At work with: Ben Smith, Shelf Heroes

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This morning we’re in London and at work with Ben Smith, the man behind Shelf Heroes. The independent film zine is going through each letter of the alphabet in order, asking contributors to draw or write a response based around a film that begins with the issue’s letter. We catch with Ben just after the recent ‘D’ edition.

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Where are you today?
It’s 7.30am and I’m at my flat in Kilburn, North London going through emails and researching a few ideas for the next issue. I work as freelance designer so the mornings and evenings are the main time I get to spend with the zine. I’ll be shooting off to work in an hour and I like to try and get all fires put out, invoices sent and questions answered before then… although this rarely happens.

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What can you see from the window?
I can see the incredibly uninspiring sight of commuters on the platform of Kilburn High Road station. We moved to Kilburn just over a year ago, and I’ve really grown to love it. There’s a real community spirit, a couple of great pubs and most importantly for me a plenty of vibrant indie cinemas.

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Are you a morning or evening person?
Definitely a morning person. I find all the best ideas hit me in those first few hours of the day. I think in design there is a huge tendency to overthink, and overanalyse a solution. Often stripping out initial burst of energy and enthusiasm. The stuff you do first isn’t always the best, but it’s the purest and most instinctive. I’ve tried to keep this freedom in the layout of Shelf Heroes, avoiding too much repetition and instead reacting to content individually as it comes in.

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Which magazine do you first remember?
The first two magazines I remember subscribing to were Hammers News, the monthly West Ham United mag (which was responsible for the walls of my bedroom being decked out in pull-out posters of John Moncur, Julian Dicks and Super Slaven Bilic); and Gamesmaster, the multi-platform video game mag. I can still remember pulling open the cellophane every month and getting hit with that smell of the printed page. I don’t think that love of print will every really die.

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What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
The last thing I was reading was Empire, but the mag I’ve been most impressed with recently is Forerunner. A new UK video game magazine (with a touch of travel) that takes a beautifully accessible look at the people and places behind games. Looking forward to seeing more.

What’s your favourite film beginning with ‘D’ this morning?
Tough one. The one I’ve seen most recently is John Boorman’s ‘Deliverance’, but as I scan my movie shelf (arranged in alphabetical order) ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ stands out at me. It’s an intoxicating semi-conscious dream of a film that muses on love, reality and the mundanity of relationships, all through the eyes of an entomologist locked in a sadomasochistic relationship with her partner. It’s one of those that I saw several times at the cinema, and can still picture every moment. I’ll give it a rewatch this evening.

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How did the idea for the alphabet theme come about?
For a few years I ran Shelf Heroes as a film review blog (originally only DVD releases, hence the name) which was great fun and enabled me to go to all kinds of press screenings and even get my name on a Jim Jarmusch poster. But as a magazine lover, I was always looking for a way to migrate it to print. The concept itself was born from an A–Z of Horror poster (above) I designed for an exhibition, which took lettering from iconic film posters.

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Every issue I have wavering thoughts about the idea, and a desire to drop in interviews, more directed articles and other content that a ‘real’ film magazine might have. But it seems the audience like the purity of the ‘pick a film, go create something’ brief, so it looks like it’s probably here to stay. I do think it offers a satisfying amount of restriction in terms of film choice, and freedom in terms of the creative expression. I don’t think you’ll find short fiction inspired by ‘Demon Seed’ next to illustrations of ‘Dune’ and ‘Dumbo’ in many other publications.

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Where do you find your contributors?
To begin with it was lots of friends and friends of friends. But now the zine is out there in the world I find most people now approach me. I’m a strong believer in keeping a healthy mix of professional writers and illustrators and complete unknowns; it keeps the content so much fresher and unexpected. Occasionally I might offer small direction on an article or illustration, but I want every piece to be as personal and individual as possible. I’d argue in some ways Shelf Heroes isn’t a film fanzine at all, it’s more about the contributors and their reactions to the film they’ve selected, than the movies themselves.

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How do you generally decide which image will go on the cover, and how did you decide for this new ‘D’ issue?
Always the hardest bit. With no set style for each issue (only the format stays the same) the cover can be ANYTHING. I’ll usually leave it until 75% of the zine is designed and then find a way of reflecting that feeling with one single page. A pet hate of mine is magazines with beautiful covers that feel completely disconnected from the internal content. Wish I could tell you more about the yellow, the type and the images on the cover of ‘D’, but it just felt right!

What are you most looking forward to this week?
Stack Magazines have invited me to speak about the zine at the Professional Publishers Association Festival on Thursday. Which is very surreal, as I’m about as far away from a professional publisher as you can get, but that should be fun.

And on a personal note West Ham are playing their last ever game at Upton Park tomorrow night so I’ll be down there with a tear in my eye. And I’ll probably pick up a copy of Over Land and Sea, the fanzine that has been going strong for 27 years and will cease to be when we move stadium. Pretty excited to see the final match programme design as well.

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What are you least looking forward to this week?
Chasing invoices, and handling all the business side of producing a zine. I haven’t really got that side of my brain in check!

shelfheroes.com

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