Literatures, Languages & Cultures

Breathing new life into fascinating archival footage of Scotland's lifeboats on our wild seas

Shona Thomson tells us how the making of her FOCAL Award-shortlisted film is being used on our Film, Exhibition and Curation programme to help students explore working with archives.

Launch! On the Sea with Scotland's Lifeboat, a new film directed, researched and edited by Shona Thomson, has been shortlisted for a FOCAL International Award in the category of Best Use of Footage in a Factual or Natural World Production.

Photo of Shona Thomson with composers after a performance
Shona Thomson (middle) with 'Launch!...' soundtrack composers (l-r) Jenny Sturgeon, Jason Singh, Arun Ghosh and John Ellis. Image © Eoin Carey Photography.

Alongside her work in film exhibition, Shona teaches on our MSc programme in Film, Exhibition and Curation (FEC). Her specialism is in applied learning - offering students the opportunity to see and learn from live examples of industry work. 

Over the past year, FEC students have been learning about and responding to the process of making 'Launch!...', which features archival footage from the collections of the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) and an atmospheric soundtrack commissioned by Shona.

FOCAL International represents archive libraries in over 30 countries, and Shona has previously won a FOCAL award for her work on innovative platforms.

Starting a conversation

Working with archival footage is a key part of our course in Applied Exhibition and Curation. Taught in the second semester of the FEC programme, the course tasks students with designing, creating and pitching their own creative film exhibition group project incorporating archive film in some way.

Asked why it’s important to work with archival footage in teaching, Shona says “looking back at films of the past may not seem so relevant, but actually we're reflecting the dynamic conversations happening right now in the film exhibition sector. My experience is that archive film always starts a conversation in a room about where we are now and where we’re going.”

"Moving image archives are fascinating spaces to explore, research and engage, particularly now as we move from socially distanced lives back into collective gathering spaces like cinemas”.

“From the libraries of public institutions to the immediate artefacts created digitally by us all, more footage is being discovered, giving us an opportunity to work through the often hidden complexities and ethics of permissions to screen films to the public.”

“Representation in key in this. One of the biggest questions facing archives and curators at the moment is who is represented in film collections and on-screen and, perhaps more importantly, who isn’t represented?”

I am incredibly grateful to my colleagues Susan Kemp, Jane Sillars, Andy Moore and Fraser Elliott for their work connecting live case studies like 'Launch!...' to current academic scholarship. Their enthusiasm is infectious provoking students to reflect on and question relationships between the creative re-interpretation of archive film and audiences.  

Shona ThomsonLecturer and Applied Learning lead - Film, Exhibition and Curation MSc

Teaching resilience, adaptability and collaboration

‘Launch! On the Sea with Scotland’s Lifeboats’ was nearly three years in the making and, together with her co-producers at Screen Argyll, Shona had to navigate and adapt to uncertainty at every stage, largely due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The film was originally planned to be screened with musicians Jason Singh, Jenny Sturgeon, Arun Ghosh and John Ellis performing their score live, but the team was only able to present one performance at Celtic Connections in January 2020 before successive lockdowns paused (then cancelled) plans for a live tour. A year on, international music producer David McEwan recorded and mixed the soundtrack remotely with Jason in Devon, Arun in London, Jenny in Shetland, and John in Yorkshire.

Talking about the creative process, Shona says “the collaborative soundtrack you hear was inspired and empowered by the archive footage that resonated with each unique musical soul in the group. I feel this creative cohesion between archive image and sound is recognised in the FOCAL International Award shortlisting and it’s an honour that my musical collaborators put so much of themselves into it.” 

“The power of collaboration and partnership models is a significant element of the applied learning activity we offer to our FEC students. As well as with musicians, I’ve been able to share my experiences around the process of collaborating with the RNLI, who gave me unprecedented access to their film archives, sourced and licensed footage, and had local teams fundraise for screenings”.

Photo of performers playing music in front of a screen showing archival footage
"The collaborative soundtrack... was inspired and empowered by the archive footage that resonated with each unique musical soul in the group". Image © Reece Straw / Underhill Creative.

Inside and outside the classroom

This year’s FEC students were studying Applied Exhibition and Curation when the 'Launch!'...' team finally managed to tour the film to thirty cinemas and community spaces across Scotland.

The project was presented to the group as a series of blog posts, then they were able to watch, question and discuss the film with Shona in a collective viewing on campus, as well as experiencing it with the public in venues like Filmhouse cinema and Macrobert Arts Centre.

Additionally, they were introduced to other moving image collections, including the University’s own Special Collections in the Centre for Research Collections and the moving image works held in the University’s Art Collection. 

Having access to all angles of a case study on the scale of 'Launch!...' meant that the students have been able to see both the challenges and successes. Subsequently, when tasked with working with archive footage themselves - being "ambitious yet realistic" in their ideas for a creative film exhibition group project - they impressed Shona with their responses to the brief and how it will impact on their studies going forward. She says "we've seen an impressive range of brilliantly creative ideas sparked by the students' own research, passions and collaborations. This is now feeding into Final Project work over the summer and hopefully beyond to life after graduation."

As an audience member, I think Launch! successfully conveys the feelings and emotions connected to people’s stories. And the music is lovely! The tempo and the emotion are tightly connected with the change of plot. In the second half of the film, I almost cried.

Qiongying HuFilm, Exhibition and Curation MSc student

'Launch! On the Sea with Scotland's Lifeboats' was supported by: EventScotland through Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 -2021 and Scotland’s Events Recovery Fund; The National Lottery and the Scottish Government through Screen Scotland; and Film Hub Scotland, part of the BFI’s Film Audience Network. 

The winner of the FOCAL International Award for Best Use of Footage in a Factual or Natural World Production will be announced on 23 June 2022. As well as ‘Launch!...’ the shortlist includes work made by NBC, National Geographic, Sky, and director Kevin MacDonald. Keep an eye on the students work too. In 2019, Applied Exhibition and Curation students Amanda Rogers and Anni Asikainen won the International Council on Archives award for Best Film Explaining the Relevance and Importance of Archives for their project Why Archives Matter for the Scottish Council on Archives.

Related links

Find out more about Launch! and watch the trailer on Screen Scotland's website [external site]

Find out more about Shona's work on A Kind of Seeing [external site]