When set the task of creating a video response to an artistic stimulus, I chose to work with a song I have known for many years and that has always intrigued me – What’s he building by Tom Waits.

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The Stimulus: What’s He Building In There?

The song takes a singular perspective viz one neighbour, ‘the watcher’ overlooking another, ‘the builder’. The curious watcher possesses limited information on the builder, mostly coming from random observation and hearsay.

This neighbour seems to be attempting to assemble a suspicious-sounding jigsaw image of his neighbour but is guided only by the box-picture he creates in his mind. … He seems frustrated because he does not yet have the full picture.

What’s he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?

Many of the observations are mundane, such as we may observe of our own neighbours.  However even those arouse tones of suspicion…

He has subscriptions to those Magazines…

Never waves when he goes by
He’s hiding something from the rest of us…


He took down the tire (sic) swing from the Peppertree
He has no children of his own you see…

He has no dog, he has no friends
His lawn is dying…
What about all those packages he sends?


Some of the observations are sensory – regarding things ‘heard’ and those ‘seen’

Now what’s that sound from under the door?
He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor…

I swear to god I heard someone moaning low…

I keep seeing the blue light of a T.V. show…


I heard he was up on the roof last night Signalling with a flashlight
And what’s that tune he’s always whistling…

Evidently also the neighbour has been close enough to observe internal detail possibly through windows or doors

What’s he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs.

What’s he building in there…

Whilst the song takes us through the suspicious machinations in the mind of the watcher and leaves us feeling that he is more than a little weird, the final line brings an added chill for me.

We have a right to know.

This is because it speaks to a right of justification for the watcher’s own absurd behaviour and indeed may hint at a further, perhaps more sinister aspects of that antagonist. My overriding feeling, probably as Waits intended, is that in the song we are accessing the projected paranoia, thoughts and words of a possibly unsavoury character; outlining observations which, if they were made of him, would warrant attracting unwanted attention. My own mind map sets out the watcher’s characteristics around a core phrase of ‘sociopath’; a self-centred, self-justified unsavoury character with a dubious history and potential for harm.

Autobiographical  connection

For years I have thought of this song as how people outside my world must perceive builders like me, I had a strong instinctive idea for the video very quickly when I linked that with my on going ‘caveman’ project, taking portraits of instrument makers in their environment.

This is very different however, if I take my long-standing associations with the song and long-term caveman builder status then in this project, the builder can only be an autobiographical character; the activities portrayed are indeed those I undertake, I do keep myself to myself and I’m sure my neighbours do wonder about my nocturnal building activities.

If ths is autbiographical in any way then there’s a pleasing abstract irony for me about the photographer’s self portrait not including his own image.

 My Interpretation

 Having wondered for many years how I might appear to a watcher. It seemed like this would be an opportunity to attempt a creative examination of this ‘being watched’ experience.

With quite a bit of video editing in my own previous history and given my poor sketching skills it was very natural for me to investigate the narrative and create a ‘storyboard’ using video. The storyboard however ended up becoming a piece in its own right – ‘Caveman by firelight’. Although it is made using video and not stills, it still allowed me to examine the subject and possible ways of portraying the narrative.

I have based this interpretation on intimate visual perspectives and micro-recorded sounds from within the shed, the sources of that which may be heard or seen by a watcher. They are presented in such a way as to create no specific picture, but provide a palette of stimuli from which many interpretations are possible, or possibly none. It is important that I am consistent with the underlying gestalt from partial information created in in Wait’s original work. In making each image, components are selected from some unknown overall process but the viewer must then create whatever ‘reality’ fills the gaps between the facts.

Ultimately the sequence aims to create curiosity in the viewer such as it stimulated in the watcher, to add to the questions; not answer the question in the title. I feel that to present any individual as the builder or unveil anything imaginable as the final product, would be a great disservice to the spirit and art of the original work by Waits.

To depersonalise the work I am planning there to be only hands, feet and generic features shown when necessary to illustrate or advance the narrative. The watcher is represented as a snooping ‘spirit’ that may catch signs of life in the cave, a moving shadow, reflection or something just leaving the frame.

Both the watcher and the builder could be suburbanites in any town.

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Caveman Lighting

We have looked in depth at lighting various subjects using artificial light sources such as strobes and speedguns as part of the class. My early experiments with such lighting for this piece were effective but natural coloured 5560k light even at low intensity is too white for my chosen ‘caveman by firelight’ mood. I feel that a low & medium key approach should work best for the project.

Much of this kind of builder activity is undertaken in the evenings and (as right now) in a cold and often damp place.  It is for this reason that I have selected to work by using available light and specifically, the two ceramic heaters that I use daily to fend off the cold.

The primary use of a single low-intensity, low frequency light source provides the opportunity to use its quick fall-off to create relatively small and very portable pools of light. I have two such ‘lighting units’, one with an option for 2 bars! Doubling output on one side gives me added flexibility when needed to create shadow and depth.

These heaters emit a light at around 2000 kelvin, a very orange light.  Whilst the camera can be set to a corrected white balance that reflects the object and environments ‘accurately’, it takes away significantly from the ‘mood’. Having carried out some experiments, I have made the decision use a final custom white balance of 3500k.

Change of Plan!

Having worked with the original Point of View of the watched, I realised that the project I had in my head was essentially ‘complete’ with the first Caveman by firelight video (whether I wanted it to be or not!). I had made several attempts at re-editing the ‘music’ sequence without coming up with any improvement, I had also worked for a number of weeks to develop the broader concept photographically and had investigated many of the workshop’s potentials for sound-generating and visual possibilities. However, with the material I was generating, the content was becoming a cross somewhere between Walker Evans’ ‘Beauties of the common tool’ & Stomp. However despite generating nice imagery, I felt that I was working to illustrate the watcher’s surroundings and equipment and drifting further away from the voyeuristic and somewhat menacing spirit of the song. It felt in some ways as if I had unhelpfully painted myself into a corner.

I had been discussing the project with a friend when they were saying that they had always interpreted the piece from the point of view of the watcher rather than the watched. A flash light of inspiration went off… In hindsight this is the more obvious interpretation, however given my ‘builder’ status I had naturally assumed the other perspective as I had done for many years previously.
The more sinister observation also allowed me to make better sense and take influence from my research looking at voyeuristic activity. The change of POV brought a new inspiration and direction to the project and critically, moved me away from the already-prepared ‘happy-clappy’ aspects.


Video 2 – What is he building in there? – Final Piece

The second video whilst it retains the creative sequencing portion of the first, allowed me to explore the ‘unseen’. In many ways the POV shifts between ‘watching the watcher’ and ‘being the watcher’; From inside to outside; from 3500kelvin to 5560 kelvin; from night to day

This piece was shot a number of times simply because of the weather – we had lots of rain initially followed by several weeks of very bad snow – this meant that it was difficult to maintain a consistent light and look across the images…until the clouds cleared and the sun came out for 2-3 days. During this period I was able to take advantage of the consistent daylight to create a visual narrative and also to use the exceptionally clear nights to photograph the star sequences.

The use of a 50mm lens at F1.4-F4 remained consistent between the two videos because I wanted to maintain the personal connection that this lens and its shallow Depth of Field gives at these apertures.  Because of the restrictions on video content, I ended up shooting sequences of images and using in/out of focus techniques to direct the viewers’ eyes through the scenes. As I was shooting I was running keywords through my head: Snoop, peer, sneak, trespass, covert, glimpse, obsession, restless, compulsive…. This is why you see a glimpse of a figure moving, a shadow, peering into and through small spaces

Time Lapse Sequences

I also have used a number of time-lapse sequences in the video to illustrate the passage of time. The first seen is the movement of shadows through the gate that had been referenced earlier. With images taken every 10 seconds over a period of an hour or so, I ran the images at 2 frames each which gives 12 per second (project setting 24fps) – I also had the intensity /opacity fade over that same period which gave the impression of day becoming night.

The second time lapse sequence was taken with a general North direction, I wanted to capture the star trails over the roof of the cave and as part of that overall sequence to have the light come on in the workshop to show the ‘start of an evening of work’. I shot one image per 10 seconds for a 2hr period and strung them together one image per frame @ 24 frames per second to match the movement of real video. The sequence used is an extract from that of around one hour realtime but only a few seconds on film. I also used a piece of software called starstax to combine all 720 images into a single image that shows the actual trails taken – I was delighted to see that I had managed to approximate positioning the apex of the workshop roof with the North star.

The final use of timelapse was an earlier shot of the sky rom the back of the cave, facing south and taken at 30 second intervals for an hour. Again it is used to show the cave lights going off to indicate the accelerated passage of time and the end of day. Being placed at the very end of the video and fading over the eerie whistling and the repeated narrative ‘we have a right to know’, we are left with the feeling of “it’s just another night.. tomorrow I’ll be back watching again….   “

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What Is He Building? from MarshallArts Media on Vimeo.

Approach to Sound

In sound terms the approach brought new opportunities for realism in ambient and foley sound. I recorded close-up actual sounds of sneaking around a space capturing the ambient background hum/hiss of distant traffic and the distinctive audio differences between footsteps on gravel, flagstones and undergrowth.

Although using only than a few seconds of the Tom Waits original track in the caveman by firelight version (Video 1), I elected in this version to include the spoken elements from the song that I felt related to my own activity – I edited these out in Logic Audio.

I was clear in my mind that I wanted the piece to be an examination of menacing forces rather than an ‘MTV video for the song’ so I felt it was necessary to treat the audio in a manner very different from the original in order that it could be perceived as an outside influence rather than a strict telling of the story.

Given that I am portraying the watcher as somewhat unstable throughout this piece, plus given his self-justifying & slightly unsettling ‘we have a right to know’ perspective, it seemed a natural step to consider that perhaps he was hearing ‘voices’.  I wanted the Waits song lyrics to be the watcher’s personal narrative running through the watcher’s head as he went about the business of surveillance.

With recent events in North Korea I have an enduring image of a large public square such as one might see filled with thousands of people, all subject to indoctrinating propaganda blasting from loudspeakers…conform…conform…  I wanted to capture a sense of this enormous space but containing just one person, our watcher.  I wanted to capture a sense of ‘duty of conformation’.. the voices tell me to do it.. I must obey. In many ways it links back to La Jetee where the protagonist submits to the process and by submission is rewarded by a return to his future and past selves, a life outside reality

Having mixed many albums over the years technically this audio effect was not particularly challenging, I put the main audio track through equalisation and removed all frequencies below 500khz and all above 1000khz – this range gives a thin-sounding audio and removes a lot of detail from the original soundtrack. I then added a little reverb to make it sound like it was occurring in or from from a larger space. I added a little delay (echo) to give the impression of sound slapping back from the walls that surround the square.




Cameras & Technical Settings

There are two cameras used.

Watchercam  (night)

Here, I have selected to use my iphone camera in portrait orientation. This is because there is an obvious degradation in image and sound quality that sets it apart from the (anticipated) beautifully lit and presented shots from inside the builder’s cave.  The iPhone is handheld and is never still, its role is to ‘peek’ into the life of the builder, to be the watcher’s etherial eyes and ears

The use of portrait orientation means that the image will occupy only part of the available screen, tying in with the theme of only partial & low quality information being available to the watcher.

Watchercam (day)

As with the builder cam I used the Nikon D800 DSLR and a 50mm 1.4 prime lens


For the main body of the work I have used the Nikon D800 DSLR.

My experiments have shown that using a 50mm prime lens with a large aperture such as 1.4-2.8 gives a characteristic depth of field suitable for the intimacy of the photography and matching the micro-sound capture

Image Mode

  • RAW
  • f1.4-2.8 mostly
  • Shutter 1/4 to 1/160 mostly
  • ISO 100-800 mostly


Video Mode – I had not tried the D800 previously for video – very impressive.

  • HD1080p
  • 24fps (for film look  also see audio below)
  • 1/50 shutter speed for video
  • f1.4-2.8
  • ISO varies 200-3200
  • External stereo mic direct input to camera
  • Manual Focus Pulling

In addition I made and investigated the use of a camera crane – aka a jimmy jib. This allows me to operate my camera on the end of a crane controlling height and movement. It ended up not being used because I was unable to pan the camera at the same time as creating the movement – (see video Making HND Vid)