Shooting the message #8: Tim Langford Creative

In his ongoing exploration of modern corporate filmmaking, curator Patrick Russell turns to the work of Tim Langford, who cites Robert Flaherty as an inspiration in his search for a balance between propaganda and beauty.

Patrick Russell

Tim Langford Creative showreel

Commissioned filmmaking is nothing if not a balancing act. It needs a little idealism – or it’s soulless. And a lot of realism – or it’s senseless. Get the balance right and you’ve got fair room for manoeuvre.

Cutting between socially conscious documentaries and glossy promos, cautionary dramas and comic punchlines, the showreel above for Tim Langford Creative (TLC) illustrates the varied ways that the balance can manifest itself.

Tim Langford’s working life exemplifies the dualism of his profession: producing passion projects at TLC, while also hiring himself out as globetrotting freelancer – notably, in the Middle East. He’s unusual among current practitioners in discussing what he dubs the “negotiated struggle” of filmmaking with informed reference to its history.

His MA thesis on corporate film centred on Robert Flaherty’s classic Louisiana Story (1948). The realist in him acknowledges being in “the propaganda business”. The idealist insists “the work should have beauty… the task is to reveal it and then make it shine.” They unite around what works. Langford seeks “consensus” between client, producer and audience to humanise corporate messaging.

Tim Langford

Tim Langford

Having started in educational community video, Langford co-founded indie production company Multiple Image in 1986. They hit the headlines with We’re Not Mad – We’re Angry! (1986), a Channel 4 docudrama about psychiatric issues, so controversial he found himself defending it on Right to Reply. But Multiple Image also picked up corporate commissions.

Langford then spent several years traversing broadcasting, advertising and worldwide corporate video. This took him to the Central Office of Information (COI) as an in-house producer: one of the first things he did was seek out a copy of John Grierson’s Drifters (1929), less easily available then than now. He remembers his first COI film, the Welsh office project Crossing the Conway, being a learning experience in ‘negotiated struggle’. Filming on an engineering site, he aimed at an archetypal ‘man versus nature’ picture – shades of Flaherty. But these were the early days of government outsourcing: he instead found himself in the midst of conflict not between man and nature but contractor and consultant. 

Langford’s recent trajectory is rooted in his interest (as a self-confessed “old-fashioned socialist”) in the politics of immigration and asylum, through which he discovered the Migrants Resource Centre. They, it transpired, were considering a film. Langford took the idea to the (now defunct) production company Hot Dog & Mustard. Co-funded and “co-briefed” by all three, what emerged (following what Langford describes as a harrowing “political education”) is Torn (2006), arguably the central film of his career:

Economical, adept and sensitive documentary-making, it thoroughly deserved the several awards it collected. It also illustrates the ‘long tail’ that campaigning film sometimes enjoys, spending several years in screenings for journalists, public meetings and migrants themselves (not the intended audience, but they felt it “validated” their experience) before ending up online. Drawing on his corporate experience, Langford terms Torn an exercise in “rebranding” asylum seekers in the face of populist myth.

This experience led him, in 2009, to set up his own one-man company, to pursue projects for which he felt particular empathy – hence, ‘TLC’. The BFI National Archive holds preservation copies of several TLC productions, including a longer follow-up to Torn, Yurik (2010), and another tender awareness-raising documentary, The Stroke Project (2011).

In an entirely different vein, TLC’s corporate ‘docu-musical’ Step Up (2011) again makes the most of a low budget. A peppy little number, it executes its slightly unusual message (‘internal recruitment’, encouraging white-collar staff into senior management) with flair and cheer:

Meanwhile, wearing his other hat, Langford spends much of his time making films and commercials in Qatar, and acting as creative director for local producer Resolution Productions. As we know, Qatar has a surging gas-fuelled economy (for instance, supplying 15% of Britain’s gas, via pipeline into Wales). It’s also determinedly ‘rebranding’ itself internationally: emphasising media, sport and culture to show it’s about more than just fossil fuels.

Among the consequences is an explosion in filmmaking commissioned by Qatari institutions. This growing corpus of Qatari film is produced by an array of competing producers (including big industry players, like The Edge and American company Radical Media) from the UK, US, France, Germany and Qatar itself. Langford says that at Resolution he’s seeking to help improve the standards of local filmmaking to equip it better for such fierce international competition.

He also notes parallels with 1930s Britain and its burgeoning documentary film movement: a state and society turning to film to explore and express an identity in transition, embracing both progressive and paternalistic elements. If the work being produced now is unlikely to stand up so well in 80 years time, it’s still a negotiated struggle, a balancing act, a challenging craft. “It’s better to persuade than cajole…,” Langford argues, echoing predecessors. “You set out to engage an audience emotionally in order to influence how they think about something.”

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