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The making of Johnny's Pigs

I first got the idea of making a film about Johnny's pigs when I heard Johnny's wife, Percy, talking about the first two pigs they'd reared. She spoke very lovingly about the pigs (Bramble and Patch) and their personalities and then went on to describe getting their carcasses back from the butcher. I particularly remember that she said she couldn't quite face taking home their heads despite the fact that she knew of all sorts of interesting ways of cooking pigs' heads. I should explain that I am from a huge family, and Johnny is one of my nephews.

Anyway, as Percy was talking, I felt that this was a good subject for a film. I would actually have been quite happy to make a film about rearing pigs, without there having been any special angle to it. But I found the combination of Johnny and Percy's obvious love of the pigs and their ability to calmly eat those same much loved pigs absolutely tantalising. Johnny and Percy readily agreed to the film being made.

Piglets Filming in the rain
The first filming session was in Dorset, where Johnny and Percy chose their piglets. It was a miserable, rainy day. I'd never tried to film in the rain before. I had no rain-cover for my camcorder. It was very difficult. I held an umbrella in my left hand whilst I tried to operate the camcorder with my right hand. Sometimes part of my umbrella appeared in the picture, and I had to get rid of it during post production. I have since made myself a rain-cover out of a see-through plastic documents' cover from a stationery shop.

The farmer kindly offered me a pair of his boots and invited me to go into the pigsty so as to get closer to the piglets. I grew up on a farm, and so I had no hesitation in plunging fearlessly into the muddy pigsty with the huge sow and her piglets for the sake of a different photographic angle.

My idea for the film was that the backbone of the film would be showing the piglets growing up from the moment they were selected by Johnny and Percy to the moment they were taken to the abattoir. I had originally planned also to have shots of Johnny smoking bacon on a Heath-Robinson like makeshift smoking contraption, and shots of him making sausages, but in the end my deadlines made that unrealistic.

I planned that the entire narration would be taken from interviews with Johnny and that it would include factual information about rearing pigs and also Johnny's thoughts and feelings about pigs.

But I didn't do much planning beyond that, and I regret that now. For the Dorset shoot I hadn't thought it all through very well, or planned the shots at all. I completely forgot to take any sort of establishing shot of the Dorset farm. When the farmer invited me to take shots of other, smaller piglets, I did so to please him - at the time I had no thought of using them in my film. Foolish! Because when I came to edit it, I would have liked to have more and better shots of the cute babies.

More piglets.
My biggest project to date has been a film about the childhood of myself and my nine brothers and sisters, in which I interviewed each person about their childhood and then edited it all into a coherent story, using the interwoven interviews as the narration, sometimes superimposed with family photographs. The total running time was nearly three and a half hours, so the style of having an interviewee talking and having pictures of the subject matter wasn't new to me. I had also seen and been very impressed by Michael Slowe's "Leader of the Pack" and I was influenced by that.

I made about 5 or six visits to the farm to interview Johnny and film the growing pigs. He lives just under an hour and a half from where I live.

I used a Canon XM2, a good solid Manfrotto tripod and a little tie clip microphone. I hadn't used a tie clip microphone before. I was pleased ith the sound quality, but I have been much criticised for failing to hide the microphone. I shall be sure to hide the microphone in future.

One morning in winter I went very early, hoping to get atmospheric footage showing how hard it is to care for stock including having to get up in the dark, freezing early morning. But the footage was useless. I don't know enough about how to film in low light. It was grainy and unpleasant.

I found the pigs very, very difficult to film. They are nervous creatures, who constantly move about. I spent a lot of time trying to get close-ups of eyes and snouts and would have liked other body parts, but their movement was so quick that it was difficult to focus or get long enough shots to be satisfactory.

I was filming Barbary Macaques (watch it here) at the same time. Barbary Macaques are a dream to film, because they have such interesting behaviour. Even the coots in Coot Watching (watch it here)displayed a great variety of behaviour. By contrast, the pigs didn't really seem to do much except eat and sleep and run around.

Pig at 5 weeks.
Interviewing Johnny
Johnny is a writer, and he has often been interviewed for radio and television. He is very articulate and not at all camera shy, so he was very easy to interview. When I embarked on the film, I knew what I wanted him to talk about, and so I just asked him open questions about various aspects of rearing pigs and about his thoughts. Sometimes I asked him some of the same questions again because I was wanting a slightly different formulation for editing purposes - but on the whole I preferred his first formulations in the end.

Johnny Acton. Picking apples. Johnny with pig.
I was very lucky that Johnny came up with so many interesting things to say.

Most of the filming was moreorless natural. For example if he was picking apples or putting food into a bucket, that was because that is what he needed to do for the pigs at that time. I sometimes asked him to wait while I got my camcorder ready. Some things were set up. For example Johnny showing me the prosciutto crudo in its muslin covering and on another day, sometime later, when he carved some of the prosciutto. I didn't ask him to eat the meat! That just happened.

Johnny kindly contacted me when important things were going to happen, like tattooing the pigs and getting them ready for the abattoir.

Pig eye. Prosciutto. Pig closeup.
I took quite a lot of trouble over the sound, and tried to move sounds of pigs snuffling and that sort of thing from bits of film that I didn't use to bits of film that I did use. And I used the sound of birds and cockerels which I picked up as wild track on the farm.

So in the end there were three levels of sound - the narration, music and the natural sounds which were sometimes borrowed from wildtrack. I'm not experienced at this sort of thing, and I have a lot to learn. But I was pleased to make a little progress on this.

Camcorder work
I know that I ought to use manual focus, but I haven't learnt how to do it satisfactorily. So the only time I used manual focus was during the main interview in the garden. What I did was to point the camcorder at Johnny with automatic focus on, and then switch to manual focus and move the camcorder so that Johnny was no longer centre of the frame. It didn't work very well, and Johnny is slightly out of focus. I still find manual focusing very difficult.

Quite a lot of the film of Johnny is overexposed. I used automatic exposure and clearly didn't take enough trouble to get Johnny out of the direct sun. I am now trying to teach myself to control exposure manually.

My feelings about the film
When I'd finished the film, I was absolutely thrilled with it. I couldn't believe that I could make such a film! Gradually, that feeling has disappeared, and I can see that it is very flawed. But I'm still pleased with it.

It is the nearest I've got to making a serious film about an important issue - something I would like to do more of in the future.

- Jill Lampert

Johnny's Pigs won a 4-Star Award at BIAFF 2011.

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