Making a Brass Band documentary
Pt. I: The Walk
“Do you want to make a documentary about a brass band composition?”
“Uhhhm…Tell me more.”
She did. And I agreed.
That’s the ultranonspecific way that I got involved with this project. With a skeptical hesitance which was quickly overturned by the delightful enthusiasm and amazing track record of Louise Snape, the professional puller off-er of Sheffield based arts platform ‘Hand Of’. She caught me at a good time because I was looking for a distinctly local project to turn my attention to. After making two snowboard films in my first two years at university, I needed a break from the snow in my final year. I wanted something local, something different.
The documentary would be about the making of an original brass band composition to be written for and performed by Sheffield University Brass Band…with a twist. The uniqueness of the composition would be in the addition of electronic elements during the performance. The composer in question was Joe Snape. As part of the composition, he’d had the ludicrous idea to walk the twenty six miles between Sheffield and Grimethorpe (home to Britain’s most famous brass band), to get inspiration for his piece. As if that wasn’t enough, all of this was to be done in a day with the added challenge of having to make Grimethorpe Brass Band’s evening rehearsal. All done with a tuba strapped to his chest and recording the sounds along the way. A heroic undertaking with romantic motivations and just enough silliness to make it wonderful. I was in love with the concept and licking my lips at the great camera food on offer.
Fast forward a few months and we’re sat in Lou’s kitchen, HQ for the shoot and it was the first time meeting the fabled Joe. It felt weird to be going into a project requiring the intimacy of following someone so closely but with the added curveball that I’d never met them before. It wasn’t through wanton laze though; with Joe’s crazy travel diary which included musical trips to Tokyo and San Francisco, there was simply no other time before the shoot. I had no doubt however, that anyone capable of cooking up a concept like this would be on the higher end of the interesting scale. And that’s the thing with a project like this, you need a character that interests you personally enough as a filmmaker to follow and tell their story about. People tend to look at the quantitative aspects, such as the gear and tech, when they consider the production of a good movie. But the qualitative feel of relationships is number one, be it between crew members, directors and actors or anyone else involved. As soon as Joe sat down, with his thick round glasses and bizarre blue beanie hat I knew we had a character with an aesthetic at the very least. This was followed rapidly by excellent conversations about film and music and the mutual interest and personality was there too. I was officially excited and just knew that Joe would make an excellent subject.
And so this merry crew of four set off. Myself as camera holder, Joe as tuba carrier, Lou as the organizer and Christina (Lou’s colleague) as driver and map expert. Day one was devoted to travelling and mapping the route. Everyone else did the hard work of planning and I was afforded that lovely freedom of solitude with my own camera-related thoughts in the back seat of the car. I did have one important objective for the day though and that was to film an interview with Joe prior to the walk. I floated the idea out early but he didn’t like the sound of it, questioning his ability to sit and talk about things to a camera. I might have known that Joe was a great character but of course, he didn’t and as the day of route planning jaded him and the light faded as we returned, he grew less and less enthusiastic. Especially with an early start on the horizon for the walk/filming tomorrow. But I knew that I needed this interview to project his personality to the audience, for them to get to know him as a person rather than just a visual thing plodding along with a tuba. It was crucial. Eventually, Joe agreed. He had that new-interview-subject-smell initially as he wobbled over words, but it didn’t take long before he opened up and eased into his natural self. The interview was a joy, throwing up moments of humour and moments of insight. I wasn’t satisfied though and kept prodding and probing for another hour until I got the killer line I was looking for. A line that would prove to be the heartbeat of the film. I knew it as soon as he’d said it and that moment was precisely when the interview ended. Magic captured, mission accomplished. And so, off we slunk to bed, to rest up and embark on the real thing at silly o’clock in the morrow.
We set off from home at half past hell (5am) to shoot at Pye Bank in the dark, capturing the lovely view of Sheffield below us. This was the one part of the film that Joe could be my ragdoll, so I moved him around and put him where I wanted, knowing this would be the all-important introduction of the film. The rest of the footage was committed to being completely natural and capturing the reality of the walk. Fifteen minutes of puppetry and filming later and he was off, walking into the receding darkness. As he walked, I was driven to checkpoints just ahead of him to grab shots of him coming towards, passing and walking away from camera. Frame up, shoot, jump back into the car and repeat. My challenge for the day was making what was essentially the same content, a walking man, look interesting with a variety of different shot types. A challenge indeed but one that I loved because it made me try a whole host of different shots to try and keep it fresh.
In addition to framing up the tuba-laden Joe, I set about capturing the unique character of each place, independent of Joe’s presence. I want the audience to engage with the walk and the scenery itself in the hope that it makes them feel closer to the walk and Joe’s task. After all, it was a very long day of walking and witnessing for Joe, so I want to be able to deliver the joys of the scenary as best I can. In that way, I suppose that the landscape is in and of itself it’s own character. The big question for Joe was how the walk sounded and so, my own was how it looked. He’ll be creating a piece of music to inspire a particular feeling in his audience derived directly from his walk and I’ll be supplementing that with how he felt personally in harvesting these feels. Inceptiony, right?
Of course, the day threw up plenty of stories with many physical and emotional obstacles to overcome along the way, but I’ll save them for another blog. Already quite the adventure, this is only the first part of our film. The next few weeks will be devoted to figuring out what else we need and how to tie it in with our brassy walk in order to take the documentary to the next level. Rest assured, I’ll be sure to keep you up to date with Joe’s journey & mine.
For now, enjoy the trailer!