On Sunday, August 3rd, the film Bending the Light premiered at the Traverse City Film Festival. Directed by acclaimed director Michael Apted—whose work includes everything from the Up documentary series to the Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—this documentary explores the relationship between photographers and their cameras.
Bending the Light was commissioned by the photography company Canon to mark their production of more than 90 million lenses. Apted had creative control over the documentary, which included interviews with workers from Canon’s Utsunomiya factory in Japan and acclaimed photographers and cinematographers. The filming—which took place in Japan, London, Egypt, and the United States—only took 15 days, but the editing process took over six months.
MyNorth’s Adrienne Roberts sat down with director Michael Apted to learn more about what he learned from making the documentary and what came out of it that he didn’t expect.
Did you go in with any preconceived notions about the documentary and have your opinions changed by the end?
No. With the Up series, it was more of a cultural thing. When we started doing that, it was all based on a very strict class system. After we had been working on that for 20 years, we began to realize that that wasn’t true anymore. So in some ways we had to adjust our thinking. Not all of it, but a lot of it subconsciously, like the fact that those class-rooted things hang around forever but they aren’t necessarily instructive. But with this, no. This was a difficult film to put together but the central idea of it never changed.
Why was it difficult to put together?
I had a lot of material to work with. It took me forever to figure out what order to put it in. Sometimes I mixed two of [the interviews] up and sometimes I just stuck with one person. Then if I could do strong linkage between the Westen photographer and the Japanese [lens factory worker], I would do that because I wanted to weave [those storylines] together. It took a lot of trial and error. You can’t even imagine how many efforts I had. At the end, just with any film, you have to stop. That was the difficulty of the film, not the idea. It was figuring out what was the most potent way the film together so you got some sense of a journey. You [wanted to make sure you] weren’t repeating yourself or you weren’t showing two people that were very much alike.
How long did it take you to make this documentary?
Well, the shooting was ludicrous! I shot for 15 days. The post [production] took forever. The post probably took the best part of six months to do. It was totally unbalanced, in a sense. No one really knew what it was going to be. They knew what the substance was but they didn’t know if it was going to be a 20-minute film, a 30-minute film, and then it was “Oh no! It’s going to be a 60-minute film!” That kept changing and that’s what made post-production so difficult.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
I’m so involved in the visual arts with the job I do and I was very interested on a fairly basic, technical level how photos were made. I’m always interested in what still-photographers have to say for themselves. I’m sure it’s a great gift that they have—to have a good eye. There’s a difference between an ordinary photograph and a great photograph, and it isn’t necessarily very much but it’s something you can spot. It’s sounded like a fun thing to do—to spend some time with some photographers, watching and filming them work. The subject appealed to me and [Canon] didn’t want it to be a commercial. They meant what they said about that, which was a bit of a relief.
Is there something you personally took away from this documentary that you weren’t expecting?
I learned new ways of expressing things, I suppose. The line that Stephen Goldblatt [an Academy-award winning cinematographer] had, “A great photographer sees something that no one else sees”—I loved that. Watching people work is huge information for me. My job is just being with people. I can’t necessarily define what I pick up from it but I’m so curious to see still photographers direct their scenes. Their job isn’t simple.
Watch the trailer for Bending the Light here.