Things I learned in Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to America in the company of some friends of mine to attend Filmapalooza, the annual gathering of the winners of the 48 Hour Film Project (which we won last year in Edinburgh and Glasgow). It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, not a place I knew much about, but I was excited, particularly as I’d never been to America before.

The experience was a bit overwhelming and hard to summarise, so I’ve written a bunch of fairly unconnected paragraphs in the hope that together they’ll convey the whole chaotic experience better than a linear blog post could. Here goes!

airport3

I kinda hate airports. For a person with social anxiety, an airport is an obstacle course of awkwardness. There are even forfeits: if you fail to understand the instructions being barked at you at the security checkpoint, your punishment is to be felt up by some guy you don’t know. And if I didn’t have two well-travelled friends with me, the whole thing would have been much worse, as nothing about the process of checking in / checking bags / passport control / boarding is at all self-explanatory, and there is the constant sense that if you do something wrong you’ll find yourself in a lot more trouble than if you, say, knock a Fruit Corner off a shelf at Sainsbury’s.

The actual flying part is okay, except when it’s not, but most of the time it is. I don’t understand how anyone ever has the nerve to put their seat back though. I think there should be some sort of prize — maybe a cash reimbursement — for getting through the whole flight without putting your seat back, especially if the person in front of you has. Also, sometimes the plane is way too hot and they only bring round tiny cups of water every hour or so, probably to stop everyone needing to use the toilet. And whenever there’s any turbulence I quickly think back over the last day or so of my life and convince myself that this would be a dramatically appropriate point for the plane to crash and kill me. And one time I noticed this bit of the wing that was flapping up and down as if it was about to come loose. Actually, maybe flying isn’t okay.

Atlanta is pretty. Just the right amount of sleek modern city centre surrounded by picturesque suburbs sprawling off into the forest. It feels nice and, considering the high crime rate, unexpectedly not scary. I didn’t think much about the fact that anyone passing me on the street could be carrying a gun, or that there’s no universal healthcare, or that they still execute people, or that they’re considering electing a billionaire cartoon villain who frequently makes misogynistic comments and has suggested banning an entire religion from entering the country on the basis that he thinks they’re up to something. I suppose the niceness is what allows the people living there to forget these things most of the time too.

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American people are also nice. Nice enough that I am now baffled as to where the stereotype of British politeness came from. The people I encountered in America were infinitely more polite than the grumps you meet in Britain – with the notable exception of the border control guy to whom I had to justify my existence at Atlanta airport, and who managed to make me feel like I shouldn’t be there as soon as I arrived. But border control guys aren’t technically people, so I won’t count him.

America may be nice, but here’s one thing it is not: it is NOT an enchanted land that causes me to shed all my social inhibitions the minute I set foot on its soil. As is my habit, I’d sort of fooled myself into thinking it might be, but the disappointing truth is that I am the same person even when I’m on a different continent. This meant a certain amount of standing around awkwardly at the social events I attended, particularly during the ice-breaker. And after that, a certain amount of staring out the window of a revolving restaurant rather than talking to the people I was with, and then a certain amount of staying in my room while my friends were off partying, talking to myself and trying to come to terms with the fact that this trip might not be quite the personality transplant I’d been hoping for. (That all sounds bad, but if you know me it’s actually pretty normal.)

Staying in a reasonably fancy hotel is a cool experience. If you ever get the chance to stand in front of a floor-to-ceiling window high above a nocturnal cityscape of twinkling lights, holding a drink and wearing an actual shirt with buttons and everything, you may experience the strong sense that you have finally “made it”. However, this sensation is fleeting and untrustworthy, and when you retire to the nice room you are only staying in thanks to a hefty discount, you may find yourself terrified to touch anything in case it costs you hundreds of dollars you don’t have. Seriously, they had a bottle of water with a cardboard thing around it saying “enjoy”, and it was only if you looked closely you could see it also said “$5”. After that I started looking for prices on everything. It took us several days of tentative experimentation before we discovered the Wi-Fi was actually free after all. Awkward unemployed Scots are not made for such surroundings.

Despite all that, the film festival was fun. The screenings — of ours and other people’s films — were very enjoyable, and the people I did talk to were nice and often quite complimentary about our films, which was double nice. If you’re lucky, I might do another blog post soon about my favourites of the other teams’ films, because there were too many good ones to cram in here.

cocacola1Coca-Cola World is a little pocket of brightly-coloured dystopia where any staff member who doesn’t show appropriate enthusiasm for the ubiquitous fizzy concoction is presumably taken to a back room and dissolved in a vat of it like an unfortunate tooth in a school science project. But it’s quite fun, and all the propaganda did help me remember how much I love Coke.

Zaxby’s is not a great restaurant for vegetarians. And by not great, I mean not only does it offer no substantial vegetarian options, but it also has slogans on the walls making fun of us for being sissies. The rebellious side of me felt that they’d initiated hostilities towards us, and that it would be quite within the rules for me to perform some minor act of vandalism in their restaurant that they wouldn’t discover until after I’d left. But then I found their drinks machine had raspberry Coke, so I decided they were okay. Coke is great.

Zaxby’s aside, finding vegetarian food in America wasn’t as hard as I expected – most burger places have a veggie option, and even the fried chicken place we ended up at on the last day offered the welcome option of ordering four sides in place of a main course. I won’t claim to have gained any real insight into American cuisine, since my diet both there and here consists almost entirely of bread, cheese, meat substitutes and sugar in various configurations, but I did discover that working out how much to tip is not quite the ordeal I’d been dreading. Oh, and non-alcoholic drinks aren’t an issue either, because literally everywhere has Coke. And why not? Everyone loves Coke.

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The museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts will make you happy if you like the Muppets. If you don’t like the Muppets you don’t deserve to be happy, so you should go there either way.

Six Flags Over Georgia, which we had planned as a treat for our last full day in America, turned out to still be closed for the winter. This was a bit of a downer, but on the plus side, we went to the Amazing Escape Room instead! I knew I’d like escape rooms, as they appeal to my unfulfilled childhood ambition to be a contestant on The Crystal Maze or Knightmare. And now I’ve done one (and we did escape, with over ten minutes to go, which is basically like getting over 100 gold credits after deductions in the Crystal Dome – shut up, it is!) I kinda want to do all of them. In the world. While swigging from a hip flask of Coke. I heard somewhere that Coke increases your brain power. Now where did I hear that?

This blog, it is a-changin’

Not necessarily in a dramatic way, but it is a-changin’. For a start, I’ve finally filled in the “About” page and added a “Projects” page which provides easy access to all the creative stuff I’ve done that is currently available on the internet. This includes a few new projects which I will mention here in case you can’t be bothered tiring out your finger clicking all the way over to the new page I spent ages working on.

Rainy Day Adventure ClubFirstly, I haven’t properly talked about it here yet, but in September of 2014 I created a new podcast called Rainy Day Adventure Club, which I’d describe as a cross between a Dungeons and Dragons game, an audio version of Knightmare, a Choose Your Own Adventure book and something very silly indeed. There are nine episodes already, with more to come in the not too distant future. I’m rather proud of what my friends and I have done with it so far – it’s even family-friendly-ish, which is unlike us. If you’re interested, go and listen to some episodes in the archive to see if it’s your sort of thing.

ScarecrowSecondly, late last year I helped some of my more talented friends make a finger puppet version of the Wizard of Oz. It’s quite delightful, though decidedly NOT family-friendly. Definitely worth watching if you’re into irreverent and satirical twists on innocent subject matter. You can find the whole thing on YouTube here.

And there is more going on with my creative projects too, a lot more – an exciting whirlwind of stuff! – but I’ll save that for later posts. Hopefully there will be plenty of those in the near future, as I’m going to start using this blog as a hub for pretty much everything I’m doing. That will almost certainly still include complete garbage like this though, so don’t worry. Things won’t change too much around here.

Snails, Sirens, Scary Paintings, Singing Kettles

For this post I’m going to try out more of a journal format. Instead of rambling on for ages about one thing, I’ll ramble briefly about a bunch of fairly unrelated things. If it turns out too disjointed and pointless I won’t do it again – just mixing things up because that’s the kind of crazy guy I am.

I’ve been working on Project Snails for three solid weeks! Go me! After a rocky end to last year, I had an equally boulderesque start to this one – was still recovering from Project Ho Ho Ho and writing the credits song for it which took way longer than it should have – but when I finally got my butt in gear and placed it on a chair in front of a computer with my novel open on it, I found a burst of creativity waiting for me. That’s the upside of taking an extended break from something, I suppose. When you immerse yourself so fully in a project, your unconscious carries on working even when you think you’re doing something else.

AaaaahhhI’m now at 95,000 words in the latest draft. 100,000 is what I’m thinking of as the halfway mark, though considering how brutally I’ve been cutting stuff during this rewrite, I’ve probably passed the true halfway mark already. Everything’s going pretty well, though one major storyline is having to be so severely reimagined as I go that I feel as if I’m laying down railway track in front of a moving train à la Gromit in The Wrong Trousers. Also, I’m using Scrivener now. It’s pretty good, especially if you have lots of different chapters and drafts which you want to be able to quickly switch between and view side by side. Which I do.

The Sirens of TitanI’m not reading enough. As I’ve mentioned before, writing does this to me. The only book I’ve finished since my last book post is The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, so I might as well talk about that now. Having grown up ingesting The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in various forms, it’s hard not to read Sirens as a sort of precursor: wry science fiction (wryence fiction) where dysfunctional people get whisked off to various planets and moons and put in vaguely absurd situations by forces outside their control. In the process it captures some of the random, chaotic, weird beauty of life. Breathtaking imagination is on display, in for example the descriptions of the creatures that live on Mercury, and of the being called Salo; these passages ought to make most writers – myself included and emphasised – slightly ashamed of their own lack of imagination. Also, it’s nice to finally know what my parents were talking about when they used to go on about chronosynclastic infundibula. Nerds.

I’m watching the first season of In Treatment. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a show which is set almost exclusively within the therapy sessions of several different people. The characters seem so real that it feels almost wrong to be spying on them at their most vulnerable, as the show invites us to. Its more intense episodes can leave you numb and in dire need of a hug. But your investment in the characters’ progress and the weekday-based episode structure draws you back. The music is great too.

I had an incredibly unsettling dream last week. It was framed as a trailer for a horror film, though I was actually experiencing it rather than watching it. I was wandering round an underground art gallery which seemed to have no exits but was quite full of people. All the paintings were fairly normal except for this creepy painting in one room which was of a woman with a messed up face (either she had a freakishly oversized mouth or there was just a hole where her face should be). Gentle, sad classical music was playing in the gallery but whenever I looked at the creepy painting it changed to disturbing, chaotic, dissonant strings. I tried to avoid looking at the painting, but as I walked around I kept hearing the music change as the painting entered my peripheral vision. After a while, bad things started to happen – people in the room with the painting started dying, other paintings started to change – but I don’t remember many more details. The strangest thing was that the dream didn’t scare me that much at the time – as it was a trailer, I was more impressed by its scariness than scared by it – but the more I thought about the dream the following day, the more it freaked me out. Posting it here in the hopes of exorcising it from my mind, so apologies if it latches on to yours.

Our Singing Kettle spoofThe actual Singing Kettle people apparently saw our dirty Singing Kettle parody. This was mentioned in a recent issue of the Scottish Sun (the article is also online but I won’t link to it because I feel icky enough just being mentioned in a tabloid). The main emotions this conjures up are the customary shock and disbelief that come with my stupid little world making momentary contact with the larger, real world, and some to-be-expected traces of shame. At least they were nice enough to laugh it off, so we can probably stop worrying about being sued now!

Ho ho ho! We did it!

And by “we” I mean me and a group of my friends. Mostly me and Gavin. Okay, me and Gavin and Euan and James. Okay, a whole bunch of people, including some lovely people who I don’t even know that well, but who got roped in to help us out. Thank you, all of you, for helping us get it done.

And by “it” I mean the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar, a collection of 25 comedy sketches we made for the first 25 days of December 2012. I’ve mentioned it before; it was Project Ho Ho Ho, one of the eleven projects mentioned in the very first post on this blog. Which means it is the first of those projects to be definitively finished. Hooray! If there’s one thing that can make absolutely anything feel worthwhile, it’s scoring a big line through it on your To-Do list.

But before I do that, I want to take a quick look back at it. For all my self-ascribed creativity there aren’t many things I’ve done that have produced a complete, publicly accessible end product, and this is one of even fewer that I’m really quite proud of. It was also quite an intense experience in that Gavin and I spent pretty much a whole month working on and thinking about nothing else but the advent calendar. There was a fair amount of stress about filming during the days and an unfair amount of staying up into the small hours of the morning to get sketches edited in time. But it was worth it. For someone who’s been unemployed for far too long, there is something refreshing and necessary in tearing yourself out of bed at 5am and setting out into the cold pre-dawn to catch a train to Glasgow and help film a guy running around in only boxer shorts and clown make-up.

Which reminds me, here’s a sketch I wrote:

There! Preserved for future generations to enjoy. Something you might have noticed about that was that it was a bit weird. I seem to have trouble writing normal sketches – the sort where someone walks into a shop and has an amusing conversation with someone else – so most of the ideas I came up with for the advent calendar (many of which didn’t get past the ideas stage) were what you might call “gimmicky”. Here’s another example, based on the constant stream of thoughts inside my head in various social situations:

That sketch is one I wasn’t quite sure about when we were making it. I had the idea for a while but didn’t write it until a couple of days before we had to film it. I kept rewriting the ending but couldn’t work out how to make it punchy, and I started to want to shelf the idea until after the advent calendar to give myself more time to do it justice. But we needed all the sketches we could get, and the filming was already partially arranged, so we bit the bullet and went ahead with the best version I had. Ultimately, I think the actors are great and make it work, so I’m glad we did it. It’s easy to keep all your precious ideas locked away, never fully developing them in case they don’t turn out the way you imagine. The advent calendar provided just the right amount of pressure to make us release some of our ideas into the world, regardless of whether they were perfect. I think that’s a valuable thing sometimes, especially in terms of learning to do better next time. And it clears some space on your shelf for new ideas.

Anyway, let me link to a few others not written by me, to show I’m not entirely self-centred:

  • Hilarious Pranks! is probably my favourite of all the sketches, though some would say we went too far with it.
  • This spot-on Masked Magician parody was written by my brother.
  • Jesus: The Teenage Years has been received well by those who don’t mind a bit of light sacrilege.
  • People also seem to like Royal Pregnancy, our most topical sketch – written, filmed and edited overnight after the announcement of the royal baby on the 3rd of December.
  • Though I hesitate to link to it, this terribly vulgar Singing Kettle parody is our most viewed video and one of the few that seems to be continuing to accumulate views. People are disgusting, and clearly I can’t exclude myself from that statement.

And that’s just a scattering of the sketches we made. If you enjoy these, please do go and watch the others (and delve into the older videos on our YouTube channel if you feel like it). One of the most interesting things about this whole project was seeing other people’s reactions to what we did. Even though we weren’t sure of some of them, I’ve heard almost every sketch being singled out by someone as one of the highlights. Which suggests to me not only that we didn’t make too many irredeemably bad sketches, but that we made quite a variety of them to appeal to different tastes. That may be the thing I’m most proud of, and reassured by. 🙂

Festive funsies / We’re all going to die

Quick update on Project Ho Ho Ho, the silly video advent calendar I talked about a while ago.

We’ve already had more contributions than I was afraid we might – we’re on $1,311 as I write this. But unless we get some major new momentum going in the 3 weeks we have left, we’re not gonna reach our target of $4,000.

This doesn’t matter on Indiegogo as much as it would on Kickstarter, as we still get the money we raise even if we fall short of our target; Indiegogo just takes a bigger cut for itself. Still, it would be nice to get there. If anyone reading this wants to chip in or share the project with others using their preferred medium of interaction, all us Beyonders would be most grateful.

What I really want to mention, though, are the video updates we’ve been doing. In particular, the one below. (It’ll make more sense if you’ve already watched the main campaign video here.)

I’m mostly posting it here because I’m worried all the links posted to it on Facebook, Twitter, etc. will quickly get buried, whereas this blog feels a little more permanent. (Not sure what makes me think that, but I do.) And I’m quite proud of it, so I don’t want it to just disappear.

It was basically made by three people. Me, who wrote it, and held the microphone during filming. Lynn, who acted in it and brought it exactly the kind of intensity it needed. And Gavin, who gets the credit for pretty much everything else about it, including the swirling HUD elements, gunshots and wavy tentacles. Oh, and the giant octopus laser pigeons were his idea.

The day we shot it was fun, but since I’m much better at talking about pain and strife than about fun, I’ll focus on the writing. Basically, we (the advent team) were trying to think up ideas for updates, little nuggets of video we could release at intervals to encourage people to give, or at least give us an excuse to further badger our Facebook friends for money. (If you’re interested, here is another example, with me dressed as a woman.)

Since this campaign sort of depends on convincing people we’re funny, the emphasis in these updates was supposed to be on comedy. But I have trouble with comedy. “We’ve noticed!” you heckle. “I… um… shut up,” is my cutting put-down. Trying to write a pure comedy script is, to me, like trying to row a boat using only one oar: technically possible, I guess, but only to someone more talented than me. Same goes for pure drama – what is life without humour? I can’t seem to be entirely silly or entirely serious. They’re two sides of the same coin, totally dependent on each other. In my view, there’s nothing that can’t be joked about, because joking about something doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s not serious or that you don’t care about it. Likewise, I can’t turn the serious side of my brain off even when thinking about the silliest or most trivial subjects. Put simply, I’m not a very versatile writer.

So I came up with the message from the future idea as a way to combine silliness and seriousness: an update treating something inherently ridiculous and trivial – the Advent Calendar – as if it were the most important, profound and life-changing thing in the world. When you watch Lynn’s performance, it’s actually pretty dramatic – it’s only when she reminds you of the utterly ridiculous context, as she does at points throughout the video, that it becomes funny.

Of course, it’s also a parody of various tropes from popular culture – post-apocalyptic survival, time travel, earnest monologues to camera. Some of this was probably because I’d been watching too much Battlestar Galactica, though I did ultimately resist putting in a nerd-pandering line about frakking toasters. Parodies are another way of being funny without just being funny; they can be fairly dramatic scenes in the style of some genre or specific text, but with one subversive element thrown in that makes the whole thing absurd.

Now I’m thinking up sketch ideas for the actual advent calendar, and my favourite idea so far – while it will hopefully be funny – is also quite philosophical and potentially melancholic, to the point that I’ve actually felt kinda haunted since I came up with it. But I also have an idea that’s about someone sitting on a toilet so, y’know, it all balances out.

Ho ho ho! Oh god, it’s only April. Ho ho ho!

The first project I’m gonna talk about is the Beyond Studios Advent Calendar. Beyond Studios are my film-makey friends, who used to make silly video advent calendars for each other. Now we’re making a silly video advent calendar for the world. Watch this thing:

I referred to this project in my earlier post as Project Ho Ho Ho. This vaguely ominous naming convention is actually something my friends and I used in order to keep secrets from each other when we were working on videos for our old advent calendars. Every day of December we’d watch a new one of these videos and we’d go “Oh, that’s what Project Monkey on a Tricycle was about! I would never have guessed!” It was one of the best things about Christmas.

So in some ways I regret the fact that we’re making this year’s advent calendar public. It means our whole group will know about every project in advance, and they won’t be so in-jokey and personal. But change is good, and if it turns out not to be good then you can always run away from it and go and cry until it changes back.

Anyway, we’re giving it a shot! People seem to like the pitch video, which gives me hope that they’ll like at least some of the final sketches, even if we don’t reach our funding target of $4000.

My main worry is that we already have so many funny ideas for sketches – none of them mine – that I won’t be able to come up with anything good enough to make it to the calendar. I’m hoping that this insecurity will spur me on to work harder, rather than make me afraid to share my ideas. The more I work on an idea, of course, the more confident I’ll be in it, but I’ll also be more protective.

I also have a problem where the more I work on something, the bigger and more daunting it becomes. Short films become features, stories become novels, and being realistic about the scope of my idea becomes compromising my glorious vision of an epic twelve-volume science fiction cycle centering around a space fisherman called Bob. I fully expect that at least one of my sketch ideas will get so out of control that I’ll quietly slip it into my jacket and smuggle it out of the advent calendar project, hoping to one day adapt it into a six-season HBO series starring my actor friends Heather and Euan. See, that’s why this blog is helpful! If I’m aware of these dangerous urges, maybe I can control them.

Speaking of which, I could easily spend the rest of the day making this blog post even ramblier and more self-indulgent, but I have lots to do (as I mentioned earlier today). I’ll speak to myself – and any of you random onlookers – again later!