Simon Mulvaney’s documentary Out of Mind is an exploration in aphantasia, a neurological condition which prevents people from visualising imagery in their mind. Mulvaney’s doc is structured around Alex, who after the loss of his mother felt able to move on fairly swiftly. This probed Alex to examine what may have led him to be able to do this, resulting in him learning about aphantasia. It’s a fascinating insight into a condition which has only recently been recognised on a wider scale. Directors Notes spoke with Mulvaney about how he first came in contact with aphantasia, what led him to discover Alex and his story, and the desire he felt to convey it to audiences through the personal as opposed to the statistical.
What brought you to make a film about aphantasia?
I wanted to tell a human-centred story that educated viewers about a complex neurological condition, provided an insight into the unexpected, emotional impacts of the condition, and communicated the nuance of whether such a condition could be considered a ‘good or bad’ thing for the individual.
When did you first hear about it as a neurological condition?
As of November 2020, like most people, I had absolutely no idea what aphantasia was. So when Anna O’Donohue, a producer at WIRED UK, contacted me to ask if I would be interested in directing a short documentary about it, naturally, I was a little intimidated.
It was important that we focused on people, rather than facts.
It wasn’t until I began my research, that the fascinating nature of this little-known condition, began to reveal itself to me. The idea I pitched to Anna, was to approach this topic from a human-centred-perspective, rather than focusing too much on the science. Yes, we would inform our audience of the neurological markers of aphantasia and the events that lead to its discovery; but in order to make any of that mean anything, it was important that we focused on people, rather than facts. This approach was a bit of a departure from WIRED’s usual approach to content creation, but nonetheless, they put their trust in my approach and away we went!
How did you begin to piece everything together and decide on how you would convey what aphantasia was to audience’s who hadn’t heard about it?
Our first step was to understand how aphantasia affected people. The best way to do that, to speak to them. December was a wash of international video calls, with aphants all over the world, who Field Producer Lewis Faithful, managed to track down online. We would ask them these questions: What do you know about aphantasia? What happens when you try to visualise something? What is your version of imagination? How do you perceive the past, present and future? How does it affect your life?
During these conversations, some of which made it into the final film, we spoke to Alex Wheeler, a young man, whose family were still coming to terms with the tragic loss of their mother. The introspective journey that Alex had been on, over the past few months, touched upon many of the themes, articulated by the diverse community of aphants that we were speaking with. Through receiving Alex’s blessing to orientate our narrative around his unique story of self-discovery, we knew we had a film that could bring together a lot of these common themes, through the journey of one individual.
By continuing our research, we ended up speaking to artist, YouTuber and social media influencer, AmyRightMeow; whose long-lasting understanding that they had aphantasia, seemed to contrast Alex’s recent discovery of the condition.
In addition to this, Producer Anna O’Donohue managed to secure a small slot in renowned neuroscientist, Professor Adam Zeman’s busy schedule, for him to lend his scientific knowledge to the tale. Adam’s inclusion came as a huge win for us, as he headed the team of researchers who coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in 2015 and is respected internationally as a pioneer of the subject within the scientific community.
When it came to setting out and shooting footage, how were you looking to portray aphantasia on a cinematic level?
The way in which we approached production circulated around Covid-19 restrictions. We tried not to see these restrictions as ‘problems that had to be overcome’, but rather, just as ‘our new normal’. I hope that these restrictions fade into obscurity when watching the film and aren’t too distracting or obvious, to the viewer.
We began by shooting our non-scripted interviews and cinéma vérité b-roll, all of which had to be done by myself, in a one-man-band, run-and-gun, natural-light set-up, due to our extremely tight budget. Although this approach can achieve an intimacy that is very difficult to match, any other way, it comes with a number of technical and aesthetic limitations. In order to remedy this, as well as visually articulate the workings of the inner-mind and provide images to some of the more abstract subject matters, expressed during our interviews, we planned a few days in Foundry Film Studios, with a micro-team of specialised HOD’s. For this, we relied on the skills of Cinematographer Dan McPake, Gaffer Chris Sarginson and Art Director Deborah Du Vernay, all of whom brought an inspiring level of passion, creativity, craft and artistry to the project, in order to work around our substantial budget limitations.
Who did you work with on both the animation and the score?
Post production was approached in a collaborative way, with myself taking on the selects, offline and online editing and Barcelona based animation duo Run Zebra Run (Luis Vilanova & Gabrial Russo) taking on all of the animation work. Our music score is made up of a few pre-composed tracks from libraries, interwoven with an original composition by London-based composing due Bloodmoon (Liam Hennessy and Joe Danher).
What would you say were some of the biggest lessons you learnt in making Out of Mind from both a filmmaking perspective but also about the representation of neurodiversity?
We hope that what we have created in this tight, 19 week period, with a small team of ten people and an extremely tight budget, is an emotionally driven story that, not only educates audiences to the existence of aphantasia, but to neurodiversity, as a whole. The experience of making this film, of learning of the existence of aphantasia and of coming into contact with a rich, online community of aphants, has taught me not to be so tough on myself, both as a filmmaker and as an individual.
By better understanding how our minds naturally work; the abilities we have and the abilities we do not, we are more easily able to embrace who we truly are.
We all have elements of our neurology that may be deemed as strengths or as weaknesses by wider society. We may be able to change some of these elements, but we can rarely change all of them. By better understanding how our minds naturally work; the abilities we have and the abilities we do not, we are more easily able to embrace who we truly are, and in so doing, may be better equipped to discover inner-peace, free from anxiety and self-blame. If this film is able to help a small handful of people in this journey, I know that everybody involved will feel as though they have accomplished something truly special.