.33 As the Electromagnetic Pulse Ripped Through The City, He Saw It Was All For Nothing

It makes me just a little bit uncomfortable that everything I make these days is digital.

That’s not remarkable. Everything these days is digital!

But think about what that means and it gets scary. Digital means made of ones and zeros, which means storage on a computer drive, which means electricity is required for it to exist.

Every blog post, every web comic, every YouTube video, every short film, every song (that isn’t printed on vinyl) - all of it breathes electricity. Take that away and all digital art is suddenly rendered lifeless, inaccessible, put into suspended animation.

(Even movies stored on 35mm prints aren’t safe - you need electricity to run the projector!)

To enjoy anything I have made (including this newsletter!) you need 1) electricity and 2) the internet.

And I’m not sure either of these things can be taken for granted.

Just last week here in the UK there was a power cut that affected more than a million people and shutdown transport infrastructure. There was one in New York earlier in the year that had people trapped in elevators, a horrible thought if ever there was one.

These are rare and usually last only a couple of hours. But what happens if they go on for days, or weeks…or longer?

If that sounds laughable to you, go ask the residents of Kashmir - except of course, you can’t - they’ve had all communications severed by the Indian government for a week now.

We know things like the Stuxnet Virus exist - with the power to shutdown power plants and telecoms networks - not to mention invisible particles from space that cause Bit Flips.

Or, to take a step into science fiction, what about a giant electromagnetic pulse, detonated above a city, that instantly wiped every disk within a 100 mile radius?

OK, if that feels far-fetched, consider the very real problem of format obsolescence. Who’s to say that my videos won’t end up trapped, like mosquitos in amber, on the 2030 equivalent of the MiniDisk?

Sometimes I wonder how it would feel to watch your life’s work wiped from the earth - or trapped in a locked box, the key lost long ago.

Novelists, poets and painters know, at least, their work could survive them by some centuries. Paper never goes off.

We cannot escape the fact that we’ve built a civilisation that cannot function without the internet and electricity. We are all caught in an invisible technology trap - what other choice do we have?

Sometimes, when I am not worrying about my work being wiped, I fantasise about destroying it.

A few times in the last year I have come close to deleting my YouTube channel and every video on it, for good. Then deleting the backups and project files on my hard drive.

An act of madness? Maybe.

But, just as life and death are two sides of the same coin, destruction is the ultimate expression of creativity.

Destruction creates room for new work. Destroying your old work declares, more powerfully than anything else, “I believe my best work is ahead of me!” - a radical expression of faith and abundance.

The only things stopping me are knowing that a lot of people find comfort and inspiration in the Long Game videos and that other artists put love and effort into Parallax.

But who knows, I might change my mind one day!

Last week’s letter resonated with a lot of you, thanks to everyone who wrote in.

On Friday I finally wrapped on the big series I’ve been working on all year. It feels great to have it finished and I’m really proud of it. But I also can’t wait for the feeling of a fresh start I will have as I arrive at my desk on Monday.

Until next Sunday,

.32 Hobbies

When I was 21, I had one goal in life: get into the best journalism school in the country.

If I could get a place, then I would be one step closer to being a TV journalist, which was my laser-focused ambition from about the age of 14.

Ask my family and they’ll tell you that I am one of those people who always knew what to do from an early age. They’ll probably say it with a sigh: “he’s lucky, he always had a plan, unlike me…”

Note, however, that I am not a TV journalist, nor did I ever become one.

I did get into that journalism school though. Applicants were invited to a day of writing and current affairs tests, followed by an interview with a lecturer. I was so prepared for this interview I nailed it - right up until the final question.

“Do you have any hobbies?” she asked.


I was sweating. I couldn’t think of anything I did that wasn’t in some way an audition for this career I wanted.

I stumbled through an awkward minute of verbal vomit, clamouring desperately for something - one thing - I could say I did for fun, but had to admit defeat.

I thought I had lost it at the last moment. Clearly she was checking to see if I was an interesting, well-rounded person.

And clearly I wasn’t.

In the 13 years since that day, I never developed any hobbies - focused, as I was, on the work. I justified it by saying that making videos and telling stories was basically was a hobby that I was lucky enough to be getting paid for.

And with the ups and downs of freelancing, I never invested time or money into any other activities.

Over a decade, prudence became stinginess, which has become miserliness. My apartments have always been barely decorated; I have sometimes gone years without taking a holiday; I rarely buy nice clothes or let myself eat nice food.

A necessary strategy for survival, maybe. But through a long process of excavation this summer, it’s dawned on me that neglecting this aspect of my life has been really bad for me - and the work.

If you imagine that your creativity is a little version of you living inside of you: an inner artist. This artist is a kid, basically - it loves spontaneity, play, treats, toys; yet it’s also emotionally volatile and doesn’t like responsibility. It does not like being ignored.

With horror, I have realised that if my inner artist were a real child, I would be locked up for parental neglect, bordering on abuse.

By denying myself hobbies, treats, spontaneous indulgences - for well over a decade! - I have been starving my creativity to the point of chronic malnourishment, while at the same time demanding it work for me.

What a prick.

And so it is no surprise that this year, outside of my job at the Times at least, my creativity has all but dried up - leaving me in a funk. (#23)

(As an aside: despite some struggles, I have always been comfortably middle class. Can you imagine how this psychology affects the creativity of people on much lower incomes? People who genuinely can’t afford to indulge their inner artist? We rightly highlight that there aren’t enough working class people in the arts, but it seems the problem runs deeper.)

I have been hoping to come out of this summer with a renewed focus, a new ambitious creative project that was going to propel me forward into exciting new work.

But now I see how neglected and malnourished my artist is, I realise I have a recuperative journey ahead of me instead.

So my focus for the next year, but maybe two, is a program of creative self care.

I’m going to invest in myself - in my health, in hobbies. I’m going to let myself buy things on impulse, treat myself to little luxuries and make time for goalless writing and drawing. I’m going to surround my desk with plants and lights and books.

Around the corner from my office is a picture frame workshop which hosts weekly evening drawing classes in a large upstairs studio. I have walked past it daily for months, each time saying “I should sign up for that class” and then never doing it.

Denying my inner artist each time.

Well, friends, about a month ago I finally went to that class! There’s usually about a dozen or so people of varying levels (thankfully), and we drink tea and sketch models for a couple of hours.

And I love it.

Not because I am that good (although I do like some of my drawings) or because I think it could lead to some new career. I like it precisely because it is neither of those things.

Going to this class is like taking my inner artist on a secret date. I’m telling my creativity that it matters to me - but not because I need it work for me. I’m simultaneously declaring that it is free to play and that there is limitless possibility.

“I have a hobby!” I declared to C when I got home.

It’s proving to be a summer of quiet revolution.

“No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently” - Agnes De Mille

Until next Sunday,

.31 All Sorts Of Things Become Possible

I wasn’t really happy with last week’s letter. The days beforehand were so hectic I had no time to think about what I wanted to say and even less time to refine and it. Looking back, it feels rushed and superficial.

I’m still figuring out what this letter wants to be and part of that is stepping into the territory of what it doesn’t want to be and backtracking. Let’s see if this week can be a bit better.

The other fun thing I didn’t have time to tell you about last week was a day of shooting for the next series I am directing. The story is full of abstract ideas about data, privacy, and economics, so I had to come up with a bunch of visual devices for making those ideas visible to the human eye.

It’s been a huge creative challenge but, as with most challenges, I have learned some important new lessons about visual storytelling.

Firstly, understanding there are things above the Threshold of Awareness (#25) and things below it was a breakthrough for me in realising the pictures can be put to work to do more than just illustrate the story.

I have known this for a while, but writing and storyboarding this series was the first time I really understood it.

Secondly, on the shoot my Director of Photography Rob and I figured out (well, I’m sure he already knew this, but I didn’t!) that wide angle lenses are really useful when you’re shooting weird things that aren’t supposed to be real.

A wide angle lens, like 18mm say, distorts compositions and exaggerates movement. This creates a dreamlike quality to pictures - declaring (below the threshold of course) “don’t take this image literally, it’s just a metaphor!”

One thing I am proud of is a trick shot we pulled off that is going to be the unforgettable image of the whole series - the picture that captures the idea in a powerful emotional way.

I don’t want to ruin the show for you so I won’t tell you what it is, but I will says it’s bizarre, gory and, frankly, out of place in a New York Times documentary. But I think that is why I like it so much.

The vast majority of the time, images in a documentary are about observing and capturing reality as accurately as possible. I seem to be finding some fruit - albeit just small fruit right now - in imagining un-realities to serve my purpose.

It strikes me that the more you lean into the abstract, the Dadaist (#12), the Bunuelist even (#20), the more the pictures can work for you.

As Robin writes in his most recent Meteor: ‘when you decide other peoples’ priorities aren’t your own, all sorts of things become possible.’

By the way, if you like the videos we make in our team at the Times, you live in New York, and have visual storytelling experience - we are hiring! There are three positions open, including for a Producer (what I do), plus an Associate Producer and Senior Editor within the Op-Docs strand.

Below my own threshold of awareness, this summer is turning out to be quite a transformative one for me creatively. I have been writing every day for a couple of months and it’s led me to a bunch of little revelations. I’m looking forward to sharing them with you over the next few weeks!

Until next Sunday,

.30 A New Film I’m proud of

I’m writing to you this week from the cool and wet north of England - a refreshing change since temperatures hit the high thirties in London on Thursday. I’m spending a lovely recuperative weekend with family after what has been probably the most stressful - but rewarding - week of my year.

But let’s start at the beginning.

On Monday, The New York Times published a new film which I have been working on since January. It is a collaboration with a remarkable man called Adnan Khan. He is the same age as me and, like me, loves filmmaking.

The only difference between us is that he has spent the last 16 years of his life incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.

When he was 18, he was sentenced to 25 years to life for first degree murder. The thing is, he never killed anyone! That’s what everyone says of course, but in Adnan’s case, the judge, jury and prosecution all knew he wasn’t a killer.

The film we made together is about something called The Felony Murder Rule, a weird piece of legal doctrine - unique to the United States - that could be responsible for putting as many as 36,000 people behind bars for murders everyone agrees they didn’t commit.

Here’s the film.

When you do a story about America’s messed up criminal justice system, the temptation is to make something somber and serious. But with Adnan, I had a chance to work with a guy who made videos like this from inside prison!

So I knew I wanted to tell this story in a way that was energetic, fun and witty, letting Adnan’s natural charisma shine through.

But could I pull all that off without undermining the seriousness of the subject? 

A big part of it is in the writing. I wrote the script to be relentlessly forward moving, full of short sentences in informal language, with pithy transitions.

As I’ve mentioned before (#11), I structure my stories by scenes, and with this film I tried to come up with a creative visual way to deliver each one, unique to the purpose of that scene. So when we talk about how the felony murder rule has been applied across the world, I wrote a scene using a prop globe; when we address the support for the felony murder rule, I wrote it so Adnan would be having a discussion with himself.

With each scene looking and feeling different the story picks up energy without distracting from the argument.

I found this a topic riddled with writing challenges: the felony murder rule is complicated and there are lots of caveats that need to be explained. It was important to Adnan that when he told his own story, it was done in a way that respected the family of the person who was killed.

In early drafts of the script, my senior producer and I realised the scene where Adnan tells stories of real life felony murder cases was going to be hard for the audience to follow. It’s all “you do this, but your friend does this, and then this happens to them, but you go to prison.”

We knew visuals would be necessary to maximise clarity, but we also knew we couldn’t literally visualise the scenes he was describing - then we would find ourselves trying to animate or recreate a real life death, which felt inappropriate. It’s cases like this where stepping away from the literal and into the abstract is useful.

We figured all the audience need is a way to follow the different characters - and it could be anything. So I chose chess pieces as we see Adnan at a chessboard at the very beginning of the film.

Visualising ideas in camera is a different kind of challenge to relying on editing. For a start it’s a bigger production lift, with props and multiple location changes. It asked a lot of Adnan too.

I wasn’t able to be in California so we worked with a local pair of filmmakers who did a great job shooting the script.

The difficulty for me, thousands of miles away, was communicating the vision I had in my head to everyone else. The script can do a lot but it was also a lesson that there are some things which are just…ineffable - those subtle emotional things, floating below the threshold of awareness.

But I’m proud of what we made and glad to see it out here, hopefully changing minds one at a time.

I think it’s the best film I’ve made so far.

Until the next one of course… 😉

Oh and some super exciting news to wrap up: we found out on Thursday that Operation Infektion, the series I co-wrote and directed for The New York Times has been nominated for two Emmys!

One of them is in the category for Outstanding Writing in a Documentary which I feel especially honoured by.

So much other stuff has happened this week, but that will have to wait for another time. The birds are chirping outside and there’s a delicious roast dinner in the oven.

Until next Sunday,

.29 The Time Orson Welles Met Hitler

YouTube’s algorithm, for whatever nefarious purpose, has been recommending clips from 1970s television and I’m now addicted. In particular, I’ve been working my way through clips from The Dick Cavett Show, which ran from the late 60s through to the 90s.

It is a celebrity talk show like any other except - this guy had some of the most remarkable guests: Orson Welles talking about the time he met Hitler! 😲 Richard Harris, with a huge unexplained cut on his head, convinced he was living with a ghost! 😯 John Lennon explaining why the Beatles really broke up! 🤯

Essentially: long gone titans of the second half of the last century, often talking about encounters with people who have themselves passed into historical legend.

This interview with a (relatively) fresh faced Dick Van Dyke where he admits to his battle with alcoholism is a great example of why I like this show.

Unlike today’s celebrity talk shows, which try very hard to move from one funny anecdote to another, The Dick Cavett Show feels more like a podcast. Cavett asks deep and thoughtful questions and isn’t afraid to linger on a subject or to add an anecdote of his own. It feels like an intimate conversation and while there is a studio audience in the room, you’ll barely notice them.

Plus, because it is the 1970s, the guests are constantly lighting up. The way John Lennon casually pulls out a cigarette from his shirt pocket in the above clip renders him briefly as what he was: just an ordinary 30-something guy.

Now I think about it, the 1970s produced some pretty excellent factual television, a lot of which is free to watch online.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is spare in its production but rich in ideas and writing. There’s an episode on the female nude in European art where Berger basically says “I’m a man and probably not best placed to talk about this” and hands the rest of the programme over to women, an act of woke-ness 42 years before the rest of us got there.

Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation is snail-paced, and strolls through long sequences of oil painting close ups, set to organ music. You’d get kicked onto the street if you went to a commissioning editor with that today, but its earnestness embraces you; watch an episode and you feel like you’ve just eaten a really good meal. Like Berger, Clarke has a funny English accent which becomes very soothing over time.

And then there is Connections, from science historian James Burke. I binged this show when I was working on my earliest video essays and his direct, informal presentation style was a big influence on me. The opening 30 minutes of episode one is a terrifying eye-opener about our dependence on technology, more relevant nearly half a century later.

They might seem quaint to us now, but I really feel a sense that every shot has been carefully considered, every word of the script crafted alongside the images.

I received some really thoughtful responses to letter #27 when I wrote about getting older. Several of you took the time to let me know you found comfort from hearing about my own feelings and experiences, and I was struck by a sense of how privileged I am to have this channel through which I can turn my own fears, crises and negativity into something positive for other people. I am very lucky indeed.

A few parents rightly pointed out that having children does not necessarily insulate you from the feeling of not knowing what to do next. You can have children and still feel lost.

And while I struggle to find role models, Tim wrote in with a huge list of artists who inspire him; people who, while obviously not perfect, are (in Tim’s words) “all fighting the good fight — for better art, for a kind of beauty in this life, and for values such as compassion and courage”:

  • Werner Herzog

  • Nick Cave

  • Jane Goodall

  • Cormac McCarthy

  • Viggo Mortensen

  • Jacob Aue Sobol

  • Philippe Petit

  • Patti Smith

  • Terrence Malick

  • Karl Ove Knausgaard

  • Alex Honnold

  • Paul Rusesabagina

  • David Mamet

  • Rob Nilsson

  • Gus van Sant

  • Ai Weiwei

I am inspired by how some of these artists are on Tim’s list not for their artistic brilliance but because of the work they do outside of their “job”. Thank you for sharing this, Tim.

Thank you to everyone who has written to me recently. I owe you all a big apology: a mixture of work deadlines and a painfully arduous flat-hunting process have absorbed the time I usually set aside to respond to your messages.

I promise to do better, just as soon as we have a new place to live!

On Thursday we are scheduled to shoot in a studio for one day for my series with Jaron Lanier (see letter #18.) I am a little out of my comfort zone here - we are filming with actors and props and, although there is no dialogue being recorded, it feels like it is a scenario ripe with things that can go wrong.

But - assuming nothing does go wrong - once it is in the can, the series will be almost finished. I started work on it in December, so I’m excited to see it all come together.

Meanwhile The New York Times is publishing another video I have made tomorrow.

This has been a collaboration with a guy my age who has spent the last 16 years at San Quentin State Prison in California. I’m really proud of what we’ve made - it’s a fresh take on a really important topic.

I will share a rundown of the visual storytelling behind it next week.

Until next Sunday,

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