Photograph of Jesus, and an interview with Laurie Hill

Do you know where I can get a photo of Hitler running in the 1948 Olympics? How about Neil Armstrong in a crowd on the moon? Or maybe ... a photograph of Jesus? These are just some of the wild requests fielded by Getty Images' Hulton Archive in London. In this cleverly edited short, archivist Matthew Butson takes us through a day in the dizzying life of a photo archivist. Enjoy the full film below.

It was great fun to get some more info on the makings of this complex and entertaining film with Laurie Hill.

Celeste Ramos: The editing in this film is awesome. How did this project come about?

Laurie Hill: A number of factors fell together at just the right time. The backstory is that I made Photograph Of Jesus in response to a film challenge using Getty Images archive material - the organisers knew my work and rang me up to see if I'd be interested. I thought I'd take a look, and find out some more to see if it was for me. I was being offered free access to their archive and given carte blanche to create any film I wanted using this vast resource of material.

That seemed pretty good to me - promising - and after I visited the place and met Matthew Butson the archivist, I knew it was too tempting an opportunity to pass up. I could see straight away there was a great little documentary film I wanted to make right there in front of me! I'd been thinking about found footage pieces for ages, thinking about how I could source material and here was the answer on a plate - plus the timing was right for me so it seemed perfect really. I went over to the Hulton Archive in London to take a look around. On that first visit, Matthew gave a guided tour of the place and as he did, went into this routine, telling a few stories of real requests they'd received over the years and I went into total shock - this was such fantastic stuff, it was irresistible! My brain started buzzing and I couldn't wait to ring him up later and chat some more.

The actual archive had a huge amount of atmosphere and character too. Matthew's stories gave me the perfect reason to do that, it all fitted so neatly together. I asked if I could record him for the film and happily he agreed. I taped a bunch of interviews where we just chatted, and he told his stories and was really open and honest, which was just what I needed.

As for stylising it the way I did, it felt like a very natural choice especially given the subject matter. Animated cutouts are something I'd already been working with on other projects and with this film I really wanted to do as much as possible physically on site - it would have been crazy not to! It's really a mix of techniques so I'm not a purist but most of it is by hand, using stop-frame animation. Lots of Blu-tack and wire too. I tend to enjoy that personal, homespun, hand-made flavour to things.

CR: How long did you get to spend in the archive?

LH: Right at the start I spent a few days just walking around drinking in the atmosphere of the place, getting inspired, poking into boxes, pretty much exploring every corner, finding little spots I liked that I thought might work for me.

I was probably actively shooting in the archive building itself for about two weeks, spread out. Pretty long
days. I'd tend to start late and work late. There'd be less people around and less disturbance. At times it could be very quiet - I wouldn't see a soul and I was working alone for most of it so I could do things quickly and be pretty flexible and spontaneous with trying out different setups.

As you’d expect, the whole place is carefully climate controlled so I'd wrap up warm. No natural light either. But it was perfect for shooting and the whole atmosphere I found very calming. You could sit in there just drifting off into reverie among the shelves. It reminded me of the time I’d spent working in libraries myself, years ago.

Really I could spend as long there as I needed to, within reason - they were very accommodating, which was great - but there was so much to do! The shoot is really just the tip of the iceberg with animation - most of the work was in the preparation. I actually spent a huge amount of time researching online in their digitised collection browsing thousands upon thousand of images I should think, and just a fraction of that ended up being used. So I'd prep what I needed for a day, pack it all into a big rucksack and bags and stagger over to the archive building with it.

CRWhat would you say are the most common themes in your films? Any particular reason for these?

LH: A few things keep cropping up. I sometimes think of my work as demonstrating a kind of perpetual struggle between control and disorder. And that's not just getting the darn things made! It bubbles away at the heart of things for me. Sometimes it changes its look slightly and becomes pragmatism versus idealism or reality versus imagination, or stasis versus change. But it’s probably all part of the same thing. You could no doubt put all this down to personal psychological issues!

Anyway, you can see the fun I've had playing out that idea with Photograph Of Jesus. So much of archiving is categorising and ordering - that naturally sets up a delicious tension. What are you going to do? There's a naughty thrill to be had in misbehavior and those clandestine mix-ups among the shelves. Love affairs across the divide... On the other hand, imagine if a library was all jumbled up - you'd never find anything!

Like many people I have quite a nostalgia for childhood and for holding on to a child-like appreciation and wonder in things. Keeping an open, flexible mind. That seems a very valuable thing to me. Offsetting that are all the issues to do with ‘growing up’ and growing older – surviving, persisting, fighting a kind of jadedness and fearfulness, if you like, that can creep up on you.

Photograph Of Jesus isn't meant to be mean-spirited, poking fun at people's mistakes – I hope it doesn’t come across too strongly like that - if anything I want to give some momentary life and space to those thoughts and let them live a little and see where they go. I'd love to think there might be some place in this world where dodos have persisted and could be photographed.

That's another thing. Those dodos feature elsewhere in my work! When there’s an opportunity for ecological themes I tend to perk up. Again, that goes a long way back with me. I started out as a child dreaming of being a naturalist and conservationist. You don’t quite forget.

Archives, collage - these are things that I like, I'm drawn towards and often find myself working with.

CR: What have people said about your work so far?

LH: Oooh! Well people are usually complimentary. I encourage that! Yes - more compliments please. I'm as needy as the next filmmaker I guess. On the one hand you tell yourself to ignore what people think so you can concentrate and follow your instincts - you need to do that to stay sane. On the other hand, its difficult not to find that hunger for affirmation creeping in.

You shouldn't necessarily believe it but it's nice to hear. What a mess of contradictions! Sometimes people make a comparison with Terry Gilliam, which is fine by me - I love his work! I think we probably share a similar humour and sense of absurdity. With another of my films, a critic in the Sunday Times called it something like 'the first two seasons of Lost plus various voyages by Captain Pugwash squeezed into nine minutes'. I definitely liked that - it's nice to feel you're providing good value.

CRWhat kind of film would you love to make?

LH: More playful, humorous, affecting, touching, soulful films. Well-funded too please.

I think animation will always be part of what I do but I don't see myself limited to using it for every project. I don't rule out pure live action at some point - the luxury of having actors provide a nuanced performance for you seems a wonderful, almost miraculous thing.

CRWhat other projects are coming up next?

LH: I have a couple of things in mind. I’ve written a script for a new animated short, a kind of strange domestic drama. It’s quite ambitious, so it’s just about finding ways to get that made. I also have a script for a live action short, again, not a super-simple thing I’m afraid. Oh for something short and simple! I even workshopped a scene with a couple of actors at RADA which was really interesting! I’d love to get them both made. I’m also thinking about features so I’m knocking around a few ideas and seeing what happens.

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For more on Laurie, check out his page on Animocity. My thanks again to Laurie!


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