Character design development for Gappy Gertie / Emily Clarkson
At some point in the middle of the lock-down, Emily Clarkson and I had a heart-to-heart on the phone. We talked about ‘what to do?’ in response to COVID. It was an existential question, and one being asked by creatives of all stripes in 2020. Emily and I are both freelancers and grimly aware things are not going to be getting any easier for creatives any time soon. There is the phrase that goes ‘content is king’, but producing content is salve too. Right now, making new work and supporting other creatives through collaboration looks like a sort of power in an otherwise disempowering moment. It was certainly the thinking behind the fortnightly Kick-About. Again and again during these unsettling months, I’ve returned to the Philip Larkin poem, To Put One Brick Upon Another, for guidance and resolve:
To put one brick upon another,
Add a third and then a forth,
Leaves no time to wonder whether
What you do has any worth.
But to sit with bricks around you
While the winds of heaven bawl
Weighing what you should or can do
Leaves no doubt of it at all.
By the end of our telephone conversation, Emily and I had come to a similar conclusion. In preference to biting our nails or throwing rocks at the moon, we too decided to put one brick upon the other. In common with Tom Beg and Graeme Daly, Emily and I would work together to develop a new animated short, and we weren’t going to think too much about the nuts and bolts of it either. Who is going to fund it? Don’t know. Who is going to watch it and where? Don’t know. How are we going to make it, using which techniques, which programmes? Again – don’t know, but to make something at a time when lots of other things feel as if they’re coming unglued seemed like a plan as sane as any other.
That was then, and now I’m happy to reveal we have a story, a finished script – we even have a song! – and the pre-production phase is underway, as Emily begins the character design process.
And the name of our new project?
Arranging the song Gappy Gertie on Sibelius / Phil Gomm
You haven’t heard of Gertrude, but Gertie is a girl you know
Because always there’s a Gertie. You’ve likely bullied one, although
Her name was probably Constance, Simeera, Chen or Sue.
You’ve forgotten her most likely, but she hasn’t forgotten you.
It’s early days, so we’re keeping the exact size and shape of our story under-wraps, but it’s a school-based narrative about a girl called Gertie, who is bullied horribly by her peers. Gertie is inspired by one of her teachers to ‘search for the hero inside herself’ and a series of events are in this way set in motion. The story is built around an original song, and you might say my eureka moment came when I realised I could happily make the name Malala (Yousafzai) rhyme with Brian De Palma! It’s blackly comic – very black in fact – and I must say I enjoyed writing it very much.
There’s been a lot of back and forth between Emily and myself via email, but we caught up again recently when Emily set-up shop at Red’s Kingdom and here’s what she had to say as our work together on Gappy Gertie continues:
Gertie character design development #1 / Emily Clarkson
Phil: Hey Em, so here we go again then! We have another animation project in the offing together, a project with no established funding, a project taking up time and energy when we should both probably be doing more sensible paid things… So, why are we doing it? Why start something new when everything looks so gloomy? Have we lost our minds?
Emily: With things so gloomy, I think if we don’t do such things, we will lose our minds! Or at least, I certainly will. Starting something new creates a space to pump some energy, practice some skills and express ideas.
Phil: Absolutely! This isn’t the first time a new script from me has landed with you – a wall of text, description and some fudgier, spongier bits. What do you do first (apart from sigh inwardly!)?
Emily: Usually, I read it through, picturing the concept, and if it strikes a particularly excitable chord, I’ll find myself muttering ‘oh we could do this…or this… oh I wonder if that thing would be good to riff off…?’ and so on. And after that I’m usually falling over the questions I will inevitably ask in the next email.
Phil: So, what do you think about Gertie? What were your first impressions of the story?
Emily: I felt an immediate sadness at the cruelty towards Gertie. I was never bullied at school, so I can’t speak from personal experience. I went to an all-girls school. I remember there being very distinct friend groups in my class, but there wasn’t any animosity between them (that I remember). In terms of drama within my class, we were fairly low key! What made you want to write a jaunty tune for a horrendous bullying experience?
Phil: Haha! Blame Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark! I’ve always enjoyed the way music is so immediate and invasive. Music goes in really quick and I think there’s some fun to be had with the form of the musical short. We assume stories driven by songs and singing must always have great big grins slapped on their faces, but, come one, The Wicker Man is largely a folk musical and I love the way the music in that film works to draw you in, but shock you too – all those people singing along so happily at the end of the film as Edward Woodward goes up in smoke.
You’ve already made a start on character designs for Gertie and her tormentors. Apart from the pointers in the script and in some of our conversations, what are you riffing on?
Emily: I am absolutely riffing on my school experience in regard to the aesthetics. Female students between the ages of twelve and sixteen come in literally all shapes and sizes, so the uniform fit everyone completely differently. For example, it was standard to roll up our elasticated, box-pleat skirts. Some rolled well above the regulation ‘four fingers above the knee.’ (Yes that was a real rule.) It wasn’t all about showing off your thighs though. For some of us it was to make sure the skirt hem wasn’t dangling half way down your calves! Not a good look.
You made Gertie a young traveller/Gypsy girl. Was there a reason you chose to represent the travelling community over other communities?
Phil: There’s no overt identity politics agenda about that, no – likewise the decision to make the bullies themselves a mix of ethnicity. Every community makes targets out of people considered different to them, that’s all. No one is above it or better than anyone else. Gertie is more based on some vague recollections of kids at my primary and secondary schools who came and went, kids who were in someway out of the usual routines, who appeared suddenly, and then vanished again. They were regarded by some in the class as poor and dirty. It was all that stuff about not ‘having a proper home’ – whatever that means, as there’s plenty of dysfunctional families living in ‘proper homes’ too. Sadly, I think everyone is looking down on someone for some stupid reason or another. My experience at school was it was mostly about how someone looked, so their red hair, or a big mole, or too short trousers – or a strange smell – oh yeah, and being a virgin or not being a virgin. That was always a very big deal!
Developing the bullies #1 / Emily Clarkson
Developing the bullies #2 / Emily Clarkson
Developing the bullies #3 / Emily Clarkson
Emily: Have you experienced or witnessed bullying growing up yourself?
Phil: I was bullied pretty unpleasantly for year or so at my secondary school. I kept it a secret. I used to get the train to-and-from school, and the bullying would take place on the platform in the afternoons when everyone was waiting to go home. I also need to admit I bullied someone once – when I was much younger. For a short time, I was pretty loathsome to a rather over-weight boy in my class. I got in so much trouble for that. I still remember standing in a room at my primary school and being utterly eviscerated by the head teacher. It was an early lesson in understanding your victim is a person. I think about that boy to this day (I’m thinking about him as I write this) and I was thinking about him when I was writing the script. I was thinking about my bullies too, wondering if they still think about me.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie (1976), directed by Brian De Palma
Emily: Your script pays homage to Brian De Palma’s horror film, Carrie. Was Carrie White a beacon for ‘poetic justice’ for you as a young cinema goer? Or was she more a terrifying monster?
Phil: My sympathies were always with Carrie! I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at one point or other dreamed of burning everything down that way. Carrie does what we dream of doing, but fortunately, we’ve got Carrie to do it for us, so we have the catharsis of that high-school conflagration, the spectacle of someone failing to ‘rise above it’ in such spectacular style. There is some other less-well thought out concern of mine floating about in here, something more serious about the way young people keep being encouraged to rise to the ‘opportunities’ presented them by the failures of others; to be obedient and mild-mannered, to not give their energy to their fury, but to go to school, go to work, to be good. In light of climate change, Brexit, Trump etc., I do sort of feel as if going ‘full-on Carrie White’ might be what’s needed sometimes!
On a side note, I think I might be one of the few people on the planet who actually saw the original UK version of Carrie – The Musical. I saw it on a school trip when it was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. Carrie is infamous for being one of the biggest flops in theatrical history, but I was blown away – I was thirteen! Perhaps this also explains why I don’t think it’s weird to put horror and musical theatre together…
Original poster for the musical Carrie (1988)
Phil: So I’ve got the song to finish arranging, which is taking me longer than I hoped. I’m nearly there though. What’s next on your to-do list?
Emily: More character designs. I need to nail down how the bullies look. And in addition to that, design their various outfits. After that I need to design our teacher, Mrs Mason, and move onto the environments. And then, to the storyboards! Lots to crack on with!
Gertie’s school disco outfit development sketches / Emily Clarkson
Emily and I will be updating our progress on Gertie here at Red’s Kingdom as-and-when we make some. Like I said, the content is coming first, because that’s the bit we can take control of now. Regarding the future of the project – funding etc – we are interested in hearing from anyone with a fabulously rich very elderly relative… More seriously, we’re also looking for a musical director/singer interested in working with us to get Gertie’s song up off the page. If you’re reading this and you know someone who knows someone, then do please get in touch, if only to put one brick upon the other while the winds of heaven bawl…