Scoring Tupilak

Ever self-critical, Tupilak composer Jordan Dobbins takes us through the challenges and triumphs of scoring our most ambitious film yet.

Learning by Doing: Composing the Score and Recording the Sounds for ‘Tupilak’

My first impression when watching Tupilak in its early form post-shoot was of the ambitious increase of this project’s scope. The film was longer, more ambitious and drew on a broader range of filmic influence than my last collaboration with Andrew and Ashley, The Beachcomber. A couple of years had passed and I had made a certain amount of progress in how I approached composing and recording music. However, being very aware that I was, and still am, deficient in my abilities to make the sounds I want to make, and achieve the quality I want to achieve, the film in front of me was going to involve lots of creative discovery.

It is at this point that I stepped forwards, and set to work. The rewards for doing so I will set out briefly here, including a little along the way with regards some key challenges and some solutions, or lack thereof, that I managed to grasp. Hopefully this will be an encouragement for others who are interested but daunted by a certain creative endeavour to step with your best foot forward. Healthy collaborative environments are rewarding and, most importantly, fun.

Composition and the mystery of Viking music

For The Beachcomber I had immediately set to work unearthing a world of influence that I already knew a fair deal about, specifically early 20th century culture. Virginia Woolf occupied a part of British history that I felt comfortable exploring. Norse culture, however, was not steady ground for me. Through reading several interesting articles and a book or two I managed to get a feel for what might work as a tableau of creative signposts, but, at the heart of it, not much is known about Viking music. Avoiding the pitfall of stereotype or pastiche was going to be difficult, and doubtless I haven’t entirely succeeded in my endeavour to do so.

What I learned in encountering this difficulty, however, was a more honest way of approaching a project. In trying to think what the film was trying to say, rather than understand the world that it draws its creative energies from, I was forced into a different way of creating musical themes and ideas. The main string theme came from several sessions sat at the piano trying to think of chords and movements that had a pre-Western and disjointed strangeness to them. The melody came afterwards, and was fully formed when Alex, on violin, riffed off the main thematic contour to create the countermelody that sits underneath it.

It is also important to note that a lot of my influences came from the genre and cinematic influences that Andrew pointed me in the direction of, many of which can be seen on the short Spotify playlist I have put together for this blog. If I would have been more skilled some of the influences may have been worn less on the sleeve, but as a first experience of really delving into other composers’ corpuses of work, to discover techniques or musical ideas that would work for what I am doing, it was a wonderful and very gratifying experience. 

Battling with Layers and Technology

This is the first project I have worked on which stretched the capabilities of my setup. I had to split my ProTools session into two halves in order to have the number of active tracks I needed (a solution also would have been spending a bit more money, but I frugally avoided that, at least for now). This did, however, restrict my ability to use bussing as effectively as it could have been used. I learned a lot about compression techniques in this time, in trying to get the several layers of strings and sampled/synthesised sounds to mesh well. I was in over my head, but this meant a lot of problem solving as well as a lot of knowing when to say ‘that works well’ even if I couldn’t say ’that is exactly what I envisioned’.

Percussive elements, forged from samples of rocks and nature sounds as well as the occasional banging of an acquired kick drum with a cloth covered ladle, were one of the biggest challenges I encountered. Before this point I had often leaned toward more melodic elements to carry the rhythmic impulse of a score. The textured and earthy strangeness of many of these foundational rhythmic elements really underscored the more pagan elements of the film, and massively paid off when heard in the context of the finished product.

Diegetic sound: An Unforeseen Challenge

A large part of this film relies on the visual texture of the landscape and the painting of an unforgiving relationship between Saga and Greenlandic nature. What I didn’t encounter until over halfway in to the creative process was how difficult it would be to marry the diegetic sound with the score. Letting the story speak both through the sounds we see on screen and the music that supports the narrative was a difficult balance. Working with Ashley specifically, close in time to the premiere in East London, was an important part of this process. I began to understand how foley elements can really help tell the story as convincingly as a melodic non-diegetic part of the score can. 

Much of the foley had to be re-recorded or acquired from samples, whilst some of it was taken from on-location recordings. One particularly notable example of creating the soundscape post-shoot was the two occasions where Lily, the actor who plays Saga in the film, is seen shouting in solitude into the distance. Lily had to re-record her shouts using a field recorder from her house in South London. After I received this raw audio information I took the stereo .WAV files and added in artificial echoes, and doctored the audio using EQ in a way that made it sound authentic and truly from the wilderness. 

It has been another wonderful experience working with everyone involved with Tupilak. I have learnt so much by doing, rather than thinking, and the common energy and goal that we all shared – to make Tupilak as convincing and professional as we could manage – was a wonderful catalyst both for our own individual development and for the finished product of the film itself.

You can watch Tupilak, complete with Jordan’s original score, here.

Final post day on Tupilak

Last weekend saw the Tupilak team’s final day of postproduction workflow with genius editor Ashley Hughes and maestro composer Jordan Dobbins joining me in London for a combined grading and mixing session.

We were delighted with the film as we had screened it in the amazing basement space of The Hoxton Cabin back in February, when we had graded for the projector down there and mixed the sound on the morning of the screening to exactly match the acoustics of the room and speaker rig. Our initial plan had been a rapid turnaround of that cut to get it online. That was before Covid-19 happened, and since then we have all been working at a distance (and around the clock on our other jobs) which is a challenge on a film edit. One unanticipated lesson we have learned is the huge difference in colour range and saturation between monitors even within the same product family: a grade done by Ashley and watched by Jordan and me remotely looked completely different on each screen. We knew there would be some variance, but this was something we only truly appreciated when finally able to work on monitors side-by-side.

The postproduction day reminded me why I love this part of the filmmaking process. Another opportunity to revisit the story and source material, a reminder that we have full control over the direction and mood of the story through the edit, the power of the score and what you can do with sound. For a few hours, Ashley worked in one room of my apartment on the visuals while Jordan worked on the audio in another, and it was great being able to watch both work their magic.

Jordan also pulled together a Spotify playlist of the soundtracks he has been using for inspiration, which you can check out below.

You’ll find the film up here tomorrow, and we’re hoping to follow it soon with some commentary on the score, the shoot and more. Enjoy.

Making Tupilak

Almost two years to the day since we wrapped The Beachcomber on a windy beach in Devon, Ashley, Lily and I were back on location — this time in Snowdonia, to shoot our most ambitious short film to date, Tupilak. We were joined on set by Alex Newton, one of the creators behind Citric Acid, and together spent five days hiking up the mountains of the Idwal Valley laden with iron pans, spears, fish and furs to create a settlement for the last of the Norse Greenlanders, Saga, as she struggled to come to terms with her people’s disappearance.

We had been inspired by an article from the amazing Ernest journal about the mysterious spiritual totems carved by the Inuit people of Greenland to ward off foes, and the disappearance around 1500 AD of the seemingly stable community of Norse Greenlanders. Lily led our deeper research into their unexplained disappearance without trace after a history of rich storytelling and crafting, which was invaluable in pinning our abstract script into reality, the mythology and the remaining artefacts that are all we have left of the Greenlanders.

Shooting in a remote location (and for the purposes of filmmaking, I’d say remote is anywhere that isn’t an urban centre) creates additional challenges, and doing so at dusk even more so. There were a lot of snap decisions to make; the vast majority of them I am happy with, some (as always) I awaited nervously in the edit, but I owe an awful lot to the whole team for their input in the month before and on every long day of the shoot, and to the very long lead-in process with Ashley which has been absolutely lifesaving. Ashley and I first talked about a tupilak-oriented film very shortly after wrapping The Beachcomber (I think we discussed the article which inspired it while setting up for our first London preview in my apartment at the time) and subsequently spent the better part of a year on drafts of the script, and a further six months on the shot list and other logistical points. Not only did this mean the same film existed in both of our heads, but that we had already worked through many of the issues that we expected the location to throw at us, so when indeed we were confronted with difficulties we had already discussed the compromises that would be available.

Shooting digitally on a serious project has brought with it a new workflow. While I loved the experience and discipline of shooting on film (as we did on The Beachcomber), if I am honest I preferred being able to see the frame in real-time, while keeping as much of the restraint and long-take approach that we had learned from 8mm. It shows in the cut: watching the rushes back, we could already see that we had the material we had envisioned when preparing the shot list, rather than buckets of footage we had shot because it looked good. The lesson learned back on James was that over-shooting feels liberating, but it makes the edit very challenging. Once we had the footage up on the screen, I felt the familiar sense (which never gets old) of rediscovering the film from scratch. Assembly was first done remotely between London and Paris, a tricky process in itself, but I hope this gave Ashley the space he needed to take a fresh and radical approach to editing. When we were reunited in London, we finished the loose ends and the trickiest scenes together, and even three weeks out from screening were still tinkering on sequences that finally came together as what we had intended.

This was my first film project featuring serious costume, and I learned a valuable lesson: that costume is essential, even if your project is contemporary and your characters relatable to your own lives. Why settle for ‘wear whatever you normally do’, when as you can make a valuable directorial decision about a character that also gives the actor space to distinguish between themselves and their role? And no post on this film would be complete without discussing our fantastic props and giving a huge thank you to Rebecca Taylor for sourcing an amazing array of antique material in a very short space of time. We definitely invested more energy into production design for this project than any other, partly again because of the period, but we quickly learned that obtaining vintage daggers, iron cooking tools and rusting lanterns was not going to be easy.

Acquiring a tupilak carved by a Greenland-based craftsperson was one of the key artistic decisions we made for the production. I thought it was important to have a daily reminder on location of the powerful history and wicked intent that was bound up in these objects, echoing the RSC’s use of a real skull in its traditional Hamlet stagings. We had previously stumbled across an Inuit art gallery on Paris’ Right Bank which sold a range of carved figures including replica tupilaks, but although we certainly hope that ours is no more real in the ominous sense, I felt that getting one from Greenland was important. In an age of lazy cultural appropriation, I thought the very least we could do was strive to work with authentic source material.

Bringing Saga’s story to life was a saga indeed, but it was one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on, and I’m delighted with what the team has built. I couldn’t be more proud to have directed it.

 

Announcing: Tupilak

 

For 500 years the Norse Greenlanders made their home in the wilderness. In 1450, they disappeared without a trace.

 

But what if there was one left? The mystery of the Norse people first caught my attention in 2016 when I read an article by an Ernest writer on the tupilak, the haunting, cursed figurines that were crafted from bones and awful things to bring wickedness on the enemies of the inuit. The rich, written and illustrated mythology of the Norse made their sudden disappearance – without serious archaeological evidence as to any reason why – even more compelling as a story. And so began a two year project of researching and drafting. The challenge was in telling a story with only one character and a bleak winter landscape, that was on the one hand compelling and on the other avoided the wilderness porn of an SUV advert.

So I’m thrilled to announce the launch of Tupilak, our latest, longest and most ambitious short film yet, starring Lily Taylor (Beachcomber, Plenty, James) and Alex Newton (Citric Acid, Jerusalem), shot and edited by Ashley Hughes (who has worked his visual magic on eight films with me from 2017’s Beachcomber back to 2011’s Tantamount to Treason), and featuring a stunning score from the musical genius of Beachcomber, Jordan Dobbins. Matt Ceo’s striking poster design plunges us straight into the crucible in which our protagonist, Saga, finds herself. Haunted by demons and the wilderness, how will the last of the Norse Greenlander’s survive?

We were delighted to hold our first screening among friends and family in London’s wonderful Hoxton Cabin bar and events space at the end of January. Thirty guests joined us to watch the film, which we finished (in typical fashion) just a couple of hours before, working through the night on the final mix. Since then, the team has been working hard on festival submissions and preparations for some ‘deep dive’ exploration into our process, the history behind the film, and our responses to the Greenlanders’ plight. We’re excited to be launching podcast episodes as well as more posts here in the very near future.

Watch this space for more details.

www.andrewhall.org/tupilak

A creative year

As promised in my last post, I spent the last year trying to pursue something of a creative and career reset, and I’m proud and happy to say it seems to have paid off. In addition to rejoining an old client here in London, and starting a Masters degree (goodbye sleep!) in a field that I love, last year gave me the chance to make real progress on some of the creative projects I had been hoping I could deliver for a long time.

I left my Paris-based law firm in February and spent March in Lima, Peru, where I sat on a rooftop for a month and turned my ideas for Robert Armitage into the better part of a novel. Sitting in the sunshine without a care in the world, in a city with amazing food and lovely people, was bliss and I very nearly stayed out there. The change of scene helped my writing, not so much by way of reference (the novel is set in London and Paris), but by giving me some physical distance from the memories of work, commitment, and depressing weather. It is easy to write 3000 words a day when the sun is beaming, you have a cold pitcher of orange cold brew beside you, and you can see the ocean from your perch on the roof.

From one adventure to another, I returned to the UK in April and was immediately off to Snowdonia with Ashley and Lily (Beachcomber) and Alex (Citric Acid) to shoot our latest film. Adapting to the change in climate was a battle but the challenges of the shoot were so rewarding (with hindsight) and it was amazing to see a project that has been two or three years in the writing come to fruition. Over the past few months, we have secretly been squirrelling away on the edit and the score with the amazing Jordan Dobbins (Beachcomber) and I am so proud of what we’ve achieved. We’re starting to launch our material this weekend, so watch this space for more.

I recently started preparatory work on my next script, while also chipping away at the final couple of chapters of Robert Armitage in moments between classes and work. It’s a struggle some days to find the headspace to do creative work, particularly in the hustle of London, but it is always rewarding. So did I succeed in a creative reset? I think I did, and if I ever find myself detached from creativity again in the future (though I really hope I don’t), I’d do the same thing in a heartbeat.

Taking some creative time

Having spent half my life obsessing over lists, plans, ‘what could go wrong’ notes and a small library of just-follow-your-dream books, I always thought about taking the time to read, write and make films properly. Full time, even just for a while. It always seemed fanciful, what other people did. Less successful people, less important people. Not me.

A number of things have changed my mind. One of the more notable was coming across a notebook, probably six or seven years old, in which I had scribbled film concepts and short story plots as a sixth-form student. The imagination, the variety, even the vocabulary was far better than anything I have developed over the past couple of years. I love my job and I have been incredibly privileged to have it, to travel with it, to learn through it, but as with many careers it leaves little room or mental energy for creativity.

In 2019 I will be leaving my current job, leaving my adopted home here in Paris, and for at least some of the year I will be focused full-time on creative ventures. I am absolutely terrified. I do not want to leave my profession behind, and I am already very excited at the prospect of returning to it once I have taken some creative time away. I look forward to learning how to balance all aspects of my life. There is no reason why focus on a non-artistic career should hinder creative endeavours. There is no reason anybody should be too tired to write, too stressed to read. When you are at home in all parts of your life, you are better in all parts of your life.

I am very grateful to be in a financial and professional position to be able to take ‘time off’, especially to spend on the (sometimes frighteningly expensive) pursuit of filmmaking. Many people are not so fortunate. If there is one thing we can do to make society a better place, it probably involves some collective re-focusing on what is important to us all. Our professional lives and what we can achieve as teams, groups, companies are incredibly important. So too are our creative outputs be they musical, artistic, theatrical, literary, as a photographer or a social media journalist, whether your audience is your family or friends or the masses. It wouldn’t be wise for me to say ‘quit your job and be an artist’; I neither believe that nor want to say it. Just take everything you want to do and be in life, and make sure that it all goes into defining you.

Sometimes it takes a hard reset to break old habits and allow you to forge new ones. That is what I am pursuing with this 100% creative interlude between lawyering. I want both roles to be a part of my life. I want to make some great work and return to the professional fold with new energy. A hard reset is just that – hard, scary, a breakdown of your ego. My mental health and I have had an interesting relationship over the past three years and with that I lost some of the energy that a younger me, the student that wrote a whole notebook of ideas in a summer, the ambitious lawyer on his first day, the guy who decided to move to France, once had. Now that I have taken the first leap I can already feel some of that energy returning. I’m really not preaching that everybody should do the same, just asking if the world could be patient while I try.

Summer in Paris

After four months of nonstop glorious weather, my DP Ashley Hughes has finally moved out to Paris. And with perfect timing, as we begin the edit on our short film La robe which we shot in the arrondissement in which I live back in July. The film was a delight to make, working alongside and making new friends with local business owners at beautiful cafe Bleu Olive and boutique Amelie along the way. Editing and scoring are about to commence, and we hope to have something to screen once the cafe re-opens from its summer break and Paris society reconvenes for the autumn.

I am looking forward to getting back to London for a short period in September. As well as the opportunity to catch up with friends I am really missing, find that perfect Old Fashioned (Paris – take note – you need to improve) and move some more of my library out of storage, I am excited to be making a brief return to digital filmmaking with a micro-short planned for the first few days of September.

Back in Paris, Ashley and I have used the break during which our Super8 rolls were in the lab productively, with a number of projects on the go. In terms of writing, I am currently working through drafts of Robert Armitage material I hope to develop into more short films soon, and am working on a TV pilot script at the same time. On the production front, we are starting preparatory work on our most ambitious short film to date, slated for February, and I look forward to having preliminary meetings in early September with our ideal candidates for producer, production designer and cast. Marking our fourth project to be shot on film, and with an almost entirely location-dependent script, this 12-minute project will be a worthwhile challenge and hopefully our best shot at festival places for 2019.

As ever, watch this space.

Robert Armitage in Paris

After a hectic few months in which Ashley, Lily and I have managed to switch jobs and (in my case) move country despite the best efforts of the UK’s weather, it’s good to be settled and starting a new string of projects to carry us through 2018 and beyond.

The first is a new short, Robert Armitage is in Town, which Ashley is coming out next month to discuss before we proceed to shooting in July. A vignette that builds on the bar-worlds we learned to create for Red Ribbon | Blue Suit several years ago, Robert Armitage is a bringing-together of two bodies of work we’ve been interested in for a while. The first is the character, who I wanted to bring to the screen in this oblique, mysterious way after first writing about him when I was in China in 2013. Then, Robert Armitage could have been a spy, a drug runner, a petty hood, or a businessman or a diplomat or even just a washed-up American lost in a dive bar in Yangzhou. Now he’s back in my work and still elusive. The mystery works well given the second source of inspiration, which Ashley brought to the table last year – Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, which perfectly captures those bar-dwellers who might be full of stories and conflicts, but who are trying so hard to come across as nothing at all. We are drafting a script in earnest this month; watch this space for news of locations, plotlines and casting calls.

Beyond Robert Armitage, we are excited to be working in London’s Kew Gardens in the early autumn to shoot another project building on a Virginia Woolf short story, after the magic of producing The Beachcomber (inspired by Solid Objects) last year. It seems unbelievable that an entire year has gone past since Lily was standing knee-deep in the freezing Atlantic at sunrise, but it will be wonderful to return to the rich language and intricate visuals that Woolf’s work demands.

Both of these shorts are further stepping stones to help us master the skills we need for a significant project we have slated for the winter and into 2019. At the moment, we can’t say very much about what it involves (other than that it brings Lily, Ashley and I back together and is – by a long way – our most ambitious film yet), but as the year rolls on we’ll have plenty of news to share. Robert Armitage sees us working once again with Super8 film and synchronised dialogue, a new challenge but in the familiar and controllable environment of a quiet bar at night. Our Kew Gardens project will see us develop the same skills, but bringing 16mm film into the frame thereby massively expanding Ashley’s canvas and allowing us to move into one of the industry’s most popular film formats.

On the writing front, expect plenty of news as we all chip in regarding our latest reads, adaptations, reboots of old favourites, and more.

Every story tells a picture

by director and actor Lily Taylor

Every story tells a picture, every picture tells a story. My literary obsessions seem to work this way, with hard-edged moments glowing out from the pages and insisting that I return to them again and again. Solid objects hover in and around these moments, a pearl dropped and found (or unfound) in pale blades of grass, a smoothed shard of sea glass, ocean-green and softly grained, a gold chain nailed to a tree. More recently – an oval stone, rounded, almond-eyed, a human head, levitating, tapping at the skylight. A man, dead, ancient, lying on a beach and turning slowly into a tree. A leaf, full. A watch, removed from the wrist and flung, sideways, into a canal. The undoneness of the thing. The absolute not-doneness of it.

I chased that vision of sea glass, like John of ‘Solid Objects’, taking his role as he surrendered everything for the pursuit of fragments – the resulting film became another of these fragments, a short 5-minute piece of film, cut and stuck into sequence. Screening The Beachcomber for the first time in Oxford, in the company of my most wonderful friends, was one of the best things of the past year. In November, we screened it again at Picturehouse Central, which was another highlight of the year and of my move to London. With the addition of Jordan’s score – which is perfect – the film was properly whole and complete. (I think, or, at least, hope, that Woolf would have approved.) Thank you so much to all of my friends who came to see it twice!

With that moment deliberated and revised, translated, screened, and concluded, I’m ready to greet the next one. This time, the watch and the collage, the conversation by water. The challenge of dialogue and 16mm film. I’ve been warned of the difficulties of casting and 30-second takes (turns out it’s much easier when the only character is me and the most difficult direction is stepping painfully into pebble-churning, freezing waves in the early morning). I have a week at home to deliberate script cuts and tweaks, to ruminate on the best pictures for this particular story. For now, I don’t want to give away any more. But it is all very exciting – festooned in the additional excitement of Christmas as I travel home through solid, grey, Shropshire fog.

 

Lily starred in The Beachcomber, as well as directing James, appearing in London Time and acting as marketing director for Plenty. Read more from her blog here.

Scoring The Beachcomber

by composer Jordan Dobbins

I first encountered Andrew, Ashley and Lily’s The Beachcomber in Oxford, performing live pieces based around Woolf’s The Waves at its first screening. As with any creative endeavour, six months on I am both pleased and unsatisfied with the finished soundtrack. I thought I would write something for the blog about how I tried to navigate the subject matter which is at the heart of the film (which is best understood from reading the original Woolf short story). The following is the, probably misguided, methodology I went about in turning those ideas into a score that somehow mirrored Woolf’s prescient ideas and feelings that still speak to our 21st Century culture.

To me the film, and the Woolf material it stemmed from, was about navigating two integral human processes in a capitalist society: the search for meaning and the creation of value. I wanted the music to have a sense of searching at its core (derived from that most Woolfian of symbols – the sound of the waves) which is heard most prominently in the rhythm of the thicker textured sections that accompany the first visuals. This searching is complicated, for me, by the protagonist’s kleptomania: who owns these objects, and who instils them with meaning? That idea is further muddied and confused when overlaid with the concept of nostalgia which is present in the film (and which I was told was on the mind of the film makers as they created the piece) – do we view our understanding of innocence and the past as commodities of consciousness in an age where all things gave a ‘Return on Investment’? I hoped to capture the feeling that these questions left me with in the transitions between the filled out piano to the stripped back, more in focus, sections that are interspersed throughout. These sections were based on the old music hall tune ‘A Little of What you Fancy Does you Good’, which I felt chimed nicely with both Woolf’s context and the film’s subject matter. The manic collecting of the protagonist is mirrored in these sudden changes of tone; just as they cannot force these strange found objects to stand in lieu for intangible parts of our mental processes of remembering, so my appropriation of the music hall tune is unfitting and unwieldy.

Perhaps the thinking that was behind the music is more apt than the final piece itself, but I enjoy hearing people’s opinions and analysing my own feelings about the music (which change on the daily). It was a great project to be involved in and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to stretch my untrained creative muscles.