You enter a darkened room and sit on a chair. You are blindfolded. For the next 75 minutes you will not move. The voice of the narrator will help navigate the sounds that envelop you, because the only pictures you can see are in your head.
This is an Earfilm.
From their base in Dartington, South Devon, Dannii Evans, Daniel Marcus Clark and Chris Timpson have devised a completely unique audience experience; a show that relies entirely on sound to tell a story.
And, as the only images the audience can “see” in To Sleep to Dream are those prompted by their personal memories, everyone’s film will be completely different.
“One man came up to me afterwards and he was really annoyed,” explains Dan. “He wanted to know why everything he’d seen was in still instead of moving images. It turned out that he was a great reader of comic books and graphic novels so that was the reference point for a lot of his images.
“We’ve also had dancers say they felt the pictures in their bodies, I suppose because so much of what they do is physical, that a lot of their imagination is contained in their bodies.”
“It’s quite amazing,” agrees Chris. “Everyone sees something different depending on their personal experiences.”
The film had its European premiere at the Brighton Festival last year and the team are just making final adjustments before they take it to Australia in a few weeks time.
The story is set in 2056 after the planet has suffered a catastrophic flood. Only the city of Lhaytar remains, controlled by a single corporation so strict than even to dream is illegal. One day Jack Richards, an ordinary worker cowed by the system, suddenly discovers he can dream.
Sit still and listen
Dan, 33, who takes the role of narrator, admits it can seem like quite a challenge to sit still and listen for over an hour: “It’s quite brutal but quite forgiving as well,” he says. “I get the audience used to the fact that I am there as a sort of anchor and that they are going to be switching off a dominant sense just to listen.”
Unlike surround sound found in many cinemas, Earfilms use ambisonic sound, which is played on 19 speakers. It means the audience is effectively able to hear in 3D, as they do in the real world. They hear an aural landscape, which helps them locate and visualise everything from clatter of a distant train to a moth flapping past their face.
Chris says: “We have done a lot of work with blind audiences and we’re always trying to understand how they interpret the world.”
But, he adds, creating specific sounds is not always a straightforward process: “You can’t always just record a noise because when it’s heard without vision it may not be recognisable.”
He laughs: “One time I had spent ages crafting a scene and there was the sound of water in it and afterwards someone asked me why was there a man peeing over on the right?”
The concept for Earfilms has been an evolving process. Dan says he had always enjoyed telling stories accompanied by music, which he attributes to the fact that he comes from a family of writers. He toured with a band of musicians and began developing the idea of a show but meeting Chris and Dannii helped crystallise a new way of presenting a “film”.
At a Dragon’s Den-style pitching event in New York last year they impressed enough people to be able to choose an investor. They are now working closely with sound designers and engineers Arup, best known for designing large concert halls.
The trio moved to Devon in 2012 after deciding they needed more space and London studios could not offer them what they needed within their budget. The search took them to the eclectic little haven of the Dartington Estate, near Totnes, which has a reputation for being home to new enterprises and ideas.
Chris, who is originally from Tavistock, had struggled to make a living as a musician, so he had previously been working in digital marketing, designing mobile phone apps for film releases. He admits his work now is perfect for his “geekish” tendencies. Much of his time is spent gazing at a large monitor, which displays what looks like a giant spreadsheet detailing the 6,000 tracks of music and sound used in the film.
Chris and Dan resist the term “sound pioneers” but as far as they know, they have not come across anyone who is producing similar work and they are keen to point out that it is not simply like listening to a radio play with bigger speakers.
“In radio there is only so much you can do and you don’t always have a fully attentive audience, “says Chris. “Also with what we do you cannot fool people with the quality of the dialogue.”
Dan agrees: “Radio is very quickly produced there is a very rapid turnaround.
“We worked with theatre actors. We lived and worked together and the work was much more physical, how they use their breath for example.”
But perhaps one of the most interesting things to come out of the whole process has been the impact on the creators themselves. At 33, a typical youth of the digital generation, Chris admits that his lifestyle was dominated by constant moving visual images on TV and computer screens.
Chris: “I was really addicted to the Internet. I could rarely read books because my mind had become conditioned. I have read about how the Internet is changing the structure of our brains, which is extraordinary. This is a completely different experience to all that.”
Apart from their trip to Australia, the team are planning some educational work for schools. They have also been asked to produce five short pieces in collaboration with other writers and musicians, which will be released on an app. Sadly, at the moment, they have no immediate plans for any shows in the UK. But when they do, it will have been worth the wait.