At last weekend's Playful, filmmaker Anne Hollowday talked about The Makers of Things - a series of documentary shorts covering the work of the Society for Model and Experimental Engineers. As the physical acts of making and craft re-emerge into the public psyche, we caught up with Anne to ask her about the series, in addition to her further work and plans.
What did you cover in your talk at Playful?
AH: At Playful I talked about The Makers of Things - a collection of films I made about a bunch of engineers and makers called SMEE, the Society of Model and Experimental Engineers. Over the course of making the films, SMEE showed me a lot about how to make better things, how passion and dedication can manifest itself in your work, how form emerges from the process and how if you immerse yourself in making, you can make really beautiful and compelling things.
With The Makers of Things, what were you seeking to establish?
AH: I just discovered this incredible bunch of people - SMEE - and I thought that more people should know about them. They’re fascinating, because while they use common tools and techniques, they create very different things.
During one of the early conversations I had with Norman, he described himself as “a maker of things”. I was really taken by that. In a way, I was trying to discover if and how SMEE’s spirit and dedication to creation is mirrored in every single one of us... even if you don’t use lathes or chisels.
The Makers of Things: The model engineer
Is "small making", whether real (as your films document) or virtual, starting to receive the level of importance which it deserves?
AH: I think so. It’s a very established network of people, organisations and communities in and of itself, but it can be hard for people outside of that network to find out about it.
When I first discovered SMEE I thought “Wow; I cannot believe a group of people like this exists”. And then immediately I thought... of course an organisation like this exists. I just have to better about discovering them and finding out what they do. It’s like when I discovered comics and zines. I hadn’t realised that there was a hoard of people who would traipse across the whole country selling publications they’d written and illustrated. That was a bit of a revelation to me.
As a maker yourself, how do you ensure that craft, personality, and a sense of personal form is embedded into your own work?
AH: Simply by being interested. I think if you’re interested in something, that will drive you to document or interrogate or delve deeper or examine. The fruits of all of that labour create the form of what you make. SMEE showed me that.
How has documentary (form and mise en scene) changed in relation to a change in viewing habits? Are "we" moving to short-form, snackable content as much as implied?
AH: A lot of people say that, and I don’t disagree, but I do think that the shape or length of a film is best determined by its content. If a character is particularly compelling, then maybe it should be feature-length, but equally, they might be suited to a short 5-minute piece for online that makes people want to dig deeper into a subject afterwards.
I’d always say follow your instinct and be guided by the story, not your original intention. For ages, I wanted The Makers of Things to be one 10-minute film which would have been awful. I just couldn’t bring myself to accept that it was better suited to being something else. As soon as I came around to that, it was finished very quickly and it’s a thousand times better.
Do you agree with the Griersonesque observation that "stories from the raw" holds more value from the manufactured, the acted? How do you ensure that the rawness of your subjects are captured on film without the "director's eye" becoming too subjective?
AH: Totally. I think there’s always a tendency that when you put a camera in front of someone they’ll alter slightly, even if they’re not aware of it themselves. I often like to mic people up and just start by having a chat before I even turn the camera on. People relax very quickly that way, which helps. The best thing is to immerse yourself in the process too.
At Playful, I referenced something that Walter Murch once said: “When I’m working on a film the image I have is of myself swimming in a fast-moving river. The film is always changing and I’m kind of in the middle of it. Objectivity would mean trying to swim to the shore, clambering up and looking at the river go by. The dangerous thing about doing that is that’s when most people drown - when you’re trying to get out of the water.” He goes on to suggest that you “relax and let yourself be carried along, and even swim in the direction of the current.” I love this quote. It speaks to me in so many ways because when you’re going through terabytes and terabytes of footage the only way of not getting totally overwhelmed it to let yourself go and kind of get swept along. For me at least, immersing yourself in this way means you have to let go of a lot of your personal opinions and instincts for a project. That space is very rapidly filled with the responsibility you feel to your subjects and their stories.
The Makers of Things: the woodworker
What is the next project that you are working on?
AH: I have too many! I’m working on a new project with Russell Davies and Matthew Sheret about some of the people behind the British Internet. It’s in a very elementary stage. We’re doing our first shoot in a few weeks and we don’t really know what it’s going to be yet.
Rockall 2, Matt Sheret / Anne Hollowday
I’m also working with Matt on a project about a remote Scottish island that in its early stages of development, then I’m in post production on a short film about a fisherman-turned-painter from Cornwall with Director Benson Neilan which will hopefully be out next Spring and I have a spreadsheet of other projects that’s as long as my arm. And, I’d love to make more films for The Makers of Things series.
Anne Hollowday is an independent filmmaker, and a producer for Lonelyleap Film. Further information on Anne and her work is available on her personal website The English Holiday Club, and she is @anneholiday on Twitter.