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

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

House where the dark breeds

House where the dark breathes

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.

 

4-Star Review for Hansel & Gretel in The Guardian

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Above: Hansel & Gretel, with Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Puppet design by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Photographed for The Guardian by Spencer McPherson/Still Moving Media

Hansel & Gretel premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival to a packed auditorium in the beautiful theatre of the Parabola Arts Centre on Saturday. Rian Evans gave the production a 4-star review in The Guardian.

Read it HERE.

Music by Matthew Kaner

Poetry by Simon Armitage

Direction and Design Supervision by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Dramaturgy by Caroline Clegg

Produced by Kate Romano for Goldfield Productions

Narrator/Singer, Adey Grummet

Puppeteers, Di Ford and Lizzie Wort

Music performed by the Goldfield Ensemble

Puppets made by Jan Zalud

Puppet wardrobe supervision by Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths

Models and collages by Phil Cooper

Paper-cuts by Peter Lloyd

Animation by Clive Hicks-Jenkins assisted by Phil Cooper

Model and Animation Camera, Pete Telfer of Culture Colony

Vision Mixer and Production Cameraman, Jon Street of The Moth Factory

Lighting Design by David Abra

Listings information: touring dates 2018

  • Cheltenham Festival WORLD PREMIERE 7th July
  • Lichfield Festival ‘book at bedtime’, Lichfield Guildhall 13th July
  • Lichfield Festival matinee, Garrick Theatre 14th July
  • Three Choirs Festival, Tomkins Theatre 29th July
  • Oxford Contemporary Music, St Barnabas Church 14th September
  • Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York 3rd October
  • Barbican Milton Court Concert Hall LONDON PREMIERE 12th October
  • Canterbury Festival, Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall 21st October
  • Bath Spa University, Michael Tippett Centre 24th October
  • Letchworth, Broadway Theatre 4th November