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5 Lessons from Making the Mysterious Ashley Bickerton 



I graduated from university in 2020. What a time. In the months leading up it was prime lockdown, only allowed outside once a day for “exercise,” all shops closed and only the essential services were operational, all the while there was a notable lack of toilet rolls from store shelves. 


In the final run of my degree, all I had to focus on was my dissertation, and a final essay for another course. That’s all I did for those months. My dissertation was on the evolution of science in London during the 1700s, the other essay was on RAMM-ELL-ZEE and the impact of graffiti. I rewrote the latter in my first ever blogpost on this site, it was definitely my favourite of the two. 


So by June 2020 I was a graduate, despite there being no ceremony. I worked construction, bar jobs, even as an Amazon Delivery driver for two horrific days. I just looked for ways to make money. 


The problem was I was a moron, and lacked the skillset for any of these jobs to last long. 


Cut to late summer, rejected after a final-stage interview and now living with my parents. I had no idea what to do with myself, so I send out an Instagram DM to Ashley Bickerton telling him I liked his art, he had an interesting story and I wanted to make a film on it. I didn’t expect much from it at all. 


3 weeks later, an email pops up from him saying he’s interested, and I had caught him at the perfect time. Fantastic, and the phone conversation that ensued went something like this: 


Ashley: Do you have any experience making films in the past? 


Me: None. 


Ashley: Okay let’s wing it. 


Thus started my first ever film project, a biopic about Ashley Bickerton to the tune and name of Gray’s song “The Mysterious Ashley Bickerton.” I explore the story of Ashley and the song in much further depth in this blog post. 


The project started in October 2020, and to my mind, this was something I could get done by the end of the year, make Ashley a very happy man, have something good to jumpstart my career and make my parents proud. 


The project ran through to December 2020, and all of 2021, and was still in the works during 2022. By the start of 2022, I texted Ashley saying that by whatever means, this film will be completed this year. 


The final render was done on the evening of December 31st 2022, when I marked the project complete. 


Sadly, Ashley passed a month earlier after complications relating to Motor Neurone Disease. Though he saw much of what the final film looked like and gave it his blessing, I was sad to never have been able to show him the full final product. 


But for myself, this project was a huge undertaking - much more than I could have ever imagined going into it, and has been incredibly formative in terms of my thinking and direction since. It’s always been in the back of my mind to reflect on this project, and discuss what my learnings and takeaways were from doing this. That’s the subject of this post. 


5 Lessons from Making the Mysterious Ashley Bickerton 


Reaching Out Apparently Can Work? 


Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows the feeling. You could write the most well-composed email, flattering them beyond belief and decorate with the greatest charm and wit ever seen. It can, and often does, fall on deaf ears. 


There are far too many cases where blind emails or attempts to contact go unnoticed. They end up in a spam folder, they get caught in a tidal wave of other, more pressing emails, or they get seen and just ignored. It happens all the time. 


I sent that DM to Ashley on a whim, kind of a “fuck-it” after failing to get a job. I had no expectation this would come through to even be seen by him. I was a 21 year-old recent graduate who realistically wouldn’t have even been able to deliver on what I was saying if pressed for a plan. 


Ashley lived in Bali, 8,000 miles away with 8-hours of time-difference between us. The idea of a response felt pretty improbable. 


The email came back three-weeks later, and I felt proud enough I could elicit a response, but I didn’t assume it was smooth sailing from there. For the next few weeks, each response or conversation was a milestone. A call-back a week later made me feel fortunate, each email felt like a win. It wasn’t until I sat and interviewed him for 3-hours that I stopped this way of thinking, at this point I really had everything I needed to at least produce something. I suppose that was all I needed. 


From there, I started to see what could happen when I took chances. As I said the film was originally based on the song by Gray, “The Mysterious Ashley Bickerton.” Why not contact Gray? So next was an email to Michael Holman asking if I could use the song. After explaining the project, he gave a number to call, and suddenly I’m at the end of the phone being told “just go for it.” 


There was a huge moment there of “okay, what?” Not only because this had just happened again, but also because I realised shortly after our call that Michael Holman had ties to RAMM-ELL-ZEE, and this was a guy I had been quoting for my essays months prior to this call. 


Since then, I’d had a bit of back of forth from him, being able to ask questions about his song, as well as get some feedback on parts of the project I was working on. Holman is an incredibly busy guy. While he still runs Gray, I often see he is involved in various film projects, as well as working on exhibitions - last year I saw some of his work at the “Beyond the Streets” exhibition at the Saatchi in London. All to say, I was surprised even more to be getting responses, and unbelievably grateful. 


As well as others who had I made contact through Ashley, getting fonts, extra bits of footage and others, I also got to reach out to a team in Toronto who provided great mentorship while producing the film. 


While I was working retail in December of 2020, I had mentioned my film to a colleague, who gave me an email to contact. By the new year I did just that with a short snippet of what I had made so far. 


After a few calls, I was suddenly sending more and more edits over, and had found myself a mentor in the team at Zero11Zero in Toronto Canada, a relationship still going on today that has helped massively in shaping what I do for my living now. 


Saying all this does sound a bit self-aggrandising, but it’s not without purpose. The overall point I learned from this experience was that putting yourself out there can prove a massive help in the pursuit of something. There was certainly nothing to lose in making these contacts. 


It wasn’t all roses, I can list off a whole reel of emails I sent that never received responses, or were rejected. Where I did get responses, the influence it had on my project, and determination to make it as good as possible, was incredible.


Maybe part of it was touching onto something they were passionate about, which certainly helped, but they didn’t need to respond. I found it a massive credit to them that they took the time, and it very much taught me the importance of taking a chance on yourself in these scenarios. 


Ideas and Reality, Mind the Gap 


Listening to right song, my mind will wander. I credit it to years of my childhood spent watching music video channels and certain Youtubers. When my mind wanders, ideas can get big. Ashley’s film was no exception. 


There was a pretty big problem off the bat of making this though. I had enough recorded interview to create a narrative, and I had enough imagination to be able to construct a story for what I was doing. 


The problem as I saw it then was two-fold: the first issue was that Ashley lived in Bali, and I lived in the UK. Not only did I not have the money to fund a trip that far, but it was still 2020 and the pandemic was still very much active around the world. 


The second problem, was that I had zero-experience in making any film.


I had to be creative. 


I began by drawing from what I knew, and what I might be able to make a film look like. A part of my study of RAMM-ELL-ZEE was an excellent film by Oscar Boyson. It was a fast-paced narrative that was able to effectively keep this mystery around the character in question, revealing details but leaving the viewer with a sense that RAMM-ELL-ZEE will never really be understood. 


That was a good place to take inspiration from. A contemporary of RAMM-ELL-ZEE, Ashley’s story is shrouded by a lack of answers. Gray’s song speaks to this; a journalist is trying to understand Ashley by asking complex and intricate questions about “art and life” to which Ashley only gives a single monotonous response, “yes.” It’s only by the end of the song there seems to be something leading to an answer: “okay here we go” by then the instruments take over and the song concludes. 


So there was the structure, ask the questions but don’t necessarily reveal the answers. Ashley had even admitted himself that he was always drawn to being more enigmatic, stating that whenever he felt defined he would run as far away as possible. This was a man who had grown up in every corner of the world, found success in a thriving, and now historic, art scene in New York, and then ran away from it all to live on a remote island and completely redefine his style. It suited. 


The RAMM-ELL-ZEE film was also great for its motion-graphics, where pictures and artwork told more story that structured film. That was the next solution, turn Ashley’s artwork into motion-picture. 


How to best do that? Photoshop. 


…Well that only got me so far. Don’t get me wrong it’s an incredible application for cutting and sticking, and it has capabilities to make moving designs. Those motions however, can only last a few seconds before it starts getting more complicated, and my god is it a frustrating tool to use. 


So next was After Effects, an incredible application for making complication motion composites from pictures. The problem here was that the learning curve is almost a 90 degree angle. There is a very particular way to interact with this software, and not adhering to it can be punishing. 


I could go on for hours about my frustrations with the Adobe products, but this isn’t the time or place. The point to be made from all this, was that how I saw my visions and how I created my visions were two entirely different things. One is exciting, gets your heart racing and blood pumping. The other can provide enough stress at times to put your heart to a stop. 


The learning curve took chunks, and it certainly provided some pretty tough mental callouses that have defined how I work today. It never helped that, by my very nature, I can be criminally impatient to see results. 


The gap was a huge test of my talents and attitude, and the hours put into something for it to look clunky and out of sync almost killed me. It wasn’t really until the summer of 2022 that things started piecing together for me, and workflows became much easier to handle and approach. 


I had a kind of mental-shift, instead of trying to bridge the gap between vision and manifestation, I was able to observe the gap. Where did the problems lie? What preparation needs to be done to overcome any troubles before they arise. With that mindset, work became so much easier. 


I learned that work needs to be done in preparation to make the gap as easy to navigate as possible. Once I had mastered that, workflows and attitudes adjusted accordingly and suddenly I was able to create something as close to my original vision as I deemed possible. 


It Doesn’t Work Until It Does


Much like the above point, but with more acknowledgment of what went wrong. Some things were able to work. I pride myself on my ability to craft a narrative, it’s something I had done for years growing up and it almost certainly helped me throughout my degree in English. 


As already said, my technical ability to create something was far from up to scratch to build something of the calibre I wanted. It was through this I developed my “it’s complicated” relationship between myself, creative software and the computer. 


Now don’t get me wrong, computers have been one of the greatest innovations of the modern era. I have a lot of respect for what Alan Turing did, not only did it save us at a critical moment in the Second World War, but it also meant I can build a website a share my thoughts with you. But computers, and the constituent components and software we put on them, at times can absolutely do one. 


I started this project on my MacBook I got during university. Trusty machine, able to do everything I wanted, and I ran all my edits through Final Cut Pro, Apple’s editing software I had been using since I was about 12. It’s trusty and easy to use, but for what I wanted to make, it was at times frustratingly rudimentary and had me banging my skull against any solid object I could find. 


I soon conceded, and moved myself over to Adobe softwares. The first issue was the price, but my student card hadn’t yet expired, so the blow was softened somewhat. Good job as well because the bigger issue was that my computer certainly struggled to handle these programmes. 


Fans would kick in the moment a loading screen appeared, myself and the “beachball” loading icon became very well acquainted. It wouldn’t be long into working that my laptop would make that sound only the Saturn V could make moments before it embarked on the Apollo Mission; it seemed to generate a similar level of heat too. All to say, I was learning the definition of a “technical limitation.” 


So after working through Christmas and pooling my money together, I bought an upgrade: the M1 Mac mini. This was when the apple silicon chips had just been released and took all the computer nerds by storm*. It’s ability to run the complicated adobe apps and render heavy videos for the price it retailed was unheard of. I got myself onboard. 


Suddenly, life became a whole lot easier, I was working off a desktop and not bending my neck every day, there were no fans kicking in and everything ran smoothly. 


The only problem was now the state of my edits. 


The first full cut was done in March of 2021. It worked but there were glaring issues. Styles were disjointed, narratives would overlap and repeat the same points, and musical motifs overextended, proving more annoying than entertaining at points. 


I certainly had a film made, but not a film I wanted at all. It fell short. As I said earlier I wanted this project done by December 2020 so I could get my career going, but that wasn’t going to happen when my film looked like this. 


So I spent the next months addressing these issues, looking at alternative ways to problem solve, exploring new films and how they approached topics and stitched them together in films. I made attempts to replicate these, to varying levels of success. 


The second cut I made by late 2021, and there was an improvement, but there was still a feeling of a disjointed style and overextended narrative. It was better, but not good enough. 


So I repeated what I did before, and carried on building on these skills. 


Fortunately for this project, I had found myself faced with a redundancy in 2021, prompting a pretty big life shift that took me to London. In the time between that redundancy and move to London, I had found plenty of time to build on my skills while working other jobs to pool the money together for rent. That time proved especially important in tying off the smaller skills to make it towards the third and final cut. 


The film wasn’t perfect, but it was a giant step from that first-cut. Things looked smoother, narratives were more concise and coherent, and the sense of style was there. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was good enough to be proud of. 


Ashley had seen much of the third cut before it’s final release, and praised its style and narrative craft. That alone was a huge achievement for me. 


It had taken a lot of failing, and there were learning curves on every front to overcome in a kind of trial-by-fire (maybe there’s a pun about my old laptop there) that led to the final product. But it had given me a very valuable lesson on pushing through the tough times to get where you want to be.


Not What you Want, But What You Can Get


Back again to the Oscar Boyson RAMM-ELL-ZEE film. That was what I wanted to make. To this day that film serves as an inspiration towards the kind of productions I want to be making. It has excellent narrative pacing, its style is somewhat antiquated, but done in a novel way that fits the narrative. It mixes media in a way that crafts an enticing and compelling story. 


For the entire time I was working on my film, I wanted it to be that. That film was my benchmark. 


In hindsight, there’s an inherent problem with that attitude. This was a film made by a team sponsored by Red Bull Arts, all of whom had years if not decades of experience making films and were all-around experts with great support. Meanwhile, I was a 21 year old graduate who had zero experience. 


The expectation was unrealistic and overreaching by a long-shot. It certainly wasn’t a healthy comparison. 


Much of the motion graphics are an attempt to recreate what Boyson and his team did, obviously with a change in subject and context. 


Every time I would create it to that style, fit it to that pace and edit it as close as I could, and every time it felt as if something would be missing. This where I slowly learned about the various nuances in edits and motion-graphics, something I’m still working on to this day. 


I’ve been a graphic designer and video-editor for the past few years of my career, and if I’ve learned one thing it’s that, at times, it can be a thankless task. That’s not so much a complaint, because I’ve had to take time to learn this, but much of the brilliance of good visuals is in the very subtle details - any visual creator will have come across the phrase “good design is invisible” and it rings incredibly true. 


The subtle features can often be the most defining, yet the least noticeable. I guess it’s kind of like how a bridge is held together by the wires and brackets that most people take no notice of, because it’s irrelevant to how they use the bridge. Were they not there, the bridge would be obsolete, ruining a lot of people’s commutes and livelihoods. 


Fortunately, this isn’t an industry where the stakes are that high, but the point still stands. Part of the excellence of visual media is in the smaller details that can hold things together and create better coherence. It takes experience and a whole lot of doing to learn this. 


When making my film, I didn’t know this myself, and so it was a huge point of frustration when my film didn’t have the same pizazz as the RAMM-ELL-ZEE film I strived to achieve. 


Now yes I’ve stated it’s an unhealthy comparison to make for your first project, but I don’t necessarily regret it, given that ultimately it kept me determined to strive and achieve. As I’ve said I’ve made something I’m proud of, and though it ultimately isn’t to the level I wanted to produce this film at, it showed me what I am able to get with the determination to learn and achieve. 


Two and a bit years of constantly trying to make this film as good as it could be, I had to put a line in the sand. There’s a lot to be proud of, and the response was largely positive. It provided a great starting point to move forward, and approach the next film with a better vantage point and more determination.   


The Passion Gets You Through 


I can’t express how important Ashley Bickerton was to shaping the next few years (and I imagine the rest) of my career, and how fortunate I feel to have been able to work with him. As I’ve already mentioned, and the film itself showcases, Ashley’s career can’t really be defined, and that seems to be intentional. 


In the early stages of his career, he was defined by his contribution to “Neo-Geo” and placed among the likes of Jeff Koons, Peter Halley and Meyer Vaisman. Soon enough, when he had felt his chapter in New York ended, I’ve been told stories he parked his car at the airport and never went back to get it. He had moved to Brazil to continue his art career, and then across to Bali, where he spent the rest of his career and life. 


Then, people related him to Gauguin. It’s a notion he thought ridiculous, as the only comparison in his eyes was that he had moved away to an island. It wasn’t to replicate the quest Gauguin had pursued; as he described it, it was an attempt to return to a place he was comfortable, as a boy who had grown up in the tropics, and also give himself time and space to pursue ideas he harboured for years. 


The artwork transformed entirely, and in one series pointed directly at the critics by imitating Gauguin with the blue men. It was entirely about the passion he had to make what he loved. 


I had recently read an article from Gagosian, the art gallery who promoted Ashley, speaking with Jamian Juliano-Villani and her new exhibition. She had worked with Ashley in the past, and had discussed how she had learned to pursue what she loved in her career from him. That, to me, encapsulates what Ashley and his career were about. 


Speaking with him, he certainly felt like an encyclopaedia of art-history and contemporary artists, sometimes a very complex one with the eloquent way he was able to speak. His passion for art and creativity was readily apparent from the moment he spoke and definitely showcased a man who loved what he was pursuing. 


That’s certainly what inspired me to keep at this project. Ashley never provided a moment of doubt, and was readily available to provide help, whether that be footage, contacts or in some cases re-recordings. All of this during an extremely difficult time in his life, one day calling up to tell me “I’m dying” after his initial diagnosis of Motor-Neurone Disease. 


While I continue to admire the passion showcased by all of those who have helped me along this journey, Ashley will always be central to teaching me how passion for what you do will take you miles. 


In our interview for the film, he had told me part of his decision to move away from New York was because he didn’t like the netting under his tightrope. At the time, I had just graduated and didn’t know what I was doing with myself, which I joked about. In response, he said “if you have your wits about you it tends to work” which has stuck with me to this day.


It was ultimately quite a bittersweet ending to a behemoth project, but I owe everything I’ve achieved through that to Ashley’s grace, and will continue to credit my attitude moving forward to what I learned from him. 


Conclusion


If you’ve not already gathered from the words above, this was a pretty big project for me that I was proud to have done. If you want to read about it or watch the film, the links are here and here


I’m always looking for interesting stories to tell on this blog, and always appreciate getting in contact to chat and write-up about what’s going on. If you have a story you want telling, a business that has a great story or just a tip towards something, let’s get in contact. 



*I say this not to offend, I count myself among the crowd now

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