Archive for Nigel Smith

The Brain is Plastic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2008 by dcairns

Edinburgh Book Festival, which takes over Charlotte Square Gardens and runs concurrently with most of the other Edinburgh festivals, always sounds more exciting to me than it is. When I get there, I’m always reminded that all it is, is a small-ish bookshop, a coffee shop and some tents where talks happen.

Fortunately, we had tickets for a talk, by Dr. Ben Goldacre who writes the Bad Science column for The Guardian newspaper, and now this book. Unfortunately, he missed his train.

So we began with what a lot of people may have seen as the support act, David McFarland, who has a book, Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds. He turned out to be a wry and engaging speaker.

Then Goldacre arrived at last, and it was sort of like a lecture by A.J.P. Taylor being interrupted by a set from the Rolling Stones. Goldacre’s charisma and speed of delivery made him an adrenalin jolt after the slow-burn wit of McFarland. Not that he “blew him away”, just that the change of pace was refreshing.

Goldacre writes about how most science stories in the press are completely bogus. Real and interesting and important press releases are ignored while the media goes after fake scare stories, and the Daily Mail pursues its “Sysiphean task of dividing all the objects in the world into those which cause cancer and those which cure cancer.” Goldacre is adept at channelling his outrage at this into humour. He’s also devilishly handsome. Technically a nerd, but if he was cast in a TV show as a nerd you’d just  say, “Ah, they just got a handsome guy and gave him comedy hair.” Fiona has decided to add him to her roster of “husbands”.

Goldacre WAS in fact cast in a BBC3 popular science show, but deliberately scuttled the ship before it aired, because they wanted to not only dumb down and falsify the science, but obliterate the ethics. “I don’t know why they thought *I* was the guy to do that show for them,” he observed. TV science is in as bad a shape as newspaper science, mainly because the majority of TV makers don’t care, it seems to me. They care about having TV careers, whereas, being a doctor, Goldacre doesn’t need to worry about that. Do they care about good television? Perhaps, but only in the sense of that phrase: “Did you see Oliver Reed drunkenly vomiting a chair leg through Clive James’ skull? That was brilliant television.” At some point the idea that television should be a degrading freakshow took hold.

Meanwhile, questions were asked, and Goldacre discussed the giant evils of Big Pharma and the smaller-but-still-giant evils of alternative health scam artists, and harked back to fifty years ago. At this point David McFarland got the biggest laugh of the event:

“Fifty years ago, my father was a doctor. The drugs companies used to send him all these little samples. I asked him what he did with all these little samples. He said, ‘Well, they’re all more or less Vaseline, so I just put ’em in my hair.'”

After the event we swung by a charity book sale we’d heard about from friend Nicola of the Edinburgh Film Guild (the world’s oldest running Film Society, though I should stress than back in the ’30s they had to get by without Nicola). No film books, but some science ones. I grabbed, and am enjoying, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Two Incredible Stories:

Scientist Paul Bach-y-Rita invented a machine in the ’60s that let blind people see. They sat in a chair and operated a huge video camera. The camera was attached to a contraption on their back that stimulated their skin. The little vibrators would wobble away in places on the back corresponding to where the camera image was dark and held still for the light bits. Eventually the patient could “see” the camera image with their back, the way the victim of the torture device in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony can “read” the name of the crime being carved onto his body. But nicer.

“‘Jigamy’? What the hell is ‘jigamy’?”

“That’s my wife! She’s not wearing her glasses. She’s holding a bunch of flowers,” the blind people would say. Only this time, they’d be right.

The same Bach-Y-Rita guy helped out when a woman lost all her sense of balance after an overlong bout of cheap antibiotics. she felt like she was falling, all the time. Even when she did fall down, and was on the floor, she still felt like she was falling. Can you imagine how horrible that must be?

Victims of this disorder are known as wobblers, but you MUSTN’T LAUGH.

Bach-Y-Rita fixed her up with a big sci-fi helmet that could tell which way was up (I’m guessing spirit levels), wired to a patch that sat on her tongue (the tongue is incredibly sensitive because unlike most of the rest of us, it isn’t covered with a layer of dead skin). The tongue pad could be electrically stimulated in different areas, depending on where the patient’s head was. This replaced her faulty inner ear apparatus… with her tongue.

Not only could she now walk about, hop, and dance while wearing this preposterous contraption, but there was a short residual effect when she took it off. When she wore the device longer, the residual effect lasted MUCH longer. After a year of treatment, she is no longer a wobbler.

This is all just from chapter one… the book details how brain function may not be as fixed as has been thought. “The brain is plastic.” 

After the book sale, we dropped by producer Nigel Smith’s for a film meeting — which was really encouraging. A reader had looked over our current project, and loved it. This gave the whole thing a pretty upbeat feel, and we were able to make some positive plans for moving forward. Which reminds me, I have to write some director’s notes for the film.

I’ll shut up now.

Rocky Road

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2008 by dcairns

Shiny Happy People 

Those who know me — happy few! — will aver that in one thing I am something of an absolutist. I absolutely don’t like depressing Scottish realist films. My producer and friend Nigel Smith is even more adamantly of this opinion, and has dubbed the genre “miserabilism”, a term which has since CAUGHT ON and been used in no less an organ than Sight & Sound. Nigel further categorises these films as the “piss in a milk bottle and sling it at yer granny” school of filmmaking, quotes the Johnny Rotten line “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery,” and suggests that the ultimate message about the Scottish people promoted by miserabilism is “we are victims and we live in a terrible place.” While perhaps being more moderate in my views, I don’t strongly disagree with any of this pithy assessment. But then, maybe my moderation is due to the fact that unlike Nigel I generally avoid seeing any of these films if I possibly can.

But no more! Since my great good friends Colin McLaren and Morag McKinnon have embarked on their feature film debut ROUNDING UP DONKEYS (Morag actually has a no-budget feature to her name already, but she’s been keeping quiet about that), and since said extravaganza is a follow-up of sorts to the award-winning RED ROAD, and since RR seems to epitomise many of the attributes associated with miserabilism (unhappy working-class characters, tragic backstories, unpleasant sex scenes) … in short, since all of that, I feel I’m going to have to bloody watch RED ROAD.

I’m treating this as a kind of scientific experiment. Each day for a week I’m going to run a bit of the movie but if, after a bit, I can no longer stand the skull-crushing depression, I’ll stop it, watch something cheerful, and resume the next day. Now, I might actually become HOOKED and forget my aversion to this kind of entertainment and watch the whole thing at once — if so, I solemnly vow to let you know how it went down. On the other hand, the sheer Scottishness might be too much for me almost at once, but I figure that even if I can only manage fifteen minutes at a time I’ll have the thing well and truly watched inside of a week. And I can send despatches from the front line along the way.


If I do end up fragmenting the film thusly, I’d have to admit that’s not an ideal viewing experience of the kind the makers had in mind, so you can make allowances accordingly. On the other hand, I HAVE screened some films I respect and, in a sense, enjoy, in just that way. I found Bob Fosse’s STAR 80 so horrific, and Eric Roberts’ performance in it so skin-crawlingly unpleasant, that I had to keep stopping the tape every ten minutes so I could prance around the room clawing the imaginary ants from my body. Despite this, my admiration for the film is enormous, and not just because it’s the only film, to my knowledge, photographed by Sven Nykvist to begin with a close-up on a portrait of Telly Savalas.


So — I will begin my assault on the north face of RED ROAD immediately, and will be posting regular updates on my progress to its rugged and inaccessible summit.

Wish me luck.

Anatomy of a Gag

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2008 by dcairns

do it!

I’ve linked to my short film, CRY FOR BOBO, before, but the YouTube version doesn’t really do justice to Scott Ward’s luminous photography, or the costume designs of Ali Mitchell and her team. Dissecting a few scenes in frame grabs gives me the chance to write some more about it and also show off how nice it looks (but even nicer in 35mm, obviously).

This is the jail-break scene. We start with a pleasingly dull establishing shot.

I sort of like the greyness. There’s something nice about a shot that’s sort of black-and-white-in-colour, especially if you rupture that by injecting something bright-hued. It’s the whole aesthetic of William Wellman’s frenzied allegorical melodrama TRACK OF THE CAT. Martin Scorsese used the idea for the music video section of BAD, his short Michael Jackson film (not the greatest moment of Scorsese’s career, but an important move in re-establishing him as a commercially viable force).

We’re also going for a Keatonesque flatness in the framing: the edge of the wall runs exactly parallel to the top and bottom edge of frame, like a kid’s drawing. I first noticed this simple framing approach in Richard Lester films, and discovered later it came from Buster Keaton. In this film we apply a bit of Kubrickian symmetry to it as well, sometimes.

The Wall

We had a huge discussion about what to call the clown prison. It turns out there just isn’t a good pun out there. We considered Clownschwitz and Clownditz, but they were too heavy, and the wrong kind of prison. Luke, the props guy, came up with the best suggestion. In the film you don’t really have time to read it anyway.

(If anybody can suggest anything better, I’ll digitally add it in when I become George Lucas.)

Anyway, Coco, the more cunning of our two clown protags, has built a cannon in the prison workshop. (When challenged about this, he pretends it’s an ashtray.) There’s a BOOM!


— and a tiny figure flies over the wall. This is a Masters of the Universe doll belonging to our production designer, Tom Clay, who has a substantial collection of action figures and robots. The costume department went crazy dressing the figurine up as Coco, down to the last detail, even though I assured them it would only be glimpsed for a second.

The wall is only about five feet high. The design department built several, for reasons that will become clear.


After the doll falls out of the bottom of frame, Coco rises up and dusts himself off. (His cigar has been crushed by the fall.)

It’s a traditional false perspective effect. No special effects involved, it’s all in-camera. The miniature wall is right behind Coco, balanced on top of a short stone wall to give it extra height. You can just see some real tree branches at top left, which add a little more “reality”.

Creating the illusion that Coco came over the wall is mainly down to timing: he stands up just a second after the doll’s exit. It’s a balance between making it clear what’s meant to be happening, while making it obviously fake-looking.

Coco turns to the wall and there’s another cannon blast on the soundtrack: Bobo is following Coco.


A second doll smashes through the wall. This is on a wire fed through the part of the wall where the fake brickwork has been prepared. That’s why we needed several walls. I think we had five but only used two or three.

We had quite a few outtakes where the first doll failed to clear the wall. And there’s one where the second doll just hits the wall on the other side, you see the wall bulge, and that’s it. The Bobo doll was spreadeagled flat against the wall, just like when Wile E Coyote swings into a cliff face.

This isn’t the perfect take: on this one, the doll kind of PAUSED on its path through the wall, held up by the “brickwork”. In the end I liked that better than the smoother take we did next. Dubbing an “Argh!” onto the impact helped too.

(In the great single-shot heist scene in THE KILLERS, director Robert Siodmak ended up using the first complete take, the one where everything went wrong — it looked much more real.)

I first imagined this as a full-scale wall, with obvious dummiesbeing slung about. Tom was happy to build a strip of full-sized wall in between two existing walls, but we couldn’t find a set-up where we could do that. He suggested miniatures, and I said okay, as long as we could still do it in one shot… We practiced with a set wall and a doll and a camcorder and me standing up in the foreground. Everybody said “Naw, that doesn’t work.” We tried some kind of variation with the timing, and that was worse. Then I said, “Let’s watch the first version again.” This time we all loved it. Weird.

Now Bobo stands up in the foreground, holding one of the bricks.

The Hole in the Wall Gang

The movie is part of a scheme called Tartan Shorts, which was in its tenth year, and had most often concentrated on a kind of social realist working class miserabilism. It felt good to be breaking out of that prison. Scott, the cinematographer turned to me after this and said, “I think we just did the best shot ever in a Tartan Short,” which pleased me no end. I think Scott did more beautiful work eslewhere in the film, but the idea here is so mad, I’m proud we did it.

We were filming in a children’s playground, since it provided enough space to shoot without distracting buildings in the background. So throughout the shot we had an audience of little kids, asking the usual irksome questions: “Is this going to be on telly?”

A tiny four-year-old asked a more intelligent one: “Why did the big clown go like that?” and she made a dusting motion, like Coco had done.

“Because he had come over the wall,” I said.

She looked at my like I was an idiot. “No, the big clown.”

I think I passed the question onto one of my assistant directors.

Super-costumier Ali snapped this additional false perspective shot as we were filming. I’m in the foreground wearing a reject clown costume (the stripes were too small).

Three Fugitives

At the premier, the audience went wild for this scene. A nice lady who works at the funding body, Scottish Screen, said to me, “I don’t know how you did that.” So I proceeded to explain it. She smiled and said, “I don’t know how you did that,” at which point I realised she didn’t CARE how we did it, she just liked it.

I ought to be content with that.