Friday, 2 December 2011


In September I enrolled on a 12 week evening class at the Midlands Arts Centre called Talk Film. The course is led by Michael Clifford (@bikefilm), a BAFTA Award winning Director. One of Michael's most recent projects has been to make a no-budget film, Turbulence.  The story of how this was done and how it turns the conventional approach to film-making on its head has intrigued me, with obvious parallels in community work.

The starting point was that Michael and producer Natasha Carlish @natashacarlish) were keen to work together and embark on a huge learning journey around an idea to get a film made and shared. They started with no budget, which is not at all normal for making a film. British filmmaking culture is to get money up front (as we tend towards in relation to grants in the voluntary sector). Filmmakers can spend years languishing in the development phase while they seek backing or apply for funding to make their film.

In filmmaking the resources you really need are people, places, props and skills. The resource Michael has easiest access to is actors. He has worked with many and is friends  with lots of actors on Facebook. Final year undergraduates from the Birmingham School of Acting were auditioned to be cast in the film. A series of workshops with the actors followed, with the original idea being that a series of short stories around characters they created would be written. In another unconventional move, scriptwriter Stavros Pamballis was given loads of ideas to generate a script from, rather than him starting with the ideas. He used his skills to weave a humorous and believable story from the masses of information, and apparently drafted it in one weekend!

A lot of investment was made in drawing out the skills and strenghts of the actors. Michael spent a lot of time talking not just to the actors themselves, but also to people that knew them. The fact that the students had been studying and living together meant that they knew each other really well and were able to share with Michael what strengths they saw in each other. Character development was influenced along the way, including changes to the story when they discovered that one of the actresses could sing.

In terms of a place, Michael and Natasha negotiated use of the Hare and Hounds in King's Heath, Birmingham. They were able to use it for filming for three weeks. Usually a full-length feature film like this would take six weeks to shoot.

Equipment and props were begged for and borrowed, each day of filming Michael and Natasha would put out requests on twitter and Facebook for props and so on. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Equipment was easier blag  than consumables - borrowing £3000 worth of lighting equipment was straightforward compared to finding food 5 days a week for cast and crew.

Online networking has had, and continues to have, a significant role in the development of this film. Natasha was new to online networking, but keen to harness it's potential to support both the production and post-production of the film. Natasha's first ever blog post was on the film's site. The idea was to build the audience while the making film. Traditionally things are kept secret until polished marketing is ready and a film close to release. However models of film distribution are changing, with awareness and audience and loyalty being developed onlineNatasha said that doing it this way means that as filmmakers "you have the power, you don't have to wait for £30,000 marketing budget". Natasha and Michael decided not to go to any traditional distributors, their experience has been that it is very hard to make money that way. So the strategy they adopted was to get beyond their own networks online.

Despite being told "you'll never be able to to do it", a collaborative approach to filmmaking has resulted in a great Birmingham based film being made and screened, with audiences across the West Midlands and and online being nurtured. Michael and Natasha said that they felt more entrepreneurnial going about it this way.

I went to see Turbulence, and hear Michael and Natasha talk about it, at the brilliant social cinema flixfixer, with a fellow community development worker, Chris Florence (@sententiachris). We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, and discussed excitedly the parallels between what we had heard about the making of the film and the current context for community projects and participation.

Not waiting for a grant, creating links to others and just doing it is how some amazing community-based activities start. Some that I know of locally include the Black Country Food Bank and the Hope Centre in Halesowen. Many others are shared in Handmade - Tessy Britton's lovely collection of inspiring stories about creating connections and community.

Recognising and building on the strengths of people as assets is in the spotlight at the moment in community work, with the government promoting 'Asset Based' approaches (a great introduction to this is Appreciating Assets), the BIG Lottery's People Powered Change approach, and the work of people like Tessy Britton (@TessyBritton) such as Community Kitchen

So what can we learn from innovative and enterprising film makers like Michael and Natasha? I think at the very least that it's worth trying, it is possible, understand and make use of people's strengths and connections and just get on with it. We might well experience some turbulence along the way, but we don't have to wait around for a funder to give the go ahead.