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By Harriet Cash on

Engineering the Now – and the future

Mark Thomas shares insights from the making of our current film installation, which explores the present and future of railways.

Mark is from the team at Soup Co, who have created Engineering the Now for our gallery, taking visitors behind the scenes of the modern rail industry. He explains more about the process of making the film and representing such a vast, dynamic industry on screen.


What got you interested in making a piece about the present and future of railways?

Coming from a background in music video and AV projects, the rhythm was a real draw for me personally. Knowing that we could shape a textural, rhythmic work that covers multiple viewpoints felt like a welcome challenge!

How did the idea for the film germinate—what was the brief and how did you approach it?

There were a number of threads that I was keen to explore—putting the character first, framing the relationships and personalities in the industry as a focus, with the output being a result of these individuals and teams. Another areas of interest was the relationship between the seen and the unseen for the general public—above and below ground—especially in relation to the Crossrail project that has been going on for more than 15 years away from the public eye, yet so near to thousands of commuters every day.

How did you decide which projects and people to focus on?

On this we were spoilt for choice, as the National Railway Museum worked with Network Rail, Bechtel and Hitachi to identify people who would be willing to get involved. Showcasing a breadth of experience, background and interests was a key factor and we were incredibly lucky to work with some great characters across the three locations.

That’s really noticeable in the final film—it follows people from all walks of life carrying out all sorts of roles on the railways. Was it important to show a different type of railway worker from the stereotype people might be familiar with?

It did feel important to show an industry that is often presented from a male perspective in a way that’s more representative of its diversity—in terms of characters, gender, backgrounds and also the variety of work and skills needed within such a complex and vast industry.

And how did your subjects feel about being filmed?

It was vital to make all the participants as comfortable as possible, and we aimed to create a natural environment. We operated with a small crew to avoid overwhelming anyone and where possible let the participants lead in terms of the make-up of their daily routine.

The film is very immersive and rhythmic in a way that echoes the railways themselves, combining abstract industrial imagery with sound and people at work—did you think about any other railway filmmaking? I was even reminded of the early Russian documentary Man with a Movie Camera—did you have any inspirations beyond the railways? 

It was definitely an excuse to look back at some of the early GPO Film Unit documentaries (Night Mail was an obvious point of reference) and to realise how pioneering a lot of these early observational docs were (and really chuffed about the nod to Man with a Movie Camera as this is a personal fave).

Editing is a key part of our working process, our playtime in effect, so it was great to be able to try out sketches and vignettes while we were shooting to establish what worked, what we could try differently in the subsequent shoots, how we used the diptych format and how the characters could interact together within the film. Dual channel is a format that we’ve been working with a lot in recent productions and it always offers up new creative possibilities with each new project.

Tell us about the score—it creates a strong sense of rhythm and pace as well as moments of suspense. And there’s some natural sound too that anchors the images in reality. How did you go about fitting the images to the sound—or the other way around?

It’s very rare for us to work film-first, with many projects being led by the music in the first instance. For Engineering the Now I used a scrapbook of audio pieces to give us a scaffold of sorts to edit to, and then the film was passed on to the very talented Andy Jackson to work with. Andy, who has a great understanding of sound for screen but at heart is a musician, developed the rhythm elements before working in the sourced sound recordings from our shoots.

The film is called Engineering the Now, but it clearly looks to the future and focuses on the cutting edge of rail technology—how do you imagine the future of railways will look?

There are a lot of positives in terms of renewable energy and cleaner, more efficient trains. It would be great to see this development continue, paired with a respect for the landscapes and communities that coexist with the stations, tracks and general infrastructure of the rail industry.

The film gives a sense of this landscape, and the immense scale of some of the projects being undertaken—the shot of the tunnel bore is really staggering! How did you go about capturing such vast projects?

We can’t take credit for all the footage in the film–the Crossrail team, led by Dan Garrity, have captured some incredible moments over the 15 or so years of the project. The tunnel boring moments, aerial content and tunnel travel shots were kindly given to us to use by their team. Equally, Network Rail capture timelapse for all their key projects, and this footage proved invaluable in giving a strong, temporal build to the film.

It’s been interesting popping in and out of the gallery here at the museum and seeing people’s different reactions to the film—what do you hope they take away from it? Can art and film get people engaged with engineering and technology?

I hope so! Hopefully they’ll take away a different perspective or viewpoint from what they expected, or a renewed interest in the industry in general. It’s definitely provoked awe and wonder from us in terms of the scale, the planning and the strong team dynamic that we’ve encountered while filming.

See Engineering the Now in the gallery at the National Railway Museum until Sunday 2 September 2018.

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