The film series Getting Lost In Fields began as a response to this Kick-About prompt, in which I challenged myself to use my numerous photographs of local fields, pastures and scrubland as the basis for some moving image work. Really, I wanted to seek to share my feelings about these landscapes, what it was like to walk within them and how it felt to encounter all this beauty. Since then, I’ve been back to Knave’s Ash, where the parched hay meadow had been rendered in golds, coppers and chalk by the late Summer heat.
I find there is always something rather melancholy about August. It is the beginning of the end of things. In approaching this fourth little film, I very much had the idea of an elegy in mind.
Back in March 2013, I was tasked with conceiving of a way in which an entire community of animation students, staff and alumni could work together on a big external EU-funded project, the goal of which was to visualise classical music engagingly and thus initiate new audiences into the concert-going experience:
“On Friday, July 12th at Grays Civic Hall, Essex, the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne will be performing a programme of music on a theme of ‘rhythm’. The programme of music will explore ideas of rhythm in classical music and in the celebrated jazz of the late Dave Bruebeck. The director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, Marc Feldman, has challenged our creative community to work collaboratively to create an original work of animation designed to accompany his orchestra’s performance of one particular example of early twentieth century music that blends classical and jazz rhythms to exciting effect. The animation will be rear projected onto a large screen measuring 8.5m wide by 6.2m high, in front of which the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne will perform live.“
That ‘particular example of early twentieth century music’ was Darius Milhaud’s 1923 ballet, La Création du monde. I was entirely unfamiliar with the piece, but on hearing it for the first time, I was struck by its many contrasting textures, moving from lyricism to rattling percussion, and back again. My mind offered up abstract shapes, ribbons of colour, starbursts, wheeling cogs and the metropolitan rush of beeping cars and honking trains, and all the clamour and noise of modernity. What a gift to animators, I thought, and so it proved to be.
Over the course of ten consecutive days, the course community were challenged to listen to Milhaud’s ballet and ‘draw what they could hear’, producing abstract digital paintings as quickly and instinctively as possible in an effort to ‘photograph’ the synesthetic imagery inspired by the music. Of the many exciting projects my students and I undertook together, this stint of extra-curricular activity was particularly joyous, as everyone just rolled up their sleeves and painted. In the end, a huge range of speed paintings were generated in response to Milhaud’s music, the entire collection of which can be viewed here.
I’ve gathered by own efforts here, blowing off the dust. Produced very quickly, produced blithely, they still manage to cheer me up. When I look at these images, I recall the fireworks of Milhaud’s music instantly and likewise the very real pleasure of working side-by-side with such a lovely bunch of bright young things.
One name you won’t know is Keith Burden, but I’d like to change that. Keith Burden is a consultant in audio-visual technologies for performance spaces and the wizardry of project mapping, and the unsung hero of my various excursions into synesthetic concert experiences and the live synchronisation of animated imagery.
Happiest left to his own devices behind the scenes, usually dressed in stage-blacks and hunkered down behind a bank of hotly-humming computers, Keith is not one for blowing his own trumpet, so in this edition of ‘Spotlight’, I’ve taken it upon myself to strike up the horn section on his behalf.
Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France – December 19th, 2013 / If you very peer very closely at this image, you’ll see Keith Burden seated behind the table in the ‘cock-pit’, surrounded by computers, controllers and lengths of cable. Tom Beg and I are conferring in the background. We’re at the back of the stage hidden behind a huge screen, onto which we will soon project La Création du monde in live-synchronisation with the Orchestre de Picardie. Not sure what the shopping trolley is for.
His face illuminated by one of his three monitors, Keith continues his scrupulous pre-performance checks to ensure a glitch-free projection.
Phil: Hello Keith. Thanks for doing this. I know this isn’t your thing, being in the limelight and all that, but you do this transformative, rather magical job for people and for places, and I wanted to drag you – kicking and screaming if necessary – out from behind your kit. We met back in 2013 for the first of the sound visualisation projects, working with Darius Milhaud’s jazz-inspired ballet, La Création du monde (1923) to produce an animation to accompany a jazz-themed concert headed up by Chris Brubeck. I knew you first as ‘Clever Keith’, a guy with some seriously heavy-duty flight-cases, a vanful of cables, computer monitors and some very expensive, very powerful projectors. You were a bit like an agent in a Mission Impossible film, only in a fleece, and with bits of gaffer tape stuck to your trousers. How would you describe your role in our various creative collaborations?
CleverKeith: I see my main role as a form of conduit to get your plethora of artists’ work integrated with the live artists’ performance.*
*Keith is being characteristically modest here. Keith is much more like the black sleeve that encases hundreds of other smaller wires in some heavy-duty, utterly essential cable! Keith’s jobs include conceptualising the response to the space in regards to the logistical relationship between the hardware, the image, the audience, the musicians and the existing infrastructure – and then adapting everything at very short notice when the performance space is actually nothing like he was told it was going to be! There’s the install of the kit, all the time spent familiarising himself with the music and the visuals, there’s the checking and re-checking and checking again, and last but far from least, there’s the adrenalised act of live-synching the visuals and music itself in-performance, which can be like landing a passenger plane on a very windy day.
A selection of the various different concert venues across Europe to which Keith and I travelled during our adventures together in light and sound, all of which presented their different challenges in terms of projection and synching visuals with the nuances of the different orchestras.
Phil: When I was at school, I did one of those ‘career-picker’ exercises; I think I got ‘Florist’ when I inputed all my existing interests and career aspirations! I don’t remember seeing ‘projection-mapper’ or ‘live-synchroniser’ or ‘projector-wrangler’ being on the list. How did you get into this line of work in the first place?
Keith: A whole series of happy accidents after school, including my interest in photography, allowed me to develop a fairly unique set of skills. I was fortunate enough to be trained by three companies, Linn Products, Naim Audio and Quad Electro Acoustics, which provided, not only the foundation of my audio work, but also the signal chain for the visual and control element. Specialist 2 channel Hi-Fi turned into Home Cinema, which then became Custom Installation, which led onto interactive projection mapping.*
*Projection mapping, similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, is a projection technique used to turn objects, often irregularly shaped, into a display surface for video projection. These objects may be complex industrial landscapes, such as buildings, small indoor objects or theatrical stages. By using specialized software, a two- or three-dimensional object is spatially mapped on the virtual program which mimics the real environment it is to be projected on. The software can interact with a projector to fit any desired image onto the surface of that object. This technique is used by artists and advertisers alike who can add extra dimensions, optical illusions, and notions of movement onto previously static objects. The video is commonly combined with, or triggered by, audio to create an audio-visual narrative. In recent years this technique has also been widely used in the context of cultural heritage as it has proved to be an excellent edutainment tool thanks to the combined use of a digital dramaturgy. (Thank you Wikipedia).
So begins the process of blending the images of two separate projectors to produce a single seamless rear-projected image on the big screen at the Maison de la Culture, Amiens, France, December 19th, 2013. The checkerboard image is used to ensure the two projected images are aligned perfectly. I suspect Keith sees this checkerboard in his dreams..
Phil: Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve done, the unusual ones, the spectacular ones, the most expensive ones, the strangest ones….
Keith:One of my favourites is the Painted Room in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. Less than 2 hours to install and calibrate a seven projector system onto the walls, ceilings, and on this occasion, also the floor, to illuminate the performers. With one technical rehearsal the previous month, we were able to use the projections to illuminate the appropriate elements of the Painted Hall that tied in with that part of the performance.
I would say some of the most enjoyable works are where we are able to project discretely, where the audience get to experience the projections without being aware of all the technical elements. St Johns & St Elizabeth’s Hospice Light Up a Life Christmas projections have allowed us to project within the courtyard area of the hospital. In Turner’s old art studio, we were able to transform the space into a Tuscan landscape that subtlety changed to an evening under the stars, as the scenes changed throughout the evening. Leeds Castle fireworks was a fantastic canvas that allowed us to choreograph the visuals to the music and the fireworks for one of the finest fireworks displays in the country.
Most live events have challenges, but when you are sharing the stage with other performers, and in addition you have moving platforms with flames and lasers firing from them, it makes the set up not so straight forward! At Glastonbury we provided the visuals for The Egg when they headlined the Arcadia Stage.
The Arcadia Stage, Glastonbury
Some buildings lend themselves to projections and other have been painted white to allow us to project onto them We projected onto the Turner Contemporary in Margate, back in 2012 for the Olympic Poetry projections with Lemn Sissay. The clean lines of this building made it great visual experience. Bycomparison, a small disused unit in London was painted white, along with all its fixtures and fittings, converting the space into a “Doodle Bar”, not only for the benefits of the projection mapping and interactive projections, but for the people attending the event to doodle on any surface they wanted.
Phil: One of the things you do is make ordinary spaces into magical ones through light, colour, illusion and sound. Is that the element of the work you enjoy?
Keith: Being able to create these magical spaces, allowing structure to breathe and move in ways people do not normally see, is massively rewarding. We are so lucky to work in many architecturally beautiful spaces, but many events are in marquees, function rooms and sports halls.Rugby Portobello Trust use a basketball court/sports hall, with our operating position being located in the gym adjacent to the room.
The transformed space at the Rugby Portobello Trust.
Park Village Studios is a photographic studio with a 3-sided curved white walls and we operate from a walkway overlooking the area. On one visit to this venue we turned this studio into a Cotton Club for a wedding.Some of the projects I have most enjoyed, similar to the sound visualisation projects with you, is where I’ve been involved with the creative process from an early stage.The workshops we’ve done with Snape Maltings, Suffolk, have been massively rewarding, working with children and young adults with varying levels of ability, as well as with schools like The Charles Dickens School, based in Thanet, where all their work was finally presented to friends and relatives as projections.I’ve likewise helped with mapping projects for The Guildhall School students, including beneath Tower Bridgeand the beautiful Waddesden Manor
Right up to the lockdown, I’ve been working on a couple of live music projects that both use the visuals to compliment the music. With the Blues Chronicles, we are showing 20 short films introducing artists prior to the band performing them, and at the Jazz café I am responsible for the bespoke visuals behind Stompy’s Playground, who have assembled an outstanding 5 piece string ensemble to lovingly recreate the themes and compositions from classic Studio Ghibli films.
Phil: Talk us through the process: you turn up at a venue, you’ve got an empty stage, a massive screen, a couple of hours before rehearsal and cases of kit…
Keith: The process follows a similar pattern at each venue. After managing to get all the equipment onto site it is the connectivity of the system I initially focus on. All the power and signal cables are run between all the equipment, with the appropriate control cables. Once this has been completed, we can fire up the system and check each component is working and they are talking correctly to each other. However many times I do this, there is always a moment when you see all the equipment powered up and running correctly and you can relax, take a deep breath and get ready for the calibration.
With the work on your projects, we have been working mostly in theatres, who have been sympathetic to the projections. With the house lights turned down, the calibration of the control and projectors starts, usually with the projections, ensuring we’re hitting the correct surfaces with the correct projectors, then stitching them together to complete the final product. The control element is refined from this point onwards and put through its paces during rehearsals. Unfortunately, the nature of rehearsals means there is a lot of starts and stops, which is not always helpful for the visual element, but allows us to push the system to the limit. The doors then generally open, and the next time we see the visuals is when the orchestra start the piece.
Phil: How nerve-wracking was it, live-synching visuals to classical music in front of audiences of hundreds of people?
Keith:Sometimes the nervousness starts before we reach the venue! Once we have the final material, and it has been played successfully on our machines, then initial nerves subside. Usually I have been provided with the music prior to the event, so I can rehearse and familiarise myself with both the music and the visuals. That said, the sound of the different orchestras and venues, along with the different conducting styles, did create totally different landscapes to work within.
Phil: What does it feel like when the synch between the sound and image is perfect?
Keith: It’s like covering your body with honey, then allowing the bees to lick it off over the next few hours.*
*For the record, Keith is also a bee-keeper. If you were thinking this is just a rather colourful turn of phrase… it may not be.
Phil: What does it feel like when it doesn’t go to plan mid-performance, and how do you get it back on track?
Keith: At first I was afraid, I was petrified – kept thinking I could never live without you by my side. But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong, and I grew strong and I learned how to get along…*
*For the record, Keith can also be very silly.
Phil: What were your favourite events you worked on as part of these European projects?
Keith: The first event is always exciting, as it usually when a lot of talk and convoluted explanations are realised by all those involved – the visual artists see their visual projected for the first time, the orchestra see the visuals for the first time. Working with you and your team, then Milhaud in 2013 has great memories, along with the bonus of Mr Brubeck’s performance alongside ours. It’s hard to choose a favourite event from the projects, each venue offered its own challenges to a greater or lesser extent, but at all these venues we were always made welcome and I think the orchestra staff and their crews really helped make these events very special. The most enjoyable element was being exposed to Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet – prior to these projects I was unfamiliar with them both.
Phil: For me, one of the great pleasures of working on these projects was sitting in during the rehearsals and getting to know the musicians and their music. How about you?
Keith: I totally agree. Although we became very familiar with the La Création du monde and Romeo and Juliet, so we get to hear these performed by the orchestras, but then we get the additional bonus of the pieces of music that are being performed alongside, such as Strauss’s Don Quixote, Verdi’s Requiem – and we mustn’t forget The Snowman in Zilina*
*We were out in Zilinia in December to screen La creation du monde. We were on a double-bill of live-synch performances that included the Christmas classic, The Snowman. There is so much more Keith could tell you about this trip, not least because we drove there from the UK, but what happens on tour, stays on tour, right?
Phil: In light of Covid 19, how do you see the future of your industry? Any big ideas?
Keith: I think in the near future interactive projections and immersive installations may be an area that could be worth investigating. With all the hardware safely away from the virus, it may make it a more practical solution for many users.
Phil: It’s high-time we had another adventure in light and sound! What are we going to do next?
Keith: I think we better get the egg and toffee hammer out!*
*I’m not going to explain this reference either, which has nothing to do with a) projection-mapping or b) bee-keeping, but in someway associates with the culminative effect of two people sitting in a car together for hours on end on their way to-and-from Slovakia.
David H. Keller’s 1932 short story, The Thing In The Cellar, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
The title of Keller’s short story has me from the get-go. Putting those two words together – thing and cellar – is like the happy meeting of fat and sugar. I lick my lips. I’m certain there are people who disapprove of the use of the word thing, seeing only a hole where a better chunk of vocabulary should be. These are the same people who don’t understand the extraordinary and unrivaled eloquence of a well-timed swear word, or think the word ‘nice’ should be banished for its beigeness, when ‘nice’ is one of our most delicately shaded adjectives, comprising as it does the full tonal range of sarcasm, insincerity, evasiveness and passive aggression.
The word thing, particularly when used by writers of horror fiction, is always a richly chimerical, hyrdra-headed device, a purposeful and powerful non-commitment that forcefully commits the reader’s imagination to an act of shaping the unknown. It is a word that promises everything by eliding detail. It is a big lovely game of a word. Consider the following; The Thing With Two Heads (1972), The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958), Zontar, the Thing From Venus (1966) and the short story, The Thing On the Doorstep (1937), from the thingmeister himself, H.P. Lovecraft. Oh, how my imagination hurries to meet these unnamed hulks, these blobs, these slimy, jellied mysteries!
One of the most celebrated literary and filmic ‘things’ is the alien visitor in John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?, the 1938 novella first adapted for the screen as The Thing From Another World (1951) and then again as The Thing in 1982. Fittingly, the ‘thing’ in Campbell’s story is a nasty shape-shifting alien that mimics physically whatever it touches – which is exactly how the word thing operates too, its amorphous state leaving it free to assume the form of all our own personal fears, mirroring them intimately, reflecting them back.
Cellars, like attics, are very special confections of joists, bricks and mortar. They are not ordinary interiors, however ordinary. They are untrusted as domestic spaces. They are Judas rooms. Cellars are slippery, sliding so easily into the realm of metaphor it is a wonder they can ever support the buildings built above them.
Cellars are where you put stuff so you no longer have to look at it or think about it. To consign something to the cellar is not, in fact, to go as far as getting rid of it or vanishing it or even moving past it. It is to decide to keep something even as you choose to conceal it from your everyday routine. Cellars are the subconscious of a house and of its occupants, past and present, a handy storage solution for our repression.
It is down to the cellar finally that Lila Loomis must venture in order to plumb the depths of Norman Bates’ psychopathy in Psycho (1960). This is where the desiccated corpse of ‘mother’ sits so patiently, where Norman will soon appear in his blue periwinkle dress, carving knife in hand. The cellar is where the extent of Norman’s repression is collapsed and collapses. Down here is where the past unburies and the fixations of childhood disinter.
Perhaps the greatest essaying of our communal ambivalence for these domestic burial grounds is found in Jan Švankmajer’s Do Pivnice (1983), in which a little girl is required to collect a basket’s worth of potatoes from the cellar. While the specifics of what she finds down there in the dark are bizarre and surreal, they chime intimately with more universal childhood traumas: the witchiness of old people, the conviction inanimate objects have secret, furtive life, and the dark, of course, always that.
A face only a son could love: Mrs Bates down in the fruit cellar, Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960
The little girl goes down into the cellar, Do Pivnice, dir. Jan Švankmajer, 1983
The cellar in Keller’s story is no run-of-the-mill oubliette. The writer takes pains to ensure his reader is alerted to certain anomalies familiar to anyone familiar with the trappings of haunted houses. Keller’s opening paragraphs are like the brief exchange in The Shining (1980), when the Torrance family is informed so casually that the Overlook Hotel is built on sacred Indian burial ground, and also like the moment in Poltergeist (1982) when the Freeling family learn their boring, identikit suburban home has been erected over an enormous graveyard. This is Keller suggesting all manner of things by confirming none of them. This is Keller laying down the lore.
“It was a large cellar, entirely out of proportion to the house above it. The owner admitted that it was probably built for a distinctly different kind of structure from the one which rose above it. Probably the first house had been burned, and poverty had caused a diminution of the dwelling erected to take its place.
A winding stone stairway connected the cellar with the kitchen. Around the base of this series of steps successive owners of the house had placed their firewood, winter vegetables and junk. The junk had gradually been pushed back till it rose, head high, in a barricade of uselessness. What was back of that barricade no one knew and no one cared. For some hundreds of years no one had crossed it to penetrate to the black reaches of the cellar behind it.
At the top of the steps, separating the kitchen from the cellar, was a stout oaken door. This door was, in a way, as peculiar and out of relation to the rest of the house as the cellar. It was a strange kind of door to find in a modern house, and certainly a most unusual door to find in the inside of the house — thick, stoutly built, dexterously rabbeted together with huge wrought-iron hinges, and a lock that looked as though it came from Castle Despair. Separating a house from the outside world, such a door would be excusable; swinging between kitchen and cellar it seemed peculiarly inappropriate.”
One of the things I admire about Keller’s The Thing In The Cellar is how uncompromising it is, how richly discomforting. Spoilers ahead, but this is what goes down: a little boy is terrified of the cellar and cannot endure being left in the kitchen. His parents dismiss their son’s fears as an excess of undesirable sensitivity, likewise the family doctor, and together, the three adults conspire to bring about a cathartic epiphany in the little boy by forcing him to confront his most primal fear. At the end of the story, the little boy is dead – and not from fright.
“The mother threw herself on the floor and picked up the torn, mutilated thing that had been, only a little while ago, her little Tommy.”
God, I love this ending. I love it as I love the final scene of Duel (1971), with Dennis Weaver’s everyman so hollowed out by his victory against the killer truck, we know the thing he was trying to survive for – his civilised suburban reality – also lies smoking at the bottom of the ravine. I love Keller’s ending for the same reason I love Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), because by the time that brutal shit-show is over, everything is ash.
The Thing In The Cellar was written in 1932, but I think it resonates with me so strongly because I’m a child of the 1970s, when the prospect of children dying horribly as a direct result of a failure of parental supervision and/or as the result of the failure of parents to be cognisant of the emotional lives of their children, was a lived reality. Well, no, not my lived reality as such, but the version of it served up to me by the notorious public information films I so associate with my formative years.
Directed by John Mackenzie in 1977, Apaches is a twenty-six minute film depicting the various ways a group of children are killed by misadventure on a local farm. Apaches serves up death my tractor – twice – death by drowning, death by poisoning, and death by crushing. I don’t remember when I first saw this film, at school certainly, likely as part of an assembly, and I am far from unique in regards to the impact this film had on me, and all the other films like it; the one about not playing on railways; the one about not climbing up a pylon to retrieve a Frisbee; the ones about not returning to lit fireworks. Watching other children killed, maimed or abducted successfully by paedophiles was a regular feature of television, and what many of these films had in common was the idea that mums and dads didn’t know what their children might be doing or indeed what danger they might be in, that the lives of their children were unknown to them. I’m reminded of an episode of Tales Of The Unexpected entitled The Fly Paper (1980), adapted from a short story by Elizabeth Taylor, which takes place in a similar universe of disinterested guardians and roaming unsupervised children. In this episode, a young school girl is ultimately lured into the clutches of what we presume are two homely child-molesters – and she doesn’t escape them – hence the title.
Bleak though these endings are, I detect an element of wish-fulfillment akin to that childhood phase wherein we imagine we are adopted, hoping for it in fact, preferring the idea of having been given up at birth to the reality of being bonded by blood to the disappointments we detect in our parents. Similarly, there’s the phenomenon of imagining our own funeral just so we can see our parents grieving, wishing ourselves dead so we can know once and for all we are loved, and if not loved, then noticed at least.
There is little doubting the awfulness of the description of little Tommy’s clawed body at the climax of Keller’s tale, but in addition to feelings of pity, enhancing them even, is approval for the way the author punishes Tommy’s parents for their stupidity. I like to imagine Tommy’s ghost rising out of the meaty remains of his earth-bound body and hanging around for a while to gloat over the suffering of his mum and dad – a fantasy entertained by all children at one time or another, I strongly suspect.
A boy drowns in a slurry pit, Apaches, dir. John Mckenzie (1977)
A school girl is unsettled by the attentions of a stranger, Tales of the Unexpected / The Fly-Paper (1980)
“His father, who only saw the boy at the end of the day, decided that there was no sense in such conduct, and in his masculine way tried to break the lad of his foolishness. There was, of necessity, no effort on the part of the hard-working man to understand the psychology back of his son’s conduct. All that the man knew was that his little son was acting in a way that was decidedly queer.“
“And I am going to nail the door open, Tommy, so you can not close it, as that was what the doctor said. Tommy, and you are to be a man and stay here in the kitchen alone for an hour, and we will leave the lamp a-burning, and then when you find there is naught to be afraid of, you will be well and a real man and not something for a man to be ashamed of being the father of.”
What resonates with me most strongly about The Thing In The Cellar is Keller’s critique of a certain mode of fatherhood. True, the boy is killed by some monstrous threat undisclosed, but he is made vulnerable to that threat because his father’s expectations of Tommy’s gender puts him in harm’s way. This is as much a story about masculinity as it is about monsters and Keller makes all of this very clear. The author tells us little Tommy ‘loves his mother’. We know he’s an unusually sensitive boy, more intelligent than many in his own year group at school, and certainly more intelligent than his parents. His father disapproves of his son’s hysteria in regards to the cellar (hysteria being a woman’s failing obviously), and even more so the way his son kisses the lock on the cellar door, an act as offensive to him in its effeminacy as it is bizarre.
Given the dynamic here, it’s hard not to read the use of Keller’s phrase ‘decidedly queer’ in its more modern context. The father wants a real boy for a son, not some highly-strung mummy’s boy afflicted by a surfeit of imagination. Had Tommy not been killed, I predict he would have learned to repress his sensitivity to earn the approval of his father. He would have grown up ashamed of his own bandwidth, suppressing his intuition, denying himself access to the full spectrum of his emotional potential. There are other ways for children to be eaten up.
“What killed him, Doctor? What killed him?” he shouted into Hawthorn’s ear.
The doctor looked at him bravely in spite of the fear in his throat.
“How do I know, Tucker?” he replied. “How do I know? Didn’t you tell me that there was nothing there? Nothing down there? In the cellar?”
I always feel disgruntled by the closing moments of King Kong (1933). After Kong has been gunned down from the top of the Empire State and plunged to his death, Carl Denham has the temerity to suggest it wasn’t the planes that killed the giant gorilla, but ‘beauty’. I call bullshit on that, just as I call bullshit on the idea that what killed little Tommy in Keller’s short story was the thing in the cellar. Kong was killed because Carl Denham is a selfish macho prick who puts Kong in harm’s way to appease his own ego, just as Tommy is killed because is father decides to remasculate him by nailing open the cellar door.
So no, it wasn’t some formless monster that killed this little boy, some clawing, ancient, supernatural beast, cosmic maw or crawling, Lovecraftian blob, and the thing that killed little Tommy Tucker does have a name after all: masculinity, the toxic kind.
I didn’t know this 1964 short film directed by Gene R Kearney, or the 1934 short story written by Conrad Aiken, from which it is adapted. I feel like I should have known it – or rather, I feel I have always known this story, just not in this specific form.
Admittedly, it’s a very strange story, as a boy slips from the mundane reality of his family and school into a world of ‘secret snow’ – snow that is non-corporeal and imaginary, but which comes to transform the boy’s immediate environment and transfix his attention.
A quick look at the prevailing ideas about ‘the ‘meaning’ of Silent Snow, Secret Snow suggests we are to read this film as being about the onset of schizophrenia or some other regrettable episode of illness, but I don’t feel this way about it at all.
What Silent Snow, Secret Snow captures so perfectly – and so recognisably – is the truth of living with our creative imaginations, of what it means to carry invented worlds around with us in which others cannot share, taking them to school so we may daydream our way back into them during boring lessons, or sitting with them at the dinner table as we wish to be somewhere more magical.
I think this is every child’s reality, not some especial case-study in childhood dysfunction. This is every storyteller’s reality too, for what is storytelling if not the ability to see snow that isn’t there, and imagine it so strongly it may as well be? This is the story too of all the individuals who must live with storytellers, who must sit across from them in the knowledge they are rejected by the private imaginative acts going on inside the heart and mind of this other person – that the person before them is always somewhere else and seeing what isn’t there.
Aiken’s story is often categorised as ‘horror’. I find this taxonomy peculiar. I can find no horror here – or rather I am not horrified by what is happening to the boy in the story. Instead, I am comforted by his secret snow, and when, at the conclusion of the film, his bedroom fills with showers of ice crystals, I experience envy. How magical for him, I think. How lucky.
There was a period in my life when I got used to editing other people’s video footage into coherency, inheriting hours of hand-held video and working with it to produce something engaging and resolved. Editing 5×5 was one of the more exciting and rewarding examples of this kind of work, not least because the slight chaoticism of the raw material was a big plus, in so much as it suited very well the splashy and instinctive fashion illustration of its subject, Neil Gilks (spelled Gilkes in the film, which I can only assume was considered correct at the time, but embarrassingly for everyone involved, may not have been!).
I was left with the challenge of turning lots of A1 fashion illustrations into animated sequences to propel the film along, and likewise seeking to pull the fashion illustrator himself into the world of his drawing style and of the drawings being produced by his students. The film accompanied an exhibition of drawings and was never meant to move outside of the hallowed halls of academia – hence my flagrant use of the exquisite final Bolero from the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! I haven’t yet been set upon by the powers-that-be, but that time may soon come, so for the record (and about twelve years too late), a huge thank you to composer, Steve Sharples, because editing to this music was a total joy.
At one end of this dry, brittle field, all the stiff congregations of desiccated rumex spires made me think of ermine, or of leopard moths, or the streaking on tulip petals, and always brush work, as if someone has been using the tip of a very dry brush to lift these late Summer vistas with a few licks of stronger colour.
A while back, some old 35mm photographs resurfaced of my secondary school’s production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar – The Golden Garter – for a rowdy audience of cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a rather risque musical number that goes, ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’…
Francis Fryer’s Y chromosome comes as a shock in the 1953 film, Calamity Jane.
Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson) in drag performing on the stage of The Golden Garter, Calamity Jane (1953)
Francis Fryer performs Hive Full Of Honey, Calamity Jane (1953)
I was fourteen when I got the part of Francis Fryer. It’s 1989 and the annual school production is the highlight of the academic year. I only have very positive memories of my involvement in Calamity Jane. I remember being taught to walk in high heels by the deputy headmistress, which I enjoyed thoroughly, not because of the opportunity to click about in a woman’s shoes, but, more boringly, because I somehow valued this new informality between myself and this otherwise formidable adult. It was special-making and highly unusual, as intimate and demystifying as hearing teachers use each other’s first names with one another. I felt brought closer to the world of adults, a world I instinctively preferred over the inelegancies and bun-fights of my own age-group.
I remember very distinctly the dress rehearsal, when all the hired-in costumes arrived at the school, and I saw Francis Fryer’s saloon girl costume for the first time, an extraordinary confection of red and black satin, with a swishing fishtail at the back and only the tiniest scallop of fringed fabric hanging down at the front. Even now, I can conjure-up the prickle of mortification accompanying the moment I was given my notes by the director after the first dress rehearsal: “Philip,’ he said, ‘If you’re going to do that with your legs, you need to wear black pants.’
It’s tempting to frame this story as the moment I knew I was gay, that somehow the touch of red and black satin riveted me at once to my sexual identity; or it was those high-heel shoes, or the tights, the wig, or the ticklish slink of my red feather boa. It wasn’t like that at all. There was no such realisation or great awakening, no light-bulb moment or epiphany. The act of dressing-up as a woman didn’t feel encoded for me, or provocative, or transgressive. It was just what the character had to do in the story and that was that.
But it did make me feel special in one very obvious way: the role of Francis Fryer, and specifically his drag act, was a sure-fire way of making people laugh, and people did laugh, not least because during one performance the black sequinned garter on my left thigh became entangled with the fish tights on my right, effectively tying my legs together for the duration of my musical number. I waddled through my routine, penguin-like, while mugging furiously at the front row of the audience, mining my wardrobe malfunction for maximum laughs.
The whole point of Francis Fryer’s drag act is that it’s not very good – and I wasn’t – but that just brought the cheering and the applause. Off-stage, I was likely awkward as a foal, and always painfully self-conscious at how skinny I was, but on stage I was ‘a character actor’, a physical comedian! On stage – with those legs in those tights! – I looked ridiculous and that was power.
So no, I didn’t feel switched-on sexually in my saloon girl dress, but I did feel powerful. I had audiences eating out of my hand, knowing one bit of silliness with knock-knees and a feather boa would bring down the house. When you entertain people, when you clown for them, they reward you with affection. I felt liked. I felt popular. It was wonderful really, stealing the show from all those much better-looking boys. I knew I wasn’t leading man material, but I was the funny one.
But when I look at these photographs of that same time, my feelings are more complicated and it’s this I sought to capture in my unexpectedly personal response to the most recent Kick-About prompt.
When I look at the juvenile forms of the cicada, I experience instinctive distaste and also fascination. I feel similarly about these images of my own larval self. I experience some distaste at my physical appearance back then in the way we all recoil a bit – unremarkably – when we see images of our younger selves. This isn’t an admission of body dysmorphia or deep self-loathing, but only the truth of things. More uniquely perhaps, I experience distaste because of what I know awaits the boy in the photographs, and how the reappearance of these images returns me to a period of my life I have no wish to revisit.
This isn’t quite true actually; when I look at these photographs I do want to revisit this exact place and time – to warn, to mentor, to coach, and to save – but I know I can’t. Ultimately, that is what I find so unwelcome about these images; my powerlessness to intervene.
He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is going to be bullied by other boys. He is not going to tell anyone about it, because that is what boys do. He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is very likely embarrassing the other men of his family. Perhaps they can see something getting started in him – some adult-form coalescing – an anomaly. It’s surely what his bullies are seeing too. Funnily enough, the boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t seem to be able to see this same thing as keenly. The boy thinks he’s popular with everyone. He is the centre of attention suddenly because he is making people laugh. Turns out, people are laughing at him a bit too, but not because he’s funny haha, but because he’s odd, peculiar, different, not cool, not hard, not savvy, not a success at being a fourteen year old boy.
Oh dear! The boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t even realise, in dressing up as a woman and appearing to enjoy it, he’s upsetting and disappointing people. Some might even say a fourteen year old boy who chooses to put on a saloon girl’s dress, who learns to walk in high heels, is asking for a certain kind of trouble.
But you see, the bullies, and all the other disappointed men, are right about him – their suspicions will be realised. The boy in the dress in the photograph, who may as well be neutered for all the interest he is showing in matters of sex and sexual relationships, will, in time, emerge from his chrysalis – or rather his closet. We are looking at the nymph of an adult gay man in this photo, but everything about this individual’s gestation will be slow, and his final form not butterfly-like or in any sense spectacular. No, rather like the cicada itself, he will have to settle for ‘interesting’ over ‘beautiful’.
The boy in the dress in the photograph will soon learn to cocoon himself. He will grow a little more inward and ever more watchful. He will separate himself off from some of the men who find him disappointing by creating a shell and moving inside it for as long as it takes to feel ready enough to leave it again. The boy will do other things to keep himself safe, and not all of them will be kind or generous or brave or entirely honest.
So it is I came to the creative decision to use these happy/unhappy photographs as the raw material from which to fashion a collection of pupa, collaging with them digitally, using the same limited number of Photoshop manoeuvres last wheeled out in my Metropolis images. The decision to present the resulting images as faux zoological plates came from an idea I had about just how old these photographs feel to me – like relics, or fossils, museum pieces certainly – but also to communicate something of my scrutiny for this subject; the way distaste can give way to curiosity, and curiosity to an acceptance of the form things take on their way to being other things, and the time it takes, and also, I suppose, to marvel at the instinct to survive, and in the end, to do more than this.
“Even after I’ve long since left this place I currently call home, cicadas more than anything will be the thing I associate the most about summer in Japan. Of course, the amazing sound they make is their most recognisable and iconic trait, but they have another peculiar behavior I find quite morbidly fascinating. After they do their yearly cicada thing, the final resting place of an unlucky few ends up being in the middle of the street, helplessly stranded on their backs, their legs still sometimes twitching, left to roast in the searing summer heat. Presumably, big black crows (which are the other sound of Japan) then come and scoop them up later on for a crunchy crow feast. Their short-lived life, once they emerge from their slumber, is truly bizarre!
Cicadas are also a traditional subject of origami art because of the charming simplicity of the easiest design which anyone can make, but also because of the huge degree of complexity and mastery required to make more realistic designs such as by the likes of Akira Yoshizawa. I’m not an origami master, in fact I’m quite sure I couldn’t even do a nice mountain fold, so rather than wasting a lot of paper, here’s my tribute to the fallen cicada inspired by origami but not actually origami.“
“The prompt is Cicada, and those little creatures are old friends at this stage. I spent two weekends working on this prompt. The first one I spent learning some animation techniques, and my original intention was to make an animation by selecting material from Searching for Cicadas either working with some of the unused artwork, or developing a page from the book.
But on the second weekend I wandered in a different direction. It began with thinking about cicadas in a less realistic way and thinking about drawing some She Cicadas in the style of my Metropolis Bird Women. Then I thought about the unique, and seemingly magical qualities of a cicada (in particular, its life cycle and metamorphosis) and how easily cicadas might fit into a fairy or folk tale. I haven‘t written anything like that since The Woman, the Chicken and the Grapes. And it seemed the perfect break from intense illustration work.
However, I was forgetting my tendency towards perfectionism (strangely combined with a loathing for neatness, exactness or fussiness), and so, Kick-About time is up and the fairy tale is not complete. But never mind! Here are some images I began for it…”
“Only knowing cicadas from Animal Crossing, I thought I’d have a look into them. Did you know that they can live up to 17 years? AND make a sound louder than 100 decibels! Impressive for a chubby little sap-drinker! They come in a few different colours, but a pastel one really resounded with me so here he is! A digital painting of a vibrant cicada with his little dancing feet.”
“An epic and bi-sectioned electronic piece telling the story of the cicada life from a more dark point of view. Beware – the first four minutes are much quieter than the last two. Good speakers or headphones are recommended.”
“Cicadas are one of many species that make multiple visible transformations during their lifespans. The longest living insects, they are symbols of both rebirth and immortality. What beautiful wings they have. I first painted the cicada, then glued wax paper down for the wings and embroidered on top.”
“A month or so ago, some old photographs resurfaced of a school production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar for cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a musical number that goes ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’.
The year is 1989, I’m fourteen years old and I enjoy this opportunity to dress up and make audiences laugh. Sometime after this, the bullying will start and I will enter a prolonged period of change. You might say, I start to incubate new ideas about myself, not all of them positive. You might say, I start to slough skin – more than one – as I seek to establish some final form.
When I look at these photographs, I do so with discomfort, and not simply because the adolescent in the photograph is so scrawny and such a late-starter. I feel hugely protective of him too, for he knows not what he looks like. He does not know what drag is or what it ‘means’ to the world around him. At the point these photographs were taken, this boy doesn’t know what is coming; he doesn’t know he’s just walked into the cross-hairs. He doesn’t know while he’s making lots of people laugh on stage, he’s making other people hate him or provoking embarrassment and disappointment. When I look at these photographs, I see something soft that is very soon going to learn the art of cocooning for protection. I see a very long period of incubation, and not an ending with a beautiful butterfly in it, but a life-form in lots of ways less graceful, but, also yes, with wings.“
The subjects of the three faux zoological plates are digital collages created entirely from the two photographs below and are presented here as curios, a collection of still-incubating lifeforms once forgotten but newly available to scrutiny, dissection and my strange fascination.”
“I must say that I feel like I have turned into a Cicada in the heatwave this week! I had so many false starts trying to capture the essence of these amazing creatures. Eventually I settled for “Happy little Cicadas” after they have just emerged after 17years underground. Well you would be!”
“Cicadas roared in combined force with intense heat and high humidity challenging young (21 year old) endurance levels. That was summer of ’73 in glorious Sydney’s Kirribilli. We were surrounded in the thick of a city wide swarm and whichever way was possible to rattle you it came about, as inside was an inferno, so just you try drowning out mating cicadas when you’re behaving like a heated ‘frog in a sock’.”
“I’ve been wanting to play around with a fairy/insect taxidermy concept for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I took wings, colours and patterns from pictures of cicadas to make this unfortunate fairy, preserved and pinned, ready to go on the wall.”
“I didn’t grow up with cicadas or the sounds of cicadas. There are apparently 30 species of cicada found in California (and 3,000 worldwide), but almost none of them are commonly found or heard in the Los Angeles metro area. I remember hearing my first true ear-ringing buzz-saw worthy cicada at a private campground in Arizona as an adult in my early-twenties. True story: I turned to my friend and asked why the campground would play a recording of such demented cricket noises so loud on the PA system. My friend, who also grew up in suburban Los Angeles, shrugged and said she didn’t know. Rest assured, I have now heard the infamous cicada mating calls many times and have been made to understand how much a part of summer they are for many people around the world.
So when the theme for the Kick-About #8 was announced as simply the word “Cicada,” I knew I wanted to lean towards the absurd a little. What is a cicada to someone who has never heard or seen one? Insects are as vulnerable to climate change and extinction as any other creature – what happens when we start asking after cicadas when they don’t emerge as reliably? Or at all?
I wish to emphasize that no bugs were harmed in the making of this art. I went in search of local insects that had met their demise naturally. I was lucky in finding the Swallowtail butterfly wings right away, but then the supply of large naturally-deceased insects dried up. As they say, the fastest way to make something disappear is to go looking for it on a schedule. I finally found a mostly intact green june beetle.”
“I was a bit worried when I first saw this prompt. To be honest, I’m not big on bugs. But the more I learnt about cicadas and their life cycle, the more I wondered about their relationship with the trees – trees that sheltered the cicada young, fed them, provided a launch pad for the climax of their lives, and then stood amongst their corpses, while cicada eggs hatched among their leaves and dropped the next generation of cicadas at their roots.
As the prompt originated in Japan, and as seventeen is such a significant number in the cicada’s life, it seemed absolutely right to base my verse structure on the Haiku, a Japanese poetic form consisting of three lines made up of seventeen syllables in a five-seven-five format.”
“I have two images relating to the new kick-about “Cicada”. I love the sound of summer filling the day, the hot air on the skin, the smell of herbs and grass, they are my childhood summers on the Ligurian coast. One of the paintings is the summer grass, an image I have been trying to paint for many years and will likely keep trying to paint. The other one is a monotype on plastic made with raffia dipped in ink, I was trying to capture the movement of bamboo leaves and insects.”
“The sounds of the Cicada’s mating call transports me to a world where my senses are in overload, a world that could be filled with spine tingling horror, but also a world that is somewhat calming. The high pitched calls make the surroundings fill with texture that bounce and dance in conjunction with the cicadas’ return from beneath their muddy graves to molt and leave their skin littered across the land.”