Jul 232014
 
Two seagulls sitting on chimneys.

Good old seagulls… they’re not just there for the nasty jobs like shitting on chimneys

This is going to sound like a rather random post, but just work with me on this one. It’s particularly odd in that I don’t believe in fate, horoscopes – I’m a typical Scorpio like that – or omens, but I’ve now been involved in three different episodes involving seagulls and they’ve all centred on the concept of luck.

The first one was when, while living in Brighton, I went to the shops to buy some shorts for five-a-side. I was just outside said shop – you know the one, it had a ‘closing down’ sale every week back then – when a large shitehawk lived up to its name by parking its breakfast on me from a great height. A passing ‘funny’ person commented that I should be happy as it’s good luck. Really? Within the following hour I was dumped by text and wrongly accused of shoplifting by a man who refused to apologise when he realised his mistake.

A year or so later, I was carefully crossing a road between static traffic in one lane and a steady flow in the other. Seeing a double decker bus coming, I stopped in the lane that wasn’t going anywhere to wait for it to pass. Except I trod in something. Something slippery. I slid forward, right in front of the mobile asylum and, as a certain lyric by The Smiths passed through my mind, I somehow managed to lurch backwards in a movement not dissimilar to how they dodge bullets in The Matrix. The bus missed me by centimetres. A little shaken, I made doubly sure nothing else was coming and crossed to the other side of the road. Looking back, I discovered that I had trodden on what used to be a noisy sea bird. Grim. Still, no harm was done and, although it was the thing that almost caused severe misfortune, I’m counting this as lucky.

Cut to a week or two ago and I was suited and booted for a job interview in Brighton. As I left our house to go to the station I noticed something grey and white protruding from the triffids in our front garden. I had a couple of minutes to spare, so carefully pushed a couple of branches out the way to discover the last resting place of, you’ve guessed it, another seagull. Taking into account this rather sinister discovery and the fact that this bird seems to have a special place in the hearts of Brightonians thanks to being all over the branding of Brighton & Hove Albion, this could have been a rather bad omen. Thankfully not – I got the job and am starting tomorrow.

So there you go – conclusive proof that seagulls are good luck. Well, unless you’re Tippi Hedren and as long as they’re dead.

Jul 212014
 

The Stopmotion Studio 4.0 box.
I’ve always been interested in making films and have been lucky enough to have made a few reasonably successful ones in my career to date. All of these have been live action but, being a massive fan of Terry Gilliam and the surreal links he created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I’ve always wanted to give animation a go. Thanks to Honestech, I’ve recently had that opportunity. They sent me a copy of Stopmotion Studio 4.0 to put through its paces and I think it’s fair to say that the whole family has enjoyed using it!

The software installed very quickly and I was soon trying it out, ably assisted – if that’s the word – by Dylan and hindered – which is definitely the word – by Xander. As you can see from the image below, the interface is clear and intuitive and has obviously been created with a family audience in mind. As with most video editing packages I’ve used, there are three key areas – the main section in which you can flick between the live view of your project or play it back, a timeline of all the frames below it and all the important settings to the right.

Screenshot of the software in use.

The interface is simple and intuitive

It didn’t take us long to get underway with some early attempts at animation and, again, this is dead simple. You can use a webcam to capture frames as well as certain digital SLR cameras. You can use your laptop’s built-in camera too, of course, but as this is invariably trained on your face and little else, there’s a limited amount you could do with it unless you’re amazing at keeping still.

Speaking of which, there are some handy features to help you keep track of your subjects. The grid setting allows you to get a more precise idea of where on the screen they are while the onionskin tool uses a superimposed transparency to indicate how far things have moved from the previous frame.

Other handy tools include Chroma Key, which enables you to recreate a green screen effect, Rotoscope which helps create more flowing movement by superimposing still images as guides and Audio which, of course, allows you to add sound and music to your productions. Once they’re finished, it’s easy to export them to your computer or straight to YouTube or Facebook.

We’ve already made a few short films with it  see above for my 60-frame short called Sole Mates  and, while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, we’re pleased with what we’ve achieved and that’s testament to how good the software is. As all parents know, kids can lose interest in things quickly  as can I, for that matter!  so quick results are required with software of this nature and I’m happy to say that it delivers!

I know that Dylan’s going to have a lot of fun making short videos with his toys over the summer and I’ve got a fair few ideas for animated shorts myself too. I may even enter one of them in the local arts festival film competition. Oh yes! Anything that nurtures creativity for young and not so young gets a big thumbs up from me, so I’m very happy to recommend it.

Stopmotion Studio 4.0 has an RRP of £59.99. Alternatively, you could win a copy by entering my giveaway below. Please note that it is only available for PC. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Jul 112014
 
A cute toddler. Don't be fooled.

Don’t be fooled by the cute exterior. He’s a git.

Have you ever had one of those days where, despite knowing full well that you’re not a bad parent, have gone around giving people the impression that you’re completely useless? That was me this morning. It should have been pretty straightforward really – Kate joined Dylan on a pre school trip to a nearby farm so I was left with Xander. I’m no stranger to spending one-to-one time with the smallest member of the family and always look forward to it and, despite the fact we had a few odds and sods to do in town, I wasn’t concerned at all. That was my first mistake…

Xander is a lovely little lad; he’s highly articulate for his age and seems well atuned to other people’s feelings. What I had neglected to remember this morning is that he also seems to think that he is Loki, Norse god of mischief. And that the weather seemed to hold similar beliefs…

While I was finishing my breakfast and answering a few emails, he turned off the laptop at the wall. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but ours only works when it’s plugged in after an incident involving laddo and a full cup of tea. Never mind, it restored my tabs when I rebooted, so no harm done. Then, while I was in the shower, he decided to pump liquid soap – which we got to encourage him to wash his hands – on the bathroom floor. After we’d finished slipping over, I cleaned it up and, although we both still smell strongly of strawberry laces, that was that.

Finally, we were ready to leave the house. All we needed to do was go to the library and a few shops. Simple. Except it was persisting it down outside when we opened the door. After a brief wait and box of raisins to keep him quiet, the rain had stopped. We made a run for it. We were half way to the library when it ripped down again. Arse. I legged it to our destination, skillfully avoiding some dog ‘produce’ that responsible owners had left in situ and taking note of the fact that the wheels were starting to wobble. Oh well, we got there in one piece, the books were still dry and thanks to me remembering my inhaler, I didn’t have an asthma attack. Winning.

I returned the books and we chose some more, then Xander decided to run off while I was in the queue to take them out. He only ran to a seating area, so no real harm done. Back at the desk, I realised I didn’t have either his or Dylan’s library cards – Kate and I normally carry one each but, for some reason, she must have had them both. Never mind, I had mine. Except it had expired. While I renewed it and got the books out, he grabbed them and chucked them on the floor before doing another runner – this time behind the desk. If he’d added an “Aah-aah-aaaaaahhh” it would have been a carbon copy of a certain Little Britain sketch. Anyway, the friendly staff were fine about it and we were soon on our way, everyone all smiles.

Mercifully, it had stopped raining. After a tantrum about getting back in the pushchair – him, not me – we headed to the shops. I needed some groceries as well as an old-fashioned shirt I could wear at Dylan’s pirate party. We headed to one of my town’s many charity shops. Nothing. This established an irritating pattern; charity shops used to be so good for naff old clothes for dressing up in. They only have good stuff now – poor show! I punctuated the monotony by taking him to buy some bread and ham. Apart from him trying to pickpocket a young mother, this was uneventful. We went to the penultimate charity shop. One of the wheels fell off his pushchair. I let him out and, while I struggled to find all the bits of wheel and get out his bag – which has a handle for me to stop him legging it – he did a lap of the shop and started emptying the toy box. I didn’t even bother with the last one. I bet it had the perfect shirt in it.

On the way back, we walked past an old lady at a bus stop. “Hello!” she said to him. He was a bit miffed I’d stopped him jumping in the road moments beforehand, so he gave her a mardy look. “Sorry,” I said with a warm smile. “He’s a little bit grumpy at the moment!” “Just like his dad,” she replied. I gave her a forced smile. You know the kind. One that secretly conceals the sentiment “Fuck off, hag.”

We reached the home stretch which, following the earlier tempest, was infested by puddles. Thanks to that little bitch Peppa Pig teaching small children to obliterate them, Xander had soon ensured that the bits of us that had remained dry were soaked through. He nearly got our neighbour too as he stopped to say hello on the way past. Finally, we reached our gate. We were both drenched and I was aching from being pulled in one direction by him and the other by the knackered pushchair the whole way home. He went in then shut me out until I threatened to forget lunch. As soon as we were through the door he said “Ahhhh, it’s good to be back home.” The little bugger.

There was still time for a final insult. I made him his lunch as he sat angelically at the table. He paused as he was about to take his first bite. “You’re a nightmare, Daddy” he said.

FML.

Jul 092014
 

Paddington Bear with a sign that says 'bear' and various tools.

When I was in the age bracket that Dylan and Xander find themselves in now, I was more than a little obsessed with Paddington Bear. I watched every episode of the animated series, insisted on having a duffle coat like his – and a floppy hat too, for that matter – and even had a little suitcase that I carried marmalade sandwiches around in. No word of a lie! I was basically a Paddington tribute act on tour. It made me smile yesterday then, when I found out that deepest, darkest Peru’s finest is doing something similar after joining forces with the nation’s number one bakery brand, Warburtons.

As part of this partnership, Warburtons is changing its name – for the first time in its 138-year history, no less – to ‘Warbeartons’ on over six million of its Half & Half products. Having already visited the company HQ to update the sign, the iconic ursine will also be hitting the road in a double decker bus modified to look like a loaf of bread in an effort to inspire families to embark on mini adventures of their own this summer.

Paddington will be touring Britain on the The Warbeartons Adventure Bus, as it’s known, to share adventure tips with families ahead of the summer holidays. I do hope he’s planning on visiting Sandwich in Kent…

The Warburtons HQ sign after Paddington has modified it to say 'Warbeartons'

As well as meeting the conserve-loving bear, people will be able to sink their teeth into some of his favourite marmalade sarnies and take home a special summer adventure guide – featuring Warbeartons ‘Top 10 Family Adventures’ and ‘Top 10 Adventurous Sandwich Recipes’, created by sandwich expert Helen Graves.

Warburtons will also be challenging families to spot the Warbeartons Adventure Bus and upload a picture to Facebook, for a chance to win a once-in-a-lifetime adventure family holiday. In addition, fans will have the opportunity to influence the bus’ journey and track its progress on Warburtons’ Facebook page.

With Paddington’s big-screen debut set for release on 28 November, there looks to be plenty more to come from the partnership. In the meantime, I’ve completed the circle by dressing Xander up as Paddington for my own amusement…

A toddler dressed up as Paddington Bear. Just because.

Yes, I had to change the colour of his hat in Photoshop. Badly.

 

Jul 072014
 

Collage of family holiday picturesWe got back from our first family holiday last week and, although it got off to a nightmare start, we had a great time in the south of France with my parents and my sister’s family.

We’re really lucky that my parents own a lovely house surrounded by vineyards just under an hour from Bordeaux, so we were in a great location for relaxing and getting away from it all. I say ‘relaxing’, but with Dylan, Xander and their cousins Jack and Ella around, it was never quiet!

The main reason for the holiday was a party that my parents threw to celebrate both their ruby wedding anniversary and the debut visit of their grandchildren to France. I was a little concerned that my two would be a little overwhelmed by it all, but Dylan was soon walking round kissing all our French friends on both cheeks and even using some of the lingo, so there was nothing to worry about! And to think that, when we visited the same village when I was his age, I hid in the car in case people kissed me!

Image of a group of people walking through a grand-looking garden.

En route to ‘castle’ number one in Bourg

The other highlight at my parents’ house as far as the boys were concerned were some insects that the French simply call ‘gendarmes’. Although they’re mainly red which is often a warning, they’re completely harmless to people and Dylan and Xander were very taken with the way they walk around in pairs. I Googled them when we got back and found that Pyrrhocoris apterus or Fire bugs as they’re also known, do this after getting it on in order to stop other males getting involved. So there you go – I’ve inadvertantly published a picture of al fresco intercourse on the blog. Well done me!

We also went on a couple of trips to nearby towns, Bourg and Blaye. The former has grown from an ancient fortified settling near where the Dordogne and Garrone rivers meet – and form the Gironde estuary which gives the region its name – while the latter is home to an imposing Citadel which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As far as the boys were concerned, both places were castles but that’s fine by me – it’s good that they seem to like historical things as they’re going to be dragged around a great many more of them!

Shot from the interior of an ancient fort-like building. There are several outer walls as well as a viaduct-like bridge leading into it.

‘Castle’ number two: the ancient walls of the Citadel in Blaye

Other highlights included the quirky looking carrelets that line the riverbanks, going round French supermarkets – for some strange reason, it feels like a treat  and, of course, the wine and cheese. Well, it would be really rude not to partake of vast quantities of them, right?

We all had an amazing time and I’ve already started the campaign for us to go again next year. Or sooner.

 Posted by at 4:07 pm
Jul 042014
 

I can’t believe that this photo was taken four years ago today. The time seems to have just flown by and the tiny, helpless baby in this picture is now a tall independent young thing who is iron willed and answers back! He makes us laugh every day and we’re so proud of everything he has achieved already – plus this blog would not have come into being without him having done so first.

Happy Birthday Dylan!

 Posted by at 8:15 am
Jul 032014
 

Dear British Airways,

We’ve just got back from our first family holiday and it’s fair to say that it didn’t get off to the best of starts. I’ve completed the customer feedback form you emailed me but, on the evidence of the service we received on our flight, I’m not convinced I’ll receive a reply. So here’s my feedback once again…

Our flight was delayed for three hours and, although this was not the fault of the crew, they exacerbated the situation by being aloof, officious and condescending at every turn.

We were parked in a remote part of the airport for the majority of this time and, despite there being several families with young children (including us) as well as a diabetic passenger that we became aware of, staff didn’t provide any food and drink for two whole hours. This was despite requests from several passengers.

The pilot and crew probably knew that there was going to be a significant delay and, given that it was an early-morning flight, I feel it was a strange decision to get everybody on board and shut the doors. Fortunately, our children were very well behaved (as were everyone else’s for that matter) for the duration of the wait and flight, but it was entirely unreasonable to keep them confined to the plane for more than double the flight time before it even took off.

We were constantly reminded that the food was complimentary and, when it was finally given out, a passive aggressive announcement told us not to use the milk that came with the breakfast if we wanted tea or coffee later on in the journey.

My older son was also unwell during the flight and, despite the instructions on the ‘waste’ bags stating that they should be handed to staff to dispose of, the stewardess refused and said that we had to take it to the toilet. Naturally, this was moments after all passengers were instructed to return to their seats for the final descent. We received no offers of help from the crew when it was quite obvious he was unwell and distressed; we only got a couple of dirty looks from the stewardess who was also overheard bemoaning the fact that she shouldn’t still be on duty.

We chose to fly with BA because of your good reputation and because it was our first family holiday and we wanted to travel with an operator we trusted, but will not be flying with you again.

“To fly. To serve. It’s what we do. It’s who we are” claimed a slogan at Gatwick Airport.

You could have fooled us.

 Posted by at 4:39 pm