SxSW 2021 Interview – THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS directors Sophie Mair & Dan Gitsham

On the North Yorkshire Moors, Abel, Head Gamekeeper, discovers the thing that is eating his grouse. Having its North American Premiere in the MIdnight Shorts section, we speak with the team behind THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS! 

How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send the short into the festival?

SXSW has an awesome reputation as one of the top festivals to submit to. Every year we keep an eye on what they are programming, especially in the horror sections, as they seem to know what nightmares we need to seek out in the future. For us, it has always been a dream festival to screen at and we are beyond excited to be a part of SXSW 2021!

Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!

The concept for THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS originally came from our anxieties about the world our kids are growing up in and at the time in the UK, Brexit was unfolding around us. It really felt like people were losing their heads, and it still does. 

This became a film about a self-destructive Yorkshire Gamekeeper who is losing control of the moors and his relationship. We shot in the wilds of the North Yorkshire Dales where Sophie is from and we lived for a year. It is here we got to meet and observe the fascinating world of Gamekeeping and the people that live this life and the otherworldly landscape they inhabit. 

We had already built a connection with ALTER as they’d programmed a couple of our short films ELLA & AND THE BABY SCREAMED so pitched them the script. At the same time, we were discussing THE THING THAT ATE THE BIRDS with the BFI Network. Let’s just say the stars aligned and a wonderful supportive co-production was formed, which we are truly thankful for. 

The Thing That Ate The Birds (Trailer 2021) from Sketchbook Pictures on Vimeo.

Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this project?

It’s hard to say if anything directly inspired this film but we are big fans of horror in all its forms and have a penchant for dread-filled, character focused genres. The following are all masterpieces to us;  AUDITION from Takashi Miike is brimming with sadness, ill-judged decisions of the protagonist and the dread that explodes into viscera in the finale, DON’T LOOK NOW from Nicolas Roeg is emotionally powerful with a shit the pants ending. One of two knockout horror films of the 70s starring Donald Sutherland, the other is the paranoid terror of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). And John Carpenter’s THE THING, a paranoid, nihilistic, trapped tension filled 80s splatter masterpiece.

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?

The creative challenges were endless not only were we shooting on the top of remote moorland, where you are at the mercy of the weather gods, but we also wanted to make awesome creatures come to life. Budget constraints make the decisions for you. 

We shot on Alexa Mini with mostly prime lenses but pushed for a massive zoom lens for a few key moments. We really like zooms for vibe and tension building. Our DOP James Oldham has built some really strong relationships with kit houses, so this went a long way to getting deals and finding camera crew.

We had a small budget for Make-Up FX but Graham Taylor and Mim Williams from GTFX were resourceful and legends with what they had. Fast rising British character actor and creature performer James Swanton helps sell the set-up because he is endlessly patient and understands the limitations of the make-up – let’s just say he couldn’t really move too much but was never a diva and was always a happy creature. Bristol based Primary VFX came on board to tweak the Creature FX for seams (alongside other bits and bobs). We also had the help from TERRITORY, another VFX house who designed the awesome poster and did some more invisible VFX work. 

Being all virtual this year, what do you hope to get out of the virtual SxSW experience? And where is your project going next?

We are really looking forward to unlocking an amazing programme of content, but also we would love to make new connections. We are looking to finance projects both shorts and features and build some relationships for the future. 

The film is screening at the Tampere Film Festival this March in the Generation XYZ Competition which we are really excited about and there are a few more festivals on the horizon but announcing them will get us in trouble. 

What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

With the need for online film festivals over the last year we’d like to think that short films are getting a wider audience, but this will never replace the cinematic experience and joy of watching films in the cinema with humans. Physical touring and guest programmes are a great way to spread the love and maybe festivals should incorporate an online shorts section regardless of the state of the world. 

If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?

It sounds obvious but just do it! Write something simple, shoot it and edit it because that’s how you learn. Practice… Practice… Practice… 

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

This is an impossible question but TWO BIRDS by Rúnar Rúnarsson still haunts and resonates after a decade. On the other end the spectrum but no less genius is SPIDER by Nash Edgerton which is a slam dunk with an audience.

Check out our Twitter for updates at @tttatbfilm!  

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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