Saturday, December 25, 2010

Buckets of Joy

For us lot here in New Zealand Christmas has already become a dull ache in the pit of our collective stomachs. The remnants of the ham has been relegated to downstairs fridge where over time it will be slowly whittled down to a hundred white-bread sandwiches. The recycling bin is over-flowing with bottles of vino and wrapping paper. 
This Christmas eve I hit the town with a couple of old friends: the wild and wonderful Teressa, the Egerton sisters - the divine Eileen and her youngest sister Louise. Eileen and Teressa are the the girls I hung out with as teenagers. The years it seems have not mellowed or restrained us. We hit the worryingly empty streets of Wellington with a vengeance. Drinking, dancing and singing with the reckless abandon of people who don’t give a dam about what other people think. I must however apologize to the selection of songs we brutally slaughtered on the sacrificial altar of Karaoke. 
However the evening began with us all arranging to meet. This left a small problem that Teressa has been away from New Zealand for about twenty years. Were should we met her? Hmmm. Wellington is a ever-changing movable feast at the best of times. A creature that regularly sheds its skin to become an entirely difference genus and sex as it pleases. However there is one constant. And that’s where we arranged to meet. 

The bucket fountain.
In 1965 Cuba Street (named for one of the boats that brought the first settlers to Wellington) was closed to traffic so the council could remove unused tram lines. While it was closed the pedestrians of Wellington grew fond of the idea of Cuba street being a mall. During this time a campaign started to keep Cuba Street closed to traffic and, in 1969, the Cuba Street pedestrian mall was officially opened by then mayor, Sir Francis Kitts.
The mall was designed by architects and town planning consultants Burren and Keen, now as work progressed these two gents decided what Cuba Mall really needed was a water feature. However funds were tight and all that was left in the budget was a mere $1000. Burren and Keen decided that they would take this money and whip up something themselves. Just a temporary feature that would hold the fort until more funds could be raised to replace it with something more grandiose I suspect.

In a garage somewhere the bucket fountain was cobbled together using a combination of good old kiwi ingenuity and madness. 
The bucket fountain as it came to be known was originally a very plain colour scheme - reports vary between black and white buckets to all yellow buckets at its first unveiling. Back in the day, however, the council in their wisdom decided it could stand to be more festive so added the current multi-colour scheme. A stroke of bureaucratic genius in my humble opinion.

Naturally this garish unwieldy creation was met with indifference and derision. Reports seem to suggest that the creators themselves were non-to-fond of it either and were among those to rallied to have it replaced. However the water-tight purse strings of the WWC conspired to keep it in pride of place. Now over forty years later the bucket fountain is still standing.
The Bucket Fountain is recognised as one of Wellington’s quirkiest and most well known landmarks. The Wellington City District Plan includes recommendations on how best to develop Cuba Mall. Within these recommendations the plan states, “The much maligned/much enjoyed sugar-scoop bucket fountain should resume pride of place in the Mall.”

Yes it’s a very silly creation but if you walk down the mall on any given day you will see someone stopped watching the buckets waiting for the succession of smaller buckets to fill the lower one so it can unleash its final payload into the pond. They will be bemused tourists with their backpacks or loud American accents. They will be small delighted children clutching onto their parents hand. Or men in business suits reflecting on their by-gone youth. Due to Wellington’s high winds the fountain regularly spews water over passers by and creates a river down the mall but that, again, is part of its hokey charm.

 My first produced screenplay - Stickmen - featured a scene set by the bucket fountain. I figured movies of towns always had scenes based around landmarks of that town - the Empire State building, the Eiffel Tower, the Spanish steps so my script should feature the bucket fountain. When we neared filming our money was tight so the producer was looking (quite rightly) at reducing locations. She asked me if there were any exterior scenes that I wanted to keep. I said the bucket fountain. She smiled and agreed - that one had to stay.   
As a child no trip into town was complete without a ride on the rickety wooden escalator at James Smiths and a visit to the fountain of playful buckets. It’s whimsical, impractical and utterly mesmerizing. A landmark that I hope will still be standing in another forty years. No doubt I’ll be meeting Eileen and Teressa there then. Merry Christmas you lot thanks for stopping in over the last few months I’ve got some fun stuff coming up so stay tuned to the Wood of Kings. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Still Cuckoo

Warning spoilers ahead. Here's the progress on my clocks. Now I hate to ruin the final effect by showing off too much before they're finished but I'm just so excited with the progress and I wanted to share it with you my friends.

It seems that every day lately this mad pursuit of mine is bearing fruit. So here's an update.  First up loyal followers will be familiar with  the internal workings of the cuckoo flip clock I posted recently. Well here's the box that it will live in.

Pretty basic but it's early days yet. Now here's how it will look with the mechanism in. Again just a sneak peek I stuck this in with bluetak just so I could get an idea about how it will look. 

Sweet isn't it? Now let's have a look at the progress on my "Russian" cuckoo clock.

Oh yes. Doesn't that look cracking? As you can see I've replaced the face with something a little different. This is a nixie tube. It's old world pre-LED or LCD displays. I've always thought that they looked really eastern bloc circa cold war so it made sense - to me anyway - to include them in a Russian clock. 

The tube is like a light bulb with 10 different filaments all stacked up. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0. so depending which one has a current running through it that will be the number that lights up. It's a great piece of retro technology that I found on trademe. 

Last and, by no means least, here's an advance preview of my pirate cuckoo clock. This one will probably end up being very elaborate but this will give you an idea of where it's heading. 

Hope you enjoy how it's all looking I'd love to hear you feedback so please do leave a message below if you can. I'm really chuffed with how they're all coming together what do you think? 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tempus Cuckoo

My Uncle Bill was a funny old fish. He was a man who could be fascinating one minute, crazy the next and then downright obnoxious the next. He was tinker. One day he began assembling a few bits of wood on his living room floor the next he had build a rowboat out of those bits - not before moving the whole show to the garage of course!

Now as kids in our family we used to visit our great-grandmother on the Kapiti Coast. She was a 101 when she died and right up until the end still was still the full quid. Uncle Bill lived with her and she looked after him, cooking and cleaning up after him. We called her "Nanny-at-the-Water" because her house was perched right at the edge of a wild and wonderful west coast of New Zealand. She used to go for a dip in that wild ocean every day winter or summer. That was maybe one of her  secrets to long life (that and possibly the cigarettes she smoked since she was 18!). In one of the spring tides Nanny-at-the-Water's house was swept into that wild ocean but thankfully the sea scouts managed to save so many pieces of wonderfulness from her house. 

As great-grandchildren we remember many of the strange treasures that filled her home. The nut-cracking bowl with the matching metal hammer. The painting of the leopard that always gave me the creeps. And the scuttling bowl boiling on the stove - crabs fresh from the ocean. But one thing I'll never forget was Uncle Bill's cuckoo clock. 

Legend has it he won it in some kind of spelling competition as a child. It would hand on the wall and be the source of constant intrigue for the grandchildren. When is the cuckoo going to pop out? Is it time? That was what passed for entertainment back then - you kids can keep your PSP and your iPods - a little mechanical bird was all we needed!

Anyhow last year Uncle Bill tinkered his last tinker. Our Aunty Virginia is notorious in our family for swooping into dead relatives homes and scoring all the best stuff. My grandfathers old super eight movies, his magic tricks great Aunty Eileen's glass fruit lamp. So imagine my surprise when she gave me Bill's clock. I guess she knows I have the tinkering gene and also it was in a very sorry state. Actually it was trash. 

So I set to fixing it up. I cleaned it and took it to pieces years of grime (and Nan's nicotine) and Bill's tinkering had left it pretty grubby and inoperative. It was a mammoth task one that would end up taking me the best part of a year. In the process of stripping down the wood I realized that the wood was pretty done in. I'll be honest with you I don't know jack shit about staining wood but I do know how to paint things (years of model-kit making) so I thought I'd paint it. With some paint I had lying around. Paint that was intended to be used to touch up my Holden Kingswood. Gloss automotive black.  

Sadly I didn't realize how important this crazy little project would become to me so I forgot to take any pictures of the clock before I began but here for your amusement is the re-imagining of Uncle Bill's cuckoo clock…

Then there was the cuckoo. This little guy hadn't seen the light of day for a few years I suspect. The job they did in the factory wasn't exactly high-end as you'll see. So I thought I'd give the little guy a new paint job as well. In keeping with the "Gloss-Black Forest" theme I thought he'd look good in white. Clean glossy white. I must apologise toany purists out there who feel in the process of all this that I'm destroying a valuable antique but I can only hope that I'm bringing new life to a family keepsake. I am taking Mad Uncle Bill's torch and running with it - Mad Uncle Nick. 

I think he looks pretty smart in his new threads. Clean and minimal. It was darn fiddly work though. But not as fiddly as the clock face...
Now those of you that know me will have seen my porcelain birds. The ducks...
And the Guinness toucans
 I've mounted these puppies in white frames and inside the frames I've put white "flocked" wallpaper. I dig these because they're like a little portal into another world. As if they're framing a window to a wall in someone else's house. This has worked well with the birds so I thought I'd give the cuckoo clock the same treatment. 
First I wanted an elaborate white frame. So I painted a ugly one gloss white. Then gave it the boxed flocked treatment. 

Don't think the irony of mounting birds on "flocked" wallpaper has escaped me. It's just a sweet little touch that if you get it you get it. Finally the frame gets a screw in it and  goes up on the wall. 
Naturally we've left enough clearance for the chains, weights and pendulums. So it's time to frame the clock. 
I think it looks pretty sweet in there don't you reckon? So here's some arty shots of it just to show it off. 

I'm really pleased to see it finally all come together. It keeps lousy time but that's not the point is it? This will be in our family for another eighty years is all I can hope. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

That's not what the probes are for...

UFO sightings have been in decline since 1960. The experts cannot agree on an explanation for this. Here's the latest movie what I wrote and brought to life by the stone cold genius of James Cunningham and the very clever people at the Media Design School. Join us in a journey into the final frontier... 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Flipping Cuckoo!

This has been a long hard journey but finally I have the internal mechanism of my flip cuckoo clock. Yep you heard me right a cuckoo clock that flips.

This madness started a short time ago when I inherited a piece of our family history. My Great Uncle Bill's cuckoo clock. It was in a sorry state of disrepair so I took it completely to pieces and started to spruce her up. It was a much bigger job than expected now I'm waiting for one small part to arrive and then I can finally put it all together.

In the meantime I've got myself a bit obsessed with cuckoo clocks. I remember standing watching Uncle Bill's clock and waiting for it to sing. Having it back in my life has brought back some happy childhood memories. It was a time before Playstation when a mechanical bird could keep a child amused for hours - literally.

Since I'd taken Uncle Bills clock to pieces I had a layout for the body of the clock but the inside was a different kettle of fish altogether. But then things started getting interesting. I thought why not take my clocks a bit left field. Why not combine a cuckoo clock with a flip clock?

The first step was I needed to find a 70s style flip clock and strip it down.

Then I had to bash build a cuckoo mechanism that would work with the flip. Because the flip is electronic I had find electronic cuckoo bits to work with it.

This involved a lot of wiring, a lot of cursing and a lot of kiwi ingenuity. Now I want you look very carefully at this little dickens...

This is the trigger mechanism for the cuckoo. I had to find a way to make the flip clock trigger this. This little piece of metal and plastic caused me a lot of stress. I wreaked two flip clocks and several quartz movements to get this blasted thing to work. Finally with some superglue, a broken clock mechanism, a screw and a lot of blind luck I convinced this trigger and my cuckoo to make sweet, sweet love.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the working flip cuckoo...

I can't tell you the how much trial and error it took to get here but it was so worth it. Flippin' awesome!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I’ve been hellishly busy lately so this blog has gone sadly neglected. However last night I went to the first ever New Zealand Writers Awards. As you would expect it was a tight, well-run evening filled with pithy speeches, fine company and a fair amount of imbibing. I wonder is the collective a “Scribble of Writers”?
My favorite part of the evening started with a conversation I had with my friend Brian. He’s a good writer and well on the way up. We were standing there with a producer when the assembled mass of writers were called into main room. Brian legged it and the producer gave me his card and said “I’m looking for a writer - will you give my card to Brian?” A humbling moment.  
It was extremely enjoyable evening. But as it is with these things it got me thinking. Many of these people are extremely successful writers. They are, however, very different in the way they approach their work. Some work better under pressure while others crumble as the screws tighten. Some work late at night, others early in the morning. Some will do ten pages a day, others will take ten years to write a screenplay. We’re a funny bunch but what  - if anything - do we wordsmiths share in common? 
My last blog was about common mistakes in writing. Cal from the cave of the cool asked this question: “I would be interested in you doing a post about scriptwriting that explains to me how many really bad scripts get made into movies. I always read about script doctors who are called to 'tweet' a script. Does too many cooks in the kitchen always mean the death of a great story?”
Now believe it or not the commonality of writers and the success of “bad movies” are linked. Which brings me to my workbench. The place where I write is also the place I build my “projects”. When it’s time for a changeover the laptop gets packed away and the soldering iron comes out. Whether I’m writing or building a project I rely on same thing. 
The quality of my tools.

Which comes back to that room full of writers. However they write they all use the same tools. I’m not talking about pens, pencils or laptops. 
I’m talking about words. 
They are our tools and successful writers know how to use them. They wield them with passion, confidence and flair. They take these words and make them sing. They create stories from these words. While every great story should be different from the one before they use story-telling technics that have been around since the ancient greeks. Aristotle’s Poetics was the original “game plan” for how to write a story and to be perfectly honest things haven’t changed much since then. The best stories (not matter how wildly creative they appears to be) still adhere to these principles. The difference is how we use our tools to shape these tales. That’s the trick and that’s where the problem of bad scripts lies.
You see where there’s a formula people think they can reproduce the same successful product over and over again. Now while this might well work for making sausages it doesn’t apply to writing. This is because of the magic created by the words. Yes structure is extremely important in storytelling but it’s a fool who thinks that they can apply a formula to craft of writing. The experienced writer plays within the confines of structure and creates a script that is both individual and original. 
Great writers write great scripts. Inversely the “sausage factory” mentality of some producers creates the opposite. So in answer to Cal’s question bad scripts come from people who don’t understand the craft of writing.
So I’d like to finish by raising a glass to the winners of last night’s awards and all the many clever bastard writers who were in attendance. You guys make magic happen.  

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It's the little things...

I got quite a lot of positive response to my post about Neil the Penguin. Many you seemed to be very interested in the writing process. While the main purpose of this blog is to discuss my mad little projects I don't mind taking a bit of time out to talk about my "day job". So I'd like to share this wee gem with any film makers out there. 

This is from the excellent book: 101 THINGS I LEARNED IN FILM SCHOOL By Neil Landau with Mathew Frederick

Turn straight to page 52


1. On-the-nose dialogue in which characters say exactly what they're thinking in lieu of subtle exposition. *

2. Excessive use of coincidence. *

3. Flashbacks that disrupt forward momentum and take the audience out of the moment. *

4. Voiceovers explaining exactly what can be seen on screen. *

5. A perfectly good protagonist or a perfectly evil antagonist. *

6. A passive protagonist who does not choose a course of action. *

7. Flat frames lacking foreground and background enrichment.

8. Too many scenes filmed from the same distance.

9. Under active actors who recite lines without seeming to inhabit the scene.

10. Uneven lighting. 

11. Poor sound quality.

12. Inattention to continuity, resulting in simple transition errors.

13. An ending that doesn't grow naturally or inevitably out of previous events. *

I see these mistakes being made over and over again by film makers. And not just those of you starting off, there are many established film makers who make these mistakes constantly. 

You'll notice that I've put little stars* next to a few. These are the mistakes that are made at the script stage. It's my job to weed these little buggers out of my work. 

Sadly more often than not other interested parties are responsible for putting them back in. These points are - I firmly believe - the difference between an average film and a truly special film. That's today's lesson. Happy writing you lot. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Flight of the Penguin

I'm a professional writer so one of the questions I get asked the most is "where do your ideas come from?" Usually I simply say: "I steal them from other people."

But the truth is I have no real idea at all.  Many years ago I remember hearing a very successful writer speak and he said he never has any ideas, he simply spends all his time preparing a runway for the ideas to land. At the time I thought he was just giving us a glib answer. However in my ten years as a paid writer I have come to believe him. I say "paid" writer not to show off or let you all know that I get paid to do this but to remind you (as I do to myself daily) that the roof over my head and food in my belly is reliant on the words I produce. 

No words - no beer and biscuits. 

Some days I panic what if I'm not good at this? What if I wake up and I can't write anymore? What if they all discover what a fraud I am? I have no idea where the ideas come from. How can I find more when I don't know where to look? However most days I just get over myself and get on with the job at hand - telling a good story and telling it well. 

Then recently I had a huge crisis of faith. I was so utterly and completely cut down by one persons comments that I was literally unable to work. In fact I hated facing the blank page. Despised it. The joy was gone. Why write when the work I produce is so under-valued by others? That all the months of effort I put in are seen to be such an utterly worthless contribution to the process of making a film? All it took was one person to cut me down so cruelly and that was it, I couldn't get up again. 

If the world doesn't want me to write I won't. And I didn't. 

But then something happened that reminded about the landing strip of ideas. 

Now bare with me here...

It started with a visit to buy hubcaps. My runabout car (not the Kingswood) is missing a hubcap on the front and the back hubcap is stuffed so I thought a new set would be in order. 

There's this place around the corner from me that has always intrigued me. It's a crazy old run-down oil-stained shop with piles and piles of hubcaps and chrome in the window. Second-hand hubcaps. Now I had and excuse to visit the shop and see what it's like inside. 

As it happens it was run by a delightful old guy in oily blue overalls with a permanently bemused expression on his face. The place was utterly deserted, there were no lights on, half an engine was lying on the floor as I entered and a car seat was blocking the "press for service" button. 

The old guy took ages to emerge from the dark hallway at the back of the shop and when he did it seemed that I had totally inconvenienced him by turning up as a paying customer. Anyway after our transaction was finished I left the shop and walked past the shop next door. 

And this little fellow caught my eye. A strange bird with a label around his neck saying "HI" MY NAME IS NEIL!

The shop was a furniture shop selling second-hand restored wooden furniture and nicknacks. I went inside and there was a bloke staining a set of drawers in the main entrance area. 

He looked at me and said, "What were you doing next door?" 

"Buying hubcaps", I replied. 

Given that was all the hub cap shop seemed to sell I would've thought the Stainer could've figured that out himself. He just nodded and went back to his drawers - I was another inconvenient paying customer it seemed. 

"What can you tell me about the bird in the window?"  

Without looking up the Stainer said:   

"I can tell you his name is Neil."

He offered me no further information. And do you know what? That was good enough for me. The little guy was a reasonable price so money changed hands and Neil rode in my passenger seat home. It wasn't until much later that night I realised that the old guy in the oil-soaked shop next door was called "Neil" as well. 

So Neil the penguin is now sitting on my bench top at home. Looking at me. I don't know what it is about him but he intrigues me. There's an idea for a story here but I'm just not sure what that story is. But what I do know is that the landing lights are on so my seatbelt is secure, my tray table is folded away and my seat is in the upright position. Prepare for landing.