Instantaneous Alchemy

East Blean Woods, 28th April 2020

After another rather formless ‘lock-down day’, we broke cover and went to the woods for a late afternoon trip to see the bluebells and effervescent green froth of early Spring. The rain was soft, likewise the light, and every time I stopped to take a photograph, my glasses fogged and I couldn’t really see what I was doing or where I was putting the focus. The top image is a case-in-point! (The image below is what I was aiming for).

Ultimately I was rather thrilled by all the in-camera impressionism, but don’t quite have the brass neck to come on here and tell you it was all part of some considered visual strategy. It was, in fact, a combination of condensation and short-sightedness but there’s nothing quite like opening up an image on your computer to discover the camera has accomplished a bit of instantaneous alchemy, turning lead into gold.

This next image was taken in a field at the edge of the woods, an expanse of grasses silvered with rain, with all those dark little darts nodding in the breeze. It was spectacular in a very demure and monochromatic way.

A few short feet from the silvered field there was a very forlorn, even sinister-seeming pond of jet black stagnant water. It had this silken, milky scum floating on its surface. Not very promising at all. In fact, I kept glancing around looking for the likes of Donald Pleasence in his robes and hood. Rain drops were pattering into the sluggish water and I fired off a few snaps in an effort to capture their patterns of concentric circles. In the viewfinder, the resulting images didn’t look very promising, but a couple of them surprised me. I know I’m looking at the reflections of the tree canopy on the scummy, sluggish surface of a rather smelly pond stippled by the rain, but they will keep morphing into old upside-down oil paintings…

The Kick About is kicking off.

In my previous incarnation as a course leader, it was not unusual for our creative community of students, staff and alumni to come together in the service of some great big extra-curricular project. We’d all have our own work to do and existing deadlines to meet, but somehow the prospect of doing something together – and doing something non-mandatory – just put a welcome spring in our step. Many of the projects of which I’m most proud professionally originated from just these kinds of playful collective origins. There is nothing more exciting than bringing a bunch of creative individuals together and just seeing what happens. In my experience ‘what happens’ is always something unexpected and valuable, oak trees from acorns and all that.

With this in mind, and with Covid-19 producing strange new peaks and troughs in our respective working lives, I wanted to start something here at Red’s Kingdom by inviting a bunch of talented artists* from different disciplines to come together for a kick about in the park. Last night, the invite below was sent out and the challenge excepted!

Watch this space!

*It’s early days, but maybe the Kick About will gather a-pace? If anyone else fancies a run-around, get in touch.

Bud Burst

Allium jesdianum, April 27th 2020

If Willy Wonka was a garden designer, his signature plant would likely be the allium. They’re floral lollipops, perfectly perpendicular and gloriously globose.

We’ve got loads in our very small garden and its pretty much bud burst time. In a short matter of days it will be as if dozens of small purple explosions have gone off bang above the borders and continue to float there in gentle suspension. Magical.

Imposter With A Penknife

Who was it who said a consultant is someone who steals your watch just before they tell you the time?

‘Consultant’ is not a job title I ever really understood, but to hear some people talk, you could be mistaken for thinking consultants were the shadow lords of the workforce, moving among us in purposefully opaque and mysterious ways, ominous portents of incipient restructures and slick purveyors of flash-bang ideas guaranteed to rile incumbent staff whose own expertise and experience they marginalise and appropriate.

If you were to visit the very grown-up zone of my Linkedin profile, you’ll see me described currently as a ‘communications consultant’ for Amnesty International. Not long ago, I finished a sizeable chunk of work for the organisation and I’m working on another project for them right now.

‘Communications Consultant’ is one of those job titles that needs de-mystifying. As titles go, it manages to sounds both super-serious and a bit Mickey Mouse. Hand-on-heart, when I started in the role back in November 2019, I didn’t understand the job title either, I just hoped I’d be able to figure it out and make a decent fist of it.

In common with most non-sociopaths, imposter-syndrome is a low-level condition from which I suffer daily to a greater or lesser degree. On bad days, I’m expecting to be found out for the terrible old fraud that I am, judged wanting by all those really creative people out there living their best lives. On good days, I just second-guess myself in various sensible ways that encourage me to keep trying to make the best work I can.

When I first set foot in the door at Amnesty International as a freshly-minted ‘comms consultant’, my imposter syndrome was pretty much all the way through the roof. What the bloody hell was I doing here, I worried secretly, even as I smiled, shook hands and tried to remember everyone’s names. Only a few months before, I was course leading a three year degree in animation, striding about campus scruffily and waxing lyrically about The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Brothers Quay. Now, I was about to engage in a diagnostic review of one of Amnesty’s big fund-raising programmes, seeking to identify effective ways by which fundraisers might communicate to their donors as engagingly as possible. As I stared glassily at my new work-station, I’d never felt less-prepared or more convinced of my obvious and acute unsuitability for the work I was about to undertake…

That this blog post includes a bunch of rather swish-looking Amnesty-branded visuals tells you that, ultimately, this first freelance gig played out with a degree of success. Turns out all those largely enjoyable years spent with students trying to identify the most visual way of saying something were pretty useful after all – no, not just useful, essential. What also helps is surrounding yourself with other talented and trusted individuals. It’s one thing to discover you need a physics-defying multi-utensil Swiss Army Knife by which to encapsulate a complex programme of Human rights emergency reponse work, and quite another to bring such an impossible object into being. Fortunately, I was able to turn once more to my friend and long-term collaborator, Ethan Shilling, who worked as my technical director on Red & The Kingdom of Sound, Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans and Spectrogram. According to Ethan, after the rigors of bringing 1500 year old Roman pottery to life, manifesting an impossible penknife was actually a bit of a doddle. Clever git.

I’m a little comfier with the job title ‘consultant’ now. I see now that it is a job that requires a bit of imposter syndrome because of the evaluative ‘strangeness’ it opens up between you and the thing you’re looking at. You might say a consultant is truly the idiot in the room (I suspect many people would heartily agree!), but that is their value. They don’t know why things are done in a certain way, so they have to ask, and in the asking, they open up new enquiries and possibilities.

Rudely Furry Fronds

About a million years ago, I studied for a Royal Horticultural Society qualification in general plant and vegetable knowledge. I sat the exam, passed it, then promptly forgot the majority of what I’d learned.

That said, my enthusiasm for plants continues and this enthusiasm frequently takes the form of photographs, in which I seek to record all the strangeness and beauty going on under our noses.

I fear horticultural photography is a lot like the photographs people take of their own children – a source of endless fascination and gratification for the photographer, but much less interesting for everyone else! As I intend to feature plant photography here at Red’s Kingdom as a matter of routine, I apologise now to all those casual by-standers who couldn’t give a flying fig for photographs of figs, but, guys, before you zone out, just take a look at this improbably bewhiskered fern!

At time of writing, this Dryopteris wallichiana is unfurling its blackly hairy crosiers with near-unseemly haste. I sat this morning with my coffee watching it wave them at me like the twitchy antennae of an enormous moth. More accurately, the fern resembles a very large green tarantula engaged in the inelegant business of pulling the remainder of its fat black body out of the earth – or they’re snoozy caterpillars, the kind that would bring you out in a nasty rash if you were foolish enough to pick one up. These hirsute crosiers fill me with a delightful shudder of horror and incredulity. Surely they are part-vegetable and part-animal? When people who loathe their own pubic hair have nightmares, I suspect they’re dreaming of these rudely furry fronds in all their ticklish luxury…

I suppose this is why I’ll always disagree with the flower photography naysayers: I’m never just photographing a flower or similar in the hope of keeping prettiness or breaking the greetings card market. What I’m really doing is what I’m always doing – looking for routes out of the everyday in preference for sights more strange and otherworldly.

Red & The Chamber of Architects

The Viola District from Red & The Kingdom of Sound

Back in October 2019, Red & The Kingdom Of Sound was selected and screened as part of the Istanbul International Architecture and Urban Films Festival.

I submitted the animation to the festival on a whim. Nothing about this festival’s remit aligned with classical music or the visualisation of sound, and yet our ‘kingdom of sound’ did represent something of an architectural fantasia, what with its fifteen imaginary realms derived entirely from the structures of musical instruments. One of the guiding principles underpinning the commission of our animated adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was to diversify audiences for classical music, so when the Chamber of Architects (Istanbul Metropolitan Branch) agreed to include the film in their screening programme, I was very happy.

“Since its foundation in 1954, the Chamber of Architects has been endeavouring intensively in order to enhance architectural culture, protect historical heritage, and improve quality of life. In order to introduce a new aspect to such endeavours, the Chamber has been organizing an event named “Istanbul International Architecture and Urban Films Festival”. The event aims participation by anybody interested in that field, in particular the architects. The festival is scheduled as a part of “Architecture and Urban Festival” organized by Istanbul Metropolitan Branch of Chamber of Architects by virtue of the “World Architecture Day”, a day widely celebrated in the world in the first Monday of October every year.”

Selma Erdem, festival secretary, got in touch via email a few days ago to ask if Red & The Kingdom Of Sound could be shown again as part of the Chamber of Architects Istanbul Branch’s response to the COVID19 lock-down. Of the film’s original selection for an architecture-themed film festival, Selma has this to say, describing Red’s adventures in the kingdom of sound as a ‘a great explanation of the connection between time, space and sound.’ Of the decision to show it again as part of their COVID programming, Selma thought Red’s adventures would ‘give people hope and joy.’

What a satisfying thought, that on May 4th, people will be listening to Britten’s music while watching Red swim down into the dreamy depths of the Cello District or dodge the wrecking ball in the much-less relaxing Percussion District!

The ‘Tuba’ Palace from Red & The Kingdom of Sound
Inside the Tuba Palace from Red & The Kingdom of Sound
The Bassoon District from Red & The Kingdom of Sound

Imagining and making the architectural follies that feature in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound was no small creative feat and took a dedicated team many months to produce. Take a look at this short ‘making of’ for a glimpse behind the scenes.

Throwback Friday #1 Room II, Red Floor (2015)

Now I’ve done it. The problem with launching a blog, self-styled as a whirring hub of creative outputs, is the immediate pressure to populate it with an endless supply of whirring creative outputs…

One strategy for feeding this new monster of mine is to feature older stuff (and maybe some very old stuff) from my back catalogue in a weekly feature imaginatively entitled ‘Throwback Friday’. Who knows what I’ll be dragging up from the archives over the coming weeks and months? When I start posting photographs of myself as a child making pictures out of pasta shapes, someone will have to tell me enough is enough!

I’ll inaugurate this weekly feature by returning to a large empty dark room in an old French house. It’s August 2015, the rest of the house is asleep upstairs, and with a child’s fascination for unexplained phenomena, I’ve just set my camera up in the hope of capturing on film the manifestation of forces strange and remarkable…

Red Floor from the Room II series (2015)

When The Tides Went Down

Back in the early Summer of 2019, I was invited by friend and filmmaker, Jordan Buckner, to produce his short animated film, When The Tides Went Down, for Screen South and the BBC. Jordan and I have worked together previously on the live-synchronisation animations La creation du monde (2013) and Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2017) for ACT and ONE respectively, and Jordan’s //_sleeper for the BFI.

When When The Tides Went Down is broadcast on BBC4 on Sunday night at 10.55pm as part of a showcase of new animation by young directors, it will no doubt strike a peculiarly chilling note for audiences in light of our current circumstances. While Jordan’s haunting vision of a ruined England speaks to some unspecified extinction event triggered by climate change, it makes for unsettling viewing as we sit inside our houses contemplating the far-reaching effects of COVID19.

Filmmakers have been drawn time and again to imagining the end-of-days. When The Tides Went Down is an elegiac and ambiguous addition to the genre. Watching Jordan’s film again I was drawn to sound designer Nainita Desai’s use of the plaintive cry of the curlew; I was reminded how bird song has quickly become a key motif of our present predicament, how bird song has heightened our sensitivity to the emptiness of our streets and encourages us, however queasily, to imagine the peacefulness of a world without us.

When The Tides Went Down / BBC4 / Sunday 26th April / 10.55pm

“Keep Watching The Skies”

Here we go then.

It’s been a while, but here I am, returning to the blogging fold. I haven’t been returned to earth after an abduction by benevolent extra-terrestrials, but I have been away. As to what I’m going to show you on here I’m as yet uncertain, but share things I certainly shall.

The blog’s name, ‘Red’s Kingdom’, takes its name from Red & The Kingdom Of Sound – a particular creative project from a few year’s back which gave me the greatest pleasure to produce. Red himself was an adventurer and the titular kingdom a collection of different terrains characterised by other-worldly visuals, sensational music and larger-than-life storytelling.

If I can be said to have an ambition for this blog, it’s simply this: to build another inter-connected world of sights and sounds – however loosely connected! I’m going to be talking about projects old and new, and I’m hoping to invite some of the creative people I know and work with to feature as guest authors and artists. I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking a bit about the stuff I’m watching too and gathering in some of the writing I’ve published elsewhere.

In short, this blog will seek to be a coalition of elective creative activity – mine, and other people’s.

I’m very much looking forward to throwing open the door to Red’s Kingdom and inviting you to accompany me on my continuing adventures in sight and sound…

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977