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

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

 

Into the Haunted Doll’s House

On stage, scene 6 of Hansel & Gretel is the most atmospheric yet disturbing in the production. Both the music and the text for it are different in tone to any of the scenes before or after. Gretel has just shoved the witch in her own red-hot cauldron, and though we might expect brother and sister to leg it out of the house as fast as they can, instead Simon Armitage, who has written the poem that is the narrative of our production, leads them, and us, deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s a classic horror-movie scenario of innocents in jeopardy, and I’m reminded of the moment from Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, descends into the cellar of the murderer’s lair.

Matt Kaner threads his music sinuously through Simon’s text, and the result is bone-chilling.

House where the dark broods

House where the dark blooms

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I began my work on the scene by laying out ideas for the production team about what the visuals might be. Simon had written an evocative ‘stage direction’ for it, though that was more by way of a suggestion of mood rather than anything too specific. He was always clear that he was happy to allow us the freedom to interpret.

To begin with I intended to film footage on location in abandoned and derelict buildings, looking particularly at cellars and rooms without windows. There had been much in the news about men (it always seems to be men) who imprison young women in cellars for decades, fathering children on them and keeping these ‘hidden families’ in isolation. But after long consideration I came to the conclusion that such a stark, documentary-like contrast to all the other visual aspects of the production, would be too great, and gradually the idea of location filming began to be replaced with the idea of a nightmarish doll’s house.

Below: cameraman Pete Telfer begins to shape the ‘haunted’ doll’s house with lighting rigs. His work on the sequence is immaculate.

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Most of my visual references stemmed from German Expressionist films of the 1910s – 1930s, with a spattering of American Gothic (most significantly Hitchcock’s Psycho) thrown in. The model is a complete four-story building with eight rooms leading off the spine of four sizeable hallways/landings through which the twisting stairways rise. In the event only just over half of the house was prepared for the camera, as the rest of the space was required for the lighting-rigs. (But I’m going to complete the as yet undecorated spaces shortly, and also paint the exterior of the house.)

The rooms were furnished with commercially available doll’s house furniture, much of which I carefully broke before texturising and painting. (Texture was grit gathered from the floor of my attic-studio, mixed into gouache and applied to rooms and furnishings in layers of ashy grey.)

Cameraman Pete Telfer produced wonderfully elegant and atmospheric gliding shots by panning a camera secured on a tripod, contrasting with the jerky, nervy ‘point-of-view’ footage achieved with a tiny hand-held cam the size of a golf ball. When edited together, the dual techniques were less destabilising for an audience than had we used a shaky hand-held throughout.

The making of the doll’s house is an extraordinary story for another time, though for now this post is the acknowledgement that without Simon Coupland, Jana Wagenkenecht and Stephanie Davies, it simply wouldn’t have happened. They were heroes, key to the whole endeavour and their part in it will be fully acknowledged and described at the Artlog later this year. (They know the reasons why I’m deferring the moment.)

An honourable mention, too, for Jon Street of The Moth Factory, Bristol, who guided me so unerringly through the film editing process, and contributed so generously at every stage of it. Everything, in the end, is collaboration.

Final word. Audiences have not see the last of the haunted doll’s house. Watch this space.

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Broken furniture piled high in the haunted doll’s house.

House where the light peeps

House where the dark leaks

House where the light bleeds

House where the dark weeps

 

Extracts are from the poem Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage.

 

The Soldier at Segura

 

 

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On Wednesday May 16th, my animation of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale will be screened at the Música en Segura festival in Andalusia, in a spanking new version I’ve edited in association with festival director Daniel Broncano.

The Bad Mother’s Death Revealed: a Spoiler!

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In the Grimm brother’s Hansel & Gretel, the children experience in short order, parental abandonment, possible starvation and/or death by exposure, and capture by an apex predator who intends to murder and eat them. When Gretel sees an opportunity to escape, she seizes it, even though it means committing an act of grotesque homicide. So it’s almost inconceivable that at the point she frees Hansel from his cage and the two leave the Witch’s cottage, the place they head for is home, where their troubles originated. But then again, they’re just children, so where else would they go?

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Above: vintage illustration of Hansel and Gretel returning to their relieved father.

From the start when I began reacquainting myself with the story, I was bothered by the notion that they’d return to their abusers, the bad mother who hatched the plan to abandon them in the wood and the weak father who’d complied with her. But then there’s that unconvincing aside offered by way of an explanation at the conclusion of the narrative, that the mother has died in the interim. So that’s alright then. The worst of the two has gone, and so with only a formerly henpecked weak man in charge of things, we can assume that everything will be OK, right?

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Above: illustration from the book before the colour separations were added.

I never bought that bit about the mother having popped her clogs. It felt like an afterthought. And there’s nothing to indicate that the children could have known she’d died in their absence, so the fact of it can’t have affected their decision to return. Nevertheless, that’s what the Grimms wrote, and as I prepared to edit the story down to what would work in a picture book, I had to come to grips with the fact.

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Above: illustration from the book before the colour separations were added.

I went through many stages of attempting to make the issue of the mother’s death feel less tacked-on. Finally, in the book as published, I lodged visual clues that indicate what happened ‘off-stage’ in the children’s absence. It begins elusively at the start of the story, in the illustration of the Bad Mother ordering Hansel and Gretel from the house. All the reader’s attention is on the raw expression of hate on the woman’s face as she hurls the words ‘Get lost!’ at the bewildered children. Simultaneously her husband, almost unnoticed, turns from the event, walking away while carrying the tool of his occupation, a hefty wood-axe. That axe only makes two appearances in the book, and the second one can leave us in no doubt as to what became of the mother in the children’s absence.

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Above: early maquettes of the Weak Father and the Bad Mother.

When working with the maquettes that I customarily build to work out compositional ideas, I toyed with the possibility of showing more specifically what became of the mother. In the end, I eschewed the explicitness and found a better way to convey the scenario as a mystery. But here, on the Artlog where few will see, are the maquette actors playing out the the mother’s death scene as it isn’t depicted in the book!

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Hansel & Gretel was published in 2016 by Random Spectacular, and is available

HERE

Hansel & Gretel: Don’t Go Into The Wood!

Producing the Hansel & Gretel book-trailer was a team effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of my collaborators.
Film: Culture Colony Vision
Models: Philip Cooper
Music: Kate Romano

Hansel & Gretel Prelude performed on the toy piano by Kate Romano and recorded by Rob Godman

I’ve worked with Pete Telfer of Culture Colony Vision many times over the past ten years. He’s produced several films about my practice as an artist. Pete was cameraman and all round facilitator on the animated film I made to accompany Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival, and he filmed and edited the animation and model sequences for the music theatre project of The Mare’s Tale. (Composed by Mark Bowden in 2013 with a text by Damian Walford Davies.) Pete gently guides me through the processes of my ‘film’ projects. He is unfailingly supportive and manages the delicate business of giving me enough freedom to experiment, while ensuring that I don’t make a complete dick of myself.

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Phil Cooper and I have been friends ever since he caught a train from London to turn up at a maquette-making workshop I gave in Swansea that I was quite sure no-one would attend. He is a maker to his fingertips. When I saw some of the models he was producing as part of his exploration on the theme of German Expressionist film, I pounced and asked whether he’d consider creating a model version of the witch’s house for my Hansel & Gretel book-trailer. He used my drawings as a starting point, and then freely extemporised on the theme. I love what he created.

In September 2016 Phil arrived at Aberystwyth station carrying a suitcase packed with all the models and materials necessary to make his magic in our dining-room-turned-pop-up-animation-studio. Out came the steeply-pitched cottage, the conical-roofed tower, the boulders and ruined archway and a huge variety of trees, enough to cover the dining-table in an arboretum of impressive dimensions. We reconfigured the set several times over the two days, to get the most film coverage, and Phil glued and brushed and tacked cloth and crumpled tissue paper into the strange topographies of our fairy-tale wood. Moreover between the set-building and tweaking, he took to animation as though he’d been doing it for years.

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Kate Romano came late to the team. Just as I was beginning to panic that my original idea of creating a music free soundtrack for the trailer out of strange noises – all of which I’d have to create and record – wasn’t going to work, I took it into my head to suggest that she record a few bars on one of her toy pianos for me to use within the soundtrack. Kate suggested that she take a tilt at composing a beginning-to-end accompaniment for the film, and her Prelude for Hansel & Gretel, played on a two octave toy piano, is the result. I wasn’t able to show Kate any footage before she wrote and recorded the music, though she’d seen a dummy copy of the picture book. The character of what she produced was perfect, and Pete and I cut the trailer to fit it. I think the music is better for not having been tailored shot by shot. I was able to synchronise images to the soundtrack where the fit was good, and to cut across it when that seemed the better option.

Rob Godman is a composer in his own right, and a friend and regular collaborator with Kate. However I’ve never met him, and so his contribution of recording her playing of Prelude for Hansel & Gretel is a particularly generous one. He has my heartfelt thanks.

In 2014 Simon Lewin of St Jude’s undertook to publish my proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel  under his Random Spectacular imprint. His support underpinned the project from start to finish. The book-trailer has been made to celebrate our bringing the picture-book to its conclusion.

Hansel & Gretel 

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular, November 2016

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanning by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

Random Spectacular is the publishing imprint of design collective and print gallery, St Jude’s. The imprint was launched in 2011, providing the opportunity for St Jude’s to explore further collaborations in printed and audio form.

The picture book will be available for pre-order at Random Spectacular from Monday 30th October. (Halloween!)

www.randomspectacular.co.uk

Don’t Go Into the Wood!

 

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The past days have been a frenzy of activity. On Thursday my friend Phil Cooper arrived at Aberystwyth station with a knapsack, a taped-together makeshift portfolio and a mysterious suitcase. At Ty Isaf the portfolio yielded the painted backdrop of a night sky, while out of the suitcase spilled box after box packed with the models Phil had prepared for two days of filming the book-trailer we’re putting together in advance of the November launch of Hansel & Gretel, a picture-book commissioned from me by Simon Lewin for his Random Spectacular imprint. I finished the artwork earlier this year, and right now Simon is in the process of seeing the project through the design and printing processes.

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Phil (pictured above) took my images for the book as his starting point for the models, but then extemporised and got playful with them. The idea was not so much to imitate the illustrations as to create a ‘constructed’ universe which might have been their source. In a way the book-trailer is in the mould of those opening credits for films wherein the mood is set for what follows. Saul Bass did it magnificently for Psycho and Anatomy of a Murder. Phil was given his head to make his own interpretation of my drawings, and he’s risen to the challenge with tremendous ingenuity. Experiencing them was a strange combination of the familiar and the oddly different. (The way dreams sometimes are.)

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This is not the first time the dining-room at Ty Isaf has been turned into a pop-up animation studio. All of the animation footage for The Mare’s Tale, the 2013 chamber-work by composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies, was filmed here, as was the animated presentation I made to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival. Film-maker and cameraman Pete Telfer worked on those projects too. There’s an ease in the relationship between us that makes for good collaboration.

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Above: I took this over Pete’s shoulder as he composed his shot in the viewfinder of his camera while I watched on the monitor. What’s on the table in front of us bears no resemblance to what you’ll see in the trailer. The chaotic is processed and rendered into magical order by the alchemy of lights and camera.

It takes a while to get the feel for models and how to light and shoot them. The first morning of work was hesitant as we arranged and rearranged the witch’s cottage hemmed in by trees, and everything was rather cautious and stilted. Like the first day of school! A couple of set-ups into the afternoon and the creativity was flowing freely, and by the evening we’d got some lovely shots into the can.

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Saturday began early for me as I wanted to get a story-board ready before Pete arrived for the day’s work. Although I’d had a rough idea of what I wanted to achieve, it had taken the arrival of the models and seeing how they looked in front of the camera to clarify how best to proceed. By 10.30 am Pete was adjusting his lights and Phil and I were puppeteering boards and torches to create a restless nightscape of animated shadows. I always know Pete is in the zone when he begins to march up to a model and shift things around. When that starts to happen, we’re up and away.

In the afternoon we struck the forest set and began work on the makeshift animation-table I’ve used for all my film projects. (Animation-table is a grand word for a large sheet of rough plywood coated with blackboard paint.) The ‘text’ for the book-trailer was hand-written – and occasionally animated – in white crayon on a black ground, in ‘homage’ to the chalkboard title-sequence of my favourite film bar none, Jean Cocteau’s ravishing fairy-tale of 1946, La belle et la bête.

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Hansel & Gretel are absent from the trailer, though another character makes a partial and unnerving appearance. But for that, you’ll have to wait! We edit on the 17th and the trailer will be available for viewing shortly thereafter. Look out for it.