Friday, December 18

Christmas Homecomings with Charles Dickens

Here's a simple little low budget film I directed for Strategem iLabs for its clients, Expressway and Bus Éireann to celebrate all those Christmas homecomings they're part of. Richard Kendrick shot the pix, with additional footage from Hugh Chaloner and Conor Smyth cut it.

The text is an extract from A Good-Humoured Christmas by that up and coming writer, Charles Dickensread rather beautifully by Ned Dennehy (himself no stranger to Dickens) and recorded at Beacon Studios.

Tuesday, December 1

Getting UnReal in Time Square

It was also great to collaborate with the mighty Steve Simpson on a 60m tall digital screen for UnReal Candy in Time Square NYC. Part of its Halloween campaign, we created a 30 second animated loop with Steve's fantastic Day-of-the-Dead inspired skull and kinetic text elements. The animation and post was done by

(This is only a mocked-up comp as the actual screen burned out when filmed at night.)

And here's Steve throwing shapes in Midtown.

Wednesday, November 25

NFL Star makes Halloween Stunt Fly

NFL star quarterback, New England Patriot's Tom Brady was a great sport to go incognito to help us out on a Halloween video which I wrote and CDed for all-natural US brand candy, UnReal, as well as creating content for packaging, web and POS.

What do you think of my Halloween quarterback sneak?? UnReal #GetUnreal
Posted by Tom Brady on Friday, 23 October 2015

Tom hid personally autographed messages and other goodies like match tickets for young fans in 3D Day-of-the-Dead inspired Halloween buckets, featuring fab illustrations by Dublin's own Steve Simpson. Steve also designed the amazing skulls too and a whole heap more. The buckets were then stashed in Whole Foods Markets all across the Boston/New England area.

Needless to say, TB12's profile meant the promo and the video - shot on the run and cut by Mark Higgins - really took flight on social and mainstream media as you'll see below, with almost 500 million impressions.

See what happens when you believe Everything is Possible.

Monday, October 5

Hiking Alta Via Dolomiti

Five special days in the Dolomites in September, hiking from rifugio to rifugio: Pederü to Lagazuoi to Averau to Cortina d'Ampezzo.

That's us lower right having just come through the cliff, over the high pass behind.

Monday, July 20

Istanbul: City of glittering riches

In 2010, Istanbul was honoured as the European Capital of Culture. Even a brief sampling however, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that was about 2,000 years overdue. Indeed that perhaps it was somewhat short-changed on the continental front as it could easily claim the designation for Asia too. Because this is more than a gem, it's the proverbial crown jewels, encrusted with historic architectural and cultural riches beyond the imagination of even the most ambitious of city builders. And goodness knows, Istanbul has had more than a few of those across 25 centuries.

Golden hour as the sun descends over Istanbul. Photograph: Getty Images
It's all about water. The Bosphorus Strait to be more precise, and its 32km trade-lubricating connection between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, between West and East. Istanbul is the fulcrum about which Eurasian business has pivoted since Byzantine times. It's a thriving waterway still, along with the Golden Horn, an estuary which cleaves through the city to meet the Bosphorus at the Sea of Marmara. This maritime geography is thrilling revealed in the Raika Bar's wrap-round vista from the 20th floor of the luxurious Marmara Taksim. There's the promise of a fabulous way to explore the city afresh.

The bustling port at Eminönü near Galata Bridge has several piers with ferries going in all directions. However I fancy a shorter, less-cruised alternative and stroll down from my hotel on Taksim Square to Kabataş. From here, you'll find rapid catamarans which speed up and down the Strait, and out to Prince's Islands. While more traditional ferries make leisurely crossings to Istanbul's Asian side, with payloads of commuters, shoppers and blow-ins. Small open cafés line the waterfront and where better to sip a sweet çay (tea) from a tulip glass as you plan a trip. In front, a perpetual shipping show traces back and forth, as this remains one of the world's busiest commercial waterways.

Land like a sultan at Dolmabahçe

I decide on a hop-on, hop-off Golden Horn Tour, but with an hour to kill before departure, start my water adventure at nearby Dolmabahçe Palace. Less well known than Topkapi, it is no less beautiful. With a series of spectacular gates from its gardens opening directly onto the Bosphorus, sultans could arrive by barge just a few metres from their Palace's steps. Built in 1856, it's splendidly ornate with almost 300 rooms stretching along the waterside. Dolmabahçe is full of surprises: it looks as if it's built of stone, but is really plastered wood. There's an actual Baccarat crystal staircase that we pad up in surgical slippers and each enormous reception room is more dramatic than the last. 

Cruising up the Bosphorus later, the idea of arriving home by barge doesn't quite seem so glamorous as it's no glassy pond, rather properly lively. But the views are immense. Istanbul is another city said to have been built on seven hills as the Byzantines, the Romans and the Ottomans all expanded its reach and left their marks. We pass Sultanahmet and Seraglio Point, a soaring riot of minarets and domes, with three world famous sights - The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia and Topkapi - all in a row, a breathtaking cultural jackpot.

There are remains of towering aqueducts that brought water here and stored it in reservoirs such as the extraordinary underground Basilica Cistern, its 336 columns like a fantasy from Harry Potter. The mighty Theodosian walls, once stretching from the Marmara to the Golden Horn dissect the city still. It's not surprising perhaps given they stood protecting what was then Constantinople for almost 1000 years.

Istanbul looks defiantly forward too. Contemporary Turkish life flourishes along the Golden Horn. Buzzing cafés and bars bask in sunlight with Galata Tower behind. The upper tier of Galata Bridge is lined with fishermen and the occasional fisherwoman, whilst the lower walkway is a hive of activity lured by cheap street food and floating fish stalls. No wonder it's one of Nobel-winning İstanbullu, Orhan Pamuk's favourite haunts.

Next up, the modern towers and cables of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge which can swing open to allow taller ships through. Everywhere there's some eye-catching diversion. Our captain has to hit the brakes (metaphorically) as a sea plane lands in front of us. The decommissioned submarine tied up at a museum on the banks. There are ramshackle ship yards and great houses. One waterfront yalı (or mansion) was for sale here for €100m back in 2013.

Fellow passengers board and disembark at various stops. Miniatürk seems particularly popular: a model of the city with 100 miniatures of famous Istanbul landmarks. We carve a gentle u-turn and hum back towards Kabataş. The sinking sum gives buildings the other-worldy glow that compels cinematographers to the magic hour.

Suddenly, we're in the movie, Istanbul as its exotic central character, hiding the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar* showing off myriad mosques, its riches and mysteries playing to us across this ancient waterway. And we've the best seat in the house.

The Bosphorus from the Marmara Taksim bar with Sultanahmet's minarets to the right

(*explore it via James Bond)

This appeared in the Irish Times Magazine on June 13, 2015.

Thursday, July 16

Chewing the cud with a Master Butcher

Here's a short film I made with artisan butcher Pat Whelan, who is at the vanguard of a revolution in Irish beef from his Tipperary family farm and Avoca's Food Market counters.

A man with strong views about happy cows and Ireland's food culture, Pat's always passionate about doing things the right way - winning awards aplenty while he's at it. And along with leading Irish food writer, Katy McGuinness has produced the definite book on his pet subject, the aptly-titled The Irish Beef Book

Thursday, June 25

Seoul purpose: South Korea's cultural metropolis

The view from the immaculate hotel lobby is frankly breathtaking. Well, we are on the 24th floor, with the vast metropolis of Seoul spread out around in all directions, framed through floor to ceiling glass walls. I've just arrived in South Korea's capital and the scale of the city from the luxurious Park Hyatt is truly electrifying, banishing any jet lag with a powerful zap of wonder.

This megacity is officially called "Seoul Special City" and its greater reach, Seoul Capital Area. The former is said to have a population of about 10 million, with latter metropolitan region reckoned to be home to 25 million people, making it the second largest globally after Tokyo. Banks of towering apartment blocks and business skyscrapers roll off in seismic waves, undulating as far as the eye can see. Cutting through the middle, the mighty Han River or Hangang ribbons a broad swath of dark, a momentary natural break in the thrilling urbanscape.

View from N Seoul Tower

For many of us in the West, South Korea and more particularly Seoul, swept into our orbit in 1988 with the Summer Olympics. It was something of a watershed for the country, an economic springboard and validation for its people. The Olympic Stadium is still a landmark, as is Seoul's World Cup Stadium from 2002, a competition we largely remember for the infamous Saipan incident. But I won't be going there: those civil war wounds are painfully deep.

making kimchi in the market
More recently, the cultural tsunami that is K-Pop (that's Korean Pop, daddy-o) flung Psy with his monstrously addictive "Gangham Style" video into our mainstream. The Park Hyatt sits in Gangham, which means south of the river, and the upmarket, glossy style that the song celebrates and parodies is quickly evident. This area is buzzing, and the locals friendly and open - this is their default mode. I wander into COEX Mall, the world's largest underground shopping mall, featuring every sort leading brand along with lots of unfamiliar intriguing retail. Plenty of restaurants too and I tuck into my first taste of Jeongol, a delicious spicy broth you cook yourself at the table on gas burners, with thinly-sliced meats, fresh vegetables and exotic funghi, and served with lots of sides, including the ever present spicy kimchi.

Flavours apart, straight away there's another distinction from Chinese or Japanese eating. The chopsticks are metal - often stainless steel, but also brass, aluminium or even silver - and narrower and shorter than we'd be familiar with. There's usually a spoon set out too, which the locals often eat their rice with. And of course, forks are also presented happily everywhere.

Next morning is a very early start. It's no chore as I'm excited to visit the DMZ - the Demilitarised Zone - on the border with North Korea. It's formally the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a name that's pure Orwellian doublethink. The DMZ is a 2km buffer zone on each side of the partition line, controlled by Korea's two parts, along with the US and United Nations, and running right across the peninsula for about 250km. It's the rump of unresolved geopolitical aggression from the Cold War. In short, Russian/Chinese-supported North Korea under Kim Il-sung (whose grandson, of course, is ruling the roost up North now) invaded the US-backed South in 1950. The bloody three year Korean War that ensued eventually resolved into an equilibrium at the original partition line again, roughly along the 38th Parallel - but here's the kicker, there was no truce or peace treaty. It's only an armistice: the war is simply on hold since 1953.

Trips to the DMZ are easily organised from Seoul, though it's all a bit surreal, like booking a day trip to a war waiting to happen and a tourist attraction rolled up in one. We're briefed on the strict dress and behaviour code. No sandals. No shorts. No gesturing to North Korean soldiers. No photographs except when told. It was hard to take seriously and yet, deadly serious on the part of our friendly guide. The drive takes less than an hour. We soon see the hills in North Korea are stripped bare of vegetation and are told it's all been used as fuel because of desperate shortages. There's belief among Southerners that their Northern "brothers and sisters" are in dire straits, famine-stricken.

the staring match into North Korea at the JSA
We lunch at Imjingak, where despite a rather bizarre funfair, there's a touching memorial for the dispersed families whose relatives have been stranded out of reach in North Korea. There's a plaintive power to the closed-off Unification Bridge here, where South Koreans tie ribbons and other personal mementos as a sort of shrine to a reunified nation. Next stop is Panmunjeom or the Joint Security Area (JSA), right on the divide. We transfer to military-controlled buses and our passports are checked by soldiers as we pass anti-tank traps on a narrow road that tiptoes between land mined fields.

Three blue huts straddle the actual border, looking for all the world like the temporary classrooms of a primary school somewhere. This is where the North and South hold meetings under UN auspices. There's a perpetual staring match between very sharply uniformed and sunglassed South Korean military and their less dapper Northern counterparts across the way. We shuffle into the middle hut, its conference table bisected by the Demarcation Line, with a door out into North Korea on the opposite end, the rabbit hole to a wonderland. I can literally put a foot in both camps and have a selfie-op with the impassive guard. It's fascinating and baffling in equal measure.

Seoul’s roots lie in prehistoric times and it's had many masters. The longest unbroken stretch was under the Joseon dynasty who ruled for 27 generations from 1392. Their heritage is seen in five magical Grand Palaces in the Royal Quarter. The second oldest, Changdeokgung is a World Heritage Site dating from 1405. A magnificent gateway with ornately painted beams and curving, fluid-tiled roof gives a taster for the treats beyond. Changdeokgung is particularly beloved for its Secret Garden and I follow a guided walk winding round the 72 acre bucolic paradise, with its lotus ponds and exquisite pavilions. No wonder a young bride and groom join us in traditional wedding costumes to take their photos against the garden's delights.

I'd had another perspective on the Palaces earlier when I'd joined a popular weekend pilgrimage for Seoul inhabitants: trekking up Mount Namsan to climb N Seoul Tower. I cheat as time's our enemy and catch a ride up, zigzagging past throngs of family and friends in the latest gear to the soaring communications tower at the summit with its 360º observation deck. There's romance in the air too, as it's a regular date for young couples leaving tens of thousands of colourful padlocks clipped to the Tower's fences to mark their commitment.

Seoul food (eh, sorry) is fabulous, whether it's scrumptious freshly-made mandu (dumplings) in Gwangjang market sitting next to a local eating still-wriggling octopus tentacles or the sublime presentation of Si Wha Dam, a leader among a new generation of restaurants, where I enjoy one of my most spectacular meals ever. Each course is literally a work of art and the flavours, sensational. Chicken in the Kitchen, made famous by the UK's Hairy Bikers is different again, a favourite venue for Seoul's hipster generation, with craft beers and baskets of unbelievably good beer-fried chicken to share. Eclectic boutiques and stalls fill the neighbourhood around it beneath the noisy chatter of mysterious neon signs.


At the glamorous Grand Hyatt Hotel which is hosting a sparkling party with a veritable who's who of Seoul's celebrity strata, it's the event's backdrop out the windows that leaves me spellbound. At night, the city expresses a different persona, that of sci-fi megalopolis, as if Ridley Scott is in charge of urban planning and Blade Runner, simply his visualisation tool. Huge TV screens beam out silently from the tops of skyscrapers, while the kilometre-wide Han is criss-crossed by 27 bridges, some with 5 or 6 lanes each way of blazing red and white streams.

En route to Incheon Airport on my way home, in contrast, I've the chance to visit the idyllic Jeondeoung-sa Temple, the oldest Korean Buddhist temple, founded back in 381. Monk Ildae is the model of soothing serenity as he pours tea and discusses all manner of practical and spiritual matters. Temple stays can be arranged with over-nights to immerse you in the meditative rituals here. I get to ring the heavy ceremonial brahma bell marking dusk as the light also comes down on my own time in Seoul, regrettably.

This is an astonishing dynamo of a city, one that's charged to its current starry economic heights and scale in a little over half a century. And it's spinning faster still. But its roots and traditions run rich and deep, as does its welcome for strangers. Seoul is indeed a very special city.

This appeared in The Irish Times Magazine on June 6, 2015

Monday, May 18

Google Earth on Steroids

For a moment, it seems like I may have wandered into the auditions for some exotic Next Top Model TV series, as an unfeasibly glamorous troupe of girls and boys in their 20s passes through the hallway in front of me, all in matching red jumpsuits. In fact, it’s a new generation of airline flight crew in the middle of a rigorous induction programme. I’m visiting Turkish Airlines Training Centre at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport to see its state-of-art flight simulators; and for a boy who likes toys, it’s like Santa’s accidentally left the whole sack at the bottom of the chimney.
It’s not just Turkish Airline’s own crews who get put through their paces here: this vast facility is the go-to resource for training in the region, with dozens of other airlines using it for their pilots and crew too. Before I’ve even seen the flight simulators, frankly, I’m buzzed. In a huge hanger-like space (and it needs to be), there is a pair of sectioned plane bodies (an Airbus A340 and Boeing 737 for partial plane spotters) like giant half-completed Airfix kits, with wings and tail sections still to be glued on.
 These aren’t flight simulators as such, they’re Crew Emergency Evacuation Trainers – CEETs. Inside each is a full cabin set- up as you’d expect, from the pilots’ cockpit to the crew kitchenette, with screens showing the notional outside view on the window portholes to complete the conceit. The trainer is up on massive hydraulic jacks and it can reproduce all sorts of potential emergency situations. Smoke in the cabin. Severe turbulence. Fire in the hold. These on-board conditions change at the press of an iPad, like it’s running some sort of Truman Show app, summoning up the elements and controlling the weather at the slide of a finger. The experience is so completely immersive, my brain surrenders to the fakery in an instant and I find myself bracing for a generated landing on water.

These CEETs even allow practice evacuations by slide – with a huge pool beside one of the planes and another pair sliding onto terra firma. The inflatable slide has to be tried, needless to say, just to be entirely professional and conscientious. All heads swivel as I interrupt the trainees’ concentration around the hanger with an involuntary whoop. It’d be rude not to.

The cockpit flight simulators are housed separately behind secure doors. It’s not surprising, with each one costing upwards of €13.25 million. Turkish Airlines has six full flight simulators and I’m getting to go in one of its A320-200 units. Looking like shiny-white space pods ready for take-off in a sci-fi movie, the simulators are the size of very large caravan, perched on tall, spindly legs. You get into one via a detachable gangplank, as these expensive high tech babies buck and toss and tilt viciously to create the on-board sense of movement.

Even more mind-codding than the CEET, the cockpit is totally accurately recreated, with a projected 3D video rendering the outside world through the windows on all sides. This virtual reality is compounded by the six-axis motion that matches the moving pictures with the simulator motion, which responds to the pilot’s actions. We start rolling down a runway, picking up speed, feeling every vibration, till the ground begins to slip away beneath us and Atatürk Airport falls away gently below. Banking around, we tilt and the buildings’ 3D perspective seamlessly changes with startling realism.
In an instant, we’re on a dizzying flyover of Istanbul, straddling the Bosphorus, the historic fulcrum of Europe and Asia. We fly up the busy corridor far lower than would be permitted in an actual aircraft and slant, banking smoothly again to circle world famous landmarks like the soaring minarets of Hagia Sofia and the exquisite Blue Mosque below. The detail is seductive, like the studding of the virtual waterway with cargo ships and ferries, and the landscape beyond apparently stretching out as far as the eye can see. The nerd in me starts wondering about how much data must be processed to create this amazing simulacrum. This is Google Earth on steroids.
My pilot trainer generously lets me have a brief go on the controls and I succeed in not landing us in the drink nor pranging an ancient minaret. We get to play weather God once more and conjure up a wicked storm for the landing. Rain lashes the windscreen as our cloud-addled visibility drops away. The runway lights suddenly hurtle into view and we land with an expertly light bump as the engines roar up to throw out the anchor. The virtual weather switches quicker than a Connemara summer day, and Istanbul airport clicks into sunshine again. I’m vaguely dazed leaving the simulator, like emerging from a dark pub into bright sunshine. What a blast. Santa, I haven’t been too bad: how about another go?

This was in The Irish Times Magazine on 16 May, 2015

Wednesday, March 25

I am my Camera.

I never need much of an excuse to replay Broadway theatre critic, Walter Kerr's infamously brief put-down of the play, I am a Camera: "Me no Leica" was Kerr's unflinching critique.

Later adapted to become the musical, Cabaret, the play's title came from the opening line of the 1939 Christopher Isherwood story  - Goodbye to Berlin"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking". How accurately that reflects much of our interaction with contemporary culture. And indeed beyond.

So much of life is only being experienced vicariously through the screens of our smartphones. We are becoming our cameras. Nothing has happened unless it's been shot and tagged and shared and logged.

Concert-goers are watching the gigs on their phones rather looking at the stage. Sight-seeing is selfie-shooting. The visceral and the emotional are compressed and filtered. Nothing is first hand.

U2 360º Barcelona

Recently I came across another version of the phenomenon. Visiting a couple of New York museums last Summer, time and again I watched visitors run up to a painting, bang off a quick wide shot of it and then another close-in of its caption card. And on to the next piece The whole interaction, if you could call it that, took about 15 seconds.

Of course, this was also combined with galleries of selfies using the exhibitions as backdrops. And enthusiastic parents who were snapping their kids in front of artworks, making them imitate their subjects' poses in a sort of odd homage. But at least they were paying some attention to it.

Are these haphazardly snatched photos of art and captions ever going to be looked at again? Probably not. But MoMA or the Met or the Whitney had been done. Tagged. Distilled to an iPhoto event.

What's for sure is that there's little living in the now. Appreciation, absorption, immersion is deferred. Ignored. Perhaps archived to a digital album on some hard drive, with uploaded pixels that will never see the light of day again.

We need to store memories, sure, and hopefully look back at them; but to do that we need to make some first.