Nick Carson

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Battle for your pockets

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It’s the mobile phone’s turn to have a technological growth-spurt. Cameras, sat-navs, web browsers – you can even call and text your friends if you have time. But perhaps most intriguing are the developments in gaming: it’s been a while since countless millions sat huddled over Snake on their Nokia 5110s. Could this ultra-personal, omnipresent device become games developers’ Holy Grail?

“Niche?” – Scott Foe, who heads up Nokia Game Publishing’s production offices in San Francisco, is incredulous at my suggestion that the mobile games market is still small. “It is without argument now that mobile devices are personal computers – the most personal computers available, and they’re available everywhere.”

Scott’s ten-year trail though the handheld games industry has included massively multiplayer N-Gage title Pocket Kingdom: Own The World during his stint at Sega, and Nokia’s recent cross-platform hit Reset Generation. “The battle for the living room was nothing compared to the coming war for the pocket,” is his rousing cry, and such a cracking way to kick off a feature that we raided it for the title too.

So without further ado, what is it that makes that multi-talented device that we can no longer live without so unique in the gaming space? Could the presence of features like a camera, touch-screen, microphone, GPS, accelerometer (the thing that knows when you tilt your phone), web access and all your social contacts in one place make for an entirely different gaming experience, that has yet to be tapped fully?

“Great question: I don’t think anybody’s asked me that before,” muses Scott. “I think it comes down to the fact that mobile phones are more personal than any other computing device. Having location-based services and so on is nice, but that personal nature makes mobile gaming special. I for one can’t wait to see games take full advantage of that.”

From a development point of view, three undisputed heavyweights dominate the mobile games market: EA Mobile, Glu and Gameloft. In a relatively fledgling market that’s still fighting for consumer attention, this is largely down to their wealth of development and marketing resources, links to big brands and franchises, and strong relationships with distribution networks.

But bridging the gap is a challenge even for the big guns. “We have tons of games that would be bought and enjoyed by many, many more people if only they knew how to get them,” argues Chris Gibbs, who heads up EA Mobile’s European Studios. “Discovery is still the biggest problem: how you find out that you can play games on your device, how you find the games that suit you, and how you actually buy them.”

But as Scott has already emphasised, mobiles are literally everywhere: it’s like an ocean of potential consumers just out of reach. And with the mobile industry still taking vast technological leaps at the rate the Internet was a decade ago, it’s surely only a matter of time before mindsets change.

“I always have my phone, wallet and keys in my pocket,” reflects Chris White, Glu’s Head of Studios for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, echoing that pocket-patting ritual familiar to many men as they tick off their mental checklist before leaving the house. “But I don’t necessarily carry my DS everywhere I go. There’s a definite market for mobile games,” he concludes, fortunately for his platform-exclusive employers.

So what will spark the revolution that propels these portable treats into the mainstream? According to Patrick Mork, Marketing Director at Glu, the release of a specific phenomenon like the iPhone has the potential to galvanise the entire developing community.

“The iPhone has revolutionised content discovery, purchase and usage,” he argues. “By linking it to iTunes, Apple have created a platform that makes content discovery and purchase easy. They provide content directly to consumers in a way that completely bypasses mobile operators.”

“That release really shook things up,” agrees Howard Tomlinson, Director of Game Development at Astraware, a considerably smaller outfit than Glu. Based in Keele University’s Science Park, they’re perhaps best known for adapting PopCap’s classic puzzler Bejewelled to a Smartphone audience – a market-savvy move that scooped the developer a Golden Joystick Award in 2008.

“iPhone opened up access to developers and publishers who’ve struggled to reach customers directly,” Howard goes on. “I don’t see either devices or individual games making the biggest difference to the industry, but rather the improved and slicker ways for users to browse and receive the content, and to pay for it seamlessly.”

Apple’s Application Store is matched for impact only by Nokia’s new N-Gage platform, which has evolved from the much-maligned piece of taco-shaped hardware of the same name – which targeted the handheld games market, but was unceremoniously blown out of hostile waters by the Game Boy Advance, and later the PSP and DS – into an innovative handset-agnostic distribution system.

“The N-Gage platform is a good step in the right direction,” argues EA’s Chris Gibbs. “Everyone knows how to use the iPhone Store. It’s so simple: browse, click and buy. N-Gage allows you to do this across all handsets, which should prompt a significant increase in mobile gaming.”

The cautionary tale of the original N-Gage device also holds a valuable lesson. Mobile phones challenging dedicated gaming devices head-on may not be the answer – partly because of the functional limitations, but mostly because of the way people choose to play on them.

“Mobile games are aimed at filling the ‘downtime’ in people’s lives, especially when they’re out and about,” asserts Chris, cementing an obvious difference with console games, which vie for people’s attention during their valuable leisure time, rather than while they’re otherwise at a loss for something to do with their hands. “This forces game design in a unique direction where consoles and other traditional platforms don’t usually go.”

“Great mobile games are the ones that make the most out of the limitations, not the ones that are made as compromises because there’s not enough computing power,” agrees Jef Valadares, Creative Director of EA Mobile. “But I do believe that mobile is destined to play a more relevant role in the lives of hardcore gamers, by offering ways to move their console game forward while away from their living room. The real trick will be linking the console and the mobile so they are extensions of each other.”

Howard agrees, predicting that mobiles could transcend their status as yet another self-contained platform. “You can take different-sized windows on your play experience,” he proposes. “For a football game, you could play on your console, manage your team on your PC and play fantasy league on your mobile, receiving updates as you go. All part of the same game world, but different views suited to the device you’re using at the time.”

Creative solutions are often born from tight constraints that force lateral thinking, and this is certainly true in the mobile space. “It’s a misconception that technical constraints get in the way of innovation: nine times out of ten the reverse is true,” confirms Chris Gibbs. “Handset differences have pushed developers into making the most of single button presses, display-agnostic interfaces and communication without reliance on audio.”

“High-end features like GPS, motion-sensors and cameras inspire cool game ideas that aren’t yet commercially viable, having a small user-base of suitable phones,” he goes on, but adds that “this is a rapidly moving target, and every six months using these features in gaming gets closer to reality.”

Howard at Astraware is quick to point out that if a developer feels restricted by the mobile platform, they’re probably trying to cram too much in at the expense of the user experience. “Many popular franchises have been let down by this, but then anyone buying from the title alone won’t know what to expect,” he reasons. “The challenge isn’t how much you can load in, but choosing what’s best to keep. This is a very frustrating experience for a designer coming from the console world.”

Chris White at Glu hails the ever-addictive Tetris as a triumph of gameplay over techno-wizardry – a game that rivals EA have successfully reinvigorated on mobile. “Many designers enjoy the challenge of tailoring a game to new hardware,” he asserts. “It forces developers to be imaginative to ensure the game is engaging across touch-screen, a traditional keypad, or even with an accelerometer. Some of our recent titles – like Get Cookin’ – support all three mechanisms, although not necessarily at the same time!”

As Patrick is keen to point out, this was one of the first games to take advantage of the accelerometer on Sony Ericsson’s gaming-focussed handset, the F305. Although of course where that particular brand is concerned, all speculation concerns their much-anticipated PSP phone, about which the press were excited and frustrated in equal measure in August ’08 with reports that it would hit the market by Christmas – just not necessarily this Christmas.

Patrick returns to the case at hand: “Not only was Get Cookin’ a fun game where you learned recipes, flipped pizzas and grilled burgers, but you actually flipped your phone and moved it from side-to-side in the process,” he enthuses. “No other mobile platform has leveraged this kind of functionality so far, and with Bluetooth and GPS we’ll see other innovations very shortly.”

But besides a few notable platform-specific successes, mobile games have largely comprised reversions of existing franchises – partly owing to the fact that consumers have to-date based purchasing decisions on little more than a title. Free demo downloads are a key feature of the N-Gage platform, and one solution to coax wary users into experimenting with unknown brands.

Flying the flag for the smaller studios, Howard concedes that although the Glus and EAs of this world will likely skim off the lion’s share of a burgeoning market, things will also level out at the bottom. “Far from being locked out, smaller players find it easier to get the tools, start developing, and actually reach customers,” he insists. “Indie developers can hit all kinds of game genres, and can class a game successful at much lower revenues than would even be a footnote on a large company’s balance sheet.”

Clearly a burger-flipping, handset-twirling extravaganza and a 2D gem-swapping puzzler have little in common beyond the size of the screen, but taking the limitations into account, are there common factors that can contribute to a mobile game’s success?

“There are some common factors,” acknowledges Patrick. “The game has to be attractive, well-presented and easy to get into. Controls need to be intuitive and not overly complex. And games should be designed so they can be played in short bursts of five to ten minutes, while not being so short that the value of the purchase is questioned.”

Another major difference between mobile and any more advanced platform is the length of the development cycle. Chatting to Jef Valadares at the Golden Joystick Awards, it becomes clear that one of the most rewarding elements for him is the variety. EA Mobile’s team will work on around four titles per year, while a console team could be dedicated to one game cycle for years at a time.

Chris White outlines the team behind Glu’s recent title Transformers G1: Awakening. “We had a producer, who essentially project managed the game, working closely with Hasbro; a designer, responsible for creating levels, scripting and design documentation; a 2D pixel artist, responsible for in-game artwork; a 3D artist, responsible for character modelling and animation; two programmers, and a dedicated QA tester, responsible for play testing throughout the duration of the project,” he reels off.

“On average, the first version of a game will take about six months to develop, depending on its complexity,” Chris goes on. “But this doesn’t include the porting phase, where the game is converted to the hundreds of handsets available worldwide. Deploying a mobile game is a complex business, requiring knowledge of unique devices available in each territory.”

Another reason why global impact requires global investment, and Howard advocates specialisation on particular platforms for smaller-scale outfits such as Astraware. This policy is illustrated clearly by their website, tellingly split into categories by platform – iPhone, Palm OS, Blackberry – rather than by gaming genre.

“For us, team sizes depend on the size of a project, how many platforms, and whether it’s a license or an original game,” explains Howard. Astraware games take between six months and a year to develop on average, including artwork, development and in-house quality testing. “Costs of $100k are a reasonable estimate – yes, I work in dollars,” he chuckles. “For the console industry you’re looking at one to two orders of magnitude bigger.”

Clearly it’s not all about the development process however: as all the interviewees have agreed, it’s getting the games into the hands of players that’s the toughest hurdle at the moment. Buy-in from handset manufacturers and service providers can prove crucial.

Many networks are waking up to games as a potentially lucrative way to up their ‘revenue per user’ index, and Patrick highlights recent Glu-Vodafone collaborative triumph Brain Genius as an example of best practice. But Howard laments that gaming execs at carriers often come from console backgrounds: “They want the ‘bigger, brighter, shinier’ approach, whereas the average user wants games that are easier, more fun, and aren’t a complete let down.”

But if, as Glu, EA and Astraware agree, distribution is the next big hurdle to leap, perhaps carriers will necessarily be cut from the loop altogether. To conclude, as we began, with Nokia’s Scott Foe: “N-Gage aims to eliminate not only handset fragmentation, but carrier fragmentation – in short, to eliminate the incremental costs of mobile game development.”

“I hope Nokia will continue to create original content too, otherwise I’m out of a job. Have you seen Reset Generation, the highest-production-value, most critically-acclaimed mobile title ever created?” he asks, seasoning his question with Silicon Valley modesty. “When you know recipes like that, you don’t close the restaurant. You keep cooking.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 10 of 4Talent magazine

Beware what you wear

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It may be catwalk envy that has you hoisting up the droopy bits and strapping back the flab, or you may just want to show off last year’s skinny-fits one more time. But if you see gaffer tape, tweezers and twine as part of the morning preening ritual, stop to think about what trussing yourself up like a plucked bird ripe for roasting is doing to your body. There could be plenty more embarrassing things than a stray bit of flab lurking round the corner if you keep it up – and a lot more foul-smelling.

Love it when your loins burn after a night on the tiles? Those skin-tight trousers might catch you more than a lusty bedfellow. You may have heard of cystitis, an irritating bladder infection caused by intestinal bacteria. If you’ve been unlucky enough to suffer from it, the very word might remind you of that unstoppable urge to wee, and the nasty burning sensation when you do. Tight jeans and panties can be one step towards picking it up, especially synthetic ones that build up entirely the wrong kind of heat around the crotch.

It could be a lot more long-term than a couple of days squealing on the loo with a carton of cranberry juice too. Super-tight clothing can force the cells lining the womb back towards the ovaries, causing crippling pain and even infertility in a condition known as endometriosis, which affects some 2 million women in the UK alone.

Working upwards, take that high-fashion belt down a notch to avoid trapping all manner of volatile gases and bubbling potions where they shouldn’t be – a condition known as acid reflux results when stomach contents are forced upwards, leading to painful heartburn, while at the other end a stifling build-up of bowel gases that your body would normally release as nature intended, will instead double you up with cramps and have you hobbling like a granny.

Everyone knows that if you squeeze a ball of putty tightly in your hand, it’ll bulge out somewhere else. But comic as it sounds there are much more serious consequences for those sporting waistband muffin-tops. Meralgia paresthetica is its much more fearsome-sounding technical name: too much pressure on your peripheral nerve, which leads from your thigh to your spinal column, can cause bee sting-like tingling across your thighs, groin or buttocks. Buy bigger trousers if you don’t want people assuming you have ant-infested pants.

Men: if you’re reading this and chuckling, don’t think you’re getting away so lightly. If fatherhood’s your thing you may want to consider going commando: keeping the crown jewels locked away too tightly can dramatically reduce your chances by virtually shutting down the sperm-producing cells in your testicles. There’s a reason why they’re dangling down below – you need to keep them cool.

Back to the ladies: you’ve loosened your belt and been and bit more honest about your jeans size. You no-doubt know that tight bras can lead to pain in the neck, arms and shoulders, especially if you’re somewhat heavier in the bust. But did you know that they can also damage the nerves to your hands and fingers, causing tingling and numbness that will have you twitching and fidgeting like a thing possessed?

Sore soles after a night on the dance-floor might seem an evil worth paying for jazzing up those party feet – and you might think injuring your pride doing a Naomi Campbell is the worst you should fear when tottering towards town. But sharpening those toes to a point in over-tight shoes can cause everything from corns to spinal problems. And yes, even Victoria Beckham has bunions.

Contorting your tootsies into unnatural poses is one thing, but if you don’t keep them fresh and aired then trapped sweat can cause all manner of nasty fungal infections, from athlete’s foot to infected toenails. Unfortunately, flat shoes aren’t much better as they can also cause plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation known as policeman’s heel that gives an apt warning to Bobbies pounding the beat.

Even flip-flops and backless mules can crush your toes as you push forward on them, so maybe barefoot is best – but watch your step, as over 100,000 people injure themselves like that each year too.

So there you go: next time you fish out the glad rags, besides fashion have a little think about infertility, farts and feet.

© Nick Carson 2008. First published on Channel 4’s Embarrassing Illnesses online.

Real Cinema

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“It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to put together something as accurate as possible,” is the Broomfield manifesto. Following 2006’s acclaimed Ghosts, he’s taken his experiments with ‘real cinema’ to a new level with Battle for Haditha – digging as deeply into the principles of filmmaking as he does the universal issues surrounding this symbolic episode.

“It’s great fun to play around with style,” Broomfield tells me, citing Day for Night – François Truffaut’s much-lauded film about making a film – as a creative influence. Certainly since the journalistic frustrations of 1988’s aptly-titled Driving Me Crazy, he’s carved a name for himself as a figurehead for what pigeonhole enthusiasts call les nouvelles egotistes: a growing breed of doc-makers who are themselves central to the action, together with the likes of Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock.

Given their deviation from this trademark approach, it’s all-too-tempting to pin up his two most recent films as the start of a new chapter in his work. Both are dramatic interpretations of controversial situations, with no bobbing boom or frantic chase in sight; unlike much of his personality-driven back-catalogue to-date, both stories pivot largely on a specific series of events and the complex repercussions for the many characters involved.

But like his intriguing Anglo-American drawl, or one of his elusive heckled interviewees of past films, Broomfield’s not that easy to box in: for him, both style and substance should remain organic. “I think about one project at a time; I never seem to have a problem finding my next film,” he insists. “I’m not one of these people with a list.”

The latest episode to pique his inquisitive instinct was the death of 24 Iraqi civilians in the small town of Haditha on 19 November 2005, in the aftermath of a blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) that killed a young marine riding in convoy. Whilst initial reports from the US military claimed that the deaths were a direct result of the blast and a subsequent gunfight with hostile insurgents, Iraqi witnesses told a very different story – five unarmed men in a taxi shot dead as they approached the scene, and 19 more killed in three nearby houses in an act of violent retribution over the following hours.

It was an amateur video clearly showing the bodies of women and children shot in their homes, passed to an Iraqi human-rights organisation and then to Time magazine, that laced the affair with doubt. It identified flaws in the marines’ statement, prompting a formal inquiry – although the initial conclusion was that it was collateral damage, things soon spiraled into a full criminal investigation, with several marines on trial for unpremeditated murder. For Broomfield, this was motivation enough to cement the blood-soaked incident as an example.

“I’ve researched lots of subjects that I haven’t followed through,” he admits. “When you’ve got to be with them for a year, a year-and-a-half, you might as well do something that is complicated enough, or has enough mystery to keep you going. I don’t like going into films knowing what the outcome will be: often it’s the discovery that’s exciting; changing your mind; meeting people with sides that you’d never imagined before. That’s what makes it worthwhile and fun.”

It’s a compelling approach: filmmaker both directing the action and being swept up in it. “It’s all to do with storytelling. Any way you can tell the story better so it’s more real, more entertaining, more contemporary, is great to play around with,” is Broomfield’s take. In the case of Battle for Haditha, this involved building a framework from what few indisputable facts were available – and letting the cast improvise the rest.

As with Ghosts – for which the painstaking research process including hiring Chinese students to pose as illegal immigrant workers, and posing as an Afrikaner worker himself to film the results with a hidden camera in his glasses – finding the right cast to carry the film was crucial. Not necessarily just for their acting skills, but for their genuine deep-rooted emotions, experiences and insider-knowledge that could steer both the general atmosphere and finer details more accurately than any stubborn director with a top-down vision.

Understandably, it feels like a documentary-maker’s approach to drama: letting the action unfold as naturalistically as possible. At first he considered going the full distance: tracking down the marines who had lived and breathed the sweat, smoke and blood of Haditha, and asking them to re-enact the events of 19th November 2005. But in the flesh, as he told The Times, they were “fucked up, much too jittery. Some couldn’t keep still when we were talking to them.”

One of the most shocking elements during this initial research period was the marines’ “distressing and vulgar” sense of humour; arguably a coping mechanism to detach them from the shocking things they’d seen and done, but something Broomfield had to fight through, alongside the jitters and the tranquilliser damage, to understand what they were really about.

Unable to work with those directly connected with Haditha – and with the trial just getting under way – the production favoured a more conventional call-out to casting agents with military connections, tapping into servicemen who had recently returned from active duty to keep that emotional resonance without jeopardising the whole project.

The highlight of their nine-month casting call was unearthing 22-year-old ex-marine and aspiring actor Elliot Ruiz, who at 17 had been the youngest solider deployed to Iraq, and had already had his personal story dramatised in a Pulitzer-nominated play. Corporal Ramirez wasn’t any easy first lead role for Ruiz: dredging up all manner of demons, it was a turbulent process that came to a head in an on-screen breakdown with an uncomfortable dose of realism. Iraqi civilians, many of whom had lost loved ones in the conflict, were also persuaded to lend their stories to the film as part of the predominantly amateur cast.

Despite responding to one symbolic episode, this fresh ammunition for the anti-war canon has an intentionally timeless quality. “Things like Haditha happen in any conflict, any war, anywhere,” reasons Broomfield. “The stuff that we filmed after the IED goes off is all based on reports: that’s all accurate, what happened in those houses. But I don’t want this to be seen as a forensic film. Haditha is a symbolic crime, but not such a rarity that it deserves to be looked at in isolation.”

While it may seem that the collective lens of the world’s media has been on Iraq since those first volleys were fired, it’s the other side’s perspective that has been conspicuously absent thus far: and this is the edge Haditha brings to the public debate.

“It’s a film about the language of war, and the common humanity that people share,” he declares. “In any conflict there are different points of view; it’s rarely good and evil. But most journalists have been stuck in the Green Zone throughout, and genuine Iraqi viewpoints are few and far between.”

Accordingly, the research also included flying to Aman to meet civilian survivors of the massacre – “who were there on the day, and knew the people who were killed” – plus spending a week with insurgents who had been directly involved with Haditha, and quizzing the journalist from Time magazine who first broke the story into public consciousness. The next step was securing government reports and witness statements to build as accurate a picture as possible, from multiple sides.

Iraqi witnesses and insiders in the marines told the same story: that the killings were indiscriminate as a knee-jerk reaction to their colleague’s death. Most shocking of all were the protocols he found through conversations with marines: “Their standard operating procedure rules are so fucking hardcore. If a house is described as ‘hostile’, then you just kill everyone in the house. It doesn’t matter if it contains two-year-olds or the elderly.”

But while he admits starting the project with some bias against the marines, meeting them in the flesh and realising that these were poverty-stricken kids with little or no education, thousands of miles from home in a conflict they didn’t understand, muddied the waters somewhat: “The deeper I dug into the whole story, the harder I realised it was to take a side. It was hard to condemn them out of hand as cold-blooded killers. I hope people will feel that judgment should be passed on the war itself, the architects of the war, and the future of the war. These are just poor bastards who got caught up in it.”

“Everyone has some kind of blinkered view, and it’s interesting that in some of the cinema discussions after the film, the two main camps realised just how blinkered they are. That’s what happens in war – but most traditional war films tend to be black and white, good and bad.”

Broomfield’s already made it clear that beyond the factual framework, the cast should make the piece their own, so I ask how he sees his own role in the production – particularly in still relatively unfamiliar dramatic territory.

“I enable people to deliver their performances in as relaxed a way as possible, and as real a way as possible,” he responds, after a short pause and a contemplative hmm. “It’s creating an environment that people can work in that makes them feel alright to be themselves, particularly if you’re working with non-actors. They shouldn’t be embarrassed: you want them for who they are.”

Of course, dramatic interpretation or not, Battle for Haditha has a grounding in fact – and was released while the trial was still in progress – so surely directorial control was crucial in places? “When dealing with specific milestones in the report, details from a legal document, we had to control people pretty tightly,” he confirms. “They couldn’t say whatever they wanted in those situations.”

“We worked from a pretty rigid structure of the story, but I was often steered by what they had to contribute: ‘We wouldn’t do it this way; we’d do it this way.’ I let them use their own language, being mindful that I didn’t want them acting being a marine: I wanted them being themselves. In a sense, they’re the experts – you don’t need one of those experts standing by.”

Given their deeply personal roots in the conflict, and intimate connections with its victims, surely the cast had their own agendas, even if the director endeavoured to avoid one of his own? “The film is all about agendas,” is the simple answer. “The marines, the insurgents, the people who get caught between those two forces, all have their own rationale for what they do. It’s about presenting those three agendas as accurately as possible, to an audience who probably has their own preconceptions.”

“Showing the film around, an Iraqi audience is very pro insurgents – would they even have taken money to do what they did? They see them as patriots. An American audience is always much more defensive about the marines.”

Three strands of narrative bind the film together, representing these three viewpoints: the pair of newly-recruited insurgents paid to plant the IED, the marines who seek revenge for its fatal detonation, and the civilians who are cut down indiscriminately as a result – several of whom see the bomb being planted in their quiet neighbourhood and choose to keep quiet.

While the brutality of the wider insurgency comes across, the two that plant the bomb are nervous and inexperienced, acting clumsily in the name of patriotism – but tellingly manage to flee the scene unharmed as gunfire erupts. The marines are brutal, dehumanised and reduced to killing machines by fear and rage, but ultimately emerge as pawns in a game much larger than themselves, endorsed by orders from above and crippled by remorse.

Iraqi civilian life is sketched out in various short episodes – a party to celebrate a circumcision, a boy playing with a goat, a family going to market – but this third group is finally crushed from both sides, with nowhere to turn. Crucially for Broomfield, all involved re-creating elements of their own lives, not acting several stages removed from it.

Some 15 years before Ghosts, his first venture into directing drama – 1989’s glossy Hollywood fare Diamond Skulls – he found overwhelming as a process, and readily admits to being embarrassed by the end result. Does mindless escapism and detachment from reality just not appeal?

“All forms of storytelling are interesting; I just happen to have grown up in a tradition of documentaries,” he reflects. “But I don’t like celebrity and all that goes with it: I enjoy getting to know normal people and their lives. For me, it’s about combining that with telling a structured story in an accessible way.”

Unlike that self-confessed blip on Broomfield’s CV, both Ghosts and Battle for Haditha shun the studio lights and contrived repetition of Hollywood to reveal something deeper about those involved.

“These are not pseudo actors; they’re real people who are being themselves,” he asserts. “That means you have to shoot in a different way; in real environments. You can’t shoot them on a set ’cause then they have to act, and they have no training in acting; they don’t know that the fuck they’re doing.”

Based in Jordan – Iraq was clearly too dangerous – the cast and crew lived as a community. “I had to create a barracks for the marines to live in, and the Iraqis were living in houses. If you’re shooting reverse angles, lighting the bejesus out of something and having hundreds of people standing around the set, you’ve got to have actors. It’s very, very difficult.”

By way of example, the bathroom in which Ruiz breaks down – purging himself of all those years of pent up anguish – doesn’t open up into a world of runners, tracks and dollies. It’s the actual bathroom used by the cast and crew. Maintaining the ‘real cinema’ approach are very long cuts. For the heart-rending mourning scene, the camera rolled for 40 minutes straight – no-one was going to ask the genuinely distressed women to go one more time for luck.

“I think the greatest thing that film has is the ability to describe real time,” argues Broomfield. “I don’t like lots of cuts: it’s really interesting to see a conversation, for example, or how long it takes for an argument to develop, rather than just cutting to an argument. We’re used to seeing things in real time, and cinema has the exciting ability to do that.”

“I grew up with anthropological, observational films, where the most interesting thing was seeing a long conversation between two guys in some weird language with subtitles. You get a sense of their rhythm, how they do things, what their humour’s like – no other art-form can do that.”

For Haditha he picked up countless tricks from special effects supervisor David Harris, including how to set up action shots to keep a lot of movement in the camera. “Certain things, particularly action, are also much more involving in real time than if you cut to the effect all the time,” he concludes. “It’s much more threatening if the human eye sees it as being real.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 9 of 4Talent magazine

Written by Nick Carson

April 2, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Babyproofing the Crib

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Expecting a new family member? As Kirsty Allsopp no-doubt found out when she, husband Ben and baby Bay moved into their Holland Park apartment last Autumn, there’s more to preparing your home for a little one than stocking up on preemptive nappies, breast pumps and bottle brushes and slapping a coat of blueish-pink paint on the nursery. They’ll be toddling before you can say ‘stair gate’ – so think smart and babyproof early.

Most homes have hidden hazards round every corner, and short of cladding your child in a giant squashy rompersuit and stapling foam to every wall and surface, there are going to be accidents. But every parent has to strike that uneasy balance between nurturing and neurotic, so here are our top five tips for keeping frantic casualty trips to a minimum.

Before considering any of this, regress a little. Drop to the floor on your hands and knees and think baby. Dangers that we sail past, blissfully unaware on two legs, can suddenly seem a lot more real when your eyeline is five inches off the carpet. Remember, four legs good, two legs bad – cooing and gurgling are optional.

1. Gated community:
Unless you live in a bungalow, a skyscraper or a fire station, chances are you’ll get from one floor to another using the stairs. But try doing it on all fours during your regression session and you may well end up in A&E. To be sure, install gates at the top and bottom of all staircases, as well as at the entrances to any rooms that can’t be easily childproofed – especially the kitchen and garage. Properly-fitted carpet on the stairs can also help prevent slipping, so roll it out to stop ‘em rolling over.

2. Avoid skid marks:
Fabric may be comfier for little palms and knees than harsh floorboards, but a rug on a polished floor is clearly asking for trouble. Simple enough solution: invest in some non-slip backing strips to make the carpet stick.

3. Take the edge off:
Slippery rugs or not, they’re going to take their share of tumbles. When it happens, make sure they bounce off something rubbery by softening the corners and edges of your most calamity-causing furniture. These padding products may make your home look like the inside of a tube train, but they’ll reduce tears before bedtime.

4. Come on baby guard my fire:
As if the risks of naked flames aren’t incentive enough, this is actually a legal obligation when rugrats are roaming, and shields are available for both conventional and freestanding fires. Fire alarms should be fitted on every floor, plus Carbon Monoxide Detectors outside bedrooms – especially with gas or oil heating or an attached garage.

5. Hang ‘em high:
During your crawling session you’ll notice just how many things there are scattered about that could provide tots with an overwhelming desire to push, pull, chew or swallow them. Tie curtain cords out of reach, use cable tidies to bundle together that spaghetti junction of electrical cords behind the telly, cover all unused sockets with plug guards, and always check the floor for coins, buttons, beads and assorted fastenings that your pride and joy could hoover up.

© Nick Carson 2007. First published on Channel 4’s 4Homes.

Written by Nick Carson

March 28, 2007 at 5:52 pm

Jonathan Ive

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Perhaps the most influential product designer of his generation, the soft-spoken Brit that steered Apple from failure to phenomenon discusses form, function and how brushes and plaster dust helped shape the man he is today.

“The design we practice isn’t about self expression. I don’t want to see a designer wagging his tail in my face. I want to see a problem solved, and in a way that acknowledges its context,” states the man behind some of the most understated yet revered designs of the last decade – from iMac to iPod, his mass-market consumer products are as sculptural as they are purposeful.

Gentle curves and translucent fruity shades may have made his name, but it’s the technical minutiae that really animate Jonathan Ive. Hours of sweat and head-scratching are channelled into the finest of functional details – innovations that could set the tail of the most reserved designer flapping furiously. But instead they’re carefully smoothed over in soothing white for that cool and effortless je ne sais quoi.

Reaching for one of any number of examples at his fingertips, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Design turns to the latest iMac. “The stand is a simple piece of aluminium which has been stamped and then rolled,” he begins, allowing himself a chuckle that – refreshingly – his British pronunciation of ‘aluminum’ isn’t met by raised eyebrows. “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating.”

“We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” Ive’s notoriously self-effacing nature allows a flicker of pride to shine through. “A horseshoe foot that went below the stand. In between that and the stand was a cunning material designed to absorb the energy of the wobble.”

“We try to solve very complicated problems without letting people know how complicated the problem was,” he shrugs. “That’s the appropriate thing.” And this deep-rooted – and very British – notion of what is right and proper carries through into his resolute refusal to bask in individual glory. Rather like that horseshoe foot, he sees himself as one of many essential components meshed together beneath a polished and professional exterior.

“Teamwork is the only way – not out of principle, but out of necessity,” he reasons. “You can’t develop these ideas and take them to market by yourself.” Several members of the team that he praises as “ridiculously smart” have been together for over twelve years, resulting in intuitive, almost pre-verbal communication over the smallest of details.

But despite such close-knit familiarity, they’ve never worried about stagnation. Every time a fresh product is released under the Apple banner, for all the frenzied public adulation their core market is notoriously hard to please – for which he’s genuinely grateful for keeping standards high and avoiding complacency.

“Half of our customers are creatives; people who are incredibly tenacious and forever criticising what we’re doing. So that’s wonderful,” he enthuses. But your own criticism is easier to take, and Ive has always been keen to disconnect any sense of ego from the task at hand, in favour of rigorous self-analysis – a goal that he admits has taken many years to achieve.

Considering his first major gig out of college was co-founding an independent consultancy, Tangerine – developing everything from power tools to televisions – he’s settled pretty comfortably into the mould of a dedicated in-house team. But then he never took too well to the business side of things, and relishes the opportunity to plough all of his resources into the creative side, a luxury that most freelance designers simply can’t afford. Although it’s fair to say he’s earned it.

“There’s tremendous pressure on designers to do anything except focus on the path of design,” he observes. “One of the dangers is that there’s a focus on trying to be professional, rather than being a good designer. But I’ve learned that if I focus on design, somehow the other things will happen if the ideas are good. You can circumnavigate all kinds of different stuff with a good idea, and that’s tremendously powerful.”

Famously media-shy and cocooned within a utopian design environment that he’s described as “heavenly”, Ive’s is an existence so exhaustively concerned with the pure nature of design that for his counterparts on the ground it seems almost like an ivory tower – or rather one made from twin-shot white composite polymer and laser-welded aluminium. After all, it’s talk of innovative processes, precise tolerances and advanced materials that extorts glimmers of excitement from this calm, shaven-headed pioneer.

“I think as a design team we’re beginning to get the hang of this,” Ive allows himself. “My drawing’s got worse and worse and it just doesn’t matter.” Ever since his college days – studying Art & Design in the mid ‘80s at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic – actual sketching has been a self-confessed weakness. “I was at college for four years, just at the point when computers were getting important,” he recalls.

“I started hand-drawing and had a horrible time. I was frustrated because conceptually, I couldn’t do something that I wanted to do.” For three of the four years computers were more hindrance than help, and it wasn’t until his final year that he had his first bite of an Apple Mac. He wasn’t to know it was the start of a long and monogamous relationship.

“I remember coming across this remarkable product. It was easy to use, and you could do little things like change the noise when you made a mistake,” he grins. “It sounds small, but at the time that was remarkable. I went from feeling stupid to feeling empowered – I somehow connected to the people that made it. The object testified to the care that went into it.”

Soon after graduating, Ive was to make ever closer contact with Apple and his mentor Steve Jobs through Tangerine. They were clearly impressed, and by 1992 he’d moved in with them in San Francisco. Six years later he was turning their fortunes around with the first iMac. Then the well-trodden tale begins: not only did it shift two million units in its first year, it made its beige boxy rivals look moribund and so last millennium.

It’s no coincidence that it was tender loving care and attention to detail that first attracted Ive to the brand that’s now synonymous with his career – the difference between superficial differentiation for its own sake and genuine investment in a better and more innovative product. From hidden horseshoe feet to the celebrated iPod one-touch navigation, his design team pours time and resources into getting it right.

By way of example, he draws attention to the new iPod shuffle – which ships for $79 in the US. Its extruded aluminium body clips together with a tolerance of 0.03 – a precision that, for those that need to look it up, is remarkable. “The way the parts fit together is extraordinarily tight,” he insists. “I don’t think there’s ever been a product produced in such volume at that price, which has been given so much time and care. I’m really excited by that, and even if you can’t articulate its value, at some level I hope that integrity is obvious.”

That inbuilt sense of intangible value has served him well through the years, and had a somewhat unusual genesis. Casting his mind back to his days at Newcastle Polytechnic – “in some ways I had a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work” – Ive picks out a personal inspiration figure faceless to the rest of the world. “In my first year, we had a class that was pure sculpture; an exercise in the translation from vocabulary to physical object,” he recounts.

“We had to make moulds, and sculpt the object from plaster. It was such an interesting exercise; so pure and so terribly focussed. What really struck me was that the chap who taught the class had a terrible allergy to plaster dust. But he thought it was so important that he’d wear these ridiculous gloves and mask, and spend whole mornings in the plaster room.”

“And he had these fantastic big brushes in his pocket. When he came round, he wouldn’t just stop and talk to us; he would make us brush off what we were working on and clear a little space. Even if it was terrible, and in our minds didn’t deserve any clearing of space, there was something about respecting the work; the idea that actually it was important – and if you didn’t take the time to do it, why should anybody else?”

Jonathan Ive was in conversation with Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ, following his award of Honorary Doctor at the University of the Arts London, 16 November 2006

© Nick Carson 2006. First published in Issue 5 of TEN4 magazine

Written by Nick Carson

December 12, 2006 at 3:28 pm

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