A Slice of Jaffa Cake Cake

This weekend Eric (son 2) made an observation about Jaffa Cakes. Everyone knows that opening a new tube to eat one or two will always end with the inevitable consumption of the lot, accompanied by a warranted pang of guilt. But should we feel guilty? Jaffa Cakes are pretty small and there are only twelve in a tube. If you clumped them all together would they really add up to more than a generous slice of cake?

Let the adventure begin.


A fresh tube of McVities Jaffa Cakes, refrigerated to aid deconstruction. Hmm, that work top needs a bit of Danish oil...


We tried a few different methods for separating chocolate from sponge. The slice and prize technique proved most successful.


Peeling the jaffa discs away from the chocolate proved trickier. Here Eric struggles to get a clean separation.


But soon we had mastered a technique I like to call snap and release. Break the chocolate's back and the orangy roundel becomes much less resistant to freedom.


Fairly soon we had our constituent parts, ready for construction and weighing. We were conducting importing scientific research and it felt only right that we should record every detail.


We decided to build 'slice of cake' shaped cake out of the cakes. Here I am slicing the point at the front - I'm guessing it was about 30 degrees. We didn't have a protractor though, so I might be wrong.


We forgot to take a picture just after installing the central layer of 'jam'. It was a combination of excitement (it's really starting to look like a slice of cake!) and annoyance (the orange jelly was almost unmanageably sticky).


Here you can see the completed slice just before the chocolate is applied. We now have two layers of orange 'jam' and a rising sense of excitement.


The chocolate stage was by far the trickiest. We toyed with melting it down and then trying to pour it back on. To be honest we doubted the chocolate would actually melt, and we knew for a fact that the cake wouldn't stand up to any sort of application process. We decided to just piece the chocolate together like a jigsaw. On top this worked fine; the back was trickier. At one point Eric declared "We're going to have to just pile it up like the zombies in the World War Z trailer trying to get over that wall". A bold analogy, but apt.


Our Slice of Jaffa Cake Cake was completed. We did have a few bits of chocolate left over so I sprinkled them on as a final artistic flourish. It didn't really help raise the aesthetic appeal. We didn't care. Our slice weighed 122g. McVities claim a single Jaffa Cake weighs 12.2g. Somewhere along the line we lost 24.4g of material. Maybe McVities are lying to us (another experiment looms perhaps?)?. Or, most likely, our £5 IKEA scales were rubbish.


At 12cm long, 6cm high and 5cm wide I would say that Eric was absolutely right. The Slice of Jaffa Cake Cake was no bigger than your average portion of birthday cake and probably way smaller than the servings you'd get in your local tea shop. We can now rest easy knowing that a tube of Jaffa Cakes can be consumed guilt free.

Thoughts on The Martian

As THE MARTIAN title faded away did I see the uprights of the capital letters linger, as an homage to the famous ALIEN title card?

If you found yourself suspending your disbelief with the book at all (even with all the science facts and maths) then hold your breath for the movie. Example: I seriously doubt there would be enough room on a Mars flight for each member of the crew to have Captain Picard style quarters with a desk and a swivel chair.

Having said that, the film doesn't completely dumb down, nor does the script resort to cliché or ham-fistedness. The reason for the inclusion of harvestable potatoes on board The Hermes is fleetingly glimpsed and thankfully Mark Watney remains unwed.

On the whole the necessary culling of plot points (well, let's call them incidents - there's not a great deal of plot) is well managed. In the book Andy Weir has a habit of slowly preempting catastrophes with revealing minutiae. For example, the way the fabric of the airlock was getting stretched by the buffeting wind. It is there in the film, but like many things, I'm not sure how apparent it will be to a viewer who hasn't read the source.

The actress who plays Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) looks just like a young version of the actress who plays Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig). Confusing.

Seeing Mark Watney's malnourished body was quite a shock. Not as shocking as his Catweazle beard though.

I'm a bit said that they actually used the Iron Man hand thruster idea in the climax. And I would have preferred it if Lewis had stayed in the Hermes and Beck had actually gone out to grab Watney.

There's no mention of the Hermes crew having to resort to cannibalism if the Chinese supply launch fails.


I've Got A Golden Ticket

I once met Rutger Hauer. And Syd Mead. I've chatted to Eugene Jarvis, Alexey Pajitnov and Mark Cerny. I spent a week in South Korea with Ian Livingstone. I've pretty much met most of the people that I would have, at one point or another, considered heroes. Last week I met another.

Choosing to back the Bring Back Morph Kickstarter campaign was a no brainer - deciding what level to go in at was trickier. I admit I was tempted by a personalised Morph style model of myself (£1500, oof!) but in the end I went with the pledge that rewarded its backers with a 2 person studio tour. It wasn't cheap, but I wanted to do my part to help ensure Morph would return, and visiting the Aardman Animations studio in Bristol was a very enticing bonus. I just hoped that Peter Lord, CBE would be there on the day of our visit.

He was and he's lovely.

We arrived at the Aardman studio in Bristol just after lunch and there were already one or two others waiting in the foyer (a young lad with his dad; a chap called Matthew, who it turns out is the world's no. 1 Wallace & Gromit fan, with his mum). We were joined by four others, including a couple of animators who had flown over from Amsterdam. Whilst we were marvelling at the models and sets on display in the lobby Peter came down and introduced himself to us all. I shook the hand that had animated War Story and Adam. And Morph.

After a quick trip up the sweeping staircase to drop off our bags we were escorted by Peter (and Katie) down to the studio where Morph was being produced. Alas, photography was not permitted within the darkened walls of the old banana storage unit, just in case we revealed any trade secrets. We were introduced to Merlin, who is directing this new series of shorts.

We learned so much in the short time we were there. Merlin told us all about the shooting process for Morph, which is unique in that one animator will work on an entire episode. Up to three episodes will be in production at any one time and as such there are three identical stages. Each is a perfect reproduction of the artist's desk where Morph and Chas live, with the familiar jar of pens and the famous wooden box (the original of which housed a microscope owned by Aardman co-founder David Sproxton as a boy). We briefly chatted to the animator working on stage 2 that day and got to see, at close hand, the lighting and camera setup (yes, Aardman use Canon DSLRs controlled by Dragonframe). We learned they're blasting through up to six seconds of footage a day, which really is going some in the world of stop motion animation.

We got to see some props and other characters (yes, Nail Brush is making a return!) and saw a complete set of Chas models for a run cycle that was animated using the replacement technique. One of the most interesting stories was that of how Aardman source their plasticine for Morph. The stuff that you buy off the shelf just isn't the right colour apparently so it has to be mixed with other colours in the studio. Plus, it's way too soft these days (and melts under the lights) so they add chalk to it. Aardman then put this in an old bubble gum manufacturing machine to get it thoroughly mixed together. When that machine finally breaks down I guess they'll just have to commission a replacement!

Before we left, Eric and I tried to commit the 15 episode titles to memory (they were conspicuously pinned to the wall). I'm afraid you'll just have to wait to find out.

Some of the characters on display in the model making workshop.

Next stop was the model making workshop. This hive of activity was home to a small group of craftsmen, beavering away on miniature props for the various productions going on at Aardman. A table proudly displayed many of the famous models and characters from Aardman's history and even though I suspect it had been arranged purely for our benefit it was great to see the Cuprinol man, the blue Amigo Loans guy and dozens of other familiar faces up close.

Our journey continued on to the Morph Memory room. Now this definitely was set up for our benefit, but that doesn't matter because it was great. I could have spent two hours in here looking at old photographs (the walls were covered) and exploring the artefacts. In one corner stood a set of scales, the original set I presume, used to weigh out the plasticine for Morph. There was yellow sticker with an M marking the amount needed for our hero - five and three quarter ounces (as Merlin had previously informed me). Peter spent yet more time telling us stories and answering questions.

We returned to the room where we started for some refreshments. I was slightly nervous about asking Peter to sign my Aardman book of 3D animation. I needn't have worried; remember Matthew? The no. 1 fan I mentioned? He had a pile of books nearly as tall as me.

I chatted to Peter about books whilst he was signing my copy and he asked if I had read Richard Williams' book The Animator's Survival Kit. He then casually mentioned "Of course Richard's working here at the moment. He's officially retired, but he asked if he could come and do some work here." One of the dutch animators overheard this and almost fainted. Richard Williams was next door?! For those of you who don't know who Richard Williams is, let's just say he's quite important in the world of animation.

We were treated to a seat in Aardman's own screening room where we watched a few choice Morph episodes and got a glimpse of the new Shaun The Sheep movie. Our tour had come to its end and I can honestly say that I don't think that Peter Lord, Merlin, Katie and everyone else that we met, could have done any more to make our Kickstarter reward any more enjoyable.

Aardman is a magical place, the walls are adorned with beautiful, whimsical illustrations; every room is filled with miniature treasures; even the elevator warns you to "Mind the doors Gromit!" with the instantly recognisable voice of Peter Sallis. I'm so proud to have been a part of the Bring Back Morph campaign, and I have a sneaking suspicion that we might see another Kickstarter appeal at some point, maybe for a much larger scale project.

Let's Make Morph

One of my favourite Morphs of the day, by Rachel Day.

On Sunday I traveled up to London to attend Let's Make Morph - a tribute to Tony Hart. Not quite a Flash Mob (as reported by several news sources) but still a fairly large gathering of people, many of whom brought along their own Morphs. The Facebook group which started the whole thing had around 800 members. There were probably more like 300 people there on the day, gathered at the end of the Millennium Bridge outside Tate Modern. The Morphs came in all shapes, sizes and colours. I just added a black armband to mine, which otherwise stayed fairly faithful to Lord and Sproxton's original design.

I had written to the Aardman founders in the hope they might attend (alas, no response) but we were joined by Tony Hart's daughter Carolyn. She seemed really pleased to see so many people gathering in memory of her father, and took a lot of time talking to everyone there.

Throughout the afternoon, as I listened to people talk about Tony Hart, I would repeatedly hear the same phrase: "Tony Hart, legend." And although it's probably mostly just a language meme (like wicked or well gutted) it's also completely true. Tony Hart was legendary. I did become an artist because of him (and my Dad). It's a travesty that his death was marked by a three minute segment on the news the following day and nothing more.

I met two other people on Sunday who, like me, had succeeded in the ultimate goal of getting a picture on the Gallery (actually a Jim'll Fix It badge was probably tops, but there was always the lingering fear that you'd get vilified like that kid who got a TV, computer AND Intellivision in his bedroom make-over).

Buy some plasticine, make a morph. Then go and draw a chalk New York skyline or add a cartoon face to a boot print.

(Click here to see my photos from the day.)

Twenty Years Ago Today

No, not Sgt Pepper - Hungerford. Twenty years ago something happened in this country which I don't think had ever happened before. Certainly not in my lifetime anyway. I was sixteen when I heard the news of the Hungerford Massacre. I've just watched the BBC report again, for the first time since it happened, and I've realised how different things were back then.

It was a Wednesday and I first heard of the events during the early evening news. I have a terrible memory, but I'm fairly sure Ryan had not yet killed himself. I remember the view from the helicopter of his mother's house ablaze. I remember the interviews with some of the villagers. More importantly I remember the news report ending and the return to normal programming. This clearly wouldn't happen today. I'd be switching to News 24 where I would watch newsreaders and reporters repeating the same tiny snippets of information over and over - invariably transitioning into pointless speculation and opinion giving.  (Are there multiple gunmen? The death toll could be as high as fifty!)

When the news returned the facts were reported. One gunman. Sixteen murders. One suicide. There was speculation of course; even mention of Rambo being an influence, but nothing like the news of today.

This event was one of a handful from the eighties which I remember clearly. I have few memories of my late childhood, for some reason, so on days like these the internet is a wonderful resource and reminder. During the course of my morning browsing I've read TV listings from the eighties and watched clips from the period. I've seen pictures of Johnny Ball, rediscovered the Renault Fuego and yearned for a Texan bar. I've also been reminded that Ryan's first victim was murdered whilst picnicking with two young children. I found this detailed piece of writing on the massacre and noticed that the author had dedicated it to Hannah and James, both in their early twenties now. Whilst I sit here typing this, having actively sought to remember this day of twenty years ago, I'm sure they are doing the exact opposite.