An anthology book for the modern age: Martyn’s Tales of the Bloody Stupid

I’m kicking around the idea of writing a series of short stories, all of them rather silly, but all fantastical in scope.  Think of it as a sillier, stupider version of Black Mirror.  This is what I have so far.  Might need a proof reader if I take this further as, you’ll probably have guessed, I’m terrible at it.

Pandora’s Gogglebox

After the film and television industry destroys itself in the Hollywood Guild Wars of the 22nd century (in which the DGA, WGA, SGA and other acronyms ending in “GA” fought to a bloody death with the big film & TV studios which were all eventually owned by internet service providers and web hosting companies), a surviving computer technician working with advanced AI develops a simple black box (resplendent with a 200ft aerial) that connects to the cloud to generate any story the consumer wants to watch.  No actors, no directors, no writers – the whole thing is generated photo-realistically in the cloud and delivered to your black box (with it’s aerial which doubles up as a washing line).  No TV required (most electronic manufacturers – principally those that made TVs, radios and DVD/Blu-Ray players – were all blown up in the Hollywood Guild Wars) – you just touch the box and the images and sound are beamed into your brain!

Yet something sinister is happening behind the scenes back in Hollywood (version 3 – version 1 was Los Angeles, version 2 was Vancouver, Canada, and version 3 is now based in the remotest part of Siberia due to efficient tax breaks).

The Pied Pooper of Tower Hamlets

The year is 2045 and the human immune system is straining against new outbreaks of bugs and bacteria.  Antibiotics are now all but useless.  If you’re not wearing a mask when you’re out and about, and if you don’t wash your hands after going to the toilet, this is a federal crime.

An office worker at a company in Tower Hamlets that makes novelty toys for Christmas crackers accidentally forgets to wash his hands after using the toilet.  He’s immediately flagged up as a potential “chemical weapon” and has to go on the run away from the authorities.  The penalty for spreading germs – death!

Close Encounters of The Third Line Support

The latest and greatest operating system has just been released!  It’s got ALL the features that everybody wants and needs.  It puts Windows and MacOS to shame. And the best thing is, it’s free, and runs on ANYTHING.  But nobody knows anything about the company behind it all – the mysterious Fugnugget-Centauri Technologies, run by the enigmatic Mr.  Guff.

Archibald Codswallop, a student straight out of university, applies to work for Fugnugget-Centauri and lands a call centre job, only to discover that it’s going to be a very long commute to work each day – they’re based on a small planet in the Alpha Centauri star system.  When Archibald discovers the truth about Earth’s technology over the past 70 years or so, it will shock you.  SHOCK YOU!  *SHOCK*

The Faeries of the M4 Motorway Cafe

The Green Man walked this Earth long before us.  But he did so with his best buddy, Oberon, King of the Sidhe, who had just divorced his wife Titania and married his on-off girlfriend, Gaia.  The faerie kingdom wasn’t entirely happy with these events, being the stuck up so-and-sos that they are.  So a renegade group left the kingdom and set-up shop in the world of the humans.  What a shock it was! But over the centuries they slowly learned to live a human lifestyle – except as they were practically immortal with magical powers, they could pretty much do whatever they pleased.

But all this didn’t make Robin Goodfellow terribly happy.  The first couple of centuries were plenty fun, but as the ability to torment the humans came so easily to him, he grew bored.  So in the 1980s, he and his family decided to open a restaurant – in one of the service areas along the M4.  And all was good until one day, one of his fellow renegade fairies turned up with a very intriguing proposal – overthrow Oberon and the Faerie kingdom itself.

Harry Potter turns 20.. I reflect on my experiences on the movies..

There isn’t much to tell, to be honest.

I started working for The Moving Picture Company shortly after the first Harry Potter movie had finished.  The proceeds from that went into expanding the company’s offices through the appropriately named “Shower” entrance (since beforehand it really was a shower – the wall had just been knocked down to allow entry into the office beyond, and it would be used pretty extensively for all subsequent Harry Potter movies, until the great department reshuffle sometime around the 5 or 6th movie when rather than whole projects working together, the company was split up into departments based on disciplines).

It was all quite exciting of course, but WB was constantly throwing challenges my way as a production systems administrator, not least a VPN which initially was a PITA to get going again (our endpoint broke – the kit supplied was now obsolete and we didn’t have a decent VPN endpoint until I converted the Checkpoint Firewall to a Netscreen appliance).  Things improved immeasurably when Sohonet completely kitted out Leavesden Studios with a decent IT infrastructure (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had to make do with an ADSL line and motorcycle couriers for data transfer).

I did get to visit Leavesden Studios a few time to set-up new workstations and to firewall off our kit from other vendors.  It was lovely having a VFX editor there who knew the VLAN layout of the local switches, which made my knees and not-so-slim frame very happy.  Whilst out at Leavesden having finished work, my colleague and I got to enjoy a mushroom burger overlooking the Dursley’s home (and street) at one point.

Day to day stuff was the same old thing – nothing to report there.  You did get to see bits and bobs that were being worked on.  It was quite a thrill to see us working on the opening for one of the films – incorporating the famous WB shield – as well as an entire Quidditch match (that I believe we won from Sony Pictures Imageworks – quite a coup!).  Then there was the artwork – absolutely beautiful conceptual art that if you visit the Harry Potter Studios Tour, you’ll be able to see some of it.  The best things, however, were the life scale maquettes of the creatures – Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Scabbers the rat.  The werewolf’s head was detachable and was occasionally spotted being used as a hat in the production office.

I seem to recall that Voldemort’s rebirth was a difficult scene that caused quite a few arguments at one point.  It’s one of the highlights of the movies, in my opinion, but apparently getting there wasn’t so easy.  Computer imaging, in the eyes of the public, seems easy.  But it’s absolutely not.  It requires a HUGE amount of human labour to get what you see up on the screen.  People with mathematics degrees and physic degrees.  Artists.  Systems administrators.  Vendors.  It’s very labour intensive and costly.  So having to re-do stuff isn’t cheap (yet you’ll find in the VFX business that changes are expected within the bidding price, which ultimately knocks down the profit margin of the VFX company every time a client wants to make a change).

After leaving the VFX/film biz, I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It’s remarkable how much they’ve tidied the place up.  But it’s a definite recommendation of mine if you’ve loved the movies.  And I got to see the big castle “bigature” that I spotted whilst working on another movie – Wimbledon (starring Paul Bettany and Jon “Jungle Book/Iron Man” Favreau).  I was working at Shepperton Studios and spotted a sound stage with one of the doors open, and this massive big castle which looks suspiciously like Hogwarts.  Given I drove past two trailers for David Thewlis (Lupin, but can now be seen in the new Wonder Woman movie and the superb third season of Fargo) and the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), it had to be Hogwarts.  So being able to see Hogwarts castle up close at the Harry Potter Studio Tour was the highlight for me.

I’ve also been to Alnwick Castle back in April this year, which is where they shot the first broomstick flying lessons for the first Harry Potter movie (it also turns out, having seen the trailer, that it’s also where the new Transformers film was partly shot too).  And I’ve been inside the Elephant House where J. K. Rowling started writing the novels.  I also bumped into the Hogwarts Express at the Railway Museum at York Station (before they moved it down to Leavesden).

I’ve only ever been involved with Harry Potter in the tiniest way imaginable, but I am proud to have been part of it.  It helped pay my salary for a good few years (along with the other film productions, of course), so I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling for writing it, and for David Heyman for producing.

And I absolutely loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I sincerely look forward to seeing the next films in the series.

(No) Lights, Camera, Action!

Having read more articles about DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, premium compacts, the new iPhone 7 Plus bokeh (“portrait” or depth-of-field) feature – take a look here, I have decided that I’d go for a camera that I am already familiar with. The Sony RX100 mk IV – the next iteration from 2014’s mk III (and the one I had sold).

I’d have like to have gone for one of the Canon EOS systems – but the thought of buying more lenses and maintaining them, as well as carrying them with me, was offputting.  And then there’s the upkeep of both lens and body.  And I’m really not that great a photographer yet to fully comprehend f stops, apertures and shutter speeds.  So DSLR is wasted on me – for now.

What I have decided to do this time around is to buy a couple of books that will guide me through all the features of the RX100 mk IV, and teach me the basics of digital photography. I said last time that I wanted to get into photography, but for whatever reason (mainly procrastination, I suppose) it never happened.  But this forthcoming cruise is awakening the desire to really get to know my kit.  As I do with computers and technology.

I also plan a holiday back to the Scottish highlands sometime in the first or second quarter of next year – the perfect opportunity to really get to grips with the camera and any gubbins

One camera I was looking at was the Nikon Coolpix P900 – an absolute beast of a camera that offers 83x zoom that’s capable of close-ups of the moon.  THE MOON.  Take a look:

But ultimately I was looking a for a good balance of portability and image quality against cost.  I did look at some of the higher-end Sony cameras (although definitely not the £3k compact camera which spits out 43-megapixel images), alongside Fujifilm and Nikon.  But the RX100 series is just a great combination of everything.

Once I’m up and running, I’ll post some examples of my work regardless of however good or (more likely) bad it is.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell pick up a couple of BAFTAs

I thought to myself, after I attended the BFI screening of the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, that this show should pick up a good few BAFTAs – even Emmys – for the hard work that’s gone into it.  This was a really well made show.

The critics and viewers clearly agree with me!

Popular with critics and viewers alike, JS&MN is now officially an award winner.
Popular with critics and viewers alike, JS&MN is now officially an award winner.

Well, JS&MN picked up Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects as last night’s BAFTA TV Crafts ceremony.  Well done to David Roger, the production designer, and to Milk VFX for their magical visual effects (who were also nominated in the same VFX category for their work on Doctor Who).  Speaking of VFX, JS&MN is still up for a VES (Visual Effects Society) award – so fingers crossed there.

It’d have been nice if Peter Harness, who had put some seriously hard work into adapting what is a very complex book (not just the story, but having to deal with the substantial number of footnotes that expand on the story’s characters, places and situations) had picked up a BAFTA too.  And Toby Haynes should have picked up best director – again, because this isn’t an easy story to tell – or even to show.

On a separate note, it’s been nearly a year since JS&MN first came to our screens, taking over 10 years to get made ever since the rights were first bought by New Line Cinema.  It was well worth the wait – I’ve bought the Blu-Ray, the YouTube/Google Play edition, the iTunes edition AND the BBC Store edition so that if one service dies a horrible death, I’ll still have something to watch.

And on that bombshell: Inside the madness & genius of Top Gear

Until my employers Memset Ltd. moved to Dunsfold Aerodrome a few years ago, I had no interest in Top Gear whatsoever.  I still hadn’t learnt to drive, and the antics of Clarkson, Hammond and May were of no interest to me.

But then we moved into our big brick office, we were directly next to the Top Gear hangar-cum-studio and the Top Gear production offices and garages.  We were also overlooking the start of the Top Gear test track, with glorious views of Gambon corner.

Then they started filming.  VT pieces, then Star In A Reasonably Priced Car. Then I started watching the show because I was now very curious about the whole thing.  And you know what, it may be about cars, but as overall entertainment goes, it was very entertaining.  But I did, maybe, learn a few things about cars too.  If only I could learn to drive.

Watching the team film some of the crazier segments – including the “improved” ambulances (one of which was a Nuclear disposal vehicle) up close was fascinating.  It made you wonder what the actual hell are were doing for this week’s show (or one of the other weeks to allow for editing). They were clearly enjoying themselves but were completely professional at the same time.  Watching the BTS of Top Gear was a joy to behold, even if it was behind bars of a gated property.

As the shows continued to film, I continued to watch the shows as they went out.  All was well until one day Jeremy Clarkson decided to something completely stupid and caused the entire Top Gear format to go TITSUP (Total Inability To Support Usual Performance) and bring on the death of the much loved/hated show.

Which is why I bought Richard Porter’s marvellous book, And on that bombshell: Inside the madness and genius of Top Gear.  Richard was the script editor (amongst other things from time to time) during Clarkson et al. years, having also spent a little bit of time during the Pebble Mill era too.

The book is an amusing history of Top Gear throughout the ages – and I found myself chuckling a few times in public on my way to work as I read through the chaos of the specials, the mad antics of the trio during The Bollocks Hour (which is their downtime period before they start shooting VT links, etc. at the hangar-cum-studio at Dunsfold), and what they were doing with the number 14 Routemaster bus  (currently parked in the TG hangar – I see it every day) as a potential item, and as a party bus for the team after a particularly good season end.

Interestingly, Porter has quite a few good things to say about Matt LeBlanc, who has become one of the six presenters of the new, new, new Chris Evans fronted Top Gear.  All signs indicate that the new, new, new Chris Evans Top Gear will still be filmed at Dunsfold from what I’ve seen (after all, why change that if you’re going to change everything else).  Hopefully they will keep the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car – but then again, maybe they won’t.

Now I’ve finished the book, I’ve moved onto Perry McCarthy’s autobiography, Flat Out Broke: The Original Stig. Perry was the very first Stig (dressed all in black), and way before my time of watching Top Gear. I’ve not far in, but already enjoying McCarthy’s good humour and ability to tell a good story.

In other news – third driving lesson went well.  Didn’t get too horrendously confused with lane changing and signalling during roundabouts.  Managed with the three lane madness of Guildford’s one way system too.  So things are moving forwards quite nicely…