Thursday, 21 July 2011

Alan Moore on Get Fresh

Handy Six Degrees reference if you want to get from The Centurions to Johnny Depp or something.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Can we have the future now?


A child on video chat in the year 2011

And one ten years earlier

The year is 2011 and by my estimation, we should either be living on Mars or fighting robots in a post-apocalyptic world. I say this because where I'm freelancing, I often find myself hanging around the really nice coffee machine with a man who had a hand in creating the graphics for Minority Report and The Matrix. Yes, The Architect likes a cappuccino and swears you can froth soy milk to make a good one.

He really is Mr Future in the way he talks and dresses – it's a very singular and futuristic look and the complete antithesis of most styles. Pretty much everyone (including me), has adopted a style that's an affectation of an idealised past.

Recently, the two things to excite me the most have been the live stream of the Endeavour launch and the film made of photos from the Cassini launch. I also got quite cheered up from reading this article about Mars in yesterday's Observer. Should we spend billions of dollars to investigate the solar system? Oh yeah. Call me an idealist, but I think we've blown quite enough developing bombs that can fly windows to blow up the wrong people.

Yesterday I chatted to Spike using video chat and it struck me that this is the only thing from the film 2001 that's now a proper everyday reality. Unless you count the retro suits. But one of the interesting things about video chat that 2001 nailed absolutely, is the way kids just can't sit still in front of a moving image of themselves.


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Friday, 3 June 2011

Beautiful film shot by the Cassini spacecraft

Nicely put together by Chris Abbas. 

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Writing Soundtrack May 31 - June 3

Lazy Bones

Tin Can & Twine - Tortoise - Tortoise

Covers - The Sea and Cake -  The Moonlight Butterfly

Just Can't Leave It Alone - Neon Jung - Just Can't Leave It Alone

Ibhithi Five - Jumping Back Slash - Ibhithi

Wish You Were Here - Deadboy - Here - EP

Fallen Arches - Tokimonsta - Creature Dreams

Mumma Deed Family Clone - Jonas Reinhardt - Power of Audition

Noon Hill Wood - Richard Skelton - Landings

Windy Blues - Jef Gilson - French Blue Jazz

It's All Around You - Tortoise - It's All Around You



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Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Pass The Bucket by Vans

Even though these films yank a little too hard on the heartstrings, I still really like them; beautifully filmed and edited, plus both subjects are genuine and open. Funny how you never see Gary Oldman and Tony Alva in the same room though...

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Friday, 27 May 2011

The films of Louis CK

In an interview, American stand up and filmmaker Louis CK described a film he tried for a few years to get made. 'It's about a beautiful, but obnoxious Hollywood PA. One day she's driving through LA, talking on her cell, not paying attention, when she hits something with her car. She gets out to see what it is; she's hit and killed a little girl, with a full grown beard.'

The PA is eventually sentenced, not to jail, but to have a beard grafted on her face for ten years.

Let's watch the films he has made. This playlist should work: 'Hi How Are You?', 'Brunch' and 'Ice Cream'. 



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Life As An Independent Astronaut

Great idea, and I love the homemade quality of his suit. Nice one David Wilson!

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Writing Soundtrack May 23-27

Diagram of defence  

Other Side - Family Portrait- Family Portrait

Honest James - Thurston Moore - Trees Outside The Academy

Nobody Knows - The Feelies - Here Before

Echo Lady - Wet Hair - In Vogue Spirit

Biddies - Mo Kolours - EP1: Drum Talking

Terra - Julian Lynch - Terra

257 - NHKyx - yx aka 1ch aka Solo

Birdhouse 1 -  Matana Roberts - The Chicago Project

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Friday, 20 May 2011

Writing Soundtrack May 16-20

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Up we go

Departing - Quiet Evenings - Transending Spheres

The Axiom (Andy Stott remix) - Badawi - The Axiom EP

Tangled - Hideousmen - Tangled/Sirens

Loudest Shop Vac In The World - Don Caballero - Pungasm

Albatross - Wild Beasts - Albatross

House Jam - Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna

Mediumship - No Joy - Ghost Blonde

Short People - Randy Newman - Rhino Hi-Five: Randy Newman

Fog Hammers - Quiet Evenings - Transcending Spheres


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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Roy's Jeans documentary

There seems to be a bit of a trend for short documentaries about artisan producers. So far, I've watched chocolatiers, a luthier and an angry pizza chef talk about what they do, but my favourite by far is this film about Roy Slaper, of Roy Denim. Each pair is handmade by the man himself. You can read more about Roy on the excellent Grain and Gram site.

There are so many cool things about this film: the way it's shot, graded, edited, and the choice of music. It fairly zips along as we watch Roy craft apair of jeans. But that's also part of the problem. I wanted to know more! Why does he make his jeans? How did he get into it? Is he really into denim? How long did it take him to train?

Who knows, maybe he's the strong silent type and didn't want to talk. It's still a great piece of film. 


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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Healthcare: Hidden Voices documentary

This is superbly shot, edited and sensitively depicts its stories. Raises a whole bunch of questions like any good doc and it'll probably make you angry too - and it should. What would we do without the NHS eh? Nice grade n'all!



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Monday, 16 May 2011

Good stuff from NFB

The NFB is concerned with all things documentary, animation, interactive and film from Canada. There's some really great stuff there. 

Like this colourful doc about plastics. The script is out there as well, I can't imagine anything like this getting to shoot stage now. Shame because it's got a great rhythm. "Plastics Ben, plastics."


What do you do with William Shatner in a studio? Make him sing "O Canada."

"Shatner Ben, Shatner."


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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Monday, 9 May 2011

I don't like Ice Cream (new Battles video)

It's a bit too Mike Mills in the AD department and a massive nod to the El Guincho "Bombay" video. I quite like the song, well, I really liked it when they played it at ATP and one of them introduced it in a funny voice. But that's another story...


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Writing Soundtrack May 3-13

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Amazing Skydiving video

Beautifully shot on a GoPro. Must be a high spec model with some After Effects plugin jiggery pokery going on there - hence the no landing shot. If you watch the ground you can see some inneresting blurring going on too. But that's all by the by, this is a great video and it even makes me want to throw myself out of a plane. My only grumble is I wanted more close ups. They were easily the best bits.

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Thursday, 14 April 2011

Against The Clock trailer - finished at last

It's been a while, but then I have been busy. If the shoot was relatively quick – three days – then the edit has been where Against The Clock has finally taken shape. And this is hardly surprising because I really didn't have any idea of what I would capture at the beginning of the shoot, except a tight, five minute day-in-the-life of Nigel Holland, drag racer. The sort of film that would be a training wheel exercise and a decent little Vimeo movie. The fact he was disabled, I hadn't really thought about because I figured his condition would be a fairly fixed attribute. This was not the case – but not in any huge defining way. It was more of a routine aspect of his life.

The edit is finished, but the film isn't. We've got to recapture on HD and then do a sound mix and grade. But the majority of work is done.Then it's distributing it out to festivals, and of course planning the next one.

At the end of filming I had ten little DV tapes lined up on my desk. I got them captured – a good thing because my desk now is considerably smaller. Then I started poring through what I got.That was November. I figured for five minute documentary I'd have plenty. It would be case of chucking most of the stuff out. And to an extent that was true. There are hours of boring shots, shots were the inevitable drag car screamed by in the background and drowned out everything anyone said. There was one great sequence I had to let go when Nigel is talking about supporting his family, as the radio in the part stand we were hanging around starts playing 'Lean On Me'. But a Pro ET car burning out 500 metres away mushed everything up. I think I mentioned Santa Pod was loud. And finally, let's not forget the grey shots, the out of focus ones and of course the shots I thought should be thrown away, only to realise there was some interesting nugget to be gleaned.

After a bunch of false starts, I started to cut the film together. I realised the film was not about drag racing, but Nigel Holland. That still left the issue of all these shots of sexy muscle cars I had lying around. The cars were a problem. Everyone I spoke to about the project, wanted to know about the cars. The cars had to go in there. And yet it was all at odds with Nigel and his ride – which although a Mustang was not the big squat, hunkered down beasts that got anybody who saw the rough footage excited. So I had to work out a way of getting the car porn out there and then bedded down into the back of the viewer's mind, so it was a context and not a diversion.

I also had the same problem with the sport of drag racing and the technical aspects of engines, chassis design and racing classes. Nigel spoke eloquently about all these, but the more I watched the footage, the more it became apparent that this would be just too dense for the average viewer to get their head around. I found myself racing through the first few minutes to structure the film so that Nigel got in his car and raced. Once that was out of the way, the more interesting angles of his story – namely his condition – could come into focus. Quite the opposite of actually racing, where there's a lot of hanging around for your turn.

All these elements helped to shape the themes of the film, which are that Nigel, despite his condition (which makes him extraordinarily determined), is an everyman. Drag racing is his hobby and he escapes the pressures of his working life and condition to indulge in a passion in which he is exactly the same as everyone else at the strip. That's what bracket racing is all about. It's not the car you have, but how well you know it. During the edit I started to uncover the pressures everyone faces at the track. Drag racing is a sport anyone can do. But it's not cheap and it chews up time and space.

After three months, I was left with a twenty minute edit. It didn't feel flabby and I was happy with the structure and arc of the stories I recorded. It's an honest portray into the life of Nigel and his friends at the track. It's what I wanted for my first documentary: a balanced slice of life. Well as balanced as you can be with muscle cars and burning rubber.

Ha, finished. Yeah right. My edit had to go into Final Cut Pro (FCP). I'd put everything together in iMovie. There really was no other way of doing it at the time, but if you have a choice, go straight into FCP. You could cut out all the sitting around. You won't get that sinking realisation that iMovie timecodes are not really proper timecodes. You'll avoid format roulette. But, I have to say I learnt a whole bunch sitting beside somebody who knows what they're doing. I learnt about the grammar of editing. And sure, I got a FCP Inside Out book, but there really is nothing better than someone saying 'oh right click, properties, check 16:9 – yeah I know, it doesn't look like a check box. But it is'.

The trailer is the first thing I've edited in FCP. So excuse my grammar. But it tells the story – like any good trailer should. Question is, do you want to see the film?

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Friday, 1 April 2011

Friday, 25 March 2011

Writing Soundtrack March 21 - 25

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Nudie Suit

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Thursday, 24 March 2011

Want to make a film? Simple ideas rule.

Ridley Scott was once asked, how do you become a film director? His answer was, 'make a film'. That might sound obvious, but it's bang on the money advice. After all, he did just that, getting his brother Tony to act in his first short, Boy and Bicycle.

Just Keep Going, You Have Nothing Left To Lose is a good example of going out and trying something. Talking to strangers on the subway is a lovely idea, but Luke Rudkowski elevates the concept with a neat little mechanic for those who didn't want to talk. As soon as they said 'no', he asked them to point out someone else in the subway car for him to interview. As a device, it works really well, almost everyone's face lights up. You even suspect those who said 'no', now regretted their decision. The questions are also open-ended to spark debate and the film is competently put together. The only thing I would change is the music. This idea is strong enough. It doesn't need a soundtrack.

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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Stunts in documentary: one good, two bad

A stunt in a doc is a narrative device used by the filmmaker to demonstrate an issue in a succinct and film-friendly manner. They can work. A good example is King Corn. In the film, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney grow an acre of corn to discover the problems farmers in America face and to see just what happens to this staple crop when it enters the food chain.

This device makes perfect sense – it structures and frames the questions the King Corn wants to raise. There are quite a few, you can read more about them on the film's website. Or you could watch the doc.

Morgan Spurlock's work is almost exclusively built around the stunt device. In his first documentary, Super Size Me, he famously ate nothing but McDonald's for a month to demonstrate just how pervasive the brand's influence is on the American public and its effect on their health.

But the stunt was flawed. Nobody dines exclusively on McDonald's – it's unrealistic. Also, if you ate nothing but burgers, fries and milkshakes crafted by the finest chefs in the land, you'll still mess yourself up. The audience already knows this. It's why we're watching. Are we surprised when a doctor tells him he's going to die?

If anything, Spurlock's stunt demonstrates the body's sheer resilience to bad food. And in turn, this opens up all sorts of interesting areas of debate. Being poor, especially in America, means fewer options. What effect does low quality food have on society in terms of crime, education and social mobility? Super Size Me touches on this a bit, but only in a general way. But we're not really watching for that. We want to see him chuck.

I always think a good doc should be surprising and educational. You should learn something about the world. I don't have much hope for Spurlock's new film, Advertising, The Movie.

This time, the filmmaker sets out to expose product placement in movies by using the mechanic to fund his documentary. Wayne's World sent up the phenomena 20 years ago. What is this film trying to say? What is there to learn we don't know already? Well perhaps one thing, maybe this was the only way Morgan could get a documentary financed, so he decided to make a film about it.

Stunts and experiments can work in documentary, but they should never get in front of the story.

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Friday, 18 March 2011

Writing Soundtrack March 14 - 18

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Rocket - Working For A Nuclear Free City - Rocket

State Trooper - Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska

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Tuesday, 15 March 2011

ATC Diary – soundtrack

Some of these may be used

Yesterday, Brian Cox OBE was on Start the Week complaining about the recent decision to remix the sound on his BBC show, Wonders of the Universe. He argued the music was loud because it wasn't a lecture, but well, television. He has a point, people will watch his show for entertainment. But even though I have only seen a bit of the first episode, I must admit my eyebrows went north with the soaring strings.

It's an issue I have with documentaries. I know Wonders of the Universe is not a doc, but it is factual, and without sounding like a bit of a curmudgeon, I think you have to be careful about manipulating viewer emotion. A soundtrack should never get in front of the story. It shouldn't tell anyone watching the film, this is what you have to feel right now. Many of the complaints to Points of View about Brian's show were around this argument, you can read more about the story here, but the gist is that it 'dumbs down the subject matter'. Whether simply turning down the strings will make the content 'smarter' remains to be seen.

I think soundtrack has a place in documentary, it can flavour the story, but only with the lightest of touches. Of course, there are still the old cliches – I've really gone off the cello and any shimmering vibes because of their ubiquity.

So with that in mind, I've started writing bits and pieces for ATC, and I've asked others to contribute. Ideally, I want to make the soundtrack available alongside the film. I'm still deciding where that will be, but it would be great to get it on iTunes and Spotify. The way I see things is the soundtrack for ATC will be fairly sparse, but any recording released should be 'expanded'. Now how that will work out, I don't know. But there will be no shimmering vibes or mournful cellos. I promise.

I'm also fairly mindful there are some pretty cool things about the audio in ATC. At Santa Pod, the Tannoy churns out classic seventies rock all day long and that sounds interesting as it bounces around the speakers. Then there's the noise of the engines and other ambient stuff. I don't want to lose all that. So for a bit of inspiration, I've been listening to soundtracks that blend well with their story. Two composers spring to mind: John Luire's sparse arrangements for Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train and Don Ellis. Ellis wrote the soundtrack for the French Connection, and although it was never properly released, his discordant and spooky score is one of my favourites.

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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Writing Soundtrack 7 - 8 March


Low Stakes

It's About That Time/The Theme - Live - Miles Davis - Bitches Brew Live

Ina vision - Virgo Four - Trax records 20th Anniversary Collection

Short Road - Wax Stag - Wax Stag

Marriage - Baths Remix - Gold Panda - Marriage

Marriage - Forest Swords Remix - Gold Panda - Marriage

Motion - Goldmund - 5mm Context

Excuses - Bibio - Excuses

Rosa - Grimes - Geidi Primes

Haunted Hall - Rainbow Arabia - Kabukimono

Miles Runs The Voodoo Down - Live - Miles Davis - Bitches Brew Live

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I was listening to an interview with Andrew Kneel and Luke Meyer about their doc, Darkon on the Documentary Blog podcast. Looks pretty interesting, and I know they tried to keep most of the action within the game of Darkon.

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Saturday, 5 March 2011

El Guincho Bombay by Marc Gómez del Moral

Nicely art directed promo. Tastefully naughty too

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Friday, 4 March 2011

Discovery Space Shuttle launch cam

Writing soundtrack 28 Feb - 4 March


Here comes junior

Track Listing:

War=strong – Ike Yard – 1980-1982 Collected
All The Sun That Shines – Peaking Lights – 936
New Beat – Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine
Synchronize – Radio edit – Discodeine – Synchronize EP
Swingern In Fingern – Lithops – Queries
lover’s cravings – Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue Sampler
Thanks A Lot – Sea-Ders – The Freakbeat Scene
Everybody Gets To Go To The Moon – Live – The Three Degrees – The Best Of The Three Degrees: When Will I See You Again
33 222 1 222 (Live) – Don Ellis – Blue Note Trip Tease Part 2

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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Monday, 28 February 2011

Docma 11: let's make better documentaries and why

Docs are funny things. For a start, there are a lot more of them being made, which is great. But because there’s now a wider audience, the films that do well have a tendency to fall into a very accepted style of narrative and focus on familiar ‘issue’ subjects.

We, as an audience, have started to demand our viewing to have more explanation and resolution. We want our docs to be more like films – content that can be placed neat little boxes of context – rather than a record of a true story.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Michael Moore. You know you’re watching one of his films – there’s a very defined narrative path. We are presented with a problem, we are shown the bad men what did it and then we see Moore confronting them as some infographics fly about.

There are plenty of people who say Moore is not above bending the facts to make his case, but his films embody the direction documentary is heading. Too often if the medium is tackling an issue, the medium becomes a two-hour closed loop misery fest: we franchise our outrage to the filmmaker. We say, ‘good grief that’s terrible, thank goodness someone is confronting them’, rather than questioning whether we’re part of the problem.

When a review pops up in a doc trailer, how many times have you seen a it described as ‘terrifying’?

For me a doc should pose a question, make us think about the wider world and perhaps our place in it. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be a terrible event or injustice. Documentary film should not appear to solve an ‘issue’ in a neatly wrapped Sundance approved package. Otherwise the audience knows what to expect, they arrive with their popcorn and preconceptions. You’ll end up generating apathy about the subject.

And I think we are jaded about issues. Watch a doc about GM/the financial crisis/the environment/the war against terror and we all almost universally come away from the experience with the knowledge this is a bad thing. But there’s no push for us to take action against these misdeeds. It feels too big. Watch Gasland and be freaked when they set their polluted drinking water on fire, but do we really feel we can take action and make a change?

Is it enough to just report an issue and get it into public record? Is this the best way to tackle an issue, or is it just one way?

It’s a question that reminds me of the Insider, the Michael Mann dramatisation of Jeffrey Wigand speaking out against former employers, Brown and Williamson on 60 Minutes. In the film, Wigand accuses Bergman of simply making entertainment for a Sunday night. Bergman reassures Wigand his words will make a difference. But where did Wigand’s story have more impact – on 60 Minutes or in Mann’s film? Is this a fair comparison?

Maybe one way of pulling documentary in the right direction is to bring it down to earth with smaller subjects and take a less sensational and dramatic approach. These routes are still valid – just overused. I think we should draw up a list of subjects to avoid for the next five years – so we’re forced to think a little more creatively about the films we make. Sort of a Docma 11 if you like. Here’s mine:

Enough already of the…

  • Detroit docs – all of them
  • ‘Shot with the troops war’ docs
  • Docs where the filmmaker conducts a stunt to prove a point about how bad something is.
  • Docs where the filmmaker is an integral part of the story
  • Aesthetically enticing surroundings (like rural America), and subjects (gang members/tattoos/tattooists/burlesque/fixiebikes/skateboarders/surfers/snowboarders/bands.
  • Fake docs. I think they have a genre already: film.

Oh, and does everything have to be made with a Canon 5DII with super shallow depth-of-field?

What do you think?

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Monday, 21 February 2011

Monday doc: Nostalgia for Light

Patricio Guzmán’s documentary uses the Atacama desert in Chile to convey the themes of time and history. The humidity-free area has the clearest night sky in the world and attracts astronomers from all over the world. But while they search for the origins of the universe, archaeologists uncover the country's past in the desert.

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Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Street Fighting Man: meet the real Detroit Robocop

We almost lost Detroit*; loads of hipsters turned up with cameras and took photos of ruin porn. But others came, started urban farms, small businesses that sort of thing. All good and besides, this sort of thing always happens in run down areas. You can read more about what these people think of the media’s view of their city here.

And you should because when I heard about the Kickstarter project to erect a statue of Robocop in the city, I wondered how many people in the city pledged. And of course, what the real Detroit Robocop, James “Jack Rabbit” Jackson, thinks about it:

It looks like an amazing film and like the statue proposal, funded (and then some) by Kickstarter. Via the Documentary Blog 


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Monday, 14 February 2011

Monday's doc is set in the wild

<p>National Parks Project - Trailer from Ryan J. Noth on Vimeo.</p>

Found the documentary blog today with this skill trailer on the front page. What a good idea, and the whole thing looks stunning too. And they have a podcast too, one of my favourite mediums ever, because you can ride the Tube, your bike (quietly in the background mind) and cook with them on in the background.

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Sunday, 13 February 2011

Six word story #4

Walk with me across this field

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The Adventure Travel Film Festival

What did you do this Saturday? I helped Rhys unpick the iMovie edit of ATC and rebuild it in Final Cut. God I hate iMovie. I hear it used to be good – almost as good as Final Cut Express is now. And that's precisely the point. Why give away something for free with each Mac when you can up sale later. Now, I do know you can export an XML file, but it doesn't export the slugs (which you have to make), the VO, crops, soundtrack, but more importantly the timecode. So no, no more iMovie. Obviously.

Anyway, there's a lot of sitting around, tea, biscuits, making the characters do rave moves by manipulating arbitrary clips to shuttle back and forth, biscuits, looking at settings, short noises made by perplexed men, biscuits, swapping out drives named after characters in Peter Carey books and biscuits. So alleviate those dead moments when a clip is played over and over again, I've been reading the Adventure Travel Film Festival programme. It's on 3 – 5 June in Appledore Devon. Rhys is giving a seminar on how to do his job and they're showing a whole bunch of interesting stuff.

Cycle South – 1971 is about three guys who jump on their BSAs to drink and shag their way from Colorado to Panama. The clip here is a fan edit of the 90 minute movie, so the action is all out of sync. This edit goes straight for the hippie girl, dope and naked motocross section. So mind how you go, it's not safe for work. Especially if you work for The Man.

You think the Tour de France is hard? Try Ride the Divide. No yellow jerseys here and you 'll be racing 2700 miles of trails and peaks from Canada to Mexico. The divide is the Rockies and at the end each rider will have climbed around 200,000 feet. Many often race alone and without support.

In 1991, Irish filmmaker John T Davis set off with Vietnam vet, Beargrease to make an illegal 2000 mile journey across America. Shot on 16mm we learn about Beargrease's boxcar philosophy and his anger at modern America.

There's also a great sounding film called Headless Valley. It features regular couple Melvin and Ethel Ross journeying by canoe through the remote Canadian Northwest territories to reach the Headless Valley. The documented their journey on 16mm film. I've only seen a screen grab but it looks like the type of thing to be full of soft colours and sun-drenched vistas. I tried finding a clip on YouTube, but 'headless' is not the sort of search request you want to mess with.

Find out more on the Adventure Film Festival site  

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Thursday, 10 February 2011

The External World


Via Rubbishcorp. If you're near Birmingham, it's playing in the Flatpack fest. More info

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Matt Stuart shoots people

"...there should be no post-production like Photoshop or whatever and, just as importantly, no pre-production. In fact, I never make any form of communication with anyone I am photographing before I take a picture. You are looking in at something without being a part of it. That's very important. I try to be as invisible as possible, in fact, but I will explain what I'm doing after the event if people ask me."

All images are from Matt's website

Lovely tone of wit and craft.

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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Jean Painlevé and Yo La Tengo

Couple of years ago I saw them perform this in London - pretty sweet.

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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Six word story #2

"There done. Oh!" said the tattooist.

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Friday, 28 January 2011

Writing soundtrack 24-28 Jan

My life in the War Room

Continuing on with the end of the world theme. Gif from the sublime If we don't, remember me.

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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Me and The Bomb - films!

We go way back; I grew up down the road from one of Britain few nuclear missile bases, and even though it was long out of commission by the time I arrived, there were plenty of juicy military targets nearby. If the bomb were ever going to drop, it would be on my doorstep.

So naturally I was fascinated by nuclear war. I found it amazing that grown-ups, who told me to sit up straight, be good and not lie, also had this whole system in place that could bring about the end of the world in about three minutes. ‘Oh yeah it’ll never happen – Mutually Assured Destruction – nobody wants that.’ ‘Good Grief!’ my Charlie Brownself would cry, ‘These people are blockheads, how could they be so casual about it?’ Especially as everything around me at the time seemed connected to this system: military jets in the skies, some of them flew by people I knew – even secret underground bunkers. One time I was riding into town looking out the window at the same fields I’d seen fly by a thousand times before, except this time a man was climbing into the ground. I remember doing that classic double-take thing you do when you rub your eyes. If I had a bottle of wine or something, I would have looked at the label before throwing it away, never to touch a drop again. But I was ten. I didn’t drink.

Even so, I was worried my mum might think I was nuts, but I took the plunge and said as calmly as I could, ‘Mum, I just say a guy climb into the ground.’ ‘That’ll be Keith,’ said Mum, ‘it’s his turn to check on the bunker.’ She then explained how there was a network of similar bunkers across the UK, maintained by a specially chosen group of people from the local community – presumably a trusted clan who made sure the tins of beans were not out of date and there was enough toilet paper to survive Armageddon. Because should Armageddon come, another crew would have to ride it out, with clean arses and full tummies to re-establish civilisation using ham radio. I don’t think my Mum was part of this secret society, but it’s only recently I’ve come to learn I was closer to The Bomb than I realised – my granddad.

In the fifties, he was the CO of ground crew for the V-bomber force, so part of his job was arming the nuclear bombs they would carry. I saw him recently, and he described the process of attaching the firing caps onto these big, rotund bombs. Now my granddad has seen some things, and has a whole library of amazing stories, but the fact a member of my family had been part of this organised management of the end of the world, made me want to know what he thought of it.

‘As you were arming the bomb, didn’t you think about what you were doing? I know you were doing your duty, but you had your hand on a weapon that should it be used would bring about the end of the world in the most terrible way. Didn’t you think about any of that?’

He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah probably.’

So here’s a loose link to a subject that’s gripped filmmakers all over the world – and me: six films about nuclear annihilation.

First off, the story of MAD, as told exclusively with government stock footage. Old people may recognise the Coldcut sample.

In the sixities, the Government commissioned the BBC to create a docudrama about what might happen if nuclear war was declared. 'Bad shit', said the BBC film and The Government promptly banned it.

If that wasn't enough, in 1984, the BBC were at it again - this time with a film called Threads. It features the most depressing end to any film anywhere ever. Basically, if the bomb drops, stand outside with your mouth open.

Meanwhile, in America, Reagan pursued his dream of encircling the globe with a network of lazer toting satellites.

Aside from the fact, there was no practical way to launch enough satellites/'water melon sized missiles'/whatever, to make it work, or that the whole project would need at least 10 years of research, SDI also violated The Outer Space Treaty, which was introduced precisely to stop this sort of thing. During the Reykjavik talks in 1986, Reagan's response to Gorbachev's concerns about the imbalance of MAD caused by SDI was to suggest that should the project be a success, the USSR would be given the technology as well, you know, to even things up so it's fair. I suppose it's only expected from the man who decided that 'nuclear war may be a bad idea', after watching The Day After Tomorrow (not that one, the one with John Lythgow in). Here's the controversial bit:

There were quite a few films like this during the eighties. In Canada there was Countdown to Looking Glass. This film took the interesting angle: 'what will the end of the world look like on television?'. A little shoddy and a bit like a telethon, so let's cut to the good bit eh? It all starts at around the seven minute mark.

Then the end

But what about us kids eh? All these films were for adults, surely there was some sort of Newsround style report? Yep, Raymond Briggs, When The Wind Blows. The book was created as response to the handy Government pamphlets that started appearing in libraries in the early eighties suggesting all you had to do was lie under a door to survive the end of the world. I take it all back, this fiilm has the most depressing end ever - an old couple - like your grandparents - slowly dying of radiation sickness as they recite the Lord's Prayer.

Here's a skateboard video to cheer you up:

It's a good job none of this will ever, ever happen eh?


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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Against The Clock diary: choosing a style

How I was going to make my film? And 'make' in the sense of what style I’d shoot it. There are a number of ways to skin a story.

The most basic, is to shoot the action with a narrator voiceover. Most news reports use this technique (although not exclusively): you see some stuff and a journalist explains what’s going on over the top. It’s quick, simple and overcomes any editorial problems you might have – such as not having enough footage. But it’s fairly prescriptive, a bit old-fashioned and a technique cheap Channel 5 docs use. I didn’t want that.

The other way is with a presenter. If you have a good one, they can transform a film. Jonathan Meades is a great filmmaker who consistently manipulates the format of on-screen presenter to great effect – although his recent films have been more conservative in their style. It would be easy to dismiss his insightful studies on culture and topography as having limited appeal, but he regularly pulls in viewing figures of three million: roughly the same as Match of the Day. There’s a whole YouTube channel dedicated to his work and a great boxset too.

Jonathan Meades on branding

Louis Theroux is another good proponent of this technique. Some find his small-child-walking-in-on-his-parents-having-sex interview technique grating, but I think he’s pretty good, and not afraid to look the fool either.

Louis Theroux: ‘So you’re a former Nazi Lowrider in love with a Jewish man?’

The advantage of having a presenter is it’s their job is to look after the interview. That might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how much you miss when you’ve got to worry about the sound, light and whether the manager of the Tesco Metro in shot is going to cross the road and hassle you. Should your subject say something controversial, your presenter is there to jump on it. Louis Theroux does this extremely well – in fact you could say it’s his MO.

I’m a good interviewer, but I didn’t have the confidence to present. I’d have a go now. But at the time I had everything else to worry. So I settled on a Direct Cinema style.

Direct Cinema could be best described as fly-on-the-wall. The action unfolds before you and the narrative is carried in the way the film is edited. As I’m editing now, it’s clear my film is not a true Direct Cinema doc, like the work of Frederick Wiseman.

The characters in Wiseman’s films do not talk to the camera, they are unaware the camera is there. This is an extremely hard style to pull off because you have to film an enormous amount of footage to construct a story. I didn’t have the experience or the time to do this, so I decided early on that I would have Nigel talk to the camera.

Wiseman’s method is also extremely difficult to do because people are now media literate: if there’s a camera trained on someone, they moderate their behaviour. And it seems to be that documentary’s appeal, and to an extent, measurement of success, is how well a filmmaker breaks away this façade. Here’s an example of when it’s done well with the most media literate bunch of people about: Metallica. 

Some Kind of Monster: Defences up

Some Kind of Monster: Defences down

There is a problem with this approach. Your focus as a filmmaker can become clouded. You start thinking your job is to ‘find the true story’ – the story your subject is unwilling to reveal. But there may not be a conspiracy to uncover – and it’s worth remembering that if there is, it ‘s quite likely to be beyond your imagination should you find it. But arriving at a shoot with a preconceived idea is the wrong way to make a doc. You ask leading questions; you edit with an agenda.

My idea was to simply follow Nigel around and ask him questions. I decided to do shoot in a loose Direct Cinema style and have my subject (Nigel), tell the story with VO and sound bites.

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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Monday, 17 January 2011

I used to live here...

I found a couple of albums back home. Unfortunately, the photos were fused to the cellophane, so I had to shoot through them - hence the reflections. I think these were all taken in Sharjah in 1978. I would have been about 18 months. 

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X Men family tree

No me neither...

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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Writing soundtrack 10 – 14 Jan

Soft, soft, soft comfort food

Macaroni cheese

300g of macaroni
100g of lentils (puy – teat yourself)
75g of bog standard Cheddar cheese
25g Manchego
25g Grana Padano
1 clove of garlic, crushed if you’ve got a hot date, otherwise 2
A ball of butter
Spoon or so of flour
A bunch of milk
A good surface area of breadcrumbs
Enough sliced tomato to make a smiley face or your favourite band's logo
A bay leaf
A buttered oven dish
Salt n Pepa

First set up your stereo/iPhone dock etc and turn the oven on. Make sure nothing’s in there and it’s clean. Remember, dirty oven, dirty bits. Set the temperature for around 180 degrees, but don’t get too wound up about it, the oven’s job here is to crisp everything up, finish the pasta and infuse flavour.

Making macaroni and cheese is mostly about getting everything ready for one intense moment (Italians call this bit ‘l'evento’ – The Event). You need a big pan and a lot of boiling water for the pasta, so boil a full kettle and once you got it on the stove add salt and splash of oil so nothing sticks.

Now macaroni, do you have to use macaroni? Each pasta sauce has a specific pasta to go with it. The shape, weight and the inclusion of areas for sauce to collect (think shells) compliment the individual qualities of their respective sauce. The Guardian did an article on this subject. Remember don’t read the comments or you’ll lose your mind.  But the short answer with macaroni cheese is yes, you need to use pasta that’s small and will soak up the sauce; and for it to do that you need to par-cook the macaroni. So if it says 10 minutes on the packet, cook for five.

Next, wash and then simmer the lentils for whatever it says on the packet. Get a bowl ready to put the cooked lentils in. And get some bowls out to put all the other ingredients in (except the garlic, which you should pre-load into your crusher), because you must prepare for ‘l'evento’.

While the pasta and lentils are cooking, grate the cheese into a bowl. If you want to use different cheeses in different amounts you can. This is my favourite combination. I must add that like the hamburger, it pays to keep it simple and not gourmet it up too much. This is a simple dish, the kind author Stephen King might eat. I know Manchego is a bit ‘Taste the Difference’, but it’s my favourite cheese. Anyway the whole lifestyle pornography of food and food culture is a different kettle of fish and now – mid-recipe – is not the time to discuss it.

At this point your macaroni should be par cooked, drain and return to the big saucepan and take a deep breath. Look at your kitchen counter. You should see a bowl of cheese, bowl of lentils, your ball of butter, your flour with a spoon sticking in it, your garlic in the crusher and your milk – opened and ready by the stove. Grab a small saucepan and a wooden spoon; it’s time for ‘l'evento’. It’s time to make a Roux.

Melt the butter in the pan, fry the garlic and add flour a little bit at a time and stir. You want to make a paste – not too thin, but it shouldn’t ball up either. You might have to start again, but don’t worry you’re not a failure, just a regular guy.

So you got your paste and this is when you realise why everything has to be in bowls. You need everything to hand because you have to keep stirring. Stop and you’ve got lumps. Now work that arm as you add the milk. You want a sauce: so not too thin, but remember when you add cheese that will thicken it up too, so the whole thing is adding a dash of milk and a bit of cheese, and stirring. You want enough sauce to make a big sloppy mass when you add it to the macaroni – so make enough to fill two thirds of your saucepan. Don’t stop stirring; add salt and pepper, add the lentils. Now give it one last stir and dump that sucka all over your macaroni in the big pan. Then stir that. Mmm. Don’t eat it just yet.

Slop it into the dish you buttered earlier. Why buttered? Well like life, if you don’t butter your dish it’s going to get caked in a layer of cheese no wire brush will shift.

Finally sprinkle the breadcrumbs on the top for a bit crisp. Arrange your tomatoes into a smiley face/Batman logo/whatever and dust with even more grated cheese.

Then it’s in the fuggin’ oven for fifteen or so minutes. While you wait, relax with a nice whisky sour. When it’s done, you’ll find your mac n cheese won’t be that runny because the pasta has absorbed the sauce. This is good and makes for an intensely cheesy taste. Serve with watercress or a salad and prepare for a bunch of wild dreams later.

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Pink Ponies: a case study

This has been doing the rounds in ad circles, mainly because this sort of case study is all too close to the truth.

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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Back now

I’ve been on my holidays, so it’s been a bit quiet round here. But while I was away I read these beauties:

Fup by Jim Dodge
I rate Stone Junction even when it wobbles a bit towards the end. But this is a perfect little novella; an understated fairy tale of a duck that changes the lives of two men. It’s so carefully written it could be set during any time, except the bit when they got to the drive-in. It’s only 117, very narrow set pages. I read it in a couple of hours, and then I went straight on to:

Theft by Peter Carey
I completely loved His Illegal Self and this was another perfectly tuned tale. Meet the Butcher brothers; Michael, a disgraced painter on his heels and his "damaged two hundred and twenty pound brother", Hugh. Together they get involved with a tale of love and art theft that takes them from the Outback to Tokyo and New York. I’ve nearly finished his first novel Bliss, which is a completely different tone and has that rare quality of making laugh out loud. Oh and his writing makes me jealous.

I can never sleep on planes and seeing as I had two nine and a half hour flights I had plenty of time to watch these. I started Animal Kingdom, a tense, claustrophobic film about a family of bank robbers being hunted by corrupt police; it’ll probably get remade by Hollywood, but check out the original, the acting is superb:

Then I had a bit of double bill of one of my favourite directors, David Fincher. So I started with Se7en. How on earth this got made with the ending I have no idea. Check out the trailer with the ‘there was a time…’ narrator:

Then it was time for The Game. This is a bit of an oddity – almost seventies like in its paranoia. I wonder how it did on release? I’m guessing not that well, which is a shame because it’s a crafted film. The lighting, cinematography have that understated Fincher polish and even when it starts to get silly, Michael Douglas gives a great performance as the remote and lonely businessman in the big house on the hill. Plus Sean Penn shouting always makes me laugh:

So, I thought I’d follow it up with Wall Street Money Never Sleeps. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s Wall Street 2 now, because it isn’t. Oliver Stone’s new film is squarely on the side of the bankers. They are a noble profession, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning. Or are they? Because here comes Gordon Gekko with his book about how we’re all going to hell in a handcart. Are we? I don’t know, I found the whole film a dreary mess. At some point I was being asked to solicit sympathy for a self-serving financial industry – yeah right. And Shia Le Beouf as an energy investor who only invests in nice companies doing nice things was completely unbelievable. They might as well have had him running around in a Gundam suit. At least he could smash up a few buildings. Yeah I know that sounds like Transformers, but all he ever does is shout his lines. He needs something smashed up in the background for his style of acting to make any sense. Josh Brolin’s in it too. I expect they offered him a pallet of cash. Oh here’s the trailer:

Poor old Carey Mulligan who played Shia’s boyfriend also stars in the adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go. It’s a great book, perhaps not as good as The Remains of the Day, but weaved from a cloth of closely examined detail. Unfortunately, the film throws all this out to get mired in a bizarre post-war styling of a Britain that clearly never existed. Now I know this is in the book, and although I was never convinced it worked, it was in the background enough for it not to affect the story. Unfortunately this aesthetic has been really taken to town in the film so the finished result looks like a gruesome retelling of The Island in the style of Atonement. And they reveal the purpose of the children in the first five minutes. And they cut the whole concept of Norfolk. Total miss. Read the book instead. Here’s the trailer anyway. Isn’t it British?

And finally before sleep, I checked out Takers. Meet the ultimate crew of LA bank robbers. They’re tight, do a job a year and each one is well planned and executed. Hmm sounds like Heat. Yeah, but this one’s got Hayden Christensen in it, playing a character who looks as if he fell asleep in a playgroup and let the kids scrawl all over him. But at least he’s got a bit of work eh? This is a funny one. There are loads of things wrong with it: the first lines in the movie are ‘you look like shit’, the action scenes are lame, the characters are two dimensional (the Russians all have ropey tattoos), the whole thing seems to be art directed by CSI Miami production crew and the premise simply doesn’t add up. If these guys are so rich from their exploits, with plenty of shiny clothes, money in offshore accounts and a twatty club, why are they doing scores? Because they’re takers! Oh right. But there are some redeemable points. It’s got Idris Elba in it. He can act and I really liked the subplot with his character’s sister. Especially when it starts to draw Matt Dillon’s cop close to the group. Matt Dillon can act too, but it’s a shame his cop is a collection of clichés. Except they’ve been updated. Troubled cops don’t drink and smoke now, they chug spring water and chuck the bottle out of the car window. Don’t worry he still tells IA to get off his back man! There’s a good film in here, shame it was made by Michael Mann 15 years ago.

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