Podcast 76 – What do you think of when you don’t think of me?

Here’s the latest Sound of The Ladies podcast, featuring the brand new song “What do you think of when you don’t think of me?”. It’s a pictures and feelings song, so not much to say really. It was slightly influenced by End of Radio by Shellac, if that helps you to feel more kindly towards it…

 

New Years Resolutions 2014

It’s funny to look back on my New Years Resolutions from two years ago; I managed to accomplish most of the things on the list, just in an unrealistically slack timescale, as in, some of those things I only managed to accomplish this year. Maybe all new years resolutions, and resolutions in general, are infused with this tension between wanting to get shit done and wanting to create realistic expectations of what you can actually get done – going a little easy on yourself – or maybe that’s just me. I often reflect that most of the stuff I do isn’t very impressive for a man of my age and experience, but if I was doing things to be impressive that would be a bit adolescent for a man of my age and experience, so let’s not worry too much about that. So, what have we learnt?

1) Reading is fun

2013 was the year when I finally started reading again. And it didn’t even take Ayn Rand to defeat Karl Popper.  I think, honestly, I’m reading more than I ever have – fiction and nonfiction books, newspaper articles, academic papers, the lot. Of course, working at a university means I’m always the least well-read person in the room, but I’m not reading to be the most well-read person in the room; I’m not an obsessive or a completist, and 2014 will be a year of finding more things I enjoy reading, rather than just retraining myself to read at all.

2) Doing stuff is fun

In support of 2012′s The City of Gold and Lead I learned to papercut, greenscreen and edit for the 10,000 Letters of Love video. I’m not sure what to do with this next year. I’d love to do something in 3D, maybe using a bit of red/green action. I often learn stuff for the experience of learning, but normal people generally reuse skills they have rather than just tossing them to one side, and normal people often have the right idea.

3) Doing stuff with other people is fun

I’ve spent a lot of time as a songwriter just trying to work out if I can do anything interesting, and to make sure it’s me doing it I’ve generally excluded others from the process. That way I have a scientific control. My peculiar and particular sensibilities when it comes to writing, lyrics, arrangement and production aside, working with other people is getting easier and funner. The Existential Meltdown album, created with Marc Burrows, is something I was really proud of, and producing Spirit of Play’s Take Shelter EP was fun cos I got to hang out with Spirit of Play who are beautiful people and lovely musicians and great company. Collaborating on podcasts and various other work things has been tremendously rewarding this year. And it’s nice to do work where you get to hang out with people you like and love.

So, looking into 2014…

I still need to write more, and gig more

I’ve got an album of songs I wrote from late 2011-2013, but it’s just a fun collection really; I’d like a bigger project to get my teeth into, I’d like a sense of movement. I’d like to develop what happens on stage and in the studio and in the writing process and when songs are done. And I do need to play more gigs, because when I don’t I miss it and I’m rusty as hell when I do play.

I would like to be more brave

I’m often scared of things that aren’t frightening, this is called being neurotic. My motivation behind doing things has tended to be “to do things” rather than “get money or fame for doing them” – but there’s still a lot of stuff I do that I think people might like that I think not enough people are aware of. I don’t want to go into 2014 with a resolution to “do more marketing”, but I do want to connect with people and learn from it and get better and get some things back from the various projects I do that maybe I don’t always get at the moment. The DIY approach I tend to take is “I will do stuff and perhaps it will find an audience”, but it don’t think it takes a huge ego to think that this approach might undersell the hard work I put into some of the things I do. And doing things in a vacuum has artistic value, but can get a bit solipsistic. Self-expression is often over-emphasised at the expense of communication.

Doing nothing has value

Not every moment is productive. There are times for pushing through the pain barrier and getting blogposts and songs written, even if they’re not good, because doing things means practising and practising means getting better; there are times for drawing silly pictures and putting pictures of eggs on social media and making stories from the streets and buildings, because there’s no greater barrier to speaking than your own resounding silence, however unpleasant your voice might sound when it chatters; there are times for making lemon meringue pie or roaming around Crystal Palace with a camera photographing urban foxes or reading a book or doing the washing up, because at least it’s doing something; there are times for seeing friends and having a life; and there are times for just sitting in bed doing nothing, because brains need some idle cycles. I’m particularly good at choosing the exact wrong task for my current mood and worrying about not doing one of the others. This is called being neurotic.

These are pretty broad resolutions; but I feel positive about 2014. I think it’s going to be a year of experiments: failed experiments and partially successful ones. I’m sort of relishing this mixture of minor triumph and minorer failure – even if I knew what unmitigated success looked like, I doubt I’d find it all that interesting anyway.

Podcast #71 – Couldn’t you have picked a better day?

Happy New Year! The first podcast of 2014 is a new song I wrote for Tragic Xmas last month, recorded here with superbass and falsetto backing for your delectation. The superbass is a Gretsch Electromatic Baritone guitar I’ve strung in a variety of fun ways; this week it’s E(from a bass guitar)-E-A-D-G-E; like a guitar with an additional low E. It makes it sound gloriously high church. Falsetto is a sound men make when they want to sound like boys.

For more background on the song, and a live version of it and “100 years of solitude”, why not check out Stand Up Tragedy’s latest podcast? I’m on it, like a bonnet.

Podcast #69 – Enemy of Promise

The Sound of The Ladies podcast is back a little late this month, featuring Enemy of Promise,  written for the Existential Meltdown project. As aforementioned, any proceeds from this album will go to the Arts Emergency charity. Enemy of Promise is about an entity that can take away hope, crush dreams and generally be a massive overbearing pain in the arse. It’s written in such a way that the enemy of promise is personified, but it could be sickness or sadness or institutionalised callousness or anything you like. Personifying it least means you’ve got a friend in despair, or at least a frenemy. The chorus was trying to think about ways of expressing the idea of someone who delights in your downfall and their part in it, in finding your moments of failure and submission and making those emblematic. The verses are more stream of consciousness, not necessarily responding to the choruses, just catching a few words that rattled around my head and got stuck in the fleshy bits.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on iTunes, you can get it here.

 

Podcast #68 – One Hundred Years of Solitude

The latest Sound of The Ladies podcast is out now, featuring One Hundred Years of Solitude, the magic realist influenced tune that I wrote for the Existential Meltdown album. I’d once again like to warmly encourage you to download the album, and if you enjoy it, chuck us a few pounds, which will go to Arts Emergency. You can get the Sound of The Ladies podcast on iTunes if you’d like to listen for free every month…

Existential Meltdown

Many things I do start as a good idea and then spiral terrifyingly out of control. Thus it was for Existential Meltdown, a project Marc (from out of The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing) and I conceived of as a birthday present for a friend. We came up with the idea because we’re creative types and we actually did it because we’re fucking mental.

So it’s broadly inspired by our friend who’s a feminist and a socialist and hates Michael Gove, recast as a magic realist story of a young woman leaving her home to travel to London, finding love, heartbreak and friendship and railing furiously against injustice, sexism and stupidity. You’ll probably be able to figure out who wrote what.

I’d like it very much if you donated a little if you enjoy the album, as the money will go to Arts Emergency, a charity which offers new opportunities to people from disadvantaged backgrounds wanting to study arts subjects and make a career in the arts. Many of you will know that I’m a physicist by training, but I think studying or working in the arts gives people a bunch of valuable things to contribute to society that science degrees don’t. Like making life worth living, for example. The arts should not solely be a playground for rich kids, and Arts Emergency is a small step towards opening up these subjects to a broader range of people. Please give generously.

Making the video 3: Clowning and compositing

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I am an amazing actor.

Well, I’m amazing at making a man dicking about in a top hat seem like Joseph Bazalgette. As long as it’s silhouetted and tiny and there are other things to distract you from the acting.

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I’ve pretended that this process of videomaking is all me, me, me, but in this stage I had a lot of help. Filmmaker and editor Hugo Horvath was living with me when I started to go down the Greenscreen route, and he has a LOT of experience in using Adobe After Effects, which I used a great deal to do all the layering and compositing. Actually I’m not sure what that word means, I’m going to stop using it.

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I do understand greenscreening. When I was a kid it was called bluescreening and I’d been to the Museum of The Moving Image in that London and pretended to be Superman so I’d even seen it in action. It’s also called chroma keying, but I don’t know what that means so I won’t call it that. If you’re not familiar with the principle, it’s a very old movie technique (1930s, apparently) whereby a scene is filmed with a green backdrop, and then anything green in the footage is replaced with a background like an exotic location or moving scenery if you’re filming superman flying or a care chase or something. Why green? Well, it’s very unlike most flesh tones, so you’re unlikely to chop out someone’s face or skin by accident – you could use pink or white or brown or red as your background but you might “disappear” the actor as well as the background when their skin tones are the same as the background.

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Doing Greenscreen properly requires lots of space between the actor and the background to avoid shadows and reflection, several strong lights from different angles, and a smooth unwrinkled backdrop. Doing it badly requires £14.99 of green cotton muslin from Amazon (I know, I know), a couple of builder’s lights and a spare room. Wrinkles are bad because a good Greenscreen requires a consistent colour you’re “keying” to – shadows caused by creases and actors mean the colour is inconsistent. It turns out that if you’re taking the subsequent image and flattening all the colours to black and projecting a tiny version of it, this doesn’t much matter. Neither do the reflected bits of green that come from standing too close to the backdrop. Half way through filming, one of my builders lights broke, leaving me with one which frontlit me and left huge shadows on the cloth. By playing around with settings in After Effects, I pretty much got away with it.

Partly this was because, once I had removed the background using the greenscreening process, I made the actor silhouetted by using the “curves” function on After Effects and setting all the colours to black (the background stays transparent in this case, and lets you see whatever is underneath). You can fiddle around with the settings in AE to make it work, but it probably would look rubbish if I’d retained all the original colours. Anyway, if you’re serious about this, you can rent greenscreen space.

I’ve so far derided my on-screen acting skills, because I know nothing about acting and have never done physical acting before, but I did actually think a bit about how to get across some of the scenes when I shot it. Most notably, when something is silhouetted and projected silently in tiny, it’s hard to get across what you’re doing. How would I act “the sultry sky sent me 10,000 love letters… how could she know me, when I never once met her” or “he hated the attention from 10,000 plumbers and their endless questions”? I tried to think of simple scenes that would convey the elements of the story; a lonely observer of the rain; a man happening across a message from the sky; Joseph Bazalgette being exasperated with a plumber; his acceptance speech at an event celebrating him; his descent into a weird brick labyrinth; his exhaustion from moving through this, searching for an exit. Generally, I had to “act” bigger than I expected to communicate things. The props helped – the top hat to signify Bazalgette, the massive hammer and spanner (made from a bit of wood with some card attached), and the umbrella that Emily uses in the final shots.

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My friend Emily was my other collaborator in this – she’s Joseph Bazalgette’s great-great-granddaughter and I thought it would be brilliant to have her feature as a cameo in the video. The umbrella is nice because it’s what nice Victorian ladies might carry (or possibly a parasol) but I also quite like the fact that through this video, which features rather a lot of rain, not one of the male characters thinks to use an umbrella. Her appearance at the end of the video has a sort of resonance to me of  a future that doesn’t feature tophatted patriarchs having psychotic episodes in sewers, and is altogether more sensible.

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So, the basic workflow was to get things lined up in After Effects, and all of the layers (people, trees, rain, clouds, whatever) and then render that to a .mov file, which I then projected using QuickTime player, which meant I could rescale the projection a bit too. Lining up these elements with the set was a real pain. When I’d sort of figured out what I was doing, I had the projector hooked up to my desktop computer while I was editing in After Effects so I could line up the characters with the set even before I rendered it down to a video (which takes a few minutes). Of course, what your eye sees is very different from what the camera sees, and what the camera sees depends on the lens you’re using and the focal length, so I had to have the camera set up and line the characters up with the windows and doors and apertures based on the view through the SLR. This is kind of how it looks:

Initially, I thought I’d use a lot of long shots where you could see everyone going about their business, but actually you can’t see what individual characters are doing in these wide shots, so I only used that in the “teardrop theatre” scene. For all the other scenes, I relied on close ups, which meant I could cheat a lot more – I didn’t have to get everything lined up or scaled correctly in After Effects, I could do a lot of that afterwards by moving around and rescaling the QuickTime videos. As long as the close up was framed correctly, the rest could go to hell.

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(I note in passing: my inspiration for a lot of these techniques, the McGuires, do get everything lined up correctly because they use a lot of long shots, and/or the work is meant to be performed live. Whether they do this by trial and error or mathematical formulae, I have no idea. My sets are relatively small and have a lot of depth relative to their size, and as I’ve said before, I’m not as good as the McGuires.)

After I’d got the various shots of the set, I layered and cross-faded them in Final Cut (Express) – this seemed a bit more happy to give me real-time previews so I could see how the fades worked when they were timed to the music. I used very long cross-fades because I’ve always liked long fades, maybe because that’s the speed my brain operates at – but for this song and presentation of this story, it seemed to work.

I think that’s about it. All I needed to make this video was a cheap SLR, a green sheet and a bit of space, a silhouette cameo, a mac with After Effects, Processing 1.5 and Final Cut Express, a data projector, an ikea picture frame and a load of card, the time to learn to use all of these things to a highly amateur standard, a professional filmmaker who could tell me what I was doing wrong and a Victorian engineer’s distant descendent.

When I put it like that, I don’t know what I was making such a fuss about.