single channel digital video
15:37 mins / 2014
The Thing Is That
single channel digital video
05:12 min / 2014
single channel digital video
06.22 mins / 2015
Chris Shaw: You told me when you were over in Weymouth that film/video is the medium you're happiest with and that it's how you best get your ideas out. When did you first start using cameras to make your work?
Sean Mullan: I think I was always doing it but the camera only told me recently. I never considered myself a filmmaker or video/AV tech kind of person and even up until the last few years I was never that interested in this sort of thing. However, looking at it retrospectively I’ve always been creating films, just not actually using a form of technology to record them.
It first started out with an obsession for materiality and physicality. This led to building mini sets and messing around with clay and wood - anything really - and then eventually to my BA in Sculpture at Wimbledon College of Art. Over this period I found it much more interesting to just hurry up and finish the physical work so I could look at it from different angles. Then the camera was introduced. Unknowingly, I began accumulating an archive of documentation that consisted of both my processes and finished sculptures. Eventually I had a realisation that I was working much more fluently with the camera than any other material. It was a great liberation to understand that I could still continue to make the physical sculptures or sets but not necessarily have them as a finite work. I could film and re-film, edit and cut, use sound as an accompaniment… anything.
Soon after, my camera usage began deviating from my sculptures. Whilst documenting a piece I thought: “Well I may as well record other sculptures in the room”. This led to an obsessive and spontaneous filming of absolutely anything and giving things a chance to talk. Then I put the camera in my mouth in what became the first collaboration between the camera and myself and presented the results publicly at my BA interim show - a film called Kamere.
I first came across your work on Facebook (a short film called The Thing Is That) and what struck me is how the world and everything in it - a slow-moving hunk of metal floating through the clouds, for instance - is somehow returned to us in your film so that we can almost see it afresh. There's the farmyard animal you film in its pen that seems to be struck with indecision and I think it's a really magnanimous view of the world - at once hilarious and heartbreaking; one that the narrator of The Thing Is That can never get into coherent speech. What does carry through, though, is how exacting you are with your editing - you know how to get impact from discretely shot imagery once it has been arranged as part of a sequence. It's a five minute film but it absolutely hits home. Tell me how you go about making a mini-epic like The Thing Is That?
Mini-epic? Thanks! Well, my approach actually derives from this current editorial state we live in. We are provided with the ability to cut, trim, retract and delete a lot of our image at will. An isolated, raw piece of footage behaves very differently once introduced to other isolated bits of footage. A whole new discourse - complex and deeply layered - is sparked and brought into being when these separate and unrelated elements are spliced together. I view it as a form of storytelling where all sorts of moods and tones - things I could never articulate - begin to emerge. Humour plays a big part in it, too.
The Thing Is That is a work I did aim to make but I couldn't have possibly planned the content. This content originated from self-producing my own ‘stock footage’. I collect gigabytes and gigabytes of just… stuff, and I began sifting through and watching this stuff and some of it I'd never seen before. With certain footage I have no idea how, where, why or what it is, but I always have an intimate self-reflective connection with each shot. It's not quite like looking at a stranger’s old photos or home videos.
Drown is the first film you've made that includes material that you didn't shoot yourself, isn't it?
Yes. Due to the fact I create my footage in a very hands-on and personal way, I was slightly hesitant about incorporating found imagery and a bit concerned about what it meant for me to do that sort of thing.
I wasn't initially experimenting with found footage while making Drown but then I came up with an idea. I had a concept in mind and for that to work I felt it needed another sort of consistency. The material in Drown that wasn’t originally mine - the steam trains, for example - became important precisely because it is found footage. I used it to provide a specific sense of distance and I felt this was core to the presence and meaning of the work as I wanted it to address a panic for a valid information source.
Where did you find the footage?
I knew I needed footage of old steam trains that weren’t mine. Youtube supplied the goods and I didn’t question where they were from and Youtube didn’t question why I wanted them. I needed the footage so I stole it. But I always knew I would make it my own.
It's a bit insane the way you manipulate the found footage. The film looks to me like it's been projected onto a wall and then filmed - this being one way, perhaps, of claiming some ownership of the found footage. What we then see is a steam train packed with smiling tourists being forced up and down the track - stop/start/fast-forward/rewind - as if the train is being controlled via remote control... and all to the sounds of grinding metal and ringing bells. The effect produced is alarming and it arrives as a giddy interruption to the earlier, slow-moving, part of the film.
You said that the found footage is "core to the presence of the work as it addresses a panic for a valid information source". Could you explain a little more what you mean?
Creating these scenes was actually quite an impromptu and physical act. I used the found footage by projecting it large onto a textured brick wall and re-filmed it. I chaotically and aggressively scrolled the timeline on my laptop’s track pad which produced the scratching sensation.
I forced the trains to absurdly and comically poke to and fro, back and forth at my command. I was grasping for an answer. I wanted to take the footage that did not belong to me and make it do what I wanted instead. It's like that thing a child might do with a train set - behaving like a little god forcing the train up and down the track in short, impossible motions - back and forth, back and forth.
Tell me about the ducklings in Drown? What happened etc.?
They just died. All nine of them. People were having coffee, chatting. It was a lovely sunny day. The ducklings were on the embankment of the canal with their parents. I had taken a break from the studio and was recording them without much interest. The ducklings entered the canal, parentless, splashing around. A few hours passed and I had set up my camera on a tripod further down the canal to record a football that had been bobbing up and down in the canal’s weir cycle. Next thing, I heard squeaking on the horizon just beyond the weir’s waterfall. They were heading straight for it and then they got sucked down. They bobbed up and down like the football screaming. I jumped over the barbed fence with the biggest stick I could find and tried to help them out but they were too weak for the current and they all drowned.
I went back to the studio.
This intense looking and finding interest in the things around you without prejudice means the films could be an endless showcasing of new things to see but this constant flux is underpinned by what seems like a fascination with elemental forces like water, fire, and the natural landscape with its lush vegetation quivering in invisible winds. Add to this the close-ups of, say, hard metal pylons that you then juxtapose with steam coming from an old train and you get a real sense of texture and touch - of hardness, softness, wetness, dryness, coldness and heat; of industry - both man-made and natural, animating life and undoing it too. Your films are highly conscious assemblages; little markers of the fact you exist in a world that just carries on regardless. What drives you to make them do you think?
Yes, elemental forces are definitely a catalyst and stimulation for my work process whether they are directly connected to the work at hand or not. Ultimately I find it reinstalls a sense of scale and orientation - although, yeah, I agree the other textures you describe are just as important as the ‘nature’ side of things. The one needs the other to enable any sort of orientation in the world.
I feel a drive to return and share my personal filming experiences with an audience and maybe that's social media rubbing off on my work. Whilst filming I am very encased in my own atmosphere but when it comes to editing, the audience are at the forefront of my thoughts. I am often conscious of the fact we exist in a world as multiple characters and the consciousness of all this difference stays with me in the making process. I make them for myself. But I am in the audience.
Are you influenced by other filmmakers?
Certainly. The influences come to me differently, but each has equal importance. I can watch one work and think: “Yep, remember not to do things like that!”. I'll watch another and think: “I need to know how the director made me feel this way”. However, I'm mostly stimulated by a filmmaker’s holistic view on their practice and methods… and sometimes this interest extends beyond their work and into their lives. I'm intrigued, for instance, with how an artist's work might be shaped by the effects of their upbringing.
Could you give a few examples of films or filmmakers that you enjoy?
In no particular order - Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky, both John and Michael McDonagh, Stanley Kubrick, João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Krzysztof Kieślowski, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Yorgos Lanthimos, Chris Marker, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Joshua Oppenheimer and a million others depending on the time of day.
A common denominator I often enjoy in film is the element of transcendental thought. When a film creates a tone where one has a deviating conversation with the author whilst still fully engrossed in the surface character/plot/narrative etc.
You mentioned to me in a previous conversation we had that you are thinking of making longer, much more narrative-based films. Do you think that Fanksbeadigawd is a step in that direction?
Yes, well Fanksbeadigawd was definitely my first step addressing my thoughts on telling a story - or receiving a story for that matter.
I shot this work over a week-long period in the Lake District where myself and six others were participating in a short residency. During this time I was hiking, filming and just daydreaming. I began to follow and document my hiking companion. Sometimes he was aware I was filming, sometimes he wasn’t. This is where I started playing with layers of narrative and insinuation. It wasn’t until I left the Lake District that I began editing. The next part is hard to describe, as any conscious thought in the editing process was very limited - but I simply reminisced on what it was like to feel the reveries and wonder of who this man was.