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The making of City of Songs

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City of Songs by Michael Gough got a 4-star award at BIAFF 2009.
It was filmed on a Sony PC-5 Mini DV camcorder and edited on Adobe Premier Pro.

Creativity is also to raise the spirit of the creator

There is always a danger that we can get a bit "precious" about our videos. We sometimes imagine that they are much more of a creative work of art than they actually are. So without any false modesty let me admit that I am delighted that audiences enjoy City of Songs because that was my simple intention. I was also very pleased with a Four Star Award, which suggested that judges thought I had successfully carried out my simple task. But City of Songs was never intended to set Hollywood alight.

Still from 'City of Songs'.

It is the very essence of "an amateur" film, and I am not ashamed of that word amateur. It was shot during a week's holiday in San Francisco and the 100 minutes of footage hung around for many years while I edited more prestigious films. Its final cut length is only 5 minutes.

Many of my recent successes have been travel documentaries firmly based on a factually detailed commentary. During my trip to San Francisco the famous Bridge was usually shrouded in mist and I did think about using the search for the perfect view as the focus for the film. I considered giving it the title "On A Clear Day" but I wasn't inspired.

Perhaps it was because I found San Francisco a place to enjoy without too much factual clutter. It is a city with a very special "buzz" of its own. We all think we already know all there is to see from Chinatown to Alcatraz, from the seals at Fisherman's Wharf to the hippies in Haight-Ashbury.

Memories linked with lyrics

In the end I realised that our shared memories are inextricably linked with the lyrics of the great American songbook. Even if we have never been to San Francisco there is a universal understanding that we should "wear flowers in our hair" and that is where we will "leave our hearts".

Thus the idea of City of Songs was born. It was originally edited for a Club "Film to Music" competition and I deliberately deleted all ambient sound. Linda (my resident and harshest critic) was the first to tell me that was wrong. The Competition judge was the second. So the sound was replaced giving me new cutting points, such as the trolley car conductor ringing the bell.

Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'.

Even the simplest of films rely on workmanlike editing. If you are filming in a random unplanned way, such as on holiday, the success of your original footage may rely as much on luck as on judgement. However selecting and rearranging it during editing, to make the best of sound and picture, is seldom achieved without care. I never expected the sunburst of light which came off the windows of a skyscraper but the cutting was deliberate to fit it to the lyric about "little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars"

Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'.

Getting out of a rut

I also like finding visual links between adjacent shots and I was particularly satisfied with the ones about hair. A girl with violent red dyed hair, a hippy strokes his long hair, and a mother strokes her child's hair. Such things may hardly be noticed by the audience (perhaps only subliminally) but creativity is also to raise the spirit of the creator. Such moments satisfy me even if no-one else notices. I have similar views about the need to occasionally do something entirely different just for the self-satisfaction of getting myself out of a rut. That is why I deliberately turned my back on my standard documentary travelogue style to produce something this different.

In the editing process some good material must always be discarded for the benefit of the rest. In this case my bleak material about Alcatraz did not fit the lighthearted mood of the film. It need not be wasted, perhaps it will become a film in its own right.

Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'. Still from 'City of Songs'.

Finally let me thank Gerald Mee whose determined negotiations on behalf of IAC members about music copyright has enabled this film to be made. Under the new regulations music bought through normal UK retail outlets is covered (providing all other rules apply) This means that an IAC licence now opens up virtually all our record collections. City of Songs may not be a brilliant film, but I hope it entertains my audience, and at least they can leave the cinema humming the tunes.

- Michael Gough, FACI (M)

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Page updated on 05 October 2011
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