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

 

Wood Into Flesh and Blood

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In my designs for the tabletop-puppets of Hansel and Gretel, made to guide master puppet-maker Jan Zalud in the complex task of building our wooden actors, I sketched unclothed versions so that the proportions of the characters could be seen.

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Items of clothing were of the stick-over variety used for old-fashioned paper dolls, offered more by way of a starting point for puppet wardrobe supervisor, Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths.

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Costuming puppets is a rather hard to define and alchemical skill. It’s the final, transformative stage that comes before entrusting the wooden actors to the puppeteers who will give them life. Flesh and blood performers can take ownership of what’s worn on stage to the point where the warmth and shape of bodies moulds garments so that they stop being ‘costumes’ and become clothes.

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But for the inert, wooden actor, the wardrobe supervisor has to take things several stages further in order for the illusion of the character’s history to be present. It requires a forensic approach to detail, because all the clues of subtle ownership and everyday wear and tear have to be crafted into garments worn by actors unable to add any history of their own. Care must be taken so that miniaturisation doesn’t become a distraction. Meticulously crafting a miniature zip, while impressive at a technical level, has the potential to be a distraction from the puppet’s performance. So there needs to be a careful shorthand, paring away extraneous detail while leaving just enough to be convincing. It’s an illusory craft, because it mustn’t draw attention to itself, which is harder than it sounds.

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Oonagh and I will meet our puppet actors for the first time in London later this month. We’re greatly anticipating the moment. I’ve wanted to collaborate with Jan Zalud for the longest time, but the stars didn’t align for us to do so until this project. Oonagh and I will be able to closely examine Hansel and Gretel and take measurements of them. Her task of compiling photographic references began several weeks ago, but once she can see exactly what she’ll be costuming, the work of bringing wood to life can begin.

 

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Hansel & Gretel is Coming!

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The Premiere at the Cheltenham Festival is on July 7th.

Box Office open from April 4th.

Words: Simon Armitage
Music: Matthew Kaner
Visual Direction: Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Dramaturgy: Caroline Clegg
Producer: Kate Romano for Goldfield Productions

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Puppets: Jan Zalud

Model Sets: Philip Cooper

Shadow Puppets: Peter Lloyd

Puppet Wardrobe Supervisor: Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths