Britain’s quirkiest film studio

Rosa Schiller-Crawhurst visits eclectic Sands Films.

Nestled in amongst an imposing eighteenth century wharf set back from the bank of the Thames in Rotherhithe resides a hive of creative activity. Sands Films is a film production company of a unique nature – it runs its own studio,  costumes, cinema and all the facilities needed to produce films independently. For example Dickens’ Little Dorrit – masterminded by company director Christine Edzard – was one of the company’s most successful projects. Sands Films also works with other companies to create their costumes and set designs. In recent years for example it has made the costumes for the BBC’s The Lost Prince, Vanity Fair, Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Scorsese’s production of Gangs of New York

One of the most unique aspects of the Sands Films Studios is its effort that it puts into thorough research of every project it undertakes. When you first enter the homely-looking studio, the first thing you are confronted with is The Rotherhithe Picture Research Library – the company’s own research archive, which holds hundreds of postcards, magazines, illustrations, photographs and other visual reference material. Stacks of Vogue reaching back decades line the wooden shelves along with volumes dedicated to local architecture, transport and costume. This is a public library as well as being a growing research base for any project that the directors of the company decide to undertake. It is a company that takes its accuracy of research as absolutely fundamental in creating art. Edzard carries out most of the research herself: “I always find if you want something done properly, you just have to do it yourself.” The joint director of the company, Olivier Stockman, runs his own cinema club every Tuesday evening. A vast projector covers the walls of a darkened room bursting with squishy, floral sofas for the audience.

The studio space is regularly transformed for the company’s own projects, but is also hired out by various production companies wanting to use the space for documentary interviews or drama. In every corridor are props and pieces of set design, created for different commissioners – walking past Jane Eyre’s bookcase becomes a normal thing to expect.

The costume warehouse is one of the most enchanting aspects of this busy enterprise. I was confronted by rail upon rail of beautifully crafted and hand sewn period costumes. The pale creams, blues and dusky pinks of the embroidered eighteenth-century style, Janeite gowns are lined up on one side, whilst on the other you can recognise more severe, thicker and heavier Victorian gowns, coats and boots. There are hundreds of costumes here, ranging from the child’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream leafy creations to the huge headpieces for the dancers in The Tales of Beatrix Potter from the Royal Ballet. Sands Films has was commissioned to create the costumes for all number of projects including Pride and Prejudice, Marie Antoinette, Bright Star and The Young Victoria, which won best costume at the BAFTA and Oscars. It is a small company, with around only twenty full time staff, but the costume designers and seamstresses are skilled to the highest level. “It’s like being in a Dickens factory!” my guide joked with me, referring to the women pouring over their needle and thread, hand embroidering silks and satins. Although clearly the posters of Elvis that covered the work stations indicated the contrary and the studio was nothing like a Dickens factory, it did have a beautiful sense of timelessness about it. In this costume warehouse were rooms dedicated to accessories, a room that looked like an old fashioned laundry, filled to bursting with white under garments  and barrels overflowing with beads and lace. Everything is done here; the designing, cutting, fitting, sewing, dying and washing. Sands Films ‘expertise is required often even when the costumes are not designed by the company – for example in the filming for Atonement where a significant amount of fitting and costume advice was given. 

Director Olivier Stockman has always made sure to stress the independence and eclectic nature of his company.  It is a business which is experimental and international, but maintains its space in the heart of the local community. A few of the costume designers, for example, have had relatives that have previously worked at the studios. This is company which has firm ideological roots in sustaining a self directed business and bringing high-quality film to our screens.  It is desperate to hold onto its independence and unique image by buying the freehold to its 23,000 square foot premises. Whilst the core of the business is healthy, Stockman has opened up an enterprise of selling shares to anyone wanting a piece of Britain’s most unique cinema heritage. Stars including Keria Knightley and Vanessa Redgrave have backed this project. Stockman loves films and bringing this work to the public eye – it is an industry this company have poured their souls into, and are working hard to keep it the quirky, unique and colourful enterprise it has developed into since the 70s.