On The Train

Together with Kevin Threlfall, a visual artist, I was successful in winning a commission to make a short film for Creative Scene, an arts organisation based in West Yorkshire. Our brief was to make a film about the railway between Leeds and Huddersfield, working with rail users and members of First Transpennine Express staff.

Different sorts of people use the line for different reasons at different times of day, and the line passes through quite different places. We wanted to capture as much of this as possible.

Early on we decided that we’d show different stations at different times of the day and link those stations with a rail journey each of which would be in a different style. We rode up and down the line and worked out what character each of the stations would have, and what we would focus on at each.

For me, the best bit of the filming was getting to sit in the driver’s cab and film the journey from Manchester to York and back. There’s no way I could have got access if it hadn’t been for this commission and so I made the most of it. I had three cameras sellotaped to the cab window and I was holding another to film everything I could. In the end, we used about 5% of the footage I got.

What’s always enjoyable about making films is that it’s a wholly legitimate reason to speak to strangers and listen to their stories. We spent half a day with a conductor who used to work as a DJ for Viking radio in Hull, we met a monk at Mirfield, met the Friends of Batley Station (doing great work) and we got to chat, and chill out, to a jazz band at the Head of Steam pub on Huddersfield station.

The only difficulty we had, really, was that we weren’t allowed to film at Leeds station. This could have been a major headache as the whole film journey was supposed to start there. We managed to get around this by using footage shot outside the station and from inside trains. Then, when we came to edit, we used shots from Dewsbury and Huddersfield to build up the idea of Leeds. Staff at Transpennine picked this up when they viewed the film but I noticed that the producers of Happy Valley obviously had the same problem because when Shirley Henderson gets off the train at Leeds in the first episode of the current series, she’s actually on Platform 1 at Huddersfield.

Initially we thought the film might be shown in a noisy environment, so a key shaping factor for us was that it had to be comprehensible without sound, although in the final product, the soundtrack is actually fairly complex.

I was heavily influenced by a couple of experimental silent films, in particular, Man With a Movie Camera, the famous Russian short film about a day in the life of a Russian city (actually, it’s footage of several cities edited together). We relied on a lot of techniques derived from this 86 year old film – the way in which images were layered, the visual rhythm and the change of pace from place to place.

The music and sound were all created especially for the film, with the exception of the jazz band at the end of the film. Half way through editing the film, Marsden Jazz festival happened and I listened to quite a lot of experimental jazz. That had quite a significant influence on one key sequence in the middle of the film. There’s no prize for working out which it is. I think it might be fairly obvious.

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