We drove out to some of the scrappier edges of Seasalter at the end of last week, to see the reeds with their great feathered heads. It was a textural delight of deft cross-hatching and soft tonal gradations.
I responded very strongly to the visual prompts for the Kick-About #15, particularly Eric Ravilious’ image of the high-end interiors shop, A Pollard. It says more about me, I suppose, that I detected some shadow at work in these nostalgic images of these well-to-do shops.
Eric Ravilious, 1938
I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the flicker of immediate associations included the animated series, Mr Ben, the production art for Disney’s 101 Dalmations and H. G. Wells’ The Magic Shop. I was struck too by the inter-war period, and it got me thinking about ideas of luxury and leisure time, and how doomed it all was, given what was looming on the horizon, but also about how wonderful it would be to discover a shop like Pollard’s on your high street, and the sorts of people it would attract, and the tensions in a small community it might produce.
It doesn’t always happen – and it rarely happens when a clock is ticking – but the resulting story just wanted out – and out it came. In Kenneth, the story’s protagonist, I find shades of Eleanor Vance, from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a character I’ve always found to be incredibly moving in her neediness to be needed.
You can find a ‘large print’ PDF version here.
It’s been a while since we heard from Japan-based artist, animator and filmmaker, Tom Beg.
Is this because Tom has been twiddling his thumbs or resting on his laurels? Hardly. In addition to teaching English to Japanese school children, and gunning for fluency himself in Japanese, Tom has been continuing work on his ‘Miroverse’ bestiary – his charming and strange cast of CGI-critters first inspired by the paintings of Joan Miro. Something of a project milestone has been reached, with all eight of Tom’s characters being put through their respective ambulations. Time then to catch up with Tom and find out a little more about what it has taken to bring his gang of improbable characters to life…
Phil: I found it very gratifying to see your Miroverse critters moving at last…
Tom: Yes, it’s exciting to see the fruits of my labour and produce some moving image at long last. After building and designing for such a long time, there’s always something satisfying about seeing previously inanimate things you’ve been working on finally come to life, and move how you would expect them to, or sometimes move in ways that gives them personality and character you perhaps didn’t originally expect.
Phil: Let’s imagine you can’t talk too technically about the process of animating… How might you describe what you had to do and how you did it? Is it anything like puppeteering? I have this very analogue image of you standing up ‘above’ these creatures, and moving them like marionettes or old-school rod puppets…
Tom: For the test animations, I’ve been trying to establish a base animation style and pipeline for each of the creatures. I want them to have a very organic and restless look, which I think comes off pretty well in these tests. It might be hard to imagine, but animating them was actually a lot more mathematical than perhaps you might expect for such wiggly things.
In Maya, you can animate very traditionally, or you can animate based more on numbers and graphs and letting the computer calculate what happens. I was actually working more with the latter method, which might be surprising. Lots of typing in different values to work out how many frames of animation would be appropriate for whatever movement. It’s lots of looking at things that don’t look like animation in the typical sense but are nonetheless controlling what’s happening on the screen. When it comes to final animation, it’s going to be a mix of this and more traditional animation puppetry.
Phil: Did any of your critters resist you? I mean, did you think they needed to be animated in one way, only to find they didn’t suit it or demanded an alternative approach?
Tom: In some ways, because it’s not like these are real world things, with real bones, muscles and lots of references to draw upon. I’m also fighting the computer somewhat because a lot of the movement is calculated by the software, so things would behave erratically from time to time, especially at the beginning. That being said, they were mostly painless to get moving. I usually started with a basic full body movement and then animated and refined each part of the creature once that was in place. When there was a convincing feeling of aliveness, I would go back and add some secondary movement and fine-tune lots of settings to give things more or less weight and elasticity.
Phil: For those less technical amongst us, give us an idea of how long these short sequences took to render – I think this means you having to explain 1) how many frames there are in a second of animation, and 2) how long each frame takes to render and 3) what you have to do with all those frames once they’ve been produced?
Tom: Depending on the creature, the render time for one frame of animation can range from about one minute 30 seconds for the quickest, to just over five minutes for the most complicated. There are usually 25 frames in a single second of animation, and each clip is ten seconds long. If the average time for one creature animation is three minutes, that will take something like 12 hours to render. I was sleeping to sounds of whirring computer fans multiple nights in a row and waking up in the morning to get my finished renders, which is very satisfying – but very annoying when you overlook something, make an error and have to do the whole rendering thing again!
When it comes to rendering the final animation, I really must consider how long each frame takes. Adding just 30 seconds onto the render of a single frame will increase the total render time by hours and cost me in more ways than one! When it comes to rendering, time really is money – because I have an electricity bill to pay!
Anyway once everything is rendered, I load all the frames of animation into DaVinci Resolve, a free editing suite, and I can see the final images in action. This is always the best part!
Phil: What’s the next phase of this project look like?
Tom: Hopefully, I’ve proved these creatures can move fairly convincingly, so the next part is to actually turn everything into a short animation. That means lots and lots of animating and lots of decisions about this thing as a film. I’ve been watching a lot of Jacques Cousteau documentaries, experimental animation and microscopic biology videos in preparation!
Phil: Finally then, how’s life in Japan? I think we need to know about the flora and fauna; what excess of wildlife are you dealing with currently?
Tom: The number of creepy crawlies has dropped off but like everywhere we are battling the effects of the pandemic on the economy and people’s daily lives, but things have to keep ticking over and even in these strange times Japan isn’t a country that lets you rest or take your foot off the pedal, especially if you want to try and reach beyond your comfort zone. It has been a struggle to balance all the things I want to do with my life here, especially under the cloud of coronavirus but I’ll keep reminding myself there is still this weird animation that must be made!
Back in the day, I wanted to work in the movies, building animatronic puppets and larger-than-life monstrosities. You can blame the likes of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin for my fascinations, the transformation from An American Werewolf In London (1981) and this physical effects tour-de-force from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Some would argue I haven’t transformed all that much myself since those days on my Art Foundation course, when I walked about the place in collarless shirts and floppy ‘curtains-style’ hair, wielding jars of latex, hot glue guns, tubs of PVA … and nylon stockings. Okay, so I’m older, greyer with a lovely bald-spot getting bigger, and I’ve dropped the collarless shirts, but I still have a real fondness for a big bug, creature or too-many-legged thing and the haptic, tangible delights of an old-school puppet.
I thought I’d lost these sketches, of two of the creatures I made during my fun, busy Foundation year. The big ‘spider woman’ was indeed very big by the time she was completed, fashioned as she was around a shop-floor mannequin I’d purloined from someplace or other. Her abdomen was fashioned from large hoops of MIG welded steel, and each of her legs made from jointed steel rods, their ends fashioned onto cruel-looking points by successive hammer blows by the heat of the workshop’s forge. She was ultimately a formidable sight, though I can’t seem to find any final images of her. I suspect they’re lurking somewhere and may one day surface again.
The other sketches are for a large snail glove puppet, his shell made from carved polysterene, the process of producing it littering my studio with extraordinary amounts of bright white beads. His eyes were controlled by wires, which, when you tugged on them, caused them to wriggle about comedically.
I suppose this is what fun looked like when you where a certain kind of nineteen year old, his head stuffed with monsters.
Phil Cooper, The Temple Of Miscellany 40cm x 40cm, acrylic on paper
“They now arrived in a large, open square surrounded on three of its sides by formal rows of orange feather dusters. In the middle of the square was a large crystalline structure made entirely of glass display cases, some square, some cylindrical, with bell jars on its roof. Lit from within, the building sparkled in hues of ice-green and frosty blue. Thousands of objects surrounded the building, their Elsewhere Lights combining to create a dazzling display. Kyp stopped and stared.“
“Things move quickly in Chapter 12; we meet several new important characters and discover new important places. It’s a rather dizzying experience and I can only image that Kyp’s head was spinning by the end of this chapter! For the illustration this week, I’ve gone for the Temple of Miscellany, mainly because it’s really quite different to anything we’ve encountered before. The crystalline glass structure, glowing from within, has a bit of a sci-fi quality to it in my mind’s eye and it made me think of early 20th Century paintings, like Lyonel Feininger, the Italian Futurists and the constructivists, exploring shiny new materials and clean, geometric shapes. As the new characters we meet will be around for a while, I thought I could explore them in later chapters, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to paint the Temple of Miscellany when Kyp first encounters it…“
Phil Cooper’s The Temple of Miscellany painting on his art table in his Berlin studio, November 2020
Welcome to Chapter 12 of Chimera Book 1. Apologies, loyal listener, yes, we’re running late again, but I think when you listen to this chapter, which is a tour de force of voice talent, you may appreciate why a bit more time was needed in the recording studio!
We’re at the halfway point in Kyp Finnegan’s adventures in the realm of lost things, and so as to give Dan Snelgrove’s vocal chords a bit of a rest, we’re taking a short ‘mid-season’ break, with the next instalment going out on Sunday, December 13th. Put the date in your diary! Until then, settle back and enjoy!
Last time in Chimera Book 1:
‘Run,’ said Atticus, and the two boys did, sprinting towards the edge of the plateau. Kyp looked back to see the lion pounce, pinning Atticus to the ground. He saw white lint fly up into the air and blow away like snowflakes.
A dark shape swooped suddenly from above, a concrete eagle, its beak lethal, and its talons out-stretched. With a sudden sharp squeeze, it picked up Kyp by his shoulders and carried him into the air. Kyp struggled furiously, the material of his jumper tearing, and then he was falling back towards the ground. He slammed into Jamie and both boys staggered backwards in a tangle of limbs. The eagle screeched, plunging towards them, but they were rolling down the embankment, their descent throwing up clouds of dust.
On and on they tumbled, until finally, the boys’ descent came to an end, their bodies crashing into a gaudy sprout of feather dusters. Jamie cried out as their heads banged together with a nasty crunch. In the moments before passing out, Kyp was aware of an exciting murmur.
Chapter 12 – The Phawt-Gnocks Oligarchy
Listen to all previous chapters at anchor.fm/chimerabook1
Tune in on Sunday, December 13th, when Chimera Book 1 resumes with…
After the informality of our collective Boogie Doodle, this week’s responses take as their starting points the urbane visions of Eric Ravilious’ High Street, beguiling in their nostalgia and just as bitter-sweet considering our current circumstances. Somewhere out there, some opportunist on Instagram is no doubt augmenting Ravilious’ shop windows with social distancing stickers and ‘Please Wear A Face Mask’ notifications. I don’t know if this is clever or just very depressing.
“Another brilliant challenge! It had me going up to the high street at dawn over a few days to get some nice light and look around – camera in hand. Our suburb Earlwood is a bit of a sleepy hollow coming out of Sydney’s inner west – but I avoid the high street, a thoroughfare to the city, so heavy with traffic and fairly grotty. Earl wood is also a suburb with a large Greek population so there is a bit of Greek colour. I was heading down a few different directions with the snaps and colour and reflections were more predominant but at the end of the day I just slapped a mix together. I hope it gives you a bit of an idea of what makes up Earlwood.”
“I was immediately drawn to the shop full of masks, above. I’ve drawn, painted, stitched and collaged many masks over the years, and I also have quite a few that I’ve collected, stored and waiting for a place to be displayed.For the prompt, I decided to focus on Mexican animal masks, since the animal masks in the shop illustration seemed to be the most prominent element. Masking has a long history in the indigenous culture of the Americas, and animals are commonly used in dances, ritual, and ceremonies, often combined with Christian stories and characters. Masks are vessels in which a powerful energy is stored, an energy than can help cross the boundaries between human and animal, creating a co-existence of spirits in the same body. The technique I used was the Rorschach monoprint–I painted one side and folded the paper in the center and pressed down to create a mirror image. I confess that once I got started with these it was hard to stop.”
“This was right up my street! (Ouch!) I feel like I have stepped back in time and especially with Christmas approaching I remember how lovely it was as a child to gaze into the shop windows and dream of what might appear in your stocking. I also feel very ancient when I recall how we used to save up our bus money to buy sweets and then walk home. There was a small shop right near to where I caught the bus home from junior school called Mr Whips. He was a very kind old man and let me pay for my mum’s birthday present in instalments. It was a green glass ring costing 5 shillings or about 4 weeks bus fare! Those were the days! However it was a life lesson in honesty I never forgot. Eric Ravilious’ wonderful lithographs bring back the mood of those happy times, which perhaps sadly we may not see again for a while.”
“I adore the Eric Ravilious’ illustrations for High Street. There’s something delightfully cosy and reassuring about them at first glance. The shops have a wonderful English charm, they look well-stocked, the customers look comfortably off, and Ravilious’ tremendous skill in lithography ensures that everything is perfectly judged, the overall effect so satisfying.
There are some weird details in some of the illustrations, though. The vision of idyllic pre-war life on the High Street only makes the strange objects in the shop windows even more sinister; those peculiar masks, the diving equipment and the furriers are all more than slightly odd. Is this such an idyllic place after all, or is it, like those alien planets sometimes visited by the Star Trek crew, actually a crazy zombie-cannibal cult masquerading as utopia?
My first attempt at responding to the prompt was to make an image of a fictional shop (from Chimera by Phil Gomm no less!) in the same style. I soon discovered how deceptively simple those illustrations are. My attempt was a flop, and so I decided to abandon trying to ‘do a Ravilious’ and go in a completely different direction. My images are from an imaginary 1920’s German animation called ‘High Street’. It’s set in a remote forest village and the story is probably heavy on horror and phantasmagoria. I think I’m channelling the early silent horror film Der Golem here (and the bridge is straight out of Dr. Caligari); quite a long way from Ravilious’ neat and slightly whimsical scenes. The photos are of some card and plaster models I made a few years ago when I was exploring working in 3D for the first time. I’d been exploring the expressionist architecture of my new home city, Berlin, and also watching plenty of expressionist films, which I think is quite apparent from the resulting images!”
“I love the Ravillious prints as a starting point. His use of colour is so subtle in comparison to the images I have included here. His choice of colour remind me of that era before the war and into the 50’s. My contribution has not really come to fruition in any art form, except some photographs of shop fronts in the area where I live and shop. So this time I feel more like an observer/researcher.The photos show a curious Bohemian area very close to the centre of Bristol where I shop. The architecture of the shop fronts is very reiminiscent of those Victorian ones that Ravillious has depicted in his prints. Many of them have become homes rather than shops yet people are using their front window to say something visually that defines their life now or they have blocked out the world completely such as the corner shop that is totally painted green and a green that says British Rail to me of the 40’s and 50’s model railways. It’s rather sad and neglected.“
“Eric Ravilious’ depictions of high street shops reminded me so strongly of the high street in the small market town I grew up in, they set off a flood of memories.
Although my childhood post-dated Ravilious’ illustrations by some twenty years, much was little changed. Not so many milliners and furriers perhaps, and a few more domestic appliance sales rooms and record shops, but all the fundamentals were the same – butcher, baker, grocer, draper.
It’s these memories I wanted to share with the Kickabout crowd. I am aware many of you are too young to remember life in the 1950s, but I hope this reminiscence can evoke an impression of the high street of my childhood.“
(Pop your headphones on for the best listening experience)
“I responded very strongly to these images, particularly Ravilious’ image of the high-end interiors shop, A Pollard. It says more about me, I suppose, that I detected some shadow at work in these nostalgic images of these well-to-do shops. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the flicker of immediate associations included the animated series, Mr Ben, the production art for Disney’s 101 Dalmations and H. G. Wells’ The Magic Shop. I was struck too by the inter-war period, and it got me thinking about ideas of luxury and leisure time, and how doomed it all was, given what was looming on the horizon, but also about how wonderful it would be to discover a shop like Pollard’s on your high street and the sorts of people it would attract, and the tensions in a small community it might produce. It doesn’t always happen – and it rarely happens when a clock is ticking – but this story just wanted out – and out it came!”
You can find a ‘large print’ PDF version here.
“Drawing Inspiration from the gorgeous high street Illustrations of Eric Ravilious, I drew one of my favorite places to have a drink – or ten – with my friends back in my home turf in shop street, Galway city – a place that is always bustling with the right amount of life.”
“The subject of the high street feels rather pertinent, what with so many businesses being shut for the lockdown currently in effect. I went out and photographed some shop fronts of my local high street for inspiration. Of course, many were closed or had social distancing measures in place. It’s uncanny in a way. Familiar, but not quite right. With some local reference, I attempted to digitally replicate a Ravilious styled shop front.”
“I have been a devotee of Ravilious since my student days. At that time he was regarded as a minor artist, not really rated alongside Nash, Bawden or John Piper and his works were fairly inexpensive (Still beyond my student purse however). Although I love his playful lithographs for the Curwen press and the “High Street’ I am captivated by his watercolours. The reason I am late is I spent too much time trying to unpick his technique. It looks immediate and freely applied – it isn’t! I chose a stretch of Watling Street in Gillingham with a parade of shops photographed I think in the late 1940’s, a year or two after Ravillious died in 1942 as a war artist off Iceland, as I am sure everyone knows. My intention was to apply some of his watercolour techniques to a “High Street” subject. Sadly I ran out of time.”
So after browsing an Eric Ravilious well-to-do high street, we’re next taking a journey into some snowy woods, lovely, dark and deep, with thanks to the artist Francesca Maxwell for our brand new prompt. As ever, if you’ve enjoyed the work here and fancy a go in the sand-pit yourself, have a bash and get in touch.
Back in July, I rediscovered a collection of ancient 3 inch floppy discs and CDs dating from my years as an undergraduate, which makes this data storage technology (and the work it contains) 23 years old. I knew I couldn’t access the floppy discs anymore, but I also found none of two-decade old CDs would play ball either – on any computer.
Gripped by the sudden need to preserve whatever might be on these discs, I entrusted their crustiness to someone who retrieves landlocked data from obsolete tech for a living. That done, I then didn’t hear back from the said retriever for weeks on end. I worried their silence meant one of two things, the first being they couldn’t excavate the work at all and couldn’t bring themselves to tell me, and the second, that I’d somehow forgotten my Jurassic discs actually contained inflammatory government-destroying secrets and they’d been impounded by British Intelligence.
Yesterday, however, I got the email to say my formerly marooned files had been restored and were ready for collection. I’m only now beginning to sort my way through all the detritus, digging up old short stories and bits of imagery I haven’t thought about in years. I predict ‘Throwback Fridays’ may quickly become the obvious repository for some of these relics – and I’m beginning with these strange tableaux vivant-style illustrations I created back in 1997 to accompany a macabre short story I’d wrote in 1995 entitled The Hoover Bag In Tweed.
The story is about a woman who is obsessed with her vacuum-cleaner following the death of her baby, much to her husband’s escalating distress. The images themselves are digital collages of photography of real objects (a real hoover, for example), miniature stage sets (the table and chairs), and 35mm photographs taken in the rather forlorn environs of my student house.
“The vacuum-cleaner still stood in the middle of the room. It was the sort with an upright handle and a hoover-bag zipped up in tweed. Looking for all the world, she decided, like a chrysalis hanging from a stem.
The Hoover had been a gift, something modern and something new. She’d thanked him with a kiss, and he had laughed out loud when she refused to throw the box away. She said she liked the bold black writing on the box and taken time to memorise the serial number. She made a point of hoovering the entire house when they first moved in, the first of their many preparations. Now, several strands of the bathroom landing’s carpet were wrapped around the Hoover’s roller, trailing green against the grey of the living-room; caught up again, no doubt. Tied in difficult knots.”
The Hoover Bag In Tweed (1995)
Phil Cooper and I caught up for a chat over the weekend about our ongoing adventures in the weird and wonderful world of Chimera!
Sorry if you’ve received two versions of this post, the first version had a glitch, so please ignore that one and read on ….
As I posted on the blog a few weeks ago, I’ve been involved in an illustration project for a wonderful children’s book called Chimera, written by my friend Phil Gomm.
Chimera is now being released as an audiobook in the form of a weekly podcast, brilliantly narrated by Dan Snelgrove, You can listen to the latest podcast here.
In addition to the podcast, every week Phil publishes a post on his blog about the new Chimera release and about the new image I make in response to each chapter. It’s a stimulating and enjoyable collaboration, especially during…
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Phil Cooper, Concrete Eagle, 40cm x 40cm, mixed media on paper
“A dark shape swooped suddenly from above, a concrete eagle, its beak lethal, and its talons out-stretched.”
“I found Chapter 10 so touching, and Dan’s narration really brought out the emotion in the dialogue between Kyp and Atticus; I was quite teary by the end! Chapter 11 is very moving in parts too, but for the illustration I’ve focused on a scene that has a completely different emotional bandwidth – sheer terror! There are plenty of scary moments in Chimera, and the scene towards the end of Chapter 11 where the concrete sculptures and garden ornaments come to life is definitely one of them for me.”
Phil Cooper’s Concrete Eagle painting on his art table in his Berlin studio, November 2020