Cinematographers speak of change

 Two panel discussions at the recent Society of MOtion Picture and Television Engineers’ conference (SMPTE-13) covered the issues that are confronting cinematographers in the tumultuous change to digital imaging. I wrote these observations for Screenhub.

The first session was called “What Rules – Creativity or Technology” and asked “Why doesn’t the cinematographer have ultimate control over what tools they use?” The high-profile panel, led by Cal Gardiner ACS, included cinematographers Denson Baker ACS, Ben Allen ACS and Tom Gleeson, post supervisor Henry Karjalainen, colorist Adrian Hauser, editor Scott Gray ASE and VFX Director Chris Godfrey. Moderating the discussion was movie expert and presenter Renee Brack.

Ben ALlan ACS

Ben Allan ACS

Discussion revolved around the choice of camera, and how that choice was dictated: sometimes simply by budget, sometimes for reasons of workflow or advice by the post house. The curve settings, LUTs  and choice of recording format all need to fit with the selected workflow through post production, but these settings can have a profound effect on the “look” of the image,traditionally the DOP’s preserve.

Denson Baker said he chose not to be in charge of all camera or post settings: he concentrated on creative decisions: camera placement, lens and lighting. Tom Gleeson agreed that a DOP doesn’t have the automatic right to choose the tools as the post house may need a different format for many reasons. However, if the camera has been selected because of a good deal on price, but he felt it was the wrong choice, then he would make the effort to find a better price on a different camera. He railed against smaller post houses that over-compressed large image files “oh there’s such a lot of footage!”

As a post production supervisor, Henry Karjalainen believed DOPs were indeed in charge of their tools “because we need them to be”. He said his role was to “bring the shot films to life, by putting together a package that would achieve the director’s desires”. Post supervisors are often brought in too late though.

Like Denson, editor Scott Gray said he concentrated on the creative decisions: he wasn’t the data wrangler. But at this point he produced what should have been a game-changer in this discussion: within his creative control as an editor, he said that he was able to zoom in or reframe the shot “to direct the audience’s attention to where I want it”.

Astonishingly (to this writer), none of the cinematographers on the panel picked up on this. In a discussion on the DOP’s loss of creative control, this should have been a red rag to a bull. Framing is fundamental to the cinematographer’s art. But the conversation simply continued along the lines of camera and workflow choice, even in the light of Denson Baker’s earlier comments about controlling camera placement.

Chris Godfrey said that every shot was a compromise between everyone’s needs, but that all participants needed to agree on those compromises at the start of the shoot. He said that there were hundreds of blow-ups and reframes in The Great Gatsby, easily managed because they were shot in 5K resolution. (Admittedly 3D productions do need different framing treatment to manage convergence issues).He noted that every 5K frame (in a 3D pair) was about 100Mbytes. Adrian Hauser noted that he only started colour grading on Gatsby after principal photography had been completed: but there was sufficient image quality in all the material to achieve the required final look. Smaller or cheaper productions weren’t always so safe, he said. Chris Godfrey agreed, emphasising that “the most expensive VFX shot is the one that doesn’t work”. CG backgrounds could always be fixed, but if the live action foreground element isn’t working, then there is no shot.

After a lot more discussion Ben Allan really summed up the session when he said “if the camera is the most interesting thing on the set, then you’ve got problems”.

The second panel on Wednesday, entitled “The Future Vision” was moderated by Erika Addis. The speakers were cinematographers Kim Batterham, Rob Moreton, Dan Freene, Callan Green, Vivyan Madigan and David Peers. Discussion revolved not around futuristic technology, but about the changing work practices in film production, and the skill levels of newer entrants.

Erika Addis

Erika Addis

Kim Batterham led in by reflecting on the increasing complexity of technology and practices over the last thirty years, noting many entrants to the industry now lacked any qualifications. Rob Moreton questioned how many more pixels, how much more speed and dynamic range we needed in our cameras. Callan Green reckoned there were so many people now getting involved in cinematography that the sector was in danger of falling apart. Like several of the panellists he was a keen advocate of mutual support within cinematography, spruiking the benefits of belonging to the ACS and attending meetings and conferences.

Dan Freene commented that the explosion of websites for even the simplest business meant that everyone needed visual content, and there was heaps of work for young cinematographers. However, this explosion pushed budgets down throughout the range, resulting in producers and production managers with absolutely no experience. For example, if a cinematographer insisted on hiring a low-loader in order to shoot moving car scenes, he or she might be replaced by another one who would do it cheaply (and illegally) from a motorbike. Ultimately this would become the norm. David added that the dodgy shots might also have problems that could be fixed in post – but the post house would get “drilled” to fix these unbudgeted problems.

Vivyan Madigan advocated a traditional learning path, learning on set as an assistant rather than simply picking up a camera without knowing how to shoot. There was a general sense that no amount of experience shooting solo with a DSLR equipped the shooter to work in a crew or follow the disciplines of more structured productions. Dan pointed to press photographers who were asked to shoot movie clips on the same camera they were using for stills – a slippery path to an expectation of being a fully-blown cinematographer, but lacking any knowledge of lighting or crew work.

They all felt that the availability of DSLRs and other cheap cameras meant that few people now were prepared to enter the industry as runners, focus pullers or second assistants. Kim said that AFTRS set out to teach structure, and how to express a vision: David said “if people have a passion, we can give them the skills.

Looking to the future, David predicted that the flurry of new equipment and methods would settle down within five years, and training and crew issues would be resolved, and the balance between technology and storytelling would be resolved. He pointed to similar disruptions in editing when non-linear systems were introduced (twenty years ago), and in animation. Dan said this was a weird period – this was “the year that Atlab (Deluxe) closed (stopped film processing) – with hardly a murmur”.

Both discussions clearly agreed with the maxim that “the technology has only arrived when it’s gone away”, aching for a time when creativity would once again dominate. For the time though, technology was the obsession. Maybe it really is, or maybe the surroundings – a large exhibition full of high-tech equipment with engineers crawling all over it, influenced their thinking.

But it’s high time ACS put on a panel discussion about editors and reframing.


When Hitler came to power I was in the bath

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.”

allthatiamannafunder_reheatAs opening sentences go, this has to be among the best ever, so I’m pinching it to open this blog piece. After all, Anna Funder’s semi-factual novel All That I Am did rather well with that opening salvo.

I really wanted to open with a reference back to one of the very few English lessons I remember from my schooldays. We were studying Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Not, in fact, the first line, but the third:

  • The ploughman homeward plods his weary way

Why were the words in this order? The English language allowed many other ways of saying the same thing, but would it have worked any other way?

  •  Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way
  • The weary ploughman plods his way homeward
  • His weary way homeward plods the ploughman

And so on and so on. We looked at alliteration, rhythm, grammar, meaning, foregrounding and so on. I probably haven’t thought a lot about this since that time, and I won’t discuss it here. But something must have sunk in, because it came to mind when I wondered why Anna Funder’s line had hit me in the face so hard when I opened All That I Am. There is so much packed into this sentence that is worthy of a PhD all on its own. But why is it so good?

There is no doubt that the sentence has a lovely poetic rhythm: di dah di di di dah-di / dah di di di dah. But that’s not enough. It’s all about the precise juxtaposition of two ideas.

First of all, the daring matching of these two such contrasting and apparently unconnected ideas: the private, almost intimate event of little consequence, set against, arguably, one of the most momentous events in the public life of the twentieth century. Try some different, less daring pairings:

  • When Dora phoned I was in the bath.
  • When Hitler came to power I was living in the middle of Berlin.

Good starts to a story, but not really arresting.

I discovered I am not the only person to be fascinated by this sentence. Blogger Bryce Alcock cites New York Times writer, Stanley Fish,who says that first sentences need what he  calls “an angle of lean”. First sentences, says Stanley Fish, “lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate.” Funder’s book, based on two real characters who were active in the resistance to Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, weaves their personal stories around the historical events of the time with devastating effect. The opening sentence is a perfect demonstration of what is to come, and there isn’t long to wait before the connections are drawn. The text continues:

 try-this-404x229“Our apartment was on the Schiffbauerdamm near the river, right in the middle of Berlin. From its windows we could see the dome of the parliament building. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.”

Next, consider the sentence order. It starts on the large scale, an event which took some years to complete and had effect around the world. The reader’s imagination is whetted: we are prepared for a story of grand ideas, but are drawn immediately into a brief unseen, otherwise unrecorded event, but one which involves the writer. In a film, the opening shot would start with a helicopter view of a great city and steadily shift down to street level and the assembled crowds, and then track into an open bathroom window.

Try the alternative:

  • I was in the bath when Hitler came to power.

Well, it’s grammatical, and clearly expressed. But this order of ideas suggests strongly that, as we move from the personal event to the public historical one, the novel is to be the narrator’s own view of the events of that time, rather than her personal involvement. There is a sense that the narrator wasn’t well placed to observe much, and so we are likely to be left with a personal memoir in which Hitler’s rise to power is nothing more than a context-setting reference to the period.

If we had opened the book and read:

  • I was a cleaner in the Reichstag when Hitler came to power.

It would all have seemed perfectly reasonable, and unsurprising that such a person could have been well-placed to give an account of the events. Equally, there would have been no point in reversing the order as Anna Funder did with such surprising effect.

  • When Hitler came to power I was a cleaner in the Reichstag.

If anything it is weaker than the alternative, but neither leaves us wanting any further explanation for the drawing together of the two events.

hitlerNow look at the construction of the sentence: two clauses, one subordinate to the other. Anna Funder subordinates Hitler to her narrator/observer. The principal sentence is “I was in the bath”, and the clause about Hitler is simply an adverbial clause which adds information by referring to a simultaneous event.

There’s another possibility: “When” can sometimes indicate a causal or a sequential relationship.

  • When Hitler came to power, many Jews rushed to leave Germany.
  • Hitler came to power when Hindenburg made him Chancellor.

Reversing the weight of the sentence, making bath time the adverbial clause, might have implied this causality.

  •  Hitler came to power when I was in the bath.
  • When I was in the bath, Hitler came to power.

Teasing and intriguing, but not really in the service of what is to come as the narrative unfolds.

Finally, like many other great opening sentences, it travels from the weighty proposition to the unexpected or seemingly inadequate resolution – we are thrown into the middle of a great feast and, being delivered nothing more than a snack, are left panting for more. Consider one or two other contenders for “best first sentence”:

And so I have started my career as a book reviewer. One thousand words, and I haven’t really got past the first sentence. I might need to reconsider this choice.

The View from Berlin

ImageI was recently in Berlin, but at quite the wrong time for the Berlin Film Festival. Undaunted, I headed for the Berlin Film Museum, located centrally in Berlin in the ultra-modern Sony Centre, a striking edifice of glass and steel. Filmhaus, the part of the centre housing the museum, its Arsenal cinemas and the German Film & TV School is right opposite the Cinestar and Event cinemas, part of Germany’s largest cinema chain, operated by none other than Australia’s Amalgamated Holdings (Greater Union).

The museum therefore, by its geography and architecture, corresponds more closely with ACMI in Melbourne than it does with NFSA’s sleepy art deco presence just too far off the main drag in Canberra. But its focus, like NFSA’s, is on the entire century of filmmaking in Germany, and this invites a comparison of the exhibits, the industries and the histories of the two countries. (This isn’t as absurd as it sounds.)

It’s been said that Australia’s history as a Federation is also that of its film industry, which was born at around the same time. It’s not so very different in Germany, which was only a couple of decades old as a country when film was first seen by the German public. The Skladanowsky brothers screened moving pictures at the Berlin Wintergarden on their Bioscope projector in November 1895, apparently weeks before the Lumière brothers did in Paris. (What is it about brothers in film? Pathé, Coen, Wachowsky, anyone?)

As in Australia, but for largely quite different reasons, the German film industry has struggled throughout the twentieth century. And just as in Australia (reassuringly for film theorists and social historians), the ebb and flow of cinema mirrors very precisely the preoccupations of the country at the time.

ImageThere is only one way through the museum (like shopping at Ikea, though there the resemblance ends). Entering the first section, the floor, walls and ceiling disappear and you are immediately swept into an infinite world of cinema images. Silent film stars in close-up; a screen kiss; marching troops; there’s Peter Lorre in M, there’s a young Marlene Dietrich. It’s all done with mirrors, and you spot glimpses of yourself over there, and there – and isn’t that the iconic shot in Nosferatu? – and where is the floor? can I step this way or that? So far this is no ordinary museum, but a brilliant and disorienting celebration of disembodied, timeless images from across the last century: in other words – cinema!  Somehow, that is exactly what the German Expressionists of the 1920s were concerned with, in a way more than any other national cinema was.

As you emerge from this first chamber, you see an early, hand-cranked camera, apparently cranking itself, demonstrating the intermittent movement that is central to cinematography. In the next display is a moving projector. The early years of cinema were full of technicians solving problems in their own way, and Germany’s Oskar Messter is one of several people in different countries who are claimed as inventors of the Maltese Cross or Geneva movement for projectors at around the same time. Next, a large model shows the studio and sets that were built to make The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

From then on, the museum settles down to deal with the distinct periods of German cinema and history (the early years, the Weimar republic years, the Nazi years, and the bleak postwar years) by focussing mainly on three “Ms”: FW Murnau (Nosferatu), Metropolis (Fritz Lang), and Marlene Dietrich; and of course Leni Riefenstahl, and only briefly touching on the later resurgence led by directors such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog.

So how would this compare with the story of Australian cinema, if it were told in the same way? Is it a fair or worthwhile comparison? For those who proudly point to Australia’s production of the world’s first feature film in 1906, its prolific production burst for the subsequent decade before Hollywood took over, and the disproportionate international successes of our cinematographers in recent years, yes, we should ask the questions.

Australia’s early cinema was led by showmen such as the Tait brothers (there goes the ‘brothers’ thing again), but the Taits were theatrical entrepreneurs rather than creatives or artists. In Germany, FW Murnau also came from the stage, but he was an actor when war broke out, having studied philosophy (reportedly reading Schopenhauer and Nietsche at the age of 12). He wrote his first film screenplay while interred in neutral Switzerland where his plane had crashed. Australian silent films, more focussed on gaining an audience than being artistic expressions tended to have straightforward themes and be realist in style: such popular appeal films were also made in Germany, but Murnau and others were part of the broader expressionist movement dominating the arts in Europe at the time, and made films with pioneering camera and editing techniques and more philosophical themes.

Nosferatu ImageMade here at the same time as Murnau’s Nosferatu (really Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the copyright court found), The Sentimental Bloke is sometimes hailed as Australia’s best silent film (and like many other great silent films from both countries it suffered the fate of savage and bad cutting for US release and failed). A setting of the CJ Dennis verses, it is a simple narrative of ordinary people, which can stand up to critical analysis of the way it portrays post WW1 social values in urban Australia. But even if Australia were not half a world away, it would never have made the impact on world cinema that German pictures of the time did.

For the Term of his Natural Lifege MetropolisFor the Term of his Natural Life, made in the same year as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, shows traces of the German film’s visual expressionist style in a story that deals with social justice and revenge as powerfully as Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. But in 1927 it is entirely backward looking, innovative neither in style nor message. Moreover, although an Australian story and production, the director Norman Dawn was an American.

While Australian silent cinema suffered from a lack of protection from imported US and UK productions, the tragedy of early German cinema is that all the creative giants of the twenties moved over to Hollywood: at first to escape the hyper-inflation of the German economy, and later to escape the Nazi regime. Both Fritz Lang and FW Murnau made the journey, as did Marlene Dietrich (whose extensive collection of costumes is shown alongside clips of the films she wore them in).

As a result, much of the film museum’s exhibit for this mid-century period deals not with German cinema but with the work of émigré filmmakers, mostly in Hollywood. There is a display that deals with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Triumph des Willens, but, ironically, in another corner of the same room a clip is playing from Casablanca (1942). The clip, (of course), is the scene where the German soldiers’ singing is drowned out by the band and patrons of Rick’s café singing The Marseillaise. Casablanca was directed by the Hungarian émigré Mihaly Kertész, (Michael Curtiz) who had worked in Vienna and then briefly in Germany with Lang and Murnau before being invited to Hollywood in 1923.

Set against this display of creative expression and propaganda, what could a visit to the NFSA’s small exhibition in Canberra tell us about our own industry? After the silent era, our story is one of an industry that struggled for half a century, relieved by newsreels and documentaries (no shortage of propaganda there, but perhaps less blatantly so), and the consistently successful Cinesound features of Ken G Hall. Hall never pretended to be a great auteur filmmaker: he was of the tradition of the Taits, originally a publicity man for a cinema chain. As it happens, his break came in 1926 when he was asked by his employer to recut a German silent film (bought sight-unseen) called Unsere Emden: a German WW1 story of the famous battleship sunk by HMAS Sydney in Australia’s first WW1 naval action. More than recutting the film, Hall re-shot half of it, with the cooperation of the Australian Navy, to convert it from a blatantly pro-German propaganda film to one that told a heroic story of the Australian action.

This comparison is not to dismiss Australia’s film history as somehow less worthy than a European one. Rather, it is to note that Berlin spent the twentieth century in turmoil – first artistic, then financial, then political, military and political again – and its cinema reflects exactly that, whether it flourished in Germany itself or in exile. By contrast, Australia’s twentieth century was one of less sophisticated issues: building a new country far away from the northern hemisphere’s traditional conflicts; learning to survive a tough climate and an economy affected by the rest of the world but with little influence over it; involvement in other people’s far distant wars; and more recently, belatedly creating the cinematic literature of our national myths. In both countries, the cinema precisely reflects those times and preoccupations.

ImagePerhaps everyone needs to travel away to get a perspective on such matters: and my visit to the Berlin Film Museum will certainly send me back to Canberra to revisit the display at NFSA and learn more from it. Perhaps its modest and traditional design reflects the substance of the culture it displays: perhaps in a small way that might even reinforce those modest ideas of cinema.  But how breathtakingly magnificent it would be to see a display that, like the one in Berlin, so completely transports the visitor and immerses him in a uniquely cinematic world.

This was first published in Screenhub in November 2012

Still paying to be green?

Electricity bills will be going up for all of us – even those who pay extra to buy “Green Power”.  Are we getting what we have been paying for?

Australia’s dependence on coal for generating electricity is higher than almost any other country’s. Of course we have lots of coal, mostly easier to get out of the ground than in many other countries. But we also have lots of sunshine and wind, and so since it’s been known just how much climate change is affected by the carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, many Australians (I’m one of them) have chosen to pay extra for their electricity so that the providers can source more of it from green energy: sun and wind.

Of course, as Tim Kelly of the Conservation Council of SA points out in “The Hidden Carbon in GreenPower“, the “green” electricity that comes to my house is no different from the plain stuff that comes to my neighbour’s house. But the supplier (in my case, Origin Energy) is supposed to match this demand for green electricity with the proportion it buys overall, and it has been understood that the surcharge it has been collecting (5c/kWh) should therefore match the additional costs it faces.

Now, ostensibly because of the so-called carbon tax, electricity is going up – quite substantially in some cases. I’ve been studying my bills, together with the new price structure that Origin has published, to try to understand why I’ll paying more.

Origin offers a range of price structures, so my analysis only applies to what I pay. However, some very interesting facts emerge.

Up to now, after a standard daily service charge, there is one rate for the first 1,750kWh (in a quarterly bill), and a second, higher rate for what we use over that amount. In my case, we don’t reach the 1,750kWh on the summer bill, but go well past it in the winter. There is also a much lower rate for off-peak power (which we use for hot water) and then there is the 100% green electricity surcharge – which up to now has been exactly 5c/kWh on the total amount used.

Not all those rates are going up. The green energy surcharge is coming down from 5c/kWh to 3.08c/kWh. If the price rises are being sheeted home to the “carbon tax”, it’s hard to see why this shouldn’t be totally eliminated – but more of that later.

The daily service charge and the initial rate are going up, the latter from 20.6kWh to 26.8c/kWh. The breakpoint is coming down from 1,750kWh/qtr to 1,000kWh/qtr. And there is a second breakpoint, at 2,000kWh/qtr, after which electricity will cost 37.73c/kWh. So, except for a small range of usage, the rate per kWh will go up around 30%.

So in my case I’ll be paying at least some of my bill at the higher tier rate even in the summer quarter. Over the year, it looks as though I’ll be paying about 14% more.  If I wasn’t already paying the green surcharge, it would be closer to 26% or 27%.

Power costs for green and non-green users

Origin is very precise about its green surcharge: a reduction from 5c/kWh to 3.08c/kWh. Not 3c, not even 3.1c: but 3.08c. A reduction of exactly 36.4%. I think that suggests that they know quite precisely how much it costs them to service a green customer compared to a non-green customer. It is hard to see why those paying the green surcharge should have to bear any of the carbon tax costs.

There is an obviously simple explanation: that a great part of the price increase has nothing to do with the carbon tax, but is simply the increase in the costs of maintenance, replacing infrastructure, wages, etc, which applies equally across the board.  I have written to Origin asking them to confirm that this is the case, and for their assurance that this explanation will be circulated with the next round of bills. I’ve had no response.

If it’s not the case, then the remaining 3.08c/kWh of the 100percent green surcharge is simply being used to subsidise non-green customers, and reduce the impact of the increases on them.  And I’m not happy about that. It’s one thing to pay extra to reduce one’s own contribution to greenhouse gases: something quite different to pay extra to allow other householders’ emissions to continue.

Apparently some other providers are not reducing their green power surcharge at all, arguing that the tax is applied to their total costs, and they cannot calculate the proportion of carbon costs that should be borne by individual customers. This exposes the entire green surcharge system as even more of a fraud.

My calculations show that those paying quarterly bills up to $700 for normal coal-fired electricity will find they are now paying almost exactly what green users were paying before the rise.

The corollary of this is that those currently paying for green electricity could cut their price rise to virtually nothing (or less for big users) by discontinuing their green surcharge.

It’s a temptation, in the face of such a big increase, and the evidence that the surcharge isn’t actually directly related to emission-free electricity. I guess some will do just that, but I also guess that Origin will be expecting very few to do so: these are people who have already chosen to pay more than they had to, on a point of principle.

However, if there is a drop-off of customers paying the green surcharge, will Origin revert to a lower proportion of green energy (thereby increasing their reliance on coal-fired power and presumably increasing their carbon tax liability)? This, surely, would not be a good outcome for the carbon tax.

Arguably, the existence of the surcharge has been a big factor in persuading many people that renewable energy is simply “too expensive”. But given that, regardless of any cost increase due to the carbon tax, the costs of all forms of renewable energy are steadily falling, that won’t continue to be the case. Already we are told that wind and coal costs are more or less on a par in South Australia.

So finally, we must ask how much longer we will be expected to pay any premium at all to encourage suppliers to buy green electricity.

Case versus the English banking system

There’s a sad coda to the previous story about the missing railway ticket and my father’s dealings with officialdom.

Nearly 50 years on from the train journey, father was in the last year of his life, and only just managing to hang on. His well-structured and minutely-managed financial affairs were growing harder and harder to keep up with, and the world was a more impersonal and less understanding place than during most of his working life.

It seems he had a credit card that he hadn’t used for some years, but there was one direct debit on it each year – the TV licence renewal – which he paid as soon as the statement came in. After some years of this minimal use, the bank wrote:

“In our most recent review we noted that your account has been particularly well managed and have therefore increased your credit limit to £1,000.”

But this was the year that he became bedridden, and simply couldn’t keep up. The TV licence was paid automatically, but he missed paying the card off. There was a five pound minimum monthly payment due each month, and for some reason, when the third reminder came in, he didn’t pay the whole balance, just the minimum payment. But by that time it had increased by another month’s worth of five pounds, so he was still in arrears, triggering another round of reminders and demands.

These reminders are quite impressive. The first one reads:

“I notice that we have not received a payment on your account. I feel sure that this is an oversight. However, as your account is a monthly credit facility it is essential . . . .etc”

The next one, ten days later, is a little more assertive:

“I am concerned to note that despite previous requests, you still have not made a payment to your account. etc.”

A month later:

“Please contact this department immediately to discuss the position on your credit card account.”

Then they let rip with both barrels: (this is for just a £15 overdue payment)

 “This is a default notice served under Section 87(1) of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

“In relation to the agreement . . . you have failed to make the necessary monthly repayments.

“If the payment is not made on or before the date advised, the bank may

(a)     terminate the agreement

(b)     demand the return of all cards issued on your account

(c)     demand repayment of the outstanding balance on your account and commence legal proceedings against you

Additionally we will

(a)     cancel any credit card repayment protector

(b)     award no further air miles points to you

(c)     withhold renewal of your cards

If you have any difficulty in paying . . .  you may apply to the court . . .”

This was sufficiently loud and clear to get payment of the overdue amount (but still, inexplicably, not of the full balance), and so next month the cycle started again, leading up to a second ultimatum and, this time, full payment, clearing the balance to zero.

A month later, over the same signature as the reminders and default notices:

“As part of our commitment to customer service we regularly review our account credit limits. I am delighted to be able to increase your credit limit on your card to £1,200.”

In the next few months, now with others helping my father, the TV licence was once again renewed, paid for promptly, the credit card was cancelled and the account closed. Only weeks later, my father passed away.

Six weeks later, a statement arrived showing the credit card annual renewal fee of £12.


Correspondence from 70 years ago

Seventy years ago in 1942, the world was at war. In Britain, the blitz had eased off from its worst, but for ordinary citizens, life was tough. Food and clothing rationing was in full swing. Petrol was hard to get. Trains were full of servicemen rushing home across the country for 24 hours’ leave.

And it was the year that my parents were married. They took a week’s honeymoon in the Lake District. I believe they found more good food out among the farms, and undoubtedly had a good and relatively peaceful time.

Only one thing went wrong. The train fare from London up to the north would have cost my father a week’s salary. And, somehow, he lost the return tickets. I found the following correspondence among his meticulously-filed papers. The letters speak of a more formal time, but also of a more generous time. And all seems to have ended up well.

Commercial Superintendent
London Midland and Scottish Railway
Euston, London NW

13th April 1942

Dear Sir

On Thursday the 2nd April last, I purchased two monthly return tickets from Watford Junction to Cockermouth through Messrs Pickfords Limited, Clarendon Road, Watford. The tickets were issued on blank cards, numbered 3717/8 the cost being £6 7s 4d.

I travelled up to Cockermouth by the Night Train from Euston on Sunday night 5th April, but either handed in the whole of the ticket at Cockermouth station, or alternatively mislaid the return tickets and was unable to find then when returning last Saturday, the 11th instant.

On the instructions of the clerk at Cockermouth, I purchased for the return journey single tickets to London, numbers 9317/8 travelling on the train leaving Cockermouth Junction at 7.10 and arriving at Watford at 4.6pm, the charge for these tickets being £4 15s 4d.

I should be glad if you would make the necessary enquiries with regard to these tickets, as I understand that the amount of £4 15s 4d will be refundable if the non-use of the tickets is proves to your satisfaction.

If there is any further information that I can supply I should be happy to do so.

Yours faithfully

P J L Case


London Midland and Scottish Railway Company
District Passenger Manager’s Office
66 Drummond Street, NW1

13th May 1942

Dear Sir

Adverting to your letter of 13th ultimo, I have to inform you that I have been unable to find that the return halves of your tickets were surrendered at Cockermouth, neither is it possible to definitely establish whether they have been utilised or not. In the circumstances the Company does not admit any liability for the refundment of the extra fares paid. I do not however wish to take advantage of your unfortunate loss, and as a special case enclose a remittance for £4 14s 4d in respect of the additional fares paid and shall be obliged if you will acknowledge receipt on the attached form.

Yours faithfully


My father regularly took on large companies in this way, and it seems he often won. He was, after all, an accountant (or strictly, at that time, an audit clerk). There is, however, no trace of any further letter chasing the discrepancy of one shilling.

No Smoke and All Mirrors

How to build a miniature Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) model.

TabletopCST model

Talking to people about renewable energy, I’ve found that most people haven’t heard of Concentrated Solar Thermal power plants like the Gemasolar one in Spain – so models and photos are really useful in explaining the concept.

Table-top models (like this one) that have been made are proving to be real attractions. But they’re big and heavy. Wonderful for larger venues, but I wondered if something smaller would work too. Something I could carry under my arm.

If you’re here looking for an explanation of how CST works, you might find this link useful. Otherwise,  read on . . . .


What I bought . . .

what I boughtI found packs of 20 mirrors, one inch square, for $2.00 in a craft shop. Previously I’d been planning a slightly larger model using clamshell make-up mirrors, but I couldn’t resist the bargain here, and so the ultra-miniature CST model was conceived.

To mount the mirrors at an angle, onto a baseboard, I bought a pack of ¾” paper fasteners, also for $2.00, and a tube of Tarzan’s grip.

The whole thing was going to be not much bigger than a sheet of A4 paper!


Gluing the fasteners to the mirrors

mirrors glued onto clipsI bent each paper fastener to about 30 degrees before gluing it to the back of a mirror. Tweezers came in handy to push the brass fastener down to the mirror and make sure it was as square-on as possible.



The baseboard

The baseboardThe baseboard was just a 30cm square of particle board I had. It needs to be something that will stay flat and not warp in the hot sun.

For my model I decided to have the tower in one corner, about 7cm from the edges.

I had found a fairly long bolt in my box of stuff, with a matching nut. I glued the nut onto the baseboard. That way I’d be able to screw and unscrew the tower to pack the model away for transport.

I drew a series of arcs centred on the tower, at 25mm intervals, and radiuses at 22½ degree intervals. This was going to give me enough room to fiddle with each mirror as I glued it on the board. Each row of mirrors also had to be far enough back from the ones in front to get a clear straight line throw to the tower top.


Placing the mirrors – first step

I glued the front row in place – 9 mirrors, all at a 75mm radius from the tower. At this stage I hadn’t built the tower, but in any event, I needed a larger screen to focus the reflected light.

I folded a sheet of white card and sellotaped it to the baseboard, with cross-hairs pencilled in about 18cm from the baseboard.

The important thing was to get each mirror aligned correctly in the L-R plane before the glue set.

Vertical adjustment would be easier later, by slightly bending the brass fastener. It helped to get each one right before gluing the next one into place.

( I actually did one row at a time – so this picture was taken at a later stage)

As I got more and more mirrors fixed, it got harder to see which reflects spot was the one I was trying to adjust. Placing a card to mask off the ones already fixed helped, so that only the newest mirrors actually produced a reflection, but then there was a danger of knocking them out of alignment before the glue set.

(I was concentrating on this bit so hard I forgot to take a photo of how to use a card to mask off unwanted mirrors. Here’s the second row in place, but not quite lined up yet.

Fast work needed, before the glue set too much.After the second row of mirrors, I found I needed sunglasses to do the job.


Let the glue dry

let the glue dryIt was important to let the glue dry before trying to adjust the mirrors vertically.







The tower – “your message here”

Now the tower. I was going to make a long and narrow box from white card (postcard weight): about 20cm high, and each side was 18mm. It would have five sides so that sides one and five would overlap for gluing. The box would fit over the bolt mentioned earlier.
To decorate the box, I drew up a pattern on the computer using a graphics program. Paintshop Pro is my favourite, but you could also do it with Word, making a table with five columns 18mm wide, and putting centred text (about 48-point Arial) into each column, and shading the background.



Assembling the tower

I discovered that a matching length of garden hose would exactly fit over the head of the bolt, and fit snugly into the card box. That made it easy to assemble the whole thing.



Aligning the mirrors – stage 2

With just the narrow tower, you can’t see the spots that are out of line – with a wide card you can. So I kept the wider card in place for the time being, to make sure all the mirrors were aligned.

In theory all the mirrors were aligned L-R, so the reflections should have fallen on the vertical centre line. In practice, a few had drifted a little as the glue set. The job was to tease each reflection into alignment – vertically by bending the brass fastener, with a slight horizontal twist if needed. I found the best I could do was to line them up to an area about twice the size of the mirrors (about 25mm square). After getting two lines of mirror settled I made up a third row and glued them in place in the same way.

You need to do this vertical alignment at the time of day you want the model to work best. Once set, the mirrors can’t be adjusted any more, and as the sun changes its elevation, the reflections will move.

I chose 1pm (solar midday in daylight saving). As the sun goes down, the reflections rise higher, and don’t converge so well. You can chase them a little by tilting the baseboard.


Other structures

The tower in actionI fiddled about with some scraps of things I had around the place, to represent holding tanks, pipes etc. I might add a few more blocks for pumps, turbines etc – though of course they won’t be functional in any way.

Here’s the finished result, in the midday sun.

I might add some more tanks and pipes and other structures if I get around to it.




The working model

No smoke and all mirrors

Last thing needed was a box to carry the thing in. I had planned to use a pizza box, but in the end I made one out of a cut-down wine carton which was exactly the right size. I put a little partition near one edge so the tower could be unscrewed and prevented from rolling about and banging the delicately adjusted mirrors.

The project needed a name. Since it’s all about replacing coal-fired power stations with solar ones, I called it  . . .