Monday, 28 February 2011

Shadows Approach

Flatpack Festival website is now online, with details of our opening night show on March 23rd and how to purchase tickets. So that's official then. No sleep through March. 

Smoke Gathers

Copyright 2011 Film Ficciones/Pram

Forest Somniloquy

Photo Copyright 2008 Max Simpson

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Slaughterhouse Five

Well, in truth there were six of us. Not such a great post-heading though.
   Our first visit to Schlachthof Arts Centre in Sigmaringen came about after we had played Klangbad Festival in 2008, in the sleepy nearby town of Scheer. Organized by leading experimental musician (and Faust founder member) Hans Joachim Irmler, we had an amazing time and were invited to return and headline Saturday night the following year. It's hands-down one of the best festivals any of us has ever played or attended.
   We spent a week before that show undertaking an artist's residency at Schlachthof to develop Shadow Shows - a pilot of which we had unveiled at another great music festival, Supersonic (Capsule UK), in our home town a few months earlier. We were shown a great deal of generosity and support during that week by the committed team who run the arts centre, and the time spent in such an environment, devising and revising the show, had an enormous impact on it's development. 

During that week we were also introduced to Prof. Hans-Martin Schweizer. A philosophy lecturer, he gave us a fascinating talk on the concept of Schatten und Licht (shadow and light) in German education, art and philosophy - from Goethe to local school teacher Johannes Seipp (1893-1978), whose incredible silhouette artwork I had been incorporating into the show. I shall post at length about them both soon.  

   In Summer 2010 we returned and spent a further week working in the shaded concrete cool of the former slaughterhouse, surrounded by pulleys tracks and meathooks, performing the work-in-progress to over two hundred locals during the year's annual SchlachtFest. It seemed to go down well, although that whole day (which involved de-rigging the show straight afterwards and then performing our usual stage show later in the evening) is now a bit of a shadowy blur.

Photos and Images Copyright 2010 Scott Johnston/Johannes Seipp/Schlachthof Arts Centre

Friday, 25 February 2011

Would You Date a Skull?

Frederick, Prince of Hohenzollern (1891-1965) was prince at Sigmaringen Castle from 1927 to 1965. He was obviously a keen hunter, diligently dating and mounting his huge collection of prizes; the large and the small. We did not linger long in this part of the castle.

Photos Copyright 2009 Scott Johnston

Devil's Bridge

There are many across Europe, medieval in origin. This Devil's Bridge is in Inzigkofen, near Sigmaringen. We explored the forest one night, filming and getting lost. We saw some things here.

Photo Copyright 2009 Scott Johnston

Insert Coin

"In the cellar, we came upon a rusted, antique mechanical orchestra. Dusty light from street level came in through a small iron grate during the day. Their shadows had been silent and still down there for a long time. We looked, but didn't have the correct coin to make them play again."

Photo Copyright 2009 Scott Johnston

Shadow of Charlotte

It would be impossible to plan a film exploring shadow techniques without becoming aware of the great pioneer of silhouette films,  Charlotte (Lotte) Reiniger (1899-1981). Her extraordinary The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (1926) is the oldest surviving animated feature film, a highly evocative tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights that is consistently being re-discovered (and re-scored) for new audiences. (We actually visited the Lotte Reiniger Museum in Tubingen on our second trip to Baden-Wurrtemburg in Summer 2010, which I will go into in another post).
   Planning to shoot some 16mm silhouette animation for Shadow Shows, I managed to find an ex-library copy of Reiniger's out-of-print book  Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films published in 1970 by B.T. Batsford. It's her comprehensive overview of shadowplay in all it's forms, with a substantial section on filming techniques.

I might have stumbled through with my own experiments, but as I was limited by time and film stock Lotte's how-to guide proved essential. (Another useful book was Shadow Puppets and Shadow Play by David Currell).
   With Lotte's imposing shadow leading the way, I set about building an animation rostrum table (or trick table as she describes it): adapting a large computer work station by removing the doors and shelves, allowing space for lights, I cut an A3-sized hole in the table top, creating a sunken beveled lip for a piece of 8mm glass to sit in laying flush with the table surface. A piece of 140gsm architect paper went on top of the glass. By complete fluke, I had recently been given a photographic rostrum kit by a retired cinema projectionist who was having a clearout - the kind that you used to be able to buy from Jessops, and would have set you back over £800! This one was built in Poland and beautifully made - essentially a sturdy wooden base board with a metal column and adjustable camera head attached, and a set of four 150w lamps with clamps to fix them around the base. 
   I adapted this kit so that the column was reversed on the base (then when the stand was secured above and behind my hand-built table, the camera would be looking over it rather than facing the other way!) The lighting was secured inside the trick table and screened off with heavy blackout material...and that was pretty much it. As I was shooting my silhouette animation with a Bolex 16mm film camera, I had some working out to do as far as focal distance/exposure etc, but all in all it wasn't too difficult - and looked gratifyingly close to Lotte's own trick tables.
   What I hadn't taken into account was how difficult the actually animation would turn out to be - I'd scaled down my shooting area to around half of that which she had used (for a variety of reasons). My tiny 8cm figures, painstakingly cut from black card and having around fourteen micro-miniature wire joints each, did not appreciate my choice of scale at all, and took a great deal of coaxing to perform for me. 

Film Still Copyright 2010 Scott Johnston

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Upon the Castle Stair

I wish I could tell you something about the person in this photo, but none of us has any idea who she is. In fact, I don't even remember taking it. 
   I know the location though - it's the steps leading to the tower of Sigmaringen Castle, during our first visit to the town in Summer 2009. We were invited by a music journalist and promoter named Christoph Wagner to undertake an artist residency at  Schlachthof Arts Centre, returning the following year to perform the finished show at the annual Schlachtfest. 
   Sigmaringen is a small, wealthy town in the state of Baden-Wurrtemburg, which is the southern-most part of Germany bordering with Switzerland. Situated on the upper Danube and the largest of it's valley castles, the stunning Schloss Sigmaringen was briefly home to the exiled Vichy French government at the end of the World War II. 

   Our wonderfully energetic host Ulrike somehow managed to pull a few administrative strings, allowing us to film inside the castle for a few hours. Whilst there, she provoked our imaginations with colourful tales of a previous royal resident - Princess Amelia of Hohenzollern (1815-1841) whose friendship with Napoleon had once saved the town from being sacked. She's understandably talked about with saintly hushed reverence. A little later, during a walk through the surrounding forest, we were told how the princess and her beloved horse had once made a death-defying leap from the top of a tall chalk cliff, across the Danube, landing safely on the other side. I forget now the motivation for this act, probably love, but this photograph shows the exact place where it happened. It's commemorated with a large emblem you can see painted high up onto the cliff face.

Photos Copyright 2010 Harry Dawes/Scott Johnston

The Great Hall

One section of our show is called The Great Hall, and was inspired by an unusual local building...and a chance discovery of this photograph. Great Barr Hall  is located between Walsall and Great Barr, Birmingham, and is a Grade II listed building - though at present it is barely recognisable as the 18th century mansion pictured here.
   I first heard about it around 2007, from my sister who lives not far from the hall - she'd visited a number of times, scrambling over barriers and through holes in chain-link fences with her husband and kids to gain access. Back then there were still plenty of features of the hall intact, even if by that time any architectural details of value had been stripped out. The building had last been owned between 1911 and 1978 by the local hospital board, being for most of that time St Mary Margaret's Mental Hospital. A number of deliberate fires in recent years have eradicated any last traces of grandeur.
   Already intrigued by her explorations, one day I found myself standing in a charity shop in Harbourne, fixated upon a framed black and white photograph - turning it over, I found a small handwritten note taped to the back: 

I don't know why that particular dating. My best guess on the photo itself is 60s/70s.
   Now having a real image to replace the one in my imagination, and a compellingly eerie one at that, I decided it was time to see the hall for myself. We had to clamber through fence holes and trudge for almost an hour along a muddy, debris-strewn trail through the woods... only to find that it was now not only securely fenced off, but had a 24 hour guard on site in a little porta-cabin. With dogs. The fires had caused serious structural damage, he told us, but a wealthy property developer had recently aquired the hall and was determined to restore it to it's former glory. I wonder if, in reality, a housing development or somesuch isn't planned for the site. 
   My idea about shooting some film inside instantly evaporated, but I left with the strong feeling that the hall had somehow succeeded in keeping it's secrets from me, it's mysteries intact.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Eye Scream for Crow

This is Inky.
   I made him out of card, feathers, fuse wire and black paint. And a lot of hot glue.
  Animator and artist Babis Alexiadis helped me bring him to life (of a sort), coming over with his fancy-schmancy Canon 5D digital stills camera. (Until now, the animation in Shadow Shows has been made using "Stanley" - my 1961 Bolex H16RX 16mm film camera. More about that later...)
   Inky is generally quite well behaved for a carrion beast, except at night...when he is overcome by the compulsion to try and steal my eyes. I've been gently discouraging of this behaviour so far.

Photo Copyright 2011 Scott Johnston

Nothing to do with Hank Marvin

...just in case that's how you've found us!
No, Shadow Shows is an audio-visual performance incorporating triple-screen film projections with a live score and sound effects. Somewhere between experimental cinema, music performance and installation. With a bit of smoke-and-mirrors shadow theatre. 
   And us is myself, Film Ficciones, and cult experimental music group Pram. We've worked together previously on short films, music videos, installations and live shows since 2003 - and in a future post hopefully there will be a few words from those enigmatic purveyors of telemetric melodies, with their view on the making of this show. If I can only coax them out of the shadows...
   For the most part though I shall be mainly posting background stuff about the work and its' development, including the people and places which have had an influence, as well as photos and documents to illustrate the process. We've been working on Shadow Shows for almost two years, including a pilot version for Supersonic Festival (UK) and a residency at Schlachthof Arts Centre in Germany - much more on that to come. 
   Right now though, we're preparing for our first performance proper as the opening event of Flatpack Festival on 23rd March 2011. Details and tickets from the Flatpack website.

We're really looking forward to it as the date approaches...exactly a month from today!