A5.BoW: tutor feedback

Yesterday, I had my final audio/video feedback session with my tutor – assignment submission here. I was delighted with how it went and the positive comments both on the progress during the module and the final outcome. She also kindly read my A5 CS reworked essay and aside from a couple of small things to tidy up, was also positive about that.

One point I do need to investigate is the streaming quality of the video – I think diminished as we viewed via Zoom, so that would have applied its own compression. However, I need to check it is as good as it can possibly be when streaming direct from Vimeo. I recently upgraded to a paid account, so there may be higher quality upload options. As part of SYP, I’ll be looking at methods of ‘showing’ the video to groups of online audiences, followed by a discussion; I’m hoping to tap into fresh aural histories.

We spent sometime talking through the approach to preparing assessment materials and how to link to the learning outcomes, which I found very useful. Key recommendations were to keep reflective summaries for each section short (around 100-150 words – economic and effective) to avoid overwhelming assessors before they have a chance to look at the work; also that a pdf format with links is the most convenient for review, rather than something directly on the blog. She kindly offered to look over the pdf for me once done.

This is most likely my final blog entry as assessment content will be in pdf format and uploaded to the shared drive.

BoW.A5 Tutor submission

For my last assignment, I submit an introduction to my body of work, the body of work itself and an evaluation of the body of work that reflects on the whole of this module.

Introduction

I have written this introduction in the third person, on the basis that it will be taken forward to SYP as a starting point for describing and promoting my body of work.

Leeds and Liverpool is a poignant short film by Andrew Fitzgibbon featuring photographs made over two years, while walking the 127 mile Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The film’s story reflects upon the canal as a marginal but enthralling space trampled with the burden of deindustrialisation and reinvented as a site of leisure. Absent of people, the film shows the marks of humanity left by those who have claimed the water as their own. The narration is voiced by Yorkshire born actor Paul Butterworth (The Full Monty). An immersive soundtrack features layers of ambient sounds recorded from the canal, and samples of sound effects from historic archives, as well as oral histories from those who once worked the canal.

Although the canal is promoted as a place of leisure, it holds deeper interest as a complex space of many different interests: from ruins and heritage, to edgelands and urban gentrification. There are fascinating incongruities, with human culture working at the landscape and marking possession, use and abuse. Andrew sees this as the meeting of worlds within a world; the fluid world of the canal and its banks.

Body of work

For the optimum experience, please view this film in full-screen mode using headphones to enjoy the stereo soundscape. Viewing on mobile devices is not recommended.

Evaluation of body of work

I wish acknowledge the work of both my BoW and CS tutors in providing the insights, suggestions and encouragement that enabled me to reach this point. They have been an enormous support. Credit is also given in the end titles to the film.

I use the same categories of assessment criteria contained in my course materials and that I have used to self-assess my own progress throughout this module.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

 – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

The foundation of this work is photographic image-making based upon my observations during many walks along different stretches of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. In the beginning, the project was envisaged very differently to how it was finally realised; it was intended to be a work of portraits showing how people interact with the place of the canal over a specific 29 mile stretch between the town of Skipton and Leeds. This was revisited when I found that the idea of the canal inside my head as a populous place (like the urban city canals to which I was more accustomed) proved to be a fallacy. This is a mistake I describe in the context of my dissertation. Then, the idea was completely abandoned with the Covid epidemic, which has hit hard the former industrial towns of Northern England along the canal. The project was reimagined as a landscape work that showed the marks of socialisation along the entire 127 mile length of the canal. My CS research focused increasingly on social spatialisation, deindustrialisation and the power plays in shaping space in the context of the canal. This in turn was reflected in my image making. I believe that I have succeeded in making well composed, visually impactful images that show the canal as more meaningful than a simple place of leisure, as it is popularly represented. Also, that I have demonstrated a flexible and creative approach to the changing circumstances around the work.

The images themselves have gone through many edits to arrive at the end selection. There was a balancing act between choosing images with visual impact and choosing those that also fitted the story I wanted to tell. After many iterations, the level was found; my sequencing and editing skills and toolkit improved significantly during the process. I’m a photographer who works with RAW images rather than jpgs, so a great deal of work happens in Photoshop’s digital darkroom. Many of the images have been ‘printed’ several times to arrive at a rendering that fitted the mood of the canal and also highlighted the reflective qualities of water, to add a sense of contemplation to the images. Without going into technical details, my approach to working with images in Photoshop has become clearly defined during this module, with a set of riffs I can call upon to help images sing the song in my head.

The approach to dissemination of the images has gone through a number of iterations throughout the module. One decision I made early on was that I wanted to find an approach that would work for digital assessment and for digital sharing in the Covid world. Given a photograph is not tied to a single output medium, it appealed to make use of this characteristic. The work has evolved through straight digital prints, through a simple ebook, to an interactive ebook and finally to a film.

Enormous effort has gone into the different iterations and final version of the film, beyond the photographs upon which it is based. A narrative was written and initially voiced by myself before a chance collaboration with professional actor Paul Butterworth, who is also an OCA student. Paul visited me and we recorded his take of my narrative. Images were resequenced to echo the words of the narrative. The pace of slides and transitions was experimented with, so they beat to the slow drum of the canal. The narrative was sliced and mixed to the pace of the images. Ambient sounds were recorded on the canal and sampled from archives. I was delighted to locate the aural history recordings that feature in the film. I then practiced and learned new sound mixing skills to post-process the sounds and place them into a stereo mix. I’ve refined a whole skill set in realising this dissemination, and one that will be valuable in future projects, and allows me to combine my love of sound and photography.

Quality of outcome

 – content , application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas

I feel that the final film is a high quality output. One cannot judge one’s own work but I’m please to have also received some enthusiastic feedback from viewers so far, including the poet Ian McMillan who’s words are quoted in the narrative. The film conveys the story I want to tell of the canal described in my introduction, and has the quality of a meditative wander along the canal. The images, narrative and soundtrack all come together to carry the narrative and reveal layers of meaning through sight and sound. It shows that the canal is far richer in meaning than the place of leisure commonly portrayed. I hope it will encourage people to reflect upon broader meanings of space when by the water.

For the presentation to evolve during SYP, I am considering two main areas:

  • Fully developing the website that I’ve already started for SYP as a vehicle to share the film and related work. This seems to a practical way of sharing work in what looks like will be a reduced-touch world until at least mid-2021. The website is www.leedsandliverpool.co.uk. I have already started to use this as a platform for viewers who enjoy the film to donate to my local food bank if they can afford to; I hope that this will allow the work to do some tangible good as well as being enjoyed.
  • I would like to produce a book of the work, using the text from narrative that accompanies the film, ideally in conjunction with one of the small alternative-placed focused publishers that I’m following on line, or through a publish-on-demand service. However, I will have to see how this plays out with costs et cetera.

Within my timeframes, I suspect it is unrealistic to run a small physical exhibition of the work given lockdown and social distancing requirements. However, there could be the possibility of a physical presence that points to the film through a QR code. For example, fliers or posters in places near the canal.

Demonstration of creativity

 – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice

Over the course of this module, the work has gone through many different iterations and experiments; some of which I’ve described above. For sometime, I’ve been interested in work that comments on space and people’s interaction with that space. With my CS research, I now also strongly connect that to meaning and how meaning determines who belongs and who doesn’t in a place; the boundaries put on place. What I have come to accept and embrace is the aestheticisation of subject matter to draw attention to it and the voice of its story.

Context

 – reflection, research, critical thinking

There is significant research that informs this body of work in my dissertation, which is presented separately. In that, I conclude with the same words used in my film narrative, so they act as a portal between the textual research and the visual work. Below, I talk about the research specifically targeted at the creation of the visual.

While I am not enthusiastic about the term psychogeography because of its general obscurity to the majority of people, my work is situated in that genre both in terms of its making through wandering and its dissemination through a film that is a wander with a contemplative narrative. Patrick Keiller’s London is an influence, even if I just appreciate rather than enjoy that work. However, a more significant influence in terms of photography as a video production is the work of Laura El-Tantawy, the Deutsche Börse Prize shortlisted photographer. La Jetée opened my eyes to the possibility of what could be achieved with still images in film but is beyond my capability and perhaps requires the resources of a feature film.

I of course have many photographic influences but I found in making this work Frank Watson’s Soundings from the Estuary and Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi inspiring in the way they photographed banal, marginal places, and in the quietness of their images. The quietness in images is important to me as it seems to allow more space for a viewer to reflect and find their own meaning. I also took some encouragement from the way in which Nadav Kandar works with his image files in Photoshop; when it seems only the use of film is a worthy discussion point among practitioners and critics.

Conclusion

Part-time study inevitably means a very long learning journey. Yesterday, as I finished the final rework of my dissertation, the realisation came that the journey is ending. This sometimes background and sometimes persistent, but constant pressure of effort will be no more. When I began, I had no idea of how much the learning would change the way in I see photography and the world.

Once one realises that photography is a tool that can be used in many different ways and accepts that there is not necessarily a good way or a bad way, but a way that is right for you, one’s own voice can be discovered and expressed. For me, I have learned that photography is closer to literature and music than the other visual arts. At its best, it expresses a story or emotion through a sequence of images. This is an important lesson to me, though I of course could not make successful images without the many image making, editing and post-processing skills learned along the way.

Perhaps even more important is the realisation that photography is mostly about seeing, and seeing-well requires a breadth of understanding. I have found the insights gained of different ways of thinking about the world enlightening and fascinating. The ideas of visual culture, cultural geography, and sociology have taught me how to unpick and understand meanings imposed on both people and place. These and other disciplines have become new friends.

Finally, I have learned what it takes to make a body of work; the dedication, persistence, repeated iterations and perseverance necessary. Importantly, that there is also consistent collaboration, even if not always visible, through the support, advice and suggestions of those around me.

Voice over recording session

It was a great pleasure to host Paul Butterworth (OCA painting student and actor) for headshots in exchange for a voice recording of my Leeds and Liverpool narrative. He’s pictured above in the cellar under my house – used as a sound insulated space for making loud music and sound recording.

Photography

While not directly relevant to my body of work, working on the actor headshots was an interesting experience with some specific formal requirements needed to serve up an actor’s face in a small box to get the attention of casting directors. In many ways counter to the type of portrait work I prefer but at the same time hugely enjoyable. The environmental context became the face around the eyes, rather than the place around the person. We talked about what Paul was wanting to convey in his image and worked at shaping that through iterations of shooting, viewing and discussion. At the time of writing we’re working on the final select of 9 images from some 120 images and I’ll then shape those in post-production for viewing by Paul’s agent, who will ultimately decide on whether he wants to use the images.

For my own photography practice, I asked Paul to pose ‘the many faces of Paul Butterworth’. I enjoyed suggesting a range of emotions to convey – the difference between drunkenness and being high were interesting! There are some great images and I’ll work these into a series / possibly a small photo book once I’m clear of this course module.

Voice recording and mixing

I’d set the recording up with a condenser microphone going through an Focusrite recording interface into a MacBook Pro. I used GarageBand as a DAW (digital audio workstation) – it’s impossible to beat for simple and even slightly more complex recording. My plan was to use a separate track for each take and then work on the edit later.

I was perhaps a little in awe of Paul’s vocal performance – whereas my earlier recording had been a painfully slow process, with many retakes of each verse, Paul made it seem effortless (though I know there is always a lot of work over years to make it seem so). I didn’t feel in a position to direct Paul’s performance beyond saying that it needed to have a melancholic feel; the expert use of the spoken word is beyond my experience.

We did three takes – once all the way through, once verse by verse (with a pause in between each) as Paul suggested the rhythm would have a different feel like that, and finally with Paul watching a muted version of my Leeds and Liverpool video – jamming to the feel of images rather than trying to match the original placement of words to images. The first two takes will be useful for promoting the video (eg clips on social media). However, the take with the images really hit the spot with the melancholy. Paul commented afterwards that the images made him feel sad – a space that was once a thriving work place now empty.

Paul’s vocal interpretation is much different to mine and draws out the narrative, making my writing sound poetic. The delivery is also much clearer, which will address the comments on my earlier version that not all the words could be understood clearly.

After Paul left, I spent several hours on post production. This involved applying appropriate compression, EQ and ambience to the voice and then splicing and arranging it to fit to the video. Breaths between verses were edited out and fades in and out were applied to avoid clipping at the cuts. I extended the time for the last shot in the video to fit Paul’s rallentando as the narrative concluded. I think this works really well!

I also made other adjustments to the sound balance in the video and think it is as goods as it can be now. I’ll let it sit for a few days and listen again with fresh ears before putting it out for feedback. I’m feeling excited to find out what people think to the work, with a professional Yorkshire voicing.

Learnings

I intend to make sound recording an ongoing part of my photographic practice and I won’t always have a pro actor to bail me out when it comes to voice overs! Though we did wonder if there might be a commercial application to our collaboration. One simple lesson I learn was that Paul was very familiar with the words (he didn’t need to read them) – while I’ll never have Paul’s vocal prowess, practicing before sitting down to record would help. I would rarely think of doing that for a musical piece and the voice is just another instrument that I am complacent about because of frequent and everyday use.

I also think listening to more expertly spoken word (without visuals) would help me improve, as well as practicing speaking written words out loud.

I feel that I’m nearly done.

Video voice-over with local actor

I’d been thinking about having the voice-over to my video spoken by someone with a Northern English accent, ideally an actor or someone else used to speaking into a microphone. In the draft, I speak and it is clearly not a northern voice and a little imperfect in places, which some have kindly commented adds an authenticity to the work.

By chance Paul Butterworth (https://www.paulbutterworthactor.com), who is an OCA painting student posted on Discuss, looking for a photographer to take fresh headshots in return for a modelling session. I commented on his post that it’s a shame he’s so far away (Cambridge) as I’d love to do the headshots in exchange for a voice over.

After some discussion, and Paul looking at some of my work, he’s visiting Yorkshire (where he is from originally) for a short break and we’ll be doing the headshots and voice recording in my home-studio. I commented when talking to Paul that this closes a circle for me as I’d originally conceived of the canal project as mainly portrait focused – but the absence of people of interest (I didn’t want joggers or walkers in outdoor clothing) and Covid had changed its focus to a landscape based work.

Brief notes on process:

  • I’ll send across a model release form that will refer to the use of photographs in exchange for voice over services. If Paul’s agent approves the photos, they’ll be used on his public profiles and credit to me.
  • We’ll shoot some headshots under studio lighting and some outdoors on the land around my property. He’s also offered to model for some general shots for my portfolio. We talked about what he is looking for in the shots, which are suitable for his actor profile and I’ve also done a little research on this. In essence the face is the context for the eyes in this kind of shot – context beyond that is an unwanted distraction.
  • For the recording, we’ll do several takes with various feels on different tracks. I can then pick and mix if needed. Once done I’ll split the voice-over in Garageband to align it to the video.
  • I talked briefly about SYP and how having a known actor doing the voice over would be a big help when publicising the work. Paul is happy to be mentioned in this context.

This is unexpected and pleasant twist towards the end of this work and I’m very much looking forwards to it. I just now hope that the Covid-demons stay clear!

Website and still images update

A4 prints spread on my floor

Alongside updating my short film, I’ve also been working on the small selection of images to include as still images on the microsite / make available as prints. This I did by printing possible images at A4 size and then narrowing the selection to ten (those above) that seem to make a coherent group with a variety of subjects.

I’ve also updated the microsite to reflect some useful feedback I received on the previous version. The main changes are:

  • Moving all text to a single page
  • Changing page heading ‘ten prints’ to ‘still images’ – this works better alongside the main ‘video’ page.
  • Changing the selection of still images and their presentation. I previously bemoaned the lack of any choice of lightbox options in Adobe’s Portfolio. However, the option I used of embedding a Google slideshow lacked interactivity and viewers felt they would have liked to view the images full screen. I’ve reverted to Portfolio’s standard display to allow this.
  • Added a direct link to my photography website (under development) in the menu of the microsite.

The updated site is at www.leedsandliverpool.co.uk.

Video edit for student feedback

I put my updated edit of the video out for comment through the level 3 email list and on OCA Discuss. Subject to a voice-over with a Yorkshire accent (I’m hoping to work with a painting student, Paul Butterworth, who’s also a professional actor) I feel that the video is approaching completion. However, there is often something missed when close to a work, so I value the input of fellow students.

I have one go per week at uploading the video to my free Vimeo account because of its size. I first watched it carefully a few times to identify and correct any obvious issues (this is now quite time consuming at 10 minutes per sitting!).

Edit 4 of video

Comments received by email and on Discuss were hugely encouraging. Unlike on previous edits, there were differing views on what might be changed or what were difficulties, and I didn’t feel a real need to address any of these as important. I think that this is a sign that the work is near done and likes/dislikes are just coming down to personal preferences. I note a few points for reference:

  • A couple of people commented on the differing aspect ratios of the images on the screen and that it might be jarring. This is just down to me being a photographer who crops and is the same situation when I produce a book. However, I can understand that this situation is not usual in the film media. It is part of the photographic nature of the work.
  • There were a couple of comments regarding specific sounds being too loud or that the timing could be shifted a little. In the end I’m happy with the sound volumes and it will be so variable depending on the quality of the audio device playing back the sound.

One astute observer did comment that the ‘over-lap’ of text in the end titles was distracting. I agree with this as they use the same ‘fade’ transition as the image slides, which isn’t appropriate for text. I’ll address this in the edit I submit for tutor feedback.

Sound track works

Having re-sequenced my video and extended the transition time on each image, it reached around 10 minutes in length including the end-titles/information. I adjusted the placement of the voice-over segments so that they associated with the images (process described here). Following this there was a lot more space in the sound track and it felt like more was needed. This was confirmed during feedback from a professional film-maker (see SYP blog post).

Although some relevant sounds were available on from the BBC sound effects archive (http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk), I searched for other sources and discovered a site that collected and shared traditional music from the canal (http://www.waterwaysongs.info/index.html). It was here that I found a 1969 recording ‘Narrow Boats’, released on an LP and digitised on the site. This included some fascinating oral histories from the canal, from which I sampled for my soundtrack (appropriate credit added to the video).

I worked at the mixing of the soundtrack to give an improved stereo effect that also helps with a sense of movement in the film. This was achieved envisaging the movement through and across images and recreating that in the soundscape. For example movement across, or from centre and then off by panning the sound across the stereo field; or a sense of distance/depth through volume fade-in/out. There was also considerable effort in balancing the volume levels across the various tracks now in my Garageband file (20 at current count). Throughout this process, I was reminded of what the Beatles managed to achieve with their mere 4 tracks for earlier recordings!

The sound track can be heard in the latest edit of the video.

Resequencing images to narrative

One suggestion (significant) from my A4 tutorial was to re-sequence the images so their timeline in the film synchronised more with the words in the narrative. Although any previous synchronisation was by luck rather than design (as the images were sequenced visually), my tutor pointed out that once it is seen, there is an expectation that it will recur and a distraction when it does not. This was a good observation, even if it means all the time previously spent on sequencing images is effectively undone!

After some reflection, I came up with the idea of a halfway storyboard – saving the narrative to pdf with large line spacing and scribbling key images against the end of phrases. This would then act as a map to direct the re-sequencing.

A copy of my pdf is attached for the record.

Leeds-and-Liverpool-storyboard