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

8 thoughts on “First Appearances

  1. Thank you for your eloquent and absorbing explanation of your creative process, Clive. I am sorry to read abut your recent experiences with Seren Publishing, which must have felt a trifle surreal when you were about to publish an illustrated poetry book, with Faber & Faber, one of the great independent publishing houses and home to some of the world’s finest literature.

    I collect illustrated book covers, over at Pinterest, and your cover for Damian Walford-Davies’ ‘Witch’ is a particular favourite of mine, and also remains popular among the people who follow me there. What I can see at my page, where I have 800,000 unique viewers a month, is a keen interest in illustrated book covers, and a support for this great tradition from publishing houses, such as Faber & Faber, who continue to commission some of our best contemporary artists and illustrators to make book covers for them. In a world, ruled by social media and imagery, I would have thought an impactful artist-illustrated cover would be worth its weight in gold, as there is a much better chance of it being shared among people online and bringing attention to the book. So…go figure!

    On a much more positive note, I’m greatly looking forward to the Design for Today edition of ‘Hansel & Gretel’. You definitely have a friend and ally in Joe Pearson, the publisher, with his impressive knowledge – and infectious enthusiasm – for 20th century illustration and design, and his mission to publish high quality contemporary artists’ books for all of us who share his passion.

      • Ha ha! That’s fine, Sarah. Anyone who wants to see the start of our conversation can scroll down and find it.

        Thank you for your kind words re Docklands and my miserable experience at Seren. None of the explanations I’ve been given make any sense at all. I know the entire fiasco has been an embarrassment to Damian, and that he wants my artwork on the cover. All my discussions about it were with him. There were no conversations with Mick Felton, and no briefings from him. But then this is not unusual at Seren. I’ve never had a single creative conversation with them on any of their three books I’ve produced covers for. So I believe there’s something underlying the decision that’s nothing to do with the artwork, but is all about power struggles. However, it is an irritant that here in my own country, where I might expect a degree of support, a small publishing house has become the first to turn down a cover made by me, and moreover one of which I was particularly proud. You kinda expect support from your own. But apparently not.

        However, back in the world of creative collaboration, Joe at Design for Today and his assistant Laurence – who is working on the digital assembling of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel – are making a wonderful job of the book. Every step of it has been so thoughtfully considered and the emerging results are thrilling. Now this is the way to do do business and make something worth looking at. It was the same at Faber. The people who really know what they’re doing make the process one you feel proud of being associated with. Sarah, I think this new H&G is going to knock your socks off! (-;

        • Having followed the book’s progress, mainly in black and white, on Instagram, Clive, I have a feeling that seeing the finished result will give me a similar rush, as when the sepia-toned Dorothy opens the door of her sepia-toned farmhouse and the vibrant world of Oz explodes, in lush and gorgeous colour, through the doorway!!! I am sure you will agree, given the work you have done with Dan Bugg in recent years, that there’s real magic in seeing the transformation that happens with a book printed using traditional printing processes, even though the work involved is highly labour intensive. I’m excitedly awaiting the Design for Today e-mail, so I can place my order.

    • Hello Kevin. Thank you for that. You’re an artist who I enormously admire, and so your comment means a great deal indeed. I’ve just been looking at your blog – I fear I’ve been out of touch with you due to pressure of work this year – and catching up. Bloody hell, man, you are whip-smart with a brush! How I love your ‘broken boys’!!!!!!! You’re an inspiration, my friend. Sending love from Wales. XXX

  2. Clive, paper-cuts and shadow puppets are an integral part of all I love about the fairy tale realm, so I am happy to admit that it thrilled me to see the magical creations of Peter Lloyd on stage in York. Hans Christian Andersen, who revolutionised world literature with his fairy-tales, wrote of his own passion for paper-cutting, “From Andersen’s scissors / fairy-tales instantly spring!” It is evident that Peter’s paper-cuts for “Hansel & Gretel” are coming from the same storytelling place of which Andersen writes. Here’s a gorgeous description of Hans Christian Andersen’s paper-cutting process from his biographer Jens Andersen, which I have a feeling will resonate with both you and Peter, and reflect your experiences of working together this year, “…he grasped his scissors with pleasure, and when he folded the paper once or twice and started cutting from a longitudinal or transverse axis, it was always in some way a visualisation of the way his magical wordplay emerged from nothing, and swiftly materialised itself in patterns, figures and landscapes. A paper-cut would often be a little fairy-tale in itself in time and space, folded in and out in various dimensions, and with a keen sense of the possible effects of depth and contrast.”

    Your own portrayals of Hansel & Gretel’s mother, for the forthcoming book, truly take my breath away, especially the final burial scene, which is so heartbreakingly tender, with her resting place identified by a humble marker, which has been made from the salvaged remains of the children’s bunk beds by her woodcutter husband. From this evidence alone, it would appear that Simon Armitage’s words are driving you to even greater creative heights, when it comes to your final telling of this story.

    I have told you before that my own mother’s ashes are scattered in a bluebell wood, and I have always derived great comfort that she has now returned to nature’s embrace, in a place she loved so much in life; your illustration suggests a similar peaceful setting, amidst the devastation of war, for Hansel and Gretel’s mother. When I see the emotion in this picture, I also couldn’t help but think of you losing your own beloved Jack this year, and how he now sleeps in one of his favourite spots, amongst the wild beauty of Ty Isaf. I think it’s the sign of a great piece of art when it communicates a universal truth, which is what you have done for me here, in this depiction of the small acts of love we offer as a last goodbye. Thank you.

    • Hello Sarah. Well as I’m sure you’ll have divined, I have long loved and been influenced as an artist/illustrator by Anderson’s paper-cuts. Anderson and Lotte Reiniger underlie so much here: Anderson for his expressive use of folk-art themes, shape and configuration, and Reiniger for the astonishing elegance of her animation.

      It’s a fact that while I worked on the stage production, my interpretation of Simon’s words was free-form. It had to be. It’s simply not possible to be fully illustrative of a text in visual terms, especially one that moves as fast as this one. Words dance along, spinning, flipping, somersaulting and leaping, whereas images have to form and be given time to register, or the results would be utterly unmanageable to the eye and brain. (Like one of those drug-fulled psychedelic experimental films of the 60s that these days require a warning to anyone prone to migraine attacks or epilepsy!) So the trick for the stage is to build visuals that sit alongside the words and feel as though they’re in the same world, though work in different ways. And of course the music adds a third element. Sometimes my visuals were led by the words, sometimes the music, more usually by both. But always at the more stately pace, so as to be ‘readable’.

      For the book, where the timing is dictated not by the time signature of music or the speed of a performer, I can work knowing that a page may be read at the reader’s comfortable pace. It may be lingered over, or read in a different way, or perhaps read aloud, maybe several times, trying out how the words feel in the mouth and on the ear. So I can afford to make an image that would have to pass in a flash on stage, but here can be given space to evolve, to be present, to be still and to be meditative. There’s still the demand to make an image that will sit in the same physical space as the words, but I am far more able to examine elements that would have bypassed an audience in a theatre because of the speed of the performance. Hence in the book, I’m able to give a whole page over to Simon’s reference to a glow-worm-like light in the forest, knowing that the reader may slow down to take it in, make the connection and enjoy. It’s a completely different art form. Not better, but different. Moreover, unlike in the performance, where ideas whiz by and then stay only in the memory of those who experience them, the book is an encapsulation of ideas, and all of them repeatable by the simple act of opening the covers. So there’s the added element of me wanting the images to be simple enough to read beautifully, but rich enough to last repeated examination.

      I made the images of the book in chronological order, and occasionally returned to revise them in the light of ongoing developments. I wanted each page to be as perfect as it could be, not just in terms of the whole experience of reading the unfolding narrative of interlinked words and pictures, but also as isolated page-spreads, for anyone picking the book up in a shop and randomly opening it.

      A while ago I received an e-mail from the publisher Seren, for whom I’ve made several covers over past years. I’d delivered my cover artwork for Damian Walford Davies’ forthcoming book, Docklands, and Mick Felton was writing to say he wasn’t going to use it. He gave several random reasons, all of them subjective and open to being taken apart, but then finished by saying he felt painted covers for books – save those that were made in a ‘photo-realistic’ manner – were out of fashion, and he’d decided to go instead with an archival photograph. In an instant the magnificent European tradition of the artist as an expressive interpreter for a published writer, was swept away by the brush of a dismissive hand. I felt that I’d been mugged. Having made covers for Damian’s previous two narrative poems for Seren (Witch and Judas), this was to complete the trilogy. I feel sick about it even now. And how interesting, at this time of two publishing collaborations with Simon Armitage, the difference between my experience at Faber & Faber, where hundreds of supportive and collaborative e-mails were exchanged with Simon’s editor during the making of the revised Gawain, and my experience with Seren, where the first and only e-mail from the publisher was the one declining the completed artwork!

      Not every story ends well, and Docklands didn’t, for me. But it undeniably added poignancy and even more focus to the task of completing Hansel & Gretel, and so maybe I should reluctantly give credit to Mick for that. I’ve certainly made this book as though it were my last, and best.

      But hopefully not the last, as I have Marly Youmans Book of the Red King to complete for Phoenicia Publishing, and a cover for the third and final bibliography of the Old Stile Press. (I made the previous two.) Oh yes, and a graphic novel, an exciting project with a new collaborator. Hey ho. The old train chugs on!

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