A PhD in Cutting Wood

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September 17, 2012 by raconteurmagazine

By James Bovington

I must not write about X-Factor. I made a promise.

It’s such awful dreck, it causes me physical discomfort. I only happened to catch a couple of seconds of it while channel-hopping and I jerked back away from the screen so fast I gave myself whiplash, just to be further from it.

I had to calm myself down, so I flipped on over to a How Stuff WorksHow it’s Made double-bill(Discovery Channel) and learned about wood.

If you’ve never watched either I’ll do my best to enlighten you; they are shows in the vein of Mythbusters. The difference between them is the lack of live hosts in the former, opting instead for a voice-over narration on top of footage of the processes involved. Also, less dubious science and explosions.

How Stuff Works is an excellent screen saver type show; you can have it on in the background while other things occupy your attention. (Up to a point, anyway; I imagine if you were in the throes of passion then footage of a lumber-mill with a voice-over explaining how many logs they chop in one hour would be quite distracting. Until the narrator man starts explaining how nails work, that is, because he uses the word ‘penetration’ a couple of times and one of the CG diagrams could be pretty saucy if you catch it in your peripheral vision, while squinting. You pervert.)

The voice-over is relaxed and conversational, and the footage itself isn’t subject to the ‘MTV Editing’ disease that ruined television in the 90’s. There are a couple of shots that last less than three seconds, sure, but I suppose you’re limited by your subject. If you want to film a machine performing an action, you really have to wait for it to finish before you can do anything else. Like old people at supermarket self-checkouts, but more interesting. That means if it only takes two seconds, you only get two seconds of shot that’s worth using. Maybe four if you show it from another angle.

I know I keep mentioning the lumber-mill episode, but there are loads of others, and all of them are pretty interesting. Not life-changingly fascinating, I’m certainly not going to run out and get a PhD in cutting wood, but I also had no idea how mildly interesting the workings of a lumber-mill actually were.

How it’s Made is, to my mind, slightly better. Split into a few chunks over an hour, it shows various things being made (because the marketing department were obviously up all night working on the name of the show), although because of that it’s difficult to remember what was in one episode and what was in other. I’m pretty sure the episode I watched was about metal cogs, bubblegum and springs, but I could be wrong.

Basically it’s the same as …Works; a level, relaxing voice-over takes us through the process of making gumballs, over shots of the people and machines doing their thing. I just like it more because I’d rather know how something like a spring is made than how some Canadians cut wood.

If you do have a spare day you should seek it out. I’m sure you could find most of it on YouTube if you haven’t got Discovery. I say a day because these shows are televisual super-crack. Once you start it’s impossible to stop watching until you pass out on the sofa and wake up with a brain full of esoteric knowledge.

If you think any of this sounds boring, by the way, then you’re probably a waste of brain-matter. Learning is always fun. Plus, do you know how bubblegum is made? I do. Springs, too. I also know what happens to a tree after it’s cut down and before it becomes some 2-by-4s. You don’t, because that’s ‘boring’.

Tell you what, why don’t you flip back to X-Factor? It’s probably more your speed. There’s screaming and lasers and lots of people who sound exactly the same, adopting awful pan-American accents even though they’re from Clapham. Plus there’s more lasers and Tulisa and that bloke from Take That and everybody’s Irish uncle and more screaming.

I’ll be over here, learning about cogs.

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