We’ve got several great big clumps of Astrantia major – or Greater Masterwort – growing in the garden. It has just come into flower, though ‘flowers’ don’t quite describe the perfect papery things sitting above the foliage. They manage to be both very old-fashioned seeming and also architectural, a bit scruffy, but neatly appointed. Their green tips, green venation and translucency make them very photogenic, but they’re let down by their scent, which to my nostrils smells like cat shit you haven’t discovered yet. I think we can see this in the difference between the plant’s latin name, Astrantia major, which sounds rather lovely and important-seeming, and its common name, Masterwort, which sounds like a mildly unpleasant character imagined by Mervyn Peake.
It’s late July 2017 and I’ve just locked myself inside a very big, very old dark house somewhere in the Medway Towns. The house number is 351. I will spend the night alone at number 351 in the hope of capturing phantasmagoria on film. Fortunately, the old dark house doesn’t disappoint…
Phil: Hello again, Graeme! You’re back then? Great – so what’s the latest on the development of your new animated short? Where are you at and does it have a title yet?
Graeme: Hey Phil. I’m glad to be back at Red’s Kingdom to share some animation shenanigans. I’m thrilled to announce the film has a title, and it’s called The Green Glider. Currently, the main development has been translating the style of the illustrations into Maya and really knuckling down to nail the story, so lots of drawing, plus sound design for the animatic to really get into the nuts and bolts of what The Green Glider will look and feel like.
Phil: One of the loveliest things about your developmental sketches and production art is their illustrative style, but when it comes to moving your 2D ideas into 3D, what are the challenges?
Graeme: The challenges are always to maintain that quirky style within Maya. I love painting and illustration because imperfection adds charm, and many times with my sketches and illustrations I’ll do a scribble without thinking too much into it or “colouring within the lines”, and then that one line makes things more visually interesting. Translating that into the glum greyness of Maya is always a challenge, as the program runs on maths and numbers… and I failed maths in school. But I love trying to manipulate Maya so that it bows down to me…!*
*(Graeme gives an evil laugh!)
I was told in uni to treat the developmental stage like a laboratory where I have my beakers and potions and I just experiment. I always do that in the pre-production phase to see what sticks.
‘Evil’ bubble car thumbnail sketches
‘Evil’ bubble car turnaround
Phil: You’re obviously an artist who likes to keep things loose and expressive and you work things up quickly, which gives them their charm and their energy. Do you find the more exacting rigors of 3D animation frustrating?
Graeme: It’s definitely frustrating, but so rewarding when things do work and look how you want. With sketching and doing illustration I can trust the process; there’s always this period where everything looks like shite. I call it… the “shite zone”, but then, from just playing around and trusting the process, I most of the time end up with an illustration of something that looks evocative in relation to what I wanted.
In regards to 3D spaces such as Maya, you can’t be as lackadaisical and free-form – at least to an extent. If you do, your resulting models will have horrendous geometry and nothing will look right or function properly. You’ll end up modelling something a few times because you didn’t take a step back and think about how to model it before tackling it. It is something that goes against my free-flowing nature, but I always take a step back, put on my thinking cap and ask myself, “Graeme, how are you going to go about this?”
Phil: So The Green Glider, Graeme… What is it?
Graeme: The Green Glider is the macguffin of my film. Its pertinent and really important in bouncing the story along. It completely changes the outlook and ambitions of the main character Ash, and propels him into an unknown world full of mystery and magic.
The green glider developmental thumbnails
The green glider turnaround
Phil: You’ve included a test render of a scene from your film in this week’s update – the bubble car against the backdrop of the city. How many different processes, techniques and tweaks have come together to produce this one proof-of-concept render?
Graeme: Wow! This is going to be lengthy with a lot of technical jargon, but here goes… So as mentioned I wanted to get across the feeling of the original concept art, so that was the main goal.
Original concept painting
Test 3D digital set render
To start off with, I created lots of alpha maps for elements that are in the distance, such as those yellow window lights, and dialling down their transparency to get some nice atmospheric perspective; you’re not going to see those elements way in the distance, so there’s no need to have actual modelled geometry clogging up the scene and dialling up render times. An assortment of coloured blobs that move slightly can easily and more effectively represent the space of a city. Dialling things back to their simplest form is always in the back of my mind when I’m composing sets and shots.
Orange glow with windows Alpha Map
Orange glow with windows colour Map
Alpha maps are drawings turned into 3D geometry, which means I can preserve the original style of the concept art. I can even turn a full piece of concept art into an alpha if I want. You can put an alpha map on any piece of geometry – a sphere, a cube, anything! You can also have 2D animated textures, which takes things to the next level. Alpha maps are always my go-to when I want to translate into 3D the original style of my illustrations.
When I had a bunch of alpha maps finished for the background of my shot, I moved onto the central block of the metropolis. I realised the alphas would look flat when I move the camera, so to combat this I extruded the plane to give it more depth. When I animated it all for the fun of it, I loved how it looked, so this technique will be implemented into the final shots to express the constant movement of the city.
Moving City Block Plane
To bulk out the inner part of the city, I used simple blocks, some with the same texture as the city alphas and some with plain orange. Around the edges of the city to produce the impression of even more depth, I planted more alphas (which are just orange brush strokes) to make it seem as if the environment was being lit by orange street lights. I also added more yellow window alphas to more planes and more cubes to make things even busier.
The Cityscape from above Screenshot 2
The spiky triangle things are the pillars that will hold up the many roads that surround the metropolis. I want triangles in there because triangles are seen as negative shapes. To get the gross green haze that is fizzing up from the water of the world I just plopped in a Fog effect, which really gives the scene a more hazardous vibe.
I modelled and textured the little blue car for a collaboration project back in Uni. It suited my new protagonist’s personality perfectly, so I didn’t need to create a new one. Those evil looking bubble cars in the turnaround concept art will be surrounding him and over-populating the roads. I can’t wait to model and texture those nasty things! I was really inspired by Hot Wheels cars I loved as a kid.
Even now, there is still a way to go with the metropolis set; I have to texture the roads and bridges, but getting that analogue feel of my concept art is always my priority.
Phil: I understand you’re collaborating with a composer for this film, and that sound and music are playing a key role – how’s that side of your project development coming along?
Graeme: Brian Freeland is my composer. Brian created the music for my graduate film, Lost Boy. Yonks ago, I gave Brian a lengthy email explaining my idea for this new film and the vibe I was going for. Brian had a song composed that had never seen the light of day and gave me permission to use it as a placeholder for The Green Glider animatic. In the meantime, I’ve sent Brian an iteration of the animatic so he can work his magic on a new composition. I’ll be updating him with the latest animatic as soon as it’s done. I trust Brian completely, and it always feels like Christmas when he’s something new to share, so I try and bide my time patiently!
Phil: What’s your working day like? Or rather, when and where do you knuckle down and get on with your film? How are you making yourself get on with it?
Graeme: Honestly, I just really enjoying doing it – even the parts that aren’t so fun. I just have to suck it up and get on. I’m strict with myself and my work. It’s ingrained in me since my uni days and it’s a good trait to have or else nothing would get done. I try only to take breaks when something clicks or I get over the hump of something. It can be really easy to take a break when Maya is being a lippy little shit and won’t do what you ask, but I always have to get over that hump before taking a break because it makes coming back to it a lot easier – then it feels like something you don’t want to take a break from and you’re raring to get back to it.
I pretty much start working from when I wake up – albeit it’s a later start than I would like, as my sleeping pattern is a bit shit right now, but that’s due to me being such a night owl. I LOVE working at night! It’s when I feel my most creative and I get a good chunk of work done when most people are asleep.
My little ‘creation station’ is really sad actually. It’s on the dining room table. My tiny London apartment doesn’t have space for a desk, so I mainly do my work there, but I also have a little garden, which is a luxury in London, so I spend a lot of time working there too… and also working on my tan. I like to bring my laptop and Ipad with me to our local park, where I’ll do some script writing or complete some sketches – keeping my two metres distance of course! Being in such a small apartment means I have to get out, as sometimes a change of scenery does wonders for the mind and work flow and working in an open space revs my creative cogs. A library would work wonders too, or the constant lulling chatter and hiss of barista steam from a café is ideal, but they’re both off limits at the moment. These little excursions will have to do until I make my millions and put a down-payment on my industrial loft with floor to ceiling windows drenched in natural light, a mezzanine overlooking its mammoth grandeur and the warm rust tones of exposed brick…
Phil: Finally, what’s up next on your job sheet?
Graeme: Right now, I’m working on finessing the script for The Green Glider and nailing the storyboard and animatic, so the story is in its most definitive form. Then I can start rallying the troops and get a little team together that will hopefully like to hop on board. Then I’ll be on the hunt for some funding. I want the story as solidified as possible so when I do reach out, those creatives can see exactly where the film is heading. There’s loads of stuff going on behind the scenes too. I like to chip away at things constantly, so I’ll be doing 3D bits here and there. Soon I’m going to jump in and start modelling the characters. I think you have to learn to juggle and keep all these plates spinning when making an animated short. I will try and keep them spinning and not smash any of them with my clumsy ass. I know this time is precious and it will be a different ball game when I am back to work full time. so I’m giving it the full whack with the time I have!
When participating Kick-About artist and animator, Emily Clarkson, offered up ‘Metropolis‘ as the second prompt, I wasn’t alone in looking forward to walking into the expressionistic world of Fritz Lang’s epic work of science-fiction. At the outset I knew I wanted to begin with the concept drawings for the film by Erich Kettelhut, and I knew I’d be seeking to produce something by following the principles of collage and layering. What I didn’t know was that I’d find this particular challenge hugely addictive and satisfying, and that I’d produce a lot of stuff on my way to choosing the image for the Kick-About with which I was most happy.
Every image in this post (and many others not in it) were all seeded by one pencil drawing and my guiding principle was a simple one; do now as I did back on my art A’level and subsequent Foundation course, which is to keep pushing a very limited series of processes and tools until something interesting happens! What I enjoyed particularly about the later stages of the process was my inability to stop the imagery coalescing into rich Art Deco pattern-making, as if the stylistic motifs of the original movie are themselves somehow irrepressible.
We were all surprised and delighted by the response to the first Kick About, with a whole range of work in a variety of media triggered by Max Ernst’s 1955 painting, Moon In A Bottle. We got sculptures and paintings both analogue and digital, drawings in pastel and in Sharpie Pen, animated loops, and even a verse or two of original poetry. The Kick About #1 also garnered interest from other creatives up for a bit of running around, which means this second edition is a veritable cornucopia of creativity.
This time out, our prompt was a single word: metropolis. When I look across this eclectic range of work, I’m reminded of another collection of cities – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book in which Calvino describes an array of architectural marvels, all of them different, but all of them ultimately revealed to be expressions of the characteristics of only one city – Venice. Here too, a single name for a city inspires multiple impressions.
“Most everything I own is in storage, and I do not have many collage materials in my temporary apartment. But I do get the NY Times delivered, and I cut them up for what I’m working on as needed … I took two of the obituary pages from last Sunday’s paper and collaged it with images and headline haiku collected from the last month’s papers.”
Kerfe Roig, Headline Haiku: Metropolis, collage
“Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making a painting a day as part of the #MaySketchaDay. It’s been fun, but also tough to consistently make new, interesting things. However, when the theme word Metropolis showed up I took a sigh of relief. Not purely because the Fritz Lang film Metropolis is a huge inspiration to me, but also because it’s the kind of word that I could apply to a lot of my work. Big, bulking cityscapes with dark corners, glimmering towers and hidden stories.
So, in response, I made a couple of neon-British industrial cityscapes. If Blade Runner took place in Manchester maybe? Due to the nature of #MaySketchaDay I have to be pretty quick, so to speed up the process I take my old paintings and collage them together as my starting point. In the way of Gestalt psychology, this noise eventually begins to express pattern and shape, and from there, the painting starts to take hold.”
Watch Jordan paint live at twitch.tv/jordan_buckner
“It started life as a doodle, became a drawing, then in Photoshop was turned into a fanzine cover for Beam 10 (X).”
“A ray gun prop inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis created in Autodesk Maya. I set a challenge of a day’s build/design (plus a few hours of edits) and made it up as I went along!”
“It’s safe to say we are pretty crammed in here in Yokohama, a city of nearly 4 million inhabitants perched on a series of rocky hills overlooking the Tokyo Bay. Space is at a premium and geometric tower blocks, condominiums and apartments dot the landscape to the backdrop of rusting factories and billowing smokestacks. It’s hard not to think or see metropolis whenever I step out my front door. It’s also hard not to think about Fritz Lang’s seminal sci-fi film Metropolis because I love it so much. For this Kick About then, I’ve reimagined my local area as some sort of lost production set for that film. I’m more of an old-fashioned traditionalist when it comes to photography but going with the theme I’ve harnessed the futurist power of my phone and its camera to create my very own and very local metropolis.“
“My prompt was Mother-city; the hub providing settlers to beyond, with the sparrow characterising community and Springtime nest building. The unanchored nature reflects a very common feeling. HB pencil, on Artistico Fabriano 640gsm hot pressed. 77cm x 56cm. These drawings demand 24 hours commitment, as nothing is forward planned, usually reaching completion in 3-5 days.”
“The current theme is Metropolis, which could mean any metropolis, but I have taken it to be the 1927 German expressionist Sci-fi film by Fritz Lang, because it’s one of my favourite films. I have fond memories of being taken along to it as a teenager by my big brother. My eyes were nearly popping out of my head … some of the most compelling memories of the movie for me were the scenes in the Rich Men’s pleasure gardens. The Pleasure Gardens are extraordinary. They are stupendously opulent, and are filled with tumescent plants and feature a scalloped grotto and various fountains…”
“I became rather inspired by some cinematic B-roll footage of Shanghai, and several images of empty, dystopian style environments. This piece soundtracks the emotions and ‘point of view’ of a person as they move with a steady pace through this cityscape. The architecture builds around them and the barren day passes and transforms into a frantic nightlife. The heavy, clean drums give the music a heavy and prominent pulse, defining the slow but steady movement and the jazzesque chords are supposed to mimic the music associated with these places and spaces. The use of contemporary, electronic sounds are to further add to this sense of a mundane, dystopian forest of concrete. I used FL Studio Mobile on my Ipad to write the actual music and mix the parts. The wind and city soundscapes were added afterwards on my laptop and mixed in Garageband.”
Benedict Blythe, Metropolis V3, May 2020
“All I could think of was modernity and buildings, a lot of them. It started as a De Stijl influenced doodle, which then turned into a more constructivist piece and finally a bit more tweaking and ambience. A lot of fun during the process.”
“The following images are photos of models I put together for a touring stage production of Hansel and Gretel that I worked on in 2018; you can read more about the production in a blog post I wrote while we were developing the show here.
We devised an approach to the staging that used a lot of children’s toys for the table top models and for the screen projections. The toys added an additional poignant, emotional quality to the music and words and gave the Hansel and Gretel puppet characters something to interact with. For some architectural elements we used toy building blocks. We painted them in monochrome tones to suggest an environment without pulling too much attention away from the music and words.”
Kevin Clarkson, Metropolis, Acrylic on board
“Metropolis, a prompt that couldn’t help but be met with an onslaught of quarantine consumed media, meaning that those initial visions of bronzed skyscrapers somehow found themselves in a rather uncomfortable blend of Mad Max and the Peaky Blinders! A mingling that resulted in a somewhat smoky poem…”
“I took the notion of the ‘Metropolis’ as an overcrowded and oppressive place and projected it into one possible future, a mildly dystopian and ugly one, where there’s evidence of human ingenuity but very little evidence of humanity.”
“We absolutely loved doing this kick about, thank you Phil for inviting us in! First and foremost, we’d like to thank the Pexels video community for the fabulous free footage. In terms of workflow, the Forces are experimenting with an improvised approach to composition. We have a bunch of loops in Ableton live, and a bunch of samples in an iPhone app called CueZy (which is fantastic for live performance). We’re then running another iPhone with synths including a couple of awesome apps called TC-Performer and TC-11, and using piano, rhodes and other samples on Logic. The idea is to use sound more as colour, so we can improvise in response to visuals – hence why we loved the Metropolis project. All compositions are just recorded down to a stereo out, so there’s no going back and re-editing – what you hear is all a single take. We hope you enjoy, and we can’t wait to see what everyone else has come up with!”
“It’s pastels on paper with a bit of Photoshop editing. I had German 1930s film sets in mind.”
“The pandemic has kept us out of our daily life and activities. We were cut off from life itself, but we are coming back to life using beauty – here represented by the sinamay roses. The tiger whiskers attached to the rose depict our strength. We’re taking back our metropolis, using our sense of style as our means of protection.“
Piece made from Sinamay fibre, eco friendly and sustainable.
…and a bonus ‘metropolis of string’ “I started thinking about the networks, the connections that make up a major city – the roads, the cables, the lighting, the energy. My thanks to the photographer for his skills.”
“I lived in this building for two years, in Taipei. It’s in a back road of the red-light district. The lane is full of gentlemen’s clubs in the basements and bars on street level. The strip is teaming with marauding businessmen and pop-up food vendors in the evenings, dying down at around midnight when everyone packs up or goes downstairs. The building itself has five floors and no lift, with a long staircase heading right to the top in a single column.I lived in an illegal extension on the top floor, a fairly common arrangement in Taiwan. The walls shifted from side to side during earthquakes and in typhoons water dripped through the light fixtures. The apartment was clean though, and despite the grime outside, the area was intense and colourful and full of life. The rent was also very cheap.
Relating to the idea of a metropolis is the position of the building on Taipei’s tessellating grid system. Blocky buildings in different sizes and states of repair populate the back lanes, bumped right up to the edge of the road. Air conditioning units protrude out of grey broken tiles between steel and glass.
It’s by no stretch a beautiful city, but at night-time the neon lights switch on, and all the surfaces glow in greens and blues and pinks. Taxis slowly wind their way through the crowds with warm headlights casting long shadows into the distance. Everything mingles together and this vivid amphetamine version of Boris Bilinsky’s famous poster becomes far more appealing.
Returning home late at night, my building loomed overhead, bathed in neon and surprisingly still, with a few lightbulbs reflecting off protective bars, as the wiring gently hummed.”
Liam Scarlino, Linsen North Road, created in Cinema 4D
“I wanted to capture the energy and constant movement that encompasses a metropolis, like a long exposure shot caught in an instant with lots of energy in the line-work and brightness in the blinding city lights, I had a go of animating it too, as I want to incorporate such elements into my new animated short so it felt good to get some practice. I also couldn’t help but pay homage to Metropolis by Fritz Lang – it’s one of my favourites! Those harrowing tunnels with the workers heads hung low as they approach the underbelly of the city always stuck with me.”
“My submission was entirely inspired by the aesthetics of the Fritz Lang movie poster, and the opening titles to ‘Batman – The Animated Series’. I love the drama in the storyboards by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm. The bold, dramatic environments in the show and the movie poster really stand out, although they are quite different. Strong graphics and shapes appeal to me hugely and that’s something the Art Deco period had in spades!”
“I really enjoyed this challenge. It was like being back on my Art Foundation course!”
Phil Gomm, Tower, Pencil drawing > photography > Photoshop
“This is really an amalgamation of my favourite parts of the 1927 film. Perhaps it’s a little too literal an interpretation of the prompt, but it’s been fun to reminisce over my memories of watching Metropolis for the first time. Perhaps I need to watch it again soon…”
“A bit of Metropolis meets a bit of Egyptian meets some other stuff.”
Who’s up for another game? Courtesy of Kick-About team mate, Gary Thorne, we have a brand new prompt for a brand new creative challenge – see below for our latest theme and new submission deadline. Have fun – and anyone visiting who’d like to have a run around with us, then do please get in touch. The more the merrier.
Black Narcissus is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger from the novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus (1947) charts the trials and tribulations of an order of crisp Anglican nuns seeking to establish a Christian outpost high in the Himalayas in the sensorial environs of the Palace of Mopu, a former brothel. Suffice to say, it doesn’t end well.
In what is likely an instance of false memory, I can almost definitely recall the first time I saw Black Narcissus, or perhaps more truthfully, I can imagine easily the prickly transgressive sensation the film would have likely produced in me when I first watched it as a child.
I’m going to choose to remember it this way, me sitting in front of the telly on some rainy Sunday afternoon. I’m tempted to describe the soothing percussion of the rain against the window and the soporific heat of the gas fire, but I’d almost certainly be embellishing for effect, though again, these details sound likely.
What I can say with more certainty is there is no way I could have understood what Black Narcissus was actually about, not back then. Black Narcissus is a film where much of what transpires between the characters is carried not by their dialogue but by the glances passing between them, or by their spatial relationships, or in what the camera chooses to include in the frame. This movie is a movie about sex, but if you don’t know what sex is yet, much of what drives the characters in the film to behave towards each other in the ways they do is hopelessly cryptic. If your balls haven’t dropped, neither will the penny.
Anyway, I was likely sulking darkly in one corner of the settee after discovering the titular ‘black narcissus’ wasn’t in fact a villainous sorcerer in a Sinbad film or, better still, the name of a spaceship. No, this was an old British film about serious unsmiling nuns, their thick white robes hanging on them like pastry, their hands ringing bells, their hands wringing, and all of them getting upset suddenly, shrilling and flapping at each other like gulls, until one of their group puts on a red dress and suddenly all hell breaks loose…
While I couldn’t have understood the psycho-sexual polarities tugging at the characters of Black Narcissus, I would have been wide-awake to the film’s peculiar atmosphere, my antennae pricking up, jangled by the film’s vibrato. Like all children who sense they’re on the cusp of some forbidden act or experience, I likely soaked it up with horrid dread and pleasure. The BBC might have decided to screen Black Narcissus in the middle of the afternoon, but I knew it wasn’t suitable for me. It unsettled me in ways I couldn’t name or identify – and I liked it.
I’m reminded now of a weird little episode at my secondary school when a group of girls started doing Ouija boards in the toilets. I was thirteen or thereabouts and for a short period of days, there were outbreaks of hysteria and fainting fits, teachers marching red-eyed, wet-faced girls along corridors to sit with them in small rooms. I’m reminded too of a school trip to the Isle of Wight where we shared rooms of punishingly uncomfortable bunk-beds. One night, a large group of us all crammed into the same room, where we told each other horrible true stories about ghost hitchhikers and dead baby-sitters, until the tension between us was so high, so feverish, it felt as if the air itself might ignite with pulsing purple sparks. Anyone coming into that room would have reeled on their heels from the high funk of our stewing hormones – fright, flight and fucking all swirled together – only we were all too young to fuck or even want to fuck, but there it was, rattling away at us anyway, just as the wind in Black Narcissus blows so unceasingly through the corridors of the palace of Mopu…
Today, the pleasure I derive from Powell and Pressburger’s startling film increases with every viewing. I admire its singularity. I’m always surprised it even got made. As the film moves towards its stranger terrains, I have to remind myself Black Narcissus was made in 1947. I understand a BBC remake is due imminently, but I’d rather Darren Aronofsky got hold of it because in pitch, tone and subject-matter, it already feels like one of his movies. I can only assume Black Narcissus was a very personal work for Powell and Pressburger, that Godden’s story was some private itch they wanted to scratch.
Back when I was a university lecturer, I would every year screen the Blu-ray restoration of Black Narcissus on the big screen of the lecture theatre, as part of a programme of films for undergraduate students in support of their project on production design. I would look forward to this opportunity to see Jack Cardiff’s pellucid cinematography writ-large and likewise hear Brian Easdale’s richly impressionist score through the lecture theatre’s array of surround sound speakers. I would also dread screening Black Narcissus because I knew my students would hate it, and if not hate it, then meet the experience with indifference, which was worse.
And largely my students did hate it, yawning throughout like baby birds and rustling the wrappings of their smuggled snacks with pointed impatience. Black Narcissus left my students cold, unmoved by the plight of all these fluttering nuns and seemingly unimpressed by the various devices contrived by the filmmakers to ensure the characters’ physical surroundings compounded and communicated their libidinous turmoil. There is a particular private pain in offering up a favourite thing only to have its preciousness met with strained forbearance.
One of the most celebrated scenes in Black Narcissus comes when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) very deliberately applies scarlet lipstick to her mouth while Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) looks on, aghast. Sister Ruth has just relinquished her vows and is getting ready to quit the convent for what she hopes is a bunk-up with the disreputable Mr Dean, played by David Farrar. From the outset of the film, Sister Ruth and Sister Clodagh have been locked into a battle of wills and this is Sister Ruth’s final disavowal of Sister Clodagh’s authority. She’s had it with God too.
Following one screening of the film, I asked my students for their own thoughts on the lipstick scene. No forty-something male tutor really wants to spell out to a roomful of twenty-year olds how the reddening of a woman’s lips can be read as semiotic short hand for a sudden rush of blood to the labia, so I didn’t. Hoping someone would say it for me, I asked, ‘So what does it mean when Sister Ruth applies her lipstick?’ Finally, after a long silence, a single student put up their hand and answered, ‘That she’s getting ready to go out?’ As answers go it was inarguably accurate, but when I went on to suggest Sister Ruth might as well have been pointing a neon arrow at the absolute readiness of her vagina to receive the rugged attentions of Mr Dean, the lecture theatre fell silent.
I referred next to an earlier conflict between the two nuns in Sister Clodagh’s office, where they argue about Mr Dean. The subject of the scene is the two women’s unspoken desire for him, and the rivalry now firmly established between them for his attentions. Resolve is weakening, vows are wavering, sap is rising, and there on the table between the two warring nuns we see a hand bell, its handle making for a conspicuously phallic silhouette. ‘Obviously, it’s a cock,’ I said to my students. ‘It’s the idea that dare not speak its name. Powell and Pressburger are putting the delicious spectre of Mr Dean’s manhood in plain sight. It is the return of the repressed! The forbidden phallus!’
There is nothing quite like the deepening, abyssal silence a roomful of bored post-prandial students can produce when they’re thinking their tutor is a tragic perv.
But I’m not imagining it. Sexualised imagery is everywhere in this film. It’s on the walls of the old palace in the form of frescos depicting the voluptuous forms of the prostitutes who once inhabited its chambers. Every now and then, the camera will cut to one of these paintings to remind us of the inadequacy and folly of repression, these curvaceous painted ladies looking on at the nuns’ histrionics with what we take to be great amusement. There are naked statues too, which the nuns cover with dust-sheets, but as Sister Ruth runs gleefully from the palace to be with the object of her desire, we see one of these statues drop its veil completely. By this point in the story, everything else is slipping too, everything else is being laid bare.
As the film begins its third act, which will soon end in horror and in tragedy, we’re treated to a super-saturated montage of spring flowers and blasts of Easedale scores. We’re treated to the image of a magnolia tree, its branches near-indecent with their weight of flowers, which are rudely flushed and upright – and what are flowers if not the showiest of sex organs? What are plants if not outrageous exhibitionists? Powell and Pressburger aren’t simply informing cinema-goers of a change in the season, they’re waving great bouquets of genitalia at us. This isn’t just a magnolia tree, ladies and gentlemen, and those pinkish waxy goblets with their closely-guarded anthers and pistles are not blooms, but rather a cavalcade of up-for-it private parts. Nature is rudely unapologetic – colour is life! – but we’ll soon see too how colour will likewise augur death.
Should we be in any doubt that flowers are being used as part of the film’s symbolic schema as another substitute for the pleasures of the flesh, we need only look to the character of good old reliable Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson), whose job it has been to prepare the grounds around the Palace in readiness for a vegetable garden. In another of the film’s ‘big moments’ that centre around smallish things, Sister Clodagh discovers Sister Phillipa has gone rogue. She has been seduced away from the proper productive pragmatism of her carrots and potatoes, preoccupied instead with the onanism of beauty, with the frills, folds, and sticky, honeyed stamens of a flower garden. Earlier in the film, Sister Clodagh notices Sister Phillipa staring out at the mountainous horizon in a fugue state. By way of explanation, Sister Phillipa complains ‘you can see too far’. She is becoming unbounded and her inner life newly expansive.
And there’s all the other richly Freudian stuff too; the great big horns that blow, and the big bell that rings with its heavy thudding clapper, while below it, Sister Ruth, who may already be mad and probably sick with some unspecified water-born virus, wraps her pale thin hands around the thick cord of the rope and tugs and tugs and tugs while wearing another of her secret transportive smiles…
In one extraordinarily candid scene, Sister Clodagh is spirited back into one of her memories by the distant sound of a barking dog that interrupts the silence of the chapel. She remembers taking part in a fox hunt, riding side-by-side with her beau across the open country. The music is orgasmic suddenly with the ululation of male and female voices. We likewise hear the thundering of hooves and the baying of the hounds. This is blood-sport, something primitive and savage reconfigured as civilised grown-up recreation, but make no mistake, this is primal, sweat-flecked exertion. Sure enough, when we cut back to the ever lovely Deborah Kerr, who we know very well has been remembering the way it felt to grip the musculature of her steed between her thighs, we see how her lips are glossier, her mouth parted. In truth, I’m always a little bit shocked by this sequence. It finds the prude in me, not least because Deborah Kerr is so very straight-laced, but also because the meaning is crystal clear; these are images coming to us direct from Sister Clodagh’s wank-bank.
… and with that observation, the silence of the lecture theatre prolongs unbearably, as I realise that this year, like every year, Black Narcissus is no one else’s favourite thing and all its lurid, febrile charms have gone unnoticed and under-appreciated. To be honest, I feel the same about wine. The label promises an avalanche of cherries and grace notes of elderflower and all I get is vinegar.
Black Narcissus is often categorised as a melodrama, which is short-hand for ‘a woman’s picture’, and is one of those descriptors that drips with disdain. Unlike ‘science-fiction’ or ‘the western’, melodrama it is not just a word for the collection of tropes most associated with a type of story, it’s a judgement on those tropes too. If something is described as melodramatic, the implication is the feelings on show lack authenticity, that they are performative and needy and attention-seeking. One of the very special things about Black Narcissus is the way it eschews authenticity for the heightened language of a dream. Famously, the film was shot almost entirely at Pinewood Studios, with sets, miniatures and glorious matte paintings by Walter Percy Day combining to produce a unique sense of place – or should that be ‘non-place’ or ‘unplace’, because we’re never in any doubt that the Palace of Mopu is a heady confection, an idea of a place, a fantasy of a location.
The otherworldliness of the Palace Of Mopu is core to the mechanics of its story, as the colourless Sisters of Saint Faith are over-stimulated by the Technicolour hyperrealism of their new surroundings. We’re told the water is effecting them, likewise the sound of the drums reaching up to them from the jungle below that robs them of their sleep. The wind refuses to calm, and, as Sister Phillipa complains, the air itself is ‘too clear’.
One of the most magical sequences in the film comes right at the beginning, as a disembodied camera takes us on a tour of the Palace of Mopu, while the disembodied voice of Mr Dean introduces us to the setting. Narration gives way to ethereal singing, a choir of ghosts, and always we hear the wind and see it animating faded slips of once-colourful fabric. We meet the caretaker of the palace, Angu Ayah, (May Hallat) and watch her dancing alone through the different rooms of the palace, reliving the heyday of her service, which we can only assume included re-arranging the scatter cushions after glorious orgies and giving zero-fucks about who was doing what to whom.
At one point, Mr Dean says of Angu Ayah, ‘She is the caretaker. She has always been the caretaker’ – or words to that effect. When I hear that I’m always reminded of the very final scene of Kubrick’s The Shining, when we realise Jack Torrance has ‘always been at the Overlook’, and the Palace of Mopu and the Overlook Hotel draw snugly together as grandiose mountain-top locations bedeviled by ghosts.
The lighting in Black Narcissus is extraordinary. It’s one of the principle reasons I liked showing this film to would-be animators because of the permission it gave them to use light and colour as boldly.
The film’s showiest moments come at its climax when the real world rationale for all those oranges, yellows and reds is sunset and sunrise. Symbolically, the colour transforms the rooms of the Palace of Mopu as arousal might change the saturation of human skin. There is a warming up, a blushing, a creeping of intensity mirrored by the pulse of the story, which by this point is quickening towards its climax. Here again we see the futility of repression – the impossibility of stoppering up the heat and hue of a natural phenomena.
So otherworldly does the film become, there is one scene that better resembles a painting from a book of fantasy art, or a forgotten still from Mike Hodge’s Flash Gordon (1980). We see Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean walking together close to edge of the vertiginous cliff that will later prove so deadly, and in the void beside them, we see a swirling nebula of blue and orange clouds. If you subscribe to Freud’s iceberg model of the human mind, with the conscious mind as the tip, the preconscious mind as the middle of the iceberg, and the unconscious mind as the greatest mass concealed away in the depths, it’s possible to view this phantasmagorical seascape as evidence that the rational world is sinking fast and soon to be submerged.
Less showy, but no less impressive, are all the many close-ups of the nuns’ faces themselves. Deborah Kerr is near-translucent in head shots of exquisite monochrome. Right at the opening of the film, we meet the strict mother superior who sets things in motion when she dispatches Sister Clodagh on her mission to Mopu. Her own close-ups are mesmerising to me and when seen on blu-ray, utterly pristine. It’s as if you could push your fingers through the thin membrane of the television screen and run them over the dry corrugation of her lines and wrinkles.
It’s easy to ‘queer’ Black Narcissus. Any film that pivots around a same sex community where the thought of ‘doing it’ is fraught will speak to LGBT audiences of one stripe or another, though it’s deeply unfashionable now to align gay experience with stories that end with tragedy. This is likely another reason why Black Narcissus always failed to resonate with my wonderfully gender and identity-fluid students, for whom the repression of self must seem like a terrific waste of time and energy.
It would be revisionism on my part to suggest with any authority that this film ‘spoke to me’ as a gay man before I knew I was a gay man. To be honest, the film never makes me identify with the suffering of the characters, but with their longing, which isn’t quite the same thing. I can always feel the huge effort it must be taking those nuns to ‘not’ look at Mr Dean, who will insist on walking about the former-brothel in the very shortest shorts and with his shirt wide open. The film presents his flesh as spectacle, objectifying him delightfully at every opportunity. Whenever Mr Dean sits himself down, we are required by dint of camera and of framing to look upon his shapely hairy thighs and the furriness of his forearms. His chest hair is thick and showy.
In one scene, Mr Dean makes his entrance wearing only his shorts and shoes and we’re treated to that rarest thing, a largely naked man surrounded by clothed women. The camera invites us to gawp at him – how can we not? – and the tension so created between us looking and the nuns ‘not looking’ is as palpable as it is perfect.
Black Narcissus is difficult to categorise – except when it’s not – and the film is at its most conventional at the end, when this peculiar movie manifests plainly as a horror film. The last ten minutes of Black Narcissus always feel incredibly contemporary to me because they read as a slasher flick. By now, all semblance of realism has been abandoned, as the colour red bleeds into the set and the Palace of Mopu reveals itself to be a gothic castle. Sister Clodagh is alone and imperiled. Spurned by Mr Dean, mad, bad Sister Ruth of the fuck-me lipstick and the red dress, has returned to the palace to murder her nemesis. The stage is set, and now the camera prowls and glides in exact choreography with Easedale’s music, and I’m always riveted. As a child, all of this would have made perfect sense to me – not why things had come to this moment, but how I was supposed to feel about it. I was afraid and I liked it.
But Black Narcissus isn’t a slasher movie. More accurately, it’s a haunted house movie, and when viewed in this way, the film is reassuringly familiar and not so peculiar after all. We have an old empty property with a bad reputation and a group of overly optimistic new tenants taking up residency there, ignoring tell-tale signs that all is not well, and which point to strange forces already at work. Then, one of the new tenants, who is presented from the outset as more susceptible than the others, slowly becomes the focus of the haunted house’s energy, and ultimately its vessel, and then there are monsters.
The horror genre is synonymous with physical metamorphosis, with bodies being invaded and changed, by werewolf bites or alien DNA, or by disfigurements or mutilations. When we talk of the history of horror, it is often a history of its monster-makers: Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce, Dick Smith… It’s a history too of technologies, of prosthetics, of animatronics, of glove-puppets smeared with KY jelly to look half-decent in front of the camera. I never hear anyone talking as readily about the transformation of Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus, but people should be, because it is genuinely spectacular and properly unsettling – and achieved simply, through make-up, lighting, framing and through Kathleen Byron’s unique physicality.
When we do catch glimpses of Sister Ruth in the film’s climatic stalking scenes, she is an angular thing of spite and shadows. At one point we see her scuttle away up some stairs with the awful speed of a furtive spider. She is inhuman now, and when finally she makes her entrance in readiness to push Sister Clodagh to her death, Sister Ruth has been whittled into something appallingly skeletal, her eyes ringed red and her hair curled like wet black worms against her white face. She is possessed. She is death, a wraith, a ghoul.
Notice I haven’t set out all the established caveats around this film; that it is absolutely a colonial fantasy that makes cartoons out of people of colour (at least two of which are white actors in blackface). In respect of its depiction of the indigenous people of the Himalayas, it has all the nuance, sensitivity and accuracy of an episode of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The film’s association of female libido with mental dysfunction and hysteria continues a fine old tradition of monstering sexualised women, and similarly sub-dividing women into saints and sluts. Black Narcissus is awkward and creaky in all these ways certainly and before I screened the film for students, these remarks would be made, and following the screening, student-led symposia would follow on orientalism, the colonial gaze and feministic critique.
But still I wanted to show it, despite its flaws, and I continued to show it, despite its reception, because I genuinely think Black Narcissus is special. It’s an art film. It’s a weird film. It’s a beautiful film and, for all that creaks about it, it’s at times a startlingly modern film.
At the very end of the film, Sister Clodagh and the remaining nuns leave the Palace of Mopu. Sister Ruth is dead and the colonial project is over. Sister Clodagh looks up and we see the Palace vanish behind the clouds. It’s as if it was never there, the events that happened there consigned to a dream or nightmare. I’ve always felt this final shot confirms the directors’ intention that the reality of the film was always unstable or to be put into question; that we spent our time in a largely fantastical place.
I’m always left thinking about the Palace Of Mopu as the credits roll. Like some Freudian Brigadoon, I like to think it reappears whenever another group of repressed proselytizers need their foundational principles jangled and shaken. And Angu Ayah is still there, of course, old, yes, and witch-like certainly, but otherwise unageing, and dancing, and the wind, of course, the wind always blowing.
Under the eccentric-sounding title Gelata Spongia Oculus Eruptus, I talked about a new film project in-the-offing that utilises a sound-visualisation widget to power animated imagery. Invented by Ethan Shilling, the plug-in was developed for live-synchronisation concerts of Hector Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. Arguably the best known piece from Berlioz’s music is the Queen Mab Scherzo, which is full of wonderful flurries and dainty magic, which is only right and proper considering Queen Mab is the fairy responsible for the delivery of our dreams.
While the music drives the animation, the art direction behind the visuals references traditional 2D animation, Tinkerbell, the fairies of Fantasia and the magic outpourings of Aladdin’s lamp…
Queen Mab in rehearsal with conductor Arie van Beek in Katowice, Poland
A few evenings back, we went to Oare for the golden hour, the sun honeyed, the breeze warm, and all the soft banks of green and purple grasses rolling away from my camera towards the horizon. The older stems, bleached grey, looked exactly as if someone had rubbed away at the surface of the view, or scored at it with a compass point.
Is it weird I want to eat this latest offering from Artist-In-Residence, Tom Beg? Is it in anyway strange this fruity, jellied character has me licking my lips in an involuntary Haribo-craving saliva response? Is it peculiar I just want to grab these cheery-looking creatures and squeeze them like those rubbery monster-shaped finger-puppets I adored as a nipper? Another powerful impulse is to take Tom’s latest creation and chuck them at a window, and watch them crawl down the glass like those wonderfully sticky stocking-fillers I likewise delighted in as a child. (These are all compliments by the way!).
Tom and I have been in touch regularly via Skype and in our most recent conversation, I asked him about this newest addition to his Miro-inspired cast of 3D characters…
Tom’s original sketch
Phil: I understand giving life to this second of your characters inspired by Miro’s painting proved quite challenging…
Tom: I have, for one reason or another, never really delved into the world of character production in 3D. On a technical level, character production locks you in quite severely into each process, and as someone who tries to make art and use software instinctively, this is somewhat intimidating because I don’t really like the idea of being tied into these processes so strictly. Any oversights or limitations with your work, however minor or innocent, can have some serious knock-on effects down the line which can cause anguish and many wasted hours.
For example, if your initial 2D design doesn’t make some sense in reality, then it will be very difficult to build it as a 3D model. If your 3D model and its underlying skeleton don’t adhere to the principles and rules of the 3D software, then the processes by which you build the tools to make your character move and come alive can become hampered and unwieldy. I’ll spare the grim details of my 3 a.m. battles, but in this case, I’ve been away from the software for a long time causing some, let’s say, ‘rustiness’ – and because my ‘character’ is a three-armed, nine-fingered, one-eyed, six-tentacled thing I dreamed up without any consideration for reality, I made maybe every possible mistake at every possible step. However, I needed to build and understand this one in order to get an understanding of all my other characters, creatures and objects. Making those mistakes and the battles to rectify those mistakes is just another part of the production process.
Building up the 3D model in Autodesk Maya
Tom unpacks the modelling pipeline
Phil: When I look at this latest character, I think of jelly sweets and all the rubbery toys of my late 1970s childhood.
Tom: That’s interesting! I‘ve been so wrapped up in just getting it made, I haven’t really paused to think about what this character ‘means’ to me. My initial goal was to just to translate the feeling of my initial Miro-inspired sketches into 3D, knowing that they were probably not going to look exactly the same once re-imagined. Seeing them now, I’m reminded of Sea-Monkeys and mini kids aquariums with plastic fish and decorations.
The completed model, rigged and ready to animate.
Phil: Any sense yet of the universe in which your characters might reside? Any inklings about the wider world of your short film?
Tom: At the moment the characters are occupying these infinite nebulas with very little sense of depth and space. Even when producing the last two images it’s been somewhat tricky to figure where things should be placed in relation to each other, or how big they should be, or how many there should be. The good thing is these sorts of ponderings are starting to define the world I eventually need to build. I do have some ideas floating around, so once all the initial assets have been made, I’ll be able to play around with the finished stuff – like toys – and get a better sense of what it is all going to be.
Tom’s ‘sea monkey’ in various poses
Phil: Finally then, who is up next and what are your predictions around the challenges you’ll face?
Tom: Even though I consider this character a big step forward for this project, and me personally, there will always be some challenges because no 3D model or design is ever the same. In terms of my initial sketches there are some which are more recognisable as typical characters, with eyes and arms, and there are others which look more objects. I want to start building a couple of these more object-like ones and work out how I can imbue them with that same sense of character and aliveness.
All of Tom’s initial drawings, two down, which one will be next?