Around the world in 80 days: Filming Art and Global Health – Part 1

20 March 2013

Over the course of four months, Barry Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about Wellcome Collection’s Art and Global Health project. In the first of his journal entries from the trip, Barry discusses how the project came about and how a filmmaker plans a shoot spanning 6 countries.

In the latter half of 2012, I was asked to take part in something extraordinary.

Art in Global Health sees six sets of artists selected to take up residency in each of the Trust’s major research centres across the world. Danielle Olsen, curator of this ambitious venture, was looking for ways to somehow record their progress, their artistic process as they immersed themselves in the research centres, the science and scientists.

We discussed various possibilities, several of which she had already initiated, such as blogging, audio or video diaries. Then she mentioned the possibility of making a film, a globe-trotting visual delight, filled with art, science and exotic locations – a fantastic way to reveal the artists, the scope of what they were trying to achieve and the cultural nuances of each location. What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the moment Danielle casually asked, ‘So, will you do it?’. How could I refuse?

Of course, it’s never that simple. Working in any large organisation, on a project of this scale, you quickly discover there are layers of protocol and bureaucracy. This was, potentially, a massive additional undertaking alongside my usual work, involving visiting six different countries and six different institutions around the world: Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and Germany. I’d be out of the office for weeks.

Thankfully, a rather enthusiastic consensus was reached: yes. I’d go out to each country to interview and film each of the artists, to try and capture a sense of their emergent process and ongoing works. Additionally, we agreed it would be a fantastic opportunity to try and capture as much of the science going on out in each research centre as possible – to work with the in-house communications and public engagement teams to plan a series of filming opportunities and interviews with the scientists as well as the artists. Adding more to the mix, we also decided that each scientist, once interviewed about their own work, would then be asked a series of questions about the artistic residency too. Naturally, filled with a naive enthusiasm, I had no idea yet how exhausting this would be.

Once this fairly portly framework was agreed, Danielle and myself had to act fast. We had around a month to organise the trips, a couple to actually do the filming, then get back and edit it all together. All this, of course, amidst my usual flurry of film work.

My feeling was that the best approach would be to take on two research centres at a time, spending four days in each – two days to focus on the artists and two days to focus on the scientists and their work. Add in flights and travel and the first 11-day trip started to take shape, in no small part thanks to the fantastic assistance of our Travel Coordinator, Rod Richardson. Visas, flights, hotels, filming permissions, emergency contacts – Rod made sure I could get where I was going, safely, have a place to stay and not get arrested for producing a camera whilst there.

The first trip was to the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya and the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme. The last thing I wanted was for the scientists to think, ‘the Wellcome Trust is sending someone to film you – perform!’. Instead, my hope was to make the trips feel collaborative from beginning to end – that we’d all benefit. The best way to achieve this, it seemed, was to work as closely as possible with the Centre Directors themselves and their own, existing, engagement teams. There followed weeks of learning new names and trying to tease out the various interrelationships of all concerned. Treading lightly.

Fully vaccinated, the first trip was fast approaching, but before delving into the travel lounges, flights, cheeky monkeys, countless motorbikes, spicy foods and shanty towns, I needed a bag. The first thing I did was check Philip Bloom’s blog. A guru amongst indie filmmakers – if ever there was a man who would know about taking filming equipment on planes, it would be him. Sure enough, Mr Bloom recommended the ThinkTank Airport International V2.0. A bag with a ‘version number’ has to be a good bag.

 The Airport International V2.0
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The Airport International V2.0

The case had to be able to take everything, leaving me wanting for nothing. Once I was out of the office  there would be no way to access any help, so maximum self-sufficiency was paramount. For this first trip, I’d calculated that if I wanted to be able to film, during each 10-11 day trip, up to around 20 hours max (10 hours per country, 5 hours for ‘science’ and 5 hours for ‘art’), I’d need around 250Gb of memory cards. Into the bag went:

  • 1 x Sony EX1 video camera
  • 1 x Canon 550D DSLR for discrete reportage shots
  • 2 x chargers and 2 batteries for both cameras
  • 2 x Sennheiser radio mics with spare batteries
  • 1 x Rode shotgun mic (plus 2 x XLR cables, just in case one got lost)
  • 1 x pair of headphones
  • 3 x SxS memory cards (expensive!)
  • 2 x ‘SD card to EX1 SxS’ slot adapters
  • 12 x 16Gb SD cards (far less expensive)
  • 1 x lens cloth
  • 1 x lens pen
  • 1 x blower brush

By the time I actually got to the airport it was a bit of a relief to finally get going after all the pre-planning shenanigans, but also more than a little daunting. I was on my own. Bye-bye comfort zone, hello Kenya.

Updated 4/4/2013: Corrected spelling and job title for Danielle Olsen.