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Jones, Geoffrey (1931-2005)

Director, Producer, Editor

Main image of Jones, Geoffrey (1931-2005)

Alongside Norman McLaren and Len Lye, Geoffrey Jones is one of the true artists of the British short film. A virtuoso editor with an instinctive feel for rhythm and music, he restlessly developed the language of film, combining and recombining still and moving images, text and music in fresh, energetic and innovative ways. The fact that he worked largely in the critically neglected area of industrial sponsored film explains why he remains so unfairly overlooked today.

He was born in 1931 and raised in North London. As a child, his school was next door to Hampstead's Everyman Cinema, where he became intoxicated by German, French and Russian film, especially Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1928). At the Central School of Art in the early 1950s, he became interested in photography and experimented with many different techniques. He revitalised the school's film society, screening works by Lye, McLaren and Luciano Emmer. Bert Haanstra's Glass (Netherlands, 1958) was another key film for Jones, alerting him to the cinematic possibilities of using only a music track.

His route into the film industry was circuitous. A film based on a series of illustrations satirising the bowler-hatted City commuter came to nothing, but the drawings gained him a job at an advertising agency. Jones had no love for the advertising world, but it provided useful opportunities to develop ideas. Lacking a camera, he borrowed techniques from Lye and McLaren, painting and scratching onto exposed 35mm film stock and making film strips that could be synched to music. He used this technique for several advertisements.

Meanwhile, he submitted footage he had taken of a 'chair-a-plane' (a popular amusement ride) to the BFI's Experimental Film Fund. So impressed was the Fund committee that he won not just a grant but job offers from all three members. He accepted the role of supervisory editor of animation at the Shell Film Unit offered by Sir Arthur Elton.

His first task at Shell was a daunting one, condensing a three-hour speech to a seven-minute film. Using a combination of stills, text and animation, Jones made Shell Panorama (1959), his first documentary and his only film to employ commentary. The positive reception won him greater freedom to experiment with his own ideas, and he embarked on a series of Shell adverts, cutting images and text to the rhythm of a penny-whistle music track. The award-winning Shell Spirit (1962) remains the most celebrated film of this period, and it caught the attention of British Transport Films head Edgar Anstey.

In late 1962 Jones began research for a film on the subject of design for the British Railways Board, and travelled the country shooting 16mm footage. This research sparked the idea for Snow (1963), a film contrasting the comparative comfort of passengers with the intense effort of railway staff to keep the lines clear. Anstey immediately gave his assent, and Jones chased bad weather across Britain for nine straight days. The soundtrack, an arrangement of Sandy Nelson's popular 'Teen Beat', was manipulated by Daphne Oram, a founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. With its unique interplay of music and images, staccato cutting and pulsating rhythms, Snow represented Jones's full flowering as a creative filmmaker. It was seen at festivals around the world and received 14 major awards and an Oscar nomination.

1964's Trinidad and Tobago, made for British Petroleum with sound again by Daphne Oram, represents the travelogue at its most inventive, cutting disparate images of the islands to a gently building crescendo, climaxing in a dazzling carnival sequence. His next film for BTF, Rail (1965), is a celebration of railway design old and new. Designed as a 'symphony in two movements', with a moving score by Wilfred Josephs and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, it won seven major awards in its first year of release. Further work for Shell and BP included This Is Shell (1975), commissioned to illustrate the full range of the sponsor's international work. A film of breathtaking rhythm and sweep, it comprises newly shot footage, library materials, stills, text and a magnificently used sweeping score.

Asked to submit proposals for a film celebrating 1974's 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Jones suggested a condensed history of the British railways in 15 minutes. The resulting film, Locomotion (1975), is arguably his greatest work, weaving together more than 400 still and moving images with a steadily building accelerando arranged by Donald Fraser and performed by members of Steeleye Span. It is, as one critic said, "as exciting a film as the subject itself", a work unique to the vision and craft of its maker.

As the industry changed and sponsored films declined, opportunities grew sparse. Through the 1980s he continued to work alone, producing a rich body of work including his beloved Seasons Project, which elegantly blended images of nature to the music of Vivaldi. The films, however, went unreleased.

In 2003 a grant from the Arts Council of Wales saw him return to his 1950s chair-a-plane footage, completing two films, A Chair-a-Plane Kwela and A Chair-a-Plane Flamenco (both 2004), which further demonstrated his skill and invention in fusing images and music.

Jones died in 2005, just before a DVD retrospective of his work brought about a long overdue reappraisal. Despite the relative obscurity in which he spent his career, he remains one of Britain's most distinctive and innovative film artists, with an unparalleled gift for finding beauty and energy in apparently unpromising material. His work deserves to be discovered by anyone interested in photography, design, montage or the combined energy of film and music.

James White

*The BFI also publishes a DVD compilation of films by Geoffrey Jones, 'The Rhythm of Film'.

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Locomotion (1975)Locomotion (1975)

Geoffrey Jones presents 150 years of railway history in just 15 minutes

Thumbnail image of Rail (1967)Rail (1967)

Geoffrey Jones's stunning evocation of Britain's changing railways

Thumbnail image of Shell Spirit (1963)Shell Spirit (1963)

Beautiful and energetic short promotional film

Thumbnail image of Snow (1963)Snow (1963)

Stunningly shot and edited meditation on trains in winter

Thumbnail image of This is Shell (1970)This is Shell (1970)

Stylish and highly innovative promotional film

Related collections

Thumbnail image of Postwar DocumentaryPostwar Documentary

A crucial and creatively fertile period long overlooked by historians

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Lye, Len (1901-1980)Lye, Len (1901-1980)

Director, Animator

Thumbnail image of McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)

Animator, Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of British Petroleum filmsBritish Petroleum films


Thumbnail image of British Transport FilmsBritish Transport Films

Film Unit

Thumbnail image of Shell Film Unit (1934-)Shell Film Unit (1934-)

Film Unit