A Quiet Word With: Wonderful London Filmmaker @mrsimonsmith

Last month the Londonist posted a video by filmmaker Simon Smith. What made this video so special was that it combined footage shot 90 years apart. Simon used archive footage from 1924, and then went and found the same angles to get exactly the same shots; layering them together so that viewers can see just how much, or how little, London has changed.

History Mine: Where did you get the idea from?

Simon Smith: In May last year, some archive of London went viral online, and along with millions of others I found it quite beautiful and inspiring. As a weekend project, I decided to try and replicate it. Six months later, and my first film, which was a split screen comparison, was being watched all over the globe.

Technically though, I knew I could do something better, more impressive and stylised, so I started experimenting with super-impositions. Then I found the brilliant archive film Wonderful London, and very quickly my latest film was created.

HM: There is a trend of placing old paintings into modern street scenes, is this connected?

SS: Definitely, I always loved those other techniques, utilising stills and situating them in the same places. I was surprised that no-one had done it with film before.

HM: Do you think the introduction of Google Street View was influential?

SS: Not really actually. I love Street View, and the digital exploration it encourages, but I didn’t use it at all for this project. I already knew all the locations as I live in London.

HM: Where do you find the old footage?

SS: The old footage is available on DVD from The British Film Institute (BFI), though some of it is online, and sooner or later it will all be available online. Pathe have recently put their archive on YouTube which is really stunning and interesting as well as being quite important I think.

As with all information, the internet really democratises it, breaks it free for everyone to see, and use, and learn from. We’re playing catch-up, as we started filming things a century before YouTube made it possible to share it with the world – that’s a hundred years of footage we need to upload, but we’ll get there I’m sure.

HM: How hard is it to find the right angle to match up new and old scenes?

SS: I know a little bit about lenses, and the practicalities of using a camera, and what I realised was that back then they probably only had a single fixed focal length lens. As soon as I worked out what this was (about 28mm, with a much smaller crop factor than my full frame Canon camera) it was incredibly easy. If I’d used a range of archive from different sources it would have been much harder, but I knew this was just one camera I had to copy throughout.

HM: Which locations have changed the most? Which have changed the least?

SS: Most of London has stayed the same I feel, but what was interesting was the amount of locations I went to where there was scaffolding, or boarding, road works or building going on (it’s everywhere) and I wonder if we’re in a transitional phase where very soon this kind of film might not be possible.

Thanks very much Simon! You can check out more of his work at mrsimonsmith.com. If you know any other people we should be interviewing, please get in touch!

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