Nick Carson

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On the Cutting Edge

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A virtual operating theatre could train hundreds of surgeons at once for every possible eventuality, in any operation. “There’s no point building anything where you presume there are limits,” argues David Broadbent, whose firm Cyberjenn are working with the NHS to develop just that. Nick Carson dissects their proposal.

“A mate of mine is an eye surgeon; he says surgery is a bit like plumbing – physical dexterity can be as important as intelligence,” suggests David Proud, who has since left Cyberjenn. To cut waiting lists, the NHS may try moving minor operations down the chain to allow nurses to conduct them, calling for highly-effective task-specific training.

“The government are trying to reduce cataract queues, for example, by setting up mobile surgeries. But perhaps the solution is to train more people on the NHS. Rather than having one person watch a trained surgeon perform the operation, have five hundred people performing a virtual operation.”

Operating system

“We were asked to create characters to demonstrate the human body functionally, that could literally be dissected on-screen,” reveals Broadbent. “Characters that are one-hundred-percent correct in all of their bodily functions and totally interactive, so you can use a mouse and keyboard to conduct a full operation.”

“Take something simple like a cataract operation – what can go wrong? Let’s have all the scenarios, map them out; have a go,” Proud continues. “Before you actually get live on a body you’ve run it through, and can revisit it as many times as you need. In a live operating theatre you can hardly say, ‘I didn’t catch that. Can you do it again?’”

Training is not only quicker; it’s also more clearly defined. “You know exactly what they’ve all gone through,” he reasons. “Instead of an individual surgeon teaching it their way, you can have the approved way of doing it – best practice. And the graphics, the what-if scenarios, they can all be updated. You don’t just do it and leave it; it’s not like making a film – you know, tick – and then having to go back and do the whole thing again in two months’ time, when there’s something else. Maintenance is critical to make it valuable.”

If the glove fits

Dissecting a kidney with a keyboard is all very well, but in a profession where the dexterity of the surgeon can make the difference between life and death, does knowing what will happen if the scalpel slips really stop you doing it?

“The actual art of cutting, they can all do,” reasons Proud. “Sewing, fine work, that’s all there; you couldn’t simulate that properly, but initially you wouldn’t have to. This is a quick way of simulating a particular operation; it’s about exploring. What if I did this; what if I did that; what happens if bleeding starts there; or bruising occurs there; one of the stitches leaks.”

Nevertheless with human interface devices progressing at a rate of knots, a pin-point accurate simulation needn’t be out of reach if demand is there. “Virtual glove systems can easily be built into the software,” Broadbent points out. “With the technology growing side-by-side, you would be able to bring in smaller modules within a classroom environment, and then use it again in a larger training environment using virtual gloves.”

“That’s the key factor: There’s no point building anything where you presume there are limits. A client gives me the basics that they want, and then I add something. I think that’s necessary; longevity is crucial. In [military training package] America’s Army, shooting ranges are calculated using data sets collected over the last forty-odd years. When you introduce accurate data sets into surgery, the tool becomes even more invaluable – and it’ll only extend.”

Have patience

Anything that uses technology for technology’s sake is purely self-serving, and Cyberjenn are not oblivious to the arguments against using CGI to train high-level professionals. “In most situations, if you put a virtual character trying to explain something in front of a bloke in his thirties with a modicum of intelligence he’ll think you’re taking the piss, to be honest,” admits Proud. “In the right place it’s a really powerful addition, but it’s foolish to say that we’ll use this technology in every possible application. It’s about finding that hotspot.”

Patronising is the last thing you can afford to be when training a future practitioner, so don’t expect a Mickey Mouse spin-off. “A little squeaky character talking to the surgeon? Forget it. Obviously it has to be someone credible describing the operation.” He stresses the importance of keeping the end-user in mind. “Why would you want a virtual character if you could have a real person? Well, one of the problems in colleges of further education is that they can’t get the resources; they can’t all go and dissect a body. There’s your application.”

Unlimited variables also allows for unlimited trial and error, and there’s no ‘undo’ option when you have a real patient under the knife. “It’s not a straightforward ‘let’s dissect a body’ scenario; the model reacts to the way you do the operation,” explains Broadbent. “If they cut in the wrong place it bleeds, or haemorrhages; they have to deal with that. What makes this technology so rich is the AI being developed alongside it.”

Strength in numbers

With high-end software so easily available, small companies and innovative individuals are raising the bar for industry heavyweights, which Broadbent argues can only be a positive thing. “Because of the widespread availability of software like 3D Max, Lightwave and Maya you can now produce broadcast-quality material yourself. You don’t need to be Pixar studios to output a half-hour film, or even a thirty-second animation, at the standard that would win you an Oscar.”

“Because small firms are constantly pushing the boundaries, it forces people like Pixar to keep bringing in new innovations,” he goes on. “I guarantee you that the techniques used in The Incredibles, you will be able to do at home by Christmas. The industry is constantly driving that way – attempting to be cutting-edge by making the technology available to smaller, up-and-coming studios and individual artists experimenting.”

“Pixar released RenderMan deliberately for that purpose. They realise that eventually their work will become stale, and they need to inject new innovation. So they make certain tools available to the general public and small businesses to develop new innovations, which they can then take up. Many businesses no longer innovate, and instead farm out to small units like Cyberjenn.”

“Bigger companies are exploiting that R&D opportunity,” concludes Proud. “If there are five companies offering a solution, they don’t care which one they take so long as it suits them, and then they make the money. They’ve got the infrastructure, the clients and the contacts – a network of people who can deliver, knitted together to suit their client base. If we can portray that we have enough people on our network to deliver what they want, then of course we’ll get a slice of the action.”

© Nick Carson 2005. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

September 4, 2006 at 12:28 am

Live the Inconceivable

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“It’s a time compression process,” asserts Zsuzsi Pek, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. “Serious games can deliver two lifetimes of experience to one person.” Nick Carson opens his mind to a rapidly evolving field that can be overlooked by games developers.

“The marketplace is a rollercoaster for a young games company; real feast and famine stuff with no stability,” Zsuzsi warns. “But serious games have a mission other than entertainment: They encourage you to learn new skills, and offer solutions to real world problems. AI technology can make things complex and random – a chaotic environment where people can get valuable experience.”

“Virtual simulations promised so much early on but never delivered, and they’ve had a stigma ever since,” observes David Broadbent of Birmingham-based developer Cyberjenn, who have recently begun to forge links with the US military. “It always aimed to immerse you fully in an environment. The concept was good but the technology wasn’t up to it: Films like Lawnmower Man suggested the end result long before it was possible.”

Cynically speaking, virtual training is an immense cost-cutting exercise. To simulate a combat scenario with any degree of accuracy can cost upwards of £250m; even the most advanced computer game will only cost a tenth of that. But, David insists, money is only one factor. “The true power of virtual simulation is that it can account for the inconceivable,” he declares. “That’s the difference. Standard training can only ever go so far; virtual training can cover every potential scenario.”

A taste of military might

March 2004 saw the first Serious Games summit at the Games Developers Conference in San Jose, and it’s clear that the industry’s biggest players have already pricked up their ears to the field’s potential. According to one speaker, it represents a form of learning “so drastically superior to every conventional educational method that it could foment a revolution in how human beings gather and interpret knowledge.”

Such enthusiasm can prove infectious. Already blossoming in the States, serious gaming looks set to throw the potential client base wide open for small developers in the UK. “The US military currently supply most of the money,” admits Zsuszi. “They’re pumping funding into traditional combat games like America’s Army, building a virtual community to teach ‘hard skills’ as part of their recruitment programme.”

Actions speak louder

Originally a small, one-off game to spark interest in a career in the armed forces, America’s Army online now includes modules in medical and peacekeeping training. And non-combat scenarios can analyse subtle behavioural signals, teaching ‘soft skills’ by demonstrating the consequences of inappropriate conduct in a given cultural environment. It’s a far cry from a gung-ho first-person shoot-em-up many might expect from an army simulation package.

Gaming software is already proving instrumental in this field. A major issue in the current climate, observes David, is educating troops in Iraq so that they don’t inadvertantly offend with gestures or inappropriate eye contact. “Certain situations can be avoided simply by knowing and respecting local customs,” he points out.

“I designed a plug-in back in 2001 based on standard text-speech technology, which recognises emotion in your voice so that your avatar will look and sound like you in the game,” he goes on. “Accordingly, other characters will react to your tone, gestures and facial expressions as well as what you say.”

Emotional content: the Holy Grail

One criticism of this form of training is the absence of sensations that can severely impair performance, such as physical exhaustion, extremes of temperature or paralysing fear. Elements of the first two could be built into the gameplaying environment, but can the comparatively detached nature of a computer game truly represent how the mind operates in a highly stressful situation?

David looks thoughtful. “The ultimate dream for any artist or photographer is to transfer emotional content into their work,” he muses. “It’s the same for game developers: the Holy Grail is to make a scenario genuinely emotional, integrating your body’s responses with the game through stress meters, heart-rate monitors and so on. It’s totally practical with development; I think we’ll see it in games soon.”

A crop of young talent

It’s not all talk: Cyberjenn are directly involved in pushing serious gaming from an early age. Challenged by Birmingham & Solihull Connexions to forge better links between education and business, they established a temporary company to be staffed by students. Hiring a studio in the Big Peg for a fortnight, they whittled the hopefuls down to twenty and set them the task of developing a demo around a set framework.

“It’s not just a standard employment scheme; it has physical outputs,” David explains. “We’re giving people practical pieces of work to promote themselves.” Rather than attempting to introduce complex industry-standard packages in two weeks, students designed characters using the user-friendly Poser for the professionals to rig properly in 3D Studio Max. Ultimately, he points out, the core modelling skills should be transferable between packages.

The project certainly paid off for 17-year-old Craig Knight. Having created an ultra-realistic army officer for the game, he was chosen by the University of Birmingham’s Prof. Bob Stone – the “Bill Gates of virtual simulation”, according to David – to be the first UK & Europe representative at the I/ITSEC training, simulation and education conference in Florida. Retaining the original student team, Cyberjenn are now looking to develop the demo into a full-scale anti-terrorism simulation.

Life’s not just a battlefield

Of course, the benefits of virtual training spread far beyond military operations. Across the pond, Bronchi the Brachiosaurus is an adventure game designed to help children cope with asthma. “Kids must help keep two dinosaurs – Bronchi and Trachi – in top form by giving them inhalers and medication as they move through the game,” says Zsuzsi. “Apparently it reduced dramatic asthma attacks by forty percent.”

Moving from healthcare to civil responsibility, the US Government developed MassBalance, in which gamers come together and make budget choices for the State of Massachusetts – facing the consequences if things go wrong. New York City also has Breakdown, where you play with services and repair the city’s infrastructure.

Ripe for the picking

This is a new marketplace, and the first evolutionary step must be to change the mindset of certain organisations. “There’s a poor perception of the industry: Games are dismissed as kids’ stuff, as well as being costly and time-consuming,” observes Zsuzsi. “The industry just isn’t moving into this space fast enough.”

Indeed statistics show that potential funding is abundant. “Currently the US invests $3bn in textbooks; $66bn in corporate training; $40bn in government training and $10bn in e-learning,” she reveals. “Unfortunately there’s no standard practice for serious gaming yet, and developers are continually re-inventing the wheel.”

Bridging a cultural void

Massive administrative bodies like the NHS will clearly speak a different cultural language from a small games developer, and it may take a while before the cogs mesh completely. “These clients aren’t interested in the entertainment value of the game; they want to talk about learning objectives and sustainability,” Zsuzsi points out. “They want a guarantee that users will retain the knowledge. This is where academics can come in: As a bridge between the games industry and the ultimate user.”

Guidance as to which organisations require assistance isn’t exactly floating around, but the regional Education & Business Partnership from Connexions may be able to help pinpoint companies with appropriate satellite departments. And it pays to keep up with specialist magazines like CGI, 3D World and online community The Edge. “Big NGOs like the UN are setting up their own serious gaming departments right now, and they need a skilled workforce,” insists Zsuzsi. “The demand is here to stay; the question is how you can tap into it.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

September 4, 2006 at 12:19 am

Driven by Obsession

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Nick Broomfield believes part of his brain doesn’t function ’til he becomes obsessed with his subject, and his work often betrays a deep concern that puts the filmmaker firmly in the frame as well. Nick Carson considers a technique that has attracted much acclaim and imitation in the documentary field.

“If the filmmaker is involved and affected, and forms personal relations, it becomes a way for the audience to do the same thing. This makes subjects accessible,” Broomfield argues. Speaking on his controversial Fetishes: Mistresses and Domination at Pandora’s Box, he adds: “The more personal I made it, the more involving and more tolerable it became; maybe neutralised it in a way.”

His wide-ranging work plunges into some of America’s most complex and troubled minds in the likes of Biggie and Tupac, Kurt and Courtney and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer – a story now widely familiar after the release of Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster, and Broomfield’s own post-execution follow-up, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. With reality TV dominating prime-time schedules, 2004′s Guardian Hay Festival saw the veteran filmmaker debate whether life always produces better stories than fiction.

Truth vs. fiction

The impact of films such as Monster can only increase when the audience realise that it’s a true story, and the popularity of cinematic documentaries such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 certainly demonstrates the public’s desire to unearth the truth about the world around us. But, Broomfield argues, real life doesn’t always speak for itself.

“There has been a bit of a panic within TV stations about the dwindling audience share, and that panic has resulted in a retreat into reality TV,” he observes. “But that market is bottoming out: audiences are sick of playing at that kind of programme. They want more answers, and now they’re going to the cinema to find those answers. TV’s following behind.”

Keep it faithful

The extent to which reality can be moulded into entertainment should vary depending on the individual case, Broomfield admits, but for intricate subjects documentaries should be faithful and not simplify the issues at hand. “Capturing the Friedmans, for example, presented the whole subject of incest in a very, very complicated way,” he says of Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 chronicle of the collapse of a comfortable suburban family. “It involved you in the plot of family: the convoluted relationships. I think it is very important that we, as a group of people, use these complexities.”

The golden rule for spotting volatile, valuable material is when the interviewee shocks the interviewer: there’s a fair chance that the viewer will react in a similar way. “If I feel that I desperately want to leave the room, I know I have put something in,” Broomfield reveals. “If I ever feel that in the editing room I want to change it, it’s very difficult always to do the right thing and stay true to the subject.”

In the public eye

A distinguishing feature of Broomfield’s style is his tendency for personal involvement: he frequently appears in front of the camera wielding his trademark sound mic, and builds up a relationship with his subjects. After keeping up correspondence with Aileen Wuornos for several years, he was subpoenaed as a witness in her final court appearance in 2002, where extracts from Selling of a Serial Killer, made a decade earlier, were shown as part of her defence. He was also granted the last interview before her death.

“Until 1988 I did a lot of films that I wasn’t in at all, which were more traditional cinema verité films. Then I started asking different questions and doing different kinds of films – much more investigations,” he recalls. “Obviously you get the structure and the style to fit the film you’re telling. I was doing a lot of subjects where people often defined themselves by what they didn’t want to talk about than what they did. And that’s when you have to roll back the parameters.”

The natural approach

One way to take the formal edge off an investigation is to portray interviewees in their familiar surroundings, which can often betray as much about an individual as what they choose to say. “When I go into people’s houses, I’m fascinated to see what they have on their walls; what they wear; how they invite you in,” Broomfield explains. “It’s how we still usually meet people, the Internet notwithstanding, and it uses people’s everyday vocabulary to tell a story. It’s when things stop, and people start fiddling around with their lenses that it’s no longer a social meeting. I want the interviews to be like conversations.”

“I think one of the most amazing things about film is that in long takes, you just see things change,” he continues. “If you’re reporting in a different medium, say, in a newspaper, you report the conclusion. But in film, you see the process of people making decisions or coming to a conclusion. No other medium has that ability: you can show things in real time.”

A journey of discovery

“I move from one interview to the next with questions I have got from the first, building a detailed and elaborate story,” Broomfield says of his technique. “The mark of a great work of fiction is the same as a documentary – that it does not work by numbers. I think it’s a more compelling way to tell a story that hasn’t got an inherent structure,” he proposes. “Biggie and Tupac, for example, is like a detective story, and a lot of its elements are disparate. Without a thought track connecting them, I don’t think the audience would follow it. The easiest thing is to use what’s there – one’s own journey, one’s own perception.”

“The thing I always ask myself at the end of all these films is, do they represent my experience of what really happened when I was making them. And do I believe what I’m putting across. I think what I’m doing is portraying the world and its substance: I’m not necessarily looking for objective truth, but trying to convey to an audience what it’s like to interact with these people, and get the truth out of them.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Breaking the Mould

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Visionary ‘concept cars’ can provoke strong reactions, but truly iconic design should survive the test of time. So claims Andrew Dyson, design manager at Chrysler. Nick Carson tracked him down to find that even the dreamiest of cars start life as a humble sketch.

It’s taken decades to put the risk factor back into car design, shedding the stereotype of the box-shaped one-size-fits-all ‘world car’ of the 1970s. But classic design doesn’t happen automatically; before any stunningly rendered computerised models see the light of day you need someone with a vision, and the talent to express it. “Computer technology is only as good as the people operating it,” Dyson points out. “Ideas are generated by sketching.”

Inspirational surroundings
 
Before anything gets down on paper you need a source of inspiration, and personal pride shouldn’t get in the way: if another manufacturer does something right, there’s no shame in having a look. “We were into retro design,” he recalls: “The PT Cruiser and Prowler were inspired by the Hotrods of the past. But we’re no longer focussed on particular cars; we’re projecting our image into the future.”

Architecture is a common muse: your surroundings, Dyson believes, are pivotal to the style of car you create. Ironically, the Chrysler building – an icon of 1930s design, itself inspired by Chrysler cars – helped shape the vision of the company’s latest revelation, the Crossfire. “The art-deco style used in Detroit is expressive, using refined shapes,” Dyson enthuses. “This suits our current image: we need to be over-expressive to show we’re an American company, but on a palatable level. It must be wild, but not outlandish – in good taste, in other words – to be successful internationally.”

Creating timelessness

Artistic movements come and go but great design, he argues, should never lose its edge. “On a personal level I prefer designs that survive long-term, so that when you show them to people years down the line they still like them,” he explains. “I dislike trend-setting cars that lose their style. Iconic designs are good when they come out and remain good: I always question things that are designed purely for the sake of raising eyebrows.”

This is not to say that a car shouldn’t cause a stir: as Chrysler’s head of design Trevor Creed, also from the Midlands, has said, the worst possible response to a new car is bored indifference. “You have to be slightly shocked by something,” Dyson proposes, “otherwise when it reaches production it will not be on target.”

Design psychology
 
Hitting the right note with everyone seems an impossible challenge, but the visceral appeal of a ‘dream car’ boils down to basic aesthetics. “The way a car looks is an emotional thing. The eye is drawn to something it finds attractive and drawn away from something it doesn’t. For some, function is beautiful, hence the success of the pick-up in the US. They’re icons in their own right: cool-looking because of what they do. But the two cross-link no end: you need cars at whatever level that are still attractive to you.”

The compulsive attraction many feel towards their personal ‘dream car’ is as highly individual as a dream itself, according to Dyson. “When you dream about something, you have a vision that’s unique to you,” he explains. “With a show car it’s not always important that it works; it can still create a subjective emotional effect. All cars start as a vision, like a dream on paper: you then need to make it a reality.”

Sketchbook to showroom

Some designers use computers to develop that initial sketch, but a white screen is essentially no different from a blank sheet of paper. “You use all the resources you can get; it’s not important what method you use,” Dyson insists. “Computers are not necessarily better; but they can improve communication.”

The 2D sketch must then be translated into 3D before the final surface is rendered using high-end CAD software such as CATIA and Alias Studio. The pinpoint-accurate mathematical curves that define the vehicle’s shape are tweaked to perfection, before the real hands-on work begins on a one-fifth actual size model.

An aluminium core is built up using wood and Styrofoam, and a 50mm deep shell of clay is literally hand sculpted to achieve the desired effect. Concurrently every individual component and interior detail needs to be lab tested and adjusted accordingly, while a process known as Design Quality Assurance attempts to keep the designer’s original vision alive amongst the flood of technical considerations before it reaches the manufacturing stage.

Sense and sensibility

“Design is a creative activity, so you must have an emotional connection to it,” Dyson advises. “But it can be frustrating: you need to make designs personal and fit them to what the company is looking for. People will often mess them around, and you need to get used to it,” he warns. “Every single day you are challenged by others that your vision can’t be done in the way you want it. It’s important at this stage to make a conscious decision, and either consider alternatives or fight for what you know is the best solution.”

To be successful then, you can’t afford to become too attached to your design. “You must connect with the emotional side and step back and think logically,” is Dyson’s recommendation. “Natural talent will always shine through in creating a design and getting it chosen, but unfortunately there are talented people in the industry without the business sense to get any further.”

No cutting corners

The car design industry is fiercely competitive and to reach the top, he insists, there are no short cuts: “You will certainly need a BA at least in industrial, product or automotive design; possibly a Masters.” But while professional training is unavoidable, a fresh approach should not be stifled by years of design theory: “Too much history can inhibit your creative judgement,” he concludes.

© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

August 28, 2006 at 8:56 pm

Filming the Void

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In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were the first to climb the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Unfortunately, as immortalised in Simpson’s international bestseller Touching the Void, on the descent they had one or two hitches. Nick Carson considers how the author’s harrowing journey was translated from book to BAFTA-winning film.

“We’re probably the only two people who don’t get it,” Joe Simpson muses to a capacity crowd at the Guardian Hay Festival 2004. “It’s our car crash, so we don’t put an interpretation onto it and try to imagine what it was like. We see it with different eyes, and don’t feel like anyone else does when they see the film.”

The two climbers’ experiences in Peru have gained worldwide recognition since the publication of the book in 1998, and Joe’s four-day journey back to base camp on a shattered leg, after his partner was forced to cut the rope binding them together, far transcends the genre of mountaineering. “Eighty-five percent of readers aren’t climbers,” he points out. “It’s not about climbing; it’s about dying alone, loneliness, pain, anguish and ultimately friendship. People appropriate stories for themselves.”

Touching a nerve

It was never intended as a film, Joe is keen to point out, but how much closer could a visual medium get to dramatising his ordeal? “I was frustrated at the end of the book, as I was nowhere near articulating how bad it was,” he confesses. “I couldn’t remember the real pain, so couldn’t find the words to explain what it felt like. But then most people have never been at twenty thousand feet, so it’s like a lie, but not, if that makes sense,” he goes on. “To be honest, my fellow climbers telling me it’s authentic means more to me than the BAFTA.”

Watching his experience unfold visually for the first time had quite an impact. “I was convinced they would make a pig’s ear of it, but it was better than I ever imagined,” he reveals. “Seeing the crevasse again was quite disturbing: it didn’t feel like it did at the time, but it reminded me of it,” he explains. “I can’t actually feel the pain but I get the sense of it, one stage removed.”

Re-living the ordeal

The final cut of the film may have awakened painful memories, but the return to Siula Grande during the filming process was many times worse. “Going back to Peru made me anxious: it wasn’t a cathartic experience,” Joe admits. “When I was writing the book it became someone else’s story, but back in Peru, surrounded by cameras, it became very real again. When I got back I was told I was having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – seventeen years late. It was criminally irresponsible to send us out there,” he adds wryly.

Re-living his ordeal en-situ prised open a long-dormant wound that words on a page could only gloss over by comparison. “The traumatic experience was burned into my neural pathways,” he continues. “I could see the circle of mountain peaks where I thought I was going to die, and suddenly it wasn’t a story anymore. Kevin [McDonald, the director] and his cronies were little dots far away, and I genuinely felt that they would disappear and that the book, film and last seventeen years hadn’t happened: I was back there, and the neural pathways opened up again.”

Bearing the tedium

Nevertheless, Joe’s rugged spirit of adventure often didn’t gel too well with the ethos of the industry, and the torturous flashbacks were fleeting moments in an otherwise gruelling filming schedule. “For an actor, making a film is about as interesting as watching paint dry,” he groans. “They spend four-and-a-half hours fiddling with the camera for every five minutes filming.”

Despite his respect for the directorial talent he was working with, Joe remains singularly unimpressed with Kevin McDonald’s grasp of mountaineering. “He’s a London-based arty guy, who made an amazing film but still has no idea what makes climbers tick,” he admits. “He was endangering our lives at one point, because he didn’t appreciate how dangerous it was. Simon had to sort him out,” he laughs. The combination of Kevin’s artistic talent and Joe’s first-hand experience clearly made for a much more rounded result.

Unexpected success

The international acclaim has quite genuinely hit Joe by surprise, having written the book primarily to defend his friend from a tide of criticism. “I never thought critically of Simon, in fact I’m immensely in his debt,” he explains. “People forgot that he put his life on the line for me, and only remembered the cutting of the rope.”

“If I thought a million people would read it and a film would be made I never would have written it,” Joe confesses. “I didn’t seek success or notoriety; I certainly never expected to front the film. It makes you very vulnerable, as you have no control over how you look once it goes into the editing room. To be honest, I was relieved that I didn’t look a complete prat.”

Setting the record straight

So what can the film offer that the book couldn’t? One major asset is for the benefit of those mountaineering virgins that make up the majority of the audience. “The camera pulling back over a vast mountain range gives a real sense of scale,” Joe points out. “A book can’t depict the inside of a crevasse if the reader had never seen one; it’s reliant on the imagination. The film helps non-climbers to visualise the experience.”

Another bonus, he adds, is that the psychologically realistic documentary style of Touching the Void may bring advocates of popular mountaineering blockbusters such as Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit down to earth. From the lips of a man who’s been there and back, they are absolute drivel. “You just can’t have sex at twenty thousand feet,” he concludes with a grin.

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Body Beautiful

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The human body has been an artistic muse for centuries, and the life drawing – or ‘nude’ – remains a staple part of any Fine Art course. With countless scrutinising eyes looking towards the front, Nick Carson asks some life models what it’s like facing the other way.

Much like a trip to the doctor with an embarrassing illness, the philosophy behind showing your naked body to a roomful of Art students is simple: they’ve seen it all before. For experienced models, the process becomes routine: a way of life. So in a country famed for its prudish attitudes in so many walks of life, is there really anything to worry about?

In the name of art…

Diana Scott, now fifty-six, first started modelling three years ago in response to an advert. “I used to be a bodybuilder,” she reveals. “I sent a photo in, and got the job.” So it takes years of toning to qualify? Not at all, but there’s no place for paranoia: the common factor is confidence. “All models have to be fine about their bodies; you’re in control,” she continues. “You wouldn’t go into it otherwise.”

“Don’t be self-conscious: they’re not looking at you, but at your body for artistic purposes,” continues Claire Dean, a third-year student at the University of Birmingham. Having modelled at the Midlands Art Centre for over a year, she found that most preconceptions were unfounded: “People are respectful; they’re not leching over you,” she adds. “It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think of it as a performance. You may only be sitting still, but at the end of the day people are paying you for your services.”

…not for sexual kicks

Coupled with any insecurity about their bodies, for male models there is that added concern of becoming aroused in public. It’s important to detach the experience from anything sexual, argues one thirty-year-old male model, with six years experience. He offers the following straightforward advice: “If there’s an attractive girl there, just don’t look at her.”

While the vast majority of classes are understanding and co-operative, there are always exceptions to the rule. “It’s not always straightforward; girls have tried to wind me up before by catching my eye and winking, trying to get a rise out of me as it were,” he recalls. “But to be honest the sheer embarrassment factor of what it would be like works as an antidote. Some people think models do it for sexual kicks but it’s simply not true.” Accordingly, models need to speak up if they feel the chosen pose is inappropriate: “Personally I’m not prepared to have a student staring straight down my crotch,” Diana asserts. “Many tutors have been models themselves, so they should be quite understanding.”

The first time

Claire describes her first session, back in February 2003, which lasted three-and-a-half-hours. “It was in this vast studio space, which felt a bit daunting, but my friend had done it there before so it felt safer. It wasn’t like taking my clothes off in some random place,” she recalls. “I had an easy pose, laid across a mattress, but I did feel the need to eye up everyone sketching to make sure there wasn’t a pervert in there. It’s definitely a bit intimidating for a first timer,” she warns.

Another model began at home, posing for his Art-student girlfriend. After he agreed to hold a small sketching session for some of her course friends, it went from there: “There are some odd back doors into it,” he admits, “but having started off with my girlfriend, where nudity was second nature, there was nothing to worry about. They’re more used to it than you are: there’s no reason to be nervy about it.” Some tips are to get some experience of art classes first, get advice from existing models if possible, and practice holding certain poses at home.

Physical endurance

Session lengths can vary from a couple of hours to an entire day, and once you’ve cleared the nudity barrier the next step is holding the pose, avoiding the bane of all life-models: cramp. “You can’t focus on anything else: it becomes the centre of the world, then your limbs start going dead,” warns Claire.

As a Fine Art graduate herself, with experience on both sides of the canvas, Diana emphasises the importance of regular breaks. She insists models are entitled to fifteen minutes every hour, but this is not always the case: “I once had a whole day with only two breaks, and ended up falling over. It was amazing how quickly people got out of the way,” she laughs. “When you’re nude, no-one wants to catch you.”

Mind over matter

Keeping mental concentration is another challenge, and it’s generally best to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room. “It helps to focus on a spot about mid-line, so you can return to it if you start to waver,” Diana advises. “Take yourself off to another place and not think about what you’re doing.”

It seems you don’t have to be a Buddhist to work here, but it helps. Twenty-eight-year-old Edward Whale has been modelling in various locations across South Birmingham for a year, and finds his religion can prove very useful. “I’m used to just thinking for long periods,” he explains. “Some postures can be uncomfortable, but I’d give anything a go: I like the challenge of stamina; mind over matter.”

With pay averaging at £6-8 per hour, it’s not the best-paid job in the world, and most choose it as sideline for some extra cash rather than a primary source of income. “There just aren’t enough hours to do it full-time,” Diana points out. But once you’re used to it, it’s relatively easy money; plus if the work is good, there is a sense of real satisfaction. As Claire puts it, “if they come up with something flattering, I always feel privileged to be part of it.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

August 24, 2006 at 9:00 pm

The Lost Art of Storytelling

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IDEASFACTORY UK caught up with Endboard Productions recently as they were completing a groundbreaking documentary. Now in the can, Birmingham-based brothers Yugesh and Sunandan Walia reveal to Nick Carson why it may never reach our TV screens.

Commissioned by Channel 4, Days and Nights in an Indian Jail was a pioneering venture, chronicling a year in the lives of prisoners at Tihar Central Jail in Delhi. While most institutions in the UK have already been closely scrutinised by programmes such as Cutting Edge, their equivalents in other cultures have remained somewhat of a mystery.

“We approached Tihar expecting to reveal a third-world prison with bad management and bad conditions,” Yugesh recalls, “but it went the other way.” As it progressed, the project became less of a shocking exposé and more of a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

This, the brothers argue, is what documentaries should be about: good, old-fashioned yarns. “Storytelling is all about the journeys characters go on,” Yugesh explains, “and documentaries are essentially stories about characters.” Unfortunately, the market for this is shrinking rapidly and, they argue, some filmmakers could be forced to reinvent the documentary genre to survive.

Plunging in at the deep end

Days and Nights in an Indian Jail was filmed, produced and directed entirely by the two-man team, using only handheld camcorders to minimise invasiveness. “Normally we would work with a crew, but we’re multi-talented,” they explain. Once permission was granted, the pair had carte blanche: “There were no hidden cameras but it’s a huge prison, and once inside the gate the wardens often had no idea we were there.”

Having chosen the prison beforehand and armed with no prior research, Yugesh and Sunandan literally plunged straight in with the camera, hoping that stories would emerge over the course of the year. The film reveals a very different culture to the UK prison system: overcrowded barracks force inmates to live as a community in a judicial system where you’re guilty until proven innocent. “Our research formed part of the filming,” Sunandan continues: “We gradually whittled down the stories – we wanted resolution at the end of the year.”

Leaving the best till last

The main focus of the film became a family thrown into jail as part of India’s unique dowry laws, which permit a bride’s parents to implicate anyone they choose if she dies in suspicious circumstances within seven years of marriage. Bhabhuti and his wife Prempatta were imprisoned after their daughter-in-law committed suicide, and the film charts the growing tension as their four-year-old daughter Pushpa, also imprisoned, approaches school age and prepares to leave her family behind.

Programmes based around this kind of linear structure, rewarding viewers at the end, could however be part of a dying breed. Part of the problem with a dedicated entertainment culture, the Walias suggest, is that modern viewers have grown to expect a constant stream of stimuli and often aren’t prepared to spend an hour seeing a story through to its conclusion. “There’s a captive audience at screenings, and you can afford to make programmes more theatrical,” they elaborate, “but TV is more committed and you have to keep people interested.”

Fenced in by schedules

Over the last decade, they propose, UK television has become increasingly formulaic to shape itself to the American mould. “There’s a drive for peak daytime lifestyle and leisure programmes: news, current affairs and factual programming is pushed out to the perimeters,” Yugesh points out. “Commercialism is the driving force behind it: with the proliferation of channels you need adverts to fund them, and the advertisers dictate what programmes to show rather than the viewing public.”

“But you can’t judge it as inherently bad,” Sunandan concedes. “TV needs funding, and the old model only worked with four channels. They had no choice: it’s just about how far they should go, and whether they’ll become entirely tabloid.” One solution could be to lean even further towards our American counterparts and show feature documentaries in cinemas, to ensure a captive audience while dedicating TV entirely to lifestyle and leisure programming. “We need to think hard,” they conclude. “Not enough thought has gone into the balancing act: you need to mix and match.”

Something to say

“At entertainment level, you can either have thought-provoking or pure pulp,” observes Yugesh. “Shows that give house-cleaning tips fundamentally offer you nothing: the house will be messy again in a couple of weeks. We live in a culture based on voyeurism.” But the UK isn’t alone: India, they reveal, has no interest in factual information, dedicating every one of their sixty channels to entertainment and soaps. “There’s a factory in Bombay just producing soaps, often with the same actors running between sets,” Sunandan laughs.

Many travel, adventure and anthropology series are entertaining, they acknowledge, but very presenter-led. “They don’t allow cultures to speak for themselves, but tell it from a very British perspective.” Documentaries, they propose, should be well made and tell a story. “But the industry is narrowing,” Yugesh admits. “Some argue they have to take a different form: it’s no longer about straightforward fly-on-the-wall. Filmmaking has to reinvent itself to fit people’s lifestyle.”

© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

August 24, 2006 at 8:56 pm

The Mighty Pen

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Cocooned within the Western world, it’s easy to take for granted the virtues of a free press. But if forbidden from criticising your government outright, argues Jack Mapanje, you can always think more creatively and master that fine art of meaning without saying. He shares his irrepressible philosophy, and its consequences, with Nick Carson.

Discussing the subversive power of metaphor with one of Africa’s foremost writers makes for an intriguing blend of history and culture, and the smoky medieval pub in which it takes place only adds to the mix. We have an hour before Jack goes on stage to read from his works at the UK’s first Black Poetry Festival, organised by Coventry’s Heaventree Press.

To understand fully the lengths to which Jack Mapanje is prepared to go rather than compromise his writing, you have to look beyond the comparatively petty frustrations of our own ‘nanny state’ into the brutal totalitarianism under Malawi’s self-declared President for life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

Damning with twisted praise

Mapanje’s much-admired first volume of poetry, Of Chameleons and Gods, was published in 1981. It cast a critical eye on Banda’s twenty-year “frothful carnival” under the guise of the traditional praise form, a technique that echoes the heavily barbed poetry surrounding the English Civil War – when open treason would have had similar consequences.

Seemingly it took the Malawian government until 1985 to punch through the layers of meaning, and despite its growing international acclaim they banned the collection throughout the country. Two years later the poet who drew the world’s attention to the widespread poverty in the wake of Banda’s riches, “shocked by the tedium [of his] continuous palaver,” was thrown into the notorious Mikuyu Prison – where he remained until 1991.

No warrant required

When asked if he would be prepared to be imprisoned again rather than censor his work, Jack smiles; and with good reason. There was never a formal charge placed against him, and to suggest that it was his poetic mockery that fuelled the wrath of a dictator is pure speculation. “I wish someone had accused me of writing rude poems,” he admits. “I would be delighted to go back to jail if I was told why.”

“In a dictatorship, they don’t have to charge you with something; they just arrest you,” he points out. Pulled from the Gymkhana Club in September 1987 while enjoying a drink with a friend, Mapanje was soon stood before the assembled Commissioners of Police from across Malawi. But the tale that unfolded from there has a blackly comic edge to it, and the seasoned poet grins broadly as he tells it.

“The order for my arrest had come from Banda himself,” Jack explains. “If they investigated my case, it would appear that they didn’t trust him.” The beautifully surreal outcome was that his country’s senior police network was forced to ask him not only who he was, but why he felt they should arrest him.

Political friction

Many years later, Jack has two theories for what got the Secret Police onto his scent. The first is simple enough: With a respected PhD and three successful books, Banda thought his mocker was climbing too fast too quickly, and needed to have the rungs knocked out from under him. The second, more intricate version is featured in his upcoming prison memoirs: In his first venture into prose, he can at last say exactly what he means to say.

“Prince Charles came to Malawi with BBC journalist Kwabena Mensa, at a time when journalists were officially out-of-bounds,” he recalls. “The key issue was who would take over from Banda on his death, or retirement.” Although the ‘official’ word in Malawi was that it was impossible to tell, Mensa read in a Zambian newspaper that Banda’s concubine, Cecelia Kadzamira, was grooming herself to take over – and had placed her relatives in the country’s most influential positions.

Mensa’s report made its way onto the World Service. Immediately contacting the BBC to find its source, Banda was told it was the word on the street, even amongst distinguished circles at the University. Having judged a recent high-profile poetry competition for the World Service, Jack’s strong BBC connections lit him up like a lamp for a moth.

Violent retribution

Lending some weight to Mensa’s allegations, the Chairman of the University Council – John Tembo – was Cecilia’s uncle, and the Principal of the college where Jack lectured, Zimani Kadzamira, was her brother. The third, somewhat open-ended question asked of Mapanje on his arrest was ‘What have you been doing to each other in the University,’ which implied that Tembo and his nephew had bypassed the police force and reported directly to the top.

Prison was a horrible ordeal, but it could have been considerably worse. The journalist behind the original Zambian newspaper report, Mkwapatira Mhango, was an exiled member of MAFREMO, the Malawian freedom movement, and had already drawn Banda’s attention for allegedly leaking information to the foreign press. In 1989, he and his entire family of nine died in a tragic firebomb attack or, as Jack puts it, were “accidentalised.”

The pragmatic approach

With a PhD in Pragmatics, Mapanje has mastered “the art of meaning without saying,” as he describes his field of expertise. “In my prison memoirs there’s no need for metaphors; I can be direct, not abstract,” he admits. “But poetry is a lovely mode of expression. You can hide behind stories – even folk tales – and assume that people will see the symbols within. One of the best examples is Animal Farm; everyone knows what it truly represents.”

“At the time I knew it was dangerous to say anything directly, and our writers’ group tried to establish various ways of talking.” Yet in a cultural environment where poetry is declining as a popular form, can any ingrained political message reach the voting majority?

“Reading poetry to an audience gives you a presence; if you write it down, it depends how many people read it,” Jack remarks. He first read in his own country in 2002, five years after Banda’s death. Having been persuaded to hold Malawi’s first open election for thirty years in 1994, the life President finally lost his grip at the helm to his successor, Bakili Muluzi. “I finally discovered how much my poetry meant to people, and couldn’t believe it.”

Time will tell

Free press or not, some subjects in the West remain taboo until they’ve had a chance to heal. “I was at a conference in Canada when 9/11 had just happened,” Jack explains. “There were five people there from England, questioning the circumstances leading up to it: I joined in and said, ‘Why can’t you protest?’ But it was too fresh in their mind.”

“Time is a fascinating thing; it solves everything. Now the Americans are talking freely about what went wrong, but back then I think you might have been killed for satirising 9/11 even slightly.” But Mapanje remains adamant that creativity can thrive under even the most oppressive regime.

Back in 1986, the year before his arrest, he defiantly concurred with Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki’s sentiment that censorship “forces the writer to employ metaphors which raise the piece of writing to a higher level.” He may have spent over three years in prison for it, but ultimately his works are still on the shelves.

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

August 24, 2006 at 8:51 pm

Getting Sentimental

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Midland-born artist George Shaw has attracted much critical acclaim for his brooding depictions of scenes from the Coventry council estate where he grew up, saturated with memory and intrigue. He talks to Nick Carson about nostalgia, profundity and an innovative use for Humbrol enamel paint.

James Joyce, George reminds me, once said that even in the most mundane, commonplace existence it’s possible to have the true nature of a thing revealed to you. A similar sense of gritty epiphany resonates from the otherwise mundane scenes from Tile Hill council estate that make up his latest collection, ‘What I Did Last Summer’. Painstakingly depicted using Humbrol paint – tiny tins normally associated with boyhood modelling kits – he describes his work simply as “thoughtful, quite naïve paintings of where I grew up.”

Re-living the boyhood dream

Modelling enamel is an unusual medium for a professional artist, but the childhood memories it evokes all add to the effect of Shaw’s work. “I have an affinity with it, and can control it,” he explains. “It’s shiny and quite seductive: it gets shinier and shinier as you build up the layers, like
a glossy magazine or a pebble underneath water. When you remove it from the water it’s just a pebble. And you’re always aware of the glossy surface even though there’s the illusion of 3D space, which appeals to me.”

Coming in such small containers, can the paint be economically viable for large-scale work? “It’s cheaper than the extraordinarily expensive oil paint you get from art shops, but it’s not rock bottom,” he admits. “But it’s important to me: the name ‘Humbrol’ sets off triggers that ‘enamel paint’ alone doesn’t.” In fact the brand has come to define him: searching for George Shaw on the Internet returns, unsurprisingly, reams of pages on George Bernard Shaw – but simply adding the word ‘Humbrol’ to the query makes all the difference.

Taking your time

The sheer amount of work that goes into a painting, George proposes, can help to encourage people’s appreciation of it. “When I started off all my work was extremely detailed, down to individual blades of grass and leaves on trees: I thought that was the best way to do it,” he reveals. “It always took a long time to paint – it took time and was about time. As with pre-Raphaelite paintings, if a lot of work has gone into it then it’s intriguing for people to think about what was going through the painter’s head for all that time.”

“Now I’m better at handling materials, and have learned to create the impression that I’ve painted every single detail, without actually doing it,” he continues. “I’m getting good at making the paint do what I want it to do, so my work is getting freer and bigger. But I don’t want to be too ambitious – you have to be in control of the materials and not let them control you,” he advises.

Describing the indescribable

Despite the meticulous levels of detail that characterise his paintings, George insists that in essence it’s the deeper, conceptual meaning that’s important. “For me, it’s more about conveying feelings than scenes: I would love to be abstract and avoid making pictures altogether,” he admits. “My work is realistic while conveying experiences that have nothing to do with the solidity of the object – evocative, poetic images. I try to use the visual world to describe something indescribable, when I haven’t the language to do it justice.”

He draws attention to the hauntingly beautiful landscapes of Casper David Freidrich, and insists that a picture of a council bus shelter can instil an emotional response as powerful as a view of the Austrian Alps – it’s all about the memories associated with it. “You can be hoodwinked into thinking you’re experiencing something profound just because you’re looking at something beautiful, but you need the power of insight,” he argues. “I rarely draw anything without an emotional involvement with it. Sometimes I see something beautiful, like mist covering a mountain or light reflecting off a lake, and I make a sketch – but to me this is little more than an exercise. It passes the time, but there isn’t the same depth of meaning.”

Sharing literary sentiments

Much of George’s inspiration comes from literature, including Joyce and writers as diverse as Samuel Beckett and DH Lawrence who, he suggests, share a common thread: “They all deal with early sensations in their work: the desire to be an artist or a writer when young,” he observes. “I want my paintings to tell the stories I haven’t the skill to tell through writing.”

“Beckett’s prose prompts you to leave the text – it triggers an emotive, sensory response, recalling memories in a dreamlike state,” he enthuses. “I rarely get this from paintings, only books.” Keen to provoke a similar effect with his art, Shaw self-consciously echoes literary techniques. “Part of the nature of a book is dealing with things in isolation; moving through time in pages and chapters,” he explains. “I try to make my paintings work like this – in series, like chapters in a book. Hopefully I’ll get to the end at some point, and look back on it as a journey; a pilgrimage.”

Doing it for yourself

After graduating from Sheffield Polytechnic in 1989, George immediately gave up trying to paint for a living and went into teaching. But, seven years later, a childhood urge to be an artist was reawakened and he took two years out to study for an MA at the Royal College in London. “It’s my personal project; I couldn’t care less about recognition,” he admits. “It’s lovely to make a living from it, but you have to be self-motivated by things close to you.”

“If it’s not coming from inside you it’s not art – it’s more like graphic design, and you’re working to a brief imposed on you by an outside culture,” he argues. “The most exciting art counters that: true artists have no choice, and the work is essential for them. For me, it would have been the same achievement if no one else had noticed: it’s a question of being honest with yourself about what you’re thinking and doing. Sometimes you’ll be in step with the world; sometimes not.”

Accessible nostalgia

The major problem to avoid when dredging up deeply personal imagery is the risk of isolating your audience – a concern of which George is only too aware. “If you’re too nostalgic you become like a bore in a pub talking about what chocolate bars used to be like,” he groans. And yet, paradoxically, a striking feature of his paintings is their generic appeal: although focussing almost exclusively on the council estate where the artist was raised, the distinct lack of any identifiable feature helps to ensure that the work remains accessible.

“I paint bits of rubbish, but I don’t hark back to things like old designs for Coke or Fanta cans,” George points out. “My paintings are evocative of mood, sensation and a general notion of time – the distance between yourself and your childhood. It’s not important to me how packaging design has changed: people want to be able to connect with things, and if you’re too personal then you can lock people out,” he warns. “You don’t have to know my story to step into the nature of my work: it’s not too parochial. Although it depicts the English working class, it’s a human reading of it. The most successful paintings look out, not in: these are like me, as a kid, looking out at the world.”

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4′s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

Written by Nick Carson

August 19, 2006 at 11:26 am

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