There are a number of things I miss about my previous role working in higher education – and many things I do not.
One of the things I miss most about those days was my day-to-day proximity to other creatives, to their respective projects, and to their conversations about them. An average day would see dozens of discussions about storytelling, art direction, materials, research, conceptualisation, producton design, visual representation and promotion. Manifesting ‘something from nothing’ was always the business of the day, as we all worked together to get an idea ‘from script to screen’ or from 2D into 3D, from a dream of a thing to the thing itself. I know now how luxurious my old job was. Actually, I knew it then and never once took it for granted. It was life-affirming to be in the company of people who could first see things in their mind, and then develop those images into concrete, substantive outcomes – an act of magic and an act of faith.
Hardly surprising then I might have wanted some of that back, to work again with a diverse community of artists, to give a fair whack of my time and energy to making a space in which more of those conversations could take place. So it was I had the idea for The Kick-About, a blog-based creative challenge, in which creatives of all kinds were given the chance to make some new work in response to a fortnightly prompt – myself included. One year later, and we’ve just published Edition 26 of The Kick-About, a gathering together of participants’ favourite submissions, and one thing is clear: there is power in community, not least because the expectation of an audience for new work is an effective means of seeing off procrastination and preciousness by encouraging decisiveness and utility. There is creative freedom too in ‘short sharp snaps’ of creative activity, that ability to start something up and then close it down in a succinct period of time.
Speaking personally, I’ve found The Kick-About to be a hugely satisfying experience, and after a decade-or-more of very happily giving my best ideas away to other people, it’s been reassuring and exciting to discover there are still more ideas where all those others came from. I’ve loved the problem-solving aspect of the fortnightly prompts – resolving cogent, authentic responses to the various prompts in lots of different ways. You might also call it ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ – and yes, it’s been fun.
Gathered here are all my Kick-About responses, digital artworks, sculptures, photographs, shorts films and short stories, and collaborations with other artists. Agreed, it makes for an eclectic ensemble, but I’m reminded – happily – of being nineteen years old and studying my Art Foundation course, which was all about trying and doing everything and not worrying about what it was all for, or what you were going to do with it, or what you were going to do next.
So yes, I do feel younger for running around with my fellow kick-abouters, and if not quite nineteen, then not far off. I just want to say a very real and heartfelt thank you to everyone in the Kick-About community, whether you’ve played once, or always. Your company and creativity is, and has been, restorative, and I’m very much looking forward to doing it all again with Kick-About No.27. Onwards!
My recent trips to Fox’s Cross to photograph the splendour of the Blackthorn blossom have inspired a further entry into the Lost In Fields series of short, stills-based films. What a contrast with No.8, inspired as it was by desolate frozen wastes and luckless polar expeditions. Here, I was going for something as fleeting, delicate and ephemeral as the blossom itself, including too the songs of the robin and the skylark, both of which soundtracked our time in this, another of Kent’s ordinary/extraordinary fields.
Don Siegel’s 1956 science-fiction film, Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
I can’t recall when I first saw Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers – most likely on BBC2, opposite the six o clock news, when I was nine or ten, which was where, and when, they always scheduled science-fiction b-movies, as a welcome refuge for boys like me; from the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the spectre of nuclear annihilation, and Margaret fucking Thatcher.
I wonder if, to begin with, I was a bit underwhelmed by Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, in that it lacked the giant slugs of It Came From Outer Space, the big-brained mutant ofThis Island Earth, and the tentacled-head-in-a-fishbowl from Invaders From Mars. I’m going to say it probably did. I can also say with confidence that, unlike those showier movies, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers changed my relationship to cinema forever.
But it wasn’t the experience of watchingInvasion of the Body-Snatchers that catalysed my transformation from consumer of images to avid cryptographist. It was the experience of reading about it. As my interest in horror and science fiction films intensified, I started to spend my pocket money on books about them, principally because I could seek out glimpses of the many and various films I was otherwise too young to actually watch. And while Invasion of the Body-Snatchers certainly lacked the rubbery bug-eyed delights and flying saucers I thought sure were the canonical stuff of all the most entertaining science-fiction movies, it was a film the people in my books liked to write about a lot.
This was what I learned: in addition to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers being a low budget black and white film about hive-minded pod people from another planet and their sinister bid for world domination, it was also a commentary on the anxiety felt by Americans in the face of communist ideology. Okay, so, I didn’t know what communism was, even less so ideology, except that it had to something to with Russian spies and the colour red.
Confusingly, as I read more about Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I learned the film might also have something to say, not about communism, but about McCarthyism, which was another word I didn’t know, but learned about soon after. Further readings, in different books, suggested the threat against mankind in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers wasn’t coming from the furthest flung regions of space, but from within the magazine pages of Homes & Garden; that the awful sameness spreading from person-to-person wasn’t communism, or the chilling effect on expressions of difference produced by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pernicious witchhunts, but the homogenising effect on the human condition of jolly, post-war consumerism.
I’m reminded of the old joke: when is a door not a door? When it is a jar. When is a film not a series of images projected at twenty-four frames a second onto a flat surface? When it is an expansive, dimensional vessel encompassing competing strains of sociological meaning.
Though I didn’t really understand everything I was reading about in relationship to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, a lesson was learned, and it was two-fold; not only could black and white movies about imperialistic alien vegetables tell us something truthful about the emotional realities of individuals living in the real world, but also that interpretation was not the intellectual project of fixing meaning in place, but the art of enjoying competing truths.
As improbable as it sounds pretentious, I really can trace my intellectual awakening to Invasion of the Body-Snatchers; from here, the early beginnings of my understanding of politics, the scaffolding of our lived realities, largely invisible to children, but very far from irrelevant to them; from here, the beginning of an understanding about the various different ways our freedoms might be imperilled – from within and from without; from here, the idea a person’s difference could be considered precious, a characteristic to be protected; from here, the tingle of unease for any large group of people laying definitive claims to a single mode of existence.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers also taught me films were unavoidably articles of social history, that however future-looking or historical or interplanetary, movies are marinaded in the times of their production; that the surface of a film is a mirror, in which we find the values of the people who made it.
In this way, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers gave me the confidence and conviction to spit in the eye of various teachers and later, academics, who would have me and others believe there was no value in something as popular as genre, no truth-telling power, no insight; that the only culture with the power to cast light on the matrices of human behaviour are those within the realm of finer things.
A boy runs from his mother, who is ‘not’ his mother.
Wilma is convinced Uncle Ira is ‘not’ Uncle Ira.
A doppelgänger is discovered as it assumes the form of its victim.
A doppelgänger transforms in the darkness of the cellar.
Invasion of the Body-Snatchers begins at the end; with our hero, Dr Miles Bennell, in custody in the emergency room of a hospital; wild-eyed, Bennell is trying to convince a psychiatrist he is not a lunatic, and so recounts the events leading up to his arrest.
And events begin simply enough: a boy running in mortal fear of his own mother. Soon after, we meet Wilma, cousin of Dr Bennell’s love interest, Becky Driscoll, who is convinced her Uncle Ira is ‘not’ her Uncle Ira. Meanwhile, the sun shines, and Uncle Ira cuts the grass on his neat front lawn, and the town of Santa Mira looks as pretty-as-picture, with its neat, white wooden houses, neat, white picket fences, and neat, white families. Oh, how these first small pangs of wrongness delight me, the chiming of these minor chords in an otherwise happy-clappy melody; the way they say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’, like watching the filter on someone’s #Livingmybestlife Instagram feed glitch-out for a second to reveal a stray dog turd.
Maybe cinema has conditioned me to regard small, pretty towns inhabited by smiling people as inherently dishonest and keepers of secrets? Maybe I only think this way because Invasion of the Body-Snatchers taught me to think this way, or maybe Invasion of the Body-Snatchers is the just outward expression of something I’ve always known to be true? We think of myths as stories, but I wonder if myths are the stories we recognise as truth? Santa Mira is but one of many small towns whose inhabitants are actually conspirators or monsters or both. I’m thinking of the leafy streets of Stepford, and the painted streets of Summerisle. I’m thinking about Seahaven Island, and the Village from The Prisoner, the ice-cream-coloured neighbourhood of Edward Scissorhands, and every other dystopic conurbation.
Anyway, we soon learn the boy’s teacher and Uncle Ira have been hollowed out by extra-terrestrials, who are making a tremendous effort to keep up appearances. I suppose this is what I’m talking about when I think about all those towns and villages that so inspire distrust in me, or the way another person’s exquisite manners give me reason to be wary of them; I think to myself ‘so much effort’ and then, ‘for what?’ and then, ‘why?’, and then ‘I think they doth protest too much’. I do know of people who ‘just want everything to be nice’ and they’re always the bloody worst of us, because in my experience ‘by nice’ what they really mean is ‘repressed’ and ‘silent’ and ‘servile’.
Dr Bennell and Becky look out at the ‘normal’ streets of Santa Mira.
Whenever I re-watch the unfolding horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, I’m reminded of a warm evening spent with old friends around a table on the scruffy candle-lit terrace of an old French house. We were playing a hypothetical game of Room 101, nominating our least favourite things to be cast into Orwell’s oubliette. The conversation began lightly enough, and my suggestion for banishment was John Lennon’s Imagine. I loathe Imagine musically because it is a dirge, and also because, lyrically it is about as profound as a souvenir tea towel, as profound as The New Seeker’s I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing, only markedly less catchy. My choice confused my companions, and as we wrestled with it, the tone darkened. I railed against the glib utopianism Lennon offers, finding in it only the nascent trappings of fascism – and not Orwell’s dystopian hell hole of conspicuous boots brought down conspicuously on faces, but Huxley’s Brave New World of insensate, perfected bliss. Imagine is every pod person’s sing-a-long, a love-song to frontal lobotomies.
The discovery of the seed pods in the greenhouse.
I likewise relish Invasion of the Body-Snatchers for its hokier trappings, principally, its central premise that the human race might be victimised, then vanquished, by plants. Maybe like all small boys at one time or another, I had a venus-fly trap, having begged my mum to buy me one. I was instantly disappointed by the diminutive size of my fly-trap, and also disappointed when I killed mine after feeding it a single strand of frozen mince. The idea of carnivorous plants fascinated me – still do, and while the alien pods in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers do not predate on the flesh of their victims, they feed on us nonetheless, absorbing the likenesses of their subjects while their subjects sleep.
The film’s scenes in the greenhouse, in which our heroes witness the birthing of their dopplegangers from rubbery seed pods, remain gruesome all these years later, evoking a horrid fascination for prodigiousity familiar to any gardener. Recently, I’ve been propogating spider plants by cutting off the scintillas of baby plants and poking them into water, where now there are white, worming roots, as these decapitated little off-shoots strive busily to survive; like the time, I was re-potting a large podophyllum, which, when at last liberated from its pot, trailed with it what looked like masses of white spaghetti. Consider too the bamboo roots once growing under our garden path, resembling exactly the mad result of an experiment to splice a giant millipede with a human spine. Let’s call this category of horticultural unease the ‘vegetal uncanny’. Anyone who has opened a kitchen cupboard, to find at the back of it a long-since forgotten potato, bristling with roots the translucent milky-yellow of an overly long toenail, knows what this is. In Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the bodies of the soon-to-be-replaced are found in darkness in the self-same way; down in cellars, secreted in the boots of cars, and inside them, the horribly busy pods.
The pods begin to hatch in the greenhouse.
From where I sit as I write this, I can see out of the window of our spare room and down into the narrow street below. A few weeks ago, I was looking out and I saw a lone woman walking rather aimlessly in the street. I noticed her trainers and heavy brown coat. She looked tired in an unremarkable way. She’d just left one of the houses on the street and didn’t look like she knew what to do next. I recognised the woman, having sat across from her in pubs on various occasions pre-pandemic, and then talking with her directly one day outside another pub in the summer of 2020, just after lock-down restrictions had been eased. On this occasion, the woman wanted to talk about COVID. Specifically, she wanted myself and anyone else in earshot to join the ‘march against masks’ being organised in London. Fascinated, I talked with the woman further, and it soon became clear the woman was ‘anti-mask’ because she was of the firm belief that COVID was an elaborate, precision-engineered Trojan horse, its insides crammed tightly with illustrious conspirators; Bill Gates, naturally, but also ‘the Rothchilds’, various media tycoons, including the chieftains of the BBC, and the World Health Organisation, and many more. I remained kind and curious during our exchange and continued to ask for clarifications on the specific goal of the beautiful conspiracy and what ‘success might look like’ for the sinister elite. The woman couldn’t tell me. She just knew the end of the world was nigh, and like some Cassandra, all she could do was move from stranger to stranger, asking them to take a leaflet.
Days later, another friend in the town told a story about meeting the same woman in the supermarket, their conversation largely mundane until she informed him the vaccine was part of plot to murder the human race.
One of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers most chilling moments is when Dr Bennell returns to his hideout, after leaving Becky alone for a short time, to discover she too has succumbed to the alien conspiracy, and is now a replacement. The woman he once knew is gone, hollowed out by an alternate societal paradigm.
Dr Bennell’s moment of realisation, after kissing Becky Driscoll’s doppelgänger.
The seed pods are harvested and distributed.
This cuts to the knotty horror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. There I was, looking out of my window, watching the woman in the heavy brown coat walking down the middle of the street, and thinking to myself, ‘The pod people have got her.’ I even started wondering what she’d been doing in this other person’s house just moments before. I had a very clear image of the woman stowing big green seed pods under beds, in the shed, in the greenhouse, just as, in the film, the alien menace is seen growing, harvesting and distributing more pods throughout the land. The problem is, the woman in the heavy brown coat thinks the same about me.
Let’s compare dehumanisations for a moment. I pity this individual because, it seems crystal clear to me, she’s surrendered her autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind existent between the nodes of social media. The woman pities me because it seems as clear to her I have surrendered my autonomy of thought and action to some injurious hive-mind broadcast by ‘the establishment’ and its media.
In the final moments of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, just as it seems likely the psychiatrist is going to consign Dr Bennell to the nearest institution, another patient arrives at the hospital, who was involved in a collision with a truck – a truck carrying giant seed pods! Hurrah! In the nick of time, Bennell’s outlandish tale of alien conspiracy is authenticated by a third party and his sanity vouchsafed. Phew! This was not, however, the intended ending for the film, which instead concluded more grimly with the existing scene of Dr Bennell running into a road busy with traffic, screaming like a mad person, screaming, ‘They’re already here! You’re next! You’re next!’ The producers felt this ending was too dark, too depressing, too downbeat, not least because it first destabilises the world as we know it, and next withdraws the comfort of a happily definitive ending.
When I think about the woman in the old brown coat, I also see her running against the traffic, shrilling, ‘They’re already here!’ and everyone driving past, ignoring the crazy person. But there have been many times this past year, when I’ve felt like running into the streets, gripped by fear and frustration, railing against the decadence of the COVID-is-a-Hoax brigade, against the baroque fantasy of the QAnoners and their tribes; against the likes of Trump and Johnson, against the maddening populism of the UK and elsewhere, against the hollowing out of facts over the primacy of people’s feelings… ‘The end of the world is nigh!’
And there it is, the creeping, perfect terror of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers – not alien invasions, not sentient vegetables from beyond the stars, but the more prosaic personal dread of being thought of as mad when you’re 100% certain you’re not.
As an experiment between me, myself and I, I decided to submit Quite Normal to a few film festivals. I was happy with the film – happy with the thematic world of it, with the tone, with its ad-hoc limitations, and very happy with the performance by Charly Skilling. I also had no expectations for the film, knowing it to be the product of straightened times and non-existent budgets.
Yesterday, I was contacted by the organisers of the Ramsgate International Film & TV Festival to notify me that Quite Normal has made the festival’s official selection and will be screened as part of their online event (COVID having put paid to its more usual location-based film screenings). What a lovely surprise, not least because it should encourage anyone else who might be reading this that you don’t need all the bells and whistles to make a short film that other people might be interested in supporting and watching.
Aside from all the conspicuously unheimlich delights of Czech stop-motion animator and director, Jiří Barta’s 1989 short film, The Club Of The Discarded, a recent re-watch put me in mind of recent times: lock-down days of grinding similarity, the proximity of neighbours and their noise, the allure of difference, and feelings of redundancy.
As a fitting book-end, I wanted to (re)share a past projects of which I’m very fond, not least because I got to work with a loyal team of generous creatives. If you’re familiar with Red’s Kingdom, you’ll recognise the likes of Emily Clarkson, Ethan Shilling, Deanna Crisbacher and kick-abouter, Simon Holland, all of whom worked on this short educational animated film about the provenance of some ship-wrecked Roman pottery. Let me also introduce you to production team members, Nat Urwin, Tom Smith, Charlie Serafini, Alan Postings, and Jeffrey Wang, whose time and talents this film absorbed so totally for so many weeks.
Commissioned by the trustees of the Seaside Museum Herne Bay and funded by Heritage Lottery, the film was also made with the help and support of the children and staff of the Herne Bay Junior School. I had the pleasure of meeting a whole bunch of the school’s exuberant pupils in our search for the ‘voice of Marcus’, a role that ultimately went to Lake Blumenthal, who auditioned for me so impressively – while dressed as a lion!
Though completely exhausting in only the way putting together an animation can be on a tight schedule and even tighter budget, Marcus & The Mystery of the Pudding Pans was a very happy, life-affirming collaboration. I was interviewed on local radio about the project, which you can listen to here – or rather, you can hear my answers to the interviewer’s questions about the development of the animation in this archive of my side of the interview.
It was all the way back in November I last caught up with Red’s Kingdom’s artist-in-residence – filmmaker, animator and digital artist, Tom Beg. Since that time, I can assure you Tom hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs. On the contrary, he has been hard at working bringing the illusion of life to the first group of his otherworldly critters, so it’s time for a bit more show and tell.
Phil: How are you, Tom? And life in Japan? What are the headlines?
Tom:Nothing too exciting for me personally but it is coming up to my fifth anniversary of living here, so that’s something. Also, Japan’s educational year actually ends in March, and starts again in April, so in February most students who are planning to go to high school or university are going through what is known as juken jigoku or “exam hell” if translated to English. This means soon it will be spring and graduation ceremonies (socially distanced ones, of course), with cherry blossom flavoured Kit Kats, and cherry blossom flavoured everything available in abundance.
Phil: I’ve been very excited to see your most recent updates, including a sneak peek at the project’s branding. To kick things off, tell us something about your creative decision-making in regards to your animation’s title.
Tom: The animation’s title is Tabula 5465. Basically, it is inspired by the naming conventions of exoplanets. Tabula is the Roman word for a slate or tablet, on which things are written, while 5465 is a reference to the physical dimensions of Joan Miro’s painting Women and Birds at Sunrise, the painting from which the designs and ideas for the creatures in my animation derive. The logo represents the orbits of eight different planets, each representing the different creatures in my animation. The font was inspired by the one used for the titles in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
Phil: I’ve been watching your animation updates appear on your Vimeo channel, and enjoying how you’re bringing more life to your creatures with every iteration. What’s guiding your decision-making in terms of your animation strategy?
Tom:Just making sure everything feels alive and behaving as if it belongs in this world. For this sequence, firstly I thought about how the creatures would behave if they were simply idling about and not doing much at all. From there, it was thinking about how they might potentially go from this idling-around behaviourtodifferent states of movement.
Phil: We’ve talked previously about the challenges of directing a film that is driven, not by story, but by the behaviours of your characters. What is your current thinking about how the film hangs together as a whole?
Tom:I think it’s going to be more in the style of a documentary or educational film. Rather than have the creatures perform for the camera, I’m animating as if they are being filmed in a natural state. I imagine when filming nature in real life, there is probably a certain joy in just watching things happen without any interference, even if it’s totally mundane behaviour. That’s what I’m aiming to capture. It’s not really a story with a three-act structure, but the story of these creatures and how they behave in their own world, and as a group.
Phil: What are some of the frustrations in regard to the animation process?
Tom: The physic simulations require a lot of calculation that can’t be done in real-time, so if I want to move something, I can’t get accurate feedback instantly. I have to do something called a playblast, which is a way of watching the animation play back at the correct speed. The videos you’re seeing in this post are playblasts. They aren’t full renders, but they play the animation accurately at a lower visual quality for preview purposes. Then there is dealing with models passing through each other because they aren’t actually solid things. I’m constantly having to adjust timing and position. It’s like cutting off the head of a hydra – you fix one and then another one appears!
Phil: And what’s delighted and surprised you?
Tom:I snuck out a few low-resolution renders with the lighting and materials applied, and it is looking quite nice. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait a while longer to see those….
Phil: Out of curiosity, are you able to add up all the different individual tasks and processes you’ve had to go through to get to the latest stage – and how many processes come after this point to produce a final sequence?
Tom:So far there’s been: design, modelling, rigging, texturing, lighting, going back and fixing the modelling, fixing the rigging, animating, fixing animation, fixing animation and fixing animation. After fixing more animation, I will need to cache the animation and set up the various render passes that will give me the information I need to get depth of field, motion blur etc. After that, rendering the actual animation and compositing the various layers into a final sequence with all the effects applied that give it the final polished look.
Phil: And finally, what’s up next?
Tom: The three-armed pink tentacle creatures probably. I will animate the creatures in the order I made them, although they won’t necessarily appear in the animation in this order.
I wanted to engage with the most recent Kick-About prompt – the 5 Canons of Rhetoric – as it related to the idea of moving from an initial instinctive idea to something recognisably cogent and complete, and communicated successfully to others. I chose the pangram, ‘The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog’ because, in its use of every single letter in the alphabet, I thought I could argue it was a single sentence encompassing every other English language idea possible; every book, every song, every poem, every philosophical treatise, every argument, and so on. As the animation goes on, you see different ideas vying for representation and moments of indecision, flashes of inspiration – helpful and otherwise – and a final resolution of the phrase we recognise collectively as ‘right’.
(There is some pesky pixelation due to compression in this Vimeo version: with a bit of luck, you’ll find the original video to view hosted here).