Casting shame upon myself

On only my second day in Hong Kong (all those many months ago) I was accosted by a girl calling herself Apple Wong. She said she worked for a casting agency and asked if I would be interested in coming down to the office in the next day or two to sign myself up, get a few photos taken, stuff like that. Being alone in a brand new city, I hastily agreed, thinking that it would at the very least be an opportunity to fill a little time before work started.

The signing-up process itself was painless enough, involving little more than a few photographs and a few seconds of video. I filled in a couple of forms, left some contact details and then headed out in the early-November Tin Hau sunshine. From memory, I walked back along King’s Road towards my hotel in Fortress Hill, unaware of the terrible chain of events that I had just set in motion.

In the months that followed I heard nothing back from the agency. No calls, no emails, no nothing. So for all I knew, those five minutes in the heady, showbiz world of casting were nothing but a dream: a wish of something greater; an aspiration. All I had to cling to were the words printed on the reverse of Apple Wong’s business card, which detailed a ‘No Child Left Behind’-style company policy that would surely see me considered for something:

“I don’t believe in pretty faces. I don’t believe in ugly faces. I don’t believe in ordinary faces. But I do believe there is something unique behind every single face.”

~ ~ ~

After several more weeks of outright rejection, a call finally came in from Apple Wong. ‘A San Miguel advert,’ she said, ‘tomorrow at 1 p.m.—can you make it?’ I couldn’t make it, no, not at such short notice—work was frenetic, and there was really no question of taking leave. ‘Not to worry then,’ came Apple Wong’s reply, ‘maybe next time.’ Yes, maybe, I said.

~ ~ ~

Then came my big break.

For those who didn’t witness it, my performance on NowTV’s hit show ‘Cooking Mama’ combined the atmosphere and brutality of Stanley Kubrick with the charm and wit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. In fact, not since the Dogme 95 movement have the rules of world cinema been so thoroughly rewritten. The ease with which I dealt with the meal scene, for example—which, for those out of the loop, is the summam bonam of every episode of ‘Cooking Mama’—demonstrated just how comfortable I can be in front camera when put to the test.

In hindsight, my decision to adopt the character, appearance and physicality of a nervous, jabbering pipe was perhaps a little misguided. But by the date of the recording it was already too late to change course. Like Christian Bale in The Machinist I had become my character. The divide between myself and the shambling wreck of incompetence I had decided to portray was tracing-paper thin. I ate like a toddler, I babbled like a madman, I grinned maniacally: I had given myself up for my art.

Needless to say, after such a peerless day-boo, my desire to return to the glamorous world of television grew only more fervent. I had a niggling doubt that I had not given the best of myself during ‘Cooking Mama’, and I was keen to rectify this in my next project, whatever that may be.

Fortunately enough, I didn’t have to wait long. Just a few short weeks after my first appearance on the small screen, an email came in from the agency (I’m not, by the way, inferring any sort of corollary between these two events):

Dear Nick

You had a casting for us a few years ago, and we recently got a job from a Chinese clothing brand (promoting jeans) that will be shooting on either the 10th or 11th of June. If you are okay with the shooting day, we would like to have a casting with you for TVC.

Please kindly call us for a casting appointment.


So I called. And the casting was arranged. 27th May, 18:30.

~ ~ ~

I was a few minutes early for my appointment, so I took a seat in reception while Yandy printed off a couple of forms and went to find the camera. When she returned I was ushered into an adjacent room and asked to stand under one of those high-powered lights that you sometimes see on television sets or in cannabis factories. I immediately started to sweat.

Stand there. Now look at the camera. Small smile. Now smile with teeth. Okay, and now turn forty-five degrees. Small smile. And smile with teeth. Now the other side. Small smile. Great. And now smile with teeth. Thanks very much. Now turn and face the camera again …

Right, so what poses do you have?

… What poses do I have?

Unbeknown to Yandy, I had already exhausted all of my poses. My pose cupboard was bare. And that’s despite the recent 300% jump in poses my pose catalogue had recently experienced. (Forty-five degree angles, you say? Whatever next.) Clearly something more was required of me, I just wasn’t quite sure what, so I simply repeated the question—’What poses do I have?’—which as a stalling mechanism was worse than useless.

I think there are probably two kinds of people in this world: those who can answer a question like ‘what poses do you have?’ with a series of off-the-peg H&M model stances, and those who, like me, believe the best course of action is to roll up into a ball and gently weep. In fact, there was evidence of this divide when Yandy, sensing, no doubt, my imminent psychological breakdown, brought out a whole catalogue of the posing H&M-types for me to mimic like a sweating monkey.

I stood and looked through the catalogue for a few seconds, praying for Armageddon. Everyone looked so angular and weird. Yandy picked a few poses for me to copy, and I reluctantly obliged. I was in too deep to make good my escape now, and there were boxes of wigs blocking all but one of the exits. Okay, so if you could just stand over by the wall again …

I actually can’t remember very much about what happened next, which I put down to traumatic erasure. Maybe in a few months time I’ll see an advert on the telly for Just For Men hair dye and tumble into paroxysms of grief. But for now at least, all I can really remember are flailing arms, awkward stances and, at one terrible moment, a jump into the air. All of which, in my mind’s eye, has condensed into an image not too dissimilar to this:

As mortifying as this was, though, I at least had the familiarity of photography to fall back on. Everyone owns a camera and everyone poses for photographs. It’s a ubiquitous aspect of twenty-first-century life; an aid to modern memory. When someone asks you to smile for the camera you have a bank of past experiences to refer to. It isn’t a strange request to make. It’s normal, every day, quotidian, boring even.

This is not so true of video.

Video exposes everything that a photograph tries its best to conceal: awkward movements, twitches, nervousness, aching self-consciousness. It’s inescapable.

Just say, for example, that you’ve been invited to a casting for an advertisement—I don’t know, let’s say it’s for a Chinese company that sells jeans—and as part of the casting they’ve asked you to pose like a twazzock in front of camera. If you’re lucky, then in that split second that the photo is taken you may have the look and demeanor of a calm, confident and self-assured person. It’s possible to trick the eye. Drop this freeze frame into a few seconds of video, though, and it gets lost in a white noise of jitters and spasms.

And so it was with the second half of my torturous casting, which now represents, hands down, the most embarrassing five minutes of my life to date …

And here’s why: I was asked to pull a series of poses, whilst dancing, to no music, on video. (If this footage ever reaches YouTube I will dig out my eyes with a soup spoon.)

Once again, much of what actually happened during these five minutes has been consigned to a locked-up section of my brain labelled ‘horrific trauma’. But when someone who can’t dance to music is asked to dance without music, the results can only be momentously bad. What I can remember hoping though, as I jibbered feebly from one leg to the next in my own patented Year 6 school disco dancing style, was that my legs would shear off at the hips and that my torso would bounce out the window. Neither of which happened.

If you’re still looking for some kind of visual representation of my performance, then watching the following video (on mute) should just about do it (I play the part of the purple dog):

The absurd punchline to this tale is that I actually got the part. Expect another 1500 words of cathartic brain-mush post-filming.


DIY black-and-white negative developing

I’m very much a fledgling photographer: unsure of the processes, mystified by some of the terminology, and none too accomplished. Because of this, my photographs are often governed more by good fortune than sound judgement, and I’m always quietly surprised when one of my efforts turns out quite nicely.

Given this relative ignorance, then, my decision to blunder into the jargon-filled, process-heavy world of DIY negative development may look a little rash, but spurred on by a friend in the UK already chatting development tanks, stock solutions and stop baths, I thought it was worth a crack.

In a fit of purchasing fervour, I bought most of the required bits and bobs over one weekend, spending about HK$600 in the process. The rest of the kit was acquired over the following week for around HK$200 more. It was then time to work out what the devil I was supposed to do with all these unusual new playthings. The internet beckoned.

There are many in-depth and accessible explanations of DIY development on the internet—many with step-by-step instructions, images and even videos—but after reading a few of these tutorials it soon becomes clear that, like snowflakes, no two explanations are alike. These variances are in part down to what combination of film, developer and fixer is being used, and are in that sense somewhat inevitable, but even folks using the same chemicals and equipment will subtly tweak their methodology to suit their own needs.

This made my initial research slightly bewildering, but with persistence I read on, and eventually a few common threads started to emerge. It was then just a matter of concocting my own mishmash methodology and hoping, praying, pleading for the best.

Should anyone wish to do the same, here are some invaluable resources:

Well, anyway, enough of this chatter, this is what my first batch turned out like, and, for the record, this is how I did it:

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