Make and Do
Dorothy Max Prior reports on the Forkbeard Fantasy Summer School
Forkbeard Fantasy is a theatre and film company who have been touring their shows, films, exhibitions and special events since the mid-1970s. Their theatre shows combine comedy with special effects, wild mechanical sets, outsize characters and their unique trademark interactive mix of film, animation and cartaoon live on stage. Each year the company host two week-long Summer Schools, legendary for providing a unique opportunity for professional development for artists of all ages, and at any stage of their artistic development.
I arrive at Forkbeard’s lovely Devon base hot-foot from Glastonbury, straw still in my hair, a couple of days after the summer school starts. I’m offered a cuppa, and shown into the magnificent space that is the main building of Fortress Forkbeard, a great big barn filled with magnificent Things: white horses of various sizes; multi-coloured hard hats; mannequins in splendid headdresses – oh, and a quivering rubber Chihuahua that trembles with trepidation when you pass by. There’s desks with state-of-the-art Macs; old-fashioned drawing boards; shelves piled high with spray paint and rubber bands; cameras; blue-screen backdrops. At the edge of the space are a number of alcoves or open cupboards, filled to bursting with clothes-rails and labelled boxes containing hats, wigs, shoes, real-hair moustaches, rubber ears, false noses… you name it, there’s a box for it somewhere in here. It’s all an enormous pleasure to behold, so behold I do…
I’m here as an observer at the Summer School. Or at least, I think that’s why I’m here, to observe – but I haven’t reckoned on the great and glorious powerhouse of persuasion that is Forkbeard’s Tim Britton, who spies me sitting in a corner taking notes, and drags me (not quite kicking and screaming but mumbling about not being very good with machines) into a sideroom full of magnificent vintage animation kit. ‘Here’s the Eos machine!’ he says ‘Have a go! If I can do it, anyone can do it! Here, I’ll show you!’.
And so, with Tim bouncing around me with Tigger-like enthusiasm, I make my first animation, using the wonderful Eos set-up, which in essence is a lightbox, a monitor, and a box with a big red button that you clunk-click after moving around the object placed on the lightbox. Tim is right: even a child could do it – and in fact, many decades ago, Forkbeard were at the forefront of the drive to persuade schools to buy and use the Eos DAR (Digital Animation Recorder) 200 – to give it its full moniker.
I use what I have to hand – my hands, for starters, and then my hair, and then move on to black paper and scissors. The end result is not exactly Lotte Reiniger standard, but it’s better than I would have thought I could have managed so quickly, and with no previous experience. I’m quite pleased with myself, and prepared to rest on my laurels and retire gracefully. But Tim hasn’t finished with me yet. ‘Here’s the Steenbeck editor!’ he says, referring to a machine in the corner that I’d assumed was a prop from a Forkbeard show, as it looks like something from a vintage sci-fi film, with its big metal film-rollers and odd cranks and clamps. It’s a physically demanding form of editing that involves feeding your 16mm film in and around the rollers, making sure you’ve got your sprockets clamped in to place, and then cranking the lovely big handle, so that the frames pass by on the monitor as slowly or quickly as you turn.
‘Have a go!’ says Tim. So having seen how it works using some found film (there’s boxes of the stuff lying around, naturally), what I do next is make a ’scratch’ film, taking some plain ‘white’ film which can be painted, or even have things stuck to it. There’s some bits of hair lying around from my last experiment, so with Tim’s encouragement that gets glued on, along with some sand, and an awful lot of gloopy paint, all fixed in to place with Sellotape. The end result is so heavily embossed that it would seem to have moved film on from being a 2D to a 3D form, and I’m worried what it might do to the Steenbeck. ‘Oh don’t worry about THAT’ says Tim ‘someone put a dead mouse through it once, and it was fine’. Well, you can’t do that with modern computers…
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the premises, dotted hither and thither, everyone else (being a couple of days ahead of me) are making a start on their special projects – the task that, having tried out the basics of sound design and animation over their first two days, they have assigned themselves for the rest of the week.
The group comprises artists of all ages and persuasions, from 18-year-old George who’s just left school and is starting to make films, so wants to work on that (having found an inspiring old typewriter in one of those dark cubby holes), to Guy who is – well, my age or maybe older, and he’s the co-director of Quicksilver Theatre company, and keen to explore the classic Forkbeard technique of Crossing the Celluloid Divide (merging live and animated action onstage). Others have other ambitions wide and various, including: to get to grips with motors and make a working automata; to experiment with projecting film onto water and other materials; to try out model-making using vacu-form; to make a latex animal head; to combine 2D and 3D animation techniques; to create a title sequence; to make an animated film and place it in a peep-show box.
Some of the group are settled into ‘work stations’ they’ve set up in this main space; some are outside in the beautiful wild gardens, recording buzzing bees or photographing twigs and stones; and some have made their way down to Penny’s barn…
Let me tell you about Penny and her barn. Penny Saunders is a designer and maker, of puppets, sets and many other marvellous things (including the aforementioned Chihuahua); a longstanding core member of Forkbeard Fantasy who – yes – has her own barn! It’s a five minute walk down the garden path from the main studio, and Tim tells me that in fact Penny’s barn came first – she bought it many years ago and developed it into her artist’s studio, and by a fortuitous co-incidence, when Forkbeard received Lottery funding to develop a studio, and the deal on the premises that they were going to buy fell through, the previous owner of the barn sold them the rest of surrounding ex-farm buildings.
Penny’s barn must be how most ‘makers’ would envision Heaven to be, an enormous space where there is everything you could possibly need to make anything you might dream of making. Wood, plaster, latex? Of course! Aluminium wire? Well, what thickness do you need? ‘You can go on bending it for a long time before it breaks’ says Penny. Cogs, wheels, screws, nuts, bolts? Certainly, there’s a thousand choices! Motors and gears? I’m shown a funny little automata-bird made from a bit salvaged from an old washing machine. ‘Elastic is the simplest motor’ says Penny, in Blue Peter mode, ‘wind it up and off it goes…’ I then hear all about wheels turned by cam-shafts, with the lovely circus models of Alexander Calder as the example. A run-through of various mechanical tools follows that gets me lost pretty quickly, although I do pick up the knowledge that ‘friction is your enemy; steals your energy’. I’m then advised that ‘springs are a nice thing to play with’, as Penny whisks open a drawer – and there they are, what looks to be a million springs of all shapes and sizes. Penny starts to reminisce about a warehouse in Holloway Road, North London, that is full of springs, nothing else, then she wanders off to help someone make a bear: ‘There’s so many ways of making bears’.
Meanwhile, back at the main studio space I seek out Ed Jobling, who (amongst a company of fix-ers and do-ers) is Mr Fix-It. In the week I’m there I hear of no request made to Forkbeard’s technical whiz-kid that fazes him. From ‘endless cassettes’ (an old-school sound looping mechanism) to mini-discs; from Foley sound to Logic and Final Cut Pro; from locating the gaffer tape to working out which lead to use, Ed’s the person to nab. He seems always to hand and ever ready to help; and if he can’t come right now, he’s there in ten minutes, trouble-shooting throughout the whole workshop space, all week long. The project I eventually set myself for the week involves creating a sound installation, with minimal but intense visuals, set in complete blackout – and Ed becomes a crucial collaborator. From the recording of the spoken text, to multi-tracking, to inputting visual material, to mixing, and eventually to creating a physical environment that is as near-as-damn-it total blackout, Ed is on hand to encourage, give practical help, come up with solutions.
And then there’s Robin Thorburn, Forkbeard’s film-maker and editor extraordinaire. Whether its real or virtual, if you want to know about layering, cutting, or pasting; about logging and capturing, in-points and out-points – Robin’s your man. ‘Render, render, render’ he says, a phrase he repeats often during the week – basically, every time he passes anyone working on anything involving film or animation (this referring to the process, whether working on the primitive animation machines or the latest version of Final Cut Pro, by which whatever technology you are using actually creates the 2D image from the instructions/raw material you are inputting). Apple R, Apple R, Apple R… Don’t worry Robin, I will never, ever, ever forget.
The Forkbeard Fifth Man (well, person) is Chris Britton, co-founder of the company with his brother Tim. Together, they are known to the world as their comic counterparts or alter egos, The Brittonioni Brothers. Chris is a calm and affable presence, fetching and carrying all the while, the epitome of helpfulness. (A cup of tea? A curly blue wig? A red cloth backdrop? Another camera? Done.) Oh, and of course it’s Chris who whizzes off in his car to get the wine and beer to go with the curry, or the strawberries and cava for the end-of-workshop party after the final showing of work on the Friday. The food actually needs its own special mention: lavish home-cooked lunches and dinners, the former eaten in a marquee in the Forkbeard garden; the latter appearing mysteriously each evening in the kitchen of the ‘cottages’ we are staying in at a nearby village.
At that final showing of work it is astonishing to see what people have made and done in less than a week. George’s film is beautiful; a strange and haunting exploration of the power of objects circling round the old typewriter and a letter found still in it, with more than a touch of the Quays about it. (I learn at dinner that George’s mum is a puppeteer, and that’s how he knew about the Summer School. Her name? Liz Walker – she has a company called Faulty Optic, George tells me.) Guy gives us a version of Romeo and Juliet starring a real and virtual Tim and Penny as the star-crossed lovers (and their ghosts) that is poignant and very moving. And there’s more, so much more… Just to mention a few: Charlotte has made a whimsical animation using sand-and-paint manipulation on a lightbox. Henry has created his title sequence, but has also done a very funny mock-disaster-movie short. Sally has made a big fish that moves using the Calder cam-shaft mechanism. Nadia’s bear walks across a moonlit landscape she’s painted, accompanied by herself on cello. Marco and Daniel create a walk-through environment in which we intermingle with the characters on-screen. My own piece, inspired by the Browning poem Gold Hair, goes well (with great thanks to Ed). And you can read all about the result of Estelle’s train animation and peep-show experiment in A Few Things I Know, the companion feature to this one!
What a week, what a company, what a wonderful experience. Thank you, Forkbeard!