This is a behind the scenes account of how I made the film. For the context of the film and to see excerpts from the film’s archive audio recordings please read Part I first.
The North West of England’s Hub for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) is based at Manchester Central Library. Now one year into our three-year project, as we ‘unlock’ more and more archive sound recording we are seeking to engage and provide greater access to the public. Within the structure of Manchester City Council we are encouraged to contribute to their events calendar and programming across Libraries, Galleries and Culture.
I volunteered to take the lead in designing an event for LGBT History month. Outside of my day job I’m an artist/filmaker with a special interest in the creative use of archive and archive recreation in documentary filmmaking. I also feel passionately about preserving and documenting LGBT histories and this subject is at the very heart of where my life and career intersect.
At the British Film Institute I worked as their Digitisation Coordinator for the past and similarly titled project ‘Unlocking Our Film Heritage’ and as part of that oversaw the digitisation of titles from the national collection along various themes including LGBT Britain. I have also researched lesbian activism against Section 28 legislation within my ongoing film project Rebel Dykes (release due 2021). This is a forthcoming documentary about the lives of a group of women who met in the 1980s, and were the punk-styled, rebellious bridge between the feminism of early 80s Greenham Common to mid 90s Riot Grrrl.
A portion of the BBC Radio Manchester collection held at Central Library is already on our list for digitisation in the UOSH project. I searched through our collections database for LGBT material that could be selected as part of the assigned volume to be digitised. I was drawn particularly to the news stories, often listed with titles of just ‘Lesbians,’ ‘AIDS Fear’ or ‘Gays.’ I digitised all of these titles during the week before Christmas so that I could take the resulting files home over the break to listen to and come up with an idea for a film and immersive event.
Throughout my creative work I make use of various analogue video and filming techniques including VHS, Hi-8, Mini DV and Super 8. For this project I used the RarevisionVHS iPhone app, which I’ve used previously to create some speedier analogue effects when filming some sequences for Rebel Dykes.
Among its benefits is a tool for titles, dates, and the ability to increase or decrease glitches and tracking issues either by dragging your finger across the screen or tilting your phone. Armed with this app and already owning a tinsel curtain and flashing lights (of course), I recreated a disco in my back room complete with spinning disco ball. Back at work I also filmed short video clips of a range of colourful audio cassettes during playback with the Denon 709-R tape deck door taken off.
I edited the film in Final Cut Pro X (FCPX ) and applied various effects to the recreation videos, scans of documents from within each archive audio recording tape box and even the tape boxes themselves! The painstaking task was selecting which interviews and extracts I should feature and then creating looped sections of music where where was a beat/no vocals to create a counterpoint for the voices. I had already asked my friend and new UOSH Rights Officer, Kirsty Jukes to curate a suitable playlist from the brief I gave her – 70s-80s gay disco hits of freedom and celebration – to juxtapose with the stark and often confrontational opinions in the interviews. I’ve known Kirsty for many years, and for most of them she has worked as a professional DJ so I was delighted by her playlist! I enjoyed deciding where in the film to pair each track to create more meaning and emotion – this was probably my favourite part of the whole editing process.
Once the film was complete – with a week to go to the event, the next task was to find a free audio transcription tool that would let me output to the standard subtitle file .SRT. This was hard to find as most free services only let you create TXT files and reserve subtitles for a premium service e.g. Otter. As time was rapidly running out to pull this whole film off (more on this later), I resorted to using a combination of a 30 min free trial with Sonix to create an SRT file and relying on a TXT file to aid with manually completing the remaining 10 mins of the 40 min film.
Jonathan Howell of our Archives+ partners the North West Film Archive, recommended an open source subtitler called Aegisub which allowed me to reformat traditional subtitles and change fonts, making them full-screen and more colourful. In the Sonix interface I corrected any misidentified words and created more breaks in the text so that roughly every sentence would be time-coded as a separate subtitle. After importing the final video file and SRT to Aegisub I set about manually creating the rest of the subtitles by copying over lines from my TXT file and creating IN and OUT points. One lesson learned was – don’t underestimate how long it takes for auto-transcription and correction, subtitling and re-designing the text. It took me a 12 hour day to do this all and this was two days before the event. Things were getting tight!
I used VLC to playback the video in a loop with the separate subtitle track. I was happy with the result which gave me the day before the event to start writing the programme and getting the room dressing ready. The wider UOSH team helped with the set-up on the day, delivering the event and explaining the project.
Running the event itself was amazing! As a queer Manchester gathering, it brought many old and new friends together. The space outside the screening room became an important space for conversation. One of my favourite outcomes of the event was how intergenerational these conversations were, with typical feedback from 16-25 age:
‘Nice combination of music and interviews, really informative for someone born after early 90s!’
An example of feedback from a 56+ attendee included:
‘This was the documentary of my life and experiences’
I was so pleased with the reactions to the film and event. A lot had happened in the run up and I had been putting in some ridiculous hours to make up for losing two weeks over Jan/Feb due to illness. Post-Christmas I had developed migraines and vertigo (both for the first time) followed by a nasty cold virus. I even had to delay some of the recreation filming as my head was already a spinning disco ball so I couldn’t face filming one! By the event day I felt much better and pleased that, on the whole, the original idea that I had in my head had been finally realised. The only things I would have liked to improve were to have had more time to check the sounds levels in the event space and to have had more seating as over 70 people showed up!
I’ll end this long but hopefully helpful blog post with some more of the amazing feedback we received. I hope this can provide some evidence that audiences want more content like this and inspire more innovative ways to experience curated archive sound collections.
‘I loved the idea of the content placed in a mix tape. I found it educational and compelling. I felt lots of emotions, angry, inspired, and uplifted – lots going on!’
‘Community gathering. Old tapes brought back to life, not lost, exposing how it was back then.’
‘new type of event – fascinating and important social history’
‘The video was really well done and so many very interesting interviews that allowed me to understand more how LGBT+ people were seen in the ’80s and 90s’
‘The entire film was incredible but the juxtaposition of the music/lights and the words being said, was absolute genius. Really brilliant.’
‘The film was outstanding – fantastic selection of content showcasing history and the visuals were brilliant & well matched. Programme and fantastic zine is great and excited to learn more’
By Siân Williams