Operation Infektion - from Cold War to Kanye
14 November 2018
It’s taken more than a year to get here, but I’m really excited to see a new video series out in the world.
It’s called Operation Infektion and it is the result of a great collaboration with talented journalists and filmmakers at The New York Times.
You can watch it on the Times’ website
Personally, it’s a creative and career high for me. It feels like the culmination of the last five years of studying and practicing how to tell good visual stories.
The story of Russian disinformation is complex and in some places abstract, so it was a real test of my abilities to find a way to show the story as much as tell it.
Luckily I had some of the best filmmakers at The New York Times to help me figure it out, including Adam B Ellick who is the mastermind behind the project; Jonah Kessel who shot all the footage and Leah Varjacques, Andrew Blackwell and Alexandra Garcia who all challenged my ideas and pushed us to make it as good as it could be.
I hope you enjoy watching.
Rotating your crops
03 September 2018
Crop rotation, Wikipedia tells us, is “the practice of growing dissimilar of different types of crops in the same area in sequenced seasons.”
Practiced for at least 6,000 years, crop cycles allow the nutrients in soil to replenish, which in turn reduces erosion and increases yield.
Yes, it’s time for another tenuous creative metaphor
Pick any great composer and you’ll see a body of work that is rich in different styles.
Ralph Vaughan Williams for example wrote nine symphonies, but he also turned his hand to folk songs, concertos and even a film soundtrack.
Beethoven, if he’s more your thing, penned 32 sonatas as well as concertos, piano trios and symphonies.
And as Twyla Tharp tells us: they didn’t do all their symphonies at once. They changed constantly from huge symphonies to intimate folk arrangements; from luscious serenades to simple quartets.
This movement was what kept them on their toes, refreshed their creative well and made them feel inexperienced - even relatively late into their career.
The American novelist Norman Mailer called this “rotating your crops”.
I wonder if the instinct to do this comes to us all naturally.
In my own work, after spending a year focused on methodically creating a single story, my urge is to do something messy and fast. If I’ve been writing lots, I feel an urge to flip to drawing; or from non-fiction to fiction.
It feels exciting, revitalising to leap from an area of expertise to one of novelty.
At the end of a big project, you can feel that you’ve become an expert at that style or form. The danger is to linger here in this comfortable space.
After all, an explorer who puts her roots down is no longer an explorer.
Flipping failure and rejection on their head
31 August 2018
No-one wants to fail and we’re all afraid of rejection.
I have designed my whole career largely around the idea of avoiding rejection (by never putting myself forward for anything in the first place).
A couple of perspectives have changed my thinking on this quite radically, and I thought I’d share them.
Firstly, this powerful quote from Derek Sivers:
“It’s impossible to fail if your only goal was to see what happens.”
It’s a simple mental reframing of a challenge but insulates you from the emotional impact of a failure.
And then there’s this from editor Vivian Lee.
When I turned 30 last year, my goal was to be rejected 20 times (for my essays, fellowships, panels, etc) as a way to just, put myself out there. So far, I've had 2 rejections but 9 pieces published, taught two courses, and spoke at 5 conferences.— Vivian Lee (@vivianwmlee) August 13, 2018
A very powerful way to flip a fear of rejection into something that encourages you forward rather than holding you back.
It’s already convinced me to submit my series Parallax to two festivals, and track the rejections as they come in.
Good morning universe! 18 months of writing morning pages
21 August 2018
A mini-milestone for me this morning: I finished another A4 notebook of morning pages.
The result, as you can see above, is 800 sides (yes - eight hundred!) filled to the brim with rapidly scribbled ramblings, ideas, problems, failures, hopes and dreams.
Morning Pages, if you don’t know them, are a creativity ritual most commonly credited to Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, a sort of recovery guide for lost artists.
She calls Morning Pages “the primary tool of creative recovery”.
The ritual is this: each morning, before you do anything else, fill three sides of A4 with stream-of-consciousness writing.
“Do whatever it takes to fill those three pages. All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.” - Julia Cameron
The idea is that by emptying your brain of worries, fears and problems accumulated over the day before, you free up space to make art during the day that follows.
Morning Pages and Me
I first start doing Morning Pages in 2016, during my last creative fallow period. I was hesitant to begin with, and didn’t see much benefit from them immediately.
But like meditation, I agreed to be patient and simply do the exercise without expectation.
And here is what I discovered happened:
Page One: I get out all the obvious stuff. “I didn’t sleep well last night. I watched a movie yesterday. I’m feeling a bit uncertain….”
Page Two: I run out of the obvious stuff. Midway through the page I’m vamping. “I don’t know what to write any more. Just keep writing. Just keep writing.”
Page Three: not always, but often enough, pushing through the second page initiates a breakthrough. My brain suddenly delivers a gem I had not been expecting. An idea. A connection. A complaint from page one becomes an idea for a project on page three. A question that’s been niggling for weeks is answered.
It worked often enough that I have kept writing my Morning Pages every day I can since. I start each entry with the words “Good morning Universe”, as this is a private conversation between me and whatever it is that’s bigger than us.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of Morning Pages.
Do them early: Morning Pages can be time consuming, especially at first, so you might want to get up earlier than usual to make room for them.
Don’t be disturbed: it’s important you are not interrupted while you’re writing. If possible, save the pages for a private hour. I also like listening to ambient music or nature sounds as I write to avoid distraction.
Write them by hand: the muscle movement of your hand on paper makes a difference, I promise you. A screen is just a big temptation to check your email. Make this a rare analogue ritual.
Don’t edit, don’t read back: Morning Pages are a process not a result. These pages are a sacred space where you can write, think, feel anything. Reading over your words risks self-censorship so don’t do it.
Highlight good ideas: that said, make a scribble in the margins anytime you have a breakthrough or an idea. This allows you quickly find them later on and save them elsewhere.
Be Positive: it’s useful to use Morning Pages to vomit out all of your complaints from the past 24 hours. But I have found it is even more useful to use them to be unashamedly positive. Write about how great you are, how great you have the potential to be, and how important your creativity is to the world. I found that when I started doing this, the positivity lingered with me throughout the day. The result: bolder, braver ideas and work!
“It is impossible to write morning pages for any extended period of time without coming into contact with an unexpected inner power…they are a trail that we follow into our own interior, where we meet both our creativity and our creator.” - Julia Cameron
Blog post No.30 and a goal accomplished
03 August 2018
I started this period of creative self-reflection with a pledge: to blog every weekday for 30 days straight, no excuses.
There were two rules:
- each blog post had to be something original I had thought or created (so not curating other things from the web);
- each blog post had to be unique to that day; in other words, I couldn’t know what that day’s blog post was going to be when I woke up.
Experience tells me that these creative junctions always risk becoming extended fallow periods; that with no reason to create, no project to fulfil, no deadline to meet, it’s easy for a break to become a creative crisis.
The goal here was simple: to give me a reason to make something, anything, worthy of uploading every day.
No matter how despondent or lazy I felt, I could always say “well I posted that”.
It has kept me grounded, it has kept me moving and I cannot recommend it enough as a way to break through a period of creative uncertainty.
Sadly things are starting to get busier through August with a new commission and a brief trip abroad in the schedule.
I will keep this blog going - if not every day, then as many days as I can.
Now to go and nerd out flying some planes.
Throwback Thursday No.5 - two portraits of an artist
02 August 2018
Continuing my look back at some of my work over the years, in chronological order, we reach my first attempt at a genre that was extremely popular in the early 2010s: the artist portrait - and something I’m quite proud of.
Toni Lebusque: my art (September 2010 & February 2012)
The Context: At the height of Vimeo’s popularity and with a new set of affordable DSLRs with video capabilities on the market, portrait videos were everywhere.
They were fast and cheap to make and had great storytelling potential. With a small set of lenses in controlled environments it was relatively easy to achieve the sacred cinematic look.
To see this genre done really well, I recommend watching the California is a Place series and Last Minutes with Oden by Elliot Rausch.
The Story: Keen to join in this trend and with a flashy new Canon 550D camera I resolved to make a portrait video. The subject was the ink artist Toni Lebusque, very handily married to my mum at the time.
Toni was a great subject, patient and open about her story.
The subject of the film is how Toni uses her art as a way to understand and deal with the death of her father.
Looking back: The really interesting thing to do with this film is to watch it side-by-side with this next one. 18 months later I revisited Toni’s studio.
Her mum had recently passed away too and again she talks openly and wittily about how her drawing helps her to comes to terms with grief.
Rewatching them for the first time in more than five years, I find myself very proud of both. But the improvement in my visual and storytelling ability between films one and two is clear.
The second film has a much more sophisticated visual palette.
From the opening shot of blurry white and black shapes, which feels like you’re slipping between life and death itself; to the way I use match dissolves to make a visual connection between the art she draws on paper and that which she draws on herself.
I even notice now that Toni is often framed inside a border (a door frame, a window, her own paintings) to mirror the frames she draws around her own artwork.
Yes, the second film in particular is a good piece of work.
Unfortunately the market wasn’t really there - at least in the UK for these kind of stories, so this never led to anything.
But I am still very early in my creative journey!
Belief versus faith - reading Alan Watts
01 August 2018
After three years and one false start, I have finally gotten around to sitting down and reading some Alan Watts.
I’m starting with Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.
We must make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “like” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to truth, whatever it may turn out to be.
Being open to uncertainty, creating space for the unknowable is a practice I’m becoming increasingly aware of.
Some quick gesture poses
31 July 2018
Improving my gesture drawing - in particular, capturing the dynamism of a pose, as opposed to something perfectly detailed - has been a goal of mine this summer.
As I storyboard more in pre-visualisation, being able to draw a clearly readable pose is becoming more and more important.
Here are some of the good and no-so-good attempts in my sketchbook.
On congruency and alignment
30 July 2018
Reading Derek Sivers’ update on his current projects I found an interesting idea I hadn’t considered before.
He writes this (emphasis mine):
Since May 1st, I’ve had almost no sugar, caffeine, dairy, alcohol, or wheat. It’s about being congruent — making my actions in line with my beliefs. These are all things I’d have, then regret, repeatedly. Old habits. Mild addictions. Un-necessary tools. Now I’m interrupting the short-term impulse and remembering the long-term gain.
And then he follows it up with this:
(I said “almost”, above, because with each one I’ve tried the “ah, I’ve gone a week without now, I can have a little” approach, but didn’t enjoy it, and deeply regretted it. It feels better to be 100% congruent.)
It’s not a very attractive word, but there’s something in it.
We could also say “alignment”. In fact, if we say “alignment”, then let’s include this post by Amber Rae which I stumbled upon moments after reading Derek’s post.
She writes this:
A big shift for me over the last decade has been moving from an achievement mindset (getting ahead) to an alignment one…when my actions are an expression of my true self and core values…
Values + alignment = harmony
There’s a deceptively simple formula gagging to be plucked from the tree here.
- figure out my values
- make conscious steps to make sure my actions & behaviour are aligned to those values (or at the very least, do not contradict them)
- find some kind of harmony…?
For example, I know that living environmentally sustainably really matters to me. But my actions are not in line with that value. I still use plastics, still throw away too much. Hence a gnawing sense of being out of harmony.
What I have never done before is actually sit down and consider what my values are. (What is a value, anyway?)
But the three steps above feel like a worthy contender for a new year’s resolution.
The forest knows where you are
27 July 2018
Lost, by David Wagoner (1999)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and to be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to the Raven.
No two branches are the same to the Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Thanks to Hugo for the tip.