The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard

Thursday 23 January 2014, 09:43

Martin Wallace Martin Wallace Director

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Jarvis Cocker and I have been firm friends for about 25 years, since studying filmmaking together at St. Martin’s School of Art.

In April 2013 he called and invited me to get involved in making a film he’d been asked to provide music for.

He told me it was based around an amazing collection of BFI archive that focused on steelmaking and the uses of steel.

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A rhythmic reimagining of archive footage showing how we use steel in everyday life

After seeing some of the material for myself and ensuring that the producers and financiers were very ready to support a bold approach, it became an easy decision to sign up to what would become The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard.

At first I came on board as director and then later, when we understood how nuanced our approach was to be, also as editor since we realised it would be impractical to include a third person in our immediate work process.

For the next few weeks, on and off, Jarvis and I immersed ourselves in several days’ worth of footage.

We depended upon our deep trust of one another and an existing shorthand for communication that we have developed through working together closely many times over the years.

It’s safe to say, I could not have worked in this way with anyone else and I believe the film we have made together is, because of this, unique.

The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard Setting the scene: Steel changed the whole nation but it was rooted in a particular landscape

We worked in ‘chunks’, grouping film footage in various ways: sometimes by explicit subject, (there was lots of footage of turn-of-the-century workers emerging from factory gates); sometimes by visual texture (contrasty shots of steel lattice work); and sometimes by more latent connotations footage had (lots of material featured young people and this instinctively felt important).

Simultaneously, we gathered recorded music that we felt was appropriate in different ways.

For example, the music from Kes seemed to chime with the footage of the Rotherham youth putting two fingers up to the camera.

Some music was chosen because of its links with Sheffield: the live music premiere of the film was to open Sheffield Doc Fest 2013, which was also celebrating 100 years of stainless steel making (Richard Hawley and The Human League).

Other times it was simply that music seemed to have a certain mood that fitted our intention: the Max de Wardener track had a manic, ritualistic feel that helped with the idea of people gathering for strange ceremony.

The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard Finding new meaning in steelworkers’ concentration and focus

At another level, the music was always aiming to have an eclectic, celebratory function.

Once we had these various chunks, we began to try and fit them together in such a way as to build something that both developed and made some formal sense.

A big guiding factor here was the live performance of the music with the film – we wanted to give the audience an experience that had various gear changes and eventually built to a massive crescendo and then a decaying coda.

We also worked and reworked the internal details of the chunks in order to develop motifs that worked across the film and helped develop something of a subtext to the basic action.

The Crucible Theatre (where the premier took place) has a deep, horseshoe stage.

With 52 musicians coming and going in the half-light, even a 10 metre screen (the biggest that would fit within the proscenium) meant that the film played second fiddle to the music that night.

But that was how it was always meant to be. That’s what led us into such interesting territory.

Of course we also wanted the film to eventually be able to stand on its own feet and hold an audience for over 70 minutes - no mean feat for a non-narrative piece.

Ultimately, I felt the best way to achieve this was to take a playful approach with the archive material, an approach that 'unshackled' the archive from its typical function of illustrating history literally.

The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard Captivating images from the archive move away from social history to take on a new poignancy

I wanted to use it so as to trigger lots of associations between the various clips, so that the viewer helped give it new meanings.

In my head, I approached the editing with the idea that I was building something of an alternative history, one that perhaps had echoes of some kind of extraterrestrial conspiracy theory; a twisted time-capsule for future generations.

At the same time, though, I wanted to retain what I saw as the deeper, 'emotional' truth about how steel production changed the world and affected deeply the people who had toiled to make this possible.

I don’t know if Jarvis was nervous on stage the night of June 12th when we performed, but I do know that as the lights dimmed and I looked on from the mixing desk, pushing the play button on the film, I certainly was.

Now that we've fixed the film and the live music in time - I hope some of that tingling excitement can still be felt.

Martin Wallace directed and edited The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard.

The Big Melt - How Steel Made Us Hard is part of Storyville on BBC Four at 9pm on Sunday, 26 January.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC. 

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