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A High-Impact Short

Director Jess Kohl and cinematographer Adric Watson discuss the visual attributes of the Camerimage award-winning documentary short A Mouthful of Petrol.

Awarded The Golden Frog in the Short Documentary Films Competition at the 2022 Camerimage International Film Festival, A Mouthful of Petrol brings viewers into the high-octane world of banger racing, where drivers compete in salvaged cars and contact is strongly encouraged. Director Jess Kohl and cinematographer Adric Watson bring visual lyricism to the story of a young British petrol head preparing for his first race, and in the process the filmmakers immerse viewers in a world that’s likely unfamiliar to their own.

Here, the regular collaborators reflect on their experiences making the project, which was supported out of Panavision London.

Panavision: How would you describe the look of the documentary?

Jess Kohl: We wanted the film to feel really naturalistic and immersive, to allow the viewer to feel like they’re up-close with the action and the emotion of the banger racing world — which is incredibly visceral and rich in texture, smells, colors. The pops of color from the cars stand out in an otherwise quite bare rural British landscape. We shot during winter, so that also informed the look and feel. Short, cold days lent to darker, cooler tones in our color palette.

Adric Watson: The environment of banger racing felt so extreme set against the otherwise quaint English countryside. It was noisy, colorful and textural; the senses become overwhelmed with cracked metal, sparks, fumes, oil and mud. As our formal approach was decided to be observational, I wanted to get close to our characters and tell the story through longer unbroken shots, predominantly on a single focal length and fixated on single characters. I wanted to elevate the expected look of observational documentary and make it feel more considered and cinematic.

Did you find inspiration in any particular visual references?

Kohl: We were looking a lot at the work of Roberto Minervini as reference for camera movement. He often shoots long takes following characters, letting the camera roll for extended periods of time to allow the characters to become immersed and pay less attention to the presence of the camera. This made sense for the action of our characters, who spend a lot of time roaming around the car yard or at the races.

Watson: When shooting observational documentary, I always have the work of Michael Glawogger and Wolfgang Thaler in mind. Another initial visual reference for me was Son of Saul. I wanted the camera to become absorbed into a character while the environment is layered in through sound and background. This concept wasn’t dogmatically followed, but it guided the majority of my handheld camerawork.

Kohl: Another key reference for us was Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, for its themes as well as the naturalistic and visceral approach to the cinematography and shooting landscapes. I think there’s an interesting parallel between rodeo culture in the U.S. and stock car racing in the U.K. Both are thrill-seeking endeavors with the potential to be incredibly dangerous, and they attract a similar socioeconomic group of people, with strong gender-conforming roles attached to them.

What brought you to Panavision for this project?

Watson: Working with Panavision is always a privilege — their legacy needs no explanation. Their generosity in supporting a no-budget, independent production deserves a great deal of praise. Film is always in danger of prioritizing commerce over art, and companies like Panavision that understand the value in supporting projects like ours are integral to the future of the artform.

Kohl: With such a wide range of lenses and equipment, we knew Panavision would be the best place to help us tell the story. We wanted to use a long, vintage zoom lens that would allow us to shoot the racing scenes in a dynamic way, close-up on the action, and Panavision were able to provide a 25-250mm that allowed us to do this. The support from the team was incredible and facilitated our being able to execute this film.

What did your collaboration look like once you started shooting?

Watson: Most of our creative discussions happened on the drive to and from our location. Once we were on set, Jess gave me full trust to shoot freely. As this was an independent production, everyone involved continually made sacrifices to carry on working. I don’t think this would have been possible had we all not had a personal belief and investment in the project, which comes from a sense of trust and respect that starts at the top.

Kohl: Adric and I have worked together quite a bit on both commercial and documentary projects, so we have a good understanding of how each other works, which helps with communication and trust. A big part of the shooting process here was me taking a back seat and giving Adric the freedom and space to follow the characters. It was important to have conversations prior to filming, because once we were on set with our characters, we just wanted to be shooting uninterrupted.

What inspired each of you to become a filmmaker — and what keeps you inspired today?

Watson: My family were painters, so I became immersed in visual communication as a child. I started making films with my school friends after seeing The Lord of the Rings and saving up for a DV cam — so I suppose I owe it to Andrew Lesnie [ASC, ACS] and Peter Jackson. I’m continually inspired by people who work outside of conventional filmmaking structures, and documentary has always been on the frontline of this.

Kohl: I never thought to myself, 'I want to be a director.' I just started making work about communities or individuals I was interested in exploring, and gradually that has expanded into becoming a director. It’s an amazing job as it allows me to explore worlds, people and places that I’d otherwise have no access to. It allows me to put myself in someone else’s shoes and hopefully allows an audience to deepen their understanding of someone else's experience.

Photos courtesy of the filmmakers.