British Filmmaker Ella Brolly’s short narrative “Automaton” is a story about grief, passion but most importantly forgiveness. After the death of her father, Eva returns home to attend to his life’s work: his automata. They shared a passion for mechanical clockwork figurines, but his was so great and all-consuming that he lost sight of the most fundamentally human part of himself. He neglected his love for his daughter. This is the story of Eva’s appropriation of her grief; a journey of discovery and self-attunement.
After a hugely successful screening at Berlin Lift-Off, we interviewed director Ella to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and her path as a filmmaker.
Interview by Sneh Rupra
First of all, how did it feel for Automaton to be screened at Berlin Lift-Off?
This is my first short and our first time screening at a festival, and it’s an absolutely spectacular feeling to be able to see Automaton on the big screen. It’s quite nerve wracking but also very exhilarating.
Did you enjoy the Lift-Off experience, and meeting some of the other filmmakers also screening?
The whole thing was seamless. Lift-Off made everything very easy and walked me through the process step by step. It was really inspiring to be around so many talented creatives and see some of the programmed filmmakers in person.
How did you come up with the concept for this film?
Growing up, I would often spend a lot of time at my best friends Maud’s house. By chance her parents, Michael and Maria Start are the magic behind the “House of Automata,” a business (as far as I know the only one in the UK) which repairs and restores Automata (Victorian clockwork figurines). I would often come for dinner with their family, and Michael and Maria would show me their latest projects which were always mind-bogglingly fantastic.
I grew up constantly in awe of these clockwork marvels, so when it came to creating my own film it’s no wonder I was drawn to them. Their nature and unique quality lends itself effortlessly to cinema. When I proposed the idea of making Automaton to them, they were incredibly helpful, and opened their doors to a small university film crew – something they would never have done normally, as their collection is valuable with many rare and delicate pieces. They assisted us the whole way through the shoot, helping to set up different pieces and even letting us use their workshop to shoot in. None of this would have been possible without them.
What was the casting process like?
The casting process was much less gruelling than I had expected. For the voice of the father I already had a man in mind. This part requires only spoken dialogue. He was Scottish and had a deep rumbling tone to his voice which carried off the wise and philosophical passages perfectly.
To find our actress for Eva however I had to go more the traditional route. Luckily, as this was the only character we had to put through auditions, it meant that we really had time to focus and get it right. We sent an advert out on Casting Call Pro which had a really great response. We had a really clear vision of what we wanted to do and a clear plan of how we were going to achieve it, and I think that was what drew people to the project.
We were really spoilt for choice but after a couple of rounds of auditions we went with Shene. She had a really gentle nature to her and seemed to take to the character of Eva very quickly.
The props used in the film, from the intricate automata to the beautiful old projector, create such a strong atmosphere – how did you go about getting those so perfect?
When I started writing the script I contacted Michael from the “House of Automata” directly and worked closely with him the whole way through. I’m very lucky as we were on a minute budget and his assistance made the whole project so seamless. All of the props came from his collection and we were in contact frequently; Michael showing me his most exiting latest pieces and I would weave in what worked. This made the whole process very organic and incredibly authentic as all the pieces were sprung from the workshop of an actual master of automata just like Eva’s father from Automaton.
Did you have Michael train Shene for the scenes where she had to handle the parts?
We had Michael on call for the entire shoot so that he could handle the automata personally. They are all very delicate Victorian antiques so require an experienced hand to set them up. Michael also was kind enough to talk our actress Shene through the nuts and bolts so that she could handle the pieces with the care and precision that somebody whose been trained to do so might.
We are so incredibly lucky to have somebody like Michael onboard. He was trained as a watchmaker then developed his passion for automata into his career and is now one of the only experts in the UK.
Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?
Every film has its little challenges and this being our first it was all one big massive learning curve, nothing stands out however as being a major setback to the process.
The relationship between the father and daughter is so present throughout the film — was that something you were keen to explore?
This was a theme I was keen to explore, not necessarily out of personal reasons but more out of general interest. Eva’s case is an extreme one – her and her father have been out of contact for years and he has just died. However, I believe there’s a certain point in most people’s lives as a young adult where they begin to look at their parents without the forgiving love of their youth, but with a more critical eye as an adult in their own right. A point where they reconfigure what is right and wrong, what their parents did and what they might have done differently. In that way I think most people can relate to this theme in some way.
Did the experience of making this film change your perceptions in any way?
I think what Automaton taught me was to use what you have to your best advantage, and that just because something comes to you easily it doesn’t mean it’s a less authentic or less creative idea. Filmmaking, especially budget filmmaking, is about being able to use what you have been given to the best of your ability. A kind of sink-or-swim situation. We were a student film and had a minuscule budget of around £1500 which we raised ourself to cover everything. I called in a lot of favours from creatives I knew in Scotland but the best move I made was to work the idea around something I was already familiar with and had access to – this fought half the battle for me. Sometimes financial limitations feel like a massive set back, but they can force you to be more creative with what you have to your disposal.
Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Nothing developed enough to be talked about as of yet but I do hope to be working on something in the not too distant future.