Inside Durham Student Productions

By Simon Fearn

I’m joined by four members of Durham Student Productions (DSP) who all share something in common: little or no experience of film-making before joining the society. First year Mia Brown stumbled across DSP’s stall at the Freshers’ Fair; fourth year and current secretary Beth Noel only came to a meeting because her friend dragged her along.

The only film president Hugh Memess made before joining was a GCSE music video. Stephanie Hanson, on the other hand, approached DSP as a writer, though stresses how important it is to get involved in all aspects of the film-making process to truly understand the medium.

The students’ involvement in the society has completely changed their perspective on film. “I can liken it almost to an awakening of the senses,” Hanson enthuses. “I was watching Apple Tree Yard the other day and was really aware of what worked really well and what I could use.”

I’d never produced anything before and Hugh ran a production meeting which explained the whole process: organisation, making lists, getting people involved.”

“There’s two levels,” Memess adds. “Asking why a director has made a certain choice. Why are they panning? Why is she crying? Then you can find the answers to those questions: it would have been better if they’d done that; that shot was genius.”

“At first you think that making a film is an unconquerable mountain,” Hanson continues, “but when you break everything down it’s doable. I’d never produced anything before and Hugh ran a production meeting which explained the whole process: organisation, making lists, getting people involved.”

Hanson’s learning curve has been especially steep. Having only joined the society recently, she was part of the sound team on Prasanna Sellathurai’s short film The Inevitable and is now working on Stop Filming Me, one of the two films DSP annually awards a budget of £100 with the aim of film festival success. Hanson is on writing duties and is also producing; her enthusiasm for the project is infectious.

Sellathurai’s film, though still a little rough around the edges, demonstrates some technically accomplished storytelling. It follows a loner student called Lucy (Bianca Skrinyár) who can see the future repercussions of each of her actions. At the climax of the film, Lucy is trapped in a situation where every possible action leads to violence.

“Prasanna is a very meticulous person,” Hanson tells me, “a true artist. He dedicated a lot of time to creating the atmosphere.” This clearly comes across in the film. Sellathurai worked closely with musician Christopher Blakely to create a dream-like sense of dread. The atmosphere is almost Lynchian, and tense tracking shots along the floor of college accommodation echoed Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Hansen’s Stop Filming Me sounds even more ambitious. “I was inspired by the horrific killing of Lee Rigby,” she expands. “The entire thing was caught on camera, which implies that there were a lot of people witnessing it who didn’t feel in a position to react or act.

“There are so many instances now with people filming but not engaged or interacting with what they see. It was really a thought experiment which led to a short script.”

“At first you think that making a film is an unconquerable mountain, but when you break everything down it’s doable.”

As well as turning out high-quality content, the general philosophy at DSP is to “let everyone have a go at anything”. “Film-making is like any other skill,” Memess elaborates, “you just have to do it enough to get good at it.”

Though only two films a year are given significant funding, this doesn’t stop DSP members from practising their craft. “You can make a film just using equipment we have in the cupboard,” Memess tells me. The Inevitable only had a budget of £10. Brown, despite missing out on the annual funding opportunity, is still keen to make her own film using DSP’s equipment: an Edwardian murder mystery set in Beamish with a supernatural twist.

DSP’s work is not confined to fictional shorts. They were also behind the memorable trailer for the Collingwood Woodplayer’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Director Alice Chambers could not be more pleased with the result. “With over 2,600 views, it is a creative piece in itself separate from the acting on stage,” she says.

To create the trailer’s most iconic moment, the team lit 300 candles in Memess’s back garden, with shots of the fire reflected in the actors’ eyes.  “It’s quite a powerful image which seems to have really stuck with people,” Memess reflects. “Audiences recognised Arcadia as the play with the candles.”

Another ongoing collaboration is with Durham University Electric Motorsport (DUEM) who are “beyond pleased with the results so far,” according to Head of Business Tobias McBride. DSP’s promo piece for their new solar car helped the society secure sponsorship from DJI, who specialise in drones and camera stabilisation equipment. DSP will continue to follow the solar car’s progress as DUEM prepare for the World Solar Challenge, a 3,000 km solar car race from Darwin
to Adelaide.

The society is also an established breeding ground for future filmmakers. Ex-president Will Webb, for example, went on to win the BFI Future Film award in 2015 for his low-budget horror short Kissy Lip Man.

Though film-making may seem like a daunting undertaking, with DSP’s help any budding director’s creative ambitions are more than achievable.

If you’d like to get involved with Durham Student Productions email e.r.noel@durham.ac.uk or join their Facebook page. Meetings take place on Mondays at 7:30pm in ER140.

To find out more about Durham University Electric Motorsport, visit their website here.

Photograph: Hugh Memess

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