Friday, 21 November 2014

I have the great privilege every weekend of passing on my film making knowledge to kids from six years old, all the way up to 18. Not that long ago I used to wish I could have been a teacher, but our system doesn't allow it because I don't have a degree. Yet here I am, teaching. Go figure.

Well OK, it's not a full time education post, but a similar responsibility comes with it. Because I've never had any formal training though, I never really know how I'm doing. Last week the academy had a visit from head office and he paid me the nicest compliment. He had been observing one of my classes as we filmed a Christmas music video for my 9 to 12 year olds. At the end of the day he told me that it was rare to find a good film maker who was also a good teacher, and he felt the kids were inspired by me.

Despite not being known as a professional teacher as such, it was nice someone had recognised what to me feels entirely natural.

In a similar way I observe the students every week, trying to spot those who are struggling or those who show a particular aptitude for certain tasks. Over the weeks I had noticed one girl who was particularly quiet. I was starting to suspect that she just wasn't interested in film & TV. For example, every time the rest of her class were up in front of camera, she would be the last to be on set, and would generally stand at the back, trying to stay out of the limelight.

Two weeks ago her group were filming their music video. At one point I took the camera off the tripod to change the battery. To do this several pieces have to be removed to get at the battery, and then they all have to be carefully put back on in the right order before remounting the camera, itself a tricky stage. I'm not yet at the stage of going through these tasks with the class, but every week they observe what I do.

On this occasion I swapped the battery over and handed the camera to the girl in question to keep a hold of while I took the dead battery away to be charged up. On my return, which couldn't have been more than a minute, she had assembled all the parts on the camera and remounted it on the tripod. I had never shown her all these steps specifically. She didn't hang around for praise, just returned to her group to carry on with her other set tasks. Clearly she has a natural ability for the tech side of film making, and despite all my careful observations it had never dawned on me.

This week I saw the new movie The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing during the Second World War, who led the team that broke the Enigma code, an achievement that is widely believed to have shortened the war by more than two years. There is a line in that film that best sums up the experience I had in class that day:

"Sometimes it's the people no one expects anything from who do the things no one expects".


Friday, 14 November 2014


Even if you're not a science fiction fan, I bet you can complete that heading.

There seems to have been a space theme to the past seven days. It all started with Christopher Nolan's latest film, Interstellar.

Without spoiling it for those who have not seen it yet, it's basically about mankind in the future trying to find a way to save the human race from extinction by finding another planet to live on. One can't help but be cynical and think we'll just end up trashing that one as well.

Anyway, I was blown away by how real they made everything in space look. A while back I saw the Sandra Bullock film, Gravity, and that was impressive, but Interstellar is even more so. In my way of watching films I sat there trying to pick apart how they would have achieved some of the shots. To me it was obvious they had built large models and filmed them against a green screen, a method that allows the editor to remove the green portion of the image later and replace it with anything they want.

Not on the same scale as Christopher Nolan's multi million dollar, three-hour epic (yes, it is that long!), last Saturday saw me filming against a green screen too, with my teenage group of students at the film academy. It was their day, after seven weeks of tuition, to direct, film and star in a music video for Christmas. I'm not sure they quite got the concept of green screen, but we all had great fun. Interestingly the most daunting part of it for them was behind the camera, operating the equipment and using the correct terminology. There were no shy actors among them when they were asked to perform in front of camera. The past few days have seen me editing their efforts, and like most film making it is clear not all went according to plan. They will now have to film replacement scenes in two weeks time, something we call "pick-ups".

Without a green screen in sight, we come to Hubble. As you will have read last week I have newly installed a blu ray player and giant screen, and it has just had it's grand launch with the one-hour documentary, Hubble, complete in 3D. To make the film they had sent an IMAX 3D camera up into space on board shuttle Atlantis in May 2009, the last ever visit to the giant space telescope. The documentary, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, was stunning, and though not a fan in any way shape or form of 3D, this was the exception. I felt as if I were actually there and could have handed the astronauts the spanners.

And finally, the Rosetta spacecraft and the lander Philae. Launched just before my 41st birthday in 2004, it made it's way out into the solar system by a series of "sling shots" round our solar system, including Earth three times, to accelerate it into position to rendezvous with a large asteroid.  In late September this year, having been watching the approaching asteroid 67P for over 24 million miles, it started manoeuvres to catch up with the lump of rock and go into orbit around it, 19 miles above the surface. Incredibly, this week it launched a little lander, called Philae, onto its 4km wide surface, and at 4pm GMT on Wednesday 12 November 2014, something man made landed on an asteroid, 300 million miles away and four and a half billion years old, roughly the same age as Earth itself.

It had a bumpy landing, ending up on its side, but still managed to send back valuable data. Today it started drilling into the surface! For the next year the mothership spacecraft, Rosetta, will stay alongside the asteroid, gathering more data as it gets closer to our sun, shedding some of it's ice and water. Is it just me or does it blow your mind what mankind has achieved with this spectacular mission?

That little lander has certainly gone "where no man has gone before".

Friday, 7 November 2014


. . . removing the glitter from fake snowballs. Let me explain . . .

It's been a week of film related activities, mostly fun. It started some weeks ago when I decided that the 10 year-old projector in my apartment was well past its best. It projected onto a screen 60" across, a screen which now sported several creases across its width. But the projectors lamp was on it's way out and no longer displayed true colours. It was most noticeable if I watched a black and white film, such as the Frank Capra classic, It's A Wonderful Life, where Bedford Fall's soap-suds fake snow, would fade from sepia on the left to white on the right. Frank would not been impressed. A new lamp was £300, but apparently that was only half the problem and further repairs would have doubled that price.

So, decision made, it was time for a new projector. But technology had moved on over the past 10 years, and the rest of my home cinema kit was no longer compatible with the next generation of projectors. By the time I'd finished I had replaced two speakers, the amplifier, screen, the projector of course and all the cabling. Because of this I decided to go the whole hog and change from a DVD player to a BluRay player, which made sense as it was only a few pounds difference.

The surprising part of all these changes was that everything together cost less than what I had spent 10 years ago on just the projector! Now I had my own little cinema to not just watch the latest releases as they were meant to be seen, but to watch my own films made over the years.

Which brings me to fake snowballs.

For the past two months I have been teaching kids from age six to eighteen the art of film making. All of the classes have been aiming toward making a short movie to show their parents at a Christmas event in December. For their first project we decided to make music videos, simply because there were no lines to learn etc. The youngest group are making Frosty the Snowman, the 9-11 year-olds are making the 12 Days of Christmas, the the teenagers are creating a story to the song Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin' Stevens. This Saturday we shoot the Shakin' Stevens one.

In order to keep all the filming indoors we are shooting against a green screen. As the name suggest, it is literally a giant, green, screen. Later in the editing process it is possible to remove the green and replace it with other images, so I can make it look as if the kids are outside playing in the snow for example. One scene is a snowball fight (you see where I'm going with this) and in rehearsals we were using scrunched up paper balls. But they didn't look like snowballs. They looked like scrunched up paper balls. A local craft shop just so happened to sell bags of fake snowballs. Who would have thought you could buy such a thing. The problem was they were smothered in glitter. If this found it's way onto the green screen it would potential ruin it, so yesterday, for three hours, I painstakingly removed all the glitter from every one.

My reward? I'll get to watch the realism (!?) of fake snow on the big screen in my front living room. I think Mr Capra would be proud.

Thursday, 30 October 2014


About three months ago I sustained an injury to my right arm. For some reason this progressed into tennis elbow. It's not something you plan for, and the main course of treatment is complete rest, so stopping using the arm at all was a huge challenge, one I wasn't really able to do. As the weeks turned to months, and the pain in the tendons of my lower arm gradually became worse, I realised I had to take drastic action. I cancelled all work projects, both at home and for clients, and didn't lift even a cup of tea. Not only this but I was suffering from a bout of sciatica down my left leg and the arthritic toe joint of my right foot had decided to join in. If I had been a horse I would no doubt be on my way to the glue factory.

The downside of this was it also included abstaining from all the fun things as well, such as cycling. Apparently gripping the handlebars of a bicycle puts a lot of strain on your arms.

But an opportunity had arisen, with the recent break in the wet weather, to cycle from Bridge of Allan to Glenogle to a favourite camp spot, a route which I had cycled with my friend Vince almost exactly one year ago. This time it was with Pauline.

But how to do it with this very painful arm? I wasn't sure if it would be even possible, but I decided to try and cycle all 25 miles, there and back, without using my right arm at all! And with a fully loaded bike!

We set out late from Bridge of Allan, just outside Stirling, once the mornings heavy rain had abated. The first section was fairly flat, allowing me test out my plan. It seemed to be OK. We then negotiated several small hills, which were more of a challenge, but apart from using my hand to change gear on the rear set, I seemed to be OK in not using the right arm. I certainly must have looked like a very casual cyclist to those I passed, my arm dangling at my side.

In less than two hours, taking it easy, we were in the small village of Callander and time for a break for lunch in the local park. The entire car park for the public park was flooded due to the recent heavy rains. Fishermen wandered across the flooded tarmac in their chest-high waders, and I watched in anticipation of when they would suddenly find the river embankment. They obviously knew the terrain well, expertly navigating, and my hope of some light entertainment was dashed.

As we sat there I spotted what looked like some sort of creature swimming across the flood. It crawled out onto the grass and lay very still. A gull spotted the movement and went for it, tossing it in the air. I scared the gull off and on closer inspection discovered it was in actual fact a small water vole, an endangered species in the UK. They have seen their numbers plummet by over 90% in recent times. We reckoned it had been flooded out of its home due to the sudden rise in water levels, and had swam across to seek drier ground. It was obvious by the large numbers of gulls and crows that this water vole's fate was going to add to the statistics, so Pauline and I decided to intervene in the natural selection process. Pauline retrieved her small cooking pot, and with as little distress as possible to the water vole, we caught it and relocated it to a safer spot. Hopefully we've helped to preserve this little riverbank chap.

From Callander To Strathyre was easy going, following the swollen River Teith and then along the eastern forested shore of Loch Lubnaig and then the River Voil. Single-handed cycling it seemed was not that hard, and the reward all around was well worth the inconvenience. The fall was late this year, and though in a couple of days it would be November, the tracks were bursting with colour and the autumn colours were mostly at their height.

From the brightly lit yellows of the birch together with every shade of green from dark jungle green, through apple reds to a very light pale green and everything in-between,  the hillsides were a joy to behold. They were awash with the pale yellowy-orange colour of the Larch, and occasionally we would come across a crimson Maple. The forest tracks were covered in this natural canopy and our tyres rolled along a carpet of colour reminiscent of a 1960s Axminster weave.

To our right the rivers and loch had burst their banks, and though problematic for surrounding farmers and houses it did create a picturesque landscape. However, by the time we reached Strathyre the flooding started to hamper our progress. A local elderly cyclist stopped us and advised that the route ahead to Balquhidder was impassable. But this brought an added bonus. Over the past year a new section of cycle path had been constructed alongside the A84 road, and now connected Strathyre to Kings House at the end of the Balquhidder road, a saving of around four to five miles. Considering my challenge of single-handed cycling this was welcome news. A small part of the new path was flooded but we were able to detour briefly onto the road.

It wasn't long before we had passed high above the village of Lochearnhead on one of my favourite cycle paths, twisting and turning its way through indigenous woods, though cycling a lot slower than normal with just one hand and thus one brake! The path follows an old rail line and just before our hidden camp spot for the night we crossed the old viaduct that curves its way up the glen.

Almost exactly a year ago when camping in this very spot with my friend Vince, we found a young stag that had literally just died, possible just hours before out arrival. It had taken it's last stumbling steps into a pool of water at the base of a fallen tree, its throat cut open from a fight, it being the rutting season (you can read that story again here). I was keen to see what had happened in that year, imagining there would be a perfect skeleton in the same spot. To my amazement the pool of water was entirely empty.

Very close by were half a dozen bones, picked perfectly clean, and lying scattered around in this dark, damp wood. Something very strong had managed to haul large parts of the carcass out of the pool, and most had been carried off. Maybe the small antlers had been found by other walkers or cyclists and taken home. 

The great circle of life.

The following morning was cold, and condensation soaked our tents. Ahead was another 25 miles single-handed cycling, this time mostly downhill. After a brief stop in Callendar for lunch and the ubiquitous coffee and cake, we were back in Bridge of Allan in record time.

Though not a single-handed, round-the-world adventure in the realms of yachts-woman Ellen McArthur, it had been a physical challenge and one that I had pulled off successfully with no detrimental effects, postponing the trip glue factory once more.

Thursday, 23 October 2014


Recent changes in my work commitments have meant big compromises have had to be made in terms of my first passion, travel.

There's a few of my friends who ask what the draw is, (travel that is, not work) to give up well paid work, the comfort of a comfortable apartment, convenient shops and entertainment on my doorstep and all that is familiar in my neighbourhood. When I am travelling and discovering new cultures, I know I embrace all the cliches such as freedom, the open road etc, and I find it certainly facilitates letting go of the past and look to the future. But it's a tricky one to explain, as is any choice we make in things that affect our lives.

As a film maker I like to observe people and quietly ask myself questions about them, the answers influenced by what I observe.

For example, I am continually fascinated by the fashions people wear. The businesswoman who wears a hybrid of clothes that are neither masculine nor feminine, the fear possibly being that if she expresses either preference it could be detrimental to her progression.

The man who wears an Hawaiian shirt as if to say, "hey I'm colourful and outgoing, not at all boring", and goes home to feed his cat in an empty apartment. Contrast this with the man dressed head to foot in beige. Maybe he's saying, "I have everything I want, I'm happy with who I am, and I care not for fashion statements".

Or the man who wears a hoody, trousers that stop half way down the calf, ankle socks and trendy trainers. Not out of place on an early twenty something, but on a 50 year old? But then who says there are rules? Maybe he doesn't want to accept his advancing years, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Then there's the cyclist is his skin-tight Team Sky lycra top, hoping that those glances from people he whizzes by, are thinking, "hey, there's one of those super-athletes from the Tour de France", but his grey hair, wheezing and sore joints betray him.

But it's not just fashion. We make choices in many things that we decide to "wear," from friends, to where we live, to the type of job we have. They are  choices influenced by many factors, and it takes more than my casual, one-sided observations to know what they are.

And so it is with my "travel bug". It's hard to explain, but in one way nicely summed up in this short verse by Kahill Gibran, a Lebanese artist, poet and writer in the late 1800s:

My house says to me, “Do not leave me,
for here dwells your past.”
And the road says to me, “Come and follow me,
for I am your future.”
And I say to both my house and the road, 
“I have no past, nor have I a future".
If I stay here, there is a going in my staying;
and if I go there is a staying in my going.

I would add that if the desire to take that road grabs you, do not ignore it. There will always be reasons why not to, and life is not a rehearsal, as they say.

I may not be in a position to travel again yet, but I will, and when I do I will follow that road again into the future.

Friday, 17 October 2014


In 2010, just after returning from cycling the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, I set about creating a home office in my garden. For years there had been a shed there, but it had to become much more than just a shed.

Since I sold my retail business in 2006 I've always had an office "space" in my house, which occupied a corner of my living room. It was fine as an office space went, but I never "went to work". It was just 4 steps from my sofa, but I hardly ever made the commute, choosing mostly to watch trash telly instead.

I realised I needed a place to go to work, and though it was still on the footprint of my property, the garden seemed an obvious choice.

Over six weeks I remodelled the existing 8' x 6' shed, raising it up on bricks by two feet, insulating the inside walls and installing an electric supply.

Four years on and it's as good as the day I built it.

Two months ago a need arose for increased storage. There were so many bicycles, inflatable canoes  and other large outdoor gear, that the apartment was surely going to burst at the seems. Though the garden is small it once again seemed the obvious choice. First stage was to remove the old overgrown plants in the area and set concrete pillars in place, effectively raising the build off the damp ground. I could have laid a large concrete slab, but that's not very eco-friendly, and it's also very difficult to remove in the future should the need arise. So the solution was to dig one-foot deep holes, fill them with rubble, then sit concrete piers on top with a rubber membrane between the concrete and the timber supports.

Once the floor was built, a strong sandwich of 25mm marine ply and 70mm of insulation, the walls could go up, and finally the roof. For the technically minded this comprised a vapour barrier on the inside (which was later covered in plasterboard), insulation between the wooden frame, a breathable membrane and then an air gap between the membrane and the outer cladding. The roof is a special one piece rubber called EPDM, guaranteed for 25 years. Job done.
The only remaining thing to do, next year, is to place a living roof of sedum down, as just now the view from the windows of my apartment is of a vast expanse of black rubber. It's a tiny bit bigger than the office shed too. Actually, it's twice the size! Surprisingly it sits comfortably in the garden, and has created a really nice enclosed secret garden, which itself has had a bit of a makeover.

Overall it was an entirely different build to the first shed. Over the past four years I have learned so much about construction, and it is with confidence I can say this "shed" is built to a timber frame house standard. It now stands snuggly next to the original office shed.

A shed? Hardly.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Three years ago this week, the 8th October to be precise, I returned from a momentous cycle adventure across the USA. I've been looking back at the three years since, at what has happened as each year rolled round.

In the same week of 2012 I was in the midst of sending out the film of the journey, Sleepless 'til Seattle, to various film festivals and had started cutting a trailer. I entered quite a number, from small town festivals in the likes of Fargo, North Dakota, to the major players such as Sundance. The latter attracted over 12,000 entires, each paying as much as $100US per film. That's quite a business for them. Very quickly I realised that I was up against much higher budget films and the category I had entered, feature documentary, had few slots available. Suffice to say I was unsuccessful in getting in to any festival. Following that disappointment I went on to produce my own DVDs and sold over 200 copies online in the USA and at home in the UK.

Moving forward to the same week of 2013 and I was working once again in film, this time at a local school, Liberton High, teaching the students film making in a three hour workshop each week. Two of those students have gone on to study film at university when they left school the following year.

The USA adventure continued to be a part of my life as Pauline and I had just completed out last show, an illustrated talk of the adventure, a tour of eleven theatres in Scotland starting in April.

That week also saw me on a short cycle adventure with my friend Vince to Glen Ogle. As we camped in a small clearing of a forest that night we came across a red deer, a young male stag, that had died just hours before we arrived, probably as the result of a fight with another stag, as it was the middle of the annual deer rut.

I had just started renovating a large apartment outside if Dundee for a friend, a project that I thought I would finish within six months.

And so to this week, 2014. Once again I am teaching film to a bunch of students, this time to a much wider age group of six to eighteen. 

That property renovation is still ongoing, and though I'd like to say that I will definitely be finished by Christmas, I don't want to tempt fate again.

By coincidence there's every chance that at the end of this week I will return to Glen Ogle, just as last year, this time with Pauline.

And finally, that USA trip continues to raise its head: this month I will be putting the DVD of the adventure up on Amazon to see how if it can attract more sales.

It seems surprising when I think about these events, and I feel that they have all actually been within just the past year. The USA adventure continues to be a very special memory for me, even though I've done many things since.

How I long for that long open road on my bicycle.