Just days before the first lock-down here in the UK, we were out in France at the old house. It was the first time we’d been out there so early in the year. The rooms of the house were chilly, the worst of the cold kept at bay in a select few of its rooms by the roar of the wood burning stove. It was often more temperate outside the thick stone walls of the house, with periods of unexpected sunshine and warmth. We spent a lot of time remonstrating with the endless creep of the surrounding undergrowth, but also picking our way through the denuded woodland, enjoying the confetti of pale yellow primroses growing in impressive colonies.
At the close of one day towards the end of our stay, I took my camera out to capture the unexpected splendour of the hibernating swimming pool, with its blue cover, pooling rain-water and litter of fallen leaves. The light was milky, the sky peachy with the sunset, and the colours of this artificial lagoon irresistible.
Kate Bush’s December Will Be Magic Again is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
In physics, the observer effect is the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation. Put more simply, our own efforts to apprehend something can skew the outcome, rendering it invalid or void. Something similar happens when we try and apprehend Christmas, seeking to embody the season’s ambience through popular music or ‘Christmassy films’.
Most secular Christmas music is an appalling backfire, the way those pre-decorated straight-out-of-the-box plastic Christmas trees are appalling, in how so very wide of the mark they fall of the sensorial experience they’re straining to (re)produce.
Likely I’m just a po-faced old misery guts, but when I hear Slade or Wizzard or Band Aid or Wham or Mariah Carey, I envision a sort of festive rictus, the grinning tinseled skull of experience excarnated of hope. These ubiquitous songs tell me it must be Christmas again, but it’s never the Christmas I want.
Anyway, I find myself increasingly confused by Christmas, not least because I’m an atheist, but an atheist who went to a very nice Church of England school in a largely picturesque village. I find it near impossible to separate my intellectual position on the subject of the nativity from my nostalgia for all those Christmas assemblies, when my teachers did silly, unexpected things, or handed around chocolates in coloured foil, or we sang carols in the lovely old church up on the hill. The First Noel makes me ache. When it catches me unawares, Silent Night can even make me cry. Guilt soon follows, as I’m aggrieved by my own sentimentality, and for appropriating filmic moments of pathos from a culture I otherwise struggle to understand. Meanwhile, hearing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day makes me die a bit inside, allergised by its artificiality and deficit of mystery, its unwillingness to admit to all the dark green shadows of winter.
Kate Bush’s ethereal December Will Be Magic Again rarely features on any of those well-worn compilations of ‘Christmas hits’ or Spotify playlists. I’ve never once heard it playing over supermarket speakers as an accompaniment to the sound of huge frozen turkeys clanging into trolleys. I’m certain no one sings along to it in pubs – how could they, given the swooping virtuosity of Kate’s vocal performance and the meltingly indistinct shapes of her lyrics?
Always with the music of Kate Bush, there is a final ‘unknowability’ at the heart of her song-writing. We understand her scheme of words well enough, but something remains abstruse and hidden from us lesser mortals, something intimate and surreal. I feel all of it anyway, as December Will Be Magic Again draws up the hairs on my arms in a quick silvery wave. Yes, there are sleigh-bells, that sonic shorthand for Christmas, but a cold, bright darkness is at work in the heart of this strange song, returning me at once to the chill of the old village church of my school days, with its cold stones and candle light. I feel it again, the thrill of seeing my breath, of the pooling of shadows under the pews, and that small dangerous electricity generated by a whole community of people coming together in some ancient rite of magical thinking, a beautiful seance.
I’ve always found the effect of December Will Be Magic Again to be like someone dialling down the thermostat, ferns of ice unfurling to etch the glass of my windows like elaborate William Morris wallpaper, Kate’s voice doing that, as clean and clear as starlight.
The snow, Kate sings, the snow is coming to cover the muck up, and so it does, this song drifting down from somewhere higher-up to efface the worst of those flashing plastic trees and quieten my misgivings.
Last time we went to Oare, it was back in May for the golden hour. This time, we got to the nature reserve for the last rays of the late November sunshine. It was cold, but the light was turning coppery-through-pink, a big moon already rising to dust the water with subtle silver scales. The reeds held onto the reddish light very stubbornly, and all the this-way-then-that-way of the long grass looked put there by the tips of coloured pencils – and always the sound of the curlews, and less frequently, the tall grey ghosts of herons. Magical.
As actor, Dan Snelgrove rests his vocal chords and artist, Phil Cooper puts his paint brushes down for a well-deserved break, I wanted to bring everything Chimera-related together in one celebratory compendium.
All in one place then, for your convenience and listening pleasure, we have all first twelve chapters of Chimera Book 1, a rip-roaring romp into an alternate universe of anthropomorphic lost property, populated by sock-snakes, shock-poppies, walking sofas, vanity sparrows, armchair apes, shop window mannequins, and talking teapots! Enjoy the ride.
Dan Snelgrove: Performing Chimera
But it’s one thing to write a children’s book imagining the secret physical and emotional lives of formerly inanimate lost properties, and quite another to bring all those outlandish characters to life. Fortunately, Dan Snelgrove is on hand, a one-man-band of vocal special effects and emotive storytelling, whose energy and imagination brings colour and dynamism to every word of the novel. One of my great pleasures of this collaboration has been catching up with Dan to discuss all the different ways he’s approached developing the book’s various characters and capturing them accordingly in his home-based recording studio. I’ve gathered together our various chats, and also asked Dan for a few words of his own…
Dan Snelgrove recording Chimera Book 1 in his home recording studio.
Dan: He’d asked the wrong guy, but I wasn’t going to tell him.
I first met Phil a year or so after Chimera had been unleashed, Xenomorph-like, from whichever fantastic recess it had burst. I’d been brought in to run acting workshops for the Computer Animation Uni course he headed up, which involved convincing often technically-minded individuals that waving their limbs around and physicalising a slice of bacon in a full-English breakfast was indeed a productive use of their university time. Exploiting a despicable array of tricks I’d picked up in the acting game, I managed this with some degree of success. For some reason, Phil interpreted this skulduggery as evidence I might be the right person to bring his masterwork to the listening masses. I said yes.
Now, never* during this time had any vocal versatility on my part been demonstrated to him, and I would caution you all that simply because someone can cook a good spag bol does not mean they can serve up an edible Baked Alaska Flambé. It is true that the acting classes were barrels of fun, and I do believe that everyone involved got a lot out of the experiences (I certainly did). However, that is an entirely different beast to bringing to life the overwhelmingly (intentionally so) vibrant and all-too-non-humanly populated world that is Chimera; with the power of the voice alone. For me, this presented an unrivalled challenge and opportunity to grow, to focus on an area of my skill-set that had long needed my attention. Phil would have certainly been better off with someone that could actually just do the job.
It is possible I am overplaying the task. My tendency towards a debilitating level of perfectionism undoubtedly acts as a multiplier, and dear reader, I shall leave the judgment in your hands. But as I first read the trilogy (that’s right kids, this is just the beginning!) I quickly realised I would have to employ the merits of a spreadsheet to organise my thoughts on the myriad characters involved. Looking at it now, I can see I got to 49 before abandoning the process. Having now recorded half of the first book, I realise the sheet failed to capture some of the voices needed along the way. To my count, we’re up to 23.
Some actors are naturals when it comes to accents (their resumés claim a ‘good ear’). Others have uploaded them to their internal databases through hard work and professional training with vocal coaches at drama schools and the like. I am neither. To be kind to myself, I could characterise myself as more of a ‘physical’ performer (I was a keen Irish dancer and clown in a cabaret-punk band), and could claim to have historically approached roles from an ‘emotional-truth’ perspective rather than a more ‘technical’ one. However, just as a carpenter needs a toolkit, so does the actor, and it is all our responsibilities to keep our chisels (and tongues) sharp.
So with a bit of forethought and decent run up, an actor with the particular set of skills (Liam Neeson perhaps?) could simply read the chapter out, switching to the appropriate voice as they went, and with the odd retake for mistakes, job’s a good’n.
Each and every character requires a good deal of Google and YouTube research time, as I cram like some ill-prepared student on the night before the exam. My search history, amongst other things, includes buffalos, apes, Ben Fogle, a Russian taxi driver, the Secret Lives of 5-Year Olds and Audrey Tautou. Then, to further cheat and allow listeners to imagine distinct characters, I give each of them their own track, often more than one each, and separate them in the stereo field. The last chapter I recorded, for example, comprises 19 different tracks, along with four out-take tracks replete with fierce swearing and self-rebuke. There are lots of outtakes. Lots. What may sound like a seamless track of narrative is in fact a secret patchwork of cross-faded single-word overdubs and inserted silences, with surgically removed accent errors and poorly expressed emotions falling into the track below; into a world of lost words and sounds. A Chimera, if you will. As a further consequence of these nigh on endless repeats, local sales of honey, ginger and lemon have skyrocketed as I try to squeeze out one more soffalo grunt or Atticus rasp between sips of this hot elixir.
My ‘producer’ credit hence rather grandly veils my continuing struggle to obfuscate my vocal shortcomings.
Doing all of this in various states of lockdown and isolation, and living alone in the first place, adds a level of intensity to the quality-control loop, stood as I am in my homemade vocal-booth with nout but my own voice, in its various forms, going around and around in my headphones. Phil has often sensed the danger and sent over emergency packages of chocolate… And then, when it’s finally done (often late) I tap the trackpad and it’s gone, into the void. Phil then has to step in again at that stage to mentally soothe and massage my broken remains, in order to start the process again for the next week.
I know how this sounds, and so please know that I am immensely proud of what has been produced so far. Going for a 10k run means pain, exhaustion and a mental battle, but also a sense relief and achievement. For an actor, this project is the complete challenge involving story-telling, epic-scale character-creation and emotional journeys that deserve digging into the soul for. Just don’t tell Phil he got the wrong bloke…
Not content with roping Dan Snelgrove into this epic undertaking, I also approached Berlin-based artist, Phil Cooper, asking him if he fancied using the various chapters as jumping-off points for a series of new paintings. Very fortunately for me, Phil agreed, beginning by producing the Chimera podcast cover art, that has since gone on to pepper Red’s Kingdom on a weekly basis. Phil had this to say about his involvement so far:
Phil Cooper hard at work at the art table back in September 2020
Phil Cooper: I found the prospect of making illustrations for Book 1 of Chimera both enormously exciting and rather daunting at the same time. Exciting because I’d loved the book since it was first published as an e-book several years ago, and daunting because I knew that choosing exactly what to depict out of the plethora of imagery and ideas that pour out of every page was going to be a challenge. But then, at the beginning of October, we were off, and with a tight schedule to keep to, there was little time for feelings either way, it just had to get done. The weekly schedule has been a good solid framework to work around, though, even if it’s felt pressurised at times. Now, towards the tail-end of November, I look back and feel a sense of satisfaction at what we’ve achieved in such a short space of time.
The characters and the environments Phil has conjured in Chimera are vivid and imaginative; the main challenge I’ve faced so far is choosing what exactly to depict each week. I’ve decided to steer away from painting the characters and the creatures that inhabit Chimera so far. Most weeks, I’ve chosen an object from the story, usually an important object like the silver locket or the conker on a string that Kyp keeps in his pocket. These objects are sometimes important elements of the story and I wanted to use them in images to contemplate whilst listening to Dan’s tour de force narration. I knew I didn’t want to describe visually what was being described in the words of the book as the writing and Dan’s expressive narration did that very well. And I also knew, I didn’t want the images to somehow be fighting for attention with the experience of listening to the podcast, I wanted them to work in harmony with it; a background to the action going on in the audiobook foreground.
At this halfway point in Book 1, and looking ahead at the chapters coming up, I can see that the approach I’ve taken may well evolve. Things are going to expand very soon in Chimera, in terms of the characters we meet and spend time with, and in terms of our knowledge of how things work in this universe, and who is really working with who. So, with so much about to go off, I think I might start to move away from depicting objects, as totems of the action, and start to explore the characters themselves as we get to know them more deeply. It’s going to be another challenge!
As well as the extraordinary words from Phil’s writing, I’ve also had the benefit of hearing Dan’s awesome narration for extra inspiration each week. The podcasts really do sound terrific. I’ve been listening to fiction podcasts for years now and Chimera is right up there with the very best of what I’ve heard, so a massive hats off to Dan and Phil for doing such a great job. It’s a real pleasure to be part of the adventure!
Andrew Fisher: Scoring Chimera
One of my little pleasures is listening to the thirty seconds or so of theme music beginning each episode of the audio book, composed especially by Andrew Fisher, into which the composer manages to cram a potent mix of magic, mystery, weirdness and melancholy – capturing the world of Chimera perfectly.
Andrew started composing from a young age, developing an interest in musical story-telling, especially musical theatre and film music. Andrew’s most recent musical Girl In a Crisis, starring Olivier winner Lorna Want, was performed to rave reviews in London in 2018. Other composition credits include music for the video games Guardians of Ancora (which has been translated into five languages and been downloaded 2 million times worldwide), the horror film, Nine Miles Down and the animated comedy-drama short, Lily White. His additional composition credits for television include the natural history series, Great Barrier Reef (BBC), and How the Universe Works (Discovery).
Kyp Finnegan’s adventures in Chimera will resume on Sunday, December 13th, with Chapter 13 – The Plummet Pit
We drove out to some of the scrappier edges of Seasalter at the end of last week, to see the reeds with their great feathered heads. It was a textural delight of deft cross-hatching and soft tonal gradations.
I responded very strongly to the visual prompts for the Kick-About #15, particularly Eric Ravilious’ image of the high-end interiors shop, A Pollard. It says more about me, I suppose, that I detected some shadow at work in these nostalgic images of these well-to-do shops.
Eric Ravilious, 1938
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the flicker of immediate associations included the animated series, Mr Ben, the production art for Disney’s 101 Dalmations and H. G. Wells’ The Magic Shop. I was struck too by the inter-war period, and it got me thinking about ideas of luxury and leisure time, and how doomed it all was, given what was looming on the horizon, but also about how wonderful it would be to discover a shop like Pollard’s on your high street, and the sorts of people it would attract, and the tensions in a small community it might produce.
It doesn’t always happen – and it rarely happens when a clock is ticking – but the resulting story just wanted out – and out it came. In Kenneth, the story’s protagonist, I find shades of Eleanor Vance, from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a character I’ve always found to be incredibly moving in her neediness to be needed.
It’s been a while since we heard from Japan-based artist, animator and filmmaker, Tom Beg.
Is this because Tom has been twiddling his thumbs or resting on his laurels? Hardly. In addition to teaching English to Japanese school children, and gunning for fluency himself in Japanese, Tom has been continuing work on his ‘Miroverse’ bestiary – his charming and strange cast of CGI-critters first inspired by the paintings of Joan Miro. Something of a project milestone has been reached, with all eight of Tom’s characters being put through their respective ambulations. Time then to catch up with Tom and find out a little more about what it has taken to bring his gang of improbable characters to life…
Phil: I found it very gratifying to see your Miroverse critters moving at last…
Tom:Yes, it’s exciting to see the fruits of my labour and produce some moving image at long last. After building and designing for such a long time, there’s always something satisfying about seeing previously inanimate things you’ve been working on finally come to life, and move how you would expect them to, or sometimes move in ways that gives them personality and character you perhaps didn’t originally expect.
Phil: Let’s imagine you can’t talk too technically about the process of animating… How might you describe what you had to do and how you did it? Is it anything like puppeteering? I have this very analogue image of you standing up ‘above’ these creatures, and moving them like marionettes or old-school rod puppets…
Tom:For the test animations, I’ve been trying to establish a base animation style and pipeline for each of the creatures. I want them to have a very organic and restless look, which I think comes off pretty well in these tests. It might be hard to imagine, but animating them was actually a lot more mathematical than perhaps you might expect for such wiggly things.
In Maya, you can animate very traditionally, or you can animate based more on numbers and graphs and letting the computer calculate what happens. I was actually working more with the latter method, which might be surprising. Lots of typing in different values to work out how many frames of animation would be appropriate for whatever movement. It’s lots of looking at things that don’t look like animation in the typical sense but are nonetheless controlling what’s happening on the screen. When it comes to final animation, it’s going to be a mix of this and more traditional animation puppetry.
Phil: Did any of your critters resist you? I mean, did you think they needed to be animated in one way, only to find they didn’t suit it or demanded an alternative approach?
Tom: In some ways, because it’s not like these are real world things, with real bones, muscles and lots of references to draw upon. I’m also fighting the computer somewhat because a lot of the movement is calculated by the software, so things would behave erratically from time to time, especially at the beginning. That being said, they were mostly painless to get moving. I usually started with a basic full body movement and then animated and refined each part of the creature once that was in place. When there was a convincing feeling of aliveness, I would go back and add some secondary movement and fine-tune lots of settings to give things more or less weight and elasticity.
Phil: For those less technical amongst us, give us an idea of how long these short sequences took to render – I think this means you having to explain 1) how many frames there are in a second of animation, and 2) how long each frame takes to render and 3) what you have to do with all those frames once they’ve been produced?
Tom:Depending on the creature, the render time for one frame of animation can range from about one minute 30 seconds for the quickest, to just over five minutes for the most complicated. There are usually 25 frames in a single second of animation, and each clip is ten seconds long. If the average time for one creature animation is three minutes, that will take something like 12 hours to render. I was sleeping to sounds of whirring computer fans multiple nights in a row and waking up in the morning to get my finished renders, which is very satisfying – but very annoying when you overlook something, make an error and have to do the whole rendering thing again!
When it comes to rendering the final animation, I really must consider how long each frame takes. Adding just 30 seconds onto the render of a single frame will increase the total render time by hours and cost me in more ways than one! When it comes to rendering, time really is money – because I have an electricity bill to pay!
Anyway once everything is rendered, I load all the frames of animation into DaVinci Resolve, a free editing suite, and I can see the final images in action. This is always the best part!
Phil: What’s the next phase of this project look like?
Tom: Hopefully, I’ve proved these creatures can move fairly convincingly, so the next part is to actually turn everything into a short animation. That means lots and lots of animating and lots of decisions about this thing as a film. I’ve been watching a lot of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, experimental animation and microscopic biology videos in preparation!
Phil: Finally then, how’s life in Japan? I think we need to know about the flora and fauna; what excess of wildlife are you dealing with currently?
Tom:The number of creepy crawlies has dropped off but like everywhere we are battling the effects of the pandemic on the economy and people’s daily lives, but things have to keep ticking over and even in these strange times Japan isn’t a country that lets you rest or take your foot off the pedal, especially if you want to try and reach beyond your comfort zone. It has been a struggle to balance all the things I want to do with my life here, especially under the cloud of coronavirus but I’ll keep reminding myself there is still this weird animation that must be made!
Back in the day, I wanted to work in the movies, building animatronic puppets and larger-than-life monstrosities. You can blame the likes of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin for my fascinations, the transformation from An American Werewolf In London (1981) and this physical effects tour-de-force from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Some would argue I haven’t transformed all that much myself since those days on my Art Foundation course, when I walked about the place in collarless shirts and floppy ‘curtains-style’ hair, wielding jars of latex, hot glue guns, tubs of PVA … and nylon stockings. Okay, so I’m older, greyer with a lovely bald-spot getting bigger, and I’ve dropped the collarless shirts, but I still have a real fondness for a big bug, creature or too-many-legged thing and the haptic, tangible delights of an old-school puppet.
I thought I’d lost these sketches, of two of the creatures I made during my fun, busy Foundation year. The big ‘spider woman’ was indeed very big by the time she was completed, fashioned as she was around a shop-floor mannequin I’d purloined from someplace or other. Her abdomen was fashioned from large hoops of MIG welded steel, and each of her legs made from jointed steel rods, their ends fashioned onto cruel-looking points by successive hammer blows by the heat of the workshop’s forge. She was ultimately a formidable sight, though I can’t seem to find any final images of her. I suspect they’re lurking somewhere and may one day surface again.
The other sketches are for a large snail glove puppet, his shell made from carved polysterene, the process of producing it littering my studio with extraordinary amounts of bright white beads. His eyes were controlled by wires, which, when you tugged on them, caused them to wriggle about comedically.
I suppose this is what fun looked like when you where a certain kind of nineteen year old, his head stuffed with monsters.
“Things move quickly in Chapter 12; we meet several new important characters and discover new important places. It’s a rather dizzying experience and I can only image that Kyp’s head was spinning by the end of this chapter! For the illustration this week, I’ve gone for the Temple of Miscellany, mainly because it’s really quite different to anything we’ve encountered before. The crystalline glass structure, glowing from within, has a bit of a sci-fi quality to it in my mind’s eye and it made me think of early 20th Century paintings, like Lyonel Feininger, the Italian Futurists and the constructivists, exploring shiny new materials and clean, geometric shapes. As the new characters we meet will be around for a while, I thought I could explore them in later chapters, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to paint the Temple of Miscellany when Kyp first encounters it…“
Welcome to Chapter 12 of Chimera Book 1. Apologies, loyal listener, yes, we’re running late again, but I think when you listen to this chapter, which is a tour de force of voice talent, you may appreciate why a bit more time was needed in the recording studio!
We’re at the halfway point in Kyp Finnegan’s adventures in the realm of lost things, and so as to give Dan Snelgrove’s vocal chords a bit of a rest, we’re taking a short ‘mid-season’ break, with the next instalment going out on Sunday, December 13th. Put the date in your diary! Until then, settle back and enjoy!