.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


Today Niemczyk and I made a pilgrimage to the Rue Patrick Dewaere, named for my (obsessively) favourite actor, although he seems to have no actual connection with the area. Indeed, the nomenclature around the peculiar puzzle-shaped new build community to which the street belongs is all cinema-based. The eerie quietness and absurd, almost autoparodic architecture stirs the need to come back and make a new film in Bourges, outside of the studio; likewise the Lego buildings and artificial lake ('Bourges beach') that we ride around in its entirety as part of the route to Patrick Dewaere. Sorry for the awful photos - click'em for more details. And oh, those clouds!