The Park Pictures director tells LBB about the plausible magic behind his take on the ocean plastic crisis for Surfers Against Sewage
Between Sir David Attenborough’s stark warnings on Blue Planet and the numerous high profile, award-winning activations like Trash Isles and the Palau Pledge, the issue of plastic waste strangling our oceans is more prominent than it’s ever been. But while the closest many of us get to the reality of the situation is an impassioned or distressing Facebook post, there’s one group that comes – literally – face-to-face with plastic pollution. Surfers.
Award-winning director and keen surfer Tom Tagholm has seen and felt the swirl of plastic waste in the sea since he was old enough to paddle, so it was a topic he felt strongly about. That’s why he teamed up with charity Surfers Against Sewage to make a subtly powerful new short film all about the magic of the ocean. Creature tells the story of a community of surfers who come across an until-now undiscovered sea animal, intelligent and beautiful. It’s a film that shows the best of humanity without flinching from the consequences of our wasteful behaviours.
It’s a film that has a particularly personal resonance for Tom - his brother Hugo is CEO of Surfers Against Sewage. The project was also a true community effort as Tom cast local surfers, beach users and even a local pasty delivery man for the roles. A tremendous degree of craft and attention to detail was required, which involved input from across the production industry. The creature was built full scale by the team at Anarchy Ltd and augmented and animated by MPC London. Edited by Tim Hardy at Stitch. Audio Post production by Wave Studios. Music production by Adelphoi. And, of course, Tom’s directing home, Park Pictures, was enormously supportive too.
LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Tom about the community and care that went into making Creature.
LBB> What was your starting point for developing the story?
Tom> I’d pretty much experienced plastic in the ocean ever since I first set foot in the water as a kid. As for Creature, the concept started in the water, while I was looking out into the ocean and wondering what could be out there.
I try to do at least one charity project per year but had never reached out to Surfers Against Sewage. I’d always wanted to work with them, for obvious reasons.
Park - Jackie [Kelman Bisbee], Lance [Acord] and Stephen [Brierley] - were immediately, amazingly supportive of the idea. It helps that they’re a surf-y production company. Fran, my friend, swim coach and producer saw straight away what it could be and pushed hard in all the right ways for it to become real.
LBB> And I believe there’s a bit of a family connection?
Tom> Over the years I’d watched my brother Hugo tirelessly fight the plastic polluting industry, and just as tirelessly unite human beings who care. This sense of community is what the film is about. It's the SAS way - bringing people together. I was so proud to be a part of their world during the shoot.
LBB> How did you work with Anarchy to design the creature - what were the ideas that fed into the design?
Tom> I’m interested in plausible magic - a big conceit played truthfully. Mostly this means doing things the hard way from the beginning - getting fully enmeshed in the world and treating it with reverence and care.
We basically hated the idea of going for a look. We needed the look to come out of a logic.
I worked with designer Kate McConnell over months looking at the evolutionary logic of our creature - how it might defy certain elements of known biology but also incorporate and combine existing aspects that aren’t believed to go together. For example, she has gills as well as blowholes and of course there’s her panic response at the end of the film which hints at an energy we can’t understand. Her eyes have soul without lapsing into character creation.
The film is about humanity as much as it is about the creature. I wanted there to be this huge presence and energy on the beach which brings people together - so it meant building for real rather than a post-produced approach. I’m not against post solutions and love it when the feeling is right (the Creature’s eye was built in 3D at MPC with Tom [Harding], Marcus [Dryden] and Dominic [Alderson]). But real and solid felt the right way to go for this particular story. My friends Bob [Thorne] and Jason [Szukalski] at Anarchy were so excited by this and built her front third and extended the rest of her body using plywood struts that followed the contours of her body and fins.
LBB> The misdirect is a gut punch - how did you construct that?
Tom> Thank you, I’m glad you felt it. The lighting elements were truly embedded in the creature and we kept this back until the moments where we needed to draw in the people on the beach - give them hope. This had to be truthful. It’s easy to mistake a panic display in a creature for something closer to an expression of health and vitality. Structurally, this beat was always going to be the slingshot into our resolution as the light and life fades. Luke has an instinctive and hungry eye for humanity so… that part fell in place.
LBB> Tell me about the cast - are they fellow surfers?
Tom> Surfers Against Sewage helped us assemble a group of local surfers and beach users. My son spotted Joe, one of the leads, delivering pasties (as contrived as that sounds) and we asked if he’d like to be a part. There was family all around for the project which felt right. Algy [Sloane], my location manager, and Joe [Carter], my 1st AD, brought along their brilliant kids, all of whom built the texture of that group into what it always needed to be. Fran’s daughter helped with art department - it was a community approach to filmmaking. And in there my sister-in-law and nephew feature also.
LBB> You're a surfer - what's your personal experience of the problem of plastic waste in the waves?
Tom> As I say, I’ve seen a lot of it. But it’s only when you go on a beach clean that you realise just how granular that plastic pollution is. The magic is that the process doesn’t for one second make you think the fight is hopeless. It puts you right in touch with your local environment, your community - you are changed and uplifted by the simple act of walking along a beach with a trash bag and other humans doing the same. Caring! This is the era of moving from saying all the right things and donating money to standing up and doing something.
LBB> What were the biggest challenges with the film and how did you overcome them?
Tom> There are always tricky parts with shooting but I find they make for slightly boring stories. One of the worst aspects was that the surf was very good and I couldn’t go in. I managed to get a wave the morning after we wrapped and a seal came up just next to us. It’s funny, they sit there in the line up and just lie on their backs and watch. Oh, and it was odd to have my brother as the client, but like all the good ones he knows the value of encouragement and excitement.
SAS is calling on people from across the UK to sign its #GenerationSea petition to lobby the prime minister to introduce legislative change to save the seas, and the creatures that live within them. The petition hopes to see the government take decisive action before it’s too late and establish a powerful independent watchdog to protect the oceans and wider natural environment, while enforcing specific targets relating to plastic waste and carbon emissions for government and big business.