Archive for the ‘stories’ Tag

The Story 2019 – the first decade

On Friday I went to my ninth The Story (I was working abroad one year and reluctantly had to pass on my ticket (though at least it found a good home with Jörg Tittel, producer of the forthcoming Brexit comedy short Nyet) ). It is an annual day-long conference/gathering focused on stories and storytelling – the only such event I go to religiously every year as it is unfailingly a source of inspiration, being a rich mix cutting across mediums and platforms, usually with a good sprinkling of digital. It was initiated by Matt Locke of Storythings when he was working with me at Channel 4, so I was able to get in on the ground floor.
I spoke at The Story No. 9 to introduce a documentary inspired by The Story No. 8 – director Victoria Mapplebeck showed her first smartphone doc at No. 8 and I commissioned a second one, Missed Call, for Real Stories, which was just coming out of the edit at the time of last year’s The Story where we played a teaser clip. So an organically Story project.
This 10th edition had the familiar alchemy, a range of story forms and storytellers which complemented one another beautifully.
2008 / A Gathering Space / Scotland at Venice Biennale of Architecture - curated by Patricia Fleming

2008 / A Gathering Space / Scotland at Venice Biennale of Architecture – curated by Patricia Fleming

First up this year was curator Patricia Fleming, the driving force of the Fuse initiative in Glasgow in the 90s which connected and supported over 500 visual artists, including a good smattering of Turner Prize winners such as Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce. Patricia is evidently a master of putting empty buildings to constructive use and collaborating not only with the artists but also with the suits, including developers and the suity end of the architect scale.
11-11-memories-retold game still

11/11 Memories Retold

Next up was a Creative Director at Aardman Animation, Finbar Hawkins. He’s been with the Interactive team for the last five years and was one of the prime-movers behind the First World War game 11/11 Memories Retold. I worked with that very talented team at Aardman about a decade ago on an animation hub called 4mations, in a team with the then Channel 4 Arts Commissioning Editor Jan Younghusband and animation veteran Camilla Deakin of Lupus Films. Finbar gave a detailed walk-through of the process of creating the game and the thinking behind many of the creative decisions. The decision to reject proposed Vorticist/Paul Nash-style imagery in favour of Impressionist style and palette was an interesting one – the game does look beautiful [Note to self (inspired by Finbar’s talk): go see the Bonnard exhibition currently showing at Tate Modern].
Morph aardman animation

Keeping it thumby

Particularly interesting was the story structure section where Finbar described how the two writers had to impose structure on the narrative when they were brought on-board. Also the focus on meaningful choices in the game which impact on the story/editorial as the underpinning of the interactivity really spoke to me – much the same principle as informed the multiplatform projects I led at Channel 4. I loved the use of animal characters to provide other perspectives – a cat for exploring, especially confined spaces, and a pigeon for overhead views. But most of all I loved an imperative phrase quoted from Aardman main man Nick Park: “Keep it thumby”  – i.e. not too smooth, retaining the feel of the human creative touch.
on guard world war one postcard august 1914
The narrative of the game was based on letters home from the front. It’s a subject I’ve been immersing myself in recently through found postcards like this one and the one above. Found stories was at the heart of the next session, the highlight of the day for me because of that shared interest, a fabulous presentation by Brooklyn-based multimedia immersive artist Alison Kobayashi. As soon as she showed her collection of old ansaphones with their unerased tapes – in other words, treasure trove of found audio stories – she had me hooked. Then her mention of her collection of eBay-acquired Black & White photos of rainbows was cherry on the cake. The combination of found narrative, collecting and surreal humour is 100% my bag.
Say Something Bunny at UNDO Project Space

Say Something Bunny at UNDO Project Space

The meat of her talk was about her 6-years-in-the-making Say Something Bunny project – a live participative performance centred on a ‘wire recorder’ found recording from 1952. The wire recorder was a short-lived recording device through which sound was recorded on a spool of wire. The performance derived from the recording Alison acquired of a New York family playing with their new machine – singing, kvetching, teasing, joking – involves an audience of 25 seated in the round. To make things even more rich, the found audio is a palimpsest with an old radio show previously recorded bleeding through onto the overdub.
missed call research in film award 2018

Scion of The Story

Missed Call (mentioned near the beginning) recently won a Research in Film Award of which we were all very proud as research is rarely put in the spotlight. Research and Deep Listening is the beating heart of Say Something Bunny. It highlights Connections and Serendipity which are core to Simple Pleasures Part 4, being core to Creative Thinking and Innovation.
I had a serendipitous encounter with Alison in a nearby Korean restaurant at lunchtime after her session and will follow her work closely henceforth as I felt we fish in the same waters in the same spirit.
Alison Kobayashi at the story 2019 conway hall london say something bunny

Alison Kobayashi being true to herself

Alison spoke about how important it is to…
alison kobayashi at the story 2019
This was a theme echoed by comedy writing partners Joel Morris & Jason Hazeley – veterans of Viz and Charlie Brooker telly stuff (incl. Philomena Cunk) as well as the wags behind the adult Ladybird Books (like the one I was given by my other half at Christmas: ‘How It Works’ the Husband) – in their closing session (slight time warp here).
How it Works: The Husband

How it Works: The Husband

Their talk about Big Laughs in Small Spaces analysed the art of ultra-short stories and jokes. Like Alison, they highlighted the role of the audience in filling out the spaces and used this story to illustrate their point:
Joel Morris & Jason Hazeley at The Story 2019 conway hall london
Seemingly, although often attributed to Hemingway, it dates from some less famous source in 1906. It is a great example of a story that bursts into bloom as soon as it touches your imagination like one of those Japanese paper flowers hitting water.
chalk_outline bullets cartridges
Joel summarised short jokes as “the chalk outline & spent cartridges” – all that’s needed to set off the audience’s imaginations and creativity.
Knights Of founders Aimée Felone and David Stevens

A sparky double act: Knights Of founders Aimée Felone and David Stevens

A lovely touch of dynamic, young entrepreneurial creativity showed up in the form of hot-off-the-press new publishing venture Knights Of. Aimée Felone and David Stevens have launched their enterprise from a pop-up in Brixton followed by a crowd-funding campaign which attracted the attention of some of the big boys, including Penguin who match-funded their fundraising efforts. Their enthusiasm and energy was infectious.
Videogames- Design : Play : Disrupt Victoria and Albert Museum, London
As was curator Marie Foulston’s for all things video game, including her Wild Rumpus Collective pioneering new ways to bring games to public spaces and in particular her exhibition at the V&A (which closed today after a six-month run, though it is moving on to V&A Dundee) Design/Play/Disrupt. It strives to present the video game as a design object with an associated design process. She used a glittering quote from Frank Lantz
Games are operas made out of bridges
to capture the combination of artistic emotion and technical craft. I heard someone else today use the phrase “poetry and pipes” to describe the same concept (but I’m darned if I can recall who it was talking about exactly what).
It was great to see physical notebooks as design artefacts. I’m a great believer in notebooks and in pencils. There’s no digital way of reproducing quite the thumbiness of these tools.
Spider-man- Into the Spider-verse 

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verseMore gorgeous colours

Bringing some Hollywood glam to the afternoon Justin K Thompson Production Designer of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse talked us through the making of the animated movie, which may well win the Oscar as I am writing this post (having already won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA, for which I voted it), using fascinating layered moving picture illustrations to show how shots and sequences were conceived and built up. I was particularly taken by the colour palette and mood board illustrations and the ‘colour script’ which captures the colour and lighting across the whole movie. Justin, with whom I had a brief chat on leaving Conway Hall, captured the driving concern to get back the tactile quality into animation, the qualities which made us fall in love with comic books, the line work, the imperfect printing – in other words, Nick Park’s thumby qualities which bring the humanity to animation and other artistic disciplines.
Justin highlighted a couple of key aspects of creativity – the permission to try & fail (in an intelligent, progressive way) and perhaps above all the ludic quality (which Marie Foulston also touched on) – the best creative projects are made fun as the team are empowered to try new things.
Justin K Thompson Production Designer of Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse 
For pure speaking-verve, it was hard to beat the very engaging Head of Engagement at the Museum of London Sara Wajid. She brought us back in touch with those childhood experiences of museums as playgrounds (again that ludic dimension of the creative experience).  Having highlighted the nadir of “book on the wall” museum experiences (I have a strong fairly recent memory of that in the British Museum where my MA had not equipped me with the wherewithal to understand the labels by the permanent exhibits). Sara drew attention to the quality of “bounce” – the word of the day – gritty energy to debate and then get shit done. She advocated bringing the vibe and dynamics of the TV comedy writers’ room to museum design and curation. She discussed all this in the frame of diversity – one of the first talks on that dimension of creative enterprise I’ve heard that captured the true energy and advantage of mixing things up, of bringing together talents and ways of thinking from all quarters.
Museum of London moves to Smithfield Market

New Museum of London space in old Smithfield market

She gave us a sneaky peak of the new Museum of London space in Smithfield market. Conway Hall, the home of The Story, is another great London space. It opened in 1929 as the base of what is considered the oldest surviving free-thought organisation in the world, established on 14th February 1793, 226 years to the week before The Story No.10. (My first visit to the Hall was a creative one – my first commissioned photo shoot, around 1987 – to photograph Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone for Sinn Fein’s An Phoblacht magazine.) With its legend (one of Shakey’s, from Hamlet)
To Thine Own Self Be True
high above the speakers, it is the perfect reflective, ethical, free-thinking place to learn from and delight in stories.
Conway Hall to thine own self be true hamlet
***
Previous The Story posts (with pics) include:
2014
2012
2010

The Fetishisation of Storytelling

I’ve noticed the increasing fetishisation of the terms ‘storytelling’ and ‘stories’ in the last couple of years, especially in commercial media. Everyone’s a storyteller now, even if your ‘story’ is about baked beans. Many indie producers’ websites single out skill in storytelling as their USP. When I see the word “storytelling” now I view it with scepticism and take a moment to assess if what’s being said is meaningful or fashionable hype.

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the Thought for The Day was about the need to rehabilitate the children of Isis extremists by introducing them to new stories. They have lost their innocence to one perverted story.

On a brighter note, today was a good day for being reminded the rich weave of stories that thread through daily life. My day began chatting to a taxi driver cum news cameraman, half-Korean half-Russian, born in the bit of Russia nearest Alaska; grew up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; studied in St Petersburg; moved to Helsinki sixteen years ago. It ended chatting to a roast chestnut seller from Innsbruck. I’ve spent a total of €12 in a week in Helsinki – on two bags of chestnuts.

Between these bookends I received this text exchange – ‘Osama Loves’ is a multiplatform documentary project I commissioned a few years ago at Channel 4, some months before the Big Bad O, ObL, got terminated.

text exchange about osama loves

Great story…

 

channel 4 osama loves website screenshot detail

detail from ‘Osama Loves’ website

Media Technology & Stories

I’m a bit wary of the fetishisation of ‘Story-telling’ in recent years, but nonetheless I really like this quotation recounted by Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman in his entertaining volume  ‘Which Lie Did I Tell? (More adventures in the screen trade)’.

William Goldman book  'Which Lie Did I Tell? ( More adventures in the screen trade)'.

The words come from legendary literary agent Evarts Ziegler (who acted for many top screenwriters) – he was told (back in the 70s) that technology was going to change everything about Hollywood. His response was… 

I don’t care what you say. I don’t care if your fucking technology figures out a way how to beam movies from the moon directly into our brains. People are still going to have to tell good stories.

 

 

4 things I learnt from The Story

tim wright and rob bevan

Tim Wright tests his sense of balance

Today I spent at the excellent The Story conference at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, organised by my fellow Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, Matt Locke (a labour of love on his part). The theme was stories and story-telling – little theory, no money talk, just narrative and tales about tales. So what I learnt…

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

2) The best comic books have a layer of history, a layer of mythology and a layer of contemporary relevance as evinced by Sydney Padua‘s Lovelace & Babbidge. She showed the development of  their new adventure Vs The Organist which combines Victoriana with Orpheus & Eurydice with proto-geekage. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a similar combo, a bit more literary, and it’s top of the tree for me. (Talking of trees, the frames in the new story where a band of monkeys break into Babbidge’s office and drag him off to the underworld gave me a sudden flashback to a game we played as children with plastic monkeys, something I hadn’t thought of for decades- there’s so much buried in these memories and imaginations of ours, and connection, especially surprising connection, is the key to creativity.)

3) The best stories combine profound emotion and humour. My old friend and colleague Tim Wright stole the show with his Harrison Fraud story. It’s about a mad time when he tried to convince his business/creative partner, Rob Bevan, that Harrison Ford wanted to work with them. The comic story of facial hair and faked letters was punctuated with insights into Tim’s marital struggles, recounted with an unflinching honesty. That willingness to confront difficult themes head on – as demonstrated equally in Tim’s wonderful In Search of Oldton project which has its roots in his father’s tragic death – is what raises his stories to special heights. Tim and I worked together on the writing of MindGym back in 1996, a game about creativity, Rob worked on it too programming and designing  – it was a landmark project for me, drawing me into the world of non-linear story-telling and interactivity, and I learned a wealth from Tim’s methodical approach to scripting. I remember sitting with Tim in a bar in Clapham Old Town, asserting my dedication to film-making and that I’d be giving up this interactive thing before too long, not really my bag. 14 years down the line and here I still am.

4) The best fiction is less strange than truth. The day was rounded off in style by a besuited David Hepworth, he of The Word and Smash Hits, who told a lovely circular tale of the passage of wisdom from father to son to grandson via a bespoke tailor’s in the Yorkshire village he grew up in. It involved the coincidence of a suit being made for him unknowingly by the tailor who had made his father’s suits. It reminded me of my wedding ring. I wear two rings – the wedding ring my wife gave me in the top O of the OXO Tower by the Thames when the O X and O were all floor-to-ceiling windows and the tower was still a building site, and a plain silver ring I bought from a stall in Camden market several years before. To cut a long Irish story short it turned out that the posh jeweler in Gabriel’s Wharf and the Camden stall holder were one and the same person from Inishowen in Donegal (where my wedding ended, 60 miles down the road from its start point in Derry). This stranger than fiction coincidence came to light one day when I was chucking out old chequebook stubs and I found the £10 cheque I’d bought the silver ring with. Recently I’ve had another such experience where I came across the same person (Pippa Harris of Neal St Films, Sam Mendes’ business partner) through two totally different routes – one starting off in a novel I was reading, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson; the other through judging the RTS Single Drama Award for work – the true-life story weaving through all manner of themes from Rupert Brooke to Wikipedia. It’s coincidences and dynamics like those that make life worth living.

I had a quick chat with David Hepworth on the way out about the merits of The Word podcast (very good for jogging I said, great for repetitive domestic tasks he countered) – it’s the very best on the Web, a chat with friends over the kitchen table. Leaving the period lobby, it felt great to have spent the day in Conway Hall with its radical, left-wing vibe. It was here that I took my first published photograph – one of  Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone that appeared in An Phoblacht, the Irish Republican newspaper. But that’s another story…

barrel of monkeys

Monkeys test your sense of balance

We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

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