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?
Artists and idols
06 July 2018
There’s a page in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist Journal that I can’t get around to filling out.
And also this one.
In all honesty, I can’t think of anyone who deserves the word hero.
There are people who I admire professionally and others who I am inspired by.
But heroes? That’s a strong word. Like the word icon or idol, it suggests an obsession over a person, elevating them to a place above the rest of us.
The first problem with idols
Someone (was it Steven Pressfield? Derek Sivers? Elizabeth Gilbert? I can’t find the original quote) once had something smart to say about this.
They said that when we make someone an idol, we surrender our power to them. We take the creative energy we have inside us - meant for us to use ourselves - and transfer it to someone we think deserves it more.
Ah - hang on, it must have been Steven Pressfield. Here he is, describing idolising another person as a form of self-sabotage - of resistance:
When we make a human being into an icon, we endow them in our imagination with a power or gift that we in fact possess ourselves, but are either afraid, or not yet ready to, embrace…Making others into icons is a form of Resistance. We endow others with powers because we’re afraid to claim those powers for ourselves.
I think that when I read that, many years ago, I stopped projecting my energy onto other people.
The second problem with idols
These days, idolising someone famous or successful is a risky business.
Maybe the last person I thought was the bees-knees was ol’ Hitchcock, but then I read about Tippi Hedren and I didn’t feel like keeping him on a pedestal any longer.
But what about role models?
Role models is a more interesting one. It feels less like surrendering your power to someone else and more like seeking others to learn from.
A topic of discussion for a future blog post: the difficulty of finding good role models as you get older. Our culture is fast to present us with amazing young achievers but once you’re in your thirties, you need to look further…ahead.
And it feels to me like there are fewer role models in the middle-aged bracket - especially for men.
Anyway, that’s a discussion for another time!
Throwback Thursday No.1 - One Week In Iraq
05 July 2018
Here’s something I’m thinking of doing on a regular-ish basis: a trawl back through my own body of work, starting right at the beginning and seeing how my style, ability, and creative direction has changed over the last decade.
My aim is to go through everything - the mediocre and bad pieces included. Too many creatives forget about or even delete their embarrassing works, but I think it’s important for people to see we all started from square one.
So, with that in mind, let’s start at the piece which I think marks the start of the creative trajectory I’ve been on for the last ten years.
One Week In Iraq (March 2009)
The Context: In 2009 I was working in my previous life as a local radio reporter, reading news bulletins in the morning and driving out to interview footballers in the afternoon. I was working for a station in the north of England in a proud working class city.
Low incomes made it a prime recruiting ground for the British Army and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still brewing, they would often fly local journalists out for a week or so. The Army got cheap PR, the broadcaster got cheap content and the young journalist got something on their CV.
Although it was a very safe exercise, my salary was just £15,000 and there was no hazard pay!
The Story: I was dead excited to be going out to Iraq but I also had my eye was on a life beyond local radio journalism. So I decided to take a camera out along with my radio pack and try and make some “multimedia content” as it was known back then. I bought a second-hand DV camera from Ebay and smuggled it in with the rest of my kit.
My ambitious plan was to create a multimedia project called One Week In Iraq: a mix of videos, audio and photographs. I pulled it off, using some third-party platform and very limited HTML and CSS knowledge.
The site itself is long gone but the videos are still online.
The main piece was this six minute video called Blood and Treasure.
Two caveats for the sub-par quality of the footage: it was second hand kit, and I was doing everything myself, often interviewing for both radio and video with my two hands. I remember facing a bunch of technical problems when I was out there, so this is very much the result of what was possible in the circumstances.
Looking back: Stylistically, this is a young journalist desperately wanting to make broadcast TV. This was what I trained in and where I still thought my career might go. You’ll notice my voice speaks with the earnest cadence of a newsreader.
At the same time I was clearly interested in new editing styles. The use of a quote to start the film, I cribbed directly from The Wire, which I was obsessed with at the time.
Even now I’m quite proud of the writing - I probably would have made a half decent package journalist; the writing to picture, as it’s called, isn’t bad, and perhaps there’s the nascent eye of a filmmaker in the very final shot of the gun barrel over the city.
Lessons learned: One Week In Iraq never led to anything; the project got very little attention, which is probably just as well. But I’d proved to myself I could be a Video Journalist and that was what the next few years of my career would be about.
About six months after my week in Iraq, I quit my job and moved down to London to try and make it as a freelance journalist…
One phone call, two stories
04 July 2018
A super quick exercise this morning to play around with gesture and story.
The rules: a short phone call, of which we only hear half the conversation; the character’s gesture and/or facial expressions are used to tell us what the call is about.
Each time you tell the story, you must use the same dialogue and see how a different sequence of gestures and expressions give the conversation a completely different meaning.
(From McCloud’s Making Comics)
Book title poetry
03 July 2018
I wrote some poetry today.
A Mind At Play
In Our Mad and Furious City
Ways of Seeing,
The Shape of Ideas.
The Secret Garden
How to Survive the End of the World:
Conversations with Friends
A fun exercise suggested by Austin Kleon in his journal.
Experiments in shot-to-shot transitions and how they affect the telling of a story
02 July 2018
In his hallmark book Understand Comics, Scott McCloud breaks down the key mechanics of sequential art as they pertain to comic books and graphic novels.
At one point he lists six different panel-to-panel transitions available to the comic artist to move through a story.
These transitions could just as easily be shot-to-shot transitions in film and video.
I experimented with this idea, using three of McCloud’s panel-to-panel transitions on a single story.
I took the classic story: The queen died, and the king died of grief and tried to tell it using only one kind of transition each time.
Scene-to-scene transitions (below, left)
The idea here is that each panel moves us to a new scene, which implies a new action in each panel.
What’s really interesting is that for us to move to a new scene with each panel, it requires a leap in time - it literally takes time for a character to move from one room to another.
The only exception I can think to of this, would be to show a simultaneous moment in time from multiple perspectives.
As more time has passed and more action has happened between panels, it requires more involvement from the viewer/reader to follow the story.
I enjoyed this format, but my images do not have enough clarity - the opening panel does not scream “the queen has died”. That said, the story kind of works retroactively: by having the final panel match the first, it forces the reader to go back and tell the story to themselves again. I like that.
Aspect-to-aspect transitions (above, right)
Compare the temporal dimension of scene-to-scene transitions with this next arrangement of the story.
It became clear through doing the exercise that this transition is about freezing time.
Very popular in Japanese manga, the aspect-to-aspect transition is about creating a sense of mood or place. You take a fraction of a second and show it from different perspectives.
So in order to tell this story successfully I had to pick the right single moment - and there could be no action. So I chose the moment of death of the king and tried to use the different angles to reveal his motivations.
It’s fine - I like the rain on the window and the snuffing out candle as a way of visualising the moment of death…but the blood dripping on the dropped photograph is cringe-worthy in its cliché.
Moment-to-moment transitions (below)
Although McCloud separates moment-to-moment transitions and aspect-to-aspect transitions in his list (1 and 5 respectively), they are - in terms of time management - very similar.
They both force the artist to choose a single moment for the telling of their story.
The difference, it seems is that in this transition type, some action actually takes place.
Here, I had to think about the best single action that could tell the whole story. My idea is still cliché, but I do like the way the queen’s death is revealed only in the final panel as the king slumps to the floor.
Goodbye old friend, thank you for your service
29 June 2018
One big job this week has been to film a video update for my supporters on Patreon.
So I dug out my faithful Canon 550D, which I bought back in 2010, stuck the even more faithful thrifty-fifty millimetre lens on and started filming.
Three minutes in, the camera died!
It has served me very well over the years, making countless documentaries, video essays, vlogs and more, the world over.
We filmed a documentary in China together, musicians in Siberia, interviewed killers-turned-lawyers, crushed cars and enough corporate films to fill a swimming pool.
I know it’s only an object, but you can’t help but feel a slight twinge of sadness for something you’ve worked so closely with over the years.
Since 2015 my work has moved more towards post-production; I definitely consider myself an editor more than a shooter these days.
The last things we filmed together were standups for a video series for the tech publication The Memo (now defunct itself!)
The update for my patrons, meanwhile, was done the old fashioned way.