Sensual Awakenings

Bach Is Blue, directed by artist and filmmaker Sophie Kenny, explores the world of Kate (Victoria Emslie), a young woman who is rediscovering her senses in the moments after she awakens from a coma. Here, Kenny and Emslie talk to ASFF about the process of bringing this remarkable short to the screen.

ASFF: How did Bach Is Blue start for both of you?

SK: Bach Is Blue originated by a group of young creatives involved in the ‘BAFTA’ crew programme, who came together to make a short film on the topic of ‘senses’ in 60 seconds or less. We wanted to lead the viewer on a visual journey and challenge their thoughts on how the world could be experienced from an altered state of consciousness. To what extent can those in a coma experience the senses many of us take for granted? Are they amplified, dulled or somewhere in between? The story was inspired by real cases and conversations with experts in neurology and patients.

VE: I was brought the project by the film’s producer, BIFA-longlisted Jasmin Morrison, and knew as soon as I saw Sophie’s mood-boards and spoke to her over Zoom, that this was a project I wanted to get involved with. It spoke to many parallel facets in my own life which had become more acute during the lockdown, and by gradually opening up about my own neurodivergence, this has brought a number of friends to speak more openly about their own experiences – some who have synaesthesia, which we felt was very connected to the journey of Kate.

ASFF: How did you set out to visually conceptualise Kate’s awakening?

SK: I was inspired by immersive sensory installations by Artists like Rioji Ikeda, TeamLab and AA Murakami. The feeling created by simple techniques of light play, texture, mirror and shape by these artists combine to immerse a viewer further in the piece and evoke emotion and feeling. The aim was to place the viewer as much as was possible, into the space of a patient experiencing a semi-conscious or ‘locked in’ state.

Our production designer, May Davies built a beautiful, full 360 world-within-world ‘womb’ like structure, that you could wander into and be entirely lost in. In this way we could jump into it and shoot in any direction. In our story, this protects Kate but also is a metaphor for both her transformation and powerlessness in the situation. To further build upon Kate’s world and to maximise the abstract design and immersion of the piece created by May, I decided to light solely using analog lighting techniques that I use in my work as ‘Astral Projections’. I work with oil wheels, photographic slides and coloured chemicals and inks manipulated by hand on an overhead projector. All combined, this created a distinct swirling, ever changing, completely analog look, further distorting the shape created by the set design. Victoria Emslie’s portrayal as Kate was entirely vulnerable. Despite having the massive challenge of having to be motionless for many parts of the film as a comatose patient, in the moments she could express herself in the ‘cocoon’, she cycled through an intense discovery of what it may be like to find yourself in a situation like Kate’s – from abject horror and isolation, to awe and relief.

ASFF: How did you both research this topic?

SK: In our research, one case study stuck out – the work of Neuroscientist, Dr Adrian Owen. His most notable work was forming a way to communicate with patients in ‘locked in’ state through posing questions in an MRI scanner and seeing what areas of the brain responded to simple questions. Our story was inspired by the first patient that ‘broke through’ in this study and communicated via MRI. Owen’s study found that around one in five patients in a persistent vegetative state are cognitively fully aware, meaning many patients previously thought to have no awareness were in fact, completely the opposite. It really opened up our mind to general misconceptions of disability and semi-conscious states.

ASFF: The film deals with issues of mental health, something more talked about now than ever before. How important is that for you both that we keep this as an open discussion, without stigma?

SK: In Bach Is Blue, we were aware of telling our story respectfully in light of the particularly troubling subject matter and aware of the fact we didn’t want to sugar coat what is often a completely terrifying experience for those in it. What we do want to show, is the incredible work that was done by Dr. Owen to offer a lifeline to those trapped without a voice.

VE: On set, we are starting to see the emergence of Wellbeing Facilitators, who are part of an ongoing push to ensure safer and more dignified workplaces for all. They have become so successful and essential that there is a need to train and skill up new people in this field quickly. To find out more you can visit our friends at 6ft From The Spotlight. The pandemic made us quickly look at our budgets and adapt them in order to find ways to hire Covid Supervisors on set, in addition to other protocols. Once we find our way out the other side of this moment in time, I hope that we commit with the same rigour, allocations in our budgets for Environmental Specialists, Intimacy Coordinators and Wellbeing Facilitators.

ASFF: The short was made with emphasis on sustainable filmmaking. Can you talk more about this?

SK: So often on set we see things being done in an overly complicated and wasteful way, when if we really look at what we want to make, you can do so much with light, colour and reusing materials.

VE: During the months leading up to the start of the pandemic, there was a small group of us in the Industry working in front of and behind the camera who became the founding members of a grassroots organisation called Cut It: Crew Led Action To Fight The Climate Crisis. With grassroots movements, the great thing is that everyone can get involved and play their part; they will not be making the bigger decisions e.g. to switch to green energy providers on a production, but they can influence how they travel to work, what they bring with them, what waste impact they have, and for HODs there is an empowerment of thinking outside the box in terms of reusing costumes, gels and other materials which should have more than a single-use lifespan.

Bach Is Blue premiered onstage at Latitude Festival, Suffolk, in July 2021 and is currently on the film festival circuit. Find out more here.

Images: Photographer: Lill-Veronica Skoglund, Actor: Victoria Emslie, Lighting: Astral Projections, Set Designer: May Davies, Costume Designer: Zophie Robinson, Hair and Make Up Artist: Lily Simmonds.

James Mottram