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The making of Epitaphs

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At BIAFF 2015 James Chalmers, LACI & Sue Bence won 4-Stars and a Focus Music Award with Epitaphs

Still from 'Epitaphs'.

It’s difficult to place work like Epitaphs into a specific category. While it has elements of a documentary it also tells stories in a poetic way through the narration and the images.

Revisiting the Past

Still from 'Epitaphs'.Epitaphs revisits the past by examining the relics that have survived - things that can be filmed and commented on. There are three parts to the film: the loss of the tidal areas in the River Dee Estuary, leaving boats high and dry; the ruins of Flint Castle where Richard II surrendered to his cousin Henry; and the beached ship The Duke of Lancaster - an attempt to circumvent Sunday trading laws. The locations are within a few miles of each other on the River Dee Estuary.

Reining in my ideas

Most of my film work is undertaken in partnership with Sue Bence. Sue has worked with me for a number of years, going back to my pre-filmmaking days when I was writing and producing stage plays. Sue’s role is script editor, director and behind the camera when I have to step into the frame. There's just us doing everything as a crew of two. More importantly, before a single word of a script is written, something akin to a battle takes place in the form of discussions that can go on for months. In the case of Epitaphs, this started out under the heading of The Dee Project. Over time the idea was gradually distilled down to something manageable and Epitaphs was conceived. The River Dee as a subject turned out to be too vast and overwhelming to take on as a project in its own right.

The inspirational moment

When I first visited the beached ship The Duke of Lancaster, what came to mind was the line from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias: Look on my works ye mighty and despair. This gave the hook to hang the project on. Roughly the theme of: all things eventually come to an end no matter how grand the endeavour.

Uppermost in my mind is a desire to communicate with the audience through the visual - the sound taking on the supporting role. I aspire to be a cinematographer rather than making TV style videos. With all my films Sue and I have an iterative approach to gathering images, writing the script and recording the narrative - constantly reviewing the film as it’s built and revising accordingly. Sometimes, although this didn’t happen with Epitaphs, the whole thing will be wiped from the editing software time-line and a fresh start made. The music is carefully chosen to match the mood of the images and it may take several hours of trial and error to find the right piece to match a particular scene. The last six lines of the Shelley poem Ozymandias forms part of the narration. I didn’t consider my voice good enough to deliver these lines consistent with the overall balance we were trying to achieve. We made contact with a local poetry reading group and went to several of their meetings. They arranged a special evening for us to film one of the members reciting the poem. Unfortunately this didn’t quite come up to the mark of the overall standard of the film, and that’s why I turned to You Tube and downloaded Vincent Price’s reading of the poem.

Still from 'Epitaphs'.
Still from 'Epitaphs'.
Still from 'Epitaphs'.


Still from 'Epitaphs'.Research is always meticulous - using books, the internet and talking to local experts - even though with Epitaphs there aren’t many facts quoted. For example it’s enough to say that Richard II was captured at Flint Castle - we don’t need to give a date as this has no relevance to the film’s message. In the film there’s the image of a window in the ruined castle. In the narration I say that Richard would have looked through this window while he waited for Henry to arrive. In reality there are very few intact windows at Flint Castle and this particular window isn’t in a part of the castle that would have been used by the King. Working outside of a strictly documentary style allows artistic liberties to be taken. Also what is being said in the narration is to a large extent personal observation. For example me pointing out the irony of the men who continue to maintain the boats that are stranded high and dry with little prospect of being able to put to sea again.

Time scale

Long before the conception of Epitaphs, many hours of footage had been taken at several locations on the River Dee Estuary over a period of two years. I was sure there was a film here somewhere amongst the stunningly atmospheric views and the rich history of the place. When eventually the idea for Epitaphs came along, this was just the start and a lot more footage had to be shot. Sue and I visited the beached ship on at least three occasions, and each time more graffiti had been added which led to continuity problems. During post-production I went back on my own to shoot an essential establishing shot. When I got there the footpath was closed for safety reasons. Sometimes filmmakers have to break the rules, ignore the keep-out notices and climb over barriers in order to get the job done.

Vision and Sound

Still from 'Epitaphs'.  Epitaphs was shot in SD with a Sony FX1 - a camera that has been our workhorse for nearly ten years. The Richard II Shakespeare soliloquy was filmed in the clock room in the tower of a local church. The warden kindly stopped the seventeenth century clock mechanism while we were filming so that the ticking didn’t interfere with the sound recording. Three battery LED lights, two on stands and one on the camera provided the interior lighting. A shotgun microphone was positioned above the actor’s head using a stand. The interface between the balanced microphone lead and the Sony FX1’s pathetic unbalanced external microphone mini jack was a Beach Tek under-camera adapter. The narration was studio recorded on a Zoom H4n digital recorder.

- James Chalmers. LACI

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