The project Formica’s Forms works with a population of wood ants in a forest in Kent. It was sparked by encountering the ants in 2014, and has continued through short residencies in 2016 and 2017, to unfold powerfully since. The main outcome of the project is a series of moving image works. This year, as these normally earth-bound insects perform their ‘nuptial flight’ (new queens and males emerge to copulate on the wing), I want to fly the camera, filming the ants in flight, foraging high in the trees, filming myself as I perform a ritual connected to fertility and its loss.
Thanks to Stour Valley Creative Partnership, who are supporting the project through access to their forest studio.
Some stills from a day working with Jan Vhrovnik, Director of Photography and drone pilot extraordinaire. After quite a bit of trial and error, we got this sequence :)
I have been working with this population of wood ants since 2014, (a little at a time, via mini residencies) but this period of film training funded by the A-N bursary allowed me to work alongside and learn from professional film makers for the first time.
My practice emerges from painting, but has diversified enormously in response to the various species and contexts with whom I now work. This means that I am continually re-entering a space of not knowing (how to do it). Luckily, I find this space full of possibility.
Working with others allowed me to achieve footage and realise ideas that would have been impossible alone. I learned loads about how to use the equipment, and I also learned that there are times to ask the pros to do it for you (see last post flying the drone down through the trees).
It was fascinating to me that although my colleagues could do incredible things that I couldn’t, and got much better shots technically than me, they didn’t see/find/film the same mystical strangeness or social-geographical resonance in the space that I do… perhaps because I am in tune with the spruce copse and the ants in a way they are not? Perhaps simply because everyone’s ‘eye’ is different, and it is this that ‘makes’ an artist’s work, over and above expertise.
The stills in this post are from video I took on the days I had alone, once everyone else had left. I had a couple of amazing days, where the forest offered up so much richness. My focus spilled out from the ants towards the sunlight itself – in response to the solar ritual I had performed – and me and my cameras were syncing with light effects that had previously gone unremarked. One shot that I haven’t shared here because it doesn’t work as a still had me gasping in amazement, yet it just appeared like a gift: a golden, out of focus sunspot fills the whole frame. Uncertain vertical movement gradually becomes understandable as ants running up and down a tree, framed against the light. It is an image I will never forget. I hope that I get to share it.
A brilliant if challenging day in the ant forest learning how to wield a DJI Osmo gimbal camera on a Massive Extending Pole.
My cunning plan is that this will afford unusual and marvellous views of wood ants in flight – on the one day of the year that they become airborne, for their nuptial flight.
Tiny insects in flight, against a complex background, if we are there on the right day. With a massive pole. And a remote view (via smartphone).
What could possibly go wrong?
Using the gimbal hand held was tricky and counter-intuitive to begin with but great fun. And shooting in 4K is exciting! There is that slightly dizzy sensation, looking back at some of the footage, that I remember feeling when HD first came out.
Huge thanks to DOP Jan Vhrovnik for his clarity and patience!
The Wildeye Filmmaking course in Norfolk was well aimed at people who want to get into the business, a little less so at artists learning specific skills they want to learn (but I am doing that bit later, one-to-one). It was interesting to see how different the motivations were, and so how you might plan your work and what your expectations were. The emphasis was on telling a story, in which shots of wild animals may or may not take centre stage.
They showed lots of different styles of film and we discussed what worked and what didn’t. Leader of Wildeye Piers Warren was clearly motivated by conservation – I’m up for that. It was interesting to talk about the 50+ years that the Beeb and Attenborough have resisted ‘adulterating’ the wild beauty of their films with political content, while all the wildlife filmmakers were gagging to make the message more clear. However brilliant the films were, the worst devastation of our wildlife has coincided with them, so clearly the message was not getting through. The Blue Planet effect was much discussed – finally Atters presented a clear message, and it has made a difference. Perhaps we need Wildlife Propaganda films! Not quite what my ant film is up to… but food for thought…
On day one, alongside lots of theory, we each had a go at presenting, directing, camera operation, assisting, sound recording, gimbel operation. Then practiced ‘establishing shots’ ‘mid shots’ and ‘closeups’ plus panning and tilting. I was working with the very patient Guinevere the tortoise. They move a lot faster than you think when you are trying to prejudge where they’re headed, that’s for sure. Hence the ‘Erm, tricks of the trade’ shot!
On day two, alongside more theory, we went to Pensthorpe, a nature reserve and wetland centere where Springwatch has been filmed before. We were tasked with trying to tell a story… which is remarkably hard in 25 mins.
One super useful thing I learnt was the obvious but crucial difference between a video tripod and a stills tripod – the video tripod has smooth balance movement controls.. why have I never been told that before? So that’s why my panning shots have been jerky, urgh. Time to spend some cash.