A bird’s-eye view

John Cranmer talks to Dave McKean about his role as ‘digital artist’ in The Falconer, a Channel 4 film about Peter Lorrimer Whitehead

The Falconer is an extraordinary film. On one level it’s a documentary investigation into the life and careers of Peter Lorrimer Whitehead, film-maker, spy, author, falconer and perhaps even murderer; on another level it is a film about the artifice of biography, journalistic inquiry and documentary film-making. Central is Whitehead, spinning stories of arms deals, drug running, past liaisons with pop stars strewn with Egyptological and alchemical references, but where does elaboration turn into fantasy?

The Falconer is also a retinal feast – more akin to fine art than cinema; surfaces flicker and type blinks information. The TV screen has never been so tactile. Joint directors Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair engaged Dave McKean to rework their footage, adding layers of animation, texture and text, constructing a visual style that shadows the complex framing of the life, loves and lies of the enigmatic Whitehead.

McKean has worked for more than ten years as an illustrator, artist and designer, winning many awards along the way. He was originally known for his graphic novels, the Batman story Arkham Asylum, collaborations with writer Neil Gaiman and his own book, Cages. But, he is also responsible for more than 90 CD covers and his talents extend professionally into the fields of photography, painting, sculpture, music, multimedia and film and video. His images are opulent assemblages of photographs, drawings, paintings and sculptures. Perhaps the best introduction to his work is Dust Covers, a collection of 75 covers created for the Sandman comic. His work on The Falconer can be seen as an extrusion of his eclectic aesthetic across a timeline.

The Falconer really began when Petit and Sinclair won a low-grade media film competition. McKean was then invited to modify a rough 15-minute piece, cut from the material. Keith Griffiths of independent production company Illuminations came on board as producer and, after a series of meetings with Channel 4, secured a budget to edit and finish a one-hour film. During two months of editing, McKean’s role was to storyboard and offer suggestions. Despite all the technology involved, everything was planned on paper first, with diagrams of how the images were pieced together, evaluating what they had to say and accomplish.

“The creative ideas were dictated by the material. The film is fractured enough without getting more meaningless noise going on. My role was to make a very layered piece, but the layers had to drag all the elements of this man’s life and various other people’s lives together so I was really just trying to achieve a result,” says McKean. “I initially wanted to do more ‘categorising’ of images with my graphics, trying to arrange things into types of imagery so that the audience would have a clearer idea of what they were watching. But this rational approach seemed at odds with how Chris and Iain were working. I realised I was better at being more of an interventionist – watching for established styles of visual language, then distorting or destroying them. The visual language of the talk show is a prime example. Everyone knows what to expect from a talk show. No one expects animated people to walk in and kiss the guest.”

The film was first edited using an Avid computer editing system and a final cut was given to McKean. Certain scenes were put together for timing only in the knowledge that they would be radically altered. “I spent six weeks on the actual animations, type and treatments, with Max McMullin assisting me and programming the 3D renders. I worked on the still images, short sequences, type and animations on a Power Mac while the film was captured and compiled on a dedicated PC.” The film was digitised in three separate sequences to avoid running out of hard drive space, but a copy of the whole project was kept so that new material could be inserted against it. McKean then worked unsupervised and presented his contributions in three finished segments, with only minor corrections made if needed. Eventually the finished work was outputted to be delivered on BetacamSP, a professional broadcast tape format.

The type, paint and effects on The Falconer were done on Power Macs and PCs to avoid incurring the financial penalties of using high-end workstations. AfterEffects, Adobe’s video compositing software, is comparable to Photoshop, but with effects extended over time and layers consisting of video rather than still pictures. McKean though has one complaint about digital images and that’s that they are always too sterile. “AfterEffects is very clean, but the imagery we are putting in there is very dirty and degraded,” he says. The original footage was shot by Petit on miniDV, a consumer digital format now increasingly used in broadcast, and by Sinclair on standard 8mm film. This film was then projected and re-shot on video.

McKean’s contributions dictate the way the audience follows the narrative, obfuscating and illuminating elements, creating red herrings and clues to what may or may not be unfolding. Such an intimate involvement was problematic when deciding on giving a title credit, but eventually digital artist was settled on. “Digital artist was a compromise because no-one could think of a better credit,” says McKean. “The designer is associated with sets or the title sequence. Since this integrates the digital imagery into every part of the film, and also contributes to the content of the film, not just the form, a different sort of credit seemed appropriate.”

Not content with just being a digital artist, McKean also wants to direct and is currently working on two short films of his own. The first film, The Week Before, is a modest work without a budget. “It’s about God creating the universe. Actually, it’s about the week before the ACTUAL week when God created everything. The week that was supposed to be THE week, but no real inspiration came. He bums around the house, goes fishing, that sort of thing, but he does do some important preparatory work, says McKean. The second film is called Neon. “It’s much quieter, more sombre,” he says. “It’s the story of a man in Venice looking for solace and falling in love with a ghost who inhabits one second of time. Both films were shot on Super 16mm then digitised and thoroughly worked over in AfterEffects and 3D programs to give them an illustrated hermetic feel.”

Computers are not new to film-making – there can’t be anyone who isn’t aware of Titanic or Toy Story. What is changing is accessibility to their creative potential thanks to decreasing costs and the increasing power of desktop machines. Just as computers revolutionised the publishing industry through DTP, so they are now revolutionising film and video production, giving traditional film-makers and artists affordable entry to high-end standards.

McKean’s approach towards computer-generated material is down-to-earth and refreshing: “Anybody with a Mac can make any kind of image now. Hollywood and the high-end stuff is endlessly obsessing over more and more ‘realistic’ uses for computer-generated material. I’m much more interested in completely unrealistic stuff. Computers can do anything, why bother trying to make an image of something I could photograph?” The Falconer, a film in which nothing is true and everything is permitted, is a testament to that approach.

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