Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Hearty Scare – One Year (and 80 lbs) Later

It was exactly one year ago that we were hit with an ice storm. That day I walked in the snow to pick up my son from daycare, only to find he had pink-eye. I decided to carry him the three blocks to the nearby walk-in clinic. When I arrived I had trouble breathing and was feeling a tightness in my chest. My speech-delayed son kept asking over and over, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”

The receptionist took his lead and asked me if I was okay, and when I told her what I was experiencing, she quickly ushered me into one of the examining rooms. They took my blood pressure... 198/120. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 and high blood pressure is anything above 140/90. They promptly called 9-1-1. After my wife and daughter arrived to look after my son, I was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. Several blood tests and ECGs later, the Cardiologist decided I should have an angiogram “just to be safe”.

During this procedure they discovered that my Right Coronary Artery was 99% blocked and “days away from a full cardiac arrest.” So they went ahead and put a stent in the artery to open the block. Less than a week before Christmas, I was given a unique present... a second chance.

At the time my weight was 270 lbs. “Morbidly obese.” The Cardiologist ordered me to get my weight down. He enrolled me into a cardiac rehab program and, for the sake of my family, I decided to take it seriously. I researched heart healthy meals, re-learned how to grocery shop by reading labels and made a change to heart-healthy living. It took an adjustment and dedication but in the end, it actually reduced the cost of our weekly grocery bill.  

One month later, I was down 25 lbs. Two months later, I was down 35 lbs. Three months later, I was down 40 lbs. My Cardiologist was impressed with my progress when I had reached 30 lbs. He said I had added years to my life and if I could get my own weight below 200 lbs, I’ll have added decades to my life.

So now, one year to the day since I was rushed to the hospital, I’m at 190 lbs. I’ve lost a total of 80 lbs, which is the combined weight of my 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. I continue to live heart-healthy and plan to lose more weight and tone up. Since I’m a writer, my Cardiologist suggested I write a book about my journey and how I lost the weight through heart-healthy living. It wasn’t a bad suggestion. When I began researching it for myself, I had collected data from several sources and discovered that finding truly “heart-healthy” meals was a challenge.

So I continue to take his advice and have begun writing this book, which will include the steps I took to make the change and some recipes for heart-healthy meals... and snacks. (Snacks are the hardest.) This book will be dedicated to my family – especially my son. If it wasn’t for the sudden detour to the walk-in clinic, I would have likely died while shoveling the driveway during the ice storm. I will be forever grateful for his pink-eye.     

Before and after - exactly one year and 80 lbs later.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Jack the Ripper Identified by DNA? Not Bloody Likely!

Today several of my friends forwarded an article entitled, The Ripper Unmasked: DNA Identify Britain's Most Notorious Criminal to me and asked what my thoughts were. I have researched the Ripper murders in the past for a number of projects and at first glance my thoughts were skeptical.

After all, there have been many such claims over the years. In 1976 there was the novel Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, where Stephen Knight accuses Victorian painter Walter Sickert as the Ripper, acting as part of a Royal Conspiracy. Knight's conclusions have been disproved by many experts. Knight fudged much of his evidence, but then was too caught up in the success of the book to retract his information. Then in 1992 there were the James Maybrick (a Victorian cotton merchant) diaries that were published as The Diary of Jack the Ripper. Though the debate continues, it is believed to be a hoax. Recently in 2002, Patricia Cornwell revisited the idea of Walter Sickert as the suspect in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. The pieces of evidence that she presented had already been dismissed as hoaxes in the past. So I did not have high hopes for this latest revelation that DNA has proven the Ripper's identity.

First and foremost, let's look at the source of the new DNA evidence. Russell Edwards claims to have purchased the blood soaked shawl at an auction house in 2007, a full 119 years after the Ripper murders took place. If it is indeed real, that's quite a find that it had not been washed in over a century. (Though the photograph in the article shows an extremely well-preserved item of contrasting cloth with fold-lines in it. I would have imagined that any remnants of century-old blood would have damaged it more over time.) Still, I try to keep an open mind. Stranger things have been found. The shawl was said to be in two sections, "mostly blue and dark brown, with a delicate pattern of Michaelmas daisies – red, ochre and gold – at either end."  Describes a typical Victorian pattern so it sounded plausible from the era.

The article went on to state: "It was said to have been found next to the body of one of the Ripper’s victims, Catherine Eddowes, and soaked in her blood. There was no evidence for its provenance, although after the auction I obtained a letter from its previous owner who claimed his ancestor had been a police officer present at the murder scene and had taken it from there."

Wait! What? Here we have Russell Edwards admit plainly, "There was no evidence for its provenance" so Edwards had no proof it was authentic when he bought it. However, after he paid for it he received a letter from the shawl's previous owner "who claimed his ancestor had been a police officer present at the murder scene and had taken it from there."

Really? This is the evidence of authenticity? A simple letter in which the shawl's previous owner claims his ancestor had been an officer present at the murder scene? Red flags went up on this paragraph. In any investigation today, the chain of evidence is key. We have evidence bags and each time the evidence is handled it is signed by the investigating officer, the coroner, the lawyers, etc.
In The Ripper's time, they made hand drawings and kept notes and lists.

Well, I happen to have many of these hand drawings, notes and lists, as they appear in several publications.

Let us examine who was at the scene of the crime. Police Constable Edward Watkins discovered Catherine Eddowes' body in Mitre Square at 1:45am on September 30, 1888 and Dr. Frederick Gordon Brown, the London police surgeon who was called in to the murder scene, arrived at 2:00am. Inspector Collard arrived a few minutes later, and Detective Constables Halse, Marriott, and Outram searched the surrounding area.
Edwards claims that "Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson, asked his superiors if he could take it home to give to his wife."  However, there was no Amos Simpson at the scene of the crime.

Now let's look at what was at the crime scene. The notes taken by Police Constable Edward Watkins and Dr. Frederick Gordon Brown, who were the first to arrive, indicate that at the time of her murder Catherine Eddowes had:

Black straw bonnet trimmed in green and black velvet with black beads. Black strings, worn tied to the head.
Black cloth jacket trimmed around the collar and cuffs with imitation fur and around the pockets in black silk braid and fur. Large metal buttons.
Dark green chintz skirt, 3 flounces, brown button on waistband. 
Man's white vest, matching buttons down front.
Brown linsey bodice, black velvet collar with brown buttons down front
Grey stuff petticoat with white waistband
Very old green alpaca skirt (worn as undergarment)
Very old ragged blue skirt with red flounces, light twill lining (worn as undergarment)
White calico chemise
No drawers or stays
Pair of men's lace up boots, mohair laces. Right boot repaired with red thread
1 piece of red gauze silk worn as a neckerchief
1 large white pocket handkerchief
1 large white cotton handkerchief with red and white bird's eye border
2 unbleached calico pockets, tape strings
1 blue stripe bed ticking pocket
Brown ribbed knee stockings, darned at the feet with white cotton

Possessions:
2 small blue bags made of bed ticking
2 short black clay pipes
1 tin box containing tea
1 tin box containing sugar
1 tin matchbox, empty
12 pieces white rag, some slightly bloodstained
1 piece coarse linen, white
1 piece of blue and white shirting, 3 cornered
1 piece red flannel with pins and needles
6 pieces soap
1 small tooth comb
1 white handle table knife
1 metal teaspoon
1 red leather cigarette case with white metal fittings
1 ball hemp
1 piece of old white apron with repair
Several buttons and a thimble
Mustard tin containing two pawn tickets, One in the name of Emily Birrell, 52 White's Row, dated August 31, 9d for a man's flannel shirt. The other is in the name of Jane Kelly of 6 Dorset Street and dated September 28, 2S for a pair of men's boots. Both addresses are false.
Printed handbill and according to a press report- a printed card for 'Frank Carter,305,Bethnal Green Road
Portion of a pair of spectacles
1 red mitten

As you can see it is a very detailed list from the crime scene and there is no mention of any kind of shawl at all.

So I have trouble accepting any of Russell Edwards' theories, when the authenticity of his evidence is in question and does not appear to be from the very crime scene he claims.

Catherine Eddowes - Crime Scene Sketch from Scotland Yard Files


----
Alexander Galant was the historical researcher for the New York Times Best Seller 'Dracula the Un-Dead' (in which the Ripper murders were woven into the back story) and author of the award-winning historical thriller Depth of Deception (A Titanic Murder Mystery).

Alexander has a fictional Ripper novel in the works.




Thursday, 31 July 2014

Making of a Mini-Clone Dance Video from an Orphan Black Cloneclub Fan's Suggestion

It was exactly one month ago that we posted the video of our daughter Cynthia doing a parody of the 4-Clone Dance party from the season two finale of Orphan Black. I've retold the story behind it enough times that I've decided to blog about it.

Cynthia & Tatiana on the set of Orphan Black
First of all I should mention that my daughter, Cynthia Galant is fortunate to have been cast in a small role in the TV series 'Orphan Black'. If you don't know the show, I highly recommend you checking it out. It's terrific. Original, great characters, and very exciting. Tatiana Maslany plays several clones in the show and each one has a completely different look and personality. I can't say enough good things about her, the show and its cast and crew. Even if my daughter wasn't involved with the show I'd be a fan.

My daughter has played the younger version of one of the clones named Rachel and another, new clone named Charlotte. I will say nothing else in case you haven't seen the show or that episode yet.

After season two's finale aired, the cast and crew thanked the support of the fans with photos specifically for Cloneclub (the nickname for the fans of Orphan Black). Cynthia modeled hers after Tatiana's pose from last year, and gave herself the moniker 'mini-clone' when signing her name.



There were a lot of positive comments and appreciation from the fans. One sent me a message saying they'd love to see Cynthia in a webseries dressed up as a mini version of all the clones. I read it aloud to my family and we all thought that it would be fun, but from being in show business for a while, we knew that unions and copyrights would make it problematic. We didn't want to accidentally infringe on any cool ideas that the writers of Orphan Black might use in the future, either.

Now, I should mention that even though my daughter is in the show and there is another adorable little actress, Skyler Wexler, who is about the same age and plays the daughter of a clone, this show is not for kids to watch. So, as a responsible parent, my daughter has never seen a full episode. She has been shown the scenes she's in, and select clips that I thought she would enjoy (her favorite is Helena's Sugar Sugar). One of those was the 4-clone dance party in the season two finale. It was a great moment in the show where Tatiana Maslany plays four of the clones dancing together. It is amazing to watch.

When I found the 'making of Orphan Black's 4 Clone Dance Party on YouTube, I showed it to my daughter. This is a montage worth watching. Even if you've never seen an episode of the show you can marvel at the work behind making four clones played by the same actress dance together:


My daughter watched this video over and over and over and over again. She then asked me, "Can we do a video of me dancing like this?"

I looked up to ask her what she meant and saw her dancing smoothly and gracefully like Cosima, then suddenly switched to the prissy, reserved bops of Allison, then the funky shoulder sways of Sarah and then the frenetic frenzy of Helena... all within a few bars.  I laughed because I forget how good of a mimic my daughter can be. It was just too good not to share.

Cynthia Galant as Helena
I thought about that for a moment. Not only would this be a fun way for Cynthia to 'play' the grown-up clones, but also a learning experience in case she has to do blue- or green-screen work for the show.
I said, "Sure! A parody of the dance would be funny and easy to do."

Did I say 'easy'?

Well, my wife pooled the costumes together from what we had around the house, including wigs we had in storage. We only needed to buy the one wig for Helena which was an 80's Rocker Wig (ala Twisted Sister) for $12.00 at a party store. Then on one of our hottest days of the summer so far, I set up my green-screen and 1K lights in our living room. Yes, we have odd costume pieces, wigs and our own green-screen... doesn't everyone?

Since we didn't have a 'Felix' for the video, we decided to honor his character by having a couple of pieces of 'his' art as set dressing. Cynthia and my wife recreated two of the pieces together. Compare the two videos and see if you can find the two that they chose.

Cynthia Galant as Sarah (Green-screen)
We quickly decided where each clone needed to be, practiced a few times with the same music as the original (Water Prayer Rasta Mix -  Adham Shaikh) and shot it all in an afternoon. One very long afternoon. Unlike the one in the episode, I did not include any camera movements because I don't have the resources of Intelligent Creatures (the visual FX company for Orphan Black). We also didn't have any close-ups to worry about. When the shooting was complete and my daughter had changed her hair, costumes and make-up five times, she exclaimed, "Tatiana does this every week??"
Cynthia suddenly had a whole new appreciation for what Tatiana goes through and how much work the hair, make-up and costume department do to achieve the different looks.

After two days of editing on my laptop using HitFilm 2 Ultimate to composite the different layers, I uploaded it to YouTube. We had hoped to get 300 views, mostly from our friends and family and a few fans. The first to 'like' it, comment and share it was BBC America who produces Orphan Black. The second was Orphan Black itself, who also put it on their Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. By the end of the first day we had 10,000 views. We are now up to 45,000 views and counting. There have been several blogs and articles about the video and even an animated gif made by a fan comparing the two routines on Tumblr (click here to view).
We had no idea how many Cloneclub fans there were in the world until I started seeing the stats from the video. It has been viewed and shared in over 75 different countries - even places I didn't think would watch Orphan Black... like the Middle East. We think this is wonderful!

If you haven't seen it, here is Cynthia's 55-second version - The Mini-Clone Dance Parody:

The very last frame shows the 5 clones, including Rachel scowling at them. We had originally planned to do a gag near the end of the routine where Rachel disapproves of the dancing shenanigans, but Cynthia's mimicking of the dance was so good that I didn't want to interrupt it - so I cut that idea during the editing.

Here is a still of Cynthia in Rachel's costume. Those who have seen the finale of season two will get the inside joke in this photo:

Cynthia Galant as Rachel (green-screen)


It has been awesome to find so many Mini-clone tributes from Cloneclub fans (including original art). Many can be found here:  https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/charlotte-bowles

Thanks to everyone, and looking forward to season three! And if you haven't watched the show, seasons one and two are available on DVD/Blu-Ray and iTunes.



Thursday, 6 March 2014

Toronto Trivia - History Behind the Yellow & Blue Street Signs

Toronto celebrates its 180th Birthday and to commemorate it, I thought I'd share a piece of historical trivia.

Some Torontonians may recall seeing many street signs like the one pictured below. The history behind their design goes back to the early days of Toronto, before the invention of the automobile. 

From the very beginning when Toronto was still called 'York' the streets were in a grid running north/south and east/west. 

As anyone coming up from the subway can tell you, it's easy to get turned around at an intersection and it can take a few moments to figure out which direction you're facing. I remember when I first moved to Toronto how catching a glimpse of the CN Tower would tip me off to the fact that I was going the wrong way.

In the 1800s they didn't have the CN Tower (or any other tall buildings) as markers, so the people of Toronto came up with the idea of painting two different colours on their street signs:

Yellow signs:  For the streets running east / west. Yellow like the sun which travels east to west. 

Blue signs: For the streets running north / south.  Blue representing water, like the Toronto harbour where merchants and farmers went to do business.

Since 1967, the major intersections like Yonge/Bloor, Jarvis/King, Eglinton/Mt. Pleasant, etc, continued the colour scheme in illuminated signs that could be seen better on winter nights.

Unfortunately, LED lights didn't exist yet so incandescent bulbs were used. The bulbs had to be replaced often and were subject to short circuit with weather.  During the late 1990's, unaware of its historical significance, the City of Toronto began to phase out these illuminated signs. 

The only one left is the one pictured above at Bay & Queen. 





Alexander Galant is the author & historical researcher of Depth of Deception (A Titanic Murder Mystery)







Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Making Washable Fake Stage Blood FX

Recently I was directing a stage production of "You'll Get Used to It! The War Show" by Peter Colley (a play with music set in World War II) and I wanted to have authentic looking blood for some of the death scenes. The staff at the theatre were concerned with blood staining the stage, and the costumers were protective of the authentic wool WWII uniforms that the actors were wearing.

Fortunately, I used to be a Special Effects artist in my youth and used to make my own blood, blood capsules and other fun prosthetics for stage and film.

So just before we moved into the theatre I spent (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend making washable stage blood. My eight-year-old daughter wanted to help and was my assistant during the process.

The best part of this fake blood is that it is washable from clothes and skin, and is completely edible (which works great for blood capsules).

INGREDIENTS:

Corn Syrup  - (500ml) 2 cups, 2 tbsp (clear is better for this effect)
Chocolate Syrup - 1/2 cup
Hot Water - 1/3 cup
Cold Water - 1/8 cup
Corn Starch - 1/2 tbsp (heaping)
Coffee Mate - 1 tbsp (heaping) (Yes, CoffeeMate - This is the ingredient that makes the blood washable)
Red Food Colouring - 1 tsp
Yellow Food Colouring  - 1/3 tsp or a drop *

* Note: Make sure your actor is not allergic to corn, MSG, Red #2 or Yellow #5.

Pour the corn syrup and chocolate syrup into a pot and start to heat on medium setting.


While that's heating, use 1/8 cup of cold water to dissolve the corn starch in a small bowl.

In another bowl use the 1/3 cup hot water to dissolve the Coffee Mate. Once the Coffee Mate is dissolved add in the food colouring.

Mix the food colouring into the Coffee Mate:

Add both the dissolved corn starch and the coloured Coffee Mate mix to the pot:

Bring to a slow boil. It does not need to cook very long, but the high heat combines the ingredients far better than no heat at all:

The result is pretty remarkable. Anyone who has ever used food colouring knows how badly it stains. Here I put a drop of the newly made fake blood on my hand (on left in center of palm) as well as a drop of food colouring on its own (on right - near by fingers):

Then simply wiped both off with a paper towel. As you can see the food colouring stained my hand but there is no trace of the fake blood:

During the run of the show, any of the blood that dripped on the costume was cleaned off with a Baby Wipe.

This recipe can be doubled or reduced according to needs. 

This fake blood also tastes good on an ice cream sundae!

Blood Capsules

For the show, we also had one of the characters cough up blood after being shot. Since we had edible fake blood we made our own blood capsules for the actor to use in his mouth. 

First I purchased a small quantity of empty capsules from a local pharmacy:

Using an eye dropper we carefully put our fake blood into the larger side of the empty capsule:

Then capped it with the small side of the capsule:

The capsule is now ready to be used. It will not dissolve the capsule, but the capsule will melt within a minute of being put in the mouth, so be aware of the need to block a way of putting it in the mouth within that timeframe. It will last longer if the capsule was made recently, as opposed to a few days earlier, but not much. You can experiment to see what works best for your production. 

Tasty and won't stain. (Ice cream optional)