Monday, January 28, 2013

Scent in Film: The Memory Maker

The Memory Maker from Alexander Whitehill on Vimeo.

Alex Whitehill has never met a perfumer, but he's no stranger to the effects of fine fragrance and the power of the sense of smell. His film, The Memory Maker, is a charming animated short that visually articulates what it's like to be taken back in time when one encounters a scent associated with a loved one.

None of the characters in The Memory Maker speak, but their interactions with each other in a variety of settings are universally understood. The Memory Maker encapsulates the truth of smell's powerful connection to memory, but most of all, it is a testament to the power of imagination.

There is much in Whitehill's character of the 'Memory Maker' that reflects the playful nature of perfumers; something not often seen in the media. The character of Joyce, portrayed in two distinct life phases, makes one question established notions of time and what it means to grow old. Glass Petal Smoke caught up with Whitehill to find out what inspired him to make such a delightful film.

1. How long have you been making films? Is this what you do as a creative endeavor or do you do this for a living?
This was my first animated short film that I produced in 2011 during my final year of University at Goldsmiths College, where I studied media and communications. I’ve not made anything since, but do have a couple of ideas in mind that I would love to bring to life. Currently I work planning advertising at a media agency in London.

2. Your film is "Inspired by the mysterious world of olfaction and its fascinating ability to evoke the strongest of memories..." Have you experienced this personally?
One of my favorite smells is of freshly grated lemon zest, which always transports me back to being a child helping my mother make lemon meringue pie for dessert on Sundays. I have always had a strong sense of smell and love reminiscing when I smell certain things by closing my eyes and being taken back to specific periods in my life.

3. "...The Memory Maker depicts a fictional world where this magic can be captured and treasured for later use." This description resonates with perfume lovers and those who are aware of the connection between scent and memory.  Are there colognes that you enjoy which resonate with this statement?  Any moments in your life that you would like to bottle for later use?
I noticed the transporting power of fragrance when I was about sixteen and found a new fragrance, Armani Attitude, that took me right back to a friend’s house I used to visit when I was a child. I could almost hear the music that was playing in the background then.

I buy some fragrances because I associate the smell with a fond memory. Other times I buy new cologne for times in my life that I want to remember, such as holidays abroad, maybe Christmas with the family, or simply times when I feel my life is going well and I’m happy, in the hope that sometime in the future when I smell them again, I will be transported back to that time and feeling.

I once spent an extortionate amount of money on a bottle of Agrumi Amari diSicilia by Bois 1920 before I spent a summer interning in New York. When I smell it now, I am whisked back to hot summer nights in the city, and traveling on the subway, the feeling of confidence and excitement. Ironically, halfway through my three months I was feeling homesick, so I bought a bottle of Dior Homme, my signature fragrance that I had left in England.

4. The way the film transitions from the Joyce's childhood memory to Joyce sitting as an old woman is poignant and quite effective. What led you to editing the film in this manner?
Using a close up of Joyce’s face and zooming out, I wanted it to be a moment of gradual realization for the audience that this was the young girl who they had seen smelling the ‘memory’ in the shop. You may have noticed, before we enter the memory the little girl inhales and closes her eyes, and as we leave, Joyce exhales, open her eyes, and pulls the bottle down to her lap. This was to tie both parts together and inform the audience that the old lady is the young girl.

5. The character of the Memory Maker plays a piano that is a catalyst for combining ingredients that are visual and colorful. How did this evolve as you were making the film?
I was having a hard time trying to think of how to visually portray the making of a memory. I had formulated the idea of a machine that would turn the ingredients into a memory, but I needed to make sure the audience could really feel the process. I added the glass ball as a way of showing the mixing of all the colors of the jars. At this point of the process, I had already asked my then boyfriend to help compose the soundtrack on the piano. I realized how beautiful it would look if playing the piano powered the machine. It added the element of creativity and skill I needed the Memory Maker to have, instead of just pushing a button on a machine, and provided an extra audible signifier for the audience.

6. There is no dialogue in the film which makes all the other senses invoked more powerful. Do you think your film would have been different if the characters spoke versus gestured?
Absolutely. I’ve always found that the power in films with no dialogue lies in the subtlety of character expression and movement. In the scene where the girl is on the train, I spent a long time deliberating over how to portray the feeling of love the girl felt for her father. I have faded memories of only being tall enough to hug my parent’s legs and I think the image of this awakes a feeling we all have of nostalgia for our childhoods. I don’t think I could have captured the magic in this moment using dialogue alone.

7. Have you ever met a perfumer? If not would you like to meet one that worked on a fragrance you like?
I have never met a perfumer, but I would really love to. For a number of years, I considered a career in the field myself (I think after reading Patrick Süskind's Perfume). I would like to meet the makers of some of the classics. From the modern day, I would like to meet the perfumer behind Comme des Garçons 2 and Comme des Garçons MAN. I think they are both so unusual and exciting.

8. Is the character Joyce the same Joyce mentioned in the film credits? If so, can you share her memory of riding on the engine with her father?
The main character Joyce is my Nanna, who throughout my childhood would always recount her memory of riding on the footplate of engines with her father who was a train driver for GWR (Great Western Railways). One day, in her all white Sunday best, instead of going to Sunday school she spent the morning with her father on the trains, arriving home covered in oil and dirt from the engine to a very unimpressed mother. Whenever she tells me this story, her face always lights up. I decided this would be the perfect memory to use in the animation as it had a certain timelessness. In fact, the train in the animation is one my Nanna used to ride with her father, the King George V 6000. I decided to painstakingly recreate the train using photographs and YouTube videos and even some blueprints I found, in order to add another dimension to the film.

9. In real life, where is the train traveling and what regions does it go through?
I didn’t decide on a place where the train was traveling to. However, my Nanna grew up in Leamington Spa, a town in Warwickshire, England, so I suppose it is somewhere around there.

10. Did you learn much about olfaction when you were in school? Do you think it deserves more of a role in curriculum across ages?
I don’t remember being taught anything about olfaction, but it would certainly have been something I'd have been interested in learning about. After all, it is the one sense we know the least about.

11. What are the challenges of illustrating things that can't be seen in the medium of film, like the sense of smell?
The only challenge is to make sure the audience can understand what you are trying to say, the key to which is how the character moves and reacts, their facial expressions, the things we tend to read subconsciously. I made the girl close her eyes when she inhaled, something we all do if we smell something that has a fond memory attached to it. I think this permits our mind's eye to see the memory more clearly. Additionally, I used a range of techniques to evoke the notion of scent; I used a color that I imagined to have a certain scent, a shape of bottle that suggested perfume, and finally the swirling movement to suggest that a scent was released when Joyce squeezed the atomizer.

12. If you could make another film with an olfactory theme, with the benefit of consulting a perfumer for the creative process, what would you like to do?
I would like to understand what goes on in the mind of a perfumer when they smell and mix certain scents together. I imagine there to be some kind of visual effect in their mind's eye, if not a color, then a place, a feeling or emotion.

If this was the case, I imagine creating an animation that follows a perfumer through the creative process. With the first scent we are transported to a brief flashing visual of something, maybe a color, a place, or a face. Like a painter, they gather lots of fragrances together, each with its own feeling or color, to create some kind of scene or landscape that builds together like the pieces of a jigsaw. 

Perhaps we also see them get it wrong a couple of times. We see the visual distorted, perhaps it doesn't make sense. For example, what originally builds to be someone sitting by a beautiful Swiss lake on a hot summer’s day, when the perfumer adds something that doesn’t fit, perhaps there are no leaves on the trees and the lake is frozen. Eventually as they keep mixing and sampling new ingredients, they reach the finished masterpiece which we see in full.

Mark Buxton is the perfumer who created Comme des Garçons 2 and Comme des Garçons MAN. Like other talented perfumers who felt constrained by commercial perfumery he decided to go into business for himself. You can visit his website at  Mark

Friday, January 18, 2013

Scent in Film: The Perfume Man from Taksim

The Perfume Man from Taksim from Calvin Walker on Vimeo.

Film is a challenging medium if one seeks to capture the mystique of perfume. You can't see what is being smelled because scent is invisible. What you can see is how scent affects people and when the right filmmaker is behind the camera those emotions are free of stereotype and hack monologue (the later evidenced by last year's ad for Chanel No. 5 with Brad Pitt which the The Telegraph's Clive James described as Brad Pitt "...speaking through his armpit.").

Filmmaker Calvin Walker posted "The Perfume Man from Taksim" in early January. Walker, who works for the French National Film Commission, is self taught and migrated from photography to film as his preferred medium of expression. He was at the Istanbul International Short Film Festival in November 2012, promoting his short film "Blanche", when he decided to explore Taksim Square. That is where he found the subject of his film, "The Perfume Man from Taksim" which is shot in black and white.

"One afternoon, while exploring the area with my friend, I came across this gentleman in the street and was intrigued by his old wooden box of bottles. He seemed very friendly, so I sat with him for a little while. We could only communicate with smiling, nodding and pointing, since neither of us spoke the other's language. We bought some perfume he made for us while we were filming." says Walker.

There is no dialogue in "The Perfume Man from Taksim," only the sound of Peggy Lee's plaintive voice singing the Rogers and Hart classic "Where or When". The song's theme of déjà vu is an ode to memory that perfectly illustrates what happens on camera and in the mind of someone who smells perfume. Watching the perfumer compounding a scent using a hypodermic needle and fragrance materials from a chic, but unusual portable display case invites curiosity and defies description. The viewer can't help wondering what the perfume smells like, though how it is used and the fact that it smells good can be intimated from the perfumer's gestures.

The identity of the perfumer was and still is unknown. "I recently send some emails to some places near where I filmed him, in the hope that someone might be able to put me in touch with him if he is a well-known local character." says Walker. "So far, I've had no news. I'll keep trying to find out who he is, but I am beginning to get the feeling I may never know, in which case he'll remain the mysterious perfume vendor."

How did the perfume compounded by the mysterious perfumer smell? "It was mainly flowery and fruity. Perhaps a little strong for Europeans, but probably more adapted to Turkish or Arabic tastes," says Walker, who admits that scent probably plays a bigger role than he's conscious of when it comes to filmmaking. "I tend to search for ways of conveying atmospherics, but I never think of smells."

Walker does have a few favorites when it comes to scent, "I have a few favorite food smells such as the Julie mango (a special variety of mango that is very different from all the others). Apparently when I was a very young child in Jamaica, I was a mango fiend and used to eat my weight in mangoes! I’m also very fond of freshly ground ginger and carrot juice. It’s probably a case of both smell and taste. I have no particular favorite perfume, although lavender is very evocative for me. It reminds of lavender water my mother used both as a scent and a headache remedy when I was a child." 

You can see other short films by Calvin Walker on Vimeo. Glass Petal Smoke likes "Fusion Froide". You learn more about Calvin Walker on his webpage

The Julie mango is less fibrous than most mangoes and has a distinctive pineapple note. It is known for its juicy and delicious flavor. 

If you want to understand Turkish culture and history Glass Petal Smoke recommends reading the books of Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.