How a minimalist 90-second documentary won a competition

Daniel Simpkins talks about making the short documentary that won Canon's Stories in Motion competition, what the prize means to him and offers tips to other young filmmakers.
A man leans back against a red tractor in the middle of a field, while a brown and white cow stands slightly to the side, in a still from Daniel Simpkins' short Farm Life.

Daniel Simpkins' prize-winning film was shot on his uncle's farm in Wiltshire, UK. "A lot of modern documentaries are very handheld and in-your-face," he says. "Farm Life felt more like reflecting on the subject, in the sense that I'm taking a step back and observing." © Daniel Simpkins

When filmmaker Daniel Simpkins was loaned some camera equipment for a few days, he had no idea he would use it to make an award-winning film. Yet a few months later, he walked away with the Grand Prize in Canon's new UK short film competition, Stories in Motion.

"I was amazed to win it, because a lot of talented filmmakers had entered," says 26-year-old Daniel. "I thought it was a nice little film, but I never expected it to win anything."

Daniel's film Farm Life is a beautifully-made documentary – just 90 seconds long – about a young farmer named Jeff. Thoughtful, understated and shot in a letterbox format, it consists of still and carefully-composed shots, with only Jeff's voiceover and ambient sounds from the farm on the soundtrack. The inspiration to make it came from Daniel's own family background.

Born and raised in southwest England, he is very familiar with rural life and Jeff is actually Daniel's cousin. "If you grow up in the country, it never leaves you," he says. Interested in film and media since his teens, Daniel went on to study filmmaking at Falmouth University where his passion for documentaries was born. "I became fascinated by making them, and realised the real world is as interesting as fiction," he adds.

After graduating, Daniel worked briefly as a film production runner before starting his current job as a technician for a camera rental company. His employer encourages him to borrow cameras and develop equipment expertise by doing his own filmmaking, which is how Farm Life came into being.

A row of black and white cows stand behind barriers in a cow shed, looking towards the camera, in a still from Daniel Simpkins' short Farm Life.

In Farm Life, the viewer is always at a distance from the subjects, apart from one close-up shot of Jeff. "You're always just observing and watching," says Daniel. "I think we miss that nowadays with things like TikTok – attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. It's nice to be able to sit back and watch something with a slower pace." © Daniel Simpkins

Young filmmaker Daniel Simpkins stands holding a pile of boxed Canon equipment, standing next to host Alex Zane who is presenting him with his Grand Prize award in the Canon Stories in Motion Young Filmmakers Competition.

Daniel received the Grand Prize in the Canon Stories in Motion Young Filmmakers Competition at a special ceremony held at the Everyman Theatre in London. "Even though I sometimes suffer with anxiety, I'm incredibly driven," he says. "Being able to make something for myself was a huge release of creativity and tension in a way, because I've gone and done it." Daniel is shown here collecting his award and prize from host Alex Zane. © Fran Hales

Farm Life and competition success

"I was at a down point creatively and had lost confidence, because a lot of the films I had made were never completed or I wasn't happy with them," says Daniel. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist and if I'm not satisfied with something, I don't show it to anyone because I always want it to be better."

When his boss said there was some equipment that needed testing, Daniel had the idea of asking his cousin whether he could film with him, just as an experiment. "I thought it would make an interesting subject, and I'd also get to hang out in the country again," he continues. "It was a very comfortable situation with a location and a person I knew well, so I took that opportunity and ran with it."

Daniel decided to use a low-key style of filmmaking, partly influenced by old British Pathé documentaries, and filmed Jeff and the farm scenes as simply as possible to let the subject speak for itself. Assisted on set by his father Philip, he spent one day shooting, then another putting the footage into sequence.

Due to Daniel's low confidence at that time, the project could easily have ended there, but a film editor friend saw his film and helped him edit the footage. No sound had been recorded, so afterwards Daniel returned to the farm and recorded an interview with Jeff talking about farming, as well as sounds from around the farm. Then everything was mixed together and the film was complete.

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

Do you own Canon kit?

Register your kit to access expert advice, equipment servicing, inspirational events and exclusive special offers with Canon Professional Services.

Daniel had seen Canon's Stories in Motion competition advertised and decided to enter after being encouraged by his friends. They were right; the judges loved Farm Life and chose it as both the winner of the documentary category and the overall winner from a huge number of entries.

He was presented with his award at a special event at London's Everyman Theatre. "Winning the competition gave me a lot of confidence that I could make films of high quality and the reassurance that I was heading in the right direction," says Daniel. "It has definitely pushed me to make more of my own films."

A man in a dusty blue outfit and red helmet with attached head torch looks straight at the camera, in a still from Daniel Simpkins' current documentary project set in abandoned Cornish mines.

Daniel is currently shooting a documentary about the Carbis Bay Crew, a group of hobbyist mine explorers in Cornwall, UK, with his Canon EOS C70. "I'd like to continue with documentaries for now, but then would eventually love to deviate into fiction after I've satisfied what's in me at the moment," he says. © Daniel Simpkins

A man abseils down an old mineshaft, looking up at his ropes, in a still from Daniel Simpkins' current documentary project set in abandoned Cornish mines.

Daniel prefers shooting documentaries in an understated style. "A film doesn't always have to be a huge scoop or have a cliffhanger ending to get people interested," he says. "I like the idea of just watching someone, and if you film it well I feel anyone can be interesting to watch." © Daniel Simpkins

Exploring Cornwall's mining heritage with the Canon EOS C70

Daniel's prize was a Canon EOS C70 and a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens, which he has been using to make a new documentary based in Cornwall, UK. The county was home to a thriving tin mining industry until the 1990s and Daniel's film follows the members of the Carbis Bay Crew, a group of hobbyist cavers and divers, as they explore the lost mines of Cornwall.

"Each member of the crew is a real character," says Daniel. "It can be quite a dangerous hobby to have, but they've each got their reason to go down the mines. Sometimes it's for the historical element, or the adrenaline rush, or just to have a community of like-minded people to meet up with every weekend. So I've been going underground and filming them at work."

Daniel had started making the film before his competition win, but had got to the point where he was unsure whether he could continue with it, as he couldn't risk shooting on borrowed kit in that kind of environment. However, having his own Canon EOS C70 meant he had the freedom to carry on with his work. He says the camera has been perfect for the job.

"I was already familiar with the Canon format, but I love the EOS C70 because it has internal ND, everything's at your fingertips and it's just so compact," he says. "It's absolutely ideal for documentary shooting. Getting a 4K image and shooting in Canon RAW is really quite special. It's also rugged in terms of build quality and has allowed me to get footage that's quite unique."

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth leans over a Canon EOS C70, which is attached to a tripod.

Kickstarting your indie filmmaking career

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth guides us through the process of producing an independent film, sharing tips about what to shoot, getting the most from your kit, and how to collaborate with others.

Although Daniel would ultimately like to shoot fiction, he is planning to continue with documentaries for the foreseeable future. "With documentaries, you're meeting people you'd never meet and hearing different opinions and different ways of thinking and it really opens your mind up a bit more," he says. "When you're with your friends and family you tend to see the world in a certain way. With documentaries you push yourself to go and meet other people and interact with them, and I really enjoy hearing their opinions and learning about different ways of life."

When asked what tips he can offer other young filmmakers who want to pursue their own projects, Daniel says: "A lot of young filmmakers fall into the trap of becoming too ambitious about what they want to do, or their projects grow too big to complete. But I think if you look at what you already have around you, there's probably a film waiting to be made.

"The one thing I've taken away from the whole experience is not to be afraid of making a film by yourself. You don't have to wait for other people to start the ball rolling. In my case I got a lot of satisfaction from directing, shooting and producing the film myself. It has really motivated me, because I've proved to myself that I can do it."

David Clark

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro