Friday, 2 December 2016


I'm not a fan of supermarkets, preferring as much as possible to shop local, so much so that just over 12 years ago I was part of a successful campaign to keep Tesco out of our community, due to its threat to local shops. But time marches on, and peoples attitudes change. Recently, one of the cut-price supermarkets, Aldi, opened on the same contested site. I've never shopped in one of their stores, but you can't forge an opinion on something without at least trying it once.

This time of year always encourages me to make homemade soup for the freezer, and last weekend I did just that. For some reason, that I cannot fathom, the soup turned sour overnight. I recall this had happened previously, and by leaving out most of the root vegetables it seemed to solve the problem. Anyway, down the toilet it went. Desperate to replace it I ventured along, with low expectations, to the new Aldi, using the opportunity to buy more ingredients there.

Well, I am surprised to report, it was really rather good. The layout was organised, not hap-hazard as I had been told these stores were, and the staff were very helpful. OK, so I did not recognise a single brand, but I was here for veggies. Another surprise then at the checkout when I paid, that pound for pound, the bill was far less than I had spent on the first batch of soup. And I don't mean pennies, but almost £2 cheaper!

I felt a little guilty at not having bought from my local shops, but that same day another opportunity arose to redress the balance.

A few years ago a number of long-time residents got together and decided that they would organise and promote a late opening night for local shops on the approach to Christmas. They were wise to set a date a few weeks before the madness sets in, and his year it was last night that the doors were open late.

Pauline and I wandered along the street taking in the atmosphere, passing colourful window displays, the warm light from inside inviting us in. Each shop was very busy, which was a great sign that people were supporting them.

The busiest stores were those selling arts and crafts and quirky items. Both Pauline and I bought a couple of gifts a little less ordinary, one of which was a fun bean-bag Santa for my tree. It's still a little early for the tree to go up, but there's nothing like being prepared.

Along the street mulled wine was being handed out with mince pies and other free treats from a few of the shops.

A little further and the Portobello Community Choir were out, with renditions of our favourite Yuletide songs.

They will appear again this Saturday at the market.

At the town centre the Christmas tree had been put up, but sadly the illuminated decorations had developed a fault and couldn't be repaired in time. But we had a fab time soaking up the atmosphere.

And anyway, who needs twinkly lights when you have such a strong community spirit, and a pot of homemade soup waiting at home.

Thursday, 24 November 2016


Today my friends across the pond, and they are many, celebrate Thanksgiving, in celebration of when in 1621 the Pilgrim Fathers invited the indigenous population to a feast. So all across America, giant turkeys will be thrust into ovens for the centre point of the celebration, unless your vegan of course, which a number of my friends are.

But today I wanted live birds, and as it was a glorious, cloudless, blue sky day, with the temperature hovering around zero degrees, I opted for an afternoon bicycle ride along to the local lagoons, an area reclaimed from the sea and now inhabited by an abundance of wildlife.

The ground was still white in areas that the sun had not touched all day, and with the knowledge in my head of a friend of mine coming off his motorcycle on ice last night,  I cautiously rode along the promenade toward the neighbouring town of Musselburgh. My route left the main road as it entered the outskirts and took me past the marina and onto the coastal path that would eventually bring me out at the start of the lagoons.

The lagoons form roughly a semi-circular shape, and at the eastern edge where I joined the dirt track, the River Esk has its estuary. Here the temperature was marginally higher and a myriad of birds were gathered, most feeding.

There were thousands of gulls and a number of swans, both a regular sight. But I also spotted, godwits, turn stones, oyster catchers, greylag geese and one solitary curlew. Pauline would be proud of me that I should know so many of the birds, but to be honest, I cheated. I met a couple we both knew out for a wander, they themselves being birdwatchers, so as we stood for a while chatting I memorised some of the names they pointed out.

I hung about for a while but it was late in the day and I had not taken my lights with me. The sun was low in the sky and it is this golden hour that casts the best light, creating enormously long shadows and a rich amber light on everything.

I have much to be thankful for this week myself. Not only did I have this great afternoon ride, but at the start of the week some of my young students won Best Live Action, 12 And Under, for a movie they completed in April. They had previously won an award within the academy itself, but this award came from outside so was a little bit special. And to cap it off they won Best Film overall, beating students as old as 19.

It's at times like these I realise just how much I love what I do, and someone pays me to do it as well. As Anthony Hopkins once said, whilst picking up an Oscar; "It beats working".

Friday, 18 November 2016


What I know about whisky could be written on the bottom of a bottle cork. Until recently that is.

My work as a filmmaker can bring me into contact with a variety of unique situations, and I occasionally get to meet some well known faces. I have been fortunate to work for some pretty big names in the corporate sector as well, companies such as Apple from the United States, as their UK Producer. Two weeks ago another household name contacted me from the US for a documentary shoot on whisky, or should I say, Whiskey, on this occasion I can't name them here as I am bound by a non disclosure agreement, but I'm fairly sure you can work it out.

The job entailed arranging transport, accommodation, filming kit, locations and interviews, all prior to the film crew landing last week. They started off in Scotland and would then move on to London and Cambridge, so with my contacts I enlisted a London Producer to organise that leg. For you geeks out there we were shooting on an Arri Amira, a popular camera in documentary making and now some major TV dramas.

The majority of my time was spent securing a distillery for them to film in, and this brought me into contact with people who were so passionate about Scotch Whisky it was hard to get a word in edge ways.

One of our interviewees was the world renowned whisky expert Charles Maclean. So great is his knowledge that Ken Loach cast him as himself in his 2012 movie, The Angels Share.

As a result of this job my own knowledge of whisky has increased a hundred fold, and what a fascinating journey it was. The still house in one distillery alone was a thing of beauty.

Scotch Whisky's origins can be dated back as far as 1494 to a drink called The Water of Life, a definition it still carries today. But back then it was a clear drink, not the familiar amber colour we now see. This comes from the barrels that the distilled whisky is matured in over time. Though some sherry caskets are used from Spain, a large quantity of barrels from the American Whiskey industry, and bourbon makers, are used.

But it was a collective series of events that conspired to bring the American barrels into being a intrinsic part of Scotch making that I found particularly interesting. A long time back, wood in which to make barrels was becoming scarce. It was helped by importing sherry caskets, but this wasn't meeting demand, partly because Scotch Whisky was being "laid down" for so long. On the other side of the Atlantic federal law dictated that all American Whiskey had to be matured in new, unused white oak barrels. They had the opposite problem. They were accumulating a vast pile of unusable barrels. So the market was born for exporting them to Scotland.

A "barrel" is a unit of measure, much like the oil industry. The larger the barrel, the slower the maturation, and so the smoother the end product. In Scotland the American barrel was too small, and so when they arrive they are remade in a cooperage into a casket called a Hogs Head.

Distilleries all make a single malt, as that it was comes out of each individual still. A large portion of these are then "blended" with other whiskys. However, if you were to buy a bottle of blended whisky it may contain, for example, two thirds 70 year old, a third 25 year old, and a tablespoon of 3 year old. Though an unlikely extreme example, if this were the mix, it would have to be sold as a 3 year old, and cannot state the other whisky ages.  Incidentally, three years is the minimum age of any Scotch Whisky by law.

The patience required to achieve the world famous end result is astounding. This is not a business to turn a fast buck. It was amazing in one distillery to see dusty rows of barrels in a run down warehouse that had being lying undisturbed for more than 20 years.

I had a great, if not exhausting, time on the shoot, and now I know my Hogs Heads from my Butts, Puncheons and Port Pipes.

I think the crew had a good time too.

Friday, 11 November 2016


The last blog told of the many splendid colours around Loch Ard, as I ventured north to Aberfoyle for an autumn highland bike ride. I thought that would be it for my autumn fix this year, but last weekend Pauline and her partner Rob invited me to join them for a wander up Deuchary Hill in rural Perthshire, so I jumped on a train in Edinburgh for the hour and a half journey to Dunkeld.

I've done this little 511m hill many times, but it is such a great walk, easily fitting in to a short day, that it is a joy every time. On this occasion of course, we were surrounded in amber, though past its best by now.

Our route followed a dirt track from a car park, and wound its way through the wooded and forested hills behind Dunkeld. There are a few small houses up here, set among the picturesque landscape. It would be a long way to go for a pint of milk, especially in the winter snows.

We had a brief stop at a small pond for some munchies, as had a few other walkers. A pair of mute swans paddled their way across to see if there was anything up for grabs.

Eventually the dirt track ends and continues as a well trodden path. It was a busy path, with many people out enjoying the hill, including a small group of ponies and riders, which was understandable given it was a glorious blue-sky day. 

We circled round the base of the hill before approaching the small lump of the summit from the north. There was a WOW moment as we stepped onto the nobbly summit, with a view to the distant mountains capped in snow.

There was a bitingly cold breeze at the top so we didn't hang around, and followed a steeper and more scrambley path back down. The colours had changed with the failing light, given us a different experience as we retraced our steps back to Dunkeld.

A great day, and thanks to Rob for driving us all back home.

Here's a few more pics from the walk:

Friday, 4 November 2016


Aberfoyle, a small village in the heart of The Trossachs, lies just one and a half hours north from my front door, and at this time of year the display of autumn colours is something to behold. But I haven't had a chance to get away recently to enjoy the spectacle anywhere. Last week Pauline returned from her holiday with a set of stunning photographs of autumn hues, which just made me envious.

Being freelance does have a number of downsides, but one big advantage is the flexibility of time. I had a couple of meetings scheduled for Tuesday last week, but with a little work, I rearranged and headed off for Aberfoyle, on a cloudless, blue-sky day, with hardly a breath of wind, and in less than two hours I was unloading my bicycle 3 miles beyond Aberfoyle village, on the shores of Loch Ard.

I then back-tracked toward Aberfoyle, before turning off into the forest that runs along the southern edge of Loch Ard. I've been here before with Pauline, and usually I just trundle along, ignoring any navigation. Needless to say, about half an hour in to the forest, I was lost. But it is a small loch and small circuit round it through this forest, so I knew if I kept heading roughly toward the mountain of Schiehallion, and kept the loch to my right, which I couldn't actually see, I would be fine.

It was a spectacular ride, through corridors of trees draped in rubys, gold and pale emeralds, with a constant shower of amber, carpeting the track. It was hard not to take a good photo. But I had not been paying attention very well, when I discovered that the track came to an end at a hidden and unexpected quarry.

I stuck to my plan and continued on, at one point having to push the bike up a very narrow and overgrown footpath. Eventually it popped out onto a more substantial forest road. I turned west toward the mountain in the distance, and then came face to face with an 8-foot high, wrought iron gate, with a deer fence either side. Luckily for me it was not padlocked, and once through I recognised the track that leads down to the village of Kinloch Ard.

It had only taken a brief amount of time to do the circuit, but it had been a complete joy.

I stopped on the edge of the village and heated up a pouch of food for lunch, washed down with coffee, as I enjoyed the peace interrupted only by a very vocal Robin in full song.

Back at the car there was still a few hours of daylight remaining, so I took a wander up a nearby natural wood, which is the start of the path that leads up to the mountain Ben Venue, which I had ascended earlier in the year, but back then it had been a misty and murky day, not so this day. Had I had more time I may well have continued on up to the summit. Inside the forest the sun filtered through the canopy, now with 50% of its leaf cover having fallen. But everywhere the forest looked healthy, with signs everywhere of low pollution.

With the light fading I returned to the car for the journey home. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable day and autumn fix. Here's a few more pics from the day.

Friday, 28 October 2016


2016 is the anniversary of Shakespeare's death, He was born 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, and subsequently died there in 1616 on April 23rd.

At the academy where I teach film to young students, they had been working on abridged versions of three of the bard's plays, but for a variety of issues they missed their deadline in June to put on the performances. So we are now tackling film versions.

What never fails to amaze me is the difficulty they have in understanding the vast differences between film and stage. Most of the students seem to think that it is just a case of setting up a camera on a tripod and filming what they have come up with. But that's not a film. That's footage of a stage performance.

My friend Andrew describes it well; "a stage performance is to an audience firmly rooted in their seats, in one location. But creating a film liberates us from this constraint". So now we can place the camera anywhere, in the same space, or even in a vastly different space.

We are planning to film in March next year, albeit the 400th anniversary will have passed. The logistics will be challenging too, as they always are with young students. But there is an opportunity to have some of them attempt their first outside location shoot, as up to now we have filmed solely in the school where the academy takes place. Apart from the obvious production challenges this presents, there is also the factor of weather.

So to make life a little easier, we are going to set the films in modern times, allowing them to wrap up warm in modern day clothes. It also allows us to bring a number of scenes into modern times as well, which should prove to be a lot of fun.

The youngest students are making A Midsummer Nights Dream, though a wildly adapted version to suit their age group. The group between 9 and 12 will tackle Romeo & Juliet, referencing the modern day 1996 version, starring Leonardo Di'Caprio. Already the girl who plays Juliet is stressing out, asking me on a weekly basis if she will have to kiss anyone!

Finally the teenagers, in line with their desire to create films dark and miserable, will make MacBeth.
 For this film I have chosen an exterior location of 17th century, Lady Stairs Close, in the centre of Edinburgh city, for them to set the exterior scenes.

A good number of years Andrew performed a version of MacBeth around the streets of Edinburgh, and used the Close as one of the locations, which has influenced me for this production, as has the 2015 version starring Michael Fassbender.

We'll have fun with it too in adapting it to modern times. Just one example, is changing the elaborate 16th century banquet to a round of fish and chips.

Hopefully I'll be able to enthuse them enough that they "get" the concept of making a film of Shakespeare, which is going to require them to dramatically change their current stage ideas.

"Fair is foul and fouls is fair", which probably will sum up the Scottish weather on the day!

Friday, 21 October 2016


Occasionally my filming work takes me far afield, and other times it can end up literally on my door step.

In 2006 in a community hall in Toronto, Canada, a group of enthusiasts created a "flashmob" dance routine to the music of Michael Jackson's Thriller, mainly as a fundraiser for charity. A flashmob is when a group of people, having choreographed a synchronised dance to music, appear suddenly at a large venue, say a railway station, or city square. Gradually the numbers grow in front of a surprised general public, until a large ensemble are dancing furiously. At the end they quietly disperse, and it was as if it never happened.

Encouraged by the popularity of this particular dance to this particular music, the original group decided to go for a world record attempt, to simultaneously perform the routine in as many different countries around the world as they could. They called the event Thrill The World. They achieved success in 2008, with 13 countries and 1500 people taking part. It is now an annual event with over 120 countries participating and approaching 10,000 people.

My Saturday film students have all been learning the dance routine over the past few weeks, and we are half way through shooting. In the edit all three age groups will be edited together to create one seamless piece, with all the students in homemade zombie costumes. But it has to have an opening and a closing section aside from the dancing, essentially the beginning and end of what the students know as beginning, middle and end of every movie ever made.

I knew I wanted a spooky looking sequence, and at first I was searching for a derelict mansion or the likes. Gradually I came round to searching for a castle, when it dawned on me that just a short distance from my house, is the ruin of Craigmillar Castle, an appropriate spooky-looking structure surrounded by woods, most of which were in their vibrant autumn colours.

The medieval castle is best known for its association with Mary Queen of Scots. She had fallen ill after giving birth to her son, the future James VI, and in late November 1566 she arrived at the castle to convalesce for a month. But it was while she was there that an evil pact was made, with or without her knowledge, to dispose of her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

It was fitting that almost exactly 450 years to the day, I found myself skirting its well preserved ramparts, looking for that evil-looking shot. Here's a still taken from the film:

On 29 October we will screen the finished Thriller video. Who knows, we may well appear somewhere with our own flashmob sometime soon.