Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Rob Roy and Glen Ogle

The night before we left I was partially reassured by the BBC weather forecast saying that Saturday and Sunday, though windy and blustery, would be dry. Call me sceptical, I still packed the waterproofs.

Our destination was Callander, roughly twelve miles west of Stirling, to cycle, on our mountain bikes, part of the National Cycle Network route 7, from Callander to Killin, some twenty four miles. Normally our trips away start with a relaxing journey on a train, but thanks to Beeching in the early sixties, the rail line to this area had long since vanished, and so we had to load the bikes into my van and drive to the starting point.

The rail closure programme was informally called by the press, Beeching Axe, and was a planned series of closures throughout the United Kingdom, by the then chair of the British Railways Board, Dr Richard Beeching. Just seventeen days after I was born in 1963, Beeching published his report and recomendations to cut the UK rail service from 21,000 miles of track and 6,000 stations, down to 12,000 miles and 2,000 stations. It remains as such today. It also remains controversial.

Our route took us along the old railway line, upgraded and linked together by Sustrans, to form a first class cycle path. The first part follows along the western shore of Loch Lubnaig and emerges out of the forest again at Strathyre, and a little further on at Balquhidder, burial place in 1734 of Rob Roy McGregor, aged 70. In fact, the route we were on also includes the Rob Roy Way for walkers, though it does not detour into Balquhidder and his grave, something I thought strange for a walk dedicated to his name.

We stopped off at an old library converted to a tea room, called Mhor Tearoom, which to my great delight served Illy coffee! To my readers that comment on my regular inclusion of food in my blogs, I will say that the Portugese custard tart is well worth a sample, all in a quaint preserved old library about the size of a small living room.

Just before the route reaches Lochearnhead it crosses a fairly new, small bridge. It is dedicated to Nigel Hester, a young musician and cyclist, killed in 1997 on the A9. A donation was made by the family to Sustrans, and the bridge that was built connected up the line again and made this route possible.

The next part of our journey took us above Lochearnhead and then swung north into Glen Ogle, a favourite area of climbers, and once called "close, gloomy defile" by the Ordnance Survey in the late 1800's. Personally, I like Queen Victoria's description of it being "Scotland's Kyber Pass". It is an impressive deep cut in the landscape with a steep road for cars to climb, but the old railway line is already at height and gently rises toward the pass.

Two thirds of the way along the 5km is the old viaduct, still intact, built in 1864, just 99 years before it was closed. However, this line did not suffer from Beechings axe, as I said earlier. This line was actually closed due to frequent rockfalls from the surrounding hills, with some of the rocks the size of a double decker bus. It was deemed too expensive, and somewhat dangerous, to continue operating it, and just 6 months before Beeching did his work, it ceased as a railway line.

We decided that night to stop at the top of the pass and camp in a clearing beside a small lochan, rather than continue on to Killin, four miles further on, as we didn't count on there being a suitable place to pitch our tents. The forest was great, and similar to all the forests we had cycled through all day, sheletered us from the wind. During the night in the darkness, every sound seemed amplified. The cars on the nearby A85 had long since gone quiet. The trees creaked as the wind swayed their upper branches. Somewhere in the deep forest was the sound of an owl, out hunting, and other unidentifiable noises from the moss-blanketed ground and shifting shadows, gathered together to give the whole setting a primeval feel.

The following day we retraced our steps, cutting an hour off our previous days time, to reach Callander by early afternoon. We had no sooner arrived than the heavans opened, contrary to the BBC forecast, but we had missed the rain by minutes and the waterproofs were left packed away.

The route was a treasure trove of history, not to mention beauty, of highland heroes and preserved historical paths. We were delighted with the reward of having spent a weekend in the land that Rob Roy once lived, and we paid our respects at his grave in Balquhidder on the cycle back.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Back about 10 years

Another shoot wraps and a well deserved rest follows.

Certain aspects of the shoot overall do not hold fond memories for me, but hopefully the end result will serve its purpose and help a great many people.

Tuesday saw the end of the latest film shoot, a project that I have been working on since last summer. It's only at this stage that I reflect on how I have worked tirelessly for around 5 months on the script, to then work very intensively for the last ten days to bring the words into visual reality. There's always a period of f
eeling a bit down after a shoot, and this one was no exception. But I also feel that my own preparation and performance was better than my previous film which wrapped last September.

Another project came to an end this evening as well. Since August last year I have been volunteering as a business adviser to a local High School as they participated in a Young Enterprise venture. Young Enterprise are a voluntary organisation that encourage school pupils in their final year to run a small business. The group I was involved with, called PB Design, designed and produced a recipe book, with contributions from local people and a few celebrities with connections to the school, namely Gregor Townsend and Ewan Bremner.

They had a very successful year earning in excess of £1200 in profit, and this evening they quite rightly walked off with the award for Best Sales Director. They also managed to come 2nd or 3rd in four other categories, so overall they should be very proud of themselves.

As I sat there during the awards evening, surrounded by a couple of hundred kids, or should I say, young adults, from 23 schools across Lothian, I couldn't help thinking how every single one of them had been born after I started my previous business, a deli, back in 1991. Now here they were, receiving awards and planning their exit from school and on into university after the summer.

I felt very proud to have had the privelege to work with a few of them for the past 9 months, but I also felt a little sad in realising what I have missed out on in life. If I think back to when I was their age and how I left school with virtually no qualifications, which was partly due to my father constantly moving jobs around Scotland, and how I certainly did not go to university. Actually, I wasn't "allowed" to even think of going anyway. My always supportive father, not, demanded I leave school at 16 and get a job.

I got chatting to one of the girls who was about to leave school, and, unlike her fellow school mates, she was not going directly to uni. She had instead decided on a gap year to work in an outdoor centre in the Highlands, to learn to be a wind surfing instructor over the summer. She was very confident and very sure of what she wanted to do, and had decided to take a risk and break from the norm to follow what I assumed was a dream. To have that confidence and forward vision at that age is something I could only have dreamed of. Thirty years ago I had no idea of who I was or what I would do with my life. In fact I would say that has been a pattern for all of the past 30 years. If only I had had those chances and opportunities, and been secure and confident, with a good education, how different my life may have been by now.

But I also count my blessings. I am doing something I thoroughly enjoy doing, albeit very late in life, and occasionally even get paid for it, and I am very fortunate to be surrounded by the most amazing group of supportive friends. I have good health, which hasn't always been the case, and great variety in my life, and at times feel, and sometimes act, that I too am 18 years old!

I have quoted a certain film before in a previous blog, and it is appropriate here in this one too. The film is A Star Is Born, with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand. At one point, Kris, a failing rock star, jumps into the back of his limo, and his driver asks him where he'd like to go. Kris looks out into the darkness of the night, then answers: "Back about 10 years".

For me it would be 30.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Under pressure

Another week of filming in the can.

We had a large number of scenes to shoot last week, and ideally I would have liked double the amount of days we actually had. However, we only had three to shoot almost a third of the film with two professional actors. Quite a challenge.

Some look at this type of challenge as something to rebel against, but at the end of the day there was no point in bemoaning the lack of time and number of scenes as we had to achieve it all anyway. So much time can be wasted encouraging people to get with the game plan sometimes. And I look on it with some pride that the production company hired this crew because they can be trusted to deliver.

The crew were great, and I drove them hard, shooting scene after scene, taking a shorter lunch at a later time, etc. It can sometimes feel like a sausage factory, as one crew member likened it to, but with careful organisation and thorough preparation on my part, and rehearsing with the actor prior to the shoot, with clear concise instructions to the crew on set, I knew I could achieve the nigh on impossible. If we get it all, and no one notices how each scene is shot smoothly and efficiently, then I have done my preparation well.

It is something to congratulate yourself on, to be able to shoot in this way and keep your eye on the ball all the time, but I also have to accept that there will be compromises to the look of the film. In order to pull it off we kept the camera hand-held and created just one lighting setup. With more time between each shot we could have lit the scene differently and better, but as each very short scene, with one actor and no dialogue, was not appearing back to back, I was confident it would look fine in the final edit.

You'll recall that we were trying out an idea to feed the narration of the script to an actor through a radio earpiece so that he could act his scene out in sync with the script while we recorded sound on set. It worked a treat, and one to remember for the future. They say you learn something every day.

Day one and two were all at one location, with day three seeing us in four different locations. We also had to reshoot a scene from day two at the end of the day on Friday, what we call a pick-up. Rush rush rush, but we still finished ahead of time. It takes a real collaboration between the crew, and though I carry ultimate responsibility to what is shot and when, every person in the crew is a crucial and equally important cog in the machine. It's worth remembering that we are all paid a wage to give of our skills, and we therefore all have a responsibility to our employer to give 100% all the way. And that's what I expect from everyone, and, to a great degree, that's what I get. We all get tired and flag, sure, but that's where the team spirit comes into its own, to keep each other going, and that could be as simple as someone making sure we all have water to drink.

My role as Director is probably the most challenging. I have to know, at every moment, what is coming next, how the scene we are shooting cuts into the one before and after, which props are needed, continuity of costume etc. I rarely get a break. I'm on set first, and if I'm not blocking an actor for their scene, I'm briefing the crew on what's going to happen and what I'm after. In between the crew or the actor get a breather, but not myself. It's constant for ten hours, with just one forty five minute break for lunch. The day after the these three intensive days of shooting I slept for eleven hours!

Two more days to go and then post-production to fit it all together. The pressure is enormous, but for some odd reason that I cannot fathom, I am rarely stressed. Other, smaller things in life, stress me far more. You would think this level of responsibility would tip me over the edge, but it doesn't.

I guess I just love what I do.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

All smoke and mirrors

Once again I'm involved in directing a shoot, from last Monday until the 24 March, so my blogs may be less frequent until we wrap. My apologies to my readers.

This shoot is fairly complex, involving not just "real" interviews, but actor's drama scenes and animation. We've just finished the first week with all those elements taking place, and it went well. This coming week is a bigger challenge as we have comedy scenes to film which have no dialogue. The actors involved have to mime to the narrators voice, and this can be far more challenging for the actor concerned. We also have to record sound, which gives us the problem of how to give the actor the narration to act to without hearing the narration on set. Our solution is quite cunning: we set up someone in a separate room with the script and a walkie-talkie linked to me. We then place a radio receiver ear piece in the actor's ear, hidden behind his hair. The narrator can then deliver the lines to the actor, on my cue using the walkie-talkie, and hopefully I get what I'm after. I'll let you know how we get on.
This week also saw the passing of a certain anniversary. It is forty seven years since I was born in 1963. I can hardly believe I am three years short of half a century. I did a little research into 1963 and was surprised to find just how many well known events happened in that year, a time when the world population was less than half what it is today.
There are the headline events of course, such as John F Kennedy's assassination in the November, Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, and the Great Train Robbery.

But I also found a few other fascinating facts:
The United States introduced the ZIP code; the Beatles released their first album Please Please Me; Alcatraz closed; the Flying Scotsman steam locomotive ran its last journey; Beeching introduced radical cuts to the UK's rail network; Marvel Comics debut Iron Man and X-Men, now internationally famous characters; James Bond appears in his first film Dr No; Lawrence of Arabia wins best film at the Oscars,
as did David Lean for directing it; Gregory Peck deservedly wins best actor for To Kill A Mocking Bird; and Dr Who is broadcast by the BBC for the first time.

All that and topically it was, and is still the coldest winter on record for Scotland.

All in all a pretty important year. Not forgetting of course that March saw the day I entered the world!

The crew were very thoughtful on the day and all signed a card for me, and in the evening Pauline and I ventured out for a meal and saw the French movie Micmacs, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who gave us Amelie and Alien Resurrection, among others.

So this coming week will see me rehearsing with one of the principal actors on set for a day, before shooting three of the most challenging days so far.
Our biggest challenge overall is having a limited budget, but sometimes this can bring out the best creativity. As I said to one of my crew this week: "Just as when the commander James Lovell of Apollo 13 encountered a problem, he and his crew only had the tools onboard to get them successfully to the end of their journey, and had to knuckle down and get creative". At times we have to look around for what's immediately available and try to create an illusion of reality.

It is, as they say, all smoke and mirrors.

Friday, 5 March 2010


Just 8 miles south of Dumfries, overlooking the Solway Firth, is Caerlavarock Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust centre, founded in 1947 by Sir Peter Scott, son of Robert Scott, aka "Scott of the Antarctic".

He left a letter before he died in November 1912, which stated: "Make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games". Caerlavarock is testament to that wish.

The centre's tagline is: "A place where the wild world still has power to touch, thrill and inspire". I was about to find out if it would live up to its claim.

It's only two hours from Edinburgh, and Pauline and I had booked to stay over three days on the reserve itself, in what used to be the farmhouse, which for only £25 per night self catering, which includes your daily entry fee, was remarkably good value. Though the house is pretty basic, and has five rooms available, it has one outstanding feature: a private conservatory with picture windows that look out over one of the ponds. This means you are within a metre or so of all the wild birds, and especially close to a special night time visitor, more of which later.

Every day, at 11am and 2pm, the wardens feed the Whooper swans, and the crowds gather to watch the spectacle. Amazingly the birds seem to know what time it is, and gather in vast numbers, upwards of two hundred, eagerly awaiting their feed. If you weren't watching them you soon knew when it was time as the incredible noise they make, which gives them their name, would start. To me it sounded like hundreds of Laurel & Hardy comedy car horns going off at once, all different pitches.

They can be quite funny to watch, gathering occasionally in small groups to collectively "whoop" to each other, giving a real sense of community and friendship.

We were visiting quite near the end of their time in the UK, and soon they would be making their way through the Highland glens of Scotland on the first leg of their 850 miles back to Iceland for their breeding season.

Another winter visitor, in vast numbers, is the Barnacle goose. I was pretty impressed to see just short of 5,ooo birds all gathered together, until I read that in early January there had been 48,000 birds!

I'm no expert but the variety of birds all close together and tolerating each other was amazing. There were, among others I'm sure, Teal, Mallard, Widgeon and tufted ducks, Moor hens, Canada geese, Pink-Footed geese, Greylag geese, Mute Swan, Lapwings, Oyster catchers, Buzzards, Kestrel, plus all the usual suspects that are here all year round.

During a walk around the centre, which is enormous, we suddenly came upon a hare, sat quite calmly up on it's hind quarters, just a few feet from us at the side of the path. It looked at us for a while, yawned, had a good stretch, then quite happily and calmly sauntered across the path in front of us.

Around 7pm on the first night we settled down in the dark in the private conservatory to see what would turn up.
Within a very short space of time a hungry Badger wandered by, munching away on the peanuts and honey that had been left out. It was a rare treat indeed, and the first wild badger I had ever seen. There was a full moon as well, casting it's light across the pond and onto the Badger. It was a very special moment. Not thinking that could be topped, we were there again on the second night and three turned up together! If that wasn't enough, for a very brief moment a Barn Owl flew past as well, no doubt chasing the rat that had just scurried along the water's edge!

At the end of the blog is a short ninety second video of Whoopers and Badger action (
It looks just black, but click on the small play button bottom left. It may pixelate at the start of the badger scene, but stick with it).

One of the other highlights of our visit was going out for a midnight walk in the full moon, listening to all the night time sounds and still being able to see well enough without torches. It was a clear night and the temperature was well below freezing, but wrapped up warm it was a great experience.

On our second day we ventured out on our mountain bikes just twenty minutes down the road to visit the only triangular castle in Scotland, Caerlavarock, seat of the Maxwells since the 1200's. It had seen many transformations within the grounds, and fallen victim to many aggressors in its long history, but much of it is intact and well worth a visit.

Our journey home was through the Border hills, still carpeted in a foot of snow. We had only been back a few hours, and were taking a walk along our local beach, when we heard a familiar noise. Flying overhead in their typical V-formation, were a skein of Barnacle geese, heading north for their breeding season 1600 miles away in Svalbard, Norway. It felt as if they had followed us home.

It was a nice reminder of "the place where the wild world still has power to touch, thrill and inspire"