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Mud Creatures Invade an Estuary in a New Short Film

'Creature of the Estuary' is the second in a series of three experiments in on-the-fly improvisational filmmaking.

by Catherine Chapman
Oct 17 2016, 12:40pm

Actor Callum Bishop as a Mud Creature. Creature of the Estuary - a film by Eelyn Lee. Image courtesy of Eelyn Lee

When building a monster, improvisation and the natural landscape take precedent. In a short film called Creature of the Estuary, the second part of a collaborative project by Eelyn Lee, the artist explores new ways of filmmaking. Set in the mysterious surroundings of the Thames Estuary, Lee uses the idea of place as something for actors to take inspiration from, developing character, backstory, and storyline as a result.

“The whole project is investigating the idea that we create our own monsters out of fear,” Lee tells The Creators Project. “I’m trying to explore this in different ways but then using the [Thames] Estuary as a landscape as a backdrop for the drama to play out.”

Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and shot over a six-day period, the 22-minute film was presented at the inaugural Estuary 2016 arts festival, showing scenes that transpired through conversations with nearby residents—coast guards, fishermen, houseboat owners—and were devised by both professional and local actors. 

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Creature of the Estuary - a film by Eelyn Lee. Image courtesy of Eelyn Lee.

For Lee, this was a project a long time coming. “I’ve been inspired by estuaries for years,” she says. “I really like its metaphorical qualities, this place where salt and fresh water mix to create this unique and rich environment of natural wildlife. For humans, it's often a gateway to cities, attracting migrating people. I’m from a Chinese-English background and I think I’ve grown up in this sense of not quite fitting into one world or another and I think estuaries kind of feel like these in between spaces where the unexpected can happen.”

Lee began researching new ways of filmmaking in December 2014, when the filmmaker set up a five-day workshop with a group of artists, musicians, and actors at the Barbican Centre in London.

“The idea there was to try to make a film in five days using different processes of improvisation,” says Lee. “Not only improvisation with actors but with all the film elements at all the same time. So we had live musicians in the room, the art director in the room, obviously the camera, the editor and so forth in order to try and develop all the film elements simultaneously.”

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Actor Debbie Korley  as a Seaweed Collector. Creature of the Estuary - a film by Eelyn Lee. Image courtesy of Eelyn Lee. 

While straightforward in theory, having each part of the normal filmmaking process happen all at once—planning, filming, and post-production—made the workshop begin with some difficulty.

“Having live musicians in the room was a first and some of the actors kind of reeled against it,” says Lee. “But very quickly the actors and musicians just found a way to work together. This was a new way of working for everybody so everyone was out of their comfort zone but by day three we kind of found a way and created our own language.”

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Actor Chris Fenwick  as a Mud Monster. Creature of the Estuary - a film by Eelyn Lee. Image courtesy of Eelyn Lee.

Props were used to assist actors in creating their own characters and the worlds in which they lived in. “The art director would kind of instigate by bringing in some material such as cardboard, blankets, and masking tape, quite rudimentary stuff, and then the actors were encouraged to build their own environment,” explains Lee. In the end, the 16-minute Monster was completed, allowing Lee to then adapt these concepts, as well as some of the characters, to the Thames Estuary follow-up, Creature of the Estuary.

Lee is now working on a feature-length film, which she aims to complete in 2017, as the final instalment of investigation into innovative, improvisational filmmaking. Keep updated with the project here.

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