River Island teamed up with the British Fashion Council to launch FASH/ON FILM festival during London Fashion Week Spring 2012. A great initiative, and right up Ben Trovato’s alley as we headlined Fash!on/off - the Belgian Fashion Film Festival - in December 2011, and we are one of the headliners of La Jolla Fashion Film Festival this summer.
The festival was fantastic but one of the things that really caught our eye was River Island’s film for the event by JN Motion, directed by Ehsan Bhatti that showcased the retail chain’s collection by Julian J Smith.
There’s a lot in the film - Renaissance vs Modern, Old vs New, two worlds, one real, one through the looking glass, mystery, a power struggle (anger, frustration), surprise, circularity (the film has two parts but no end).
This is also a film that has no name. Or, rather, as Ehsan Bhatti, the director says “At one point there was talk of calling it Stranger in the Mirror, but we figured that may be too obvious, and there was also too many introductory titles to squeeze into a film name.”
So, what is this unnamed headliner film all about? Bhatti says his visual ideas were inspired by the Julian J Smith’s collection… “The geometric print led us straight on to researching optical illusions etc… I love River Island’s quirky personality and so I wanted to make sure the film also felt upbeat and didn’t take itself too seriously, keeping that sense of humour that’s so integral to the brand.”
Bhatti agrees that they were definitely going for an element of the unreal versus the real in the film. “This is about a girl who is led into a surreal world by her own reflection. The viewer is left wondering who is real. The film juxtaposes the mundane world and the surreal world of Julian J Smith’s designs. To create the idea of an infinite loop – which also ties in with the patterns of the clothes - we were inspired by Escher and Georges Rousse’s optical art. We wanted to create a piece that was artistic yet accessible, upbeat yet intriguing. The film ends on a loop with intended ambiguity, but the ending also resolves the issues raised at the introduction. It was really important to inject a sense of narrative into the film; and not simply go down the route of posing a pretty girl in pretty location.”
The film does indeed have a great deal of movement in it (which always generates narrative). We track the walking girls. Bhatti says that this was deliberate. “I think fashion films can feel too static at times, and as I wanted to create the illusion of a journey; it was key to move with the girl through the different spaces. The movement is there as a storytelling device more than for visual purposes.”
The key cues in this film are visual. It’s not a talkie, although there is some mime. Again Bhatti’s says that this was very deliberate, “The film is full of humorous references to reject any of the pretentiousness and conformism usually found in high fashion. The River Island / Julian J Smith girl is here to disturb the peace and have a little fun (hence the old man sequence, which we did feel bad about, but which was hilarious on set!). There aren’t many point of view shots as we wanted to place the clothing within various visual backdrops; some clashing, with the intention of letting the clothes stand out.”
The location at St Pancras’ Renaissance Hotel at King’s Cross in central London is, of course, stunning. The film is pervaded by its texture - brocade, panelled doors, silks etc.. Bhatti admits they had the hotel in mind as a location from the outset, and were completely mesmerized by the palette and the textures [if you’re in London, in the vicinity, book yourself in for a tour of the hotel, you’ll see what he means!] on their reconnaissance tour. Bhatti explains, “Because the environments and set design play such a key role in communicating the film’s metaphors, it was important that the real spaces oozed regal and ‘restricted’ in contrast with the surreal spaces, which were intended to inspire and intrigue. We were aiming for high production value on limited resources, so to get the hotel was fantastic news for us.”
Other limited resources were time and logistics. Bhatti explains they “Wanted to experiment with the patterns of Julian J Smith’s work and raise the production value of the (green screen) shots.” However within the timeframe and logistical restraints, this had to be kept quite simple, so they “chose to go for punchy.”
Initially, Bhatti explains, the idea was to use Maria Palm as both characters, but idea that morphed when they went into production as they knew this wouldn’t be feasible from time perspective.
Time also affected the editing process. The initial story-board had a fair few more scenes in it, including several more where both girls were supposed to be in the frame together, but the team had to cut a few making the narrative slightly more difficult to follow, but as Bhatti points out… “the fundamental illusion of one girl ‘escaping’ and the other girl being in a loop is still apparent.”
Bhatti says “It took two days to shoot the film, one day in a green screen studio/set and one day on location and that the edit too was more complicated than usual…we had to look beyond the storyboards. We had to implement work-around solutions on set to get it all in the can, and compositing needed to take place while we were cutting the offline edit. The whole thing really came together only just before we went to grade, which was slightly daunting to say the least.”
He adds, “We knew the shoot was ambitious and Ross [producer] worked some miracles to get it all off the ground. But it was first and foremost about the scale of what we were trying to achieve in the time-frame: Film-making is of course about coming up with creative solutions, but we had to implement more work-arounds on set as we went along, and as there is a plot, we couldn’t do big cuts without leaving gaps. Then there was the acting, which is of course new territory for a lot of models – so directing on set meant constantly implementing alternative character motivational methods and getting alternative or unplanned coverage.” In other words, everything was very tight.
The musical score in the film is very important - it reinforces and sets the tone for the themes. Bhatti could only agres… “Josh Lipworth (JN Motions in-house composer) nailed it and it’s one element from the film I think is completely spot on.” He went on to add “We were striving for cinematic production value and I convinced Josh that we’d need to pull in a lot of favours to record live instruments. As you say, there is no dialogue, so the music dictates the narrative and mood for the each of the scenes. It’s amazing how easy it is to go too poppy, too 80′s, too soppy etc. . Once the edit bpm was set, we went crate-digging; referencing everything from Depeche Mode to Egyptian Lover to Ludovico Eunadi.”
About the only simple things in the film are hair and make-up. For, as Bhatti says “There was a lot going on with the environments and patterns, so we didn’t want hair and make-up to be overkill. The clothes are given the opportunity to clash in boldly patterned settings, and breathe in some of the simpler spaces - and we didn’t want hair and make–up to compete with this effect.”
Director - Ehsan Bhatti for J N M O T I O N
Designer for River Island - Julian J Smith
Stylist - Phoebe Arnold
Composer - Joshua Lipworth
Makeup - Arabella Preston at D+V Management
Hair - Yumi Nakada Dingle at D+V Management
Girl 1 - Maria Palm at Models 1
Girl 2 - Tijana Tamburic at Select Models