Building a Panorama

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I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête in the early 1960s. Before the age of video I recollected the film from that first, single viewing, for years running it over and over in my head, remembering, and very likely misremembering it, until the ‘video’ age dawned when everything could be acquired and watched at will. So for most of my life, one way or another, the film has been my companion. I’ve thought about it, watched it scores of times, analysed it and dreamt about it.

Above: my first sketch for Beauty’s bed, and below, a study for it.

Now I’m making a book of the story, with my collaborator, the poet Olivia McCannon. It started out as a full homage to Cocteau’s interpretation, but through development has turned into something quite different: a new, reinvented version of the story, in which together Olivia and I acknowledge the film’s influence while finding our own own creative path.

There are several places in the book in which I want to visually capture my memories of watching sequences of the film when the camera ‘panned’ horizontally to reveal spaces by degrees. Beauty’s bedchamber was chief among these sequences.

Even in her bedchamber, Belle is never alone. Always the eyes of living statues watching her every move.

Cocteau remarks in Diary of a Film how visitors to the studio loved exploring Beauty’s bedroom. Walls made of scrim allowed lights to be shone through them and created dissolving vistas of the garden sets beyond, and I imagine that must have made it a strangely liminal space for the actors to work in, finding themselves un-anchored and floating between worlds. Beauty’s bed, voluptuously draped with fur under its canopy of muslin, seems like a boat in this strange sea, and everywhere the glimmer and sheen of opulence.

It’s heady stuff. But the screen ratio of the time was undoubtedly confining, and so a panorama is suggested rather than attained, with the horizontally moving camera the director’s tool to take the audience on a tour of his creation.

By using a double-page spread, I have a ‘panoramic’ shape in which to set my illustration.

Above: first draft sketch for a double-page illustration of Beauty’s bedchamber.

With no camera point-of-view to slow the reveal of my illustration, I rely on making an image that offers up all its elements slowly, to halt a headlong rush past them. So Beauty’s ‘enchanted’ looking-glass, is not a rectangular, framed mirror on a table, as it is in the film…

… but a full dressing-table with incorporated looking-glass, half veiled in a flimsy sheet, seen below in a detail from the final render. The time it takes to decipher the object, slows down the viewer, who must pause to better understand it.

And because I have no recourse to Georges Auric’s shimmering, orchestral film score, I set imagined breezes through the composition, ruffling the veils and sending leaves skittering, so the image ‘suggests’ a soundtrack where there is none.

Most people read an image left to right, and so we begin with the bed, with its vertically compressed canopy and hangings which stream out to carry the eye further into the composition, to the Caryatid with candles on her head, the veiled dressing-table and shell-backed chair, up to the bowed balcony overlooking the garden with the Beast’s pavilion/treasury shining in the twilight. (Or it might be an empty birdcage, swinging in the window.) Winds feature in the film whenever the strange is present: Beauty’s father is buffeted by a silent wind when he attempts to pour wine from a pitcher at the Beast’s table, and again at the moment when his previously unseen host appears in the garden, enraged by the theft of a rose.)

There’s no room here for the towering furniture and high ceilings of the Doré engravings that had so influenced Cocteau when he was planning the film. Budgetary constraints dictated his sets could not be spacious and airy. For the most part the interiors, painted black to hide their true proportions in darkness, are conjured by deploying accent features: the architecturally elaborate fireplace supported by living statues, towering stone doorways that dwarf Beauty and the iconic passageway of pale, disembodied arms holding candelabras that magically light when needed. With studio space limited, the bedchamber, while not large, is the most elaborate set in terms of textures, shimmering claustrophobically like a fevered dream. On her bed, swaddled in finery which practically disables her, Beauty appears frozen in the gleam of satin and roped pearls, as the hangings press in suffocatingly.

To mimic something of the character of Cocteau’s vision, an ornate border contains the illustration, compressing and tightening the space, so that it too will press in on whoever enters it. There are birds in the border, but I think of them as being pretty paper-cut decorations, because the Beast’s twilight kingdom in the film has no birds. Not in frame, and not on the soundtrack.

Josette Day and Jean Marais on the tiny balcony of Belle’s bedchamber, from where they view la Bête’s ‘treasury’ in the gardens below.
Above, In another image from the book, Beast carries Beauty in a dead faint to her bedchamber, where her garments magically transform from those of a peasant girl, to a grand lady.

An exhibition of all the original artwork for Beauty & Beast, opens at Martin Tinney Galley, Cardiff, in October.

Gateway to a Map of Myths

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It was only back in 2019 that I spent a year as artist-in-residence with English Heritage, and yet it seems a lifetime ago. Anyone with the romantic notion that I spent a year motoring around the countryside visiting English Heritage properties in care and making artworks at a leisurely pace, would be way off the mark. It was deadlines from beginning to end, and I spent the entire time pinned to the worktable in my studio, creating images that were the results of my own research. There wasn’t time to visit a single site. Nevertheless there were exciting creations during the year, even when technically and creatively challenging in the allotted time.

The first project was to design and render all the ‘assets’ (artworks, to you and me) for the online, interactive English Heritage ‘Myths Map’ that was produced by the digital agency, Gravitywell, in Bristol. I suggested a cartouche of the type used on historic maps as a portal to the experience, and produced a number of rough designs to kickstart discussions with the Gravitywell and EH teams.

The EH team were very keen to use the iconography of Saint George and the Dragon, which I used to surmount the cartouche. They were also enthusiastic to include an animated element. Because time was incredibly short, I decided to render the image so as to look rather like a paper-cut, as it would have a graphic dynamic and yet be relatively quick to make.

All aspects of the map were initially made in black and white and the colour added later. It was such a complex project that it could have been misleading to decide the palette at the outset. It was much easier to assemble everything and then play with options.

The image had to be flexible enough for it to be adapted to several formats across various EH platforms.

The animated element was a gentle joust between the Saint and the Dragon, and the ‘maquettes’ I designed needed to be very simple as there would be no close-ups. The figures had to work pretty much as reverse silhouettes. I would have preferred to make the animation myself, but Gravitywell wanted to produce it in house, and so made the sequence guided by a thumbnail animation storyboard I created for them.

The puppets were designed and assembled by me and photographed in key positions. I then took them apart, scanned the components and sent the files to the company to be digitally reassembled and animated.

The animation was brief and added a little liveliness to the viewers’ experience. Once through the cartouche and sailing down to the map, there were animated cloud elements and passing flocks of birds to sweeten the interaction. Sea-monsters emerged from waves and a masted ship went down in the tentacles of a Kraken. I’m of the opinion that while tight deadlines and tight budgets are challenges to creativity, they shouldn’t necessarily be impediments.

There was a plan to make a more complex George and the Dragon animation for another EH platform later in the year. I’d made a trial, rough maquette of a dragon in preparation for that, but in the end it was cancelled. A shame as the maquette tests were good.

In the Realm of the Poet

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Work continues on my collaboration with poet Olivia McCannon on a new retelling of Beauty and the Beast, to be published by Design for Today. Working with Olivia is a revelation. Ideas bat back and forward between us in e-mails, and I find the conversations to be revelatory. We both make discoveries through the processes of discussion, exploring connections and explaining new ideas to each other, and I find that the e-mails and all the ideas they contain are as equal a source of the images I’m making as her evolving text. Recently Olivia wrote to me that she believed there was a rich seam to be considered in regard to Cocteau’s casting of the role of the Goddess Diana in the 1946 film, and that’s opened a whole treasury of possibilities about the living statues, which we’ve adopted for our own version of the story, and how their origins might be explored.

In another e-mail she wrote thrillingly of her imagined source of the jewels the Beast bestows on Beauty, and afterwards I could barely sleep for a week with excitement in anticipation of the images that were evolving in my head out of her ideas.

Above: detail of an illustration in progress: the Beast carries the unconscious Beauty to her bedchamber.

At this stage I can explain no more. While I enjoy sharing the creative processes of making images, in this instance I don’t want to offer them before they’ve been realised and the book published. Suffice to say that this is going to be a version of Beauty and the Beast like no other.