Author Archives: n-gauge

Don’t Look At The Train!

In my dealings with a panicky pupil today, I was reminded of an allegorical story I was told when I was a recently-qualified teacher. As those who have read some of my previous posts will know, I have faced my share of mental health issues over the years, and early in my teaching career I was experiencing heightened anxiety and panic attacks.

As I sat in his kitchen with my teacher mentor, a wonderfully wise, gentle man called Bernie Robson, who is sadly no longer with us, he asked me to close my eyes and painted the following picture:

“Along an arrow-straight length of track, a mighty goods train is thundering towards you. In front of you, struggling against their bonds, lies a prisoner roped to the rails. The train driver has seen the impending disaster, and has applied the brakes… but with the weight of wagons behind it, the engine has no chance of stopping in time. It will plough headlong over you and the stricken prisoner in precisely 45 seconds.

The ropes are tied in 8 sturdy but simple knots. Each will take 5 seconds to loosen. So if you retain your composure and focus, untying each knot with single-minded sang-froid, you will have 5 seconds left over to drag the prisoner to safety… The key message, therefore?

DON’T LOOK AT THE TRAIN!”

Bernie appreciated, of course, that when your mind is playing tricks on you and refuses to allow you the calm and control required to negotiate even the apparently simplest of mundane tasks, such a message is easier said than done.

But I’ve never forgotten it, or him. And at times like this afternoon, when I pass it on to others, I hope it helps them too.

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Mug shot

Perhaps like me you watched the recent “Blue Planet 2” series in ashamed dismay at our species’ ability to sully the natural environment with plastics and other waste – and in particular the disastrous way in which plastic is finding its way into the water column, and the food chain…

But maybe you also found the final episode as inspirational as I did, showing as it did people around the world seeking to reverse these negative effects. Uniquely among the planet’s inhabitants we have the understanding and the resources to do something about these effects. The will to do so is the key ingredient – apparently missing among some of our political leaders…

But not amongst the Ballard School Eco-Ambassadors! Alongside our various other school-wide campaigns, we had targeted staff use of polystyrene cups for some time. The staffroom in the school’s old main building, unfortunately, does not allow for the plumbing-in of a sink or dishwasher. Although it is certainly not beyond the wit of man to use one’s own mug and wash it up somewhere else, as and when needed, this is obviously not ideal in the hurly-burly of a busy teaching day. The school had been supplying unrecyclable polystyrene cups for some time.

It was deemed unwise to try and and wean our colleagues off their use of these whilst we awaited our impending school inspection – none of us really fancied getting lynched by frazzled friends! But once this was out of the way, before Christmas, the way was clear…

And so at the start of this term, we finally asked the Catering Manager to cancel all future orders of polystyrene cups. Instead, an order for 100 new white china mugs was made. Staff still needed the final push into accepting these, and so with my fellow Eco-Ambassador colleagues Jim and Emma, we have pledged to relay trays of clean and dirty mugs up and down from the staffroom to kitchen as and when necessary, so staff don’t need to worry about washing them themselves. Eventually we hope others will join in with the fetching and carrying… The pupil Eco-Committee has also created a staff scoreboard, which will show when staff are seen using mugs or the dwindling remaining supply of polystyrene cups. A nice combination of carrot and stick!

Admittedly this is all (if you’ll excuse the expression) just a drop in the ocean. But it feels good to have struck a blow for our environment.


#nurture1718

Well, I have been doing these “turn of the year” posts since 2012-13, it would appear (though I haven’t done one every year). Once again, it’s intended to be a round-up of things that happened in 2017 that I am happy about, and then some things I am looking forward to in 2018: here goes with the retrospectives, first (in no particular order)…

Spending a wonderful few days in Normandy with my family to celebrate mum’s 70th – including niecelet and nephling’s very first time abroad…

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Maintaining my 100% attendance record at CampED, and holding the 2nd CampEDSouth (including the first ever CampED boat trip…)

Renewing contact with old uni friends with whom I’d been apart for too long (isn’t WhatsApp amazing!)

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Getting a flourishing Animation Club going at my school, with purpose-built hand-made stages of my own design.

Taking part in two am-dram productions, one of which required two 20-second total costume changes before rushing back on as utterly different characters…

A fantastic second annual Devon hockey tour with the Ballard Beavers (our ‘parents/staff/various hangers-on’ team).

A wonderful reunion with some old schoolmates – getting ready for next year’s 30th anniversary of our leaving school…

reunion

Leading our school’s successful efforts to earn a Bronze Eco-School Award (and being well on the way to Silver!).

Taking part in the March for Europe on 25th March (standing up for democracy with tens of thousands of others just a few days after the Westminster Bridge terror attack). And continuing to fight wherever I can against the enormous national disaster that Brexit represents. #iremainhopeful

A bracing but brilliant “Mary Day” drawing and painting on Hurst Spit with friends and family (inspired by our dear friend Mary de Castro, who I wrote about here.)

Another summer of Sailability volunteering, complete with the Hansa National Championships held at our lake.

LOTS of cycling over the summer, building up to my second participation in the annual Ride the Forest with Jens Voigt, in support of the Epilepsy Society.

And now what about 2018?

On a “big picture” scale, it’s a little tricky to express ones hopes for the new year, so unpredictable has the last 12 months been. It’s tempting to throw ones hands in the air and say that, when those in positions of power are displaying such apparent disregard for good sense and the lives of their fellow human beings, what can we “ordinary folk” hope to achieve in our day-to-day travails…

And yet I am choosing to apply those well-known words of Mother Theresa: “We cannot all do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” And in conjunction with this, a recent tweet from @RogersHistory: “Staying in the same school as a classroom teacher isn’t lack of ambition if your ambition is to help students achieve theirs.” My fundamental aim for 2018, come what may on the global and national front, is to try and apply both of these in equal measure.

Best wishes for 2018.

 

 


Bon voyage, cher Bernard…

It’s a sad, sad day. I have just heard from my parents that a dear friend of our family, Bernard Brécy, passed away yesterday evening.

Bernard was a truly unique individual, and in spite of all that life had dealt him in terms of trials and travails, he had coped with it in such a quietly resolute, uncomplaining way that he appeared pretty much indestructible.

I wanted to tell what I know of his story, as a mark of respect for a person who I have come to see as all that is most admirable in a human being. In amongst all the sniping, back-biting and unpleasantness that I have read online today, maybe it’s a bit of an antidote to some of the negativity.

We first met Bernard and his family back in 1989, when my parents were embarking on the search for a little place to buy in the Cotentin peninsula area of Normandy – we had fallen in love with this quiet backwater of France on family holidays. Nothing had really ticked all the boxes, so far, though, and so we decided to look up Monsieur et Madame Brécy, friends of friends, and maybe get a cup of tea before continuing the search.

Their imposing manoir de Grainville, located on the edge of the Cotentin marais – a low-lying area flooded by the occupying Germans in the lead up to D-Day, in a bid to prevent landings by airborne troops – made an immediate impression.

But this was as nothing compared with the impression made by Bernard and his indomitable wife Rolande. Rolande was Maire of the village, but also Conseil-Général of the whole département de la Manche, as well as carer for her husband since she first met him after his accident.

As we were to learn, Bernard had been on holiday in Greece in his late teens, and one sunny day, took a dive off the group’s yacht – failing to see the sandbar just beneath the water’s surface. He broke his neck. Fortunately there were people nearby – servicemen I believe – who stopped anyone from trying to move him until the paramedics arrived, just stabilising his head and neck as he floated.

And that was how he met Rolande, who was one of the nurses during his lengthy rehabilitation. They fell in love, and so began a formidable partnership that has lasted until now, and produced two equally wonderful children, and more recently a next generation.

As a result of his accident, Bernard was now tetraplegic. He had no sensation or movement below the shoulders, and his hands were more like claws, with which he could pilot his motorised chair and fill his pipe, and control the PC which was his window on the wider world. But far from being beaten into submission by such a cruel blow at this point in his life, he simply refused to allow his changed circumstances to impede him in any way more than strictly necessary.

During our first meeting that afternoon in 1989, we quickly realised that he was a person of a huge breadth of experience and knowledge – a genuine Renaissance man – with a gently-spoken warmth of spirit and a naughty twinkle in his eye.

After a few cups of tea and an exchange of glances, he and Rolande decided that we had made a decent enough first impression on them that they would divulge the location of a house in the village which had literally only just come into the market… In this way, they were directly responsible for mum and dad finding the house they ended up buying…

Over the next months and years, as we restored “les Cavées”, Bernard’s encyclopedic knowledge of Norman traditions, crafts and architecture were often invaluable, and we came to know his gentle sense of humour. On one occasion, before my mum leaned over to greet him with the usual kiss on each cheek, he held up a hand to say “wait!”, grinned and carefully turned off his motorised chair, as on a previous occasion she had accidentally put him into reverse…

Gradually we learned more about his life story. Together with Rolande – in between her mayoral and councilor duties – they ran the manoir as a chambre d’hôtes, but Bernard also bred horses as well as a herd of beautifully incongruous Highland cattle, over on his marais fields.

But he also yearned to spread his wings wider, and he and Rolande travelled more widely than most other couples I know, criss-crossing South America and the Indian sub-continent to name but two of their favourite destinations. Perhaps most extraordinarily, in a link to the accident which set him on his life’s course, he continued his love for sailing, ultimately buying a strange-looking junk-rigged yacht which had been purpose-built by Herbert “Blondie” Hasler (of “Cockleshell Heroes” fame), and having it converted to allow him to single-hand it around the Breton islands.

He inevitably had his dark days, and the knock-on health effects of his tetraplegia were many and substantial. Through it all, whenever I or any other member of my family wandered down the hill to the manoir for a chin-wag, he was unfailingly hospitable, cheery and delighted to hear how our lives were unfolding. I came to feel the sort tenderness for him that I was never able to share with my grandfathers, who both died long before I was born.

The world is a lesser place for his passing. My thoughts are with Rolande and his family, who will be bereft. Rest in peace, dear Bernard.


Toon Time!

Over the past week, I have run three full-day animation workshops – two in school, under the umbrella of our Summer Camps programme, and one with my sister and her two children. Having learned the essentials of the Zu3D software package a few years ago at CampED, with Martin Bailey (a.k.a. @Animate2Educate), I decided to go with this for my workshops too. (Looking ahead to the forthcoming academic year, I plan to run after-school animation activities, as well, so it was a useful reminder of how it all works!)

In this blog post I intend to record a few of the things we learned over the past week, partly to help me in future, but also in case it proves useful to anyone else making their first steps in animation.

Storyboarding

On the two out of three days where I stipulated that storyboards were created before any thing else happened, the eventual outcomes were so much better. I created storyboard proforma (see above), based on an idea I found online, and encouraged the children to plot their way through their possible scenarios carefully, focusing on the following aspects in each scene:

  • characters
  • scenery
  • action
  • dialogue
  • sound effects
  • music

Characters & Scenery

I provided a selection of Lego-style characters for my school groups – although they turned out to be all male, when Amazon delivered, and this didn’t go down well, understandably! A bit of plasticine customisation and all was well… Lego mini-figures are ideal for stop-motion animation, with their stable bases and posable limbs. On the downside, their facial expressions are fixed. It would be possible to switch heads over to show changed emotions, but this would be tricky to achieve without moving the whole character, with all that entails in terms of achieving smooth movements…

The children also enjoyed creating bespoke plasticine characters and creatures, which is easy enough to do, and allows for imaginations to run truly wild! You do of course sacrifice a little solidity, but are able to play around with the more flexible physics inherent in this medium.

The simplest way to “do” scenery is to draw, paint or print off a backdrop. We found that this worked well, this week – although it is important to fix it securely to a solid, flat vertical surface so that you don’t jog it by mistake! In school, boxes of A4 paper were ideal: nice and heavy, with flat sides. Flat backgrounds are of course less sophisticated than moving ones, but also less distracting from foreground action.

One thing we didn’t explore this week, but which we hopefully will in future, is the ability to shoot or import live action video, and then add in overlays of graphics, GIFs and other visuals. This will also require us to try out the feature which allows you to “erase” part(s) of an overlaid character, thereby making it look like it’s behind things in the foreground… very clever stuff. This same technique would allow you to remove strings, wires or even hands, bringing characters or objects into view “in mid-air”, which is obviously impossible otherwise, in stop-motion.

Within Zu3D and other similar packages, there is a built-in chroma-key feature, more commonly known as “green-screening”. We gave this a try at one of the workshops. A few points to bear in mind: first of all, if you are using a green screen, make sure it is really flat before you start filming, as every little wrinkle will need “ironing out” in post-production, which is time-consuming and fiddly. Secondly, make sure none of your characters or props have green clothes or other elements, as it is a bit of a pain to deal with this in the post-production process! Finally, it is possible to dial the sensitivity of the chroma-key setting up and down within the software.

Incidentally, for my school animation club I am planning on making purpose-built stages, partly to ensure that the cameras can’t move by mistake, but also so that a totally flat green-screen can be incorporated from the start, like this:

Action & Dialogue

We found that it made sense to shoot all the visuals first, and then add all the audio and other effects afterwards. If you do this, though, bear in mind that you need to plan how long the action needs to last in order for the dialogue to fit. (So this is one time when a carefully-planned storyboard really helps!) It is possible to extend scenes in post-production but that is a bit fiddly. One feature of Zu3D which is really useful here is the ability to record audio, such as dialogue, straight into the film, watching the video so you can match the words to the pictures – and then drag it straight into the timeline, adjusting it as required. You can even add multiple layers of audio, making the scene more and more complex.

When shooting action sequences, it is important to keep in mind that all the characters are “on stage”, and so they need to be treated as actors: characters must react to events, to dialogue and to their own words – moving their heads and arms, for example. If a character simply stands still for too long, it looks odd…

We tended to film with the software set to its default, 12 frames per second, but it is possible to dial this up to 24 if smoother, faster action is required. Depending on what is actually going on on set, you can shoot one frame of action, then move the onstage characters / props etc., then shoot another frame, and so on – or if the action is slightly slower, you can take 2, 3 or more frames at once. If required, chunks of action can be copied and pasted, although this can look repetitive or jerky if not done carefully. We usually had one pupil running the laptop and one or more dealing with the stage, moving the characters and other elements. Decide on a signal in advance, so that they all know when a shot is about to be taken, to avoid too many unwanted hands in the frame! Wherever possible, don’t move the camera: we sellotaped ours to the table! If you do not it by mistake, the “onion skin” feature allows you to reposition it as close as possible to the previous setting…

Watch out for shadows: depending on your light source, if the animators move around the stage a lot in between frames, the amount and position of shadows cast into the set can vary, with resultant effect on the final film. There is built-in lighting around the lens on the Zu3D camera, allowing for steady lighting from the front of the set.

Sound Effects & Music

The Zu3D package, and others like it, comes complete with a (fairly limited) range of effects and music – some more useful than others, it is fair to say! It is possible to find royalty-free sound effects and music online, of course, to give an animation a really professional touch. And it’s also great fun to make your own sound effects. Having spoken to the Head of Music at school, I know she is really keen to exploit Animation as an additional facet of Ballard’s already burgeoning Performing Arts scene, and so I expect pupils to start composing original soundtrack material in the near future… Watch (or should that be “Listen to”) this space!

Well, that’s about it for now, although I hope to add more posts once term restarts, and my Animation Club gets going… Here are the three films made this week, for your enjoyment (fingers crossed!)

Firstly, rockumentary-come-scifi epic “Magical Moonrock

Then monster-movie-with-a-happy-ending “The Snake Attack

And last but not least, a heart-warming birthday party-with-a-difference: “Party Time

Hollywood, here we come!


Summer-y

NFDS

Sailability at Blashford Lake

Well, I have just been creating a new InigoApp digital calling card, drawing together various facets of my e-life (phone, social media, webstuff…) including this blog, and it occurred to me that there was nothing recent actually on here – and that I’d better do something about it, just in case anyone actually has a look… So there we are.

Summer has often been a rather funny time for me, in recent years. It has seen the stealthy beginnings of the black dog’s stalkings – but only in retrospect, unfortunately. I only feel the heavy paws on my shoulders once it has been matching my steps for some time. And then it’s always been too late…

Not this summer, I hope, though.

I got to the end of the academic year in pretty reasonable fettle – despite the final half-term of the year always being my busiest, what with French Exchange trip, exam marking, report writing and so on, on top of the day-to-day-job, herding classfuls of cats as they plunge headlong towards the finish line.

Now where I have sometimes ‘gone wrong’* in the past is letting myself drop off a cliff, immediately after term finishes, going from 60 to 0 in a matter of days, lolling about listening to stuff in the garden and not… doing anything, much. Which has, I guess, stored up challenges for September when the opposite situation looms, and a fresh new cliff-face has to be scaled.

So over the past couple of years I have looked to keep myself gainfully occupied over the summer and beyond. Volunteering at my local Sailability club has been hugely rewarding as well as great fun, and has tapped into something a part of me which first really surfaced in the summer of 2012, in my time as a Gamesmaker.

And I have also rediscovered acting, with Lymington Players. Last year I actually took part in all three productions, meaning that I was rehearsing two evenings a week from September to April, with a short break over Christmas… Tiring, but a vital ‘safety valve’, ensuring that I didn’t get too blinkered and allow the work-life balance to lurch too heavily to the ‘work’ side.

This summer, as well as keeping up with the volunteering, I am running some sessions at my school’s Summer Camp – an Animation Workshop, shepherding kids through the basics of stop-motion animation and green-screening.

So I don’t anticipate feeling the hot breath of the aforementioned black dog down my neck anytime soon… fingers crossed.

 

 

*not that there’s actually anything wrong with that… put the ‘beat yourself stick’ down, Alex!


Marching for Europe

Along with somewhere between 80 and 100,000 other people of all ages, shapes, sizes, creeds, colours and origins, I spent the day in London yesterday, marching from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square. I felt a powerful urge to exercise my democratic right to call into question the course of action set in motion since last September’s Referendum (a ballot called by a since-discredited Prime Minister to placate right-wingers in his own party, which had instead seen the country duped into “cutting off its legs because its thumb hurts”, to quote a placard seen on the route).

The March itself took place in stunning Spring sunshine. I even got a bit of sunburn, which felt a strangely un-British thing to do on a March in March. As one of the many brilliant placards put it: “I’m British. I’m on a march. Things *must* be bad.” The atmosphere was a curious mix of genial camaraderie and well-behaved simmering anger, in an aural kaleidoscope of many of the languages spoken by UK-residing EU nationals, just as anxious as me at the uncertain future being traced out for them by the British Government.

A few little snippets from along the route which stand out in my memory: a growing collection of daffodils laid at the foot of the Cenotaph, symbol of what happens when nationalism and populism are allowed to run unchecked…  “All You Need Is Love” playing at high volume from a flat overlooking Whitehall, chorused by marchers as we walked by… an outlandishly-clad Brexiteer on Park Lane, with a placard proudly proclaiming his claim that the Bible foretold Boris Johnson’s espousal of Brexit – loudly countered by a fellow marcher pointing out that there is “no blond hair in the Bible”, to guffaws from the passing crowds… looking up and down Park Lane from halfway down and seeing nothing but flag-waving fellow-marchers in either direction… 

Once we arrived at Parliament Square, the mood was, once again, a rather curious combination: the heady feeling that we were inhabiting a page of history, combined with a sombre awareness that we stood mere metres away from the Carriage Gate and Westminster Bridge, scene of Wednesday’s apalling atrocity. Along with many others, I laid flowers at the Gate, and quietly thanked the police standing guard where PC Keith Palmer died in the line of duty. I am sure it is not my imagination that several of them seemed close to tears at the floral response to their colleague’s courageous actions.

Before the speeches began, an emotional minute’s silence was observed in tribute to PC Palmer, Aysha Frade, Kurt Cochran and Leslie Rhodes, as well as the other victims still in critical condition following Wednesday’s attack.

Opening the speeches was Seb Dance MEP – brought to many peoples’ attention over his spontaneous visual trolling of Nigel Farage in the European Parliament with a hand-written “He’s lying to you”. His impassioned words, ending “we will never be cowed – we are here to stand for our beliefs” in a double reference to last Wednesday as well as to Brexit, were followed by an even more powerful address from Tim Farron. I will admit to having lost whatever faith I had in the Liberal Democrats over their propping up of the Conservation Coalition, but Mr Farron spoke with cold fire, accusing Theresa May of making Farage look like a moderate in comparison, such is her apparent desire to drive Britain towards the precipice of a Hard Brexit rather than acknowledge the need to achieve a consensus, working not just for the 52% but also the 48%. His defiant tone pointedly underlined the fact that democracy did not come to a halt at 11pm on the 23rd June 2016, but is an ongoing process, in which those who voted Remain – and the voiceless thousands who were not able to vote or who were eligible but for whatever reason chose not to – must also be heard. Interestingly he also advocated solidarity and respect for those who had voted Leave, but have since realised that words written on the side of red buses carry less weight than they had been led to believe during the campaign.

QC Jo Maugham, whose tweets on the subject I have found to be well worth reading, spoke of his recent legal action against the Government, and of the fact that triggering Article 50 is part of a journey, from which we can turn back – not a destination in itself, with bridges burning in the background… He was also one of several speakers who pointed out that the Referendum had taken place in a pre-Trump era (doesn’t that seem like a long time ago!), before an unPresidented White House incumbent who wants to tear up trade rules, weaken Nato, challenge expert opinion on climate change, and advocates populist and isolationist policies on just about everything else. Are we really planning to cut ourselves adrift from the albeit imperfect security of a collaborative, solid EU family, in this unpredictable global context?

For me as an educator, perhaps the most “goose-bumpy” moments of the afternoon came when 4 young people were called to the stage, aged between 16 and 25, who focused attention on the fact that the “decision” set in motion last September had far-reaching implications for their generation in particular, as it will be them who have to face the consequences of whatever Brexit turns out to look like, for the longest time. The first of this quartet, a 16 year-old self-proclaimed “British, Muslism, Pakistani, European”, was arguably one of the most impressive speakers all afternoon, and would appear to have a promising career in prospect as a politician, unless he can do better for himself 😉

I left Parliament Square and walked across Westminster Bridge, feeling proud to have “put my money where my mouth is”, so-to-speak, and stood shoulder to shoulder with my fellow “Remainers”. The Bridge was festooned with more floral tributes to the dead and injured from last Wednesday… but was also a living witness to the sheer vibrant, cosmopolitan nature of London and the wider UK, a multicoloured people-stream of Londoners and tourists on their way to who-knows-where. Who knows where this country is headed? Certainly not Theresa May, David Davis and co. Wednesday 29th is an uncertain step into a rather worrying future, but after today I am less despairing than I may have been before.