If you have any preconceptions about what a student film set would be like, I can imagine it’s something like a chaotic melee of handheld cameras, improvised costumes, bewildered actors and enough creative enthusiasm to power a small rocket. Like Passolini trying to co-ordinate the Battle of the Somme. But the set we visited was as far removed from that amateurish stereotype as could be imagined. There was order, clear direction, a sizeable production team and professional equipment. It was a student film set, but one that screamed skill and proficiency.
We spent an afternoon on the set of two student films being shot in Oxford, called Waterbird and Catkins; a double feature exhibiting the best that the local amateur film scene has to offer. Professionalism seems to be the watchword of the project, from production to acting. Ryan, playing one of the protagonists for Waterbird, went to lengths in explaining how high-calibre this was in comparison to his other experiences; “It’s far more professional. I’ve done a few things before this, but nothing of this sort of calibre with such a strong team. From head to toe of the project, everyone knows their role, everyone’s got a fantastic relationship.” To get a better sense of just where this professionalism comes from, we sat down with producer Ksenia, head of marketing Owen, and Ryan to better understand the project.
Waterbird, the one we saw being filmed,follows two friends, one partying to forget, the other a keen sportsman, who have a falling out that leads to a tragic accident, and how the surviving friend reminisces by a river on the loss. Catkins follows a man arguing with his wife, who is convinced to not divorce her after an ethereal encounter with a young woman on a river bank, caressing a bunch of the eponymous flowers. Ksenia explained how “the one big project is how people use nature to come to terms with their grief, and how nature symbolises the pain they’re going through.” And as Owen pointed out, “it means you get to film in some really beautiful places, like these lovely rivers”, referring to the banks of the Cherwell where the crew was filming that day.
And although being shown together, the films had very separate conceptions. “Waterbird was an amalgamation of things Alex (the director) had come across, the tragic death story is something that’s happened to a friend. Catkins came from a Turgenev short story, where there’s a very similar plot and Alex has decided to put it into a modern context. So very different, and we’re intending on making them very stylistically different”, Ksenia elaborated. Indeed, in terms of style, the films have a very clear aesthetic intent. “The outdoors shoots appear very dreamy, less realistic. Based on what we’ve seen so far from Catkins, the outdoor bits almost seem like a dream and very idealised. The indoor scenes are much more realistic”. Owen also explained how the visual aspect affects the structure of the story telling. “All of the present day stuff is outdoors and dreamy, all the indoor stuff is a year ago, dreary. It’s all very enclosed and suffocating.”
Sound also plays a key role in both shorts, where substantial aspects of the story telling are shifted to the soundtrack. “The sound adds an atmospheric quality. Both films feature folk songs that are being reworked, and we’re improving with the actors to get some folk songs as well. The songs also represent the idea of nature being solace, as they come on when the characters find contact with nature and I think it adds a romantic touch.” Owen went further, “Alex has always seen sound as a purer way of expressing emotion; as soon as a song begins it’s something different, dreamier.”
Such a thoughtful and in-depth attitude to all aspects of the filming is something extremely striking about the production. All aspects of the visuals and the sound represent something and further the story, even down to the importance of individual props in the scenes. There is very little sign of thoughtlessness in any aspect of the films. The actors are all plugged in to what is going on and the artistic intention, as James, playing the other protagonist in Waterbird, explained when we spoke to him. “The rehearsals have been extremely helpful in bringing emotion out in the performances, especially the darker emotions. It’s been really professional in how everything’s been explained to us, and how we’re meant to approach it from an acting point of view.”
So, these were student films that bore, perhaps, little resemblance to the ramshackle stereotype attached to amateur productions. It was slick, well thought-out, well funded, with financial backing of the Vice Chancellor himself, and was consistently directed by clear artistic intent. Even the equipment we saw would not look out of place on a professional film, with top-of-the-range cameras, lenses and sound equipment. No home movie handheld cameras here. But more than just impressively snazzy, the quality of equipment spoke volumes about the care and attention that pervaded the set. Clearly, these were films intended to be pieces of art, not just distracting side-projects.
Both films are being entered in a host of films festivals, both domestic and international, from Tribeca to Southampton, and whilst we can’t tell what the finished products will be like, based on professionalism alone, Waterbird/Catkins certainly have a fighting chance. And don’t worry, you’ll be able to watch the end result for yourself, as the team intend to put on a showing in Oxford some time at the end of Michaelmas or the beginning of Hilary.