Mapping the Territory
Wonky worlds and lo-fi animation: artist Chris Gilvan-Cartwright has an interesting encounter with 1927’s Paul Barritt
‘I'm not a computer geek, I hate computers!’ announces Paul Barritt (left), the animator behind the frighteningly gifted theatre company 1927, creators of the multi-award winning show Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and the tremendous new success, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets.
We are gathered at BAC (the South London venue where the show has just that week, December 2010, started a month-long midwinter run) for an event hosted by the Puppet Centre Trust and facilitated by Paul, who bravely battled through a heavy cold and the remnants of jet lag – following the world premiere of the new show at the Sydney Opera House– to lead a three-hour presentation and discussion about 1927’s approach to using animation in collaboration with live action in theatre, and to share the practical ways in which he as an animator contributes to that process.
Having set out his stall regarding computers, Paul was quick to declare his love of drawing and his desire to draw as much as possible before employing the computer program.
‘Always try and make it as lo-fi as you can,’ he advises when asked about the reliance of technology in a performance. ‘I recently saw an animation where the images of something running were drawn on a vinyl record and filmed as the record player rotated – it worked really well.’
This was all heartening news to me, as I had come to the workshop with some trepidation – worried that my smattering of experience in animation, picked up 20 years ago during a brief two-week induction at Central St Martins art school, would now be laughably out of date and inadequate.
In fact, Paul's initial experience of using animation within theatre was, by his own admission, quite basic, and heavily reliant on stills and the voiceover supplied by his collaborator Suzanne Andrade (writer/director/performer with 1927). A short film, Unbearable Heat, marked the start of this collaboration, where obliquely related images were projected onto a screen whilst Suzanne wrote and re-sited the text. This led to a period of experimentation where projections and poems were presented at spoken word and live art events: ‘It was an easy process, just made it, didn’t think about it – if it looked and felt right that was enough.’ Eventually this resulted in Suzanne standing in front of the screen, allowing the projections to be on her. This seemed to be the initial stages of what has become a signature motif for a 1927 show.
After a disappointing response at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Paul and Suzanne decided to form an ensemble and agreed that if they were to write a show, ‘it had better be a good one!’ With the introduction of musician-performer Lillian Henley (composition, piano and vocals) and talented physical actor Esme Appleton, 1927 was born. Their first theatre show as a company, Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, was a massive success at the Edinburgh Fringe 2007 – winning the ‘triple’: a Fringe First, a Total Theatre Award, and a Herald Angel. The show has subsequently toured worldwide to great acclaim.
The new show, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets –about the occupants of an infamous, decrepit tenement block called Bayou Mansions – has been a long time in development and has been more technically challenging to make, as it has a more traditional theatre narrative (the previous show having evolved from a number of cabaret vignettes), with the performance work, music and animation devised concurrently.
It initially started with a projection of a running pig, and some text grew out of that. This collaborative process, where animation reacts to the text or vice versa, and text comes out of the performance, needs the appropriate time to become formalised and mature. By all accounts the ensemble have worked tirelessly to achieve this and even after the Australian premiere, Paul is making tweaks to improve the timings – but, ‘we have made a piece of theatre at last,’ he says. ‘Animation is naturally very gestural,’ he continues, ‘and this helps as the performances are also gestural, and it's possible to find a link between the two’. In fact, the performances and the animation become entwined and look rather like a huge book that’s opened up on the stage.
Most of the performances must work within the framework of the animation, and this leads on to the challenges that come out of working with a projected image. First, there's the lens distortion from the projector which may mean that the actors are limited to a more 2D plane. Perspective can be quite tricky: a stage with depth already is a good start to the illusion. Paul explained that in the initial stages there had been the idea that the actors could follow certain marked routes by glow spikes, bringing them further to the front of the stage and nearer to the audience where images could be projected onto the actors or items (such as a goat’s head in a baby basket). There's also the task of making sure that the animation doesn't outshine the performers, and so finding a balance between live action and projection can be difficult. 1927 are masters of this, and a good example of where this works in the current show is a scene where Suzanne (as the melancholy and downtrodden caretaker of the mansions, one of the many parts she plays in the show) is sweeping up with a brush and the dust is animated.
Then there's the issue of getting 'the best black'. If you want an image framed by a total blackout, then, whatever your budget, always go for the brightest light the projector can supply. Finally: the dreaded moment when technology fails you and breaks down and the cinematic, hermetic space is broken. What do you do? Well, it happens from time to time – but the animation is such an integral part of a 1927 show that audiences are patient and it's usually up and running before too long.
As the workshop entered a techie phase, Paul was able to demonstrate his working process and what happens once the drawings are uploaded onto the computer. Some of the programs covered were Dragon Stop Motion, which Paul recommended as brilliant to start animation, and Adobe After Effects, which he uses to key-frame an image. If money is no problem then Pandoras Box Media Server software (the program used for Avatar) is the one for you. Helpful tips such as saving an image on a green background (Chroma Key rendering) enables the possibility to take out the background colour and have your image on a transparent background, very useful if you want a character interacting on a textured background. Other programs referenced were Module 8, Isadora, Arkaos, and Final Cut Pro.
I have to confess that during my humble days of animation at college – inspired by Jan Švankmajer and The Brothers Quay – I was very excited about synchronising two slide projectors, but still remember the blood sweat and tears to line it all up, so I felt complete empathy as Paul talked about the nightmare of getting three projectors to ‘map’ (i.e. shape the film to the surface you are projecting onto) three films onto his constructed canvas set. His conclusion and answer: ‘If you can, use one projector to map three films – then keep it simple.’
Much of Paul's animation is drawn out on paper and then scanned into Photoshop: ‘I prefer to use stop motion as much as possible when filming and I’ve got an idea to make a film using stop motion and actors, but it’s still just an idea.’ He also prefers the physical act of drawing with pen or pencil rather than on a computer tablet. During a break in the workshop I was able to view a number of his illustrations in the cafe at BAC: beautifully rendered line drawings of characters and animals inhabiting wonky worlds, giving an insight as to where the final animated images have sprung from. Paul is a natural illustrator – and by this I mean the drawings seem to come from almost an automatic drawing technique or doodle, which gives a clue as to his animation process. He mentions artist William Kentridge's approach to projecting onto surfaces, walls, net curtains. ‘There's no right or wrong way to do things, just try it out and see what it looks like.’
With these encouraging words ringing in my ears, I might just venture back to the wonderful world of animation: keep it simple, try it out, see what it looks like…