Watch Ross Hogg & Duncan Cowles' award-winning Isabella

Isabella is a hugely personal short from Edinburgh-based filmmakers Ross Hogg and Duncan Cowles exploring old age and memory loss. The film has picked up several awards on the festival circuit, and is now available to watch online

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Mar 2017

Just under a year ago at Glasgow Short Film Festival 2016, Ross Hogg and Duncan Cowles’ beautiful and deeply moving documentary-animation hybrid, Isabella, was awarded the Scottish Short Film Award. At the Scottish Baftas in November, it won Best Scottish Short. Today, it arrives online.

The film’s eponymous subject is Hogg’s grandmother, a 92-year-old suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Initially, Hogg planned the film as a series of short animations that would act as a record of Isabella’s memories. “She has always taken pride in sharing stories and memories from her past with me,” Hogg told us last year. “The memories normally shared a dark humour and were linked by a recurring theme of violence, which became all the more funny coming from a 92-year-old, who was so small, frail and delicate.”

Early in the process, however, Hogg realised that Isabella's symptoms had worsened dramatically. “There were momentary lapses where she would become confused about the present and forget important personal information entirely,” explains Hogg, “At other moments, though, she would respond with complete lucidity, remembering past memories very vividly.”

The animator felt his initial film concept had to adapt alongside the changes in Isabella’s condition in order to have relevance. “As she was coming to the end of her life, I felt it was important to capture and preserve her character at this sensitive time, as honestly and respectfully as possible,” he says. “Therefore, the film was no longer solely about her stories, but also had to capture as much of her, and her condition, as possible. And I felt it was increasingly necessary to not only record audio of my gran’s stories, but to have her on-screen at some point too.”

This is where Cowles came in. A friend of Hogg’s, Cowles has form in mining insightful documentaries from very personal subjects. His 2014 film Directed by Tweedie, which also won GSFF’s Scottish Short Film Award, for example, was a tender and hilarious study of Cowles’ own grandfather, and showed a knack for startling and witty compositions. Isabella, however, would be a very different film.

“I’d just finished Directed by Tweedie when Ross approached me about doing a film about his gran that fused live-action and animation in some way,” Cowles tells us. “I was looking to explore and collaborate on a new project and Isabella felt like a good opportunity to do something completely different to what I’d made previously, and work with someone who was already a good friend. Plus, having now made films on all of my family members already, I was in need of someone else's to move on to.”

Together they make a mixed-media brew that’s remarkable. Using free-lensing, Cowles creates some expressionistic live action footage as well as traditional documentary material. This is interlaced with Hogg’s animations, which take on myriad styles, from menacing onyx ink blots that spread across the screen, to digital animation as well as animated segments of Isabella’s brain scans. “The aim, I suppose, was to try and create an environment capable of immersing the viewer into Isabella's disjointed, at times confusing, world,” says Hogg.

“We knew from the outset that it was going to be experimental,” adds Cowles, “and I wouldn’t say we were entirely sure how it was going to work when beginning the film. I had some ideas that I wanted to try out when filming, and some thoughts about how it might fit together, but I don’t think we really knew until we started editing and began to form a structure and try new techniques out.”

Cowles suggests that the film succeeds because both filmmakers were forced to bounce off each other and abandon their comfort zones. “At first I was quite concerned about the animation because it was new for me,” recalls the documentarian. “Ross was the same with the live-action element. I remember us both sitting there editing together and talking about how unsettling it was at first, but that has been important for me in moving forward with my work and thinking about how I will make films in the future. I want to make sure I push myself outside my comfort zone with every project moving forward. Otherwise there’s no point.”

Isabella is available to watch on Hogg’s Vimeo page or in the player above

Hogg’s latest short animation is called Life Cycles; Cowles' new doc is called Alexithymia; both compete in the Scottish competition of this year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival