1. Porgs

Five of them, to be precise.


1. Space

They’re set in space, right? So: space. Lots of space. Which shouldn’t be too hard, because space is really big, you know?

2. Spaceships

You can’t have space without ships. Edgy black and grey (or blue) ships that are named after articles of clothing but actually look nothing like them and basically just completely restrict the peripheral vision of their pilots. Yep, plenty of those.

3. Lightsabers

Red ones, blue ones, green ones. All the ones. (But no purple ones.) And they have to be hitting each other while the people holding them jump around a bit, but not too much, because we all know how that turns out.

4. Planets

(I forgot about other things to fill up all that space with.)

5. Harrison Ford’s knee

It’s definitely fixed, yeah?

Howard Shooter
You wouldn’t know it from his sun-kissed studio kitchen, nor indeed his relaxed demeanour, but Howard Shooter’s job focuses on perhaps one of the most strenuous forms of photography.

“Food is very difficult to art direct… people have to trust you to some extent,” Howard muses. He’s in the middle of a shoot when we meet in his Camden studio, photographing breakfast options for a national restaurant chain. Croissants and marmalade litter the surfaces, with boxes of food samples strewn across the wooden flooring and on shelves alongside scattered tableware. Behind us, his client waits patiently, examining his work and occasionally offering advice on the direction. She asks for ‘conceptual’. Howard sighs. Another day at the office, then – not that this is any ordinary office.

Here, Howard undertakes a transformative process with his subjects: dull, beige pastries become gleaming, golden brown delicacies of breakfast delight; a rather forlorn jar of marmalade becomes a bowl of eternal orange splendour. It’s by no means an easy process, as Howard is understandably keen to stress: “It’s a very complicated thing. It’s not like shooting still life,” he says, referring to the common misconception concerning food photography and bowls of fruit. It seems it’s not something anyone with a DSLR can pick up overnight. “You have to have a great knowledge of food, and hopefully a great knowledge of photography.”

The end point to Howard’s endeavours here will be for advertising purposes, though he also takes photographs for other means – right up to the packaging on the food we buy in shops (the worst of which to photograph, he tells me, is undoubtedly the formless, brown mess that is frozen mincemeat). It all falls under the label of food photography, though each type requires adherence to differing regulations: “Most of it’s real. With advertising, it’s not such a big deal, but with packaging and point of sales – they are absolutely really serious about it. Because of the European Union, [we have to] know that legally we’re representing the product as well as we should do.”

These aren’t the only tribulations Howard must take into account; as with any branch of photography, food can bring with it particular time constraints, though many are unique to Howard’s specialism: “Things like soufflés, you’ve only got seconds to shoot it. One of my photos is a chocolate soufflé, and everyone looks at that one in awe. It’s just one of those shots.”

And yet, Howard doesn’t just limit himself to food: “I love portraits… I do a lot of celebrity chefs. I only get called in if they’re really tricky, because it involves a certain amount of gall in a photographer. It’s a challenge because in a very short space of time you’ve got to take control,” Howard explains. “Whether it’s Marco Pierre White; whether it’s Simon Rimmer – they hate passive photographers who just say ‘yes’ the whole time, what they want is direction. And on that basis you then become art director again.”

He gives me a pointed look. Food isn’t that different to portraits after all – though Howard’s portfolio curiously distinguishes the two on more than one occasion. Marco Pierre White soul-searches through a colour drained shot that’s as intense a photograph as any you’ll see this side of war reporting (even if not by choice: “I told Marco Pierre White to ‘smile, you miserable bastard…’”); John Burton-Race pulls the other one, full of laughter and life. But neither of these shots bears resemblance to Howard’s food photography; indeed, neither so much as features a crumb.

Howard Shooter
So, Howard’s talents are diverse, and it’s clear to see why he’s so in demand. Proving further his artistic mastery of food photography, he divulges some personal and industry secrets, one of which is a handy workaround for the European Union regulations with regards to food packaging: “If there’s 10 bits of meat in a pie, for example, there’s nothing in the law that says we can’t show 10 bits of meat coming out of the pie, and stuffing the back with kitchen roll.”

As if to prove the point that there are still plenty of tricks available to those who know where to look, Howard suddenly reaches into a box on a shelf behind him, retrieving a pair of ice cubes. He places them into a glass in front of me. “This is just beyond brilliant,” he grins.

They’re not actually ice cubes, of course: acrylic-made, but almost better-looking than the real deal. “It costs a fortune, but you put that in a glass of brandy, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t ice. Then lots of stuff is oiled or sprayed with water to make it look hot or fresh. Small plates make food that’s small look large; that’s always a classic one. But every single shoot has certain food secrets related to what makes a good photo.”

A delivery driver turns up with yet more boxes to join the piles scattered around the studio. It’s far too much food for just one photo shoot, suggesting that there’ll be plenty of leftovers to go around, as Howard confirms: “There’s tonnes [of surplus food]. Everyone knows they come here for a really good lunch,” he jokes. “But we don’t want to waste stuff, so we try and give as much away as possible. The homeless charities don’t let us give it to them – they’re worried about contamination. So we give it to neighbours and friends to make sure it’s actually eaten rather than thrown away.”

‘We’ refers to Howard’s photography team – he’s always aided by one or more assistants “Everyone knows it’s a real team effort,” he enthuses. “The people are fantastic in the food industry. Whether you’re meeting a celebrity chef or working with an assistant, there’s no sense of hierarchy at all – the accomplishment from that point of view is fantastic.”

Still, it’s Howard who’s predominantly in control of the situation – it’s his studio, after all. But this has meant that, over the years, he’s built up a certain level of authority in the industry: “There’s a dish in Wagamama at the moment, and they’d spent ages trying to figure out the best way to present it. But it looked terrible. So I did it my way, and because I see things visually and not in a food way, now every Wagamama restaurant serves this particular dish the way I wanted it presented.” (It’s the duck ramen, if you’re interested.)

Of course, the trust Howard has carefully built up in his twenty-something-year career was not always something he could take for granted. Indeed, when he started, food photography “didn’t exist”. But his love of food, combined with a childhood dream to be a photographer, meant there was only ever one ending for Howard – even if it wasn’t particularly fashionable: “Trust me, it wasn’t cool when I started. It was horrendous…”

An extended feature written as part of my degree, meant to tie in to last year’s cinematic release of Metallica: Through The Never.

metallica through the never

Metallica’s latest endeavour in brand extension is a 3D concert film extravaganza of IMAX proportions, offering up a 90-minute ‘greatest hits’ set alongside a decidedly alternative narrative. And yet, while Through The Never is sure to conjure all sorts of memories for fans of the thrash metal band, it’s also one of this year’s most curiously alienating cinematic experiences (even counting Harmony Korine’s experimental Spring Breakers).

It’s easy to see where the problem lies: a show by a band of Metallica’s magnitude is hard to compress into such an intimate setting, particularly when you’re required – so long as you follow Mark Kermode’s recently published Wittertainment code of conduct– to effectively sit still and shut up, which is precisely the opposite of what you’d do at an actual Metallica concert. It’s an experience that doesn’t seem a natural fit for a cinema screen, and yet it’s a concept that’s taken off in leaps and bounds recently. Just ask Justin Bieber (Never Say Never), Katy Perry (Part of Me), One Direction (This Is Us) et al.

It must be noted that not all concert films take the same format, of course – some offer docudrama-style insights into the workings of the artists, while others, like Metallica’s latest offering, simply act as a live DVD with better production values. At the other end of the spectrum, some cinemas even screen live concerts as they happen, much in the same way that you might watch Glastonbury on BBC Three, after having failed to get tickets because you didn’t have time to sit at your computer hitting F5 in the vain hope that more get released.

In a way, then, perhaps that’s the purpose of concert films: an avenue for those who can’t make it to an actual concert to experience their favourite artists in a cheaper, more accessible medium. Al Doyle, ex-guitarist of LCD Soundsystem, has plenty of experience with concert films, having starred in one himself – Will Lovelace’s Shut Up and Play the Hits revolves around LCD Soundsystem’s final gig at Madison Square Garden, and features a mix of concert footage and insights into the band’s life.

The film came about primarily as part of the build-up to the band’s final show. “We wanted to get all we could out of it,” Al says. “So we knew it needed to be filmed. [Frontman] James [Murphy] was already involved in doing a documentary with Pulse Films, and so the final concert movie became an addition to a project which was already addressing his general motivations and reasons for quitting.”

Al says the main purpose of these films is to further the experience for fans: “They can demonstrate a band’s strengths or highlight a unique moment. [They’re for] fans, but also people who came late to a gig and want to catch up, or people who can’t afford to go to a specific gig.”

In that context, Shut Up and Play the Hits is an entirely different beast to Through The Never. That film was created almost entirely as an extension of the brand that is Metallica – and make no mistake, it is a brand, not a band, now more than ever. The recently released oh-so-rock-and-roll Metallica Christmas jumpers are evidence enough of that. But while those two films may have been born from differing ideologies, they’re still very much confined within the same genre, intending to appeal predominantly to the bands’ existing fans. It’s important to note that while it’s not a relatively new genre, its expansion most certainly is.

Independent filmmaker Marcus Matamoro, who’s produced several music videos for bands including Kids In Glass Houses, is well aware of the beneficial relationship between music and film, having been involved in both industries. “Music and film have always gone hand in hand,” he says. “Music is a big part of cinema and a great soundtrack can help sell a film and get people who might not have gone to watch a specific movie to go check it out.” But Marcus says concert films are not, creatively speaking, a step in the right direction for artists wanting to combine visual and musical elements.

“I don’t think this kind of thing translates into film very well. It seems it’s just another way for record companies to earn extra cash by doing nothing special. Live music concerts should be live,” he says. “It’s like watching a recording of a theatre play. It has no soul.” The argument that these films exist as a gimmicky cash grab is, perhaps, not a completely ungrounded one – Hollywood is all too familiar with moneymaking fads, to the extent that its most recent trend has this past year been married with concert films on various occasions.

Katy Perry did it first back in June, then One Direction capitalised on it with This Is Us. Indeed, Metallica’s endeavour might simply be seen as the inevitable result of Hollywood tapping into the concert film genre’s suitability for the third dimension. It’s a trend that has bounced around genres, with everything from science-fiction to superheroes getting the 3D treatment in an attempt to see what sticks: and it seems that, at least where Through The Never is concerned, 3D might have at last found its true calling in the film industry.

For what sets Metallica’s film apart from the rest is that where most concert films perch from the point of view of the audience, simulating the real thing to an even more derivative extent, Through The Never gets up on stage with the band. The sweeping cameras are only accentuated by the 3D, to a noteworthy yet not intrusive manner, that offers a delightfully dizzying experience that you probably wouldn’t find from the floor of the O2 while buried in somebody’s armpit.

Still, even Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich says 3D is most likely not here to stay. While promoting the film this autumn, he described to me the general public’s tumultuous relationship with the phenomenon. “These sorts of things always go back and forth. In America there’s been a huge backlash against 3D over the last few years. What we’re doing with our 3D is not so much about 3D like this,” he said, extending his hand towards my face. “It’s more about immersion and Avatar-esque 3D, more about you being in there rather than stuff coming at you. 3D is hip again for the next 2 weeks, like Gravity – George Clooney floating around in space, it’s cool! [But] six months from now, people will be like ‘Fuck 3D!’”

So the role of concert films is perhaps not, then, to give 3D an avenue to spread its wings. But neither is it to replace the live experience, as Al argues: “Seeing a band live is about so many things – the journey there and back, the fight you got into, the girl that looked your way, the great (or terrible) sound, the singer’s tantrum – any number of unpredictable things that can only be experienced by physically being there.”

Instead, it seems the best niche that concert films can hope to fill is simply as an extension of that experience, and not necessarily in a cinematic context. “The films help to bring back those memories, I guess,” Al says. “But there doesn’t seem to always be an appropriate way to react [in a cinema]. You could start dancing in the aisles, but that’s gonna piss some people off; better to just get the DVD and watch it in your own home, singing along.”

So you probably already know the answer to the title, but whatever. This was a 1,500 word investigative piece written for my degree. Have a gander if you please…

spiritualism“Your father’s father… is he in the spirit world?” Terry inquires. The rest of the room alternate their stares between the medium and me, awaiting my response in a hushed awe. I nod. “He’s standing right beside you.” I almost look, but catch myself just in time.

It’s true that relationships are difficult enough to maintain in the land of the living – whether romantic, familial or otherwise – but imagine what it’s like when one half of the relationship isn’t actually alive. Many would say it is, in fact, impossible: the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain would disagree.

From the outside, 11 Belgrave Road seems like another bland London office suite. But behind its grey, concrete exterior lies the home of the SAGB, my destination for this equally grey February afternoon – and where I’ve just taken my seat in time for the 3:30pm psychic demonstration, led by medium Terry Tasker.

Terry’s been a working medium for almost 50 years at the SAGB, a charity-cum-religion that has not always been situated where it is today. Established in 1872, the SAGB’s history is long and convoluted – formed by a group of Londoners decades after Spiritualism had taken off in the USA, the group first met in carpenters’ workshops and abandoned police courts, until anonymous donations allowed them to secure permanent premises in Holborn in 1930, and then Victoria in 1955.

Though the SAGB dismisses any notion of a mission statement as a “hideous modern expression”, the website still carries the pledge that its purpose is to “offer evidence through Mediumship of the continuation of the personality after physical death, and to relieve suffering through Spiritual Healing”. So here I am, ready to see some evidence that will help me reconnect with lost loved ones, and that relationships are possible to maintain even after death.

There’s only three other people in the room when I arrive, and I suddenly become very aware of where I am and what I’m doing. To avoid tainting the investigation, I’ve told nobody that I’m a journalist, and I become possessed with worry that I’ll be exposed for the fraud that I am in this tiny crowd – one where I am definitely an outsider, a 20-year-old male versus a group of female 60-somethings chattering about tea, their pets and something which sounds like ‘psychometry’.

Dina and Joan are regulars at the SAGB, both welcoming Terry personally when he later arrives, but for now they’re merely discussing their latest Spiritualist experience: a Scottish medium called John Alexander’s psychometry display, whereupon he went into a trance, taking on the form of a Tibetan monk (both figuratively and literally according to Dina, who swears she saw him grow a foot-long beard) and murmuring in broken English.

To my relief, a few more people arrive before the session begins – still all much older than me, though Terry later tells me there’s usually a wider cross-section of attendees. There’s at least a healthy mix of men and women now, but all are white. A marble bust of an unnamed scholar sits in the corner of the room, with a grand piano at the back, for reasons unknown to anyone present.

Terry closes the door and takes to the podium. He invites those of us who are present for the first time to make ourselves known. I tentatively raise my hand, as does a woman to my left. A deathly silence falls around the room. Terry begins.

For those unaware of how psychic demonstrations work, do not let Hollywood deceive you – there’s no spinning trinkets, no floating tables; in fact, it’s much gentler than that. Terry doesn’t even take a moment (as Hollywood had told me he should) to summon the power of clairvoyance from an ethereal dimension. Rather, his introduction ends with a short prayer, and then he jumps right in.

The next hour consists of Terry walking around the room and addressing his guests one by one, passing on messages from the spirit world. Interestingly enough, the more specific the communication between medium and guest is, the more accurate it tends to be; he gets names right on more than one occasion.

“Does the name Frank mean anything to you?” He asks a gentleman in front of me, David, who responds with an affirmation that Frank was his father. I’m surprised by this, especially as David later tells me he’s never been to a demonstration with Terry before. My brain instantly searches for a rational explanation, but they all seem to require a rather copious stretch of the imagination (though admittedly no more than the existence of actual clairvoyance).

Later, Terry addresses another medium at the back of the room, a Belgian woman named Isabelle, telling her there’s the spirit of a nun currently circling her. Isabelle gasps. She’s been told about a nun before on several occasions, by several different mediums. But she doesn’t know how to detect the nun for herself.

Terry pauses.

“Lavender is the key. When you detect the scent of lavender, that’s her.”

Isabelle squeals with excitement. She’s caught the scent of lavender before, even with no apparent source. Now she’s convinced that it’s a sign of a spirit. I’m bewildered, and my mind fills with possibilities of what Terry might tell me.

But when he begins to pass on more vague messages (“Do you feel like your hands are tied with anything at the moment?”) he starts to lose his footing. People shake their heads. It’s an interesting discrepancy, and one that I had presumed would be true in the reverse. I’ll be the first to admit I was completely sceptical about Spiritualism, especially as a means of continuing relationships, not least because I knew barely a thing about it – but when Terry gets his specifics right, his demonstration can be very convincing.

As I sit thinking about this, Terry turns to me.

He prompts me about my grandfather. I’m nervous but excited, as many others in the room hadn’t received messages from loved ones in this way, but rather more vague meanderings as with Isabelle’s mysterious nun. But here, I’m seemingly about to reconnect with a lost family member – or so Terry wants me to believe.

Things are getting a little overwhelming at this point. My heart is racing. Terry asks whether I can feel my grandfather stood next to me. I shake my head. Speaking seems like a challenge.

“Have you experienced a loss recently? In the past six or twelve months?”

I nod, still silent, as Terry makes another accurate prediction (though admittedly a likely one too, with such a wide timeframe).

“Your grandfather… he wants to let you know that it’s all right. That there’s no need for tears.”

I’m awestruck. Part of me knows this is all bullshit, and yet I can’t help but feel as if what Terry’s saying is true – mostly, I realise, in hope, rather than any sensible thought or belief. Of course I want to communicate with my deceased grandfather – he passed away when I was five years old, so my memories of him are hazy at best. Any suggestion that I could reconnect with him is a warming one.

I’m lost in a train of thought by this point, so Terry moves on, and my first – and likely last – psychic encounter ends. Do I feel any more enlightened than before? No. Do I believe a ‘connection’ was made with the spirit world? As much as I might want to, it’s hard for my rational mind to accept such a reality – not that the Spiritualists present are any less rational, but their religion seems rooted in hope to far greater an extent than, say, Christianity or Islam.

On the one hand, this is a religion which is helping to bring people closer to their loved ones, be it through a placebo effect or grounded in reality. But on the other, it’s also one that’s potentially psychologically damaging – a concern which I propose to Terry afterwards. Is it healthy for people to maintain relationships this way? Surely it’s better for them to move on with their lives?

“It is very difficult sometimes. You do get people who try to cling on, who think that they have to have a message from their loved one every week,” Terry says.

He encourages people who are trying to cling on to get help from a professional or visit bereavement services – which, if the afternoon has taught me anything, is a piece of advice which should probably be stapled to the SAGB’s front door as a precursor to entry.

But thankfully, it seems Terry knows where to draw the line: “We still have to live our lives here, and people in spirit have to live their lives in the spirit world.”

This is an even weirder list than films, because music is even more subjective than films, and so this is basically a list of albums I like. And I share my music tastes with nobody so I can tell this is definitely going to be a popular list.

Anyway the best part is I only bought six new release albums this year so every single one of them is going to make the list. So essentially this is just a list of the albums I bought this year. Woohoo!

6. Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed in Blood

Not a particularly strong showing from the Celtic punk band, with at least half of the material here being largely forgettable. There are some standouts though, most notable of all being the brilliant festive tune above.

5. Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

It’s pretty by-the-numbers as Pearl Jam goes (hell, as alt rock goes) but it’s still got solid hooks and more great vocal work from Eddie Vedder. It stumbles slightly into a one-man show with Future Days, much in the way Backspacer did on more than one occasion, but it makes for a good change of pace anyway.

4. London Grammar – If You Wait

A new discovery for 2013. Solemn and haunting but all the more captivating because of that, If You Wait is the debut album from London Grammar, a band that’s surely made for me. Cos I live in London. And I can do that grammar thing. Geddit? Yeah. Woo.

3. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

Something so simultaneously sober and lurid as …Like Clockwork should be all over the place. Instead it’s a refreshingly tight effort that boasts quality, quantity and variety, with not a dud in the pack.

2. Paramore – Paramore

Paramore ditches band members, Paramore improves. Brand New Eyes was lacklustre to say the least, and yet Paramore is somehow the strongest effort yet from Hayley Williams and those other guys who may or may not be part of this band or something? Anyway, Hayley Williams. Yes. Woo.

1. Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe

Something else completely new for me, sitting at number one purely because it’s refreshing, diverse, easy to listen to on repeat forever and also boasts my favourite song of the year, which you can listen to simply by clicking play on the handy embedded video above. Go on, you won’t regret it. Probably.