ProFile: The Decorators

No one has been flying Revolution four-line kites in a team longer than London-based The Decorators… Featuring a veritable who’s who of team rotating members over their 20+ year history, they are still creating and pushing the envelope of Rev team flying and have served as an inspiration to many of the teams and fliers worldwide.

Team founders Felix Mottram and Jacob Twyford spent some time on the phone with us here at KiteLife to talk about their team’s history, learning to fly Revolution kites, competition versus exhibition, the European kite scene, grid-style mega-flies and other topics.

Thanks for taking time to chat. Why don’t you begin by telling me how you met?

Jacob: We both work in an art gallery in the west end of London. That’s how we met, 28 years ago.

Are either of you artists yourselves?

Felix: By training, I did a painting course at St. Martins (Saint Martins College of Art and Design) from 1973 to 1976.

Jacob: I trained as a musician but my father is a sculptor and my mother was an art teacher, so I kind of fell into it after music college.

Were you both kite fliers when you met?

Jacob: Felix was and I wasn’t. I got curious, because he was telling me about these single-line Japanese fighter kites that he was flying at the time. So he invited me along to a festival and we’ve been flying kites together ever since. We started of flying the Japanese fighting kites and that’s when we teamed up and that’s when we first became called, “The Decorators.” So we weren’t even flying two-line kites at that time.

Were those rokkaku kites?

Felix: Yes.

Jacob: There was quite a friendly competition going on in the UK at that time and they used to fly two sizes. They’d fly them up to about three and a half to four feet, individually. So then, you just competed as yourself. But they also few bigger ones, like six-, seven-, eight-foot kites. And there, you need a couple or three people in a team. So that’s how we teamed up, to fly in the team competition.

What kind of line did you use?

Felix: Polyester line.

Jacob: It wasn’t the Indian manja with ground glass on it, because when the kites get up to that size, the friction is enough to cut a polyester line. It would be pretty hard to handle a glass-coated line when they’re pulling like rokkakus do. They pull like a train!

Tell us about the transition from kite fighting to kite ballet.

Felix: In 1989, it started with a new interest in two-line kites.

Jacob: We used to fly kites every weekend up on Blackheath, which is an area in southeast London up above the river. It’s actually very close to where they had all the equestrian events during the 2012 Olympics. And on the top of the hill is a nice open common, called Blackheath. I remember clearly the first time we were introduced to a tiny little kite, made by a great kite flier from Yorkshire called Tim Benson, it was called the Scorcher. And it was a guy called Tony Cartwright, I think he had two. And he lent them to us to have a go on them. We loved it. They would zip around the sky. And Tony said, “Of course, you could never fly these in teams,” and we took that as a bit of a challenge. I think we ordered up three or even four from Tim Benson and proceeded to try to fly them in a team, which was a bit insane, really, but that’s how we got into two-line flying.

How soon were you able to fly the dual-line kites in public performance?

Felix: We quickly asked Tim Benson to make us some slightly larger kites. He had, I think, just developed his first six-foot kite, which was called the Phantom

Jacob: It was certainly the first good European kite to challenge kites from the States. It’s still made today. It is a beautiful, beautiful kite that’s still flown by a lot of people. Tim is a remarkable kite maker. He just got it. He’d only been making them for maybe a year and had perhaps made two dozen of them in total. We asked him to make a kind of special set for us, in a white graphic with a black and a color stripe.

That sort of set the mark because it was the first time anyone had asked him to make a team set of kites. And it’s really how we met Jørgen Møeller Hansen and became so involved with him in our presentation. He liked the design that we’d had Tim do. It was kind of sympathetic with what he was doing. So we met him in Berlin, I think, in 1989, very early on. And he went on to design all our revolution skins up to the present day.

So, it was quite quick to the point where we were showing off, if you like, with them (the Phantom kites) and flying them in a team. There weren’t a lot of other people doing it at that time. The sport of two-line flying was right in its infancy. There’d been a craze for two-line kites back in the 70s and then it kind of died out, as these things do. It was the development of the much more modern, swept-wing, two-line steerable kite that suddenly spurred the possibility of flying much more accurately with much more speed control.

The Americans got on it pretty quick. It was only just beginning to emerge, the idea that kite fliers might get involved in it in the UK and in Europe at that time. So we were right in there early. So festival organizers were keen for us to show up and show what could be done with two-line kites. So we got a lot of breaks that way.

Was it just the two of you then?

Felix: No. We had co-opted Romney (Johnstone) in 1988 on the rokkaku side of things. In 1989 we had Oliver Webster, son of George Webster, who is a well-known personality in the UK flying scene.

Jacob: So basically there were four of us.

Felix: Later, a gentleman called, Tim Padget flew with us for a short while, into 1991, when we went to Malaysia. By that time, in 1991, we had very definitely started to fly the Revolution kite, the Rev. 1 and certainly by the end of 1991 we were concentrating on the Revolution kite. I can remember particularly the event at Kolding in Denmark, where on that occasion there were just the three of us, Romney, Jacob and myself, we had a fantastic time in Demark, flying alongside Jørgen Møeller Hansen.

How and when did you take on the name, “The Decorators?”

Felix: Ron Dell named us The Decorators, in fact The Deptford Decorators, Deptford being an area local to Blackheath where we first regularly flew. This was on account of us adopting a team uniform, which was a white boiler suit, in order that we could recognize each other on the rokkaku fighting field.

What kind of suit?

Jacob: A painter’s overall.

Felix: A jump suit. It was cheap.

So you got named The Decorators because you were wearing the clothing that a house painter would wear.

Felix: Exactly.

Do you still wear it?

Felix: No we don’t. It faded away a long, long time ago. We gave up on uniforms and have often been told since that we are not behaving professionally by not having a uniform.

When did you first learn of the Revolution kite?

Felix: When it first became available commercially in the UK, I think I got number two in the country. I suspect that Jake got number three. We were, at that time, sort of looking to try anything, I think, because it was a real passion or interest. We saw one of the American kite fliers who came across in 1990 and demonstrated the kite. It was at that time called the Neos Omega. I’m desperately trying to remember the name of the flier. Suffice to say we saw the kite as soon as it was really there and very quickly sort of got hold of the kite and started to fly it.

Had ever had your hands on one before you bought it?

Felix: I’m sure I didn’t actually fly it when I saw it. And so, when I actually got the kite, it was with absolutely no previous experience. I can remember going up to Blackheath and flying the kite in 180s from facing upwards to facing downwards on the ground, turn it over, facing upwards, face downwards on the ground, repeatedly, certainly for the first day’s flying. This is an experience, of course, which we’ve seen with new fliers subsequently, pretty much every time. It’s a great experience, being able to fly it.

Some of the published history on the Revolution indicates that learning the kite was a bit of a struggle for some of its first buyers and that’s why Revolution started putting a training video in the package. That’s a struggle you apparently did not experience.

Felix: I think I relished the struggle, in the way that I relished learning how to make a single-line kite fly the direction I wanted it to. With single-line fighter kites, you only have one line and you can turn it and make it move in the direction you want to, once you get to grips with it. Latterly, Jørgen Møeller Hansen said, “Flying a four-line kite’s easy, because you have your hands on the bridle.” I think that if you can grasp the concept, it comes easily. And it comes quite easily to people who haven’t flown two-line kites. I was up on Blackheath last weekend and a young lad came up and one of the people I was flying with gave him the kite and within 10 minutes he was flying in a way that he was reading the feedback from the kite. He would move his arms around and it was beginning to work for him. If you don’t have any preconceptions, it can work quite easily.

As a dual-line flier for three or four years, the last time I tried a Rev, I had trouble overcoming the urge to pull and push. Perhaps I needed handcuffs on my wrists.

Felix: This is one of the slightly contentious issues about the interface between two-line and four-line flying. In fact, we find that long arm movements are very, very useful in Revolution flying but in a slightly different context. Controlling the bridle, as in, having your hands on the bridle, means that at certain times you need to adopt a bow-and-arrow attitude in order to keep the kite in the right position in the sky. So to say you should tie up your wrists together is only a short-term solution at the beginning of the learning curve.

Let’s take that path a little further. Do you have any other advice for either new Rev. fliers or people who might be transitioning from dual-line kites?

Felix: One of the things that has occurred over the years is that we’ve picked up little nuggets of advice from various fliers. I think Alan Nagao was with us in 1991 in Berck Plage and he said something along the lines of, “Just do it. Don’t even think about it. If you want to fly inverted, lateral moves across the window, don’t think about it, just fly it.” Lee Sedgwick came up with a little pointer about tightening the bungees of the sails. The way that the sails are presented by Revolution, the idea is, I think, that they want to protect the fabric of the kite by leaving the bungees a little big springy. But if you tighten up the sails after you’ve got over the initial learning curve, it becomes a much, much easier kite to fly. We’ve always, I think, tried to pass those little indications on to new fliers that we meet. At the recent Portsmouth event, I suggested to one of the teams that maybe they should tighten their bungees and they were very pleased with the difference that they found when they’d made the adjustment.

Jacob: If I’m presented with a new flier, what I tend to do is try and break it down into very simple moves. So the first thing I would do is ask them to stand with their wrists pretty much parallel. I try to get them to get the kite to take off from the ground, stop about half way up and then back it down to the ground. Some people can do that within five minutes; sometimes it can take an hour and a half. Once they can do that, then I normally move to going up and then facing left and stopping and then back to the ground, going up, facing right and then back to the ground. Even by that point, they’re beginning to learn that they have to move their wrists apart and it’s beginning to unlock that idea that your wrists have to be tied together. After that, they quickly progress. If they can hover the kite and they can control it left and right, pretty soon, they’ll be carving figure eights and doing everything else – and crashing, of course, but that’s all part of it as well. And you notice that when they start, they crash pretty hard. It’s when they start to crash quite softly that you realize that they’re really beginning to crack it.

Better crashes mean a better flier! How long did it take to become proficient enough on the Revolution for team flying and when did you first fly them in public performance?

Felix: It was very, very quick.

Jacob: It was kind of in parallel with the two-line kites. It was an obvious thing to do, really, because we would fly the two-line kites as a team.

The other thing was that we caused a few ripples as a two-line team. When we started, we looked at other teams that were flying. There were a couple of orthodoxies in two-line flying that we, coming in with completely fresh eyes, thought were a bit crazy. One of those was that the person calling (maneuvers) always stood on the right-hand side of the team, as you look at the kites. The other one was that they all flew on slightly different length lines. So the lead flier would have longer lines than the guy behind him, and then progressively shorter. So the guy at the back could have lines that were eight or ten feet shorter than the guy at the front. We thought, “This is crazy!” Kites don’t always fly from the left to the right. They turn around and go the other way.

And so we started challenging a few of those ideas. And one of the things that we did early on was to decide that the sensible thing was for everybody to fly on the same length of lines and if you wanted a difference in line length, you just stood slightly behind the guy in front, rather than having shorter lines than him. Of course, that meant that you could then reverse the team very easily and lead from either end, which meant that you could have a completely symmetrical attitude to routine planning.

Routines had always been drawn from the left to the right. So you would enter a routine from the left, you’d do your figure and you exit stage right. We were thinking you could come in from either side and it was a very much more symmetrical thing. So when the Revolutions came along, which is a kite that doesn’t always have to fly forward, it can fly backwards and it can stop, we were already in a very good place, in terms of the way we were thinking about hooking maneuvers together. The Revolution seemed like a very logical kite for us, because it had the symmetricality about it. And it wasn’t about “following” maneuvers, really. We’d already tried to cut out as many just plain following maneuvers as possible in our two-line routines. The Revolution allowed us to cut them out almost 100 percent.

When did you stop performing with dual-line kites in favor of the Revolution kite?

Felix: In 1992, we went to Barcelona for the pre-Olympic events there. We had three or four days in which we just flew the Revolution kites. Jørgen was there flying his kites. We had the most amazing time. That was compared to the setup in competition events, where you have your five-minute fly and that’s it, pretty much, for the day.

Jacob: That Barcelona event was pivotal. At that time, we’d been flying competition in Europe for a couple of years. In fact, we’d rather flukely won the European championship, in 1991, I think. We were due to go to a place in England called, Western-super-Mare, where they were going to hold the European Championships that year. The real turning point was about three o’clock in the morning, somewhere off the Ramblas in Barcelona, where we ended up dancing, in conga fashion, around the restaurant, singing, “We’re not going to Western-super-nightmare.” It was at that point that we decided that competition was really cramping our style; a.) because there was at that time only two-line competition and b.) as Felix said, we’d been going to competitions where there was very little space to practice. So you’d basically wait around all day to fly for three minutes and it was all over. Whereas with the Revs. (in exhibition events), we could be flying from 10 o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night. So we decided we could achieve much more and, crucially, that we would have much more freedom, outside competition. We could just go and fly and do anything we liked.

Felix: After the May event in Barcelona, in June, we went to Scheveningen, in Holland and flew Revolutions in the single-line arena for the duration. At the end of the event, we were awarded the prize for the best team for our presentation at the event. It felt like, having eschewed the actual competition, we won the prize!

You are regarded by many as one of the best Revolution teams in the world, even though you’ve never competed with Revs. Why do you think people think this of you?

Felix: I think it’s quite simple. In the early days, we were it. We traveled extensively. 1994 was kind of crazy – 19 events. It was very much a case of, for whatever reason, although we thought flying Revs. in a team was fantastic, no one else was doing it. For very many years, we were the only team flying Revolutions, so a lot of people were getting to see what we were doing.

Jacob: I think the fact that we were seen by a lot of people and the fact that we’ve been doing it so long is one point. But the other thing is, we’ve been flying now together for nearly 25 years. Over that 25 years, you have good periods and then you have periods where the energy goes out for a while, and then it comes back again. Of course the team has changed, there are now 10 of us involved. So as the personnel changes, you get fresh energy and fresh ideas. It’s not so much that we’re the best or that we want to be the best, but we have managed over the years to kind of evolve and change and we do try to offer new stuff all the time.

As well as that, a lot of the fliers on the team, many have 10 or 12 or 15 years of experience. And although they’re not flying every weekend, that builds up. You build up that core experience, which means that when you do get together, when you do have quality time flying together, at a festival or whatever, you can achieve things quickly, because you’re not having to cover a lot of ground to do with big differences in ability and stuff. You’ve basically got six or eight fliers who can really turn it on when they need to. It’s not so much that we’re the best, it’s just that we’ve been consistent over a long period of time.

For those who haven’t seen your team in action, tell me about what a Decorators performance looks like and how it’s unique among quad-line team performances.

Felix: The critical thing for me is the graphic design of the kites. Most of the time we’re using Jørgen Møeller Hansen kites and I think that is a fundamental inspiration from my point of view. It means we have a distinctive presence in the sky. Thereafter, it stands to the wit and wisdom of the callers, of whom I am not one.



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Who does the calling?

Jacob: I do the majority of the calling, although we’ve got a couple of other people on the team who are taking it on as well. It’s always been a feature of the team that we’ve had at least two people who were ready to call, sometimes three, sometimes even four.

And it’s interesting that different callers have different styles. If I’m calling, the overriding thing I try to achieve is a sort of graceful precision. My calling tends to be quite slow. I rarely call maneuvers that require a great deal of energy and effort. What I prefer to see is everything being extremely accurate. I think that if it’s energy and pace you want, you need to be looking at a team like the Scratch Bunnies, flying two-line kites, where the kites will zip around and stop and spin and burst and there’s a huge amount of energy in their presentation. If you’re going to contrast that to what we do, in my ideal presentation, it’ll be almost the complete reverse of that, where everything emerges and there are segues from one maneuver into another in a sort of kaleidoscopic effect.

We try very, very hard to avoid maneuvers where the kites end up in a line following each other. It’s almost like, if you imagine an overhead camera watching synchronized swimming, that’s more the kind of effect we’re trying to get, where each kite is a point in the sky and the orientation and way they mesh and intermesh and come together and move apart that creates the visual effect. So it’s somewhere between synchronized swimming and at its best, a really good fireworks display.

Do you fly choreographed routines, or more ad lib?

Jacob: In the vast majority of cases, we’ve always preferred to ad lib. When we’re outside of the arena, we don’t use music. We don’t have routines written out. We actually have choreographed one tune, a Beatles track called, “Come Together.” But we’ll usually do two ballets back-to-back and the second one will be ad libbed. It’s got its down side, it doesn’t always go as planned, but it keeps it fresh.

You can spend a lot of time practicing a choreographed routine and at the end of the day you‘ve got that routine. Or you can spend a lot of time just practicing flying all the figures you know and putting them together in different ways, and then you’ve got a whole bunch more, in a way. So that’s kind of what we do.

It’s sort of like a jazz musician would improvise a solo. He’s not inventing music afresh every time he does it. He’s using stuff that he knows, that’s under his fingers, that he’s played in different arrangements before. But he’s changing the way he puts it together and thinking it fresh each time he comes to the solo.

Felix: I would like to interject about the challenge a routine that isn’t pre-configured offers to the fliers that are involved. I think it’s quite interesting to see how individual fliers react to being asked to do something almost spontaneously, that they’ve not done before. I think that aspect has lent some strengths to the individual fliers within the team.

How often do The Decorators come up with entirely new material?

Felix: Quite often. If we go to a kite festival, we would hope to come up with something new on the day. That’s what’s exciting about getting together and flying together. It’s that we’re looking for something new.

What’s a typical year? How many events?

Felix: It varies from year to year. Things slowed down from 2000 through 2007. Then it increased a bit but this year has been a little quieter due to various events simply not happening.

Jacob: I think in an ideal year now, we’d be looking to do somewhere between eight and 12 festivals, 12 being a pretty full year. The nice thing now is, because there are 10 of us involved in the team, people don’t have to go to every single festival. We try to have a minimum of six people or ideally eight.

Tell me about the kite scene. Are kite festivals in Europe popular, well attended?

Jacob: There’s a slight difference between the UK and mainland Europe. Most of the UK festivals don’t attract major funding. In Europe, there are some pretty big festivals. They have slightly different political arrangements in Europe, where there is money available through people like the chambers of commerce, and the tourism boards and those kinds of things. To my mind, the best festival in the world is the festival in Berck Plage, France, around Easter time. And then two or three weeks after that, the festival in Cervia on Italy’s east coast, which is a real flier’s festival, in that there are not massive public arenas. It’s a festival that a lot of fliers go to just for the sheer joy of standing on a beach, flying kites for a week. Those two, in particular, are wonderful.

Most recently, we’ve returned to doing more events in the UK, partly for logistical reasons and also because we lost touch with it a bit. We were getting a lot of invitations to Germany, Italy, France and Spain and up into Scandinavia as well. They’re exciting events, it’s nice to travel and do these things. But it takes it out of you. So for the last two or three years, we’ve been reengaging with some of the smaller UK festivals. And we’ve had a great time, actually.

But it’s a very vibrant scene. Everything from small, one-day events that are organized by local kite clubs, where you just turn up and fly, right up to quite big organized events. Typically, in England, there have been bigger events in Portsmouth, Bristol and Weymouth. These are well-supported events and I guess like some of your main events in the States.

Tell us the about the state of the hobby over there.

Jacob: Kite flying has traditionally gone through periods where it becomes very popular and then it maybe dies off a bit. I think that there was a big surge of interest in the late 80s when the new dual-line swept-wing kites came along. And so, you’ve still got a lot of people who were swept up in that surge. And that includes single-line fliers because the energy generated a lot of new festivals. So that pulled a lot of people in, not just the two-line fliers, but single-line fliers. There’s a whole generation of people who started their kite flying between 1985 and 1992 who are still doing it. So, yeah, we’re all losing a bit of hair these days, that’s true, there is a group of us getting older. But since then, you’ve got the whole thing with kite buggying and then more recently, kite surfing. That’s brought a lot of people into kite flying, albeit as a sport activity rather than an aesthetic or kind of spiritual thing. But a lot of the teams in Europe now are people in their mid-20s. They’re not being run by old geeks like us!

As a team and as individuals, what sort of things do you do, apart from performing, to promote the hobby?

Jacob: We don’t do anything formal, but we try to support the newer fliers. We’re always very open to them. If somebody says, “What are you doing,” we never huddle up into a corner and say, “We’re not telling you.” In fact, as soon as we find a new maneuver, or something, we go straight out there and tell everybody how to do it.

It’s always seemed to us that the Revolution has been a great kite in bringing people together. In a way, the two-line kites would encourage people to go off and be rather secretive and then spring their latest maneuver on the public and the judges when the competition came around. But there was always a bit of a counterculture in Revolution flying. It’s a kind of family and “What is mine is yours.” We share and we fly together as well.

At festivals, you might have a team who has only been flying together for a couple of years and they’re kind of keen to see what you’re doing. The best way to show them what you’re doing is to say, “Bring your kites over and come and fly it.” So they’ll sit in with us and fly with us. So we do quite a bit of – I hesitate to call it, “mentoring” – but just encouraging people along in that sense.

Felix has just written on a piece of paper, “collaboration” and “competition.” At that important point in Barcelona in 1991, that’s when we realized that to compete wasn’t necessarily the best way to go forward, to develop, and that actually, to collaborate was a much more fruitful line of inquiry.

Felix: I think the collaboration aspect of the whole mega-grid thing that took off from 2008 onward, answers your question in a roundabout way. In other words, the idea of getting, maybe, sometime, 100 fliers together in a collaborative effort, in one place, flying together would be a major achievement. I think that people are working towards this, with a notion that I sort of put together many, many years ago and certainly have seen some fantastic results along the way. Not the least, recently at Portsmouth, where, on the Monday after the event, we got 16 fliers together and we put together some very radical things, literally on the spur of the moment.

Before we talk about mega-flies, let’s talk about what it means to be in a team and what it takes to build and maintain a team like The Decorators. What advice would you give to people who are just forming teams, or thinking about forming teams?

Felix: The key to the whole set up, and this is how one succeeds socially, in an environment where one is looking for a level of performance and looking at what people are doing critically. It’s tough. The fact that someone might fail occasionally is always going to be an issue. The process by which you can encourage people to succeed is obviously critical. I don’t think we have a method.

Jacob: We’ve had people who’ve flown on the team who were perfectly good fliers, but absolutely unbearable as human beings (laughter). They don’t last that long. It’s a two-stage thing. One is; you’ve got to have some kind of empathy – affinity with each other. Also, people are very different and I think that when the flying gets good – and it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s not great all the time – but sometimes, you just get yourself into a kind of pocket as a team. And this is what I’m really interested in. It’s that you can achieve something that is only achievable as a team. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Therefore there’s an inter-reliance. And of course, that means that everybody has to be on the same wavelength and that doesn’t happen very often. You know, there’s always somebody, who, for some reason or another, is not quite on it. On the rare occasions when it all comes together, it’s absolutely magical and that’s, I think, the reason that I still do it.

We’ve had times when it just goes absolutely beautifully and sometimes that can last for two or three hours. It’s a completely different bird. That requires you to come together kind of, spiritually, all to be trying for the same thing, all to want the same thing. That’s quite difficult to achieve and I think the key to it is this thing of collaboration rather than competition. If you’re striving to achieve competitive brilliance, the closer you get to the goal, the harder it is to achieve, in a way, because the level of stress and concentration becomes more and more of an issue. Whereas, if you’re striving to reach some collaborative kind of a high point – and along the way you a want to make sure you’re having fun and enjoying yourself – then in a way, it kind of comes together in that sense. The collaborative thing becomes more possible.

Again, I trained as a musician, so I go back to that musical analogy. It’s like a band. It is possible for a band who absolutely hate each other to make wonderful music. It’s much easier for a band that like each other to make wonderful music.

Felix, tell me more about your idea of grid-style Revolution mega-flies.

Felix: David Hathaway describes it very well in his KiteLife article. Originally, people would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, in a line across the window. And, as we mentioned earlier, either the right-hand flier or the left-hand flier would be the lead kite. It would get more and more difficult the more people you added to the line.

The essence of grid flying is that one places on the ground the fliers – if it’s nine, it would be a three by three grid, if it’s 12, four by three, if it’s 16, four by four, and so on. And so you have a line at the front, a following line and a line behind. That allows the fliers to take up positions in the sky relative to each other and the form of the flying develops from that basis. The types of figures that are available from the simple grid – so if you’ve got 16 fliers, one can very, very simply form two concentric circles; four fliers in the center and the fliers outside simply transposed in circular form and the fireworks take off.

It was really that basis that allows very, very many more fliers to congregate in the sky in close proximity. And as we mentioned earlier, there is a nominal target of 100 fliers that might be achieved at the Washington State International Kite Festival next year. That’s certainly the aim. In 2010, at the same event, 64 fliers got together. In 2008 at the Portsmouth event, I think we had 47 or 48 fliers and momentarily 54 fliers at the Bristol event.

It’s a very simple concept and it allows more kites to be in close proximity in the sky and performing distinctive maneuvers.

Jacob: I think the essence of it is that the people on the ground are actually standing – they’re mirroring what’s going on in the sky. What that means as a flier taking part in the grid is you’re flying much closer to the optimal safe, easy portion of the sky. So you’re flying basically with the wind on your back and the kite out in front of you, rather than trying to hold the kite off at an angle to the wind. Obviously, as you fly through the maneuvers, you move to the left or right or up and down within that wind window. When you stand in a grid position, you’re much closer to the center of that, which is the optimal point in it.

The other thing we tried very successfully at Portsmouth was having the caller not fly a kite. In this particular case, it was me calling and standing behind everybody, which is great, it means that everybody can hear. Obviously, if you’re standing in a long line, say there’s 16 of you, and the guy on the left-hand side is calling, the guy on the right is standing 30-odd feet away from him, and to his side, so hearing him is a real issue. Whereas, having a separate caller who stands behind means that everybody can hear pretty well. Also, one of the hardest things as a flier in a grid is really, you need to be encouraged to keep your eye on your own kite and fly your own kite, not let your eyes wander around the big picture. Whereas as a caller, you have to do exactly the opposite: You have to in a way ignore your own kite and see the big picture. So, having a caller stand outside the grid means that he can both see the bigger picture all the time, but he can also see where problems might be occurring within the grid and react and help people.

Sometimes, it’s just a question of getting them to concentrate on their own kite. It’s remarkably easy, when you’re flying in a group of 24 or 36 of you to be looking at a kite and not realize that it’s actually not yours! And so, you think you’re completely static in the grid, because someone else is flying the kite you’re looking at, whereas your kite has actually gone careering off, causing absolute mayhem somewhere in the bottom left. So it’s very important to keep your mind on the job, so to speak.

Felix, I understand this transition to grid flying was mostly your idea. How did you come up with it?

Felix: It was in 1993. I can’t remember exactly how I came up with it. It was just a concept that came to mind, which then was put on the back burner for very many years. It was really when thinking about the 2008 celebration of 20 years of The Decorators and 20 years of the Revolution Kite that it seemed appropriate to persuade people that it might be an interesting or profitable way to proceed.

Grid for 10×10=100 (image by John Mitchell)

Jacob: Interestingly, I suppose the germ of it comes from our slight awkwardness back in the early days, when we first kind of thought, “Why do lines have to be all different lengths?” It comes from that slightly inquiring kind of asking, “Why?” You know, if there’s 16 of you, why do you have to stand in a line? Why are we doing that? So, I think the germ of it goes back a long way.

Let’s say you have a grid of 16 fliers and one or two are fliers you’ve never met before that day. And you, Jacob, are standing behind, calling. What might you say, for example, to get rows one and three to fly to the right while rows two and four fly to the left? How do you express those commands in a way that’s succinct and understandable, particularly to someone who is new to flying in a grid?

Jacob: Well, you’ve left out the most important thing; if one group is Spanish, and another group is Dutch, and there’s a German group and some French guys as well.

I hadn’t thought of that!

Jacob: Yeah, well that happens a lot! Basically, you explain it. And the thing is, you’ve got more time than you think when you call. I’ve called for a long time and that’s what I try to get people to recognize when they’re taking up the job of calling: You’ve got more time than you think.

The first thing you do is sort everybody out on the ground and get everybody up into the sky into the grid, maybe facing left, let’s say. And then you explain it to them. So you’d say, “Top line and the third line down, 180.” Now, “180” is a kind of multi-lingual expression that everybody understands. So you keep the calls very simple. So now, you’ve got the top line facing right, the second line down facing left, third line facing right, fourth line facing left. And you just say, “Fly,” and they go forward. And then you say, “Stop.” And you say, “Turn,” and you say, “Back to the grid.”

And some of these key things; like “back to the grid,” is a great call, because people will go there, from wherever they are. Sometimes, you can get yourself into quite complex formations and groupings where as a caller, you don’t really know who is where. And to give them instructions would be crazy. So, you just say, “Back to the grid.”

It’s interesting because there are quite a few shapes and groupings that you can get into, where you don’t really need to explain to people. You let them sort it out themselves. A typical example of that is one of the nice things you can do with kites is you can actually form words or numbers in the sky. So, for instance, at Portsmouth, we were flying in the arena in front of quite a large crowd and at the end of it, I thought it would be nice just to make the figures, 2012. So, I just said, “Left-hand six fliers, you’re a two. The next six fliers, you’re a zero, the next six, you’re a one and the next six, you’re a two. Do it.” And they did it! And I didn’t tell them how to and they just morphed from the grid, straight into a series of numbers. So, sometimes it’s best not to tell them too much, it’s best just to tell them what you want and let them figure it out.

What’s it like for the flier, particularly someone who hasn’t flown in a mega-fly before? What sort of reactions have you had?

Felix: They have to remember to breathe!

Jacob: I think what Felix is alluding to is blind panic (laughter). There are people who get extremely nervous. They feel extremely hedged in and very worried about the concept of failure. Failure’s alright. It can be quite funny, sometimes. Yeah, I think that thing of relaxing and enjoying it and also of keeping your eye on your own kite is very important. I’ve done it! As a flier of 24 years, now, I’ve thought, “Who’s that idiot crashing through,” and then realized to my dismay that it’s me and I’m actually looking at the wrong kite.

Let’s wrap up by talking about the future. What do you see in the future of The Decorators?

Jacob: We’re in a good place at the moment, actually. Funny enough, three or four years ago, it felt almost as if the project was coming to an end. The energy had gone. But we’ve got some great fliers now, who’ve got a great deal of energy. So I think we can foresee the team going on for several years now. Also, I think that we’ll probably develop some more choreographed routines. It’s kind of been an aim of ours for a long time to do that. The blend of kites and music is something that we’ve perhaps not done well enough, I think, in the past. So I think that’s an ambition, to improve on that.

Felix: I think that along the way, we had it in mind that if everyone else in Revolution flying was getting very much better, we’d just gracefully retire. But I frankly think that we’re still in a position to contribute and I’m very happy about that. I feel that while we are able to contribute, we should continue to do so.

What are your opinions on kite flying in general and its future?

Felix: Obviously there have been financial constraints, with the various economies. But I am fairly convinced that there are enough people willing to take part and enjoy the activity. So, I don’t think it’s going to go away.

Jacob: The big difference I’ve noticed on the kite fields over the last 10 years is that there’s been a huge shift towards Revolution flying. I would say now, at many festivals, there are often more people flying Revolutions in teams and individually than there are two-line fliers, which has been interesting. It took a long time for the Revolution to really seep into the minds of people who are interested in control-line flying. It’s weird, in a way, that it took so long. But it has caught on now and a lot of the two-line teams that are competing very hard are now starting to fly Revolution kites as well. I think we’ll see a lot of very innovative and interesting stuff coming through in team Revolution flying. And I think that whilst we are around, we’re looking at it. You know, we’re not afraid to steal a few ideas here and there! So, as people come up with new ways of presenting it, I’m sure that we’ll be riding that wave as well.

Felix: One of the great things about events over the last couple of years it that they have taken on the idea of actually providing space for Revolution fliers as distinct to single-line fliers. At Portsmouth this year, for most of the second day, there was a specific area where Revolution fliers and the two-line teams who were preparing demonstrations could actually use space without putting members of the public at risk. That was really a fantastic development. I suspect that given the very many people taking up Revolution flying, the justification for having dedicated space is very clear.

Jacob: It also develops links between the fliers. As an experienced flier, it’s great when somebody who has literally just gone to one of the stores and bought a Revolution kite and is just taking it out of the bag, says, “Can you show me how to fly it?” And the nice thing, I think, about Revolution fliers is that I don’t know any of them who will say, “No, sorry, I don’t have time.”

Is there anything we didn’t cover that you wanted to discuss?

Felix: I think we covered the bases.

Jacob: There is just one thing I think is important and that is to say that we feel hugely privileged over 23 years to have worked with this wonderful guy, Jørgen Møeller Hansen, from Denmark, who, I’m not sure that we’ve quite made it clear, has been absolutely central to our presentation. And unfortunately, he died earlier this year, which is a huge and very sad loss to a lot of people but to us, in particular. The kites are a tribute to him. It’s going to be sad to carry on without him. Jørgen has done a number of designs over the years. Some of the designs we no longer have. The kites wore out a decade ago. So, one of our plans is to reprise some of those early designs and try and get to a stage where we actually have all of the designs he made for us over the years, in flyable condition, so that we can really show off to the full, what I think was a remarkable talent that he had for very, very striking, very simple design.

We certainly sympathize with your loss and wish you success in building such a fitting tribute to Mr. Møeller Hansen. And that you very much for taking the time for this interview, it’s been a most interesting and enjoyable conversation.

Jacob: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Felix: Indeed.

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