Telling Stories

Filmmaker and composer Andrew Telling creates immersive documentaries and original scores for brands and visual artists.

In early 2012, Andrew Telling won a competition to make the Rapha Condor Sharp cycling team’s annual short film. Shot over nine days in February at the team’s Spanish training camp, Sella is just three and a half minutes long but it sums up a lifetime in the sport: the team talks, rest stops, daily massages and gruelling rides past forests, fields and mountains.

The visuals are set to a sound- track of guitars and heavier beats, interspersed with crunching gravel, spinning wheels and a blustering wind. It’s an immersive film and one that looks like it would have taken a team of professionals to make – yet it was shot, edited and composed by Telling alone and was one of his first commercial commissions.

Since filming Sella, Telling, 29, has worked on two more films for Rapha: one promoting the Italian stage of the Cent Cols cycling challenge in the Dolomite mountains and another, Nowhere to Nowhere, that captures the daily slog of cyclists in the UK Tour Series. He’s also worked on three films for Kvadrat with Graphic Thought Facility documenting the making of large scale textile installations, another for high street brand COS commissioned by INT Works, as well as personal projects following photographers and street artists working in the Middle East, Europe and the Arctic Circle.

Each of Telling’s films features striking photography and original scores skilfully mixed with ambient sound; and he can make carb-laden dinners and crisp cotton shirts as compelling to watch as dramatic sea views. He didn’t initially set out to be a filmmaker: he has been writing and making music for years and used to play in a punk band. After studying media at Kingston, he worked in an independent record shop, then as a runner in a digital agency and later a digital production company, where he assisted on commercial films. It was here that he learned from creative directors and cameramen, who taught him to shoot, film and edit. A later stint at a sound design agency convinced Telling that his music was better suited to films and commercial projects and he decided to go freelance.

One of Telling’s major influences, he says, is the US documentary maker Jem Cohen and his experimental documentary, Instrument, which followed the punk band Fugazi over ten years. “I was only 14 or 15 when I watched it but it really stuck with me, because he had such an interesting approach to documenting those kinds of punk shows and the process of being an independent musician.

He could have shot the film over a shorter time frame, but he chose to do it over ten years and showed a different side to the band’s evolution. I learned a lot from that documentary, probably because I also came from a similar DIY music background.”

Telling is also inspired by the British photographers Simon Roberts and Jem Southam, the latter famous for his series observing single locations over months or years. “What’s interesting with Jem’s work is that he, again, spends a lot of time with his subjects,” he says. “He visits a location then goes back again and he won’t always take a photo if the light isn’t right – he just walks it as it’s part of his routine.”

“Then you have Simon Roberts, whose Motherland project documents the landscape of modern Russia in the early 2000s. Yet again, the way that he [depicts] the landscape and manages to create these levels of details in his work really resonates with me. I guess I understand and am fascinated by both of their techniques but also by the remoteness of being in a new landscape and finding your creative process within it,” he adds.

Telling spends a lot of time with subjects, too. When filming Sella, he went alone to form a closer bond with the team. “I lived and worked with them on that trip: we had breakfast, lunch and dinner together. When they had a chocolate at the end of the day, I had one too. I wasn’t that clued up on professional cycling and I’m not out on my bike riding every other day, so I was a total outsider, but I think that’s why it works. I could approach the subject from an unbiased angle.”

After assisting at production companies and agencies, Telling pursued commercial work as he knew it would be more self-sustaining. He has since carved out a successful niche making rich promotional content that can support traditional TV commercials but costs a great deal less to make. “Now brands have bigger budgets for content and equipment is getting cheaper to hire so you can do these kind of [less traditional] promotional films. Brands don’t always want to go through production companies because they know it’s expensive. What I find now is that budgets exist that may not be as big as TV commercials but they come with more creative freedom. It’s an exciting time for a filmmaker like myself as the possibilities can be endless,” he explains.

Whether making commercial or personal films, he prefers to write a score before editing footage, and has compiled a library of soundtracks from past projects which can be licensed through his website. “For some films I’ve written the soundtrack before I’ve started filming. On others, I’ll let the shoot happen and get a feel for narrative or subject and work in a more linear fashion. Its different every project but that’s the element of surprise I really love in this creative process – you aren’t held back by someone else’s composition or formula,” he says.

The music Telling creates for his pieces varies enormously: his work for Kvadrat x GTF was based on the tones of a Spanish guitar, while the Rapha work is more beat-based. He listens to music every day and records ideas and loops whenever he gets a chance. “I love to discover and build upon the little details in music, like the textures of a synth note, the reverb of a bass drum or a specific guitar tone,” he says.

“For me, music is a natural extension of my craft,” he adds. “It has the same importance as how I work on my composition with the camera and the subject. Creating it allows me to have full control over the overall tone of the piece and the feeling I am trying to create with the film. I can shape the music to the narrative and vice versa, so the connection between music and visuals is as unified as possible. The fact that it’s bespoke and not taken from another artist also allows the final film to have its own entity altogether,” he explains.

Over the past two years, Telling has built an impressive body of personal and self-initiated projects, including four short films documenting the work of street artist Conor Harington. Their partnership began in 2010, when Harington invited Telling to join him on a trip to Tel Aviv and Bethlehem after seeing his first film promoting the artist Word to Mother’s third solo exhibition at London’s Stolen Space Gallery. His most recent finished project with Harington is the short Old Norse, which documents the artist painting large scale murals on a remote Norwegian island. In between watching Harington work, Telling spent time exploring the island by bike, captuing stunning footage of the local landscape as well as Harington’s paintings.

“I’m always thinking about how to present [Harington’s] process and the final paintings in the street without it looking like a forced, stylised ‘money’ shot. Documentations of street art, for example, are usually always time- lapse, but I have never wanted to do that – so I try to push to find the smaller stories within the story. When I’m working with Conor he’s very trusting and gives me freedom to try out grand ideas and different types of music – such as the classical musician Lucinda Chua for Old Norse.”

Telling has also worked with illustrator HelloVon and travelled to North Wales with his friend Owen Richards, a photographer, to shoot ARAF: a film documenting the fine art photographer Robin Friend working on his series Slaughterhouse – a collection of images taken beneath the Welsh hills.

“I try to do at least one personal project every year, as I think it’s important to go test out new things and learn something different, otherwise you can get lazy and rely on the same techniques and styles. On ARAF I got to work alongside two great photographers so we found on the shoot that all our composition skills were being pushed and tested of each other,” he adds.

When working with visual artists and designers – he has also recently shot some work promoting Anthony Burrill’s new book – Telling tries to capture the creative process from a series of unusual angles: the corner of a wall or a paint splattered shoe, or a passing observer watching artworks unfold.

“That’s definitely something I see in my work, looking back. I think it’s a mixture of having loose ideas or references in mind before the shoot but also working with those elements of surprise on location,” he says. “Of course, there are always a ton of obvious angles that don’t work but for five that aren’t right, there will be one that really works.”

Telling is keen to keep working on art related pieces but he would also like to make the transition from film maker to represented commercial director. There is a new film with Harington in the works, he says, as well as live audio visual performances of personal projects, “and for the long-term, I still just want to be Andrew Telling and make films and music in my own style, no matter
how big or small the project”.

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