Hayao Miyazaki and work

I see it’s the 80th birthday of the noted animator Hayao Miyazaki.

I once read his book of essays Starting Point: 1979–1996 and was seized by a desire to do something well, with vigour and clarity, instead of tiredly poking around. At the time this made me a little miserable, and I wondered why.

* * *

The book contains essays, interviews, and documents from Miyazaki during a period in his 30s and 40s in which he directed six highly-regarded anime feature films: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. This is an excellent run, and history tells us that the two films he made immediately afterwards would be even more celebrated.

The book contains planning documents, interviews, and some essays written between films. The planning documents describe a film before it has been made, and the interviews talk about it afterwards, when in every case it had been a success.

This structure, no doubt accidentally, gives a sense of a narrative like this: Miyazaki thinks of an idea and writes it up with in clear and forceful terms; he starts drawing without a script or storyboard and develops the plot as he goes; he works solidly for three years; the film is finished; it’s a wonderful piece of work that is just as he had envisioned; the process repeats.

Reinforcing this impression is some of the content of the interviews. For example, when talking about My Neighbour Totoro — a glorious film whose origin seems to speak of as pure a work of art as ever appeared in a cinema — Miyazaki remarks that he felt “tremendous happiness” while working on the film, that he knew throughout how it was going to work, that he could avoid any directorial tricks and keep the plot as simple as possible, that he could almost have made the entire film be just about the excitement and fear of a typhoon passing near a house at night; and that if he were to make the film again, given the same technical constraints, the only thing he would change would be to allow more time with the main characters, two small children, while they live their lives, ignoring the plot.

* * *

This is very lovely to read, but also a little daunting. There is something there, real or imagined, that I found I longed for in my work.

What is that longing? It isn’t about talent. I’m delighted by the talent of Miyazaki, but I don’t yearn for it, probably because I can’t imagine having it. It also isn’t about whether my work is worthwhile — I have doubts, but those are long-standing, unchanging doubts. I think it is about focus and application.

I believe that we all have the ability to create work that satisfies our own critical judgement as a coherent artistic effort, but that we don’t do it, because we can’t find the clarity of mind and the conviction to complete an idea with the quality that we first imagine for it.

As a mere programmer, I’m aware that much of the software I write will never be used, or not in the way I imagined it. I believe this is the unspoken experience of all programmers. Software that is made with care but not used is obviously unsatisfying. But the other side of it is software that is not made well enough to merit users at all. If it hasn’t been made well enough, then the more popular it is, the more people might be damaged by mistakes in it, and so the worse it is. Experience seems to consist partly in learning to suppress the fear of this, and to find sufficient trade-offs to ensure that anything useful ever gets published.

* * *

The perceived narrative I referred to above is not the whole story. There is plenty in the book about team work, and it hints at the vast amount of manual labour going on, with stories about overworked colour artists, slipping schedules, and the continually unmet expectation that everything will be easier next time. And at the end of the book is a retrospective timeline, from which we can see that the narrative doesn’t flow linearly either — the team must often have been working on more than one Miyazaki-directed film at once, and some films were based on ideas that had been sketched decades before.

Focusing on team effort does change the picture. You need a lot of people to make a film, and I suppose before you animate the film, you need to animate the people. If the impulse is enough to carry everyone along, then a team can maintain a direction even if their director isn’t certain where they will end up. Perhaps the sense of purpose that seems so desirable is something that one person can’t readily sustain on their own.

* * *

My reverence for the film artifact might not be shared by its makers either. Throughout this book, as well as in more recent interviews I’ve seen, Miyazaki is actively grumpy about the value of anime: there’s too much animation being made already, this is all a waste of time, we contribute nothing to the world, I only want the industry to continue because I know too many people who are animators and I don’t want them to lose their jobs. It’s only when he is sunk deep into a project that he appears to be happy about it.

A few pictures from 2020: 4. Deepest black

(Previously: A few pictures from 2020: 3. The living)

I started developing my own black-and-white films at home a couple of years ago. There’s nothing quite like toiling through the process before emerging with a strip of negatives which you have to hang up and let dry, knowing there are pictures on them but being unable to tell what they actually are.

I’ve tried a few different types of film, and I’m most fond of Ilford FP4+. It’s relatively low-contrast, grainy (the accompanying text describes it as fine-grain but I think it must have been written in 1935), very attractive in sunlight due to a bit of sympathetic halation. I like a black-and-white photo with almost no solid black in it. I like it light, airy, and otherworldly. I haven’t ever been keen on reportage-y gritty, contrasty films like Kodak T-Max.

But this post is about the opposite of FP4+. Film Washi “Film S” is a film originally intended, apparently, for optical recording of film soundtracks. It’s not gritty or grainy. It’s a slow film, very smooth, high contrast, tricky to expose properly. The result is a fabulous texture in things like reflections and water surfaces as well as remarkable contrast and deepest blacks.

This is the view below the Westway at Paddington Basin. (All the photos here are from September to November 2020.) The bundles, the stains, the footprints, the textures on the uprights, the terrifying precision, the shiny car.

Under the Westway at Paddington

The building site at Whiteley’s, on Queensway, London W2.

Whiteley's building site

A pedestrian corridor under the Westway.

Under the Westway

The Thames, from the south bank at Nine Elms, looking toward Battersea. With a mudlarker searching on the beach.

Toward Battersea from Nine Elms

A new, not-yet-filled retail unit at Paddington Basin.

Empty unit, Paddington Basin

A rubble disposal barge on the Thames outside the MI6 building. (This looks like quite a small boat, until you check the scale against the railings over to the right.)

From Vauxhall Bridge

A few pictures from 2020: 3. The living

(Previously: A few pictures from 2020: 2. Cinefilm. Following: A few pictures from 2020: 4. Deepest black)

Mandarin duck, Kensington Gardens
In March I discovered that the jammed Minolta Auto-Rokkor 55mm lens I’d just cleaned and lubricated was lovely for portrait-distance shots. But I didn’t use it as much as I should have, because I also discovered I’d reassembled it with the wrong focus at infinity, so it was only good for portrait-distance shots. I never did fix that. Anyway, the nice duck above was one of those shots.

In May I discovered that, if you walked along the sketchy bit of land between the Westbourne Bridge and Royal Oak tube stations just beyond Paddington and peered down over the wall toward the tracks at the right time of day, you would find a family of foxes playing. I came back with a long lens (cheap Soviet Jupiter-11) and took these, a sequence of photos I really love. This was such a joy during a pretty bleak time.

Foxes
Foxes
Foxes

I took the Jupiter lens again to the park in September to try to get a photo of magpies in flight. I do like magpies: they’re beautiful and they move in a very interesting way. They’re quick and sudden, they hop a lot, and they never exactly take off — they just hop and hop and, at the moment they want to take flight, suddenly the last hop turns out to have been liftoff.

There’s a superstition that it’s bad luck to see a lone magpie, but I decided a few years ago that I would always look at a magpie, and appreciate it.

But they’re really hard to photograph in motion, because they move in such unexpected ways. Here’s as good as I managed, a group giving way to an approaching dog:

Magpies scattering as a dog approaches

A crow is simpler in motion. Here’s a crow taking off from the ground. Um, or I think it might actually be a raven. I am not very good at this. It’s much bigger than a magpie and takes a relatively long time to get airborne – but isn’t it fantastic!

Crow

A few pictures from 2020: 2. Cinefilm

(Previously: A few pictures from 2020: 1. Keep Going. Following: A few pictures from 2020: 3. The living)

A company called Silbersalz35 sells 35mm cartridges loaded with various sorts of motion-picture film, at a price including processing and scanning. The films have to be developed with the ECN-2 chemical process, so the inclusion of processing matters, as most still film processing labs don’t have ECN-2 facilities.

The Silbersalz 200T film is (I believe) Kodak Vision3 200T cinefilm. The T stands for tungsten: it’s colour-balanced for studio use and has a cold colour if used in natural light without filters, as I did.

I really like the look of these, but they are hard to display online next to digital photos. The typical bright, contrasty, heavily sharpened modern digital image makes these naturalistic images almost invisible when seen on the same page.

* * *

A tennis court next to the West Cross Route in west London. Closed when I took this in May. The buildings in the background are, I think, halls of residence for Imperial College under construction.

White City across the West Cross Route tennis court

Scaffolding on Craven Road, near Paddington station.

Craven Road

Here’s the Bakerloo Line station entrance at Paddington in February. A couple of days later it will be closed permanently, to be replaced by something fancy at an unspecified later date.

Paddington Bakerloo Line entrance

This film is really nice for photographing people – I take a lot of photos of family but I’m reluctant to make them public online, so here’s one of me (taken by my wife) on the 15th of March, very close to the official UK it’s-all-over pandemic date.

Me

Smithfield Market, in May, with construction for the Museum of London at the back.

At Smithfield

Paddington Station in May. I felt very conspicuous taking this.

Paddington station

A few pictures from 2020: 1. Keep Going

(Following: A few pictures from 2020: 2. Cinefilm)

At the start of January 2020, I hopped on a bus to the North Circular to take a couple of photos of bleak, slightly alarming empty urban scenes. Had I known how redundant that would seem later in the year, I might not have bothered. Though it may have been the last time I took a bus for fun.

A distinctive disused storage company in Neasden. Prominent from the North Circular, I’ve always rather liked it.

Storguard

A rotting board path along the back of the industrial estate in Neasden Recreation Ground ultimately leads to a small pier in the reservoir. I used to go for walks by the reservoir here when I lived near Brent Cross, but I had no recollection of this path. Is the text sinister or welcoming? On the 5th of January I thought sinister, but from this end of the year it feels like an encouraging message from the future.

Keep Going

* * *

Just over two months later, we’re in west London in late March. The weather is bright and the shops are colourful and shiny. But this is bustling Portobello Road and it isn’t really supposed to look like this.

Portobello Road

Other streets nearby are equally peaceful.

Queensway (Key Workers)

Devonshire Terrace

* * *

Getting photos in the park without lots of people in them is a trickier prospect. I’m very fond of the cluster of small oak trees in the bit of Hyde Park known as “the cockpit”, where a roundish ramped area slopes down to the Serpentine. This is a damp June day.

Path and oak, Hyde Park

Or a sunny one in October.

Oaks, Hyde Park

* * *

One industry that seems to have been at least at normal levels all year is construction; here a worker adjusts some fencing on the “cube” building site next to Paddington station.

Building site, Paddington

A Note on a Revox A700 Repair

We have a Revox A700 reel-to-reel tape recorder in our home. We sort of ended up with it, in a story I won’t tell here.

This thing is rather amazing as a device. It came out at the end of 1973, I think, and was madly ambitious as a consumer product. It had all sorts of fancy things: a quartz-clocked capstan motor, servo-controlled spool motors whose speed is continually adjusted based on feedback from tape tension sensors, an optical tape-present sensor, true VU meters, two custom dedicated integrated circuits (in a consumer tape recorder! in 1973!), one for timing adjustment and one for the control logic. It supports three tape speeds (3.75, 7.5, and 15 inches per second) and has a high-quality audio preamp and headphone amp. Its service manual is over 200 pages long. It weighs a massive 24 kg, draws over 100 watts even when not playing anything, and gets very hot.

(For those unfamiliar, Revox was the consumer brand of the Swiss studio electronics company Studer, named after its founder Willi Studer. Revox tape recorders were similar internally to Studers but with more limited I/O and track counts. But when the A700 came out it was in some ways more advanced than any Studer, with much of the electronic stuff turning up in studio gear only later.)

When an A700 is working, it can sound fantastic, although using one is a nutty endeavour at the best of times. I very seldom switch ours on, and then only to play tapes of playlists chosen with my kids that have been recorded to tape from Spotify on my phone. It’s quite calming to have those reels slowly rotating in the background as the music plays, but there’s really no other purpose to it now. It is a massive, heavy, beautifully designed, expensively constructed device that can still perform its job perfectly well and yet is totally obsolete.

The A700 also isn’t all that reliable. It’s a bit like a miniature version of having a classic Ferrari. Ours has had a succession of repairs over the last few years: blown suppression caps (a bit of a fire hazard, replace all the RIFA capacitors), blown motor start/run capacitor (symptom: take-up spool rotates gently backwards instead of insistently forwards: the spool motors are AC motors and rely on big capacitors to achieve momentum), blown something-I-didn’t-understand-and-have-now-forgotten on one of the control boards. Fortunately we haven’t yet had a blown integrated circuit. The failures we’ve had have all been in generic parts, not unobtainable custom ones. Although there are still rather a lot of generic parts in this machine.

In the past when something has broken on this machine I’ve called out a professional to look at it, so it has been expensive as well as impractical. But with the coronavirus going on, when our Revox stopped in the middle of a tape, lit up all the buttons, and refused to start again, it didn’t feel like a good time to be trying to call out an experienced senior repair fellow. And yet, with the coronavirus going on and our horizons shrinking fast, I suddenly really wanted the old Revox not to have broken down. And so these six paragraphs of introduction lead to the much briefer story:

Fuse F6

This is where the magic of the old-school forum-based pre-social-network World Wide Web comes in. I open the back of the Revox and find that fuse F6 on the panel next to the distribution board has blown. I search for “revox a700 fuse f6 blown” and I find this magnificent post:

“This is a blown capacitor 2200µF (FRAKO), C24 plus blown rectifier, D6 on Board.1.067.160 or 161.

“Replace all 4 2200µF (FRAKO capacitors) on this board plus rectifier D6 (by a stronger one e.g. B100C1000).

“Regards, Mart.”

So specific! The capacitor and rectifier numbers don’t actually match up with those on our board, but with the help of a service manual I can see which ones they’re referring to.

This is the power supply board from the A700. The Frako capacitors are, apparently, famous for failing in short-circuit and blowing up other things on the board. This one seems to have only blown up the adjacent rectifier.

I don’t much enjoy soldering, but I de-soldered and tested the four big capacitors and found that the second one (the smallest, a 2200µF 16V cap) had failed. I ordered some replacement caps and rectifiers (the rectifiers are the round black things beneath the big capacitors: the green rectangular chunk is also a rectifier, but I hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with that). I also got replacements for the three smaller Frako capacitors on the board, which unfortunately I could only get with radial wiring: two wires into the bottom of the capacitor rather than one at each end.

When the replacements arrived, I soldered in the new capacitors, but I hesitated over the rectifiers. I’d tested the three round ones with the diode tester on my multimeter and they all showed the right forward voltage. I would really prefer not to have to change those, as they’re quite fiddly. So I put the board back in, slotted in a new fuse, turned on the power… and the fuse blew again.

Gritting my teeth, I desoldered and replaced the three round rectifiers, something that took me longer than I would like to admit, then put the board back and tried again, and it works!

The original 2200µF capacitors are rated at 40V, 16V, and 2x 25V respectively. I ordered replacements at similar ratings, and only afterwards realised I could have bought and fitted four higher-rated caps for 40V or above (they’re smaller nowadays anyway) and they would have fitted fine. The higher voltage-rated ones also have better temperature tolerance, with a 105 degree max instead of 85. But I’m new to this kind of thing.

Anyway: that’s all. I really just wanted to record my thanks to Mart, the author of the reply I quoted above, and also to Kurt, who asked the question. This exchange is from 2014, which is recent enough to give hope that the searchable, stable, forum-style Web might still be alive somewhere.