The Burning

Dominic Lees: Writer, Director, Producer
Title of Work: The Burning
Year: 2019
Length: 19 minutes 51 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Fiction films made within the academy present a challenge when evaluating their worth in terms of research enquiry.  The research themes in a filmmaker’s mind during the creation of their work frequently become embedded within the text of the film, rendering evidence of the enquiry obscure.   This problem of the visibility of the research value of fiction works was outlined by an unidentified peer reviewer for Sightlines Journal issue 2, who commented, ‘it is much easier to argue that documentaries can undertake research than fiction films, and particularly fiction films made using mainstream genre conventions’.

The Burning is a short drama that sits identifiably in the traditions of historical film.  However, I must emphasise that this work does not seek to demonstrate innovations in film form or storytelling.  I am presenting The Burning not as a text for analysis, but as part of a research enquiry into ‘Modes of Creative Practice’ in fiction filmmaking.  I have developed this concept as part of my research interest in how filmmakers create films. It is an enquiry that is quite separate from a textual approach to film practice research.

The concept of ‘Modes of Creative Practice’ seeks to loosely delineate the different approaches that filmmakers adopt when creating fiction films.  My doctoral research (University of Reading, 2013-19) identified specific changes in creative practice between individual directors, enabling a conceptual grouping of practices into separate modes.  Three such modes have been described in detail: the ‘Performance-Centred Mode’, the ‘Social Realist Mode’ and the ‘Design-Centred Mode’.

The making of The Burning used practice research to investigate the third of these modes, in which a filmmaker’s attention shifts significantly towards a film’s design and certain unique practices are adopted.  I used a practice research methodology because this kind of filmmaking was completely new to me – my background as a television and film director is in contemporary drama, often rooted in current social and political realities.  The practice research in making The Burning enabled me to research the differences that are required in the ‘Design-Centred Mode’ through an experiential methodology.

Specific insights emerged during this practice.  The qualities and texture of the costumes became central in the practice research enquiry, with my experience of dyeing wool cloth revealing links between historical clothes making and current film costume design.  A shift in the locus of creative authorship also became apparent, with the costume designer, Sophia Johnson, becoming the most important collaborator amongst the members of the creative team.  This re-centering of creative authority has long been the case in Design-Centred filmmaking, and has been discussed by British director Michael Powell, as well as by Baz Luhrman and Catherine Martin.

I am acutely aware that a viewing of The Burning cannot reveal many of these research outcomes to its spectator – the problem of ‘visibility’ of research in fiction film research practice.  Instead, I believe that The Burning is valuable as an artefact that represents a creative moment, one that enabled a heuristic enquiry in which its makers (film practice academics, film students) investigated and revealed insights into the nature of fiction filmmaking practice.

Significance

The development of The Burning was presented in my paper for the conference, ‘Out of Practice’, at the University of Birmingham (2016), where costumes and film sections were shown to illustrate the themes of the research enquiry.  The practice research was further discussed within an article for The Journal of Media Practice.  A fuller discussion of the theoretical construct of ‘Modes of Creative Practice’ was published in a chapter for CILECT’s 2019 edited collection on film directing (Lees 2019).

REFERENCES

Lees, Dominic. 2019. Many ways of directing a film: teaching the ‘modes of creative practice’. In: Mourao, M. D., Semerdjiev, S., Mello, C. and Taylor, A. (eds.) The 21st Century Film, TV and Media School Book – Volume 2: Directing the future. Sophia: CILECT – the International Association of Film and Television Schools. pp. 28-39.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

 

Dominic Lees’ 20 minute short film The Burning is a compelling historical drama that demonstrates the outcome of the author’s theory around ‘Modes of Creative Practice in fiction filmmaking’. According to the accompanying research statement, the work submitted attempts to demonstrate practice-led research focusing on the ‘design aspects of the era’. This is a concept developed by Lees to investigate ‘how filmmakers create films’.

The author claims that the story or the ‘text of the film’ creates a challenge for evaluating research enquiry. Whilst this may be true, it is the work of the research statement to draw our attention to the research themes in a filmmaker’s mind during the creation of their work, which do undoubtedly become embedded within the text of the film, hence rendering this evidence of the enquiry important.

There is no doubt that Lees’ intention with the film was to merge all the elements of the filmmaking craft to create affect, and he manages this extremely well.  However, it is difficult to overlook an evaluation of the film narrative as text, and to privilege one aspect of the creative work over another because in Lee’s film all aspects of the filmmaking craft work together to great effect.

The film’s narrative begins with the announcement of the death of Queen Mary 1/Mary Tudor in 1558. A group of Protestant opponents seek retribution for one of the many religious dissenters burned at the stake under ‘The Bloody Queen’s’ reign. In a maddened frenzy, the group pursue a young Catholic altar boy, torture him and eventually burn him at the stake, with the aim being to terrorise him into revealing the whereabouts of the Catholic priest having himself fled, fearing persecution at the announcement of the Queen’s death.

 

The central question being asked and explored by Lees is, can a fiction film be conceived by approaching the material from a ‘design centred mode’ specifically, rather than a ‘performance’ or ‘social realist mode’? One idea that that is not explicitly explored by Lees in their research statement is how did the researcher come up with the three “Modes of Creative Practice in fiction filmmaking?” Further discussion around these modes would be beneficial to fully understand how these three modes came to be defined as ‘modes of creative practice’ and how they worked with this film. I am curious to understand how Lees is distinguishing storytelling and scripting not being considered as a mode of creative practice?

The creative work is of a high standard, both in its execution and conception. There are some questions posed by this research design, as it is very hard to separate the narrative, especially one as affecting as presented here, to concentrate entirely on the design aspects. Upon watching the film, I was interested to understand what the research innovations would be beyond the perhaps obvious research into language and production design of creating a period film. The film is very affecting and challenging and some discussion as to the choice of era, topic, theme and story to investigate for a ‘design centered mode’ specifically would be valuable. Lees suggests that this approach adopts ‘certain unique practices’ but beyond indicating that the qualities and texture of the costumes are central to the practice, little else is discussed in the research statement.

There is a clear link to the proposed area of research focus being costume design but there is very little discussion as to what the primary concern of the costuming was. To what extent is the costuming for this film offering an innovative approach to filmmaking? Beyond a discussion on the approach to costuming in the film, I am interested to understand what the research objectives surrounding the other design elements were? What aspects of the design within the film were the primary focus before the story or script?

There is evidence of exceptional knowledge and experience in the practice of filmmaking. What is less evident is the new knowledge obtained through proposing a new mode of creative practice being ‘designed centred’. What does this mean and how does one approach the practice of filmmaking with it? It would be helpful and productive if the research statement went into this theory to provide some more insight into this approach. Without a doubt, The Burning not only demonstrates authenticity to the design of the era but also stands up as an exceptional creative work.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

The film, The Burning has high production values and has been very well made with the research statement pointing to a more complex explanation of how the research enquiry was conducted for fiction filmmaking. The filmmaker-researcher has done a significant amount of research to present in their thesis and through two other peer-reviewed works a concept called the ‘Modes of Creative Practice’ – which are described specifically for screen production. The three modes described are ‘Performance-Centred Mode’, the ‘Social Realist Mode’ and the ‘Design-Centred Mode’.  The research in The Burning marries with the ‘Design-Centred Mode’ of filmmaking practice and this has been convincingly described in the research statement and can be seen in the film, through the art direction, costume design and composition and framing of shots. What is of interest is that this submission clearly navigates a complex area of research and convincingly describes how this creative practice enquiry is able to present new knowledge.

 

Does the submission live up to its potential?

Yes, the statement is well written though could be slightly improved. There is no clearly presented research statement, and there could be and the section ‘Significance’ of the research is not that it has been published, it is that the Modes of Practice might have been reapplied elsewhere. I would suggest that the publications from the research could be listed earlier in the statement, and the significance of the research – how it might be applied through teaching or on other research projects might be addressed.

 

How does the submission expose practice as research?

This submission does expose the difficulties of articulating practice as research for fiction film making, though there isn’t a clear research question. But even with that missing, it has managed to eloquently provide a framework and explain examples around one of the Modes of Practice – design centred filmmaking and how the authentic delivery of art direction for an historical film was achieved. A more concrete research question could be created for this submission. I suggest something like:

How is creative authority managed through the production of a historical fiction film using design-centered filmmaking?

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

I would like to thank the peer reviewers, who have given excellent guidance to me in the re-writing of my Research Statement.

 

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

How is creative authority managed through the production of a historical fiction film using the ‘Design-Centered Mode’ of creative practice in filmmaking?

The concept of ‘Modes of Creative Practice’, developed during my doctoral research (University of Reading, 2013-19), seeks to loosely delineate the different approaches that filmmakers adopt when creating fiction films. The theory identifies specific changes in creative practice between individual directors, enabling a conceptual grouping of practices into separate Modes. Three such modes have been described in detail: the ‘Performance-Centred Mode’, the ‘Social Realist Mode’ and the ‘Design-Centred Mode’. This taxonomy is developed with reference to two key factors: the creative intentions of the director; and the nature of the creative practices adopted by the director in making their film.

The making of The Burning used practice research to investigate the third of these modes, in which a filmmaker’s attention shifts significantly towards a film’s design. Certain genres of film sit firmly within the Design-Centred Mode: fantasy, science fiction and historical film are good examples. The Burning was developed as its historical setting, Tudor, England, necessitates a concentration of creative intention and practice on issues associated with the film’s design. A further motivation for the use of this practice research methodology was because this kind of filmmaking was completely new to me – my background as a television and film director is in contemporary drama, often rooted in current social and political realities. The practice research in making The Burning enabled me to investigate the differences that are required in the Design-Centred Mode through an experiential methodology.

It should be emphasised that certain fundamentals of fiction film directing may remain constant across the Modes of Creative Practice: for instance, in the Design-Centred Mode, we do not find alterations to the central role of the screenplay in guiding creative decision-making.  However, the shift in focus towards design revealed a shift in authorial control, which was one of the primary insights that emerged during this practice. As The Burning was filmed on location using the sets of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, the role of the production designer was not dominant: it was the costume designer, Sophia Johnson, who became the most important collaborator in the creative team. Very extensive historical research was required of both director and costume designer. When costume-making began, our experience of dyeing wool cloth revealed links between sixteenth-century clothes-making and current film costume design. The shift in the locus of creative authorship toward the production designer or costume designer has been discussed by leading filmmakers in the Design-Centred Mode, including the British director Michael Powell in relation to the production of The Red Shoes (1948), as well as by Baz Luhrman in relation to his work with production/costume designer and co-producer, Catherine Martin.

Further insights emerging from this research relate to the tensions within film performance using costumes created according to principles of historical authenticity. The collision between the textual nature of period costume and the director’s requirements from the actors enforced compromises in the film’s accurate portrayal of sixteenth-century England.

Significance 

The main impact of this research has been in education. Introducing film students to the concept of ‘Modes of Creative Practice’ has enabled educators to open new filmmakers to the possibilities and alternatives within their art.  In my chapter in CILECT’s volume on teaching film directing, Professor Eli Bo of Stockholm University of the Arts describes the opportunities that this pedagogical innovation offers (Lees 2019). An article related to this practice research in the Journal of Media Practice has been influential in postgraduate student research.

REFERENCES

Lees, Dominic. 2019. Many ways of directing a film: teaching the ‘modes of creative practice’. In: Mourao, M. D., Semerdjiev, S., Mello, C. and Taylor, A. (eds.) The 21st Century Film, TV and Media School Book – Volume 2: Directing the future. Sophia: CILECT – the International Association of Film and Television Schools. pp. 28-39.