Sugar Rush

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Above, the Witch meets a bad end, shoved into a cauldron of molten Foam Shrimps, Jelly Beans, Glacier Mints and Liquorice Allsorts!

My task of illustrating Simon Armitage’s poem Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes, has been completed. It has been the most exciting work, especially coming at the conclusion of rehearsals for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel that I directed for its six month tour with the Goldfield Ensemble..

One of the things about any text presented on a stage, is that there never seems quite enough room within the short duration of a performance – especially one in which the words are set to music – to explore it as thoroughly as can be managed in a book. So the Design for Today edition of the text is my opportunity to really foreground Simon’s magnificent wordplay. A couple of weeks ago I carried all the original artwork in portfolios to London to deliver to Joe Pearson at Design for Today, and everything is currently being scanned, cleaned, layered and coloured by Joe and his assistant, Laurence.

I’m cock-a-hoop with the design for the book, which is just perfect. It’ll be out in the Spring. Stay tuned for updates re. pre-ordering, plus news of the special edition. (Which will come with two additional images printed by Dan Bugg at Penfold Press.)

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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:

HERE

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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 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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Soldier Blue

 

This animation sequence made for the stage production of Hansel & Gretel was unplanned, added to the last half hour of a day’s filming when the idea of marching the toy soldiers through the archway came to me. In the event only a flash of it appears in the production, which is a shame because the bit I like most – right at the end – was left out.

Filming was tricky. The model was very small and the narrow archway meant having to move the toy soldiers through it with tweezers. In fact the steps were so narrow and the soldiers’ bases so tiny that there were times when getting the little fellows in place and balanced long enough for a shot, was challenging. The model wasn’t fixed, but made of loose and unstable blocks, so my every clumsy nudge as I animated made the building appear to wobble in the finished footage. I don’t mind that, as I think it adds charm to the sequence.

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For me, the most touching thing about how this particular animation sequence came about, is that the little dogs were a tender gift from my friend Angela Beaumont, who sent them – ostensibly to Jack – to make me smile at a time when she knew I was worried about his deteriorating health. As it happened the miniature parcel arrived by post the day he died, and the pic of its contents lying in their wrappings next to Jack on his blanket in the window-seat, was the last photograph I took of him.

Over the weeks following Jack’s death, I made several arrangements of the vintage Netherlandish building-blocks (a gift from my friend Mathijs Van Soest), the tin cavalryman, the handful of toy soldiers (which are actually miniature skittles) and of course the pair of tiny dogs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs got into the picture too, though only temporarily. Ideas for the production were cooking. This is the way I often work as I prepare a project, whether a painting or animation or a model for a book illustration. I constantly build and re-build in different configurations, adding and removing elements, trying out unlikely combinations. It’s a process of play, and somewhere en route, a few ideas coalesce into something that I realise might be heading toward a solution. Simon Armitage’s text for Hansel & Gretel makes reference to the flags of opposing factions, and so I cut paper pennants to tape to the toy soldiers. I made numerous adjustments to the archway, tweaking and finessing.

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When the time came to film animation sequences of the children’s playthings and the war-torn devastation of their community, I realised I could use the building blocks, tin cavalryman and toy soldiers to represent both. Later I decided to put the building blocks and cavalryman on stage, as well as on film, so that Hansel and Gretel could play with them in their bedroom. (For the stage, I’d reversibly glue the blocks together so that the archway wouldn’t collapse during the live action.)

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By animating the toys in the screened sequences, it was possible to bring them to life, suggesting to the audience the children’s imaginative powers to transform the devastation of war and bombings into something they could – at least in part – control.

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Above: the devastation of war represented by ruined buildings, fallen soldiers and stricken animals.

Below: order (and life) restored through the power of play.

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I would have liked to explore more notions of the redemptive power of play. But a production of this complexity – text and music combined with live performances, puppetry and pre-recorded visuals – allows only so much time within its length to piece all the elements together to make sense. The stage performance of Hansel & Gretel lasts just an hour, and there must be the space within that for everything to work without any sense of it being too crammed with ideas. Images have to work alongside words and music, illuminating without overwhelming. I had to simplify.

The ‘making’ time we had on the production was extremely short, followed by all of the filming requirements scheduled into just three days, which is not much at all when you take account of the changes of camera and lighting set-ups, arranging the models and building and striking the heavy animation screen required for the shadow-puppet sequences. We filmed many models: the various set-ups of the forest, the exterior of the witch’s house and the four-storey ‘doll’s house’ used for the interiors, the many set-ups of  the ‘archway’, both intact and in ruins, the ‘mechanical bird’ and scores of ‘still’ shots used to in-fill animation sequences. There were large numbers of complex shadow-screen animations of the parents, of several versions of the witch, and of the extremely-difficult-to-film and labour-intensive ‘dancing Lebkuchen biscuits’, which slid about on the sloping animation board and created endless problems. Phil Cooper – who assisted with the animation – joined me in turning the air blue as we wrangled those damned Lebkuchen into submission!

Cameraman Pete Telfer and I have been working together now for many years and he’s always game for anything I suggest, helping me find ways to achieve the ‘vision’. But though we have a sort of shorthand that enables us to work creatively even when against the clock, this project was beyond any normal definition of ambitious. Phil wasn’t available for all the sessions, which slowed things down on the days he couldn’t be with us. The quality of filmed imagery I wanted for the production was extraordinarily diverse and complex to bring to completion, and in the end I overran the filming schedule by a day.

The editing was at the Moth Factory in Bristol. Jon Street, our amazing editor/vision-mixer, was heroic in finding solutions to the many problems I threw at him. He listened not only to what I asked for, but read between the lines at every stage, working away quietly to find solutions to things he knew I was worrying about though not voicing.

When all the visuals had been fitted to the music and words, we spent a long afternoon colour balancing and adjusting the tonal values of the footage, adding the rich blues we wanted to unify many of the model and papercut animation sequences, and enhancing the shadows.

Below: Jon at the Moth Factory, colour balancing footage of the forest.

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Later, in rehearsals, the film elements of Hansel & Gretel that had been edited to quite rough early recordings of the work, had to be re-shaped to the live music and words, and the editing was for the last time tweaked into shape. In the performances, Jon is behind the camera that streams images of the live puppetry to the screen, and there is no-one better suited to the job because he has such intimate knowledge of how all the pieces of this production fit together. So many people work to bring a project of this scale to the stage, and the individual contributions can’t be measured on a scale. But if there were one, he’d be pretty high up on it. Such insight, good judgement and multiple technical skills – combined with good humour, patience and infinite generosity – don’t usually come in a single package, though in Jon, they do. He’s a champion! We originally came to work together in 2014 on another music/theatre piece, The Mare’s Tale (music by Mark Bowden and words by Damian Walford Davies), and I have Pete Telfer, who was cameraman on that project too, to thank for the introduction. I wouldn’t want to work on any project like this without Pete or Jon.

In creative matters, one thing leads to another. When puppeteer Lizzie Wort watched the animation sequence of the toy soldiers marching through the archway, she went off by herself to work with the model, and produced a lovely sequence in which Gretel pushes soldiers through the archway. It makes for a wonderful reference from live-action to animation and back again, and it shows the rich levels of creativity that can develop when performers and artists are alert to each other’s work, delighting in and then borrowing ideas to run with them and build moments that link, rebound and resonate.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins. August 2018