What Film Means to Me: Ella Sheffield

Our blog series celebrates the personal meaning of the cultural and creative industries to people, from industry professionals, students and general audiences. This month, aspiring documentary filmmaker Ella recounts her journey into filmmaking, and discovering her feminist voice throughout her degree.

Blackness. The piano begins, an image of a girl, staring right down the lens. She looks worried, yet cheeky. The vocals commence, and in slow-motion, she begins to run. Her hair flies around her. Her feet slap into puddles, splashing passers-by. Suddenly she –

My dad turns his CD player off, “Bedtime Ella”.

I think I was about the age of 12 when I realised that I was the only one out of my friends who, for each song they knew, had an elaborate, visual scene in their head paired with that song. The one I described above is a song called Stand on the Word by the Joubert Singers, a song Dad had on one of his CDs (The 1985 version to be specific). I have so many of these mini scenes in my head paired to songs I like. Each one overtly dramatic and emotional. I never really considered what this meant, but now I can see it shows how much I am utterly obsessed with the human condition, specifically how to show it visually through film.

We didn’t have the option to do Media in my school, but I took Art, Drama and English. It was in Art where I slowly realised that I was totally drawn to playing around with film as opposed to paint (My questionable painting skills had absolutely nothing to do with it…I swear!) We had one homework to do a still life drawing and I hesitantly asked my teacher whether I could play around with making a film still life (whatever that would be?) and, probably intrigued, she agreed. The film I ended up making was exhibited on The Royal Academy of Arts A-Level Exhibition 2017. I continued to make art films and my final piece was a video, filmed on my phone, exploring all the women around me in the wake of Trump getting into power.

Now looking back, avoiding the cringe I have at some blaring technical problems, it is crazy that I never saw it as what it was, a short documentary.

I decided to study Film and Television Production. Immediately as I got there, I was taken aback by how much all these people knew about film and TV. You would think I would have expected that, right? But as someone who had never heard of Orson Wells or thought vertigo was just a thing when your eyes felt funny, I felt very out of my depth. This resulted in me taking a step back, letting others be the director and I would always volunteer as the runner.

Our course felt like a little like a microcosm of the industry; the boys naturally took the leads and girls had to shout a little louder to be heard. We even had an “Oscar’s” at the end of our first year where every award went to a boy except one girl who won, ‘The Nicest’. I think by the third year, after having conversations with the boys, this feeling had somewhat subsided, with many of the girls taking the Director and Producer roles in our final films. But it can’t be denied, we all felt a small percentage of what being a woman in the industry was going to be like, and that does scare me to this day. I know I will always have to shout that little bit louder than my male counterparts, and will make sure to use my voice to raise my ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ creators too.

Luckily, by the third year I had gained confidence in myself and with a fellow female Director, I produced a documentary about night life culture called Night Lives. Last month, it won the LUMA20 Gala Audience Award for Non-Fiction and I am very proud of us and myself. I did well in my degree and, looking back, I wish I had never been afraid to put myself forward. It has been a nice, cathartic experience writing this post too. I feel it is rare that I get to look back on my interest and success with filmmaking, and I feel somewhat motivated to take the industry by the horns and run. Having just graduated, I am right at the very beginning of my career and it is intimidating, (I won’t even begin to talk about what Covid has brought to the industry).

I guess what film means to me, is making sure I feel fearless in the face of an industry that is quite scary; supporting and encouraging my fellow creators; not forgetting that girl who imagined scenes in her head, remaining focused on that raw emotion, and how to portray that through my films.

By Ella Sheffield

Ella is an aspiring filmmaker based in London, with a specific interest in documentary. 

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