Nosferatu’s Children

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It’s no secret how much I admire the work of the German film director, F. W. Murnau (1888 – 1931). The great cinema historian Lotte Eisner’s 1964 account of his work, life and death, Murnau, is among the books permanently on my bedside table. I’ve given up counting how many times I’ve read it.

Nosferatu: a symphony of horrors (1922) is a film that’s been embedded in my psyche for so long that I can’t remember a time when it hasn’t been an essential part of my creative resources. As a young choreographer and later a director and stage designer, the films of Murnau were a constant and steady influence on my work, and that continued when I became an artist. It’s not even a question of compositional borrowing – as Murnau himself freely plundered the works of the painter Caspar David Friedrich to fuel his cinematic visions – but more a case of carrying a tune in my head, as if Murnau wrote the music that I move to.

Murnau and his producer Albin Grau got caught out in the act of theft when Grau’s production company lost the case brought against it by the widow of Bram Stoker for infringement of copyright, Nosferatu‘s plot having been all too obviously lifted from her late husband’s vampire novel, Dracula. First she demanded recompense, and when it became clear that the film, which had not been financially successful for its producer, was not to be milked for cash, then she embarked on a mission to have all copies of it destroyed, a goal that she would have accomplished had a very few copies of it not escaped her reach. (She had just sold the rights of the novel to Universal Pictures, who were about to film it with Bela Lugosi in the title role, and she was driven in her determination to wipe Nosferatu off the face of the earth so that it wouldn’t become any impediment to the deal.)

 

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From the beginning of the Hansel & Gretel project, when I was making the illustrations for the Random Spectacular picturebook of the fairytale, I had Nosferatu in the back of my mind. The vampire Count Orlock’s appearance was conceived by the film’s producer/designer Grau, who had founded his production company with the express purpose of making a film of Dracula, albeit without permission from the author’s estate. There seems to be no record of who created and applied the Orlock make-up, and it’s likely that in the custom of that time, Max Schreck, an experienced stage actor, would have been responsible for his own, though with a lot of input from Grau and Murnau.

My Hansel & Gretel witch, with her pate rendered skull-like by a close-fitting cap, and with her hawkish profile, slender fangs and extended, taloned fingers, riffed on Max Schreck’s appearance in the film. First in the book, and latterly in the stage production, her look was rooted in his.

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The landscapes of the stage production were also influenced by the film. The slow pans of the forest I used in the projected sequences, were inspired by both the pine forests of Murnau’s locations and the way he used the camera to shoot them. (There’s one particular – and beautiful – landscape camera pan in Nosferatu, that has a slight juddering quality that looks almost like stop-motion, and I borrowed the effect for several of the filmed Hansel & Gretel scenes.)

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The opening shot of the film foregrounds a tower, and I nodded to it in the building-blocks of Hansel & Gretel‘s toy-box.

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A detail I’ve always liked in the film is the hyena sequence Murnau was at pains to get, using footage he shot of a zoo specimen to illustrate a reference in the intertitles to werewolves. Although I didn’t make use of a hyena in my stage version of Hansel & Gretel, Simon Armitage made reference to one in his text, using the animal as a metaphor for Hansel’s unending hunger. That was all the encouragement I needed, and my ‘homage’ to Murnau’s werewolf ‘stand-in’ has found its place in the forthcoming published edition of the libretto.

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Probably the strangest and most sinister scene in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, is the one I reserved to capture imagery closest in style to the shadow world of Nosferatu. Using the specially painted and furnished doll’s house I provided for the scene, cameraman, Pete Telfer eerily – though beautifully – lit the model and then created a combination of unnervingly jerky zooms and insidiously gliding panning shots of its interior. The resulting shadowry is pure ‘Nosferatu’.

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To complete the homage to my satisfaction, I added a coffin-like chest as the sole item of furniture in one of the doll’s house rooms, to reference the coffin-in-the-cellar where Count Orlock sleeps away the daylight hours

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Of course, no-one in the audience is actually supposed to notice these references to a film most of them won’t even have seen, let alone recognise as being building blocks in my own work. The imagery of Hansel & Gretel is what it is because of the way I assembled the visual aesthetic of the stage production. Everything in it is seen from the children’s perspective, from the clockwork tin chickens that peck at the breadcrumbs Hansel lays as a trail home, to the vintage building blocks and brightly painted toy soldiers that stand in for the chaos of war all around. Everything visual in the production was chosen to support Matthew Kaner’s music and Simon Armitage’s text. The rest is my private game, though one that helped me quarry the character of the piece.

While Nosferatu laid out an iconography of images that film-makers and creatives have drawn on ever since, none have yet matched, or even come close to matching the miasma of dread in which the director drenched his subject matterThat has proved unique and consistently impossible to reproduce. Nosferatu continues to guard its mysteries, and all we can do is take the time to look and wonder at its achievements. There are so many moments in it that I love, though my favourite is unchanging. Borrowing from Bram Stoker’s plot device of transporting his undead Count as ‘cargo’ in the hold of a vessel, Murnau offers the unforgettable sight of the ‘death ship’ transporting Orlock gliding swiftly and silently into Bremen to disgorge its deadly plague of vampire and rats, and for me it’s the most beautiful and potent moment in the history of early cinema.

Vampires can’t beget children, at least not in the orthodox way. Nevertheless, Hansel & Gretel grew out of the fantastic tone poem of Murnau’s film, and that makes them, to a very great extent, Nosferatu’s children.

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Photograph courtesy of:

www.stillmovingmedia.co.uk

The Mare’s Tale Rises

 

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On Saturday, Here + Now: Eighty Years of Collecting Contemporary Art for Wales, opens at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff. Curated by Dr Peter Wakelin and made in association with the National Eisteddfod, the exhibition runs from 3rd – 11th August, and thereafter goes on a tour of Wales. One of the works on display is my large drawing of 2001, Stumbles and Cannot Rise from my Mari Lwyd series The Mare’s Tale, on loan from National Museum Wales.

It’s coincidental that the week the exhibition opens also marks the announcement that the Berkeley Ensemble will next year tour performances of composer Mark Bowden’s staggeringly atmospheric music work, with a libretto by Damian Walford Davies that drew inspiration from my drawings. The exciting news is that the Mare’s Tale tour is a national one, and there will be performances of it in England, Scotland and Wales, and I’m enormously obliged to the PRS Foundation, Creative Scotland and Arts Council NI for funding the project.

It’s thrilling news that two music works I’ve collaborated so closely on, Hansel and Gretel by composer Matthew Kaner and poet Simon Armitage for Kate Romano’s Goldfield Productions, currently on a tour of England, and The Mare’s Tale by Mark and Damian, are both being carried to a wide audience.

A live performance of Hansel and Gretel is to be broadcast later this year by Radio 3. Date to be announced.

Below: Stop-motion test made for a workshop performance of The Mare’s Tale in 2013.

 

Animating the Unspeakable

The Witch that appeared in the Random Spectacular published picture book of Hansel & Gretel (see above), had already been through a complex line of development from first ideas to finished illustrations by the time I came to re-think her for the stage production.

On the stage the children were to be presented as tabletop puppets made by the wonderful artist/puppet-maker Jan Zalud, based on designs that I’d produced as a guide and that the two of us continued to discuss in great detail throughout his process of making. The puppets’ wardrobes were supervised by Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths.

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But the Witch was always going to be conjured as a shadow screen presence, and in the end was produced as several articulated papercut puppets that were stop-motion operated on a light-box in the manner of the silhouette films made by the great pioneer animator, Lotte Reiniger.

My friend, artist Peter Lloyd, created the papercut puppets for the production. He started with basic designs I provided, and then freely elaborated on them. Peter added the extraordinary detail of the many eyes worked into the surface texture of the Witch’s arms and hands, borrowing the idea from the garment stitched with eyes that the character had worn in my original picturebook. I knew from the moment I saw the papercuts that he’d gifted me with an amazing reimagining of the Witch from the book. A villain needs to be visually fascinating, whether an evil genius or a predatory alien, and the Witch in Hansel & Gretel is no exception. Peter Lloyd’s witchy hands – which as I recall were the first papercuts he made of the character – have a filigree orientalist quality that any animator would be happy to work with. Every finger-joint was articulated, so that when I came to animate the hands (assisted by another artist/collaborator on the project, Phil Cooper), I had the best possible range of movement.

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The Witch papercuts were filmed by Pete Telfer of Culture Colony as black silhouettes on a white screen, but were reversed to negative in the editing process, to create a more ghostly effect.

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It’s a fact that I simply couldn’t have produced silhouette puppets as elaborate as Peter’s, as his paper-cutting skills are magnificent and far exceed my own. He created three versions of the Witch: large papercuts of her head and hands for close-up shots, and full-length cloaked and uncloaked representations of her, the latter revealing her full, hybrid crab/scorpion appearance. (Her lashing, scorpion tail was restless in the animations, a barometer – rather like a cat’s tail – of her temper.)

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Above and below: two of Peter Lloyd’s silhouettes for the Witch on his cutting board.

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There were some minor adjustments to the puppets made during the filming. On the last day of shooting I cannibalised parts from two of them to make a fourth version, in order to present the character in her death throes. In addition, Phil Cooper and I added some eyelids to the large head of the Witch, to enliven her expressions in close up. (In animation, the mechanisms of blinking play a huge part in bringing a character to life.) I adjusted the principal pivot points of the full length puppets, adding transparent, swivelling animation-levers to enlarge their repertoires of movement. That included repositioning the hips and rearranging the legs so as to make the knees reverse-jointed, resulting in a more bird-like gait. (See below.)

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The loosely-jointed fingers on the full-length puppets proved unwieldy on the animation screen as they kept shifting when I didn’t want them to, no matter how careful I was. So instead I made a virtue of the problem, being sure to keep them moving at all times. Later, in the editing suite with Jon Street at The Moth Factory in Bristol, when we heard Matt Kaner’s music for the scene for the first time, it turned out he’d made unnerving use of plucked strings, and the effect perfectly matched the Witch’s twitching, restless hands, as though her energy couldn’t be stilled. Creepy!

Close collaboration between the participating artists was crucial on the project. From the outset I’d wanted to enrich the visual aesthetic of what I’d already created by way of the Hansel & Gretel picturebook for Random Spectacular and the toy theatre for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, extending my earlier ideas by inviting those whose work I greatly admire to contribute to the stage production. Phil Cooper and I had already collaborated together on the video-trailer for the Random Spectacular picturebook, for which he’d made the set models. Peter Lloyd and Jan Zalud were both familiar with my work and well-prepared for the stage production, even though it departed from much of the material I’d made for the book. I made basic design templates that we all used to stay within the parameters of how the production would look, and they ensured consistency across the board. Everything was discussed at length. It was teamwork from start to finish.

 

 

Supervising Designer and Animator – Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Shadow Puppets – Peter Lloyd

Models, Background Paintings and Assistant Animator – Philip Cooper

Tabletop Puppets – Jan Zaud

Puppet Wardrobe by Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths

 

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Above: photograph courtesy of Philip Cooper

 

4 * Review for Hansel & Gretel from Rian Evans in The Guardian

Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham


In this striking modern update, set to words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner, the children are refugees and the fairytale is a nightmare

Pulling all the strings … Hansel & Gretel.
Pulling all the strings … Hansel & Gretel with Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Photograph: Spencer McPherson/Still Moving Media

Not a sugary dream, but a nightmare in eight scenes: make no bones about poet Simon Armitage’s contemporary retelling of the tale most familiar in the Brothers Grimm version. Hansel and Gretel’s plight becomes that of child refugees, whose parents’ agonising decision is to abandon their offspring to give them their only chance of surviving war. Armitage took his cue from the darkly imaginative illustrations by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has now translated those original visions into a puppet show with new music by Matthew Kaner. In this premiere performance at the Cheltenham Festival, staged by Goldfield Productions, what appeared at first to be a slight, small-scale affair in the end resonated altogether more deeply.

Kaner’s quintet of players – strings, wind and toy pianos – were arranged on either side of a screen whose animated shadow play featured first the parents and then the ravenous craw of the archaeopteryx-like witch. On the central trestle table were Hansel and Gretel, wooden puppets barely a foot high that were manipulated by Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. It was the intimacy of tiny gestures offering expressive detail, in turn mirroring Kaner’s musical mood, that spoke volumes. Armitage’s words are the constantly shining white pebbles guiding the piece; his final verbal riff on light and dark will be even better savoured on the published page. Narrator Adey Grummet – twice bursting into sung lines – emphasised the mix of humour and satire with the moments of dystopian horror, making this an all too timely reminder of some children’s living, waking, starving nightmare.

 

Rian Evans

Touring until 4 November.

 

 

Lichfield Festival ‘Young Critics Review’ of Hansel & Gretel

The unique and intriguing story telling of Hansel and Gretel at the Lichfield studio combined together the art forms of puppetry, music, poetry, projections and song in a bewitching sensory masterpiece.

What struck me most about the performance was the beautifully winding language  written by the poet, Simon Armitage. The day “stagnated to evening” then “curdled to dusk”. This is one of the many uses of dark imagery which created the sinister mood and captured the attention of the audience by its almost hypnotic verse.

One part which I did not expect from Hansel and Gretel was the incorporation of humour. When Gretel begins to believe that the old woman may eat them, an image of a soup can with ‘Heinzel und Gretel’ appears on the projection behind. This was definitely unexpected, and, in response, a shaky laughter sounded from the audience!

I also loved the interaction between the narrator and the puppets themselves. When Hansel decided to steal a loaf of bread the speaker read: “It’s theft”. There was a sudden complete silence; the puppets suddenly swerved their heads around to look at the narrator in shock. Unlike most performances the usual barrier between performer and story teller wasn’t afraid to be crossed adding distinctiveness and character.

Props were effectively used, turning unsuspecting, innocent events into something more sinister. As soon as Hansel began to follow his trail of crumbs, clockwork cockerels were used, ‘pecking’ at the ground with an eerie repetitive motion. The puppets themselves also looked like something from a haunted house, setting me on edge from the very beginning, the screen behind enlarging their image in black and white.

I thought the music echoed the script well; when Hansel and Gretel found the house of sweets in the woods, the music became hectic and crazed, a xylophone highlighted the children’s desperation to eat as much sugar as possible. Trees were knocked over and part of the house collapsed. Again, this performance changes the common perception of joy in this scene to a slow drunkenness as the puppets devour more and more sweets.

The piece was also very abstract – instead of a puppet of an evil old woman, the single claw of a bird was shown behind, beckoning to Hansel and Gretel. The parents were shown as hunched figures in aboriginal styled patterns – all of which added further interest for the audience.

This intensive, visual performance of Hansel and Gretel, thundered with creativity, was very tightly executed and left me feeling overwhelmed and in awe of what this talented ensemble had achieved.

By Emily Robson

Deadline Hell

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Above: rendering of a double-spread endpaper for the new Hansel & Gretel book

Project: illustrating the poem of Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage, first commissioned as the ‘libretto’ to composer Matthew Kaner’s music. (The Goldfield Productions stage version of Hansel & Gretel, directed by me, is currently on a national tour.)

Below: the woodcutter and his wife rendered on layers of lithography film

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Publisher: the brilliant Design for Today.

Brief: to make a beautiful illustrated first edition of Simon Armitage’s poem, that while visually referencing the visual aesthetic of the current stage production, is a reading experience in contrast to a listening one.

Below: still from a stop-motion animation sequence that’s projected during performances of the work

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It’s also the opportunity to work with a publisher with whom I share a love of vintage illustration and the art of lithography.

Below: trial image for the book, produced on layers of lithography film

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Technique: images made on paper and lithography film, to be printed in layers of colour.

Deadline: don’t ask.

Below: cavalry-officer rendered on layers of lithography film

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People ask me: “How many illustrations in the book? How many have you completed? How long will it take to finish?” (Do they imagine this helps?) Each day I strike a bit more off the to-do list. I’ve divided the project into quarters, the idea being that it’s marginally less pressurising to look each day at the more manageable goal of a section of the book, than the dauntingly long list of images for the entire damned thing. And I’m working in order of chronology, from the front endpapers and title page through to the acknowledgements and ‘end’ endpapers, to halt the tyranny of vacillating over what to do when I walk into the studio of a morning, and to even out the work process so that I don’t draw all my favourite bits first.

Q: Will it be done in time?

A: Of course.

Q: How is this to be achieved?

A: I don’t know. Magic?

Q: Are you confident that you won’t overshoot the deadline?

A: Absolutely. Pretty much. At least I am when people leave me alone to get on with it, instead of offering unasked for estimations based on how long it takes me to make a single drawing and then multiplying that X 40. Well, 40-ish. At this point I should add that Joe the publisher never asks these questions. Joe is unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic, there when I need him and not in the least pressurising.

Q: Are you pleased with what you’re producing?

A: You bet.

Q: What are you going to do when it’s done?

A: Sleep!

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In Rehearsal on the Stage of Milton Court Theatre at Barbican

 

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Hansel & Gretel in a workshop rehearsal at Milton Court Theatre last week. Puppeteers Diana Ford (left) and Lizzie Wort (right) play the roles, and interestingly swop puppets during the process, so each plays both characters.

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Poet and author of the Hansel & Gretel text, Simon Armitage, drops in on rehearsals at the Milton Court Theatre, Barbican and meets Gretel, here being introduced by her director!

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Photos courtesy of Phil Cooper