Nigel Ashcroft – A Life in Film

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Having been in the business for about 40 years; in television, commercials, music promos and film, Nigel Ashcroft has seen equipment and technology change quite dramatically over the years. His own production company, Green Umbrella, based in Bristol, produces natural history television and Ashcroft himself has worked with a variety of people, from the BBC, Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel, to acclaimed director Terrence Malick. Ashcroft’s team were responsible for the 20 minute sequence of the creation of the universe and Earth in Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).

Ashcroft got into the business by studying Art at college and discovering a film camera in the department. Incidentally, the Beatles were shooting their promo for Strawberry Fields near the school and so he went along to see how it was done and was inspired by the experimental nature and effects that were being used in the video.

Ashcroft then went on to work for Gazelle Film Productions in Bristol where he had the opportunity to film Concorde as the company had links with the aeroplane industry. He said he “always wanted to edit” and at the age of 27 he left Gazelle and started his own production company which edited films for the BBC. When the company moved to larger premises they were in the same building as Aardman who they ended up working with, editing Animated Conversations and later collaborating on the ground-breaking music video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.

The music video took two weeks to shoot and was shot on different rigs. The famous animated train sequence required Peter Gabriel to lie flat on his back for hours with a camera above his face, and then the objects and sets were built around him. The shoot required a complex storyboard, with every frame painstakingly worked out to ensure everything synced, including shooting a separate video of Gabriel singing the song so that Ashcroft could sync the lip movement correctly. The dancing chicken sequence in the music video was animator Nick Park’s first major job.

Ashcroft worked in an era of big machines such as the Steinbeck sixplate for editing and the Telecine machine for transferring film to video. He spoke of how “things are so much simpler now and better” in terms of technology and making films. Around the time of Avid and Mac developing the non-linear editing system, Ashcroft chose to become a director and producer and moved away from editing despite this great breakthrough.

Work on The Ultimate Guide series for the Discovery Channel established Ashcroft in this field with programmes such as The Great Apes resulting in him being involved in the making of 17 successful episodes over 7 years, moving on to science when the ‘charismatic animals’ ran out.

It was in Wyoming at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival that Ashcroft met acclaimed director Terrence Malick, who expressed an interest in working with Ashcroft after he saw his work on the Ultimate Guides: Crocodiles. One month later Ashcroft got the call from Malick’s producer asking him to film some crocodile scenes for his upcoming film The Thin Red Line (1998). Ashcroft had to decline as he had just signed to more of The Ultimate Guides, but it started a friendship with Terry.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (2004), a two hour special for Discovery, saw Ashcroft move into HD and leave film behind. The experience he described as “tough” as it was “a bit like a backwards set. We would usually shoot things at variable speeds, so a faster speed for slow motion and slowed down to show a longer time. Seldom would we shoot things at 25 frames per second. HD cameras at that time would only shoot at one speed. So it felt like we were stepping back in time”.

However, Ashcroft’s work on Seeing in the Dark (2007) a few years later saw HD technology dramatically improved and Ashcroft was a convert, shooting so much in low light only being possible because of this new technology.

Ashcroft spoke candidly about his work on Malick’s The Tree of Life. Before shooting began he went over to Austin, Texas to meet with Malick, they talked film and watched about 100 natural history films. The major sequence that Ashcroft was responsible for was shot as a separate unit completely from the rest of the film, in Bristol with its own budget. At first the plan was to shoot in 35mm but there was interest in making a longer, Imax version and shooting in 65mm. But this was deemed too expensive and they couldn’t afford it. So Ashcroft boldly made the decision to only shoot in 65mm, with one unit and pick the best bits to transfer to 35mm.

It was a small unit to keep costs down and they shot in 11 countries in 30 locations. Ashcroft describes the 65mm Imax camera as a “big beast” and said Malick was very particular about how they shot it. It had to be the best light, low light, so early morning and evening, which left little time and as they were shooting in Iceland, which Ashcroft describes as “geologically a new country”, mornings were at 4am and evenings were at 11pm so the days were incredibly long. Malick also wanted wide lenses, all sharp and therefore a big depth of field, slowly moving forward. He also spoke about the difficulties of shooting in rugged terrain, having a lot of kit to carry for about a mile as the locations couldn’t be accessed by vehicle, having piles of film stock and waiting to hear if what they had shot was any good. It took about 5 days to find this out as the footage had to be sent from Iceland to Los Angeles, transferred and then sent back as a DVD.  Ashcroft looks fondly on the shoot though and describes it as “interesting and fun”. The  Tree of Life had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the Palme D’Or.

Animation and special effects have been a big part of Ashcroft’s career and he was used to visual effects from working on The Ultimate Guide and according to him television work has a lot of visual effects, even if it is just removing a pylon from a shot. The difference with the The Tree of Life shoot was that as 65mm was so expensive, they couldn’t shoot with errors as it was too expensive to get rid of them. Upon discussing the evolution programmes he has worked on, Ashcroft said there was “a lot of tweaking and creating creatures that don’t exist anymore” but it was important to speak to scientists and experts to get it right.

Thanks to Nigel Ashcroft for a fascinating talk at the Cornwall Film Festival.

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