Capturing your family history in Lewes

Old photographs can be used in the films
Old photographs can be used in the films

Laura Cartledge meets the film maker working to branch out the family tree.

Jonathan Crane believes ‘everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions and you listen and you tease out the stories of their lives’.

Old photographs can be used in the films

Old photographs can be used in the films

And while his work ranges from award-winning TV programmes to personal documentaries it is this which runs as a constant thread.

“For me it is always about people,” he agrees, “I made a series about submarines and it was about the people who lived in them really.”

He says working for the BBC was ‘a wonderful opportunity – or excuse’ to feed his passion for finding out about people, and Jonathan states his more personal work is just as rewarding.

“While the audience might be tiny the satisfaction is huge for me,” he enthuses, explaining how the idea to make videos for families of familes came about because of his own.



“I think it was the birth of my first grandchild, there is nothing like that to remind you of your own mortality,” Jonathan laughs. “I realised that I hadn’t any films about my parents who were long gone and it was an opportunity to make that good.”

That was ‘about ten years ago’, Jonathan reveals, adding that ‘it has worked really well’.

“Noone wants to talk about the fact grandma won’t be around forever but the truth is she won’t be and she will have wonderful stories to tell about her life and the best way is to get her talking, get it on film and then you have something to treasure,” he says. “Preserving them is the wrong word, it sounds like jam, but it is about helping to keep them alive in people’s memories.”

While technology means a lot is recorded and captured nowadays, Jonathan’s view is that this poses a catch-22.

“People take so many pictures and put them on Facebook, this is okay, but they don’t really look at them,” he explains. “It is important to look and select and print and use them to remember experiences by.

“It is nice to have something to hold and share with people. The films are another version of that, they are for people to watch together and for their children and grandchildren to watch in the future. Photographs are great but you can’t hear a person’s voice, you can’t see them move or get a proper sense of them.

“The technology of film making has evolved so much and now it is very easy to make very high quality films using relatively simple cameras and do it yourself,” he adds. “It is all in the eye, all in the skill of using that is out there.”

The advances mean Jonathan can strip the process back, in his words there is no need for ‘a distracting lighting person chewing gum in the corner’, instead it is just him and the person or people in question.

“I have done films about a single person and couples and complete families, they come in all shapes and sizes,” Jonathan smiles. “People don’t usually commission films about themselves but they will about someone they are close to, something they want to celebrate perhaps and record before it is too late.

“The important first part of the process is for me to sit down and get to know them, not with a camera, but looking at photographs and taking notes seeing if they have any home videos,” he says. “Filming takes a few days or less then the most important part of all is editing, it is the most creative part in the process I think and where I will go into a dark room and sweat over a hot computer.

“Once I have done the first edit I will sent it to them and say let me know if there are any details you want changing.

“Without exception people have reacted well to the films, in fact, generally, they say they are surprised how good they are – which is a bit odd – people say how they are even better than they expected.”

Artist Jessica Zoob, who resides between Lewes and Uckfield, has been the subject of one of Jonathan’s documentaries.

“I love making films about artists - they’re passionate about their work, and watching and filming them as they create is so exciting,” he enthuses. “Jessica Zoob is no exception. Her wonderful abstract landscapes are so complex and multilayered that they can take years to complete.

“My challenge in making a film about her was to capture her creativity and her passion. In interview, Jessica was thoughtful and frank about what she does. But once she started painting, she lit up.”

With work that involves the use of unconventional tools - including a squeegee and paint scraper - in addition to brushes, Jonathan says the process which utilised ‘dramatic sweeps, lunges and pourings’ was great to capture.

“Not least because Jessica was so clearly having such good fun,” he laughs.

The result, which aims to showcase Jessica’s creations and the Sussex landscape which inspires her, can be seen by visiting

This first featured in the May edition of etc Magazine pick up your copy now.