Created to help bolster awareness of UK mental health charity Mind, Crowns & Owls’ powerful short WIT H IN opens a visceral window into the tumultuous whirlwind of emotions experienced by those of us (approximately 25% of people in the UK each year) who suffer with some form of mental health issue. I spoke to Crowns & Owls about the personal connections which spurred them to meet the difficult challenge of conveying the myriad spectrum of sensations collectively experienced by sufferers but far too rarely understood by others.
This is a deeply personal film for Crowns & Owls and also an important subject which needed to be approached with great consideration and respect. How did the commission come to you from Mind?
The film wasn’t commissioned, which was one of the things we feel is important to stress in regards to the creation of the piece. We actually approached Mind to partner with us for the project, and they were incredibly trusting and supportive of the idea. There was no brief or guidance from the charity, they just wanted something truthful. We wanted to treat the film as a self funded donation to an organisation which has been very important to us individually. All three of us have had varying experiences with mental health and Mind have helped us navigate during some very testing times in our private lives. The film is an attempt of transparency with our experiences, it’s us at our most vulnerable.
There was a huge amount of responsibility to make sure we used broad brush strokes with this film, so we opted for brutal honesty. The dialogue in the film is constructed from a group therapy session between us. The film’s intention isn’t to necessarily speak for others, but rather to articulate our experience with a problem that is so deeply ingrained in our society, with a call to action to ask people to engage with the issue on a deeper level if they empathise with the subtext.
There was no brief or guidance from the charity, they just wanted something truthful.
A major barrier facing people who suffer from mental health issues is the difficulty of conveying the inner turmoil they constantly have to battle with. What preparation did you undertake to ensure that WIT H IN would be true to that experience?
The main motivation for the imagery came from open conversations between Crowns & Owls – talking about how we could viscerally convey the sensations we feel in our day to day lives. It was a very interesting process as all of our experiences are somewhat different, especially when dealing with the dichotomy of anxiety versus depression within the collective – naturally they move quite differently as conditions.
It was about finding a balance which felt true to each of us on an individual level but remained coherent as a single film. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when you’re navigating a mental health problem is remembering you’re not the only person that’s feeling that way. We figured being as truthful as possible to ourselves was the best chance we had at making WIT H IN resonate with others.
The stony landscape reminds me of your earlier Omnion music video, what guided your choice of location?
It’s actually shot in the same location. The whole conceptual backdrop of the film is that you’re supposed to feel like you’re on a journey that you can connect with on a primitive level. We wanted the film to be as visceral and human as it could be – everyone knows what it feels like to be cold, everyone knows what it’s like to feel lost.
The stark locations had to directly feed into that atmosphere. A lot of the locations were places we’d visited in our private lives that had stayed with us, but also mirrored the task in which the character is going through – literal mountains to climb, chasms to haul yourself free from. The lake district in the UK felt appropriate for the story.
Could you tell us about the different approaches required for the location vs the studio shoot portions of the film?
The location shots in the film were shot with a skeleton crew. Literally 5 people and Dennis Okwera, who played the lead role. The set up was hyper minimal – Kodak and Arri kindly sponsored the film, but we were aware that the locations were remote and the shoot was going to be very physically demanding – so we decided with Adam Barnett (our DoP) to keep our 35mm camera package as lightweight as it could be. We used no monitors for the film – literally just the camera, the rolls of film, the lenses and a pentafinder for framing. It was back breaking work, but we feel the rawness of the shoot itself is very present in the finished film.
The moments in the red light space were actually shot in one of our houses and were captured digitally. This really was a zero budget film, so we made do with what we had.
WIT H IN rightly feels like an abrasive attack on the senses, how did you go about constructing the visuals and sound in order to achieve that?
It was about leading with feeling over thought really – the film wasn’t even really shot listed. We had loose ideas of what we wanted to capture – but we relied on our collective gut once we were on location with everybody and just captured what felt like an accurate depiction of our experiences.
Sonically, the film is very considered. We work incredibly closely with our Composers Small Press Music on all of our projects, and this one was particularly deep. It was about pulling on tones and textures that feel ancient and universally relatable – chanting, horns. Our Sound Designers Ed Downham and Ned Sisson played a huge role in creating the atmosphere of the film – we mainly used organic elements, but electronic sampling was important too, using them as contrast for vivid moments of tension.
We wanted the film to be as visceral and human as it could be.
As well as this film you’ve launched a fundraising limited edition photobook, how did that aspect of the project come into being?
The photography side of the project actually predates the film, purely because photography can be achieved far easier than moving image when you’re self funding. We always had the ambition to make the film, but it took a little while to get the support in place to make it possible. We literally couldn’t have made the film without our sponsors. In terms of the book, we wanted to make something physical, which we get to do so rarely in our chosen vocation. It also felt like a tangible way of raising funds for the charity – which was ultimately what WIT H IN was and continues to be about.
What do you hope that viewers, both those with intimate experience of mental health issues as well as those with no experience at all, will take away from the film?
Ultimately, our hope for this body of work is for it to serve as an experience of empowerment for the viewer. We hope to highlight the power you can obtain through sharing your struggle, and how your struggle can be used as fuel for collaboration, creation and catharsis. We hope to highlight the power of choice you have as an individual when faced with afflictions that can feel so insurmountable.
Organisations like Mind allow people in the UK to have that choice, but they need help. The fight for better mental health is an ever-changing one and the conversation has reached new heights in recent years. But there’s so much left to do. We have to get people talking about conditions beyond just anxiety, depression and PTSD, we have to vote for MP’s who are keen to save the NHS. We have to keep pushing. We are proud to support Mind through our work, in return for how much they have supported us as a collective.
You can find out more about Mind and the work they do to support mental health here.