We caught up with Lindsay before the transmission of Time to Fly, to talk to her about her journey into filmmaking, underwater camera work and how her previous work helped with the sensitive and very personal nature of the film.

About Lindsay’s background and her unique skill-set

Before 2011 I was working in community arts and support work with both children and very vulnerable adults who had brain injuries, dementia, learning difficulties, down syndrome and so on. As an artist I was using a broad range of practical skills to try to find a way to help these patients communicate – whether that was with a camera, or a pencil, or just talking and listening to music.

In 2011 I decided to take my career in the direction of film. It meant I could describe my skill-set more easily, and also, it’s a more marketable thing.  So I started working with a group of local filmmakers and we made short films.  I was mainly camera but I did some directing as well.

I was already a diver, so it was natural for me to also became an underwater camera operator. I commuted to Bristol for a year and a half to work for an underwater camera company. I’ve had a number of jobs through that – I’ve been Doug Allan’s assistant. Doug Allan is a famous wildlife and underwater camera operator. I’ve worked with him filming seals and filmed him filming icebergs in Canada. For some reason, I always get chucked in the cold water! But I’ve also worked on other productions as underwater camera operator, like ‘The Nest’, and I’ve met Gerald Butler on a boat too, which is funny.

So that’s been the underwater camera journey. I only get two or three jobs a year now because it’s so competitive and I’m not in the right place – i.e. Bristol or London. One has Pinewood and the other has the Natural History Unit. I’m happy to keep it going, but I can’t rely on it for money.

Success with Scottish Documentary Institute’s Bridging the Gap scheme

I’d actually applied to Bridging the Gap three times. I was working in factual television – that was the type of language I understood, and I was used to presenter-led productions, but I wanted to make my own documentaries.  So I applied to Bridging the Gap, three times.  I skipped one year, so it took four years!  All my ideas were water themed and then Swan came along and the human interest aspect of it really resonated with the SDI team.  I think as soon as they saw the trailer of April and her mum, they just fell in love with her.

Both Swan, and the more recent Time to Fly (on BBC Scotland Thurs 25 June at 8.30), are about Sami and her daughter April. How did you meet them?

The relationship came about through the local group I was making films with.  Another filmmaker, who knew I’d worked with people with complex needs, said ‘why don’t you come along and meet this lady – she’s a single mum, like you, she’s got an autistic daughter and I’ve always thought about making a film with her’.    So we met Sami and had a long chat.  That must have been about 2012/2013, at a point where April’s communication and health was problematic, and before she’d had an operation to help her with her adenoids, which calmed everything down.  The other filmmaker was also a man, and laterally I think Sami (April’s mum) maybe felt more comfortable with less people, but also with a woman filmmaker.

I’d stayed in touch with Sami, and so when Bridging the Gap was announced with the ‘Women’ theme, I thought well, April’s coming up to 16. Might it be a possibility?  So I met April and we hit it off. April was the clincher, because if she hadn’t accepted me, then the film wouldn’t have happened. I just had a tiny, little camera, we filmed for a little bit and I got snapshots of April and Sami together. April and her mum were comfy with me, and the rest is history!

How much filming did you do for each film?

I did two sessions before Swan was commissioned.  Then I maybe filmed with them for a period of two to three days each time over a period of nine or ten weeks.  But after Swan, I was exhausted.  As a documentary filmmaker you take on other people’s stories and their pain and frustrations.   With Time to Fly, it had to be broken up into filming for sometimes only half an hour at a time.  But it was a three hour round trip.  I had to take two weeks out over Christmas and I would have been burned out if I’d not done that.  That’s a thing that’s not really talked about – the exhaustion and the emotion of dealing with sensitive content. It affects filmmakers a lot.

What were the main ethical and practical challenges of filming a teenager with complex needs?

The thing is, if I missed something with April, I couldn’t ask her to repeat it, I’d have to wait until the next week when she was following the same routine.  There was a fish and chip shop scene in Swan, and I thought I’d be a smarty-pants and film it on a wide lens.  It just didn’t work.  But I couldn’t ask her to come back until a couple of weeks later.

In this kind of situation you have to think quickly and creatively about what you’re trying to do and say. You just have to hit the record button and then move in on the shot.  I suppose it’s like wildlife filming – if you see the basking sharks coming towards you, you just hit record, you don’t have time to line up the shot! They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, and its the same with filming observational documentaries with kids, you’ve just got to get the best you can.   So it’s not like other filmmaking in terms of having a set script and scenes, you’ve only got broad ideas of what you want to do – a framework – and you’re recording what moves through that framework, but you can’t control what goes on.  You can only say ‘ I am filming on the beach on Wednesday’.

For April, she was becoming more and more self-aware throughout the process of filming. April at 15, didn’t really know who that person was in the mirror.  By the end of filming Swan she was far more aware of herself in the mirror.  I’d let her see through the camera and let her touch and see what was going on on the LCD screen.  Eventually she would turn around the LCD screen – that was her screen and mine was the eyepiece.  As time progressed, she knew that I was there to film her, it was her thing, and she would push her mum out of the shot.

There was definitely a journey for me and April in that short film. We had an ethical framework – if she walked out of the frame (and we did this with Time to Fly as well), that was her telling me she didn’t want to be in it any more. I knew we’d got to the crux of the relationship when she verbally said ‘not want the camera’.  That was a massive step for her.  She’d learned about filmmaking and the camera and she learned to be assertive and tell me she didn’t want it.  I thought that was brilliant.  But I wouldn’t put it in the film because that was a moment for her and me.

Were you worried that, with so little control over what might happen, that there wouldn’t be a fully formed story to tell?

Very much so for Swan.  We knew we were working up to April’s 16th birthday, and we had to make this a character film.  There wasn’t a storyline as such.  It was about the mother and daughter relationship and getting to know who April actually is.  You can’t do that with April on her own.  She can’t tell you what she’s going to do, and the way that she will do it.  So the way that you understand who April is, is through the dynamic between her and another person.

Swan was such a different film to Time to Fly. Swan was about a mother and daughter, and their situation in the house, and their very close relationship. You understand that although this young girl can’t speak alot, she is still a teenager and you can see that by the way that she rolls her eyes at her mum or other small things she does.  Time to Fly was much more about Sami, and it’s got a definite journey to it.  It’s far more narrative, and there’s a lot more speaking in it.  This was more difficult for me in a way because I prefer for things to have more space. Being from an artistic background, I like things to be a bit more lyrical, but there was less space for that in Time to Fly, apart from the short clips of April on her bike or on the trampoline.  These parts were deliberately filmed in slow motion as they provided those lyrical moments, and we were starting to understand the constraints that she had within her life. The constraints were entirely different from Swan, because she’s not able to get home anymore, to cut loose with mum.  These activities such as trampolining and cycling are the only points she’s able to have a kind of freedom.

What are you and Sami hoping you’ll achieve through Swan and Time to Fly?

Swan gave Sami a chance to show the world how she’d been coping with her life, and her unique relationship with April.  Time to Fly is slightly more political, its saying that this is universal to many people and it’s an issue which needs light shed on it.  It isn’t a character story like Swan.

I hope that many other parents of autistic kids see it.  I’ve said this to Sami and I’ve tried to give her more ownership.  I hope it becomes a catalyst for other parents to feel that they have a voice too.

And what next for your filmmaking career?

I am hopeful about work in the future. I really felt my skills coming together for Time to Fly because the process was different – it was more structured and scripted and it took me into a different type of directing.  So I do feel that my career will move.

I can’t compete with younger camera assistants that are lugging masses of kit around and going away for months on end, for the underwater work. I am known to the BBC now, and if there are things going on in Dundee they’ll maybe give me a call.  I want to push my TV career quite deliberately in the direction of being an observational documentary director, because I’d still love to hang out of a helicopter filming something! There’s life in the old dog yet!

With the BBC it’s been about getting in there and not being too proud.  I had a BAFTA nomination for Swan and then it was suggested I go back into a running role.  I didn’t do that, I hung off for a researcher role and as soon as I got the researcher role two more came along.  So I have quite a lot of experience of doing that now.  You can’t be too proud, you’ve got to prove to them that you can cut it.

At the moment with Covid, I’m very grateful to have a solid NHS cleaning job.  I know it sounds daft but I do it in the morning, I come home and I have the rest of the day to do other things.  I have started another project. As soon as lockdown started, I thought, I need to know how other people feel about this.

But more about that next time…

Time to Fly is airing on BBC Scotland, Thursday 23rd June at 8.30pm.

It is one of three short documentaries made through the ‘Right Here’ scheme between Scottish Documentary Institute and BBC Scotland. ‘Right Here’ funds and supports emerging documentary talent in Scotland to make 30-minute creative documentaries for broadcast.   

Swan will be SDI’s film of the month in July, and will be accessible from the SDI website.