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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
And here the finished illustration, though minus the colour.
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.
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