The Serpent’s Bite: a natural history of the witch. Part 2

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The picturebook of Hansel & Gretel was only partway finished when Louise Heard of Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop and I began to have discussions about the adaptation of it into a toy theatre kit. However, when Louise saw the full extent of the graphic horrors on display in my illustrations for the fairytale, she thought them too dark for the Pollock’s style, and so I went off to try and figure how to adapt the imagery for her. There were no doubts that my original witch with her wormy nasal cavity, would have to to be toned down!

As a preparation to the job ahead, I invented a ‘back-story’ for the toy theatre design. In the picturebook the children, having survived their run-in with the carnivorous and predatory witch, return home to discover that in their absence their father has murdered their mother with an axe! (The book ends with the grisly truth revealed in an image of the ghost of the mother turning up with the father’s axe still embedded in her spine!)

The prequel to the toy theatre design is that the children have run off to the big city to fall in with a disreputable troupe of actors. Persuaded by an unscrupulous producer to sign over to him the stage, film and publishing rights to their story, Hansel and Gretel end up in ‘Victorian’ costumes playing themselves in a pantomime version of their adventures sweetened and given a good dusting of showbiz glitter! Their feckless father and cruel mother are reshaped by the script as being poor though caring, while the role of the witch is given to a ‘character’ actor better known for playing demon kings and therefore well experienced in eliciting boos and hisses from the crowd!

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The re-shaping of the picturebook witch for the the cut-out-and-assemble toy theatre, was really just a matter of simplification, dressing her in red for maximum impact and giving her a striped cat. However the pointed artificial nose of her picturebook predecessor remained, though as a part of the actor’s ‘make-up’ rather than the prosthetic that disguised something unspeakable beneath! The Pollock’s witch neither flies nor grows fangs, but she rants and raves and stomps about to great effect, and just as in the original Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, imprisons the children and prepares to cook them, though of course it’s her who ends up in the oven!

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The Benjamin Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit, may be purchased

HERE

There is also a delightful Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop pop-up Hansel & Gretel card available, based on the toy theatre design and available

HERE

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By kind permission of  Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, The Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre makes a brief guest appearance in the current music/theatre touring production of Hansel & Gretel, with words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner played by the Goldfield Ensemble. I supervised the designs, working closely with Phil Cooper (models and scenic painting), Peter Lloyd (shadow puppets) and Jan Zalud (puppet maker), and I directed the production.

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

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

 

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.

The Root that Grew Into a Tree

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I found this dried root of hogweed on a hilltop walk with friends. It’s been in my studio for quite a while now, and has given birth to many images. Upended on its stalk the root becomes a tree. I’ve written about using it as a model in a post made last year, but since then there have been even more manifestations of it.

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I made a toy theatre out of building blocks, and stood the root on the stage to make an image I titled Day of the Triffids in honour of John Wyndham’s novel about an invasion of killer alien plant-life.

I’ve drawn it extensively for my picture-book of Hansel & Gretel, due out this summer. Here it is in a detail from a preparatory image of a witchy forest drenched in moonlight.

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My friend, artist Phil Cooper, has made a model of it in preparation for a film we plan as a book-trailer.

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Versions of the root-as-tree made by artist Johann Rohl when he worked in my studio for a month last summer.

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And in the background here, another by Johann with a horse by me hiding behind it, plus a couple of trees and a maquette that I made.

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In this detail of an endpaper for Hansel & Gretel, a leafy version appears bottom left.

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Festooned with icicles in my study for the print Christmas at Camelot.

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Yesterday my friend Philippa spent a day with me in the studio, and she produced this delicately beautiful version of the root, made in coloured pencils and sgrafitto.

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Johann made the three images on the left, and I made the tree.

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Four artists all working from one, small, dried root.

The Witchy Tree

Peter and I went on a walk with our friend Mary-Ann Constantine and her children on the hills above their home.

Below: cotton-grass seed heads make good Hobbit ears!

During the walk I picked up a dried stalk that caught my eye, and carried it home. At Ty Isaf I put it, root end upwards in a shot-glass on the kitchen table, where it sat for over a year. Every day I looked at it. Occasionally Mary-Ann would call, and prompted by the dried stalk, we would recollect the walk.

Eventually I carried the stalk upstairs to the studio, where I planned on using it as a model for drawings of the haunted wood in Hansel & Gretel, my picture-book project with Simon Lewin for his Random Spectacular imprint at St. Jude’s.

Illustration graduate Johann Rohl arrived at Ty Isaf in August 2015, to work for a month on a project in the studio that required we make collaborative artworks. Both of us used the dried stalk as a model for drawings of trees. In this image, the drawing of a tree on the right is by me…

… and in this photograph of a maquette of the woodcutter father I made for Hansel & Gretel, the tree behind it has been drawn by Johann.

Here are trees by both of us, together with an owl made by Johann for our collaborative project.

In Berlin, my friend Phil Cooper is preparing magnificently  mood-drenched models to be used for the animated ‘book-trailer’ we plan for Hansel & Gretel, and he’s recently sent photographs of a tree he’s made based on the ‘Witchy Tree’ work he’s seen online here at the Artlog and at Facebook.

And here it is in a shot alongside Phil’s model of the Witch’s cottage

That’s a lot of work out of one dried stalk picked up on a Welsh hillside.