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.

Dark Movements: ‘the quickening’

Here I show the early stages of work on the painting The Quickening, currently underway. I’ve included images from other paintings and drawings that I’m referencing into it. You might call this post a combination of mood-board and progress report.

Below: the briefest sketch shapes the composition

before being worked out more completely

Below: key aspects get worked out in more detail

Below: the foliate-patterned ground to my recent cover for Marly Youmans’ new novel, is sticking like a burr to my coat-tails, and is set to be reinvented to play a significant role in the new works…

… as is the rendering of the bird

Last Year’s Hervé and the Wolf series of paintings, set the tone for ‘Dark Movements’

Underdrawing for The Quickening. (detail)

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So many things are meeting in these new works: my original drawings for The Mare’s Tale (and my family history that underlies them), the recent collaborations with my model, Jordan Morley, themes of greening and renewal, my love and use of toy theatre in my practice, and of course, that old discipline of mine, long behind me but always present in my mind… and in muscle-memory… the dance.

I am pleased to announce that the composer Peter Byrom-Smith, will be providing a soundtrack of new music to accompany the exhibition, both in the gallery, and as a soundtrack to the animated film Dark Movements that I’m working on with my regular collaborator, film-maker Pete Telfer of Culture Colony. The film will be screened in a dedicated space within the gallery. There will also be new work from the American poet Jeffery Beam, who has been closely watching my progress on Dark Movements, and has produced a poetic text to accompany the recent paintings.

Composer, Peter Byrom-Smith

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Poet, Jeffrey Beam

modes of locomotion

Above and below: Mari Lwyd maquette under construction

This is by way of a little demonstration of the ways in which ideas evolve. A little while ago I posted an edited sequence of puppetry done with the Mari Lwyd maquette I made in the form of a skeletal horse for The Mare’s Tale. In the sequence the maquette had been fitted with rods and operated on a slope-board by two puppeteers. In the production we used only flashes of the sequence, far less than you’ll see here. In fact I probably showed too little of it, having erred on the side of less is more. Here it is again, for a recap.

Edited rod-puppet sequence for The Mare’s Tale

A few weeks before filming the rod-puppet horse, I’d made a stop-motion test of the same maquette, followed by some stop-motion tests of the mumming-figure maquettes of the Groom, Judy (or the He/She) and a Foliate Man, the last of which is not to my knowledge part of the Mari Lwyd tradition. (I added him for visual diversity.)

Below: maquettes under construction

I learned a lot from the tests, and although we filmed further stop-motion sequences for the production, I used them only subliminally as I didn’t like the quality nearly as much as the filming done after I’d fitted the maquettes with rods. (I have ideas about experimenting further with stop-motion, using out of focus and a moving background of dust and detritus. I need to dirty the whole thing up a bit.)

The idea of fitting the maquette with rods only came about as I played with the skeletal horse  while trying to find stranger movement potential for it. It’s interesting to compare the two skeletal horse sequences. And by the way, it is the same puppet, even though in the rod-puppet sequence it appears facing the other way. The cameraman is Pete Telfer.

Stop-motion tests for The Mare’s Tale

Give a Maquette a Home…

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Myself, Shani Rhys James, Meri Wells, Stephen West, Gillian Clarke and many others are donating work to a benefit auction in support of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre Campaign Group Legal Defence Fund.

In common with most who saw Peter Shaffer’s play Equus when it first appeared at the Old Vic in 1973, I was in equal parts enthralled by its stage-craft and shocked by the atrocity at its heart. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, the play would stay with me from that moment on, for the most part lying dormant, but occasionally stirring to take centre-stage in my work. (You can read about my relationship with the play, HERE.)

For the auction I’m offering a maquette of a horse/man hybrid that I made originally as a compositional aid when preparing images for the Old Stile Press 2009 illustrated edition of Equus.

Above: page-opening from the Old Stile Press illustrated edition of the play

After doing stirling work on the edition, the paper horse/man disappeared into my archive for a rest, before re-emerging for an animation sequence in Pete Telfer’s short 2011 documentary about my use of maquettes, which you can view HERE. The same year he was shown at my retrospective at the National Library of Wales. Finally, in 2013 he won a starring role with Penguin Modern Classics on the cover of the re-edition of Equus in a new livery.

So having been central to a significant body of my work, the little puppet has never before been offered for sale. However, funds are urgently needed for this cause, and so I’ve framed him ready for the auction. (He’s held in position under the glass by very light paper tabs, and so anyone wanting to take him out of the frame, perhaps to blu-tack him to a wall as he’s been accustomed to in my studio, could easily pull him free.)

Please come to enjoy the auction and to buy.

If you cannot attend the event, sealed bids can be accepted by Carol Nixon at

carol.nixon2012@btinternet.com or  by post to her at Tyngwndwn, Penuwch, Tregaron, SY25 6RA.

Auction Venue: Y Morlan, Queens Rd. Aberystwyth

Date: 22nd February 2014

Time: 7.30 pm start. Viewing: 6.00pm

 Statement on behalf of Auriel Martin

Auriel is truly grateful for the support shown by the public and the artistic community over the past 9 months. The end is now hopefully in sight with a 28th February date for her return to work pencilled. She would have been unable to defend her position without the support (both emotional and financial) that she received from friends old and new and the artworks that have been donated for auction are a precious resource given in good spirit and received with humble thanks and appreciation.

aftermath

Above: all of the work laid out ready for packing.

Pete Telfer’s camera and lighting-rig have been removed, and the window-shutters thrown open to let in the sun. Since Monday our dining-room has been an animation studio. Anyone entering over the past three days would have found it a dark cavern but for the pools of brightness over the ‘slope-board’ serving as the makeshift animation-table. We’ve all edged our ways round tripods and piled furniture and lay-outs of maquettes being readied for scenes. There have been collisions that shifted the camera or wobbled the lights, and many a case of the animator’s shadow in frame, spoiling the shot. We’ve scrabbled around for tiny but vital ‘props’ that have disappeared under discarded maquettes and scenery. All the usual hazards of working in a confined space.

James Slater arrived to watch the proceedings, and before I knew it was on his knees assisting in the animating. During the ride in the Devil’s coach, he took over the coach with the Devil and Joseph inside it, leaving me to better concentrate on the two fully-articulated skeleton coach horses… one overlapping the other… that required all my concentration. And when the sequence was played back, my apprentice animator had completed his task beautifully. I would certainly not be able to stand on a podium and conduct an orchestra, but James-the-conductor took to animating like a duck to water!  By midnight we’d got the last scene in the can, and we were done.

Above: lettering for the opening credits.

There’ve been several moments of dark despair, and not a few of delight when all went according to plan, or even exceeded anticipation.  Now there is the ‘putting together’ to be done, and for that we must decamp to an editing suite. It has been, as these things usually are, a kind of chaos out of which order must be made to emerge.

Time to pack everything away. There’s an exhibition planned in 2015 of the artwork for both The Soldier’s Tale and The Mare’s Tale. But right now I intend a series of gallery paintings using The Soldier’s Tale as my theme, and the work done for the animation will kick start it. (The love-child, I think, of Otto Dix and Chagall, if you can imagine that!)

Above: it takes many violins to make an animated film of The Soldier’s Tale!

second day of tests for animated maquettes

Today Pete Telfer and I worked together to produce three sequences of stop-motion footage featuring some of the Mari Lwyd maquettes. This was by way of comparing the quality of stop-motion movement to the movement created in ‘real-time’ with puppeteers operating a maquette through wire control-rods.

(See the real-time test made on Monday, HERE)

It was quiet, intensely concentrated work. Animating a bipedal Mari Lwyd so that the movement while nightmarish, nevertheless remained plausible, took some doing. I didn’t make an animation sheet to guide me, but busked the whole thing. Head, jaw, neck, chest, pelvis, tail and four legs… each leg with three moveable sections requiring different movement cycles and directions… almost blew the wiring in my brain. Nevertheless, the result isn’t bad. Quite different to the real-time animation, and yet of a quality that has many merits. In the light of these tests I’m quite sure we’ll use both techniques to make our repertoire of moving images.

Do bear in mind when watching the sequences that they are just tests. They’re  not the sequences that will appear in the production, and the stop-motion figures aren’t yet ‘in character’ for the piece. (To me the sequences are rather like those clips of actors making wardrobe tests for films.) I’ve also decided that in the finished puppet sequences, I’ll make something more like the background seen in my original Artlog photographs of the maquettes, as in this image:

Click HERE to see the three test sequences made today.

Above: the lights are bright to be under all day, so dark glasses help protect my eyes.

stop-motion mare

Today Pete Telfer and I are shooting a second animation test for The Mare’s Tale, this time using stop-motion. I think it’ll be hard to improve on the footage made on Monday using control-rods to manipulate the maquette in real-time, but we should make the second test anyway, as a comparison.