Thursday, 27 November 2014


I've said it before and it hasn't changed; one day I want to experience a traditional Thanksgiving in America.

It is in its most basic sense a thanks-giving for a good harvest and for the preceding year. For America it all started in 1621 in Plymouth Massachusetts after the had a successful and much needed good harvest. Having been to Plymouth Mass I have at least taken part of the step to a Thanksgiving feast.

In the UK we have a sort of Thanksgiving day as well, which is of course the Harvest Festival around late September, again closely linked to a good harvest.

But all that celebration of successful agricultural yields aside, we have much else to be thankful for. Currently the people of West Africa are fighting what seems like a losing battle with the deadly Ebola virus. Living in the West we can be thankful for first class medical care that these poorer countries can only dream of at present.  I run a local farmers market once a month in my home city of Edinburgh, and in December we are holding a raffle for a hamper to raise much needed money for the Ebola crisis.

Back in January 2007 I was lucky enough to visit the astonishingly beautiful country of Cambodia. I mention this here as yesterday evening I watched the Roland Joffe film The Killing Fields. It follows the story of a young Cambodian who is an assistant to  New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, the capital, and slaughtered, or set to hard labour, everyone therein. Pran tried to escape to the US but was unable to do so because of his passport not being valid for travel out of Cambodia. For four years he survived regular torture and starvation at the hands of the Khmer, until eventually escaping into Thailand in October 1979. He became a citizen of the US and died in 2008 aged 65.  During the period that he was struggling to survive in Cambodia I was going through High School. When I think how easy my life was compared to his back then I have much to be thankful for.

I, as do many of you reading this blog, live in a truly free country in the UK, and my health and welfare is taken care of. When I reach old age the government will ensure I will not go without. Despite all our trivial moans and groans, it's impossible really not to be thankful.

It's a short blog this week as I have still to send off my good wishes to all my American friends. Maybe one day I'll get my wish in some idyllic snowy town of North America.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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.