How do you transcend?

How do you transcend?

In many creative fields there are one or two people who are so successful that they look as if they’re playing an entirely different game to everyone else.

For example, in the world of movies James Cameron is the only person who has produced (and written/directed) a film that has grossed over two billion dollars. But he’s done it twice. Over the recent history of film so many very smart people have spent so much money trying to create blockbuster movies that you’d almost expect someone else to have joined him on this list. How come the combined creativity and marketing muscle of Disney/Marvel/Joss Whedon couldn’t get Avengers up there? What about the Lord Of The Rings movies? Or Jurassic World? (by the way, I’m not talking about subjective measures of quality here; just the objective measures of popularity). No one comes close to Cameron, yet so many try.

In the world of pop music Taylor Swift somehow manages to be the only person who produces over a million sales in the first week of her albums’ releases. No one else does it at all – not Beyonce, Drake or Ed Sheeran – and yet she does it over and over again. There are lots of popular artists, why is her success so much greater, so consistently, than all those other smart, talented people?

In the world of books we have J.K. Rowling and E.L. James miles out in front of everyone else.

In U.S. radio, there’s Howard Stern and some other people I’ve never heard of.

In the tech world, there’s Apple, a very large gap, then everyone else.

So how do these people (and Apple) go so far beyond the top of their field?

Is James Cameron such a great reader of the zeitgeist, or human emotions, that he can tap into parts of us the rest cannot? Are Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey such amazing stories that they clearly go beyond all the other books in the marketplace? What about Taylor Swift? Is her music so much better than everyone else’s?

I’d argue that this has something to do with perceived quality: Swift’s music is really catchy pop; the technological craft behind Titanic and Avatar was (for its time) incredible; Howard Stern’s interviews are consistently more incisive, perceptive and entertaining than anyone else’s; Apple’s products work better and more reliably than those of its competitors.

But why so far ahead?

Sorry. I think you might be expecting me to answer that question.

I have no idea.

If you do, don’t be shy; that’s what the comments section is for.


Got a letter from the government the other day. Opened it and read it, it said we were the weekend.

29-minute chat with the great Roger Deakins (thanks, J).

Cool/interesting/creepy art (thanks, T).

Starting with Earth as a marble: the solar system to scale (thanks, J2):

Try some abstract browsing (thanks, J2).

How do boxers recover from the death of an opponent? (Thanks, J2.)

Tarantino’s foot fetish (thanks, J2):

The wonderful Ron Pickering:

Messi reacting to the Ronaldo movie trailer:

Some fine Chapelle (thanks, G):

Neville Brody, Jonathan Glazer and the rebrand of Channel 4

Creative Review has all the background here.

But I imagine most of the talk will be around Mr. Glazer’s weird and very wonderful idents.

Closer to Under The Skin than any of his recent ad work, this is an amazing collection of visuals in a narrative that makes just enough sense to confuse and delight in equal measure.

Nice one, Chris and John (and everyone else).

A Black Pencil is on the way.

Another guest post (hooray!).

This time it’s from my friend, the excellent writer William Fowler, who spent a decade mooching around some of London’s good and not-so-good advertising agencies as a copywriter.  For about five years he wrote the Gordon Comstock column in Creative Review. A few years ago he met a girl at a wedding in Mexico, and ended up moving to LA to live with her. It turns out he believes Venice Beach is the most interesting place in the world and he wants to write you an email about it. You can read this week’s here. And if you’d like to sign up, here’s the link.

(For those of you too lazy to even do that, here’s the letter):


People move to Venice because of the ocean, because they like to surf, because they have artistic aspirations or pretentions, or because they’re insane and homeless and the American welfare state has virtually no provision for them. The beach, like almost everything in California, has been artificially expanded. It’s also a national park, which means it’s illegal to camp there at night, but the area is is so vast that moving-on the itinerants who’ve pitched tarps under the palm trees, in any conclusive way, is impossible. Particularly as Venice, doesn’t have city status, and therefore doesn’t have the civic muscle or the proprietary police force that would enable it to carry out the campaign of harassment and eviction that this would entail. And so the boardwalk has become a kind of parade ground of insanity, from meth addiction to florid schizophrenia through PTSD-plus-alcoholism to straight-up, raving mania. There’s also an actual freak show, either a cruel joke at the expense of the beach’s residents, or a tacit acknowledgement of the deep character of the place. I’ve never been inside, but the barker’s patter seems legit: ‘Step right up ladies and gentlemen! See the bearded lady, see the smallest man in America! Marvel at the wolfman! You’ll love our turtle, did I mention he has two heads! Ladies, you’ll love our dog, he has five legs! etc.’ I suppose it’s possible that he’s a reconstructed hipster freak show barker, maybe he got into freak show barking through improv school. You can never be sure.

The boardwalk is also a one-sided shopping street, the Pacific Ocean lapping against Camden Lock, with a similar shit-to-gold ratio. There are a couple of really good coffee shops, a few friendly skate and surf shops, even Small World Books where Geoff Dyer does readings. But by far the majority of these establishments are green doctors, bong shops, Tattoo Parlours and t-shirt printing stalls. You can tell the story of Venice in t-shirt slogans, ‘Venice: Where Art Meets Crime’, changed to ‘Venice: Where Art Meets Meets Eviction’, and then, the latest ‘You Ruined Venice.’

Google bought the old Chiat/Day building, its frontage designed by Frank Gehry to incorporate an enormous pair of binoculars, the irony of which I suspect is lost on them. Buzzfeed have taken a space at one end of the area’s main shopping street, Abbot Kinney, and Vice rent a building at the other end. Snapchat have occupied an entire street two blocks down from here, displacing a homeless charity, an art gallery and a bar. An epic dick manoeuvre that only a 25-year-old billionaire could possibly believe was ok.

The new residents are resented by the old residents, not just because they’re young, well-paid and forcing up the rents, but because they’re nerds. They ride phunkeeducks down the boardwalk and fly quadcopters from the roofs of their offices. For half a century mad hippies have been living on the beach complaining that there are robots in the sky taking their picture. Now there actually are. So were they mad?

Of course, I work for a tech company, so I’m part of the problem. I can see that siliconization is gentrification in its most virulent form. Tech entrepreneurs define themselves as creative, sculptors working in ergonomics and raw capital, and it appeals to their vanity to move in on bohemian areas. It’s hard not to see them as parasites killing the thing on which they feed.

I resented the new colonists of Shepherds Bush – a bunch of Edinburgh graduates who want to turn the whole gaff into a branch of Jamie’s Kitchen – and now I’m resented in just the same way. That’s not to say people aren’t friendly, but I did get drive-by abused by a bunch of surfer bros who shouted ‘fuck you, hipster’ before tearing off in their mini van. Maybe it’s in the nature of the samsara that you eventually get to be the person you dislike most.

But, by-and-large, people don’t judge. Where the median of weirdness is high, you can act very strangely indeed without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. I went out skateboarding on Friday at 10.30 at night, which is maybe an undignified pursuit for a man of my age, but I was passed at speed by a local thalidomide survivor called Gerome AKA “Widget the midget”, who rides around on his belly on a skateboard, using one shortened arm to propel himself down the asphalt, who has a long rap sheet for a range of sexual offences, used to breakdance and allegedly turn tricks behind the pagodas for drug money, who was muttering ‘black cat, black cat, meow meow,’ while he waltzed with a large remote controlled truck, about the same size and same elevation as him, with flashing neon lights and a sound system built into it. I can’t remember what music it was playing, it might have been Kool and the Gang. No one noticed me. No one.

People move to Venice because you can do whatever you want here.

It’s the edge of the world

where the sun sets on the continental 48,

& I remain,


Guest post: Steve Jobs biopic Q&A.



My old buddy Cam Mitchell writes:

Hi Ben,
As you know I went to see the Steve Jobs biopic last night.
There was a Q&A afterwards with the whole cast, as well as the writer and director.
This is what I learnt;

1. Danny Boyle fought to have the film shot in California because he saw it as the spiritual  home of Apple and believed it would add something to the process. This cost an extra 5 million bucks compared to shooting in Prague.

2. He rehearsed two weeks/shot two weeks/rehearsed two weeks etc… which is unusual but the actors seemed to love it.

3. He noticed that the whole of The Social Network is filmed with the actors sitting down. He joked that the main point of difference with his film would therefore be that everyone would be standing up.

4. He shot it on various forms including 16mm for the first launch and on the Alexa for the third to help create a different texture for each era.

5. Aaron Sorkin is very tanned and likes to wear cream suits to show it off.

6. He settled on the idea of basing the whole film around three product launches (which works well with the 3 act structure) because he was just bored with the idea of doing a typical chronological biopic.

7. Jeff Daniels seemed very nice but didn’t say much. He’s great as the Pepsi marketing guy that fucked Steve over.

8. Seth Rogen is very funny and very smart. (And good as Wozniak). He says he did the film because no one has ever asked him to be in their film before. I’m not sure it’s true but it got a good laugh.

9. Michael Fassbender unfortunately added nothing in the Q&A of any interest but seemed very nice. (Personally I think Christian Bale would’ve been better and brought an intensity to the role that both he and Steve Jobs are infamous for).

10. Kate Winslet has great presence and charm and knows how to play the system. Her “in” was through her make-up artist on her previous film, who had been pencilled to work on Steve Jobs next. She campaigned hard and sent selfies of herself to Danny Boyle looking like an unattractive Eastern European American. It just goes to show that just because she’s an Oscar winner doesn’t mean she’s lost her determination to succeed. (She’s very good in the film, except the Eastern European part of her American accent was a bit hit and miss in the first act).

Overall, the thing I walked away feeling was that although I enjoyed it I didn’t learn anything from it because we all know so much about Steve Jobs, so it’s very hard for a filmmaker to add anything.

Also of interest was the number of other big A-listers who are acknowledged in the credits. Apple, however, was not acknowledged in the credits. I don’t know why.

Well, thank you very much, Cam.

All very welcome and interesting.

If anyone else would like to write a guest post for this blog, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to

What do you do when you disagree?

I remember asking exactly that question to Dave Dye and Sean Doyle when we were all at AMV.

They told me that they think of a third idea that they both like.

When I heard this I wept inwardly at all the great individual DD and SD ideas that must have bitten the dust as a result of those disagreements.

I also thought that it was not what my ADs and I did under the circumstances.

Instead of thinking of a third (fucking hell; it was hard enough thinking up the first two) we’d generally agree to take both to the CD and let him or her choose, under a gentleman’s agreement that neither would try to push their own, sabotage the other’s, or say, ‘See? I told you, you dickhead!’ if their idea was chosen.

That’s an easier path to take when you’re a bit more junior than Dave and Sean were; they were judging their own work to go to client, not taking it to a higher CD. My partners and I were often still in the position of not being able to tell for sure which idea was best. But it also fed a kind of toxic atmosphere of separation, reminding us that we were two individuals rather than a team. I think that in an ideal world you’ll both present a united front, after all, there’s enough things to battle against to get your good ad made.

I’m not all suggesting you agree on everything – after all, if that happened all the time there’d be no need for both of you – but when you move forward you need to do it on an idea you’re both comfortable with, otherwise the AD has to AD something he or she doesn’t believe in, and the copywriter will be pulling out words like he or she is pulling teeth.

I recall many times where I was absolutely convinced I had a killer idea, only to have my partner give zero fucks. But then, if it didn’t impress him, how was it going to impress anyone else? Eventually I got to the stage where we both knew an idea was either really good, or had the potential to be so, and therefore worth exploring. Those days left my brain a lot calmer.

Anyway, that’s just my experience. How do you work out which idea to present without killing each other?

Sors immanis (Fate – monstrous) et inanis, (and empty) rota tu volubilis, (you whirling wheel) status malus, (you are malevolent) vana salus (well-being is vain) semper dissolubilis weekendum, (and always fades to the weekend).

Amazing article on the making of Goodfellas.

The truth behind glamorous Instagram pictures (thanks, J).

Weird VHS-style Simpsons opening (thanks, J):

The Warriors recreate that last subway ride home.

Screenplay writing explained in 7 infographics (thanks, J2).

Great guide to losing weight (thanks, T).

Facebook dolts who think Onion stories are real (thanks, T).

A foolproof guide to creating great ads

Read this till your eyes bleed.

Lovely new Honda ad

Good old PES. Never lets you down.

Another writers talk (more good stuff).

Last week I went to the Sublime Primetime TV writers talk at the Writer’s Guild Foundation.

Attendees included Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge – won an Emmy today!), Joshua Brand (The Americans), Christine Nangle (Inside Amy Schumer), Semi Chellas (Mad Men), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Stephanie Gillis (The Simpsons) and Elliott Kalan (Head writer, The Daily Show with John Stewart).

My notes:

They all left a lot of room for improvisation, and improving the writing during filming. But when you try to improve a B- gag, you can end up with 12 B- jokes instead of one. But what’s the point when you can only have one? Weiner got his start doing this for sitcoms.

Jane Anderson writes on her own. This apparently has made her skin rather thin as she has not been inured by the merciless bantz of writers rooms.When asked if she considered anyone while writing she said she really gives a shit about what the New York Times TV reviewer might think. Matthew Weiner said he didn’t care about that reviewer because his writing was such a mess that he could never tell if the review was good or bad – it seemed like six different reviewers’ paragraphs sewn together. He went on to say that the Mad Men writers only ever tried to impress the actors, because that’s where they’d get the first external feedback.

Jane Anderson said that it was great working with Frances McDormand because she bought the rights to the book long before it became famous, then they developed the script together. It meant she had two important things: free rein and confidence. They all talked about how great those two things were.

Matthew Weiner said they wrote everything they thought up for Mad Men. It all went up on the screen and there were no no other plots. He also mentioned that the writers wrote the end of Season Five into a corner by having Don Draper fired from his own agency. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but he had no idea how they were going to clear up that plot line. Then those writers left and Matthew had to do it all on his own.

Elliot Kalan said he loved it when big things happened when The Daily Show was on hiatus. “His attitude was ‘Ha ha! Fuck you, we don’t have to cover this’. This helped him to enjoy disasters.

Christine Nangle said she often wrote things that she thought were funny then, weirdly, newspapers started reading way more depth into her sketches than she had intended. For example, the following was called ‘The most cogent expression of how man never listen to women’:

So there became an odd expectation that they should catch the zeitgeist, but Amy said they should just continue writing whatever the fuck they wanted.

Matthew Weiner took seven years to sell Mad Men. He said this proves he has no instinct for what people will like. Then again, he had the luxury of knowing that everything they wrote would get filmed. He thought this was a rare and wonderful position to be in. Elliot Kalan agreed, mentioning a time when he came up with an idea that involved having Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about the moon. Later that day Neil was in the studio, filming the gag for the evening’s show.

The last and most significant word goes to Matthew Weiner, when discussing negotiations: “You cannot let them use the love of your work against you, because all of us would do it for free.

Amen to that.

More on the evening here.