Things 2024 Q1: Dancing, Temp tracks, Creativity

LEGO is doing okay

This nice visualisation of LEGO group annual revenue shows that after a lull in the late 2010’s, there has been incredible growth since 2020 – presumably somewhat assisted by pandemic lockdowns?

Not shown – revenue growth flattened in 2023

As someone who enjoys LEGO but is running out of storage space, I’ve been trying out BrickBorrow for the last year, where for a subscription (and some postage each time) you can borrow LEGO sets.

A well-designed feature restricts big sets to those who have been subscribed for 3 months – this shows reliability, and also helps with availability of those sets. Now that BrickBorrow have shifted to a Royal Mail sticker postage method, and added a filter on the sets to only show those that are available, I recommend it!

£915 of LEGO I got to build for £235… but had to send back. Worth it!

I Am Not Left-Handed

This is the name of a trope where a character reveals they were previously fighting with a self-imposed handicap, which they then shed to fight at their true power. This is a classic technique for shallow power-fantasy stories, but despite that I find it incredibly compelling every time.

My favourite concentrated example of it is this (now very old!) Anime Music Video which edits together a particular fight from Naruto, which I also appreciate for how it establishes a rooting interest in one of the combatants without any dialogue:

Temp Tracks in film

In this episode of Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos break down the way in which ‘safe’ creative choices around music in the Marvel films has led to a weaker overall effect:

Towards the end they highlight the problem of the ‘Temp Track’: a piece of film is edited to a suitable existing piece of music, but the film-makers work with that version for so long they become wedded to the way it sounds, so when they eventually commission original music, they request something almost identical. In a spin-off video, EFAP show a lot of examples.

The opposite of this is Tom Tykwer’s method (director of Run Lola Run (1998) ), in which the soundtrack is composed first. You can hear a bit about it in this segment of the making of The Matrix Resurrections, and it does seem very effective.

While we’re on the topic, I personally greatly enjoyed The Matrix Resurrections (2021) for it’s metatextual resonance rather than literal content, apparently in marked contrast to most people. But that is a story for another time.

Dancing at the end of films

A Bollywood staple, after the film reaches its narrative conclusion, even if it’s not a musical and there has been no dancing before, the film ends with the whole cast performing an elaborate dance number (TV Trope: Dance Party Ending). This can have a fascinating effect on how you feel about the film as a whole, sometimes redeeming antagonists, bringing back characters who died, or just providing an emotional catharsis after an otherwise tense time.

Unfortunately I suspect that citing my favourite Western films that do this is also a strange kind of spoiler. So instead I will recommend to you several films that I have seen recently, at least one of which uses this to good effect, but all of which I think are worth watching for one reason or another. Some will even be improved by you thinking there might be a dance at the end, even if there isn’t!

  • Knight and Day (2010), Disney+, a strange clash of genres that works great… some of the time
  • Labyrinth (1986)
  • Medusa Deluxe (2022), a ‘single-take’ hairdressing competition murder mystery
  • Saltburn (2023), directed by Emerald Fennell, whose previous film Promising Young Woman (2022) I also recommend… for adults that like ambiguous protagonists
  • The Marvels (2023), Disney+, MCU take some creative risks! Some of which work!
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)
  • White Noise (2022), Netflix, weirder and less ‘fun’ than the trailer implies (but I still recommend it)
  • The Zone of Interest (2023)

Dancing in a fursuit

Probably best to jump in with no context and watch this one-minute clip, which annoyingly I can’t embed so you will have to actually click on it:

Wow! What the heck was that? This ad-laden article lays out the whole story. Gintan is some kind of K-pop star in his own right, but is now known for performing at ‘Random Dance’ events in this very distinctive fursuit. In these events, clips from K-Pop songs with popular choreography are played, and anyone who knows the routine jumps into the centre to perform it. There’s a delightfully over-academic essay about these events here.

What’s really impressive is that not only has Gintan memorised so many of these routines, and not only can he perform them with incredible precision and panache on demand, he does all of this while wearing a heavy fursuit – which is like a really fun version of the ‘I Am Not Left-Handed’ trope described above!

On top of that, the slightly serious expression on the suit is a great contrast with the frivolousness of the whole thing, and it always brings a smile to my face.

Find lots more Gintan footage like this with this Youtube search.

The Meta-Problem of Consciousness

Let’s get a bit more serious for a moment.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness is a philosophical one: to use Wikipedia’s summary, it asks why and how do we experience qualia, phenomenal consciousness, and subjective experiences? Related questions: where does consciousness reside? Is it a quantum effect? Is it separate from our physical forms in some way?

I never found this problem convincing at all. Why would we expect consciousness to feel any different to the way it actually does? Literally our only reference case is how we experience it, on what grounds can we say this is surprising?

I first read about this some decades ago, so I was delighted to find that in 2018 philosopher David Chalmers proposed a more precise and slightly sassy formulation of my line of thinking: the “Meta-problem of Consciousness”. This is “the problem of explaining why we think that there is a [hard] problem of consciousness.”

Yes! That does indeed seem to be the more pressing problem.

The Temp Track that went well

I know of one example of a film that used a temp track to edit a key scene, and (in my opinion) this actually produced an excellent final result. Even as someone quite averse to spoilers, in this particular case I don’t think reading about it – or even watching the scene on its own – actually spoils the film!

However, if you worry even more about spoilers than me, you might not want to know about it. So, just know that it is from one of the films listed above, I’ll be talking about it after the extended Thing about creativity-over-time below, and it is the last Thing of this episode so you can easily skip it if you want. Be ready!

Creativity over time: productivity and scope

I’m very interested in the creative process. The brain is a machine that can come up with ideas or whole creative works, but the methods by which you can best achieve that are not obvious.

When it comes to long-form works this is particularly tricky. Here’s a segmentation I came up with for thinking about this:

Planning style: Plan in advance vs. Freestyle
Routine style: Fixed schedule vs. When it’s ready

The pro/con on these is pretty clear, at least for narrative works.

Plan in advance
Pro: A solid overall story that wraps up satisfyingly (even if you have to alter it a bit as you go)
Con: Characters may not act consistently as you’re forcing them to hit story beats

Pro: Characters and situations evolve naturally
Con: Plot may spiral out of control and not go anywhere

Fixed schedule
Pro: Progress is made consistently, can retain and build an audience
Con: Quality may suffer

When it’s ready
Pro: Maximise quality
Con: Easy to put off and polish indefinitely

If you know me, you know what’s coming next… a consideration of the four combinations!

The four approaches to ongoing narrative

As with any classification of creative works, some of this is subjective or debatable for many reasons. Regardless, here’s some examples:

Plan in advance, fixed schedule
Star Wars original trilogy (sort-of), Babylon 5, Breaking Bad.

Plan in advance, when it’s ready
The Gentleman Bastards book series

Freestyle, fixed schedule
Questionable Content, Star Wars sequel trilogy, Lost

Freestyle, when it’s ready
Game of Thrones, Dresden Codak, Confinement animation

Now, just from writing down the first examples I could think of, some very natural patterns emerge.

A plot planned in advance and delivered to a fixed schedule has produced some of the most beloved completed works there are.

In opposition to that, Freestyle and When it’s Ready has produced works that I think have an even more intense fandom (as it maximises quality), but frequently slow down and stall for one reason or another.

Freestyle with a fixed schedule generally seems like a bad idea, but over long time periods works in a sort of ‘soap opera’ format.

Plan in advance, release when ready seems to be very rare, and seems intuitively the most likely to become a victim of procrastination / anxiety / writer’s block stalling progress.

Some case studies in slowed progress

Game of Thrones (or properly titled, the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series) is perhaps the apex example of ‘Freestyle, when it’s ready’ slowing to a crawl (or possible halt). Here’s a chart showing the release date and length of each book, running up to the present day when ‘The Winds of Winter’ has not yet come out.

To be clear, I don’t consider this a failing. I think the books are as well-loved as they are precisely because this method of production maximises quality and character. However, expectations for a timely finish should be held quite low.

A recent example was shared with me by Laurence: Confinement, a series of animations based on the SCP Foundation (referenced in Things November 2022). These had an even more dramatic stall: episode 7 was extremely popular and drove many to support the creator’s Patreon. However, about 3.5 years later the creator admitted they didn’t have it in them to make episode 8 any more and formally closed all their social channels. (There’s a lot more drama to that, which you can read about here).

Here’s how those releases looked, running the x-axis to the point when the project was officially cancelled:

In what is (I think) an example of the rare “Planned in advance, release when ready”, the Bee and Puppycat animation managed to reach a pretty satisfying conclusion (so far) about 9 years after it began – with an astonishing 83% of the run-time dropping all at once at the very end:

The slowness of early releases was due to a very small team working on the animation. Then a series of complicated licensing delays and disasters conspired to delay later releases. But in the end, a soft reboot / series 2 eventually dropped all at once on Netflix in September 2022.

I’ll tell you why Bee and Puppycat is so good another time, but for now just know that when I audited all 50+ in-jokes I share with Clare, this series accounted for more of them than anything else.

While less narrative in nature, the web comic Hyperbole and a Half had a very prolonged hiatus. In the dangerous “Freestyle, release when it’s ready” category, but without the burden of an overarching narrative, artist Allie Brosh had published a series of excellent and very personal hybrid comic/narratives, from 2009-2010. Output slowed in 2011 due to mental health issues, a medical condition, and a focus on turning the content into a book. Things seemed to end with the book coming out in October 2013 and at the same time the truly excellent “Menace” strip being published (shortly after the Bee and Puppycat pilot aired).

Then, nothing, for a very long time. This was also quite concerning given the prior comic was a very personal one about coming to terms (perhaps?) with depression. On the other hand, author Allie Brosh had said “In the world of writing internet content, there’s all this talk of “maintaining an audience” and “staying on the radar,” but I’d rather just work really hard for a really long time on one thing that I feel really good about publishing.”

So it was that a sequel book “Solutions and Other Problems”, announced in 2015, eventually came out in September 2022, 9 years after the last published work (and also around the time the Netflix Bee and Puppycat series finally dropped, as it happens). The content of that book follows the previous form, and also details some of the things that happened to Brosh in the intervening years, and the reason for the gap in public output becomes devastatingly clear. I highly recommend both books.

Finally, in that rare “Plan in advance, release when ready” category, Scott Lynch published The Lies of Locke Lamora in 2006. Nick recommended it to me, and I enjoyed it quite a lot, but it seemed like the author liked world-building a little too much. As the first in a planned series of 7 books called the ‘Gentleman Bastard’ series, I decided to wait until the series finished before reading on.

A second book appeared in 2007, a third in 2013… and at the time of writing, nothing else.

Scott Lynch wrote very candidly in 2022 about what has been going on. He has in fact been writing very productively, but a kind of anxiety is holding him back from publishing any of it, including updates about how it is going. (As a Things reader you probably enjoy ‘meta’ things, so you should read that post).

Here’s the point where we get meta about it right here: I recognise that problem because that is exactly what happened to me since 2020 (when a pandemic happened, funnily enough). I have 4 rather long and pretty much complete blog posts about various topics, none of which I felt confident enough about to post. This hasn’t happened to me before!

As a Things reader you might also recognise that even aside from that, the rate of Things posts gets slower and slower (with the surprise exception of this one… at the time I’m writing this sentence, anyway). That is something I find a bit harder to explain.

Having written all the above, it does make me wonder: should I commit to a schedule for Things? Wouldn’t once a quarter be a completely reasonable one to try?

Let’s say this is the 2024 Quarter 1 things and see how things go from there!

The Temp Track that Went Well: not a spoiler, but might be if you’re very worried in which case don’t read this

Are you ready?

So this is about a scene that happens at the very end of one of the films in my list above.

Specifically a scene where everyone starts dancing

That’s enough line spacing, so here we go. Perhaps you are familiar with the LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 song “Daft Punk is Playing in my House”. It seems to be their 3rd most popular song on Spotify, and 2nd most popular song on Youtube. It is rather repetitive but has a very compelling hook:

(The music video references the Things-favourite Michel Gondry-directed music video to Daft Punk’s “Around the World”, another repetitive but compelling song).

So at the end of White Noise (2022), there is a scene where the characters visit the excellently set-dressed 80’s supermarket and everyone there starts dancing as the credits roll. Incidentally, this tipped the movie over from something I thought was interesting-but-a-bit-weird into excellent.

LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Daft Punk is Playing in my House’ was used as the temp track for this scene – and indeed was the track the dancing was choreographed and performed to, which ordinarily I would say is going a bit too far for a temp track. However, here’s the twist: they commissioned LCD Soundsystem themselves to write a new track to play over the scene instead.

I had previously written about how fans of a band often cling to the past and are less keen (at least initially) on new musical directions, with the example of the audience response to a DJ Shadow gig (“Artistic Stasis or Death!”). So it seems like an outrageously bold thing to ask a band to make a new song so specifically similar to a well-loved old one.

And the beauty of it is, LCD Soundsystem did it. They made a new track – “new body rhumba” – that for me is even better than DPIPIMH from 17 years earlier, and is completely perfect for this scene in the movie. You can listen to it here or just watch that scene itself (accepting that this is perhaps more of a spoiler, although not really given how loose the rules of continuity are when it comes to Dance Party Endings).

Side-note, this may just seem weird and boring without the context of the film leading up to it, or even with it since everything is subjective. But anyway, enjoy!

  • Transmission ends

Why I love the ‘Up All Night’ music video

I previously wrote in passing about how the internet can encourage toxic discussion, partly because people are more likely to post about something when it makes them angry. A good way to respond to this observation is to march in the opposite direction: write about things you love!

To that end, let me tell you about one of my all-time favourite music videos. The song is Beck’s ‘Up All Night’, the video is by CANADA (the creative production company, not the country), and you should just watch the whole thing first:

Wow, so what was that! Let’s break it down. Note, I’ll be using the actor’s names, as character names are not given.

The opening

We begin in a hexagonal frame – a visual motif for Beck’s album, Colors – bringing us in to a party. Right away, we see this party is long past its peak: there’s an unsettling discordant strumming, and while our attention is on Pedro Attemborough falling into a drunken faint, we subconsciously pick up on someone stepping over debris, and on the right a woman forcefully pushes back a man after he draws uncomfortably close. We read the environment as inebriated and ambiently hostile, particularly for women.

The very first edit demands our attention. First, Pedro hits the ground with a strange metallic sound. Then, as soon as we register that as strange, we cut to Solene Rigot, and immediately understand that the sound was actually her kicking a street sign. Further kicks are synchronised with the credits, and then in a dreamlike transition that skips what must surely be a difficult process, Solene is now walking off with the sign as an ersatz shield.

Having drawn our attention to the synchronisation of image and sound, we enter an eerie silence as she marches into the night, right into the path of a tall man(?) dressed as Snow White, smoking, staggering, clearly leaving the party we just saw. Perhaps expecting a woman to defer to his path, he is surprised as she off-handedly clips past him – and that exact moment of conflict is punctuated with the opening guitar stabs of the song, finally kicking in, 30 seconds into the video.

So tacitly we identify with Solene, familiar as we all are with the rudeness of those that won’t even slightly move to let us by, the music telling us to feel triumphant that she came out the better from the borderline violent exchange.

Now perhaps it seems like I’m digging into too much detail here, but I think it’s important to appreciate that this quiet introduction has been packed with synaesthetic interest and detail, setting the stage for a conflict, and getting us to root for our protagonist – all with no dialogue. There’s a party, a man in trouble (we assume she’s headed for him), a vaguely misogynistic atmosphere, and a woman fully prepared to plunge into it to get what she wants.

The approach

A brief cut back to Pedro confirms him as her destination, then we return to Solene approaching the next level of the patriarchal gauntlet: a group of young men chatting and laughing. Superficially benevolent, it doesn’t take much life experience to recognise this as a potential threat to a young woman alone at night. This fear is immediately subverted as Solene again takes the role of aggressor: without breaking stride she grabs a bag off a shoulder, sharply unzips it, does – something? – then throws the bag off the walkway. The strange tension of wondering what she did with the bag is then resolved with a cut to her holding a doughnut in her mouth, before her hand reaches up to yank it out as she takes a bite, still marching.

To be clear, this is kind of a dick move, and the fact it inverts the patterns of a society that routinely disempowers women does not make it okay – but as Drew McWeeny noted in the 3rd episode of Voir, a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable for us to care about them or be invested in their journey. This simply tells us she will do whatever it takes to see this ambiguous mission through.

She pauses a moment as Beck’s lyrics tell her to “pull yourself together” and “it’s time to go”. She pulls out an inhaler and takes an assisted breath (a sudden moment of vulnerability) and we cut to Pedro apparently leaking urine, kind of disgusting, but raising the stakes of the quest: he needs her help.

In the video’s first moment of magical realism, Solene pivots on the spot, and with nothing but a simple cut is now armoured; we understand she has quite literally steeled herself.

She discards the inhaler, another dick move, but hey – armour doesn’t have pockets. She starts running, and eight cuts at different angles (timed to hand-claps) build the tension to the next key moment: the song bursts into the chorus and she bursts into the party itself.

The party

Through a few quick shots in slow motion we see the party as we feared: debauched, uncomfortably packed, hazardous to human health. Solene’s progress seems almost miraculously smooth, but at this point we’re not surprised.

As she makes it from the red-lit room to the orange, the stakes rise: a fight between men dressed as nuns (a scene I have, bizarrely, personally witnessed at a stag do on the streets of Portsmouth), and an unfortunate collision between Solene and a woman triggers the moment of male aggression we feared would come.

Instantly enraged, the man flings a bottle at our protagonist; her first response is to grab a hookah (why?), before turning to deflect the shattering bottle with Chekhov’s shield, and smoothly using that turn as a wind-up to lob the hookah back. We are taken aback – she has been a bit rude so far, sure, but this violent response doesn’t seem right – only to find that it’s simply to knock the cans off a comatose man’s forehead. Weird but delightful!

She knocks the door down to the kitchen: drug central. Wilfully destroying the drug paraphernalia as she progresses, it seems the hookah throw wasn’t an afterthought; she appears to actively despise drugs and all they stand for.

If we were in any doubt as to how bad this party has become, the surprise sheep lets us know.

Things now take a turn for the weird as trophies in a red-lit room tremble in Solene’s presence; she notes it but appears to move on, as a roller-blading blonde in hot-pants twirls to punctuate the moment. This is notable as the only part of the video that veers towards the male gaze, which otherwise has been surprisingly avoided, particularly in our protagonist’s outfits – although perhaps the shot is there to make that contrast clear?

She steps more carefully through the heavy petting room, affection and love more worthy of her respect, but the weirdness returns as a necklace rises towards her inexplicably. Matching the rhythm of the syncopated vocals, metal objects attach themselves to her armour. Something is wrong.

Perhaps there’s a clever metaphor I’m missing here, but it seems that our protagonist has become too emotionally ‘charged’ by the events so far to pass through unscathed. If she’s to make it to the heart of the party, she must shed the part of herself that is holding her back.

In what reads like a time-twist, it seems as if she did in fact enter that red room with the trophies, and we now flash back to it, to discover her smoking and preparing some kind of cocktail. Having previously seen her antipathy towards intoxicants, this seems strange. Perhaps the party life was once hers, and her attitude is not that of a pious outsider, but rather one who has been through her own struggles, but emerged on the other side. Perhaps she wants to save Pedro as she once was saved (or as seems more likely, saved herself), and accepts as the price that she must, with care, use an aspect of herself that she had previously closed off.

Two quick scenes that follow endorse this idea. In blue light (read: earlier) she struggles to evade the most potent patriarchal symbol yet: a drunken football team. Then in red – presumably after imbibing – she is crowd-surfing an otherwise impassably packed corridor, the party accepting her as one of their own.

Fighting through plants (a cannabis farm?), bleary, she is perhaps paying the price for this power. But now flashing back again to the red room, we learn something more powerful took place there: magical realism escalating, the chrome drink coats her insides and appears to transform her armoured form into a chrome ’73 Corvette C3 Stingray: impeccably cool and worthy of respect from the revellers. Also it makes no sense! But that’s fine!

The climax

She finally reaches her goal: Pedro, even now having toothpaste applied to his comatose form by a man in an ill-fitting tiger onesie, representing the pure Freudian id of Tigger.

In a perfectly acted moment, Solene sighs – a combination of relief, disappointment, and simultaneously anger, crystallising into action.

The Corvette burns intimidating doughnuts, and she is left alone by Tigger and the revellers to save Pedro.

In an image that sums up the whole story, the still-armoured Solene emerges from smoke, carrying Pedro, gazing upon him with a combination of relief and love. The song is over.

But there’s one final, surreal twist. In the early morning light we see Pedro surfing atop the chrome Corvette (driverless of course, because it is in fact Solene). We quietly hear what sounds like an outtake from the string section used on the track, and the hexagon closes us out as they drive, presumably, towards a better future.

The dynamic at play here, though, is uncomfortable. Pedro affects an unearned coolness, literally riding atop Solene’s efforts as if he were the hero. How does she feel about this? Where is their relationship really headed? It feels to me like the default patriarchal order is being reasserted, and from what we’ve seen, she will not tolerate this for long. What she has gained from this ordeal is not a partner, but confidence and strength. That will last.

I don’t think Pedro will.


For me, the video evokes my time back at university: the parties, the intensity of every experience, and the romantic idea of being “Up all night with you” – but also of realising that you don’t have to conform, that these relationships may not last, and most importantly your own character is coming into focus.

And that’s why it’s one of my favourite music videos.

Transmission ends


Beginnings and Endings in public performances

Knowing how to start and stop

If you have to give a public performance of some kind – from a wedding speech, to a presentation at work, all the way up to a play or musical performance – I would suggest that starting and stopping are the very hardest bits to get right.

It sounds simple in theory, but there’s really a lot going on!


The beginning is the most important part of the work.


The ritual of starting a public performance of any kind has two challenges: people turning up late, and drawing attention to the starting moment. This applies to a speech or presentation, but also to a gig or play, a sporting performance, or even a pre-recorded work such as a film at the cinema.


For the ‘turning up late’ problem, the default strategy is to deploy some form of less consequential entertainment, for a duration in proportion to how late people are likely to be.

With scheduled TV programming (which is still apparently a thing), people are likely to be pretty much on time, so a 30s-60s opening sequence works just great. It has a distinctive soundtrack so other people in the house who might want to watch can also hear it starting and rush to the sofa.

For a film at the cinema, people have to travel to get there so are likely to arrive later than planned, and then realise they really need the toilet, or find the queue for the popcorn is longer than they anticipated. So there’s quite a margin of error; a 15-25 minute period of adverts and trailers is about right, and of course has other benefits to the theatre.

For a gig, the calculus gets blurrier still: the venue wants to make money from drinks, and the performers want a full, warmed-up crowd, so a warm-up act of some kind about an hour before the main performance is perfect.

There are two areas where I feel like society has not happened upon an adequate solution. First, attending a theatrical performance has the same challenges as the cinema, but I’ve never seen that liminal time between arrival and performance filled well. Second, and of more direct interest to me, in a work presentation – and especially an online one – there’s an awkward period of 2-5 minutes between the first arrivals and the latecomers.

Back when we still went in to offices, I solved this problem for a particular weekly meeting by using the TV method: I played a ‘theme tune’. This had the nice effect of raising the energy level, and also signalling to those elsewhere in the office that the meeting was about to start so they should get a move on – precisely the same benefits as a TV show, but a 2-3 minute song is about right instead of 30s-60s.

Now that these meetings take place remotely, we still have that same space of time, but a theme tune does not work well at all. There’s no ambient way of reminding those who haven’t joined yet, and the music would stifle any conversation between early attendees. I still don’t know how to solve this. My very partial solution is to set my video background to something I’ve been interested recently as a soft cue for small talk!

Calling attention for the start of the performance

Since we have a gap between the early arrivals and the latecomers, we then have the second problem: signalling the true start of the main performance.

Indoor public venues have a great cue for this: lighting. Dimming the lights is instantly noticeable and clearly signifies the audience to pay attention to the stage. At the Brussels Puppet Theatre I saw a particularly powerful version of this idea: you hear three quick, sharp knocks (which quickly silences almost all of the audience), followed by three slower knocks, each of which is precisely synchronised with some, then most, then all of the house lights going out. Attention is rapidly and tightly focused!

Cinemas have a harder time deploying the lighting trick as they have generally already engaged ‘movie mode’ to show the adverts and trailers. Some will transition from partial house lights to darkness (not a particularly dramatic change), and in some European cinemas an automatic curtain draws closed over the screen and then re-opens to mark the change – kind of pointless, but effective! In other cinemas, more notably, they play a very distinctive and loud descending run of three chimes, reminiscent of the puppet theatre’s three taps.

Without those tricks, the opening moments of the film itself can also do the job. In the UK at least, after the near-continual sound from the trailers, the moment of silence while the age certification is displayed forms part of the ‘things are starting’ signal. The animated logos of production companies do the final part of focusing attention, especially when accompanied by significant sounds – 20th Century Fox’s fanfare being particularly effective.

Occasionally films may deviate from the logo pattern, at their own risk. Dancer in the Dark (2000) was intended to open with the Overture playing while curtains remained drawn across the screen; in the UK and US, where auditoriums generally lack such curtains, it instead plays out over a black screen, to the confusion of the audience.

(Side-note: for Things readers interested in all things ‘meta’, Dancer in the Dark is notable for tacitly inviting the audience to leave before the film ends. Although I consider it an excellent film, I fear everyone will experience some form of regret whichever choice they make.)

More recently Dune (2021) forces audiences to sit up and pay attention by opening immediately with a (subtitled) quote in an alien tongue; very effective in the screening I attended because the volume was so loud!

Returning to the office setting, cueing the start is another problematic area. There is at least a well-defined approach for a more formal presentation, in which a host of some sort introduces the speaker, but there is one crucial rule such hosts must know: audiences are primed to clap after hearing a name. A successful introduction therefore follows the pattern: “Please welcome serial victim, unknown assailant, and universal stand-in, the enigmatic… John Doe” <applause>.

I frequently see hosts destroy this moment simply by reversing the order: “Please welcome John Doe” <scattered uncertain claps>, “who needs no introduction” <disconcerted silence>.

For a single presenter, there does not seem to be a universal method of kicking things off, which is unfortunate. They simply have to try interrupting everyone with a generic opening remark like “May I have your attention please”.

In less formal and more raucous settings, I was introduced to a fantastically effective alternative by – I think – Tim Sheppard: you say “If you can hear me, clap” – and then you clap. You repeat this a second time, and now roughly half the audience should join you in the clap. This gets the attention of the rest of the audience, so on the third repetition, everyone joins in, and is instantly giving you their full attention. I note this also echoes the rule-of-three seen earlier with the puppet theatre’s knocks, or the cinema’s chimes.


The end is important in all things

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

Endings are a little easier: there’s only problem to address and that is the ambiguity of whether or not the show is over. But perhaps because it is less problematic, this can end up less decisive in many contexts.

In film and TV, the end-credits can make this very clear – although this is currently opening up into a battleground for new norms, as streaming services lean in to automatic credit-skipping (to the delight of some and horror of others), and as the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular is normalising the idea of the mid- or post-credits scene.

The theatre can make wonderful use of their curtain, and there’s a delight to be had in the ritual of the actors coming out to take a bow – but after that, the audience and actors both have the difficult problem of judging whether continued applause can or should be deployed to bring on further rounds of bows.

Musical performances such as a gig are very neatly divided into individual songs; the ambiguity then becomes about judging which song is the last. The level of enthusiasm an audience is likely to display is also a little too much for a band to feel comfortable standing there and accepting. Both these problems are resolved with the odd but completely accepted ritual of the band leaving the stage, then after judging the performatively correct length of applause, returning for an encore. Any real ambiguity is ultimately resolved by the raising of the house lights, which signals the ‘true end’.

I have seen this defied just once, in Björk’s 2016 performance at the Royal Albert Hall (written up nicely here). Despite performing the standard encore ritual with a radically re-worked version of Pluto, the crowd was not satisfied, I suspect because unlike other London performances, at no time had Björk addressed the crowd directly.

Despite the universal signal of house lights returning, the applause continued, and from the stalls the crowd began to sing the repeated, unresolving five-note refrain from Pluto, the song they had just heard. The singing spread through the crowd and sustained, as the Uncut article notes, “a demonstration so overwhelming that it forces Björk back out of her dressing room to offer further benedictions and thanks.”

Ending a talk or presentation, like beginning one, is much more difficult. Just as introducing a speaker by name creates a perfect moment for an audience to welcome them with applause, the audience is similarly primed to applaud at the end – but the cues are far less well-defined.

One obvious pattern to avoid: do not smoothly segue into a Q&A section. By explicitly asking the audience for something other than applause, you deny almost any chance of it!

The guiding principle to end satisfyingly is simply to ensure the audience is confident you have reached the end. If you can pull that off, and have performed well enough, a small silence while maintaining eye-contact can cue the applause. My favourite way to signify the end is to make a callback to something you mentioned at the very start; that and other ideas are nicely summarised here.

A much more overt method is to symbolically bringing your own hands together, as you deliver your concluding remark, as if clapping yourself. I saw this used by a guest-speaker in a talk about giving talks (a meta-talk); the second guest-speaker completely destroyed the applause-cueing effect by launching into a question before the applause could begin! (That guest-speaker received their comeuppance at the end of their own talk, when the first speaker vindictively deployed the very same trick).

Finally, in an online presentation, as with beginnings, endings are even more difficult than the real-life version, notably because applause simply does not function. The audience is deprived of that cathartic acknowledgement. I’m not sure there can be any substitute for it, so you must instead figure out how to reasonably wrap up and cue the audience to leave the call. Even this is not trivial to do well.

In a Google Meet call, I had some success with a radical method: since participants can kick one another off the call, I invited everyone to play an impromptu form of battle royale by kicking off as many other participants as they could, until only one remained. Precise rules and their enforcement are difficult in such a game, but it seems to work well enough – the only problem is I fear it’s so intense and interesting in its own right that the participant’s feelings about the talk itself risk being lost entirely.

Conclusions for online presentations

Despite not being my intention when I started to gather these thoughts, this leads me to a very significant conclusion: in an age where remote work seems likely to become the new norm, we really need to solve the problems of beginning and ending in online presentations!

So I’m going to propose some ideas, inspired by what works elsewhere, and will try them out myself when the opportunity next arises. I suspect that over time manual solutions will emerge, and that these will ultimately be implemented by the platforms that host online calls themselves.

Waiting for latecomers in an online presentation

While one could deploy a song or video at this point, the way it eliminates any chance for banter among early arrivals is a big problem. But I’ve not seen group call service that can neatly accommodate multiple people talking at once, so you really have to lean into that.

  • Welcome each new joiner (even if you’ve already started!)
  • Engage arrivals in some light banter. This is of course the default option, but can be hard to pull off, especially for a less confident or outgoing presenter. So…
  • … you could explicitly have someone with a suitable personality act as the host, welcoming everyone in, leading the conversation, and cuing the main presenter when the time comes
  • … or you can use my trick of setting your background to something interesting to deliberately provoke small-talk
  • More radical options: you could tell a story one word at a time; each new arrival must add a new word, and everyone can give a recap of the story so far by saying their own words in turn. Sounds fun, but probably doesn’t work at small or large scales… and possibly nowhere in between either?
  • Challenge arrivals to name something (e.g. an animal that begins with ‘P’) that nobody else has so far said. This tacitly encourages early arrival and penalises latecomers, possibly a good thing. Again, may not work at small or large scales, but a middle-ground where this works is a bit more plausible.
  • Hold an informal vote on something low-stakes and binary; ask each member their vote as they arrive and keep a tally (e.g. “Cats vs dogs” or “Time is endless vs Time is finite”)
  • Sing a song that works in rounds; each new participant can join in at the right moment. Probably requires a very specific group of people for this to work, but perhaps if you established it as a routine…
  • Somehow have people arrive directly into small break-out rooms; then with a timed warning bring them back to the main room and begin!

Signalling the start of an online presentation

Depending on which method was chosen above, this may become easier… or harder. Given the way attention is divided, I think an audio cue is most likely to work.

  • Deploy the rule of three. Clapping or knocking seems too aggressive; playing a recorded three-note chime could work (like this). Judging the volume level correctly may be a challenge, but perhaps you test that out with the very first arrivals?
  • A more elaborate version of this would be to deploy an actual (brief) musical intro, probably more in the style of a Radio Jingle. This again has the volume challenge, and also requires more manual preparation – but perhaps for a meeting that repeats every week it could work well
  • You could deploy a ‘manual jingle’ – by singing something sweet and short! Sure to gain attention, but not an approach that would work for everyone.
  • Try to replicate the ‘if you can hear me, clap’ trick… replicating it exactly may or may not work; perhaps something more like ‘if you can hear me, touch your nose’ would be better? It depends on the default visual layout of the call, I suppose.
  • Failing all these, one could perhaps develop a very specific introductory sentence, long enough that any excess banter could be shut down, but banal enough that it doesn’t matter if you miss the first half of it. I’m not sure there’s a way to do this that wouldn’t come across as rude though. Perhaps something like “I’m going to begin the presentation in 8 seconds, in 7 seconds, in 6 seconds, in 5 seconds I’m going to begin the presentation, 3, 2, 1, now. Hello!”

Signalling the end of an online presentation

Other than notes on how to end a talk in general, the key problems here are to replace applause, and to cue the final end of the call.

  • If you started with a short musical cue, perhaps you could also signal the end the same way
  • “So, if you learned something from this presentation, please show that by waving at the camera – but if you’re still wondering about something I said, instead please stroke your chin and say ‘hmmmm'” (this gives a ritualised group activity and also segues nicely into Q&A)
  • Lean into the format and just say “mike drop!” and leave the call abruptly – either by walking off, or hanging up. Maybe re-join 5 seconds later for Q&A.
  • “That’s the end! Please show your appreciation by rapidly turning your video feed on and off”
  • Not repeatable, but for fun you could look off to one side and say “that looks like smoke…” under your breath, then deliver your final line in a slightly hurried way with an unconvinced smile before running off camera.

Closing notes

Ed pointed out to me that streamers address these problems online in a few interesting ways – running other videos as warm-up entertainment, or conducting text-based games for the waiting/arriving audience. However, these are quite specific to the streaming set-up, and I don’t think they can easily be used for the online work meetings I’m trying to solve for.

A new and much harder the challenge is also becoming more common: presentations where the audience a mix of those physically present and others joining online. In the absence of good online solutions, I don’t know where to start with solving the start and end of these meetings.

Finally, a side observation: arriving late to online meetings doesn’t feel as bad as arriving later to a physical one. However, the irritation at someone arriving late to your meeting is just as bad either way.

Consider arriving for online meetings early!

Transmission ends


One Thing at a Time

This blog began as an email newsletter, collecting a few links to things I found interesting that week. As my commentary on these links lengthened, it made more sense as a blog (as well as a newsletter).

Like a fantasy author in the late stages of a series of books, updates are getting both longer and further apart, and now that 2 years have passed since the last update, it’s clearly time for a change.

So, a simple rule: from now on, One Thing at a Time.

After a (currently undefined) period of time or number of Things, I’ll aggregate them in a newsletter for the usual recipients and possibly a post. Let’s see how that goes!