First Appearances

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It’s always been my custom to share day-to-day design progress with the team during pre-production, not because I’m seeking comment or contribution, but because by the time we get to the rehearsal room I want everyone to understand how the visuals have evolved. The idea is to give everyone a chance to see the ingredients before we begin to cook the meal! Nevertheless, sharing design work-in-progress can create problems, and it’s a fact that the shadow-puppets of the Mother and Father that were being prepared for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, caused consternation in my producer when first she saw them.

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Peter Lloyd, our genius paper-cutter, had been ‘briefed’ with loose sketches I’d provided to define the ‘characters’ of the parents. Illustrated above are a couple I made of the Mother.

I told him that within the basic framework of the character design, he was free to develop and elaborate as he wished. And that’s exactly what he did. When he sent me snapshots of the paper-cut puppets under construction, I knew I’d been right to choose him for our team.

 

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Some minor changes were made to her mouth in order to better define it, and later, transparent swivelling bars were added to facilitate easier animation of her eyes.

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Everything in the stage version of Hansel & Gretel, is as seen/imagined by the children. They use the contents of their toy box to act out and reinvent a chaotic world into one they can better understand and control. While the children are beautiful creations by master-carver, Jan Zalud, brought to life by onstage puppeteers, the baker/Mother, woodcutter/Father and forest-dwelling Witch are shown only as animated silhouettes projected onto a large screen.

 

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From the moment I read Simon Armitage’s script I knew that the parents needed initially to be as unfathomable to an audience as they clearly are to their children. Gretel in particular constantly mis-hears both eavesdropped conversations and what people say directly to her. (I do even wonder whether she’s perhaps a little deaf.) This results in the children misconstruing their parents concern for the family’s safety in a war-zone, into a more sinister plot to be rid of them.

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Above: at the shadow-screen, assistant animator, Phil Cooper, makes minute changes of position to the articulated puppets between shots.

In order to ensure the viewpoints of audiences would align with those of the children, the parents needed to be unconventional, strange and unreadable. On the surface they’d appear as peasants, almost bovine with their expressionless faces and physical stolidness. Peter Lloyd caught this completely. The stoutness and the mask-like, weathered faces are off-putting, but nonetheless arrest us and make us pay attention. And gradually, we begin to see these people for what they more truly are, which is careworn and deeply loving. In this case, first appearances have been misleading.

Peter Lloyd’s remarkable skill as a paper-cutter gave me everything – and much more – that I needed in terms of appearance. But having meticulously reproduced the fixed  attachment points of the tiny arms and legs I’d indicated in the first drawings, those limitations severely hampered expressive movement, a fact immediately apparent once I had the puppets in my hands and could play with them. So I spent a day re-configuring the joints using transparent plastic to make swivelling and elbowed bars allowing a much wider range of movement, and by the time the pair went in front of the camera, they were flexible and up for anything. Walking is always an indicator of how well a shadow puppet is performing, and the test shot of the Mother walking from edge of frame to centre, illustrates her dainty gait. (See it at the foot of this post.)

For the illustrated book of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel poem that I’m currently working on, due for publication by Design for Today in Spring 2019, I began with a trial image that was a fairly close adaptation of the shadow-puppet Mother. She even retained the articulation points of a shadow-puppet.

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But as I came to grips with fitting together images and narrative in print, I realised that with only three appearances scattered through the book, I’d need to express everything about the Mother in some kind of shorthand: one image to introduce and establish her, a second to demonstrate her tenderness toward her daughter, and a third in which she’s dead and in her coffin. To this end, the design evolved for a third and final time, and the Mother became slighter and more youthful, though still retaining the strangenesses – bifurcated nose, cheeks oddly marked with the outlines of scallop shells and a heavy Kahlo-esque monobrow – that had defined her in the animations for the stage production. Here she is in a rough sketch, recalling her first pregnancy. (There’s no indication in Simon’s text, but I’ve always sensed that Gretel is the elder by about a year.)

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And here the finished illustration, though minus the colour.

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The book’s final image of the Mother shows her shroud-wrapped and in her coffin. It was a hard one to pull off, because it had to be shocking and yet tender. This is the coffin illustration in the process of being made, together with some preparatory thumbnail sketches.

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To her credit, Kate our producer revised her initial response to the shadow-puppet, and in the end grew to love and be moved by Peter Lloyd’s interpretation of the character. The shadow-puppet gets quite a lot of screen time in the production, and in the last scene, appears not as a corpse – as she does in the book – but as a fretful, glimmering ghost. I too have grown to love her in both her forms of shadow-presence and illustration.

 

 

 

Animation made for Hansel & Gretel.

Shadow-puppet: Peter Lloyd

Animation: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Phil Cooper

Camera: Pete Telfer of Culture Colony

Russian Birds and Toy Forests

 

The beautiful Russian clockwork tin bird manufactured in a Moscow toy factory and that I acquired long ago, finally got a starring role in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel. The clever mechanism produces a song from bellows hidden within, but on stage the birdsong is provided by Matthew Kaner’s evocative score and the players of the Goldfield Ensemble. In this segment of film with camerawork by Pete Telfer that’s projected onto the set during performances, the forest is conjured by turned wooden trees from Forge Creative. They were produced as a special order for me by the company, with no polish so that our designer Phil Cooper could paint them a distressed bone-white.  Both in the sections of film and live on stage with the puppets, the trees became one with the sets built from vintage wooden building-blocks that make up the worlds the children create from the contents of their toy-box. And although the puppet, building-blocks and trees are all relatively small, stage cameras live-stream all the action to a large screen above the players.

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Hansel & Gretel was commissioned and produced by Goldfield Productions. With music by Matthew Kaner, words by the poet Simon Armitage and directed by me, it has toured through England for the last six months. Just one performance remains to be given, at Letchworth on Nov 4th. Tickets may be purchased:

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Above: photograph by Di Ford.

 

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Above: photograph by Still Moving Media

 

 

 

Hansel & Gretel at Barbican

 

After a beautifully projected and nuanced performance of Hansel & Gretel at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall in York last week, the company move on to the exciting event of the London Premiere at Barbican tomorrow evening. (October12th)

The Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, is the largest of the tour venues, and it’s there that the performance is to be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast. This new version of Hansel & Gretel, with a libretto by Simon Armitage and composed by Matthew Kaner, has been two years in the planning and making, and tomorrow many of the creatives who brought it to life will be present in the audience to celebrate the achievement. Congratulations to all, but particularly to Producer Kate Romano, who under the umbrella of her Goldfield Productions made it all happen.

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Above: Lizzie Wort and Di Ford, our incomparable puppeteers on the production. The puppet maker was Jan Zalud with puppet wardrobe created by Oonagh Creighton Griffiths.

 

The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 3

After nearly two years of preparation, in 2018 rehearsals began for an adaptation of Hansel & Gretel into a new performable work, with a score by composer Matthew Kaner and a text by the poet Simon Armitage. What’s so extraordinarily clever about the text – which was written before the music – is that in it Simon presents the siblings as close-to-starving child-migrants escaping a war-torn country, their journey hazardous in ways echoing the Black Forest wildernesses of the Brother’s Grimm, and yet with contemporary references that bracingly season the old tale with with a dash of darkly glittering folk/horror. The music was written for the Goldfield Ensemble line-up of five musicians, and the work was commissioned and produced by Goldfield Productions, helmed by producer – and Goldfield clarinetist – Kate Romano, who’s definitely a woman-of-many-skills.

Below: Narrator Adey Grummet fronting the Goldfield Ensemble. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)

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Peter Lloyd was among the small group of artists known to me who were invited to work on the design and visual effects for the production. He would make the paper-cut ‘shadow’ puppets of the witch. These proved too elaborate and large to be operated live on a shadow-screen, and a plan evolved to instead film them as stop-motion silhouettes on a light-screen/animation table. In performance the film is projected onto a large-scale screen behind the small puppets of the children. However before Peter could begin work on the witch, I had to provide him with guideline studies. My sketches were intentionally rough, meant as starting points for the character. Peter was briefed to ‘freely elaborate’ on what I’d produced.

The first drawing was much influenced by Goya’s naked witches. I guess I knew from the outset that the idea wouldn’t get to the finishing line, but I needed to try it out.

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Peter was very keen to be given a design that would enable him to be freely creative with his paper cutting. He was scornful of the second image I produced that made her a bag-lady like an overweight sparrow in layered cardigans. (And he was right!)

 

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So I returned to the illustrations I’d made for the picturebook. In those I’d used the notion of the witch being short-sighted, her apparel sewn with eyes as an expression of sympathetic magic. (Simon’s libretto makes great play of the witch’s near blindness.) But we also wanted to make a slow reveal of her true appearance, and so her garment became an all-enveloping cloak to obscure her hybrid anatomy.

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When I suggested to Peter that the design might include a crustacean’s carapace, like a spider-crab, he was off like a rocket! A tail was discussed, along the lines of a scorpion’s stinger. Thereafter he was keen to give her many arms, but I declined the idea because I knew the filming schedule was going to be very tight. Another four arms plus hands and all those extra fingers could have added days of work to the witch sequences. As it was, her mere ten spidery digits monopolised the lion’s share of her studio time.

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Peter Lloyd’s translation of the drawings into witch silhouette-puppet number 1.

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Witch silhouette-puppet number 2.

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When the puppet arrived for filming, I made only small changes to it, though significant ones in terms of movement.  I hid a sliding-bar attachment for the hips behind the puppet, so as to give her more flexibility, and changed her knees to backward facing (see below), so that her gait would be weirder. It made her much more interesting to animate.

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The superb quality and detail of Peter Lloyd’s paper-cutting really came into its own with the large head and hands he prepared for the close-up sequences. The hands were particularly good, with secret eyes embedded in the fingers and forearms. The jagged, slash-like cuts in her face loaned a wonderful texture to the puppet. Phil Cooper, model-maker and scenic painter on the project – and also my assistant animator – cut upper and lower eyelids to add to the puppet, so that we could make her blink. Blinking is a great way to add life to an animation.

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The stop-motion sequences of the witch were reversed to negative at the editing stage. We felt that she was much scarier when bone white against a dark background. Peter Lloyd provided her with an almost prehensile tongue.

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The pupils of her eyes were made in two sizes, pin-prick tiny and enlarged, again to add expressiveness.

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Click on the control bar below to see the Witch in action in this extended stop motion animation sequence. This was a first edit that I made with Peter Telfer, who filmed all of the animation sequences for Hansel & Gretel.

 

 

 

Below: on stage the witch’s nose sails into view, dwarfing the puppets of the children looking up in awe at it. (Photograph courtesy of Still Moving Media.)
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Here the witch unfolds from her carapace and stretches her arms, legs and tail like a vulture waking from an afternoon nap. It’s a shot we didn’t use in the production, though I liked it a lot. Matt Kaner produced one music sequence in which strings create an unnerving sense of edginess, and it perfectly matched the restlessness of the witch’s hands, which are never still.

 

 

Photograph taken by Phil Cooper of me working at the light-box/animation table. The tape marks edge of frame, so that Phil and I knew the points at which to enter and depart a shot.

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The hands were wonderful to animate, more like insects than I would have thought possible. Their articulation was enormously elaborate. An animator’s dream!

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The witch’s house in the production is fluid and shifting, as though the magic holding everything together is unreliable and certainly illusory.

Below: salt-dough Lebkuchen made by Phil Cooper.

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What starts as an iced Lebkuchen biscuit resolves more corporeally into a slightly grubby construct, perhaps made of  children’s building blocks, or maybe from congealed sugar. Ominously, the out-of-scale chimney looks as though it would be more at home on an incinerator.

Below: Model designed and made by Phil Cooper and built from a combination of contemporary and vintage building blocks.

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Later, when the children make a tour of its interior, we’re transported to the rooms of a sinister doll’s house, decaying and mouldy. Nothing in this world quite fits together. It’s dream-like and fractured. The words and music that accompany us on this estate-agent-from-hell’s tour of the grim spaces, is the bone-chilling heart of the production.

Below: doll’s house built by Simon Coupland and Jana Wagenknecht, with contributions from Stephanie Davies and painted by me. Lighting by Pete Telfer.

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(The full story behind the building of the ‘Witch Doll’s House’ is one that requires more space than I can spend on it in this post, but I will be returning to the subject later, to give the whole picture.)

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Hansel & Gretel is currently on tour. Details of performances are below. Contact the venues for ticket availability.

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The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2

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The picturebook of Hansel & Gretel was only partway finished when Louise Heard of Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop and I began to have discussions about the adaptation of it into a toy theatre kit. However, when Louise saw the full extent of the graphic horrors on display in my illustrations for the fairytale, she thought them too dark for the Pollock’s style, and so I went off to try and figure how to adapt the imagery for her. There were no doubts that my original witch with her wormy nasal cavity, would have to to be toned down!

As a preparation to the job ahead, I invented a ‘back-story’ for the toy theatre design. In the picturebook the children, having survived their run-in with the carnivorous and predatory witch, return home to discover that in their absence their father has murdered their mother with an axe! (The book ends with the grisly truth revealed in an image of the ghost of the mother turning up with the father’s axe still embedded in her spine!)

The prequel to the toy theatre design is that the children have run off to the big city to fall in with a disreputable troupe of actors. Persuaded by an unscrupulous producer to sign over to him the stage, film and publishing rights to their story, Hansel and Gretel end up in ‘Victorian’ costumes playing themselves in a pantomime version of their adventures sweetened and given a good dusting of showbiz glitter! Their feckless father and cruel mother are reshaped by the script as being poor though caring, while the role of the witch is given to a ‘character’ actor better known for playing demon kings and therefore well experienced in eliciting boos and hisses from the crowd!

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The re-shaping of the picturebook witch for the the cut-out-and-assemble toy theatre, was really just a matter of simplification, dressing her in red for maximum impact and giving her a striped cat. However the pointed artificial nose of her picturebook predecessor remained, though as a part of the actor’s ‘make-up’ rather than the prosthetic that disguised something unspeakable beneath! The Pollock’s witch neither flies nor grows fangs, but she rants and raves and stomps about to great effect, and just as in the original Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, imprisons the children and prepares to cook them, though of course it’s her who ends up in the oven!

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The Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit, may be purchased

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There is also a delightful Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop pop-up Hansel & Gretel card available, based on the toy theatre design and available

HERE

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By kind permission of  Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre makes a brief guest appearance in the current music/theatre touring production of Hansel & Gretel, with words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner played by the Goldfield Ensemble. I supervised the designs, working closely with Phil Cooper (models and scenic painting), Peter Lloyd (shadow puppets) and Jan Zalud (puppet maker), and I directed the production.

The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 1

I loved drawing witches as a child. The idea of them was vivid in my imagination, terrifying as all hell but thrilling too, in the way of all things that were scary/lovely. Besides, I’d seen The Wizard of Oz, so I knew witches could be vanquished if you could get ’em with a bucket of water before they zapped you!

As I grew older and my interests matured, the witches got left behind, along with all the other juvenilia. (Though I kept my green-eyed Pelham ‘Witch’, and she lives with me still.)

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Then a few years ago for no reason I can put my finger on, I started thinking about Hansel & Gretel and what a strange and interesting tale it is. And of course in my mind’s eye, creeping behind the children who were lost in the wood, came that apex-predator, the witch! Before I knew it she was flowing from my pencil, and she’s been flowing pretty much non-stop ever since.

The first image to appear (see below) was intended as a design for puppet. Long, long ago the first glove-puppet I’d ever made had been a witch, and this little sketch springing unexpectedly from the murky depths of childhood’s fears, felt like a desire to get in touch with the old thrill, a conjuring bright and energised, back from when creativity was still a new experience.

I didn’t actually make the glove-puppet, but I pieced together a collage, in order to better see her.

Soon I was making dozens of drawings, obsessively defining and finessing my notions of what a witch should be. Nothing new, but just a recognisable shorthand for a witch. Squat, hook-nosed, spindle legged, sporting either a peasant headscarf or a steeple-hat, incongruously carrying a handbag as she trotted about on short legs, quite mumsy but for her piercing, unnerving stare. But still a joke at this point. Nothing too threatening.

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Sometimes she was German!

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She’d already begun to make public appearances here at the Artlog and at Facebook when Simon Lewin of St. Jude’s enquired about whether I might contribute something to his magazine Random Spectacular. I suggested something on the theme of Hansel & Gretel, perhaps a short story with illustrations. So that’s what I did.

And that’s pretty much where the Hansel & Gretel ‘project’ really took off. On Facebook I wrote that I’d so much enjoyed making the short illustrated piece for Random Spectacular, that I rather fancied producing a more substantial version of it, perhaps even ditching the text and going with the idea of a picturebook. Simon left a message suggesting that we should talk some more, and thereafter we began planning.

In short order I had to make a dummy of how I envisioned the layout of a picturebook, plus a single, worked-up image that would define the look of the illustrations for it. I knew that here was a star vehicle for a witch, but she would need to to be mesmerising in appearance if it were to work. This is the finished drawing I produced: the witch in full attack mode, accompanied by gingerbread henchmen and with sweeties deployed as missiles. The Hansel and Gretel characters as shown were easy to draw quickly and consistently. Bean-shaped and wearing school uniforms, they had short legs that couldn’t out-run a witch in flight. Though the witch’s design evolved further, the children’s remained constant. They stayed the same from this ‘sample’ drawing until the book’s completion.

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As work began in earnest, I was still endlessly toying with notions of who the witch was and what her defining characteristics would be. I created a sort of natural-history for her, as though her evolutionary path had at some point bifurcated from the one on which humans were headed. I had the above drawing as a template, though I kept tinkering with her, rethinking the principles of how she would fit together to do what would be required of her.

She would be short-sighted. Witches in fairytales are often described as short-sighted. In the sample drawing I’d scattered her gown with eyes because I’d had the idea to make good her ocular deficiency with a garment stitched with eyes that could do all the seeing for her. It was based on a gown in a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, embroidered with eyes and ears as metaphors for her being all-seeing and all-hearing. (A coded message to the world that the queen’s spies were everywhere!)

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The witchy fangs would be those of a carnivore, but like a serpent’s would fold back into grooves in her gums so that she wouldn’t be inconvenienced by their length when speaking! She could pass for a toothless crone until she was ready to feast! Here’s a spread showing her looking toothless in the finished book.

I even made a flat card maquette with a little mechanism that raised/lowered her teeth to  the eating or resting positions, and another that made her eye roll back in its socket as a preparation to feeding. (The eye-rolling-back thing is very creepy, based on apparently what happens when sharks lunch! And though not used in the final book, not wasted either, because all those researched details add depth to the creativity.)

But the weirdest aspect of this witch, was that her nose was a prosthetic, used to hide what lurked beneath, which was an arrangement of scent-seeking tentacles to guide her to prey, even in the dark! It was to be the ‘big reveal’ at the dramatic highpoint of the tale, the moment when Gretel would catapult into action to save her brother.

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So when hatted and with artificial nose in place, the witch could pass for human, which is what would work best in terms of her survival. But once the hat and the nose came off, then she was ready for business!

When we made the stop-motion animated trailer to promote the picturebook, I made a three-dimensional model of the witch’s head complete with tentacles, and cameraman Pete Telfer shot it deliberately out-of-focus. It’s seen only for a flash edit of the tentacles ‘flowering’ out of the cavity, but it worked a treat!

 

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Here’s the trailer, complete with models made by Phil Cooper and music by Kate Romano.

The Hansel & Gretel picturebook came in paper covers, published by Random Spectacular in 2016 in a smallish edition. Though it’s quite hard to find because it’s never been distributed much beyond the Random Spectacular online shop, it did what Simon Lewin had offered at the outset, giving me the opportunity to explore a fairytale entirely through the medium of imagery. It also got me working  with colour separations, a technique that would serve me so well later, when I came to collaborate with the Penfold Press.

 

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Click HERE to purchase the Hansel & Gretel picturebook:

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To celebrate having got to the finishing line, master-bookbinder Christopher Shaw made a specially bound and boxed edition for me, and he produced something of such extraordinary artistry that it lifts my heart every time I look at it. Presented within a heavy red leather box tooled in gold with the outline of the pursuing witch, the book has boards covered in mustard-yellow linen, blind-stamped and inlaid with hand drawn oak-leaves placed as though blown across its covers. I love it.

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Next time – The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2: Mr Pollock’s Pantomime

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The Witch House

 

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The Witch House in Hansel & Gretel is the work of my collaborator Phil Cooper, who came up with it when I asked him to construct all the models for the production from old wooden building blocks. Phil used blocks that I sent to him, and others he sourced from a Berlin vintage toy shop. There were several trial attempts at the house, but as soon as I saw this one I knew it was proof that the idea for all the Hansel & Gretel sets to appear as if made from the contents of the children’s toy-chest, could work.

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Painting the blocks white loaned a more sinister, bone-like appearance. But what I like most about the finished Witch House – which is made in glued-together sections so that the children can demolish it – is that it has a dual character.

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Above: Phil Cooper shares his ‘Witch House’ with the production team.

Its a dwelling you might find in a fairytale forest, the whiteness lending the quality of an old-fashioned sugar-loaf. But while there is undoubtedly a gemütlich quality, it also has that sinister tower/chimney which reminds me of an incinerator.

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Later I asked Phil to make a set of Lebkuchen biscuits for an animation sequence, and all unasked for he came up with one that was a version of the Witch House, which we used to great effect in the ‘Dance of the Lebkuchen’.

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In the production, images of the ‘Sugar House’ are interchangeable with the iced biscuit, as though the magic that holds the illusion together is unsteady. Now the Lebkuchen version of the Witch House is making its debut in the illustrated libretto, to be published later this year by Design for Today, and in a way I hadn’t at all imagined when I began the book.

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Making a stage production requires many hands and talents. Phil had to work within the parameters that I set for him in terms of the overall ‘feel’ of what I wanted to see on the stage, and the materials I asked him to work with, but was then able to stamp his own style and creativity on what he made. Now his work is filtering into my illustrations for the book, transforming yet again. What I’m producing simply wouldn’t have happened in the same way without that process of collaboration. It’s like a great game of tennis.

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