“LA Shorts International Film Festival ranks among the most prestigious and largest international short film festivals in the world. The festival is accredited by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Now in its 24th year, LA Shorts is the longest-running short film festival in Los Angeles.“
A photo of the original Dewback from Fred Pearl’s scrapbook
Back in May, 2002, I was asked to make a short documentary on Fred Pearl. Fred Pearl worked for the toy manufacturer, Lines Brothers, as a model maker of dolls and toys in their factory. He went on to make a wide range of models for films, and set up his own model making business, Art Models Ltd., producing models for further films, television, museums and exhibitions. Arguably the most well-known of Fred’s creations were for the original 1977 Star Wars, including the Dewback, as glimpsed on the planet of Tatooine.
A stormtrooper riding the Dewback in Star Wars (1977)
“Art Models Ltd. was a specialist art-fabrication company owned and managed by Fred Pearl, located in Wimbledon, about 20 miles from the studio at Elstree. They had previously done work for the industry including speciality costumes for Space: 1999. Fred Pearl and his small team (which included his daughters) were hired to build full-size, practical set pieces of both the Jerba (named for the small island in Tunisia where the Mos Eisley scenes were filmed and the creature appeared) and the Dewback. Two Jerba creatures were built, and one Dewback.” Continue reading here.
Fred Pearl with C-3PO artifacts circa 2005
What struck me most when making the film was ‘the sense of an ending’ – that Fred Pearl’s world was facing an extinction event ushered in by computer generated imagery. His workshop – a wunderkammer filled with relics from a fast-fading age – was an amazing space, an ark for dinosaurs literal and figurative.
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.
One small thing I’m doing at Red’s Kingdom is inviting other artists and creative individuals to take up short residences here so I can catch-up with what they’re doing and showcase their work accordingly – older work, new work, and work-in-development. During my happy stint as course leader for a degree course in animation, I was fortunate to meet entire communities of talented individuals, many of whom I’ve gone on to work with on various projects and now count as good friends.
One of the noticeable effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the way it has inspired a sort of season-of-good-will mood of introspection and reaching-out. The disruption of normal routines means we’re thinking differently about the legitimacy and value of our own dogged pursuits, but also thinking much more about the well-being and resilience of absent friends and thus renewing efforts to stay in touch. My decision to begin blogging again is certainly part of this response, and likewise the impulse to contemporise friendships and past affinities that might otherwise have been allowed to drift.
All of which brings me to the subject of Red Kingdom’s first residency – animator, film-maker, and educator, Tom Beg. Say what you like about the particular strains put upon the pursuit of meaningful conversations by Skype and Zoom et al. but when an old friend of yours is self-isolating in Japan and, via Skype, you can pick up with him where you last left off, the technology still feels pretty astonishing.
Before Tom left for his new life in Japan, he already had a number of impressive and well-received animated shorts under his belt, and a Masters Degree too. His ambitious undergraduate final year film, The Picture Of Dorian Gray (2011) was ‘staff-picked’ by the good people at Vimeo and was awarded ‘short of the week’, and his Life-cycle of a Mushroom (2011) was commissioned as part of a interdisplinary collaboration between UCA and UoK. Owl, Tom’s 2015 music video for Collectress, a personal favourite of mine, combines extraordinary other-worldly visuals, folk horror and total directorial confidence in its execution.
Since Owl, things have been very quiet. A few weeks ago now, Tom and I talked on Skype for the first time in a while, and I essentially said as much, and Tom essentially agreed. By the end of our conversation we’d forged an agreement to kick something off, however small, however explorative, and regardless of the ultimate outcome. We needed a visual prompt, a jumping off point, something to respond to instinctively without second-guesses. In 2013, Tom and I worked together on the live-synchronisation animation, La creation du monde for ACT, where we both derived obvious satisfaction from mucking about with some mid-twentieth century-style abstraction. Perhaps it was this that led me to choose Miro’s Women and Birds at Sunrise and offer it up to Tom as blue-touch paper for an impromptu lock-down challenge? No matter, what’s exciting is what happened next, but before we get to that, here’s a bit of back and forth between Tom and I on his work old and new…
Phil: Hey Tom, what’s going on? How are all-things Covid with you?
Tom: For the past four years I’ve been working as a school teacher in Japan, the country that I currently call home. I’ve been enjoying the life of living abroad and all the ups and downs that come with deciding to uproot your life and go somewhere completely unfamiliar and do something totally different.
Usually spring time in Japan represents a time of change; the cherry blossoms bloom, a new fiscal year begins and students start the new academic year. Unfortunately, the current global health situation means that right now, I along with all other teachers and students are navigating our daily lives from the confines of home, except for the occasional daring, masked runs to the supermarket whenever my onion supplies run uncomfortably low.
Despite the stalling of daily life, I’m sure like for many others, the downtime of lock-downs and states of emergencies has offered a chance for some personal introspection and a desire to get through all of this with a positive view towards the future. My job as a teacher of teenagers who don’t speak my native language requires me to be creative in all sorts of imaginative ways, but after a long time away, I felt the urge to get creative in a way that is probably a lot more familiar to people who have known me from the time before I figured out what all the buttons on my fancy toilet do.
Phil: Your final year film Dorian Gray continues to receive attention on Vimeo. What are your recollections of working on that film?
Tom: In 2021 it will be 10 years since I made my graduate animation, The Picture of Dorian Gray. While revisiting it these days with many lessons learned elicits more than a few winces, I know even today it still sometimes manages to tickle the senses of people in the right way – which is strange because it’s an 8-minute animation I produced in 15 weeks, made with very little expectation that anyone except myself and tutors would watch it, but the internet finds a way and it ended up becoming something of a mini-viral hit (by 2011 standards!).
Thinking back, the production of the visuals in particular were so off the cuff that maybe it could it could be classified as something like guerilla CG filmmaking, mostly made with a desire to just get it done and let my instincts take over the production process.
Phil: What was your inspiration behind your animation for the Spectacular Science collaboration, The Life-cycle of a Mushroom?
Tom: The Life-cycle of a Mushroom wears its influences on its sleeve perhaps more than any other animation I’ve ever made, those influences obviously being silent movies and animated shorts like Disney’s Silly Symphonies. I wanted to capture the feeling of the roaring 20s and Jazz-age hedonism and make mushrooms and the biological process by which they reproduce just kind of sexy and fun. Like Dorian Gray this one took off online more than I could have ever imagined. Maybe people thought the same as me, that highly poisonous mushrooms could be wonderfully jazzy and slinky.
Phil: I’ve always loved Owl, your music video for Collectress. I think it’s pretty much a perfect thing and deserves a much wider audience and reach. Can you tell me something about the creative process behind its production?
Tom: For Owl I wasn’t looking to emulate any particular style. The music I was given was suitably ambiguous, offering the impression of something without ever explicitly expressing it. If I had to mention any influences then Moriyama Daido’s photography book, Tales of Tono, Stan Brakhage’s experimental short film, Mothlight, and the landscape shots from the British silent movie, A Cottage on Dartmoor were all on my mind at the time. The whole project was a big mixed-media undertaking incorporating marker pens, infrared film photography and 3D animation. I wanted to make something that purposely had a low-fi feel and didn’t look or feel like CG animation. More importantly, I didn’t want there to be a clear-cut answer about what it all meant, just as the music left me with my own questions.
Phil: A few weeks back we got talking on Skype and we both talked about the ‘itch’ to get into something new. I sent you the Miro image as a catalyst, and in just a few days, you were back producing all these wonderful developmental drawings and thumbnails. A few days later, you were back in the saddle modelling from your drawings in 3D. I’m properly excited to see those cogs of yours turning again. What’s the plan?
Tom: Stepping back into the world of computer animation software and the trials and tribulations of wrestling with something as big and bulky as Maya is a daunting but gratifying experience because while it has been a really long time, it’s nice to know things really haven’t all changed that much. Sure, there’s new renderers to learn, old trusted tools unceremoniously removed from existence and new buttons that do mysterious things, but the basic principles remain the same. It’s simply a case of adapting your ideas to fit those.
Whenever I’ve made CG art in the past there has always been that moment where whatever I’m working on suddenly becomes ‘right’ and that it’s nice to know this kind of feeling can still be conjured up even after many years in the wilderness.
As for this new piece, right now it doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t have a run time, it doesn’t have any music and it doesn’t have a deadline – a potentially disastrous combination, but like my decision to set off for a far-off country four years ago, it’s just being done with a desire to just see what happens and learn a few lessons along the way. That’s really quite exciting.
Every few days or so, I get a notification on Skype to say Tom has shared another update or image of this as-yes-untitled new project of his. I actively look forward to them. As Tom’s new work continues to take shape and develop, I’ll be sharing updates here at Red’s Kingdom. I know he’s currently working on another of his exuberant-looking Miro-inspired life-forms and thinking too about the opportunity for breaking new creative ground as a sound designer in response to all the noise and commotion implied by his drawings. More as and when from Tom Beg, Red Kingdom’s inaugural artist-in-residence. It’s great to have him around again!
Find Tom at tombeg.com and follow him on Twitter @earthlystranger
Back in October 2019, Red & The Kingdom Of Sound was selected and screened as part of the Istanbul International Architecture and Urban Films Festival.
I submitted the animation to the festival on a whim. Nothing about this festival’s remit aligned with classical music or the visualisation of sound, and yet our ‘kingdom of sound’ did represent something of an architectural fantasia, what with its fifteen imaginary realms derived entirely from the structures of musical instruments. One of the guiding principles underpinning the commission of our animated adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was to diversify audiences for classical music, so when the Chamber of Architects (Istanbul Metropolitan Branch) agreed to include the film in their screening programme, I was very happy.
“Since its foundation in 1954, the Chamber of Architects has been endeavouring intensively in order to enhance architectural culture, protect historical heritage, and improve quality of life. In order to introduce a new aspect to such endeavours, the Chamber has been organizing an event named “Istanbul International Architecture and Urban Films Festival”. The event aims participation by anybody interested in that field, in particular the architects. The festival is scheduled as a part of “Architecture and Urban Festival” organized by Istanbul Metropolitan Branch of Chamber of Architects by virtue of the “World Architecture Day”, a day widely celebrated in the world in the first Monday of October every year.”www.archfilmfest.org
Selma Erdem, festival secretary, got in touch via email a few days ago to ask if Red & The Kingdom Of Sound could be shown again as part of the Chamber of Architects Istanbul Branch’s response to the COVID19 lock-down. Of the film’s original selection for an architecture-themed film festival, Selma has this to say, describing Red’s adventures in the kingdom of sound as a ‘a great explanation of the connection between time, space and sound.’ Of the decision to show it again as part of their COVID programming, Selma thought Red’s adventures would ‘give people hope and joy.’
What a satisfying thought, that on May 4th, people will be listening to Britten’s music while watching Red swim down into the dreamy depths of the Cello District or dodge the wrecking ball in the much-less relaxing Percussion District!
Imagining and making the architectural follies that feature in Red & The Kingdom Of Sound was no small creative feat and took a dedicated team many months to produce. Take a look at this short ‘making of’ for a glimpse behind the scenes.
Now I’ve done it. The problem with launching a blog, self-styled as a whirring hub of creative outputs, is the immediate pressure to populate it with an endless supply of whirring creative outputs…
One strategy for feeding this new monster of mine is to feature older stuff (and maybe some very old stuff) from my back catalogue in a weekly feature imaginatively entitled ‘Throwback Friday’. Who knows what I’ll be dragging up from the archives over the coming weeks and months? When I start posting photographs of myself as a child making pictures out of pasta shapes, someone will have to tell me enough is enough!
I’ll inaugurate this weekly feature by returning to a large empty dark room in an old French house. It’s August 2015, the rest of the house is asleep upstairs, and with a child’s fascination for unexplained phenomena, I’ve just set my camera up in the hope of capturing on film the manifestation of forces strange and remarkable…