i-D online presents the third film in our series of ‘Best Short Film Award’ with the London Short Film Festival in the run up to their 10th anniversary, Jan 2013.
This month showcases In Passing, the unique and highly innovative film from Christopher Thomas Allen and Robert Rainbow of The Light Surgeons, tracing the journeys of visually-impaired people in the heart of Manchester’s city centre. The Light Surgeons was founded by Christopher in 1995, establishing a boutique company that specialises in creative content for live performance, video production and installation-based products.
How did the idea for In Passing come about? In Passing was a short film commission for a project called The Bigger Picture, a collaboration between The Corner House Gallery and the BBC to begin a major experiment in public space broadcasting. It was the first permanent Public Space Broadcasting Screen for the UK and was located in an area of the city that had recently been regenerated after the IRA bomb in 1996. I began coming up with ideas after doing a site visit and walking around the area, which is dominated by a large shopping area and had undergone a lot of changes in order to create a new public space in the centre of the city. I approached the film as a psycho-geography of this area. I began taking photos and trying to eavesdrop on people’s conversations, trying to record people without them noticing. All of the time I spent walking around the city listening with my headphones made me think about how we build a picture of our surroundings from our senses. This reminded me of a conversation about blindness that I’d been having with another artist, Rob Rainbow, who had worked at The Light Surgeons for many years. I decided to get him involved in the film as a co-director and began researching Blind Societies in Manchester with my producer. We were put in touch with a partially sighted lady called Jo Welbon who lived in that area and her interview became the narrative for the film. We basically spent a night wandering around the area of the screen and driving around central Manchester in a car. As the film came together in post, we thought it would be interesting to trace this footage into sequences of illustrations as a way of exploring the idea of blindness visually.
Has the narrative of cities featured in your other work? I was born and bred in London so I guess you could say I’m a product of that environment. Many of our other films, installations and performance projects explore different aspects of the city, both through its physical architecture and its psychological influence on people. After making In Passing we developed a major media art exhibition called ‘Domestic Archaeology’, which looked at domestic space in the city at the Geffrye Museum in East London. I think people’s living rooms and homes are such a fascinating place to explore our complex urban identities.
The colours in the film are desaturated with a lot of black and white sequences. Was this to imitate the sensation of visual impairment? Partly. I think we were also thinking about the location the film was going to be displayed in and wanted to make something bold and graphic that stood out in the busy environment of Exchange Square. The screen was also fairly low res by today’s standard of LED pitch so I think that was also a concern for us.
The film also featured in Sundance 2007. How did this affect your career path? I think both me and Rob where amazed at how well the film worked outside of the public space we made it for really. It was screened at the ICA before the feature film Black Sun by Gary Tarn, which was amazing as that is such a great film. It did a few screenings at some of the smaller festivals in the UK but I was really amazed it won best film at the London Short Film Festival as I had never won anything before. I was even more amazed when I received an invite from Sundance to submit the film. Above all it really made we want to continue to make films and some of the work I saw was really inspiring. I can’t say it changed my career path that much as I think a lot of my work extends beyond the boundaries of conventional cinema anyway.
Did you originally come from a design or animation background? My background is in design; both me and Rob studied Media Design in Portsmouth. I specialised in graphics and he studied history and theory. After leaving university I established The Light Surgeons with a group of friends who all enjoyed experimenting with analog projections. Since then the company has grown and its output has diversified into installation projects, concert visuals and live cinema performances.
Where do you see yourselves in another seven years? I’d like to continue to push the boundaries of cinema and new media through our live performance projects like True Fictions. I have a dream of starting a non-profit organisation called The Live Cinema Foundation for the development of this type of work and would like to open a venue dedicated to this aspect of our practice. I’m looking for people who might be interested in being part of something like that so – get in touch if you are! It’s a very fine line we tread here at The Light Surgeons, between artist led work and the more commercial commissions, so it’s always hard to judge what we will be doing next, it changes month by month. I continue to hope the sun shines on our little Hackney operation!
Text: Joe Cohen