Southwold is in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural
Beauty) and there are lots of nature reserves nearby. Many visitors to the
pier also go to the many bird hides in the nearby reserves. So I’ve
thought The Under The Pier Show should have its own bird hide for a long
time. I started my first attempt in 2011, a satire on the global warming
hysteria at the time. But I got bogged down both with my idea of using
mirrors to create a perspective with great depth, but also losing interest
in the subject matter. After three months it was a great relief to change
direction and make a machine about the Somali Pirates (Pirate Practice)
which turned out to be very popular. I kept the prototype bird hide cabin,
because I liked the cozy space, hoping to find another idea to use it.
The prototype cabin from 2011, on the right with mirror for false
This eventually came one evening in the pub chatting to my
sister Tessa. She kindly said “I’ll give you my best idea. I think
seagulls pity us because we can’t fly”. I immediately saw the
potential as the theme for the hide so I invited her to collaborate on the
story. She was generally hands off, but whenever I got stuck (which
happened several times) she solved my problem very elegantly.
We both like seagulls. Their effortless grace flying and
also their anarchic attitude to human activity. When on a ferry, they keep
up seemingly never needing to flap their wings. And the way they patiently
eye up a plate of fish and chips, waiting for the perfect moment to
strike. They can often be very funny. And unlike rats and other species
that have thrived in the modern world, seagulls don’t need to be
secretive because at the slightest hint of trouble they can fly off.
Another attractive aspect of the seagull theme to me is the
bizarre attitude we have to nature and ‘the environment’, regarding it
as something outside ourselves to enjoy and be managed. Our attempts to ‘manage’
are often entertaining. My wife is part of an otter group, recording their
activity in the local nature reserve. But this year otters were blamed for
eating the marsh harrier chicks. How to decide what animals are good and
what are bad...obviously a path to madness, but I’ve never been a fan of
Sweep having just saved me from a dangerous toilet roll
Also we forget that we are mammals ourselves and equally
part of nature. Both Tessa and I live with cats who we adore. The intense
bond and subtlety of communication constantly reminds me that I am a
mammal myself. My cat Sweep comes to find me many times during the day and
disrupts whatever I’m up to. But I appreciate being reminded that my
work isn’t as crucial as I’d been thinking. So it comes quite
naturally to me to look at the human race from an animal perspective. The
research for every machine is always one of my favourite things about the
process. This time spending time watching seagulls and sharing chips with
them was particularly enjoyable.
I started work by making the seagull presenters. I prefer
to begin with manageable part while thinking about all the rest. I love
the way seagulls’ necks shoot up when they spot something interesting so
that seemed the most important movement. Not easy but its the sort of
challenge I enjoy and I think it was worth the effort even though people
may not notice it.
A seagull presenter
Pleased with my seagulls I then rapidly built the model
scenery. I had the vague idea that the seagulls would start out in the
country and end up in the city, partly inspired by a 1927 silent film
called ‘Sunrise’ which left a strong impression. I love watching films
so recently I’ve been experimenting with machines that tell stories
instead of being games.
‘Air B-n-B’ was my first attempt at a story. It’s now very
popular and so has encouraged me to keep trying, but at the time the process of
making it was quite frustrating. I really enjoyed collaborating with Paul
Spooner, but once we had drawn out the storyboard and made the frames for
each scene, it was impossible to change anything much. It reminded me of
Walt Disney’s approach to animation, recording the sound track first and
getting the animators to fit their work to it. No scope for happy
accidents and unintentional jokes inspired by the process of drawing the
animation frames. (the same as the difference between text based theatre
and physical theatre).
The frames for the scenes in Air B-n-B
So this time I decided to invent and build individual
scenes and leave the writing, to connect them all together, until the end.
To me the words are infinitely more flexible than the visual jokes of the
The biggest technical problem was making each scene as
thin as possible to keep the overall width of the machine down. The
scenery flats were easy, but the pneumatic rams to lift them were wider
and the scenes with electric motors and linkages were wider still.
started by buying a variety of thin geared model motors from Ebay to put
on test. Some ran continuously under load for over a month so I started
using them, but they looked so plasticy I didn’t really trust them.
Later I found a better made motor with all metal gears and swapped over
all the plastic ones. Generally I find the cheap components from China are well
made, but often with a really frustrating design flaw. The weak link on my
little metal geared motors was the push fit of the first spur gear to the
motor shaft – the gear just slips off (mendable though fiddly with high
strength Loctite). The weak link of the other geared motor I used was the
springs holding the brushes on the commutator. Bent at slightly the wrong
angle the brushes could dig into the gaps between the commutator segments
preventing the motor from running backwards. Really annoying but also not
impossible to fix.
After a few months there was so many scenes it started to
get really hard to access the ones in the middle. I seriously thought of
abandoning them all and doing it all on the video screen at the back as
stop motion animation. But in the end I kept going because I prefer making
fiddly mechanisms to fiddly stop motion animation. Deciding I had to make
everything easier to access, I added draw slides so each scene could be
pulled up for maintenance. I also mounted the frame on wheels so its now a
cart which can be pulled out from the machine to get at the scenes from
all angles. Towards the end of the build when the scenes all had to come
in and out to be painted and wired up it was satisfyingly that everything
was finally easy to get at!
The cart and all the scenes squashed together
Making the 33 seagulls for the finale was fun. They were
carved and sanded from blocks of PU foam. The beaks are a higher density
foam to retain the detail. Making one didn’t take long, but all 33 kept
Bill and me busy for several days.
Seagulls cut and sanded from roof insulation foam, with high density foam
for the beaks
Once installed I found the noise of the
trapdoor motor really annoying. The cabin structure acts as a sounding
board. I quite often have this problem but this time it was particularly
difficult to solve. The only solution would have been to replace the motor
with a pneumatic ram - a major job at this late stage - so I decided to
write the sound track round it instead.
I didn’t start the sound track until a few weeks before
it went on the pier. I’d thought I’d do a rough version myself and
then get Steve, an actor I enjoy working with, to record the final
version. I’d done this with Air B-n-B but during the final edit I
preferred my own bed bug voices (recorded one evening after a couple of
beers) to Steve’s more polished version. Once installed to my amazement
several people independently commented how much they liked the bed bug
voices. This gave me the confidence to have a go at being the seagulls
myself. I got into role, again after a beer or two, by improvising as a
seagull – I found it came quite naturally to me. The final seagull
recordings have the pitch raised and are distorted a bit – I like
playing with Audition, the Adobe sound program.
The evening before the machine left my workshop for the pier I invited
some friends over. It was only then, while they sat inside, that listening
to my seagulls I realised the seagulls are actually saying just about what
I think of our crazy world myself. I haven't included a video of the
finished experience in this post because its so much better to experience
the real thing without having first seen a video of it.