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The making of Seeking Sydney

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Tim Jones won Best British entry, Best Documentary and a Diamond award at BIAFF2016

Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.

The Discovery

I first heard the name Sydney Bligh when reading newspapers from the 1930s praising his talent as an amateur filmmaker. They went into glowing detail about his wonderful colour newsreels of Canterbury. Clearly, from what these old newspapers said, these films were very significant. As I continued my research further, it became apparent that no one knew where these films were. It was assumed that they were lost.

I put an article in our local paper asking whether there were any of Sydney's family still in the area. That same day, I got an exciting phone call from someone called Helen Jarrett. She said, "Tim, I've got some films I think might interest you. I'm Sydney Bligh's granddaughter." I then had to wait in anticipation for four days before Helen could visit. Her car was full of cardboard boxes containing large tins and a number of smaller boxes of 16mm film. I had to use a sack barrow to bring them inside. In all there were 72 films in the collection.

Over the next few months I gradually went through each film foot by foot and was surprised to find that they were in very good condition. Apparently, because they were so heavy, none of the family ever felt like lifting them up into the loft. So instead, the films lived for 70 years in a lounge cupboard. This was their savior as they were kept dry and at a fairly constant temperature, which are important factors when storing film. The only real problem was that very early Kodachrome had gone red as the cyan layer had almost completed faded. To copy the films I projected them onto a piece of art card and used a video camera next to the projector to film them off the screen and got surprisingly good results. I then boosted the missing blues and greens using the 3-way colour correction effect in Final Cut Pro. The final result was pretty good.

Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.
Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.
Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.

Research

The next year was spent researching the films. Sydney had been very helpful in putting inter-titles throughout, so it was quite easy to know at least some details. As I researched the films it soon became apparent that they were significant. For a start, there was quite a bit of footage showing lost parts of Canterbury that were destroyed by German bombing in 1942. There were also several sequences showing the Cathedral Plays. This footage featured famous playwrights such as T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers.

In some ways the most exciting film was the last that I looked at. The tin had been labeled ĎCount Drama.í I'd little expectation that this would be of interest. However, as soon as I saw the first image it was obvious that this was exciting. It looked like a silent movie of the early 1920s and featured a miniature railway. I quickly realised that this must be film of Count Zborowski. He was a well-known historical figure in Canterbury because he was the inspiration to Ian Fleming when he wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Count Zborowski lived in a mansion just outside Canterbury and was one of the richest men in the world. He built his own racing cars incorporating First World War aeroplane engines. He also built a mile-long private 15Ē gauge railway around his estate!

Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.
Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.
Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.

I had previously read rumours about a long lost film made by Count Zborowski in which he recreated his favourite scenes from Hollywood films. This lost home movie was thought to show the Count as the hero rescuing a damsel who had been tied to the railway track and other scenes including a chicken hut being blown up. The film that I had found in the Sydney Bligh collection was this long lost film. The only difference was that Count Zborowski didnít play the hero, he played the baddie who, rather than rescuing the woman, actually kidnapped her, and took her off to his mansion. There were also car chases and even a fight on a moving train. All of this was filmed in 1924 and was one of the earliest examples of amateur filmmaking that Iíve come across.

It was now quite obvious that there was an interesting documentary to be made. It was also clear to me that the best approach would be to follow Helen Jarrett, Sydney's granddaughter, on her journey to discover the grandfather she never knew through his films. Who Do You Think You Are? was a clear influence as I started to develop my approach.

Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.
Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.
Still from 'Seeking Sydney'.

My films always seem to take two years

My films always seem to take two years to make. This time I set out to break this pattern and attempt to complete the film quickly. With this in mind I planned to shoot the entire film in one week. I got my friend Ben Rowley to be cameraman and I did the sound, direction and all the planning. From a technical point of view it all went quite well, the main problem being wind noise. When this occurred I hid the Sennheiser radio mics under clothing. This removed the wind noise but then gave problems with rustling clothes and several takes were spoilt with sound problems. The other difficulty that I encountered was reflection from the iPad screen. Helen was using an iPad to show her Grandfatherís films to the people that she met but there tended to be significant reflection from the glass surface. I got round this by filming these shots in close-up standing against a dark background.

At the end of each day's filming I loaded the footage into my computer and had a go at doing a rough edit. By the end of the week I had cut together 50 minutes. I find it is only when I've edited a film that I really start to understand the best way to make the film. This often means I have to re-shoot significant amounts of material and is probably why my films always take so long. So, rather predictably, it actually took me the next two years to complete the film (in between working on other films). I took over the role of cameraman and filmed additional material to improve certain scenes and edited these new shots with the original footage. So in some scenes, that appear to edit together seamlessly, parts were shot 12 months apart.

I also found at times that I became too close to the film to know how effective it was. To counter this problem I screened the edits as they progressed to various audiences to get their feedback. This was really useful to see the film through fresh eyes. This helped me be ruthless with the editing and I removed a number of long sections that were interesting but that didnít move the narrative along. And at last, the film was finished!

- Tim Jones