Last year, composer Andrew Fisher very kindly agreed to write the theme for my audiobook adaptation of my first children’s book, Chimera Book 1. Andrew nailed it first time out, taking all the inspiration he needed from artist Phil Cooper’s artwork, and delivering a wonderful mix of b-movie-meets-magic, all shimmer, Halloween chills and a pang of melancholy. A few months later, Andrew invited me on as his first guest on his all-new The Two Rivers Café podcast, where he challenged me to make a new short film on a given theme, to which he would then compose an original score. The theme I chose to work with was ‘wine’ – which was counter-intuitive considering wine doesn’t agree with me! You can listen to our conversation here and watch the film we made together below. Andrew will be talking to, and collaborating with, other creatives in subsequent episodes, and I’m looking forward to spending more time in The Two Rivers Café .
Wine Doesn’t Agree With Me (2021) Phil Gomm / Andrew Fisher
“I love the prompt for the Kick About this week. Ever since I can remember I’ve been excited by Christmas lights and decorations, things that only have one purpose and that’s to be lovely to look at. As a kid I yearned for Christmas as it was a time of the year when the beige colour palette of 70’s life was momentarily broken and you didn’t need any excuse to cover things in glitter and garishly-coloured baubles. Marie Menken’s film makes me quite wistful for those childhood Christmases. It’s summer and still sweltering here in Berlin, though, and Christmas trees feel a very long way off. So, for my response, I’ve filmed some Alder trees which overhang one of our favourite bathing lakes in the Grunewald forest to the south east of the city. In the late afternoon the sunlight is reflected off the rippling surface of the lake onto the undersides of the Alder leaves and the effect is like being in a giant green disco ball. It’s rather lovely, relaxing and cheering at the same time.”
“The theme of lights made me think of city lights and as I was enraptured with the Olympics I managed to find a wonderful photograph of the city of Tokyo. It’s so dazzling and vibrant I feel that you would need to wear sunglasses permanantly if you lived or worked there. I just love the contrast of the vivid reds and neon oranges against the blue of the skyscraper buildings. You can just imagine the crowds of onlookers gazing up in awe and wonderment. Not so sure what they would think of my Japanese lettering however!”
“There is something so emancipating about Menken’s experimental short film, Lights; it expresses a sort of child-like wonder in the way in which the camera transforms what it sees – municipal Christmas decorations into streaking discs of glowing colour and traffic into living electrified scribbles. You get a sense of Menken playing and exploring, embracing the ‘failure’ of the technology at her disposal to cope with light, time and motion, producing vibrant smears and patterns from otherwise rather ubiquitous components.
With this playfulness very much in mind, I tried something quick and dirty: painting a sheet of glass with black acrylic, before scratching parts of the painted surface away in the form of lines of irregular dots and dashes. Very simply, the painted sheet of glass was then positioned in front of windows, bright environments and television screens, and the surface of the glass photographed. Sometimes, during one exposure, I would push the focus from pin-prick sharp to diffuse, which had the satisfying effect of ‘spherizing’ the scratched patterns on the surface of the glass, producing the illusion of strings of lights or illuminated bubbles. I don’t mind admitting some of the resulting images had me laughing out loud with pleasure, so closely did they recall the aesthetic of mid-century avant-garde animations and the like. It gave me a secret squizz of pleasure too – the trick of it, the very fact of me not, in fact, photographing strings of fairy-lights or pastel-coloured Christmas baubles, or those long balloons out of which you might fashion a poodle: no, just a sheet of glass, painted black, with marks scratched into it using the end of a matchstick and a zester swiped from the kitchen drawer.
After that, there was no stopping me, and for days afterwards, I was lying on different floors around my house trying a bunch of different things with this same sheet of hurriedly painted glass. There have been moments over this last fortnight when I have been completely at peace creatively, just trying stuff out and worrying not at all about the other things a man of my age and responsibilities should probably be thinking about.”
“I wanted the capture the potential that experimental filmmakers like Marie Menken saw in the mediums of their era, and just make something that moved and tickled the senses, without being overly narrative driven or thematic. I’ve always been inspired by the directness of film, and the lack of control, so when using modern software, I try to look for ways of losing control to get the kind of happy accidents that occur when you use analogue formats.
The lights and camera effects in this animation were all generated semi-randomly so seeing the final visuals in this animation made me feel in the same way that Menken and her peers probably felt when they got their processed film back, and marveled at the bizarre and wonderful things they had captured. In the spirit of that, I named the animation after her.”
“This prompt was perfect for an idea I’ve wanted to try for awhile. I did a layered collage with a drawing and a map with circles cut out on top awhile ago, but I wanted to try it with two layers of pattern, and the lights were a good inspiration. It took me a while to figure out how to do the watercolor to get the effect I wanted, but finally I got two paintings I thought would work well as layers. I cut circles out of one of them, and made different arrangements of all 3 components–ground, cut circle painting, and the circles themselves. I’ve photographed both the original elements and some different layerings. I was pleased with the way it managed to evoke the flashing and moving lights of the film.”
“I See The Lights: I’ve been taking a lot of iPhone shots of light through windows landing on walls – through palm trees outside and through screens so I used those as a basis for this KA. Layered them in different colours then added some charcoal scribbles and a few shapes from previous Illustrator files. Not exactly cheery again – maybe therapy!”
Chris Rutter & Evelyn Bennett
“Evelyn is being ‘Guided by the Lights’ in her painting. I am noodling on ‘Always on your Mind’ by Elvis (today I bought a motorbike, which is the same as Elvis used in ‘Roustabout’). Evelyn was wearing a cowboy hat, as she was feeling Mexican. Alf Rutter did the filming. Loved the last Kick-About…”
“I did not know the work of Marie Menken so as often with the Kick- About, I have to do some research and to enter an unknown realm. It led me to wander round with my camera to my garden. It sent me back to childhood and watching the sparkle of sun through trees and fences near the cherry tree that supported my swing. I have tried to recreate this feeling by moving the camera in that lulling motion.’
“After watching Marie Menken’s ‘Lights’, I found myself walking around muttering ‘lights, lights, lights, lights’ over and over in a sort of chant. As I did, I became very aware of the number of lights, large and small, significant and insignificant, that fill our modern lives. This poem is my attempt to express that awareness.”
“These long exposure photographs were taken a while ago, situated in one of the turrets in our home and framed by its long theatrical curtains. One day I would like to try and make an animation out of these techniques and mimic Menken’s inspirational film more.”
A final clutch of bird-based photographs, kicked-off by The Kick-About #33, and the method was a little different this time. An animation sequence was created from this previous set of photographs, which was then layered twice, with new stills exported from the resulting composite. I wanted to see if I could further efface the original subject, while dailling up the ‘flutter’. I enjoy the delicacy of the resulting images, evoking birds, of course, but also butterflies and other more exotic wisps. At time of writing, the mechanism inside the blue bird has worn out. We’re both done with all this for a while at least.
In between his various creative endeavours triggered by The Kick-About, and his day job designing and delivering the curricula for his English classes, Japan-based creative and Red’s Kingdom artist-in-residence, Tom Beg has continued work on his animated short, Tabula 5465. Time for a catch-up…
Hey Tom, it’s been a while since we had you back in Red’s Kingdom: I know how busy you are, so I was excited to see a recent update on your short film, Tabula 5465, which means you’ve somehow been finding the time to continue work on your animated short. Tell us about all the latest developments.
Tom:Animation on the next creature is well underway. It is still a work in progress, but it is starting to materialise as something. Now I have a bit of time coming up, I’m aiming to make more substantial progress. Stay tuned for more updates later, but for now, you can look at what I have produced so far.
As far as other more under-the-hood developments go, there have been things tweaked and added here and there. For example, to assist in the animating process, I have created a few simple extra controls to the rig of the character to make it easier to get some nice organic bobbing and swaying movement. On my previous character this was extremely clunky to implement, so I am glad to have it as as something I can control independently from everything else.
Speaking more in terms of things that have a more obvious visual impact, I have made progress towards getting the final look of the animated sequences. I was able to render out a low-resolution version to test out various post-effects. In the end, I got something that was quite close to how I imagine the final film will look.
I’ve also been chipping away at an animated version of the title sequence and branding that is going to open the animation. It’s all very retro-pop!
Learned any new technical tricks lately?
Tom: One of my goals ,as this project developed, was to start using a tool in Maya called MASH, and I’ve been making the steps to start incorporating it into the pipeline of this animation. Unlike just about every other tool in Maya, MASH is a lot of fun to just play around with and get some interesting effects almost instantly. My purpose for it in this animation is to populate the backgrounds with more simply animated creatures, while the hero creatures in the foreground do the heavy lifting.
I couldn’t help but find out what would happen if 1000 creatures were to suddenly be brought into existence. I can conclude that a slow-moving computer and some amused giggling in a one-room Japanese apartment is what happens. But after the silliness, I did get round to more subtly incorporating it into the animation, as per my original plan.
When you’re working on a long project like this one, the motivation to keep going with it is never guaranteed – especially when you’ve got so many other responsibilities. When your mojo is running a bit low, what are your ‘hacks’ for getting back into the saddle?
Tom:Due to my day job, the actual production of the animation comes in waves, but even when I am not doing something related to art and animation, I am usually doing something that is exercising my brain in a creative way. That can be something like working on new lesson ideas, studying Japanese, or even just taking a walk around my neighbourhood and going down a road I’ve never been down before. It all tends to yield at least one interesting new sight, the discovery of something new or a burgeoning interest in something. I used to watch so many Japanese films when I younger because I was just so curious about what they had been making over the last 100 years, and here I am in Japan, learning a language that ten years ago, I could never have imagined having any understanding of.
Mostly, I recommend just finding something new that isn’t your comfort food. I think I am naturally curious person about creativity, especially when it comes to things outside the mainstream. I don’t love everything I see, but I am interested to see it at least once. One of the things I used to do when I was a student was just to marathon-watch lots of truly weird and bizarre stuff that probably should have never been made or seen by anyone. Unfortunately, even this became my comfort food and I had to branch out into even weirder stuff! The 70s was certainly an interesting time in cinema! At the very least it always encouraged me to see the world a little differently.
Do you ever find that your ‘extra-curricular’ projects are feeding into your teaching? How much do your students/colleagues know about your other life as an artist, animator and film-maker?
Tom:I think creating art is about thinking about an audience and making something which could be interesting for that audience. In essence, that is the same as making relatable and enjoyable lessons. To be honest, I don’t do much direct cross-over, besides some amusing PowerPoint tricks and worksheet design. I always feel like if that cross-over was made more explicitly obvious then maybe I have moved too far away from the point I am supposed to be demonstrating or encouraging students to interact with. However, at the end of the day, both animation and teaching are about eliciting some sort of reaction from someone so they feel interested enough to want to experience more or learn more from that thing. That is what I strive for on all fronts!
What’s next on your slate for Tabula 5464?
Tom:Just animating. I think I said that last time too, but my schedule is clear this time!
Finally, paint me a picture of life in Japan right now, weather, wild-life, the Olympics…
Tom:Rainy season is over (and it certainly did rain, as you may have seen in the news) so now the summer heat is in full swing, and the sweating from places you never imagined sweat could come from begins. Our old Kick-About friend, the cicadas, have also started their annual singing competition. Oh, and yes, the Olympics. Let’s just say that is a thing that is happening…
“I was a bit bamboozled by the dancing chicken clip from ‘Stroszek’ having never watched the film. So I opted for some zany, silly visuals, featuring the chicken, duck and rabbit! I call it ‘Head Banger Stroszek.’“
“I first decided to draw while watching the video on a roll of rice paper that I had. This was a fun exercise, worth thinking about for other videos in the future. Then I did some monoprint outlines, based on those sketches. I tried to monoprint color on top, but that was not as successful, so I improvised with paint. Only the chicken with the blue background did not have a printed outline, it was all drawn in neocolors. There is no cohesiveness to this week’s work, but chickens are endlessly fascinating to draw. So maybe that’s the take-away.”
“I love the dancing chicken. Never would I have thought… Funnily enough, I am just painting a rooster, even if its meaning is a bit of a departure from the prompt. It all started from various kick about prompts actually, tree of life, symbols etc. Here is a bit of my tree of life, more like a climber really, with roots in the sea going up in a dreamy night sky, and my rooster daughter (by the Chinese horoscope), perched on it. Looks like a rooster singing to the moon now.”
“With this task I found myself in the realms of abstract again and fancied concentrating on the marks made by the chicken as it scratched and danced about. I decided to crochet the shape of a chicken, duck and rabbit footprint and stick them onto pieces of card to use as stamps. Next I used acrylics to paint the background and added some contrast printing using recycled packaging. After this I just proceeded to enjoy myself with ‘chicken foot ‘ stamp to make a happy dancing type of pattern. In fact I think there is actually a dance called Chicken in the Straw – so I have renamed this painting ‘Drunken Chicken in the Straw’. Plus had to finish with a little chicken quip – ‘I dream of a better world… where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned!'”
“I was a bit focused on other little projects – though chicken dance was lurking in the back of my mind – originally I was contemplating an image of someone crossing the road, lost battery chicken-like in their smart phone. My final offering quickly took off from a couple of weird things I did and the news feeds bombarding us in Australia on the delta variant, to the point where it feels like we never had alpha at all and that delta just appeared out of the ethers. We Australians really have ourselves to blame for not deciding to bite the bullet and take the not best option astra zenica for delta’s current launch in Sydney. Anyhow, my attempt at a voodooish/distressed thought-bubble.”
“This scene really drew attention to just how bizarre a chicken really is, dancing aside. I realised I’d never really studied one before. Great opportunity to do so, so I took a tonne of screen shots from the film and picked some charismatic head shots. Getting to grips with the mixer brushes in Photoshop now, almost tailor made to paint fur and feathers.”
“I think Werner Herzog used the dancing chicken as some kind of bleak metaphor for the tackiness and the emptiness of modern life at the time. Personally, I wanted to elevate the chicken to something more elegant, while capturing its essence and joie de vivre. In the end, I settled on these black and white images, which were somewhat inspired by an encounter with a rooster and some charcoal during my college days.”
“I got very excited when I first saw this prompt, because I just love chickens! The range of colours and patterns they display in their plumage; their ability to scuttle about very busily, and then stop stock still – like a screen freeze – before resuming their previous activity, as if nothing had happened – and the fact they combine such dignity with such comedic flair. I just love ‘em! But, I have never attempted to capture motion in yarn before, let alone dancing hens. I soon realised crochet does not lend itself easily to “action shots” so it took a lot of head scratching and moaning and groaning before I found a way forward.
I found photos of chickens running, and then got my techie friend to overlap and tessellate them. From that I tried to identify the key shapes that said “chicken”. (See attached scribbles.) From that, I decided on tail shape, coxcomb and legs, and then tried to develop those into a pattern that might suggest movement. I chose colours in keeping with the folksy, children’s story mood of the original prompt. Here are the results. Chicken Runner, anyone?“
“I was struck by the folksy, pop-culture qualities of Herzog’s dancing chicken, and keen to investigate the movement of these performing animals too. The rather forlorn spectacle of these animals, in boxes, existing to entertain through repetitive actions got me thinking about mechanical toys, so I acquired a mass-produced tin toy clock-work chicken and set about trying to capture its efforts to entertain me, in the form of a series of long-exposure photographs.”
“This was a challenge! So based solely on trailers and reviews, my imagination wandered towards Victorian anthropomorphy and the use of animals for amusement, (YouTube awash with examples), looking at the flea circus, kittens tea parties, besuited mice etc. The result? A chicken/human cross!The other image is a set up in my studio: a plastic figure picked up in the street against a favourite haunt in Greece. In Stroszek, the main character lands on a strange shore and never fully integrating, remains an outsider, wandering from place to place. It was this and a sense of the surreal that I was trying to capture.“
And for your delight and delectation, a bit more moving image by way of inspiration for our next run-around together, courtesy of experimental film-maker, Marie Menken, and her 1966 silent short, Lights. Hope this inspires some light-bulb moments of your own!
Our previous Kick-About together was inspired by images of the human eye, resulting in an abundance of other-worldly imagery and one short story, in which an elderly man vanishes magically away in the middle of an art exhibition. The pioneering silhouette animations of Lotte Reiniger are likewise preoccupied with all things magical: magical lamps, magical slippers, and magical beings. This week’s showcase of artists’ work riffs on Reiniger’s unique aesthetic and narrative milieu. Happy browsing.
“I always enjoy looking beyond the silhouettes of Lotte Reiniger animations and into the exotic and intricate backgrounds that she made. I get a simple sensory pleasure from the illusion of depth that can be achieved in black and white, just using the basic principles of foreground, midground and background. Visualising big worlds is not something I am particularly good at, but as I started to develop these images, I couldn’t help imagine them as big structures in some vast desolate landscape, where few living things remain.“
“I live in Berlin, just round the corner from where Marlene Dietrich was born, and I’m a big fan of Lotte Reiniger and early German cinema. love the theatricality, the creativity and technical ingenuity that went in to making these animations, as well as the fairy tale subject matter.
A few years ago I was involved in creating some animation sequences and images for screen projection for a stage production of Hansel and Gretel. Lotte Reiniger’s 1955 film of the story, as well as earlier German expressionist cinema were certainly in the mix when I was making this work, and I thought it would fit the bill for the Kick-About prompt this week. I’ve included some images that were made to project onto a screen behind the performers during the scenes when Hansel and Gretel were lost in the forest.”
“When doing research for the Howard Sooley – Prospect Cottage prompt, I came across the inspiring work of Lotte Reiniger, and since then I have been busy cutting, glueing and making for a shadow puppet animated short entitled The Lighthouse Keeper, which centres around the peculiar landscape of Dungeness and a couple of burly blokes. Creating something for the sake of creating and figuring out the hurdles and bumps along the way is what is most enjoyable about delving into a fresh medium I have yet to attempt. The stage is now set, the characters are ready to move, the lights are on and with it, the sheer joy of seeing the cut-out shapes and silhouettes lit up, ablaze. Moving from behind the messy, makeshift backstage to the front brought the biggest smile to my face, which makes the absolute bomb site of my shrinking bedroom all worth it! I am sharing the majority of the cut-out shapes, the stage and silhouettes that will feature in the film, as well as some lighting and staging tests with the main protagonist – while I wait for the delivery for the all important light source before the real fun begins.”
“I realized immediately I had seen Lotte Reiniger’s work before. It did not surprise me to hear Reiniger say, ‘I could cut out silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors’. Her work is, yes, ‘astonishing’. Me? I never had that dexterity, not even when young. I also don’t work in film, which was Reiniger’s medium. So how to respond to this prompt? I was going to work with simple bird silhouettes, but was unhappy with the ones I made myself. Once again, I had constructed a 3-D collage environment with cardboard pieces inside a paper bag. I decided to use photos of bird silhouettes, and hang them from strings at the top so they would move. I used circles to enclose the bird forms so I could put different photos on each side–the images would change when the dangling circles turned. Using the ceiling fan to create more movement, I began to take photos.”
that song that your words called into my mind, that song is like a lost world, just images in fragments, suspended like a raincloud without rain, a weight that refuses to dissipate–I can almost feel the memory but it won’t land, it keeps circling through the things that aren’t quite there–like a bird call I can’t locate, disembodied wings hovering invisible inside my head
“Lotte Reiniger’s beautiful silhouette works appeared to largely focus on fairy tales, so I wanted to come at it from a different angle. Taking inspiration from something short, like a poem, I delved into some of my childhood books and lit upon Edward Lear’s ‘Complete Nonsense.’ With my poem selected I created the scene with some coloured paper, and rigged up my phone for stop frame-animation. This was quite the challenge without a proper lighting set up, or the ability to ‘onion-skin’ my images, so there are some interesting colour variations caused by cloud cover and some rather choppy movements. But perhaps that adds to the charm of the ‘Young Lady of Portugal’! (Or perhaps I need some more practice and MANY more inbetweens!).”
“Silhouettes have been around for many years and I know that they are very tricky to work convincingly. Lotte Reiniger must have been a very clever mistress of this craft and way ahead of her time. I decided to do some cut work on the facade of a decorative little theatre and inside put a small montage – since my animation skills are nil and it uses up some of my mountain of collage papers! I’m not sure if The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear is still as well known as it was in my schooldays, but its entertaining characters are great for paper modeling, plus the tiny details of jars of honey, runcible spoons etc. So now all that’s left to do is settle back and sing along – ‘The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat…'”
“I loved these early animations. So full of energy and passion. I remember the fascination I felt as a child when adults amused me by making rabbits with their hands on the walls when the sun was out, and in the evenings with little table lights. I love watching moving shadows, and when I was in Mexico there were always shadows, as there never seemed to be a day without sun. A little different here in the past two weeks, so here are a few snatched mages and sounds of PLACE. Guess the Mexican one!”
“Thank you, Graeme, for the inspiring venture into action. Months have passed without life drawing so, the recreation ground provided observation of the figure in motion. This playful solitary kick-about prompted a series of sketches, which later, shifted to paint in the studio. Perhaps a bit of Lowry, if I may indulge myself. The second motion-based work is a spin off from the online RA Saturday Sketch Club which thankfully James Randall introduced me too, I’ve added in the mask which dates the work.” Oil on prepared paper 24 x 65 cm.
“There is an apartment block just across the road from ours – floor to ceiling glass – a very Rear Window stage. Nice simple shapes too. And a jumping off point for fantasy and metaphor.”
“I remember the first time I watched Reiniger’s Cinderella, thrilling at the moment when we see the ugly sister cut off her own toes in order to make the glass slipper fit her foot – a reminder that fairy stories, as written originally, were hardly short on violence and darkness.Take that Walt Disney, with all your syrup!Inspired by folk-tales, and by those who live in the shadows,I’ve written my own fairy story for the Kick-About, crammed with impossible things presented as commonplace, thought probably not anyone’s idea of a bedtime story…’
With thanks to kick-abouter, Phill Hosking (who has just recently started this new blog), we have, as our new prompt, a 2010 oil painting by American artist, Brian Rutenberg, Low Dense, which is just a little over four metres wide! What a welcome kick of mouthwatering colour. Have fun.
With many thanks to Deanna Crisbacher, I’m happy to present Fundus – a short experimental film originating from the series of photographs I produced for the Kick-About No.30. I had the strongest feeling these inner/outerspace images should move and liquefy, and in so doing, would further push my experience of them into the cosmic! I tried a few techniques out myself to achieve this, but ultimately called on Dee’s much more impressive box of tricks to produce the morphing effects I was after, with the addition of some apposite music, and a nod here and there to some classic science-fiction films. Thanks again to Dee, and also to the Kick-About community for the continuing impetus to make new work so directly.
The Kick-About No. 29 was inspired by Murakami’s description of the all-seeing moon, and this, our latest creative shindig together, has been prompted by an image of the human eye no less planetary…
“In eyeing things up, this KA drew my attention to the bees snuggling into, and reversing out of the foxgloves so, being nosey I had a peak, and discovered a tunnel of pure exotic joy with bright saturated light (optic disc) at the end of the tunnel. Taking a closer look meant later on recalling sensations, avoiding loyalty to the order of nature’s design, to arrive at – maybe the same for the bee (how presumptuous) – memory of that which came to me as a rush.” Oil on prepared paper 25cm x 25cm.
“Dear Charly Skilling – thank you for your beautiful moon submission – enormous hugs to you and your beloved. Unfortunately I didn’t read it until after bouncing out of the kick-about gates – it would have changed my direction by 180 degrees.
The fundus spiralled me through cyclops thoughts – not wanting to approach the glaucoma too closely. I added some Royal Academy on-line life drawing, a Tasmanian beach and sky, some sea birds from Byron Bay then decided it was to be all about emotion rather than narrative and substituted the cyclops for the falling upside-down life model to get to my pic. During this process I gazed longingly at our washing machine as I removed another load and noticed the similarity between the fundus image and the inside of the machine and took a series of photos with my head and camera wedged there – the obvious ones made sense thematically but I only really like the attached blurry detail.“
“I guess the first thing to establish is no actual eyes were harmed in the making of these images! I should say too, no actual eyes were photographed either. In common with these recent images, I looked to various commonplace things at my disposal and once again channelled my inner low-budget film-maker. I won’t reveal my secrets just yet, but suffice to say there is now a shortage of red food colouring and olive oil in our kitchen. I don’t think I will ever tire of the ‘in-camera’ transformations produced by light, specularity and depth-of-field, the magic that sometimes happens between the subject and the lens. I was inspired by images of cataracts and ‘damage’ to the eye (and I think, more gruesomely, by A Clockwork Orange too). This set of resulting images is but a small sample, as I did a bunch of different things over three different days. From these very biological-seeming images, things became more painterly and strange, so I’ll be sharing some more ‘fundus photography’ in the coming days. I’ve certainly been having some fun.’
“For these images I essentially constructed a mass of veins and vessels and trawled through dozens of randomly generated variations looking for the perfect image akin to how a photographer searches for the image of a perfect snowflake amongst hundreds of failures. I somehow managed to generate the aesthetic that I had in my mind after the first attempt, but beyond that lucky first hit I spent a considerable amount of time just staring at blurry orange images, only occasionally getting a glimpse of the things that had initially made me so excited. In a somewhat scientific manner, and after many experiments and further failures, I was able to come up with the formula and methodology that yielded more productive results. Thus was I finally able to reveal the secrets of ‘the eye‘.”
“I thought I would do a collage pattern of eye shapes, and began by sketching the outlines. As I did this a fantastic SF story came into my mind entitled ‘Dark They Were, and Golden Wyed’ written by Ray Bradbury. So I ended up with “Martian Eyes” which was fun to do. The background is a wax/wash and I used a combination of paper and material scraps.”
“The prompt this week sparked all kinds of thoughts, feelings and associations for me. I’m a visual artist, so the workings of the eye, and the connections between the eyes and the brain are pretty darn important, Artists have been exploring how we see things for a long time, not just how they record visual information, but how they can also play tricks, and see what is not there.
For example, before I get a migraine attack, I sometimes get visual disturbances, like veils of glowing zig-zag patterns that drift into my vision from the periphery of my sight until the cover everything. It was terrifying when it first happened, I thought I was having some sort of brain haemorrhage. And there are certain substances that can produce dramatic hallucinations that are totally convincing, but are created entirely by our minds, but the eye can see them.
I went to see an exhibition recently by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist who has suffered visual hallucinations most of her life. Early on, she decided to include them in her art and they have become a signature of her work. Kusama has spoken about her wish to create work that conveys her desire to melt into everything, to dissolve and become one with the universe. Her mirrored rooms, or ‘infinity rooms’ as they’re called are particularly effective.
I’ve written a short story about a rather grumpy old man and his family who went to see the Kusama show. He’s a very imperfect man, but not all bad, like most of us, I suppose.”
“Whenever I see one of these retinal photographs, it makes me think of alien skies. Not that I know much about alien skies, except as depicted on the covers of sci-fi paperbacks or in Hollywood’s representations. So I decided to create my own “alien sky” with sharpies and alcohol on ceramic tile. While I was playing, I got to thinking about ‘Ingenuity’, the little drone helicopter NASA is using to map the terrain of Mars. Here are the results.”
“I just really wanted to do some digital drawing, I haven’t done much of it lately and I miss how relaxing it is to put some jazz music on, get in the flow and let the lines go where they may. Picturing different landscapes centred around the fundus photograph, a sprawling metropolis materialised, with vivacious characters and stories between them, feeling so close but far away.”
“I know this orange orb from personal experience. It unnerves me and intrigues me at the same time. A tricky subject for me from a very early age. I became a pirate at 4 with a constant patch over one eye that made my ‘lazy’ eye do a bit more work. Why am I lazy? I queried. Banned from games requiring throwing a ball. I saw two and had no idea which one to catch. At 8, I started putting lions in cages. I hate zoos. Terrified of balls coming towards me. Fascinated by cages and getting out of them. Set caged birds free.”
“Ah, the joy of that tiny piece of plastic. The contact lens! Free at last to see clearly, use make-up, change hair styles, join the world. My eyes did not agree and rebelled years later, after I had often rammed them back in my eyes with grit and detritus just licked off, as there was nowhere to rinse them up mountains in deserts. The dreaded Orange orb showed a bump that was dangerously close to detaching the retina of my right eye. The bump caused a sentence to dip in the middle on the screen or whilst reading a book. Back to wearing glasses despite trials with soft lenses and many a red eye, and now spiders appearing across my eyes! Back in my cage.”
“So why this lengthy preamble? It could have been much worse. I am obsessed with fencing and seeing through. The lion is sleeping, He has left the cage. The cage has transformed naturally.”
“Watching dancers and working for 25 years to understand the body in movement through the Feldenkrais method (Awareness through movement), I understand and feel the natural combination of the spiral of movement from the eye to the feet. It reminds me of twisted fencing that often crops up in my work and connects me to the natural world to which we all belong.”
“Having googled what fundus photography actually was, I realised I was vaguely familiar, as a long-time glasses wearer. Needless to say I was drawn to visually representing my experiences. My most prevalent memory (since I was about 5 years old) is of the ‘balloon machine.’ A standard test in most eye examinations: the grainy image of a distant hot air balloon against a blue sky, blurring and refocusing, is a distinct childhood memory. Plus, the unique set of noises the machine would emit as it altered the focus. It sounded a lot like an antiquated printer. Going beyond the physical tests I’m fairly familiar with, I looked into more metaphorical representations. Fundus photographs show networks of blood vessels. Leading me to networks of nerves, images being processed and the like. So I envisioned snap shots transitioning from one to the next with the blink of an eye!”
Our last Kick-About together was inspired by the lunar-like landscape of Dungeness beach and Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. This week’s creative run-around-between-friends is inspired by the actual moon, or rather by Haruki Murakami’s evocative description of its silent, watchful orbit…
“I won’t over explain this, so it is what it is: the human need to control the natural world, and the eye in the sky bearing witness. (Moths were already dead)”. Moon and pinned moths. 2’ X 2’. Graphite, oil paint and pinned Moths on Gesso.
“It is usually thought of that our humble moon is essentially a big dead rock in floating in space, but I have always liked how Murakami imbues the objects and places in the lives of his characters with surrealistic life or uses them to communicate something from other strange and unseen worlds. Perhaps in our world, the moon might just appear to be a a big dead rock in floating in space, but in Murakami’s world things are always saying something, even if they are silent.”
“I used Yupo paper and acrylic oils to produce the marbled background for this picture. For the earth and moon I used tissue paper and water colours. Really not much more to say except I am intrigued by 1Q84 and feel I must make an effort to read it, although 3 volumes is a bit of a tall order for me!”
“Inspiring prompt, this Murakami extract about the moon, so much could be done. Here, I wanted to catch the stillness of the moon, beautifully conveyed in the novel, with the perpetual action and energy of the cosmos around it, and particularly on Earth. The painting started originally as a “calligraphy”, expression humanity and history, then all the movement and happenings over time as creative chaos. The “moon” with her round shape, so self-contained and seemingly detached.”
“I’m always photographing the moon. I decided to go through my archives and make some postcards from some of my pictures. The results proved to me, once again, that if you take enough photos, some are bound to look good. I then consulted with the collage box Oracle. The Oracle knows the moon well.”
“I think this is probably an instance wherein the methodology behind the images is ultimately more arresting than the outcome itself, but having tasked myself with the challenge of trying to recreate the silent surface of the moon under largely straightened circumstances, I ended up working with some very earth-bound materials – principally, eight bags of plain flour, a plastic spatula for contouring, and three big glass paperweights!”
“I feel like with the words of Murakami, the moon has an element of ominous brooding and a spark of stoicism at remembering what used to be. The light I am capturing with these long exposure shots, which rim the highlights of ornate wood panelling and makes the hard wood floor sing with colour, makes me wonder who used to reside in this old house previously? Who wandered through the hallways? Who ran their fingers along the wood panels? Who tended to the rose gardens? Who hung up all the photos that still have a small circular imprint on the ancient stained walls? I imagine the original family in black and white or faded sepia, posed on an old chaise lounge, looking dapper but serious. This old creaky house with its not so glamorous leaks and constantly breaking faucets still has so much charm to it, bursting with history as high as its ceilings. The mammoth floors above us are now converted into flats, but one wonders how it all looked in its original form? How would the moon have shone into those vast rooms above me? I can only fantasise.”
“Once again I appreciated Gary’s KA topic. Very evocative. I made a quick sketch as soon as I read the passage, but it has been quite a long process evolving this into a submittable form. I created several moons with face and/or textures before finding Nasa’s library of images and finally trying to recreate a moon in Illustrator (why didn’t I just use the original photo I ask myself – well I try and justify it with ‘it better fits stylistically with the rest of the image’.) The Earth (temptation) was originally going to be a simple arc containing temptations. It evolved with more Nasa pics, before it was abandoned for type and amorphous shapes with tangled line work set in a frame that pulls/clutches at the moon, and the sheer curtain acting as a barrier to the earth’s attraction. In amongst this, one sunny morning, I spotted some very attractive light and shadows on my glass-topped table around a full moon-shaped ring of water, which probably fitted the text better – anyway they are both here.“
“As soon as I think of the distant moon, I think of this one moment, which changed my way of thinking, so I thought I’d share it.”
“Moons have appeared often in my work, usually over a landscape scene. I’m drawn to the more transformative atmosphere of twilight and moonlight; the appearances of things change, shadows thicken, possibilities open up as less detail is described, and the mysteries of night hold sway. This is a collage I made earlier in the year that seemed to fit the brief this week. A huge full moon hangs in the sky, illuminating a couple who are toiling their way up a path to a lighthouse – to what end we’ll never know…”
“Warm Italian summer evenings, with a moon-filled sky, a handful of Peroni, a couple of friends and that simple pleasure of stripping off. Memory is a fine thing yet, with the weather improving, temptation is at it again so, may not be long before it’s time to escape the constraints.” Oil on prepared paper 50×57 cm.
Bottles (1936), a Happy Harmonies animated short, directed by Hugh Harman, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Tellingly, when my husband looked over my shoulder and saw me watching this very grainy upload of Bottles, in preparation for writing this, he said fondly, ‘Oh, that one.’ For the next ten minutes, we watched the animation together, suitably transfixed. Afterwards, my husband said, ‘Yep, still scary’, and, happily, I agreed.
As a child, whenever an old-style cartoon came on the television, Bottles was the one I was hoping for. The story, such as it is, begins with an old apothecarist falling asleep one suitably stormy night, initiating a musical dream sequence in which the bottles on the surrounding shelves come to life to perform in a series of variety-style skits. Even as a nipper, I detected that Scooby-Do, Captain Caveman and their like were ‘cheap’ animations. Something about their flat colour and all the labour-saving devices of their locked, unmoving poses told me corners were being cut. I enjoyed these cartoons, of course – better those than Grange Hill, or worse, The Littlest Hobo, but for me they were the equivalent of those packets of Swizzel’s Rainbow Drops – puffed rice dyed colorfully; a bit cheap, a bit thin, a bit light, and always a bit disappointing. Not a proper sweet, only the semblance of one.
But from the opening moments of Bottles you know it’s different; there’s the aliveness of the rain, and the painterly expression of light, and the parallax of the different layers of scenery pulling you filmically into the frame. This is what a labour of love looks like, the art and graft of animated storytelling.
Narratively, Bottles has an exhausting ‘and then, and then, and then’ structure, which I enjoy guiltily, in so much as it forgoes the necessity of character development or other expectations of the craft. My own first forays into creative writing were comic book-style adventures committed to the pages of blue exercise books, in which a spaceman in a smart red suit encountered peril after peril, page after page – and then, and then, and then!
When I watch Bottles I am reminded of my own direct-to-the-page instinctiveness, telling stories with all the boring bits cut out; not for me the moments when the spaceman in the smart red suit had to eat, sleep or urinate; not for me, any long episodes of walking, or talking, or arriving or leaving. Instead, bring on the battalions of robo-spiders, the purple space-krakens and the erupting volcanoes; and then, and then, and then!
As a lecturer in story for animation, I always had to speak to the importance of the ‘three act structure’, and all the other established systems for organising narrative for audiences effectively. All good and useful stuff, but secretly, I loved it more when students worked instinctively and less rationally. When I think about the imaginative forces regulating Bottles, it’s not some careful calibration of narrative structures, but rather the primality of a fever dream.
That inanimate objects come to life when we sleep is one of those knowledges that all children share. That we both love and fear this idea is captured in Harmon’s animation. In Bottles, anthropomorphism is like a contagion, moving along the shelves of the apothecary, imparting rampant squash and stretch to anything it touches. What I especially enjoy about Bottles is its no-holds barred horror, which doesn’t simply reside in the animation’s more obvious macabre set-pieces. There is something uncanny itself about the style of the animation, no matter its subject-matter, disturbing in the same way as those incessant, arm-waving inflatable ‘tube-men’ outside car dealerships. It’s the failure of stillness and the absence of pause, the gangly, boneless, grabbiness of everything.
But it is the poison bottle-come-skeleton everyone remembers about this cartoon, if not its more innocuous-sounding title. This guy is truly the Halloween loadstar; from this cackling character every plastic skeleton in every joke shop, from this character, every plastic mask, and He-Man’s Skeletor, but all of them pale imitations. ‘Death walks the night!’ the skeleton croaks, before unstoppering its own head and administering the droplet of shrinking potion that begins the apothecarist’s surrealistic adventure at the outset of the cartoon. There’s a witch in the mix too, rubber-faced, grotesque, terrifying, and a trio of ghosts – the spirits of ammonia. For this little boy who liked his entertainment served with a hearty helping of morbidity, Bottles managed that most satisfying of combinations: cosy horror, feelings of comfort in a subtle blend with sensations of peril and fright.
In tone and in spectacle, Bottles reminds me strongly of The Mascot (1933) a remarkable black and white stop-motion film by Ladislas Starevich. This too is a tour-de-force of animism, and likewise shares with Bottles its scene-stealing evil character, in Starevich’s film, a yakking devil presiding over a bizarre night-spot popular with gurning turnip-people and ambulating detritus. Another thing the two animations share is their racist cultural stereotypes; The Mascot features a minor black character with exaggerated lips and Mohican-style hair, while Bottles treats us to the ‘dance of the Golliwog Perfume bottles’, accompanied, natch, by the beating of drums. I hardly need put the necessary caveats around this moment in the animation, or rather my discomfort about it as an adult viewer, but as the rest of the cartoon’s featured bottles pertain to real brands, I was curious to understand if ‘Golliwog Perfume’ was an incidence of a racial stereotype created specially for the cartoon’s roster of vaudeville routines. I was amazed to find Le Golliwogg was an actual real-world perfume, launched in 1919 in France, and in 1925 in USA, and that its bottle featured a particularly grotesque example of the golliwog character, designed by Michel de Brunoff and his brother-in-law Lucien Vogel, both of whom where editors of the French Vogue. And there was me thinking the skeleton was the most disturbing thing about Harman’s animated short.
It’s only when I re-watched Bottles that I understood how conspicuously it haunts some of my own stuff, not least the Chimera stories, which imagines a world in which all inanimate objects are capable of life. But Chimera owes more than a nod to the pitch of Bottles too, by which I mean its headlongness, and likewise my resistance to de-fanging some of the books’ more intense scenes, and so ensuring I leave in the bits I suspect will linger for longest in the impressionable minds of my younger readers. Looks like I have carried that skeleton around in my imagination for forty-plus years. Of course, I’m rather glad of it. “Death walks the night!”