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First Person: How I Brought Ralph Steadman’s Art to Screen in ‘For No Good Reason’

First Person: How I Brought Ralph Steadman's Art to Screen in 'For No Good Reason'

First-time director Charlie Paul spent 15 years collecting footage of British artist Ralph Steadman painting. Steadman is perhaps best known for his illustrations of classics such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Animal Farm” as well as for his collaborations with author Hunter S. Thomson. Paul’s film, “For No Good Reason,” which chronicles Steadman’s process and is narrated by Johnny Depp, was recently released by Sony Pictures Classics. Below Paul writes about the technical challenges he faced in bringing Steadman’s art to screen.

“For No Good Reason” was a technically challenging film to make as it encompasses all formats for recording the moving image to describe the fifty-year period covered in Ralph’s life. When I first started capturing Ralph’s work, film was still the main medium available, by the time I had completed the film 15 years later, the digital revolution left the British film industry with limited access to process and transfer film stock.

From the outset, this film was to be a ‘canvas’ for exploring my interest with film formats, animation and photography whilst also developing innovative methods to present the static image in a time based medium.

Throughout my 30 year career in advertising and music videos I have continued to test and develop new ways of creating engaging images from hand painted animation to motion control rostrum, using projection, optical printing, film scratching, extreme light and focus from different lenses, cameras and time-lapse photography, in an effort to manipulate our perception of time itself and to make extraordinary and beautiful film experiments.

It was during the 15-year production of “For No Good Reason” that I developed and employed many of these techniques to bring Ralph Steadman’s art to the cinema screen. These different approaches to image capture were necessary to reflect the diverse techniques used by Ralph in the creation of his art. He will use montage, pencil, paint, ink, found objects and materials from other publications to create texture. I always felt the need to craft my film with this same montage approach to convey the diversity and anarchic energy of the art.

Early on in production, I installed a digital camera above Ralph’s worktable to record his creations from blank canvas to finished artwork. In the early days, we worked this way together, but Ralph soon adopted the process as part of his natural rhythm and handled the camera in the same movement as he re-charged his ink quill. This camera was above Ralph’s worktable for 10 years and is still there today. Although the film is complete, my work with capturing Ralph’s art continues.

To trigger our memories of past-times in which Ralph’s publications appeared, I used the medium and film stock of the era. To capture Ralph’s roving eye, I filmed using both, negative and positive super 8 film stock. The art was shot on 16mm and 35mm film to allow the latitude of the stock to capture the texture of his white cartridge paper whilst seeing into the dark inks and colours of the image. The camera was attached to my motion control rig, which allowed me to create moves across the art to capture the reflected light that describes the contours of his mark.

The interviews with Ralph and his collaborators that required sync sound were all shot using digital cameras.

Some of the archive is Ralph’s personal footage, his moving film was shot on different tape formats; digital beta cam, mini DV, VHS and Umatic. The photographs were shot on a range of camera’s; Minox, 35mm and large format. All these utilized formats had to be logged and digitized to create the comprehensive library of images that allowed our edit to include all aspects of Ralph’s diverse approach to his creative output. The singular sized 1:185 format required to fill the cinema screen created huge challenges in production, edit and post-production to show and maintain the varying shape, size, message and intention of Ralph’s art and photos.

In order to optimize the visual experience of the art and imagery capturing on film meant that much of the audio had to be post produced. Extensive foley sessions of scratching, splatting, dripping and tearing using Ralph’s own utensils; Pens, quills, scalpels, brushes and liquids from his studio were recorded at Molinare, London. George Foulgham worked meticulously in the re-recording and mixing of the audio to immerse the viewer in the experience of being present in Ralph’s studio during the creation of his art as it appears on screen.

The moving archive of artists Picasso and Francis Bacon, along with the Kentucky Derby footage where taken from source material, grading from the original prints, allowing the viewer to see these beautifully shot iconic films as fresh as the day they where shot.

I worked with music producer and writer Sacha Skarbek to create the musical score. Individual chapter/scenes were sent to chosen musicians throughout the edit process for the artist to compose specifically to the visuals. This gave the musician a specific edit of visuals whilst allowing them creative freedom to produce their individual response to the art.

It was an arduous task to find an editor I could collaborate with and trust to let go of this project. I wanted to spread the edit process into three-month blocks, over 2-3 years. This enabled me to assemble the individual chapters in loose order and then have space and time between each edit block to create more material for the bridges between stories. Once the visuals were complete and approved, the music was commissioned to individual musicians and scored. This music was placed into the edit and we adjusted picture to fit and optimize the momentum and direction of the film’s overall timeline. 

Charlie Paul has been directing commercials and music videos in London for 20 years. For many years, he has worked with a number of artists filming their art as it is created. Some of these films became part of “Inside Art,” the BAFTA-nominated Channel 4 series. “For No Good Reason” is his first film.

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