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3rd July 2013
Tokyo dreams
Title of film: Tokyo Dreams
Director: Nicholas Barker
An art house film in which practically nothing happens has just had half a million hits online... We catch up with the Rogue director Nicholas Barker about shooting undercover

Tokyo Dreams is a wonderfully intimate portrayal of people sleeping on the Tokyo metro, were the subjects really oblivious to being filmed? How did you shoot the footage so discretely – especially as the Japanese are so reserved?

Tokyo Dreams was filmed candidly. The camera was in my lap or around my neck on a strap. I was never able to look through the viewfinder. Instead I had to guess the frame and focal distance. I would then surreptitiously check my image and have another go. I would obsess in this way until I had a frame I was satisfied with. The problem – nine cases out of ten – was by the time I’d got an image to work, my subjects had generally woken up or left the subway! It was a technical nightmare. But as the days went by, I became a patient and determined hunter. I practise a martial art called Qi Gong and got better at using my legs to gently absorb the movement of the train. I wanted images that were as calm and static as my sleepers, and production values that were infinitely superior to those normally associated with candid filmmaking.

For the first couple of days I felt highly self-conscious about what I was doing. I’ve always been a voyeuristic filmmaker but I have never stolen people’s souls before. Filming on the Tokyo subway was an opportunity to think out loud about human vulnerability, the miracle of the sleeping face, and my own motives… As the days turned into weeks, I became technically more proficient and utterly fearless. By the 14th day, I felt like Harry Potter in his invisible cloak. Nobody seemed to notice me anymore.

My work is generally satirical. I set out to make people uncomfortable with edgy, often absurd observations about human behaviour.. With Tokyo Dreams I had to park my satire at the subway door. Perhaps I’m getting soft… but something in the faces of these sleeping commuters seemed to demand a gentler gaze. So I set my self a rule. I would film no-one I believed to be drunk or emotionally derelict. I held firm to this principle, except possibly in one case… but I’ve always said ‘rules are there to be broken’!

What is your relationship with Tokyo? Did the idea for the film come out of frequent observation of passengers?

If I believed in reincarnation – which I don’t – I’d have to conclude that in a previous lifetime I was Japanese. The moment I land on japanese soil I feel strangely at home. I like the way the Japanese look, I like their manners. and I profoundly admire their aesthetics : film, photography, Kabuki, Ukiyo-e prints , ceramics, food, Manga…the list is endless. The Japanese have always understood that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing with an insane level of craft and precision. Little wonder the place appeals to a highly controlling, anal film director.

When I arrived In Tokyo I had no idea what I would be filming. A couple of years ago I shot a short film called Japan Likes Pink which nobody seemed to like much except for me and my then girl friend. The objective this time was to try to appeal to audience of more than two.

On the face it, sleeping commuters, are not a particularly sexy subject. But I became ever more intrigued by the possibilities of the sleeping portrait. How, I wondered, do you generate a potent portrait if your subject is robbed of his or her eyes? The great Walker Evans images from the 1930′ s of sleeping commuters on the New York subway were never far from my mind.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all – and I only discovered this when I got back to London – was the film was not really about Japan at all. It just happens to be populated by a lot of Japanese faces.

We are assuming it was a light-weight portable camera kit you used to be so flexible. What equipment and crew did you use? Please tell us about the shoot.

I used The Canon 5D Mark 2. There was no crew. Just me, good trainers and two constantly flexing knees.

Did the film evolve considerably in the edit – was it a matter of finding a rhythmic pace of miles of footage?

The film took three months to edit. I was working with Ray Stevens at FAMILY editing (he cuts all my commercials) and slowly and determinedly we waded through and whittled down 15 hours of rushes. The biggest problem was staying awake. If you look at closing eyelids long enough, yours start to do the same. Tokyo Dreams was always going to be a fairly extreme exercise in film minimalism, and if nothing much was going to happen of ten minutes, we would need to bring a great deal of rigour and discipline to its shape and construction. We worked out a complex system of classification so that tiny gradations of sleeping behaviour could be isolated, bundled and and then played with in the Avid.

I love to be rude about advertising (it’s called biting the hand that feeds you!) but there is no doubt that the highly specialised, diabolic skills we use in ‘story-telling’ ads greatly helped in the crafting of this little film. And Ray Stevens is definitely the ‘cut-down king’.

There was always going to be a temptation to stick music over the footage, and I knew we would have to resist it. I began my career in radio drama and have always loved that sense of ‘being there’ you get from ambient sound. We probably spent as much time working on the sound design as we did picture edit. It was then left to Gary Walker at 750mph to ‘stereoify’ this sound design, and enhance and sometimes completely rebuild our sound tracks. I was filming, of course with with a built-in mic. This wasn’t a matter of choice. An external mic would have completely blown my cover.

Finally the film was graded with real delicacy by Seamus O’Kane at the Mill. It is worth noting that all the post production for Tokyo Dreams was donated for free by a cast of professionals and their companies who normally work on my commercials. How else could one get to make a highly polished ten minute film in which almost nothing happens? Huge gratitude!


Nicholas Barker

To see more work of Nicholas Barker’s please go to:

Tokyo Dreams Director: Nicholas Barker Editor: Ray Stevens, FAMILY Grade: Seamus O'Kane, The Mill