Interview with Richard Fenwick

We interviewed Richard Fenwick on the production of his new film Exhaustion.

Exhaustion is commissioned by AV Festival in partnership with the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Northumbria University and Animate Projects.

Exhaustion is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award.


What was the compulsion to film at 1,000 frames per second?

Well originally the compulsion to shoot slow motion came from the fact that all the slow motion photography I’d ever really seen were for short-form formats – like commercials and music videos - and it was often a case of you’d blink and you’d miss it, which felt ironic really! I wanted to make something long-form in slow motion; to dwell in that world. That was my real motivation.

In regard to why 1000 fps… we arrived at this from research – it felt slow enough to see what was happening to the body but not too slow as to end up uninteresting – which can easily happen. The macro and close-ups were shot at 1000 fps, the wides at 250 fps, and the other shots were somewhere in between.

What challenges did this present?

Many, not least that the camera can only record for a few seconds at a time in real-time before needing to either part process or fully process what it has recorded. So you have to wait each time, which isn’t easy when you have an athlete on a treadmill and you’re trying to conserve his energy while not wanting him to stop! We managed to work out a clever system in the end. The other problem with slow motion is that you need to throw tons of light at the subject matter to get anything back so it was very hot in our blacked out space.

Can you tell us a bit more about Exhaustion?

The film loosely adheres to a three act narrative, with a start, middle and end: the first act is the set-up, where the body gets up to speed, from rest, and is then analyzed in its prime. The second act is the battle between the mind and body - the psychological struggle that all athletes face - while the third act is the final confrontation with fending off exhaustion itself. I think it’s important to find the drama in any film, even if it seems inappropriate at first. I think we’re all hardwired to enjoy films with a shape.

It’s remarkable to see the way the body reacts to exertion in slow motion – the beads of sweat, the saliva – what in particular surprised you in making the work?

I personally like how the gait of the body changes over the course of the film. The body starts with poise and elegance, then slowly loses that as it tenses up, then, by the end the body is almost buckled over – introverted - like we are witnessing a private moment.

You work across the genres of drama, comedy and horror - how does Exhaustion relate to your usual filmmaking practice?

Well I’ve done technical shoots before; I started out in the music video industry and some of my concept videos were like this shoot – in as much as it isn’t too interesting while you’re doing it but you know it will end up interesting. With most types of narrative filmmaking you see and hear how well the scene is working as you go along; with this film it was much more about faith!

How did you first start working with animation? And do you prefer to incorporate animation in the context of live action as you do in your film, Albert’s Speech?

Yes I definitely prefer incorporating animation into live action rather than creating purely animated pieces; it feels more ‘progressive’ to work in this area because I love trying to take things in directions I haven’t seen before. The area has been well colonized since of course but over the years I’ve made films with people like onedotzero and some of those projects felt genuinely fresh. Originally I started out as a motion graphic designer so that’s why I have an interest in animation in the first place.

You’ve worked with actors in previous films, but how did you find working with athletes in Exhaustion?

Eoin Everard, our main athlete was super. He had a great personality and was easy to get on with. It was important to find the potential pitfalls of shooting the film and most of this rested on what Eoin thought he could do on the day, so I talked to him at length about how far we could push things. All in all it wasn’t too different from working with an actor. He was great at taking direction, as well as voicing his opinions on better ways to do things if they arose.

How did the collaboration with Sound Recordist Chris Watson come about?

The AV Festival have worked with Chris many times before of course so I had an inroad to meeting him. I’d already decided I wanted him to do the sound so I just needed to convince him. The project, and its nature, had his name written all over it to be honest so it made the task of persuading him that much easier.

How did you incorporate the athlete’s ‘real-time data’ into the soundtrack?

The honest answer is I don’t fully know. This was Chris’s domain. I know he used software to translate the data into soundwaves but really I just let him do his job - although he might disagree with me on that one! Ha ha. No, I left it to him and talked more in general terms of tone-of-voice and the types of emotions I wanted to convey etc.

What was the reaction of the researchers at Northumbria University to the finished film?

It was really positive actually – I think they were really excited about ‘seeing/hearing’ what they know happens to the body but rarely get a chance to witness. Dr Paula Robson-Ansley was the consulting Scientist on the project and thinks it will be an invaluable tool for her and her colleagues, so that’s a great compliment and it’s really all I could have wished for at the beginning of the project.