Lily Gwynne-Thomas is a Creative Londoner with a distinctly outside-the-box approach to filmmaking.
We meet in the Wellcome Collection, a museum of medicine’s past exploring the connection between creativity and science.
“I love this place. Their collection is so interesting — if you ever get a chance to look around,” says Lily, after a PA-system interrupts our conversation to announce a guided tour with a focus on amputation is about to start and turns our attention to the space of the grand, yet modern, Reading Room.
Lily Gwynne-Thomas’s type of filmmaking has an experimental flavour, but her scope is not limited to any one prescription. With the film production company she manages, Paniscus Motion Pictures, Lily Gwynne-Thomas’s output focusses on narrative filmmaking.
But if there is something that perhaps best explains what makes this filmmaker’s voice in film different to others, it is that she started her career in science, not film.
Creative Londoners: What made you want to begin a career in science?
Lily Gwynne-Thomas: Creativity – and art – in an academic world can sometimes get quite a bad rep for being perceived as weak – not being tough and scientific – which is what I’ve found a lot going through school. I was really encouraged and pushed towards doing more scientific subjects like biology – I ended up doing biology and chemistry and then carrying that through to university even though it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I sort of fell into that.
“I wrote – but never really that much. I drew and I painted – but I never thought that what I’d done was very good.”
Lily Gywnne-Thomas found that the further she got into the in-depth study of the body in her Human Sciences degree at UCL, the more she felt she had something creative burning inside her for which no amount of medical knowledge could help her prescribe a solution.
Growing up in Berkshire, just outside of London, Lily Gwynne-Thomas always wanted to be different, be creative, and find new ways of expressing herself.
Pursuing one creative experiment after another, she eventually had an epiphany in her second year of her undergraduate studies: she discovered that not only did filmmaking fit the way she visualised her creative thoughts, but that it was something that complemented the way she had envisaged working with other people.
Creative Londoners: How did you discover your passion for film?
Lily Gwynne-Thomas: I was doing very scientific subjects at uni. And I kind of thought that was the right thing to do. But I always knew that there was this creative thing inside me that wanted to come out and I never really knew how to get it out. I wrote, but never really that much. I drew and I painted, but never really thought what I’d done was very good. I went to a film workshop at the BFI and it was a really strange experience because I just instantly felt like I fitted in.
It was like I felt as though all the things I didn’t really know I was good at suddenly came together in one thing that was making films and talking to people in the sense of being a director. I’ve always seen things in moving images – which sounds strange. But if I have an idea or concept I can picture it in my head like an animation. So it seemed obvious that film was the medium for me to express myself.
But where the move from science to art may seem like an abrupt transition, Lily Gywnne-Thomas’s basis in science was in fact perhaps the best thing to prepare her when she emerged onto the London filmmaking scene. Her artistic character is embedded in her knowledge of science.
Creative Londoners: What drives your artistic character?
Lily Gwynne-Thomas: I’ve always said the main thing that really drives me is that it’s really important to be different. I’ve always really wanted to be different and I think everyone should try and do things differently. To me, it seems obvious because, for example, evolution is literally driven by variation and diversity.
One of the reasons I think the human being is such a progressive species is because there’s such a massive range in like where people live, the way people live, how they deal with their environments. People live so differently, and that allows them to occupy these kind of niches. Another example is something like the influenza virus. The reason flu is so hard to stop is because it mutates, changes and differentiates so frequently and quickly that it’s impossible to develop just one vaccine. Every year scientists have to develop a new vaccine because it just changes so quickly. I’ve just always thought: why don’t people want to be different more?
That’s always how I’ve done everything. I’m not like super eccentric and “out there”. But I just like to do small things, I make the effort to do things differently. And it’s just a state of mind really, but I try to do the same thing when I’m coming up with film concepts, too. I like the idea of telling like classic or related stories in a slightly different way that alters peoples’ perspectives.
“If we met at a party and started chatting, most people that used to know me would probably be really surprised to hear I was making films. They would probably have thought I’d be working in a lab or a corporation or something like that.”
For her latest project, Lily Gwynne-Thomas created an innovative short film that explores the disparate nature of human emotion. One Volume shows how individuals’ emotional experiences are always also shared human experiences by taking the cultural activity of reading as an example of a producer of common experience. Interspersing clips of six characters reading the same book in separate locations (and replacing the book with a camera), the film presents a radical stripping down of emotional narrative. It is a particle accelerator of the emotions and, ultimately, a compelling watch.
One Volume (2017), Lily Gwynne-Thomas.
Creative Londoners: Where did the idea come from for One Volume?
Lily Gwynne-Thomas: I was in a library when someone walked past me and took a book from the shelf, looked at it and put it back. And it just suddenly occurred to me how funny it would be to visualise life from a book’s perspective – how many different faces it would see peering into it and reacting to it. I scribbled it down and didn’t really think anything of it. Then a couple of months later, I realised it would be quite a good short film – and quite simple to make.
Creative Londoners: What are you trying to connect with in One Volume?
Lily Gwynne-Thomas: I’m interested in what it is to be a person and what it is to connect with other people, emotionally and physically. I’ve always been interested in the human body – the way we can communicate with it, the way it changes and the way we relate to our own bodies.
Lily Gwynne-Thomas is leaving no paths of her identity behind: in her spare time, she attends conferences on the integration of art in science.
Creative Londoners: How would you like to see science benefit more from art in the future?
Lily Gwynne-Thomas: Creativity is fundamental to any innovative practice. Science, whether it’s medicine, astrophysics or psychology, relies on a certain type of creative thinking to keep progressing. Art, broadly, is an enabler of the creative process – for me, music turns my creative switch ‘on’ and lets me come up with new ideas. But scientists need art just as much as artists. Science breakthroughs don’t happen because they are obvious: inventions and discoveries come from creative ideas.
You can keep up to date with Paniscus Motion Pictures at www.paniscus.co.uk.
Portraits by: Michael Wayne Plant, London-based social documentary photographer www.michaelwayneplant.com.