What’s the film about? Could you describe City of Cranes for someone who hasn’t seen it?
Seen from above, whether from the east or west, London is a capital in constant transformation — its skyline is animated by “a ballet of cranes.”
City of Cranes takes the viewer on a journey high up in the sky to look at the world through the eyes and words of crane drivers. A visual and poetic celebration of the drivers’ lives, it is a must-see for anybody who has ever wondered what it feels like to work hundreds of feet above the ground, only surrounded by a small metal cage.
The film is divided into four chapters, with each chapter bringing to life a different aspect of the drivers’ lives: the first chapter looks at the work of the drivers and the impact of this work on London’s changing landscape; chapter two focuses on a driver’s relationship with his crane; chapter three shows the almost balletic interplay between multiple cranes on a big site; and the last chapter explores the feeling of solitude drivers experience high up in the air, separated from the world.
How did you come to make this film? What drew you to the subject of cranes?
I made this film because I was fascinated by the fact that there is almost another world above our cities, yet most of us never look up to notice cranes or their drivers. They, in turn, can see everything going on around them, yet their only way to connect with the world below is by watching it from a distance. City of Cranes builds and expands on themes touched upon in my last film, The Intimacy of Strangers — the conflict between being intimate, yet distant and how our lives are shaped by our urban environment.
On a purely aesthetic level, I love the way cranes look in the skyline. They are massive steel structures, yet they look graceful and elegant at the same time.
How long did it take to make the film? Could you describe the process briefly?
What I didn’t realize was that making this film might actually take longer than it would for the crane drivers to put up a 50-story building. Getting access to construction sites proved to be an incredibly slow and difficult process, not helped by the fact that at the time, there were a number of accidents involving cranes in London. As a result, that autumn and winter, during which I was filming City of Cranes, turned out to be a very difficult time for the construction industry in the United Kingdom.
I remember going with my crew to an hour-long health and safety briefing at a building site behind the Tate Modern one morning, as we had been given permission to film there the following day, only for my producer to call me later in the day with the news that the construction company had changed their mind and now would not allow us on site. Within the following few hours, my producer lost access to all but one site in what was almost a chain reaction, as construction companies, clients and site managers panicked about our film highlighting possible health and safety violations. In the end, it took another two months of constant emails, phone calls and meetings to convince some of the companies to allow us limited access.
The filming itself proved to be no less complicated. We soon found out that there is no easy way to bring an HD-CAM (and initially an S16mm) camera kit up to a 40-meter-high crane. Every way we tried to bring the heavy camera kit up involved climbing up a lot of ladders.
There was also no telling who had the stomach to work on a crane. Crew members who felt they would have no problem with the height ended up not being able to take the movement. The tower of a crane twists and turns sideways as it slues around and bends forward and backward as it lifts up a load. Being up on the tower, hearing the crane creak and seeing the metal of the structure twist in front of you can be a rather unnerving experience.
During filming, my producer and I got obsessed with weather forecasts, checking on them every few hours to see whether the following day might be suitable for filming. We were worried not only about rain and visibility but also about wind speeds, as cranes stop working when the wind gets too strong. We turned up plenty of mornings at a site, only to be told that we would not be allowed up the crane that day. On one particular morning, we actually climbed up a 43-meter crane with all our equipment, only for my cameraman and sound recordist to arrive at the top and decide that they could not take the weather conditions.
Regardless of the difficulties of organizing the filming and carrying the equipment up on the crane, there are still very few moments that can beat being up on a tower crane for the first time. Even now, endless climbs later, I am still amazed at the view of the world you have from up there. Walking down the back jib and looking through the thin, perforated metal floor at the ground below is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.
City of Cranes is beautifully shot, with a wonderful soundtrack, and fascinating narration from crane operators. How would you describe the film stylistically? Tell us a little about your aesthetic choices. Why did you make those choices?
Stylistically, I wanted the film to highlight the separation of the drivers from the world they are building, so I decided to divorce the drivers’ narration from the images of them in the film. Rather than classical interviews, we hear the drivers’ thoughts and recollections as if we are privy to their internal monologues.
Visually, it was important for me to highlight the beauty and gracefulness of these massive steel structures as they glide through the air, almost weightless. My intention was to make a poetic and lyrical documentary that takes the viewer out of their normal existence and immerses them in a different world.
Who do you want to see the film?
This film is for anyone who has an interest in discovering a world they do not normally notice or think about. I love when people tell me that now, after they’ve seen the film, they are always looking up into the sky to look out for the crane drivers.
What was very special to my producer and me were the reactions of crane drivers at screenings, and via emails and text messages. One driver emailed me after a screening saying that after watching the film, his family, for the first time, really understood what his life was like up there and what his job involved.
What are you working on now?
We are currently completing a companion piece and follow-up film to City of Cranes. Part city symphony and part visual poem, The Solitary Life of Cranes explores the invisible life of a city, its patterns and hidden secrets, as seen through the eyes of crane drivers working high above its streets. Within the loose structure of a day, starting with the drivers climbing up at dawn and ending with them coming down after a nightshift, the film observes the city as it awakens with a bustle of activity, goes through the lull of midday, endures the manic rush in the evening and calms down again deep into the night. Throughout, the drivers share their thoughts and reflections on London and life in general. The film is an attempt to understand what becomes of the human spirit in such extreme working conditions. It also asks the question: What is the psychological impact of these powerful man-made structures on the men and women who operate them and who spend most of their lives removed from the world they are building? What emerges is a lyrical meditation about how our existence is shaped through the environment we inhabit, both for the drivers high up in the sky and for the people on the ground. Made with the support of the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation, The Solitary Life of Cranes premiered at the Britdoc Film Festival in July 2008, where it won the award for Best Short Film.
I have also just completed another short film, Steel Homes, which will premiere at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam. A portrait of life at a self-storage warehouse, Steel Homes explores the fragmented nature of memories, set in the starkly beautiful aesthetic of our modern industrial world. Self-storage units are windows into human histories: the silent cells with their discarded objects and dust-covered furniture are inscribed with past dreams, secret hopes and lives we cannot let go of. Moving from steel cage to steel cage, we encounter tales of heartbreak, loneliness and despair as well as stories of liberation, adventure and leaving the past behind. Steel Homes is a trailer for our upcoming feature-length documentary L.A. Storage.
Through our production company, Odd Girl Out Productions, we are also currently developing a number of other long-form documentary projects documentary as well as Ghost Wives, a feature-length drama.