Film-maker Marcus Robinson offers a Northern Ireland perspective on the world

GRAEME COUSINS talks to artist and film maker Marcus Robinson about his ground-breaking time-lapse documentaries

Wednesday, 13th March 2019, 11:49 am
Updated Wednesday, 13th March 2019, 12:51 pm
Marcus Robinson's 35mm cameflex and motion control rig, filming in Sydney
Marcus Robinson's 35mm cameflex and motion control rig, filming in Sydney

As a child in Belfast, Marcus Robinson dreamed of living in New York.

The BAFTA winning film maker and artist now resides in Brooklyn, having reached his dream destination via Paris and London.

But Belfast still holds a treasured place in his heart, and he believes the city has a spirit to eclipse anywhere else he has ever lived.

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Filming on the 69th floor of 3 WTC when the ironworkers were installing the curtain wall of glass panels

The former pupil of Strandtown Primary School and Campbell College was born on Upper Newtownards Road in a house built by his grandfather. He grew up in another home-made home – this time a house built by his father in the countryside between Belfast and Holywood.

The 59-year-old said: “I left Belfast to study modern languages in Cambridge. It was a real miracle to win a place at Cambridge. Having studied French and German I wanted to use my languages so that’s why I went to live in Paris. I was there for 16 years, then I lived in London for 10 years.”

At Cambridge University Marcus studied modern languages before specialising in architectural photography.

In Paris he had exhibitions of his landscape photographs in cafes and galleries around Paris.

Artist and director Marcus Robinson

When he moved to London in 1998, he began photographing the creation of the iconic London Eye culminating in a film which was broadcast on the eve of the Millennium.

He said: “I moved to New York in 2006. Growing up in Belfast I always had this dream that one day I would live in New York and I never actually knew that it was going to come to pass.”

He added: “Belfast has a very important place in my heart. I get home to Belfast just as often as I can. It’s always lovely to reconnect with the city. I care enormously about Belfast.

“I’m so inspired to see the city changing and evolving. It’s really at the cutting edge of so many technologies and the film business. The spirit of the people of Belfast is just unique in the world.

Filming An Engineer Imagines, at the Carrousel du Louvre at 5am on July 17, 2018

“Where I live in Brooklyn is a fantastic area called Bedford-Stuyvesant, it has beautiful sandstone buildings and a very rich and diverse community. I absolutely love it.”

Although he lives in Brooklyn, Marcus spends a lot of his time in Lower Manhattan, in his studio which is based in the on the empty 66th floor of Larry Silverstein’s World Trade Center Tower 4.

Marcus has been working on a project which captures the re-building of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed on September 11, 2001 in a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda.

Beginning in 2003, Marcus was granted unprecedented access to the site and crews as they demolished and rebuilt Tower 3.

Marcus Robinson's studio on the 66th floor of 4 WTC

Marcus said: “Although I’m working on various films in New York City, the main thing I’ve been doing here for the last 15 years or so I’ve been making a film about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. It’s still very much an ongoing project.

“The events of 9/11, it’s almost as if they became part of the world’s collective consciousness.”

Of the rebuilding of the iconic structure he said: “Because it’s about healing and re-building and the matter of sanctuary within the city I think there’s a lot of connections between that and between what’s been happening in Belfast.

“I felt having grown up in Belfast there was maybe some sense of connection between that and the work I’m doing here in New York.”

The first version of the film – Rebuilding the World Trade Center – was shown on Channel Four in 2013. A slightly expanded version was shown on the History Channel in the United States.

It won a BAFTA and a Royal Film and Television Society award for cinematography and another three awards at RealScreen Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles for Best Documentary, Best Cinematography and Special Jury Award for Excellence.

Filming at the Pyramid, July 2018

Marcus said: “We were inspired to keep the film going. That first film was brought out to coincide with the completion of Tower 1 and Tower 4, since then they’ve built Tower 3 and the trapezoidal top. The final part is Tower 2.”

One World Trade Center – also known as Freedom Tower – is the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex and is the tallest building in the USA, standing at 1,792 feet.

Marcus said: “The idea is to create a final version of the film which will go from the bedrock to the completion which could be sometime in the next five years. It will be a 20 year film when it all is completed.”

Marcus is best known for his ground-breaking time-lapse photography.

His distinctive time-lapse filming has been used by BBC Panorama and Channel 4 documentaries and he has contributed a number of time-lapse sequences and stills for various films including Danny Boyle’s Millions in 2004.

He said: “Most of the work I do involves some element of time-lapse. It’s quite tough work, for example I might have to climb to get my fixed camera in position. All of it is shot on 35 millimetre film.

“I do a lot of yoga, try and keep as fit as I possibly can for all the work I’m doing which is very physical and demanding.”

He added: “I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’m the go-to guy for time-lapse films but it’s an area I’ve got a great deal of expertise in through many years of photographing and documenting urban transformation.

“I think what I bring to it is quite a poetic and artistic sense. A lot of the work I do brings together music and paintings.

“Because I work as an artist I do very large format paintings of urban transformation and city landscapes. There’s always an artistic and painterly element to the filmwork.

“It’s quite a specific way of showing urban transformation that people are more and more really enjoying.”

Although Marcus left Belfast at 18, the city left a huge impression on him.

He said: “My father worked in Harland and Wolff as a ship’s draftsman. He used to take me down there when I was very young. I was inspired by the huge industriousness.

“My sister lives in Belfast and I come back home whenever I can. Sadly my parents are both dead now. I miss them very much and think of them a lot.”

In 2015 he was able to return to his east Belfast roots to film Van Morrison’s 70th birthday concerts in Cyprus Avenue.

Marcus said: “I was asked by Tourism Ireland to make a film. The concert was a metaphor for the spirit of Belfast and its people.”

His latest project has seen him document the life of Peter Rice, a Queen’s University graduate from Dundalk who was engineer for some of the biggest and most impressive architectural works across the world including the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and the Lloyd’s building in London.

Marcus, who received an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University for his work as an artist, said: “It’s much more than a story about a structural engineer. It’s a very human and engaging story that I think can touch anybody of any age. It’s a timeless allegorical tale about the human spirit.”

Peter Rice grew up in Dundalk and studied at Queen’s University in Belfast. From there he went on to become one of the world’s most distinguished structural engineers of the 20th Century.

Rice’s work pushed the boundaries and his imagination and abilities saw him become the second ever engineer to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects before his untimely death in 1992.

Marcus said: “Filming and directing this homage to one of the world’s greatest structural engineers has been a moving and life affirming experience.

“It is as though at every step of the way, we have been guided by the transcendent spirit of Peter Rice, brought to life by the loving words of those who knew him best and by the extraordinary buildings that bear his innovative touch.”

The film will be shown at the Queen’s Film Theatre until Friday.

Engineer Peter Rice in 1989