Thursday, 14 January 2016

Slow TV DVD review - ploughing ahead in ambient Slow TV

Summer Isle Films - The Plough
A film company in Suffolk has produced a very interesting Slow TV DVD, which for a single-camera piece of filming has really quite surprised me.

Just an hour long “The Plough” from Summer Isle Films is just a really good concept in a simple, ambient TV exploration. A problem with single camera views is that they can tend to remain the same for too long and make you lose interest. Slow TV is Slow TV - not static TV. An adage attributed to Confucius says “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” I reckon that’s a very appropriate thing to bear in mind with Slow TV.

Confucius say...
There needs to be something going on in real time to keep any sense of a hook into a would-be viewer - even if it’s the occasional glance to see what’s changed. If nothing has changed, what’s the point in following the screen? Small stories and subtle yet observable changes are imperative. The Plough does just this.

The chosen subject of the film allows constant, slow movement, which while repetitive, is different on each repeat. There is steady, observable progress. The framing of the activity is the same but because it is happening over real time, there are organic changes within that framing and natural timeline.

Summer Isle Films - The Plough
The information given by text on the image was neither too frequent, nor too rushed nor too obtrusive. Unlike the text-bubbles on the BBC Sleigh Ride, it doesn’t pull you out of the flow of the image for an image-based Slow TV. It isn’t trying to do too much whilst being enough.

Now, I don’t wish to ruin the plot or spoil the drama, but here are things I’ve enjoyed noticing on watching The Plough:
  • The fixed relation of the plough apparatus in relation to the camera whilst ploughing gave a pleasing constant by which to observe all the other changing dynamics. Which means when the plough changes side at each of the field it becomes something of a visual event.
  • The way the new plough line bisects the previous year’s harvest lines of crop stubble, it has a ‘screensaver effect’ for me. I find my eyes are drawn into the lines on each alternate plough of the field.
  • There’s a mass of cloud which gradually covers the sun and then moves out of the way again, allowing the sun to bathe the field in increasingly golden light, especially over the final 20 minutes. My photographer’s eye would like it to be unbroken sunshine throughout for that ‘golden-hour’ look - but alternatively, the sun to cloud to sun gives further parameters of change.
  • The lifting of the plough at either end of the field feels like a paragraph break, you see soil fall off as the orientation is changed, sometimes the sun glints in the blades. This is surprising as you’d think the blades would be dulled by the soil.
  • The lining up of the plough line with the wheels is admirable; I know some tractors use satellite technology to fine tune their alignment, but for anyone who’s ever tried lining up a lawnmower to get that perfect balance for overlap but not so much it’s extra work and not too little that little islands of areas don’t get covered. Admirable stuff.
  • I found myself trying to compare the line of ploughing using the hedges and pylons to the rear of the tractor as gauges. There is progress over the hour. Obviously. But it’s fun to notice it.
  • How many times does the plough change direction? Eventually I’ll work that out. There’s a constant pace, so, assuming a uniform width of the field, timing one length and the turn around, then dividing an hour by that should give the number of strokes required.
  • The gulls following the ploughing were interesting, thinking about the poor worms and bugs freshly exposed for consumption. Anyone who’s dug a garden will have seen a robin following their work in just the same manner. This kind of thing has been going on since the Neolithic at least. Working with the soil is a very physical thing, but it's also profoundly spiritual, very connecting - food, life, dependency, interdependency, cycle of the seasons, movement of the earth, the need for sun and rain in balance, new life, death, rebirth. Ploughing isn't just about ploughing. Go meditate!
  • The tree lines receding were pleasing, gently coaxing the eye into the distance. Like being able to look behind on a car journey or a rear facing seat on a train. 
  • There’s a road at one end of the field - you even see a double decker bus go past at point, in the distance.
Summer Isle Films - The Plough
Only two quibbles. My first would be on image stabilisation. There is a very slight vibration which while not distracting, would be something I would work on. Having done some Slow TV filming with a Go Pro myself, I rejected using a lot of my own footage due to vibration during movement. Don’t let that be a put off, though, for The Plough remains an engaging ambient TV trip.

My other quibble, is why not film the ploughing of a whole field? Slow TV has a sense of completeness when it encompasses an activity or journey all the way through. Like the BBC Sleigh Ride, The Plough picks up midway through a journey and leaves before the job is done. Let’s have the satisfaction of going all the way.

Summer Isle Films - The Plough
The back cover of the DVD informs us that "The Plough is the first in a series of films called 'Suffolk Slow TV'". Should there be a sequel -“The Plough 2 - Back to the Furrow”  or “The Dowdeswell MA 170 Returns” how about making it two or three hours long, with another camera or two? A tracking shot from the rear of the tractor on the unploughed part of the field? A camera mounted on a quad bike in front of the tractor looking back, close to the ground? Or occasional drone shots for establishing the context of the ploughing and the progress of the tractor? Let’s see those zig-zag / sawtooth patterns emerging at the ends of the field as the plough progresses!

I’ve watched The Plough four times now, one actively, two while I got on writing notes and emails, and another while I edged into an afternoon nap in a quieter part of the Christmas ‘holiday’ with Jean Michel Jarre’s near 47 minute ambient masterpiece, “Waiting for Cousteau” playing and the TV on silent. The Plough works very well. It doesn’t try to be too much and what it does do, it does well. A balance of not too much and of just enough.

The Plough was produced by Summer Isle Films (fans of The Wicker Man original?) and filmed at Forest Farms at Stonham Aspal in Suffolk, UK. More details of their DVD here on their website.

More agricultural Slow TV is coming online - Is Slow TV coming to the Mid West?

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