My early career as a passive aggressive writer
20 July 2018
I’m about to head away for a weekend with my family, which seems like an appropriate time to dig up this gem: a story I wrote when I must have been five or six years old.
My nana kept this for nearly 30 years (aren’t grandparents great!) until she gave it to me last year.
It must be the earliest example of my creative output that still survives, and clearly I used writing as a way to express my childhood angst, in rather passive aggressive fiction.
I present the story of a boy who’s annoyed at his parents about dinner.
Once upon a time, there was a boy called Adam. He lived with his family in a big house. No-one liked Adam, nor did his family. He always got the worst at dinner time. One day, while the others were eating the best food, while Adam only got a yoghurt, Adam said to himself “I’ve had enough”, so he went to the fridge and got some cream and sprayed it at the others faces! While they couldn’t see Adam ate all the good pudding and left them with a yoghurt each! THE END.
Throwback Thursday No. 3 - a brief foray into vlogging
19 July 2018
Vlogging is a genre of online video that I have steered well clear of for the most part.
Certainly the way vlogging has developed in recent years requires an energy and a desire to film absolutely everything you live and breathe that I do not possess.
That said, ten years ago I did experiment with the form, so let’s take a look.
Top Ten Predictions for the Future of Journalism (December 2009)
The context: So to understand this one you need to picture me at the end of 2009: newly freelance, living in a tiny room in London and - frankly - terrified.
The first six months of freelancing were pretty nausea inducing for me, and I constantly questioned whether I had made the right decision.
The paid gigs were few and far between.
The only thing I had going for me was a blog I was writing about the future of journalism. So with the new year, and it’s plethora of predictions lists, approaching I decided it would be a good piece of #content.
The story: to do a predictions list wasn’t new but I don’t remember anyone else doing it in video at the time.
I had a tiny HD camera - the now defunct Kodak Zi8, which even had an input for an external microphone - and a white wall in my tiny bedroom.
Looking back: yes, I know: that hair. Well, all I can say is it hasn’t improved that much since.
As you can probably imagine, I cringe watching this. But this series wouldn’t be much good if I only looked at the work I was proud of.
I will say the editing is peppy and at least it is fast-paced.
It’s interesting to see the use of jump cuts in the editing, plus the use of a whiteboard, which would become staples of the YouTube vlogging scene. It was not an original idea in 2009 either.
One thing I don’t like: I’m using copyrighted music, something I have made a point of never doing. All I’ll say is, it was before the affordable music libraries became available. (But still, no excuse).
I did it again a year later: I enjoyed making this video and it was popular on the blog, so a year later I did a rinse and repeat.
This turns out to be super handy. Put these two side-by-side and you can see how I have improved and developed in the space of 12 months.
I must have learned motion graphics this year as this new video is full of them. The haircut’s a bit better too…
Finished sketch - three point perspective
18 July 2018
Here’s the finished piece from yesterday, inked and coloured.
It’s another Scott McCloud exercise. The aim is to draw an empty room and put in enough telling details from the environment that a reader could picture the person living there.
I had a lot more details I wanted to include in my initial sketch but chose to keep it clean in the end.
I’m really happy with my rendering of the perspective - for a first attempt, but the colouring is off…I need to work on my shading!
Work in Progress - an attempt at three-point perspective
17 July 2018
Just a quick work in progress to show today: I’ve been practicing some perspective drawing.
While I’ve done three-point perspective drawing before on exteriors, I have never done it on interiors. It’s tricky. The vanishing points need to be far enough away to avoid everything looking very distorted.
The other challenge is working in Photoshop which - at least on a Mac - does not have an easy way to draw straight lines at an angle.
I think the Windows version has a plugin but it’s not available on a Mac. The best solution I’ve found is to rotate the canvas until the line you want to draw is at 90˚ and then draw.
I got as far as beginning to ink the outlines - I’ll share a finished version once it’s done!
Is your career something you can only see looking backwards?
16 July 2018
Here’s a new thought I’ve been mulling over the weekend.
As a culture we spend a lot of time thinking about our career in the future tense.
We think ahead to our career. The question is “where am I going next?” “What are my career goals? How do I execute on them?”
And at the most extreme end of the spectrum, we are encouraged to come up with ten-year plans.
The future tense
I have always struggled with this.
Imagining myself three, five or ten years in the future feels almost impossible to do accurately: there are just too many variables.
And if, after much head scratching and pen chewing, I do manage to actually articulate where I want my career to go in the future, the ink dries…
…and my heart wants something else.
The present tense
So, thinking I was just bad at it, I gave up that kind of visualisation, and for most of the last five or so years, I have stuck to just figuring out what to do next.
Practically, that means focusing on the current project. And once that project is done, searching around for a new one.
At any given time I am guided by my curiosity now, not a long term plan.
It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. (E L Doctorow)
The past tense
I have found this a helpful philosophy.
Once you move forward this way, your career suddenly becomes visible - whenever you look behind you.
I notice this as I begin to rewatch all my old films, starting in 2009, one-by-one, the good and the bad.
A long red line, my decade-long career, is right before my eyes, clear as day.
All of which is to say that we should stop thinking of our careers as something to make tangible in advance, and instead realise they are the outcome of something else: a life led by curiosity, adventure and wonder.
Just a thought. I’m aware this could also easily be filed under “things said by privileged white men.”
Meditation and its benefits for visual storytellers
13 July 2018
I recently passed my 1,440th minute of meditation since I downloaded the Headspace app at the end of last year.
That’s a solid 24-hours spent sitting in silence trying to focus on my breath, putting my mind in a state of rest.
My biggest revelation has been discovering how beneficial a practice it is for those of us telling visual stories.
Meditation asks you to focus on something - often the rise and fall of your breath - to access a different part of your mind.
At first I found focus by verbalising what I was doing: literally saying to myself (silently) “I am breathing in; I am breathing out…”
Only after several months of this did it occur to me to try focusing on the sensation of the breath…sort of just ‘experiencing’ the sensation, ‘feeling’ it happen, I guess.
Now, you’ll notice how difficult that last sentence was to put into words (the guy doing the Headspace meditations struggles to explain it also) - and that’s the key.
The simple sensation of breathing is what you might call pre-verbal.
It lives inside a part of your brain where words do not exist; it is something that cannot easily be described.
And so putting your focus here forces your brain out of its chatty verbal place and into a place for which there are no words.
It feels like opening a door to a secret room - a big room! - in my brain I have never been inside before.
The director Alexander MacKendrick said that to verbalise a thought was to rationalise it, and that film’s essential strength lay in the fact it could communicate ideas that could not be easily rationalised.
And that’s what great films, graphic novels, images and comics do at their best isn’t it: communicating, as MacKendrick says “at a level far more immediate and primitive than the spoken word.”
Despite the proliferation of television, smartphone cameras and online video, we still live in a word-centred world.
Reading and writing are taught in schools long after drawing and visual thinking has been sidelined as a hobby.
For me, in my practice as a visual storyteller, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in any project is escaping my word-centred mindset.
Spending just a few minutes each day trying to access this pre-verbal part of your mind won’t bear any immediate fruit but, over time will, I think, help you to communicate in images more strongly.
Not to mention the other lovely benefits of a daily meditation practice of course!
Throwback Thursday No.2 - Hirst vs UK
12 July 2018
Time for the second instalment in my look back through my creative output over the last decade.
I’m including the good and the bad, seeking threads, themes, patterns and lessons. You can read more about the series here.
Hirst vs UK (November 2009)
This audio slideshow is the second independent thing I published, and I completed it about two months after quitting my job and going freelance.
The context: I discovered the character for this story while still working as a radio reporter. John Hirst was an infamous local figure. In the late 1970s he had murdered his landlady with an axe and spent the next quarter of a century in jail.
But while inside he taught himself law and, quite remarkably, sued the British government multiple times for prisoner rights - and won.
I interviewed him relatively frequently in my job, usually driving across town to his narrow and dilapidated terraced house. Inside, the place was a tip and stank of cigarettes and dog hair.
But over the course of a year John and I struck up a friendship. He was sharp, wickedly funny and unrelenting in his pursuit of justice for prisoners.
The first time I left his house, I said to myself: “I’m going to make a film about this guy”.
The story: John was keen on being filmed. I initially planned to make a video documentary, using the same kit I had recently taken to Iraq.
But it proved inadequate to capture the story in the quality I wanted, especially in the low light of John’s house. The camera microphone failed to capture rust in John’s voice, which I knew would carry a lot of his personality.
So instead, I stuck to what I knew. I interviewed him using my employer’s high quality radio microphones, and took a series of still photographs using a DSLR.
Back in 2009, the audio slideshow was a popular genre, but that popularity seems to have all but disappeared as video became easier, faster and cheaper to create.
Looking back: I made this before I began to properly study and understand storytelling principles, so what you’re seeing here is all instinct.
And it’s not bad. The opening scene, where Hirst recounts the night of his crime to the sound of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm and black-and-white photography is still powerful. I remember I created the music by looping a remixed version of the song and passing it through several filters in Cool Edit Pro (the predecessor to Adobe Audition).
I succeed in looking for telling details - John’s yellow tobacco stained fingers for example, and the detritus around his house - as he talks about his childhood, moving from home to home.
But this good stuff only lasts for the first half of the story, after which the narrative gets lost and ultimately winds up nowhere.
It took me several years to learn where I had gone wrong.
Lessons learned: Exactly halfway through, John starts talking about how he studied law and took the government to court.
Firstly, the pictures get very boring here - just closeups of his legal textbooks. And the story continues to meander, as John talks about his blog, before finally wrapping with a few nice reflective lines.
The only break is a short scene where John is interrupted by his dog Rocky (at 3m03s). Now Rocky was a smelly, mangy old thing, a rescue dog covered in lumps and tumours, but John really loved him.
I only really included this moment to break up the monotony of John’s voice (a trick I had learned editing for radio). What I did not understand until years later was that this accidental scene was actually the heart of the story.
John says (about Rocky): “He means everything. He was grateful for a second chance, I could see that as soon as I brought him home.”
And then I play a bit of audio of John, pretending to be Rocky speaking back to him: “You rescued me dad, you got me out of that place, and I’ve been grateful ever since. I know, honestly dad, I’m very loyal to you…all I want is to be loved.”
In my ignorance and naiveté, I didn’t see at the time that there was more to John’s words. It wasn’t the dog speaking, it was John speaking, to me, to us.
All those years in foster homes and prisons - all he wanted was to be loved.
If I had been a wiser storyteller, I would have seen that moment for what it was: the heart of the story. And instead of telling a predictable tale that creates a clichéd drama out of a murder, I could have helped people see John as a human.
It’s a wasted opportunity I don’t forgive myself for.
North By Northwest in sixteen frames
11 July 2018
My local cinema is doing a Hitchcock season, which kicked off on Sunday with North By Northwest.
Thinking about choice of moment as a storytelling device, I had a go at telling the story in just sixteen images.
The good news is Hitchcock’s images are so striking and memorable (the film is full of them!) it’s easy to name the film with just one or two. But I also wanted to try and use my choice of images to try and convey the cause-and-effect of the plot.
The first four panels pick up roughly the first act.
I thought about using the first image to introduce the character & personality of Roger Thornhill (which the film spends about five minutes doing); but with limited frames I chose instead to go straight to the start the story proper: Roger’s kidnapping.
I don’t achieve great clarity in the following frames, but his first encounter with the antagonist and subsequent murder attempt are shown here.
I left out a large chunk of the story where Roger appears in court charged with drink driving and tries to prove he was kidnapped: they felt hard to convey in panel form and the story just about works without them.
Instead, the next four panels show the murder of the UN ambassador and Roger’s fleeing New York, including meeting his love interest on the train.
In the next row of panels, I did something a bit different - I dedicated three of the four panels to a single scene: the famous crop duster chase.
So bold and broad were Hitchcock’s paint strokes, this single scene alone is enough to jog anyone’s memory of the film.
At the same time, the scene is about tension. If you watch it, you see it is largely silent, with long shots, building to the attack. I wanted to reflect this tempo and so used three panels - all from the same position to show what happens.
I struggled to achieve a sense of plot in the 16 frames. So it is not always clear as we go from panel to panel how exactly the story has moved forward.
From the crop duster attack in panel 12, Roger is now being ‘shot’ by Eve in panel 13. They reconcile in panel 14, and have the famous monument chase in the penultimate panel.
Here I faced a choice: show the plotting of the climax better (with maybe two panels dedicated to the chase) or again lean on Hitchcock’s unforgettable imagery.
I chose the latter - and in my final panel, I show the final shot of the film, the cheeky sexual pun. It felt right to show the story’s happy ending as much as the drama of the climax.
A blackout poem about the Mueller investigation
10 July 2018
Still working my way through Austin Kleon’s Journal (a little bit every day, just to ease in the creative muscles).
He’s known for his Blackout Poetry, poems created by blacking out large parts of another work - the page of a book, an article - and using the remains to make something new.
His journal contains a photocopied spread from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (pages 612-613) and an invitation to create a Blackout Poem.
What I didn’t expect to find was a poem about Trump and the Mueller Investigation…
This pursuit of invincible confidence,
some great progression of desires
in the mind of the hunter.
The speed of the wind and the sea,
a cannon-ball motion.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
The mad fiend Trump,
his water-gate forebodings.
My screen is a window through which I view the world
09 July 2018
I’ve been making my way through the Netflix series Abstract and found myself noting down this line from footwear designer Tinker Hatfield:
I think if you just stay in your studio and try and dream up new ideas, it’s not a good foundation for your idea. Just get out there and experience life. That gives you a library in your head to then translate that into new design work.
It’s pretty vague and bland on its own, but in combination with the episode as a whole and the images which sync this line, it switched a lightbulb on in my head.
I spend too much time sat at my desk on the internet.
My screen has become a window through which I see and experience the world. Many of my experiences (the library from where I get my ideas) are mediated.
They are articles recommended in a newsletter, videos supplied by YouTube’s algorithm, opinions reverberating through the hollow twittersphere.
No wonder my ideas, my art, feels so…jaundiced.
My screen is my window. A prisoner may have bars over his, but at least the view is real.
The conclusion of this thinking was a line which is probably as innocuous as Tinker Hatfields:
What if I made my life my art?