Tom Edkins, an English student at Magdalen College Oxford, has been making films for over a year, in which time he has been shortlisted for the Reed Short Film Competition 2012 and filmed Mercury winners Alt-J. I spoke to him about his inspirations and forthcoming projects.
Which is your favourite film that you’ve made, and why?
Probably my first music video, which I made with some friends at school. It was our last few weeks in the Upper Sixth, and we’d written a song called ‘Kids’ about trying not to act your age, so it all felt very nostalgic. The video’s quite shabby and not very technically accomplished, but it was before I really knew anything about filming so we just threw loads of ideas on the table and had a lot of fun shooting them. More recently, I enjoyed making my first proper short, Ignatius, because it was a very small cast of friends and I did all the technical stuff on my own – it was a steep learning curve and everything was a bit rushed, and I think that definitely shows in the finished film, but I much prefer to leap in at the deep end than staying in my comfort zone. That’s why I’ve enjoyed filming live gigs so much recently: once a gig starts, you only have half an hour and then it’s over, so you have a lot of pressure to stay focused and get the right shots. You have to take risks, but when they come off it’s so satisfying. I was lucky enough to film Alt-J up close and personal at a very small venue in Covent Garden (before they won the Mercury Prize and got bigger venues!) and that was one of my favourite filming experiences so far, just because the atmosphere was so inclusive and it was my first live gig shoot.
Your short film ‘Disconnected’ was shortlisted for the Reed Short Film Prize 2012; what was the inspiration behind this film?
At the time, I’d been thinking a lot about internet communication and how so many people’s behaviour changes when they’re online, and then I heard about the Reed competition’s title, ‘The Boss’, and to me the two ideas fitted perfectly. The caricature of the bad boss ticks all the same boxes as the reclusive internet bully – self-aggrandizing, delusional, power-hungry – so although a reclusive internet troll might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you hear ‘The Boss’, the two actually have lots in common. I wanted to show that the idea of ‘power’ is very fragile and is often built on sand, regardless of whether you’re in the workplace or sitting at home in front of a screen.
Who and what are your main influences, and who are your favourite directors?
Tom Waits once said something along the lines of “my profound lack of knowledge about my instruments is what keeps me composing”, and I think I feel like that when it comes to films. I never think “I want my film to look like X or Y’s film”, I’ve never really read any film theory, and often when people ask me about a director I have to sheepishly admit that I haven’t heard of them. I think it’s more a case of watching films – really watching them – with a new perspective that I didn’t have before I started making them. In a way it’s annoying, because I find it harder to switch off that analytical eye when I’m watching a film now, but I think I probably absorb things subconsciously (what kind of shots are used, how things are edited, etc.) rather than having a fixed idea of genre or style. As anyone who studies English, History, Modern Languages, or Philosophy might tell you, the people who embrace the big words ending in “ism” often find that they stifle their creativity. I love watching films, but I have friends who are far more knowledgeable and well-watched (if there’s an equivalent of being “well-read”), so I suppose what influences me most at the moment is just a desire to make my films better. After every shoot the first thing I do is write a list of how I could improve next time. An early mentor of mine when I first started making videos at school said you should aim to be 70% happy with an edit, because there should always be a nagging desire to do it better next time. I’m a picky perfectionist, and although most of the time that’s what drives me to make my films as good as they can be, the 70% advice was actually the most influential idea I’ve been given, since it disciplines me to let go and step back from a project rather than burying myself in an edit for hours on end just to perfect one tiny element. Anyway, to answer your question properly, if I had to pick a favourite director it would be Francis Ford Coppola, and my favourite film of his is definitely Apocalypse Now. It’s heady and hallucinatory and overwhelmingly claustrophobic, and you could watch it 100 times and still find something new with each viewing.
What equipment do you use?
I use Canon DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras because at the moment they provide the best bang for your buck if you’re just starting out. I have a 550d, a very low-end option, but it’s reassuring to know that even the cheaper DSLRs can produce images comparable to the most expensive models, when you know what you’re doing. I must have spent hundreds of hours reading up on how to get the best out of cheap cameras, so I feel vindicated when people say my films look like they’re shot with a £3,000 camera. Time is so much more valuable than money for young film-makers, which is incredibly encouraging: I’m very lucky to have started making films when I have, because DSLRs have made film-making unbelievably accessible. Our generation has it so easy, so if you want to make a film there’s really no excuse not to put in the hours learning how to do it, since the main obstacle (cost!) has been largely eradicated for young film-makers. Through college funding and my own film earnings, I’ve managed to build up a good kit bag of lenses and audio equipment, but I still use the same £400 bottom of the range camera because with the right knowledge it can produce images comparable to cameras 5 times as expensive. 5 or 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a 21 year old could make anything half decent for £400, and now we’re on the verge of yet another revolution with 4K (footage shot at 4 times HD resolution) becoming more and more accessible to the bottom end of the industry. There’s never been a better time to take the plunge and start making a film, whether you have £400 or £4000 at your disposal. It’s easy to get bogged down in tech speak and jargon, and the wide availability of cheap cameras has had one negative effect: the internet is full of tit-for-tat “pixel peepers” who are more bothered by minute technical details than actually getting out there and filming. If I had one piece of advice for people starting out, it’s this: own a camera, don’t let cameras own you! They’re just tools, and the main thing I’ve learned in the last year or so is to get over wanting more expensive equipment, and focus on squeezing the best footage I can out of what I’ve got.
How does your academic work tie in with your film-making; does it influence how and what you film?
I study English so it’s almost impossible to go a day without being exposed to a new play, poem, or novel, so I suppose that means I’m always being inspired to find and develop new stories of my own. Studying English encompasses so much more than just reading novels, and we’re often encouraged to improve our awareness of art history, music, and pop culture; although there’s no actual academic study of film in my degree, making my own films is just another way to engage with the wider arts outside the pages of the reading lists. The best critics have first-hand experience of the art they critique, bringing a greater awareness of the creative challenges posed by new projects, so hopefully my film-making broadens my horizons in the same way.
Which book would you most like to adapt for film, and how would you go about it?
My film Ignatius was based on the novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which I knew I wanted to make into a film the minute I read the first chapter when I was 15 or so. It’s set in 1960s New Orleans, so I had to do quite a bit of cutting to fit it to modern day Oxford, but I thought the main character of Ignatius had so much potential that I essentially wrote a new story based around him, rather than the novel itself. I recently found out that lots of people have tried to make it into a film over the years, with people like John Belushi and Will Ferrell tipped for the lead role at one point or another, but apparently key cast members kept dying so in Hollywood it’s known as a cursed project! In future I’d like to do another adaptation, but I learned the hard way that it’s a long process that deserves more attention than I gave it with Ignatius. I would absolutely love to do a new adaptation of Orwell’s 1984. It’s one of my favourite books and as I was rereading it recently I was running through how it would look in my head, so maybe in the future if I had a big budget I’d do that.
How many opportunities are there for film-makers in Oxford; is there anything you’d like to see done differently or improved?
Sadly, very few. I’m only aware of a handful of other people who make films, and they all do it largely independently of any official university organisations. There is the Illyria Film Fund, a great initiative that rents out cameras and lighting equipment (ideal if you’re keen to get started but don’t have a huge budget) but apart from that I’m surprised at the lack of film-making culture in Oxford. There are plenty of people interested in films, and there are certainly plenty of film societies that put on screenings, but I’ve found it really hard to find any other film-makers. If you’re out there, get in touch! Other universities have livelier film scenes (pardon the pun), but I think with the increasing popularity of film-based marketing for plays, Oxford will catch up in the near future. I just hope film is used as more than just a marketing tool; there’s so much funding given to drama, so I find it surprising that there’s a relative lack of support for student film-making. I was very lucky to get funding from my college’s Creative Projects Fund, but apart from that I wouldn’t know where to turn if I needed funding for a film. I suppose it’s a time thing: making a film can require lots of quite niche expertise which takes time to learn, and by complete chance I’ve come into film-making after years of recording music and taking photos (as well as being a bit of a computer nerd), so I was lucky enough to be well-prepared for it and ready to start as soon as I got my first video camera this year. But as I said before, a small investment of time goes a long way, and for every hour you spend researching how to use your camera properly, you’ll see massive improvements in the quality of your footage, so I’m really keen to encourage as many people as possible to pick up their cameras and give it a go.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m lucky to have a huge amount of work pouring in. Making trailers for student plays has had a snowball effect: since everyone in the Oxford drama scene seems to know each other, one trailer often leads to another, which means I get plenty of email requests which is very flattering! Last term I shot the first pilot video of a new initiative I’m starting called ‘Oxford Sessions’, which aims to showcase the best of Oxford’s music scene through intimate acoustic sessions. I had so much fun making the first video with Rob Yates (a fantastic performer and great to work with) so I’m really looking forward to the next one. There are a few ambitious play trailers lined up for next term, a promotional project for 80,000 Hours, a charity linked with the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and I’m also working on the screenplay for another short film (a sort of end-of-the-world comedy, think Waiting For Godot meets Step Brothers). My aim is to set up a production company when I graduate, so all these projects contribute towards my portfolio; I feel very lucky because whilst many of my friends spend time researching work experience, I make films because they are my work experience! I’m aware that might sound very naïve, but I have a clear vision of what I want to do and I’m determined to give it a shot. The idea I have echoing around my head is “it’s only a one-in-a-million chance because only one in every million people try it”, so I’m determined to be that “one”! For now I’m extremely fortunate to have plenty of projects on the go, and people seem to be enjoying them, so I’ll keep taking each one as it comes and hopefully I’ll keep learning and improving as I go.