Archive for film


Seeing this diagram by Stephen Wildish, reminded me of the very satisfying formula at the beginning of Allan Ahlberg‘s Funnybones:

Allan and Janet Ahlberg produced so many fantastic picture books, and often what made them so good was the simplicity of the idea.

The opening lines of this one:

In a dark, dark town there was a dark, dark street
and in the dark, dark street there was a dark, dark house,
and in the dark, dark house there were some dark, dark stairs
and down the dark, dark stairs there was a dark, dark cellar
and in the dark dark cellar….

Three skeletons lived!

The pictures work brilliantly too, with the black background throughout. The book worked so well that the Ahlbergs made lots of follow-ups.

The cartoonified version stuck fairly faithfully to it, though there’s not a really good quality version on YouTube. Griff Rhys Jones was the ideal narrator:

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I watched Mirrormask last night. Wonderful animation by Dave McKean. More than animation, direction and the creation of a whole host of wonderful phantasmagorical creatures, weird landscapes, layered dream sequences. Brilliant music by Iain Bellamy. Stephanie Leonidas is great as a the main character, Helena, a circus girl who, when her mother suddenly falls seriously ill, disappears into a fearsome Alice in Wonderland world to sort matters out.

Critics have said that the story is its weak point.  Other critics have said that it is too much an imitation of Labyrinth. (Remember Bowie as the Goblin King?) But I liked it. In fact it’s part of a whole sub-genre isn’t it: Girl disappears into Other World to solve this world problem. I think of Childe Rowland:


Burd Ellen round about the aisle

 To seek the ball is gone,

But long they waited, and longer still,

 And she came not back again.

Then there’s Miyazaki’s Spirited Away of course, where  Chihiro has to face all the challenges of the spirit bath-house to release her parents from their pig-form.

There must be lots of other examples. There’s also another subgenre involved – the swap story. Helena’s and the Princess of the Dark City swap worlds. Helena needs to find the mirrormask to get back to her own world. Dave McKean points out that this type of tale goes back to The Prince and The Pauper – it goes further back still to stories of Harun al-Rashid and The Desert Island in the Talmud.

Have a look at some of Mirrormask, here the beginning:

I love the circus music.

And some more, with its wonderfully eery Close To You:

Here’s Gaiman and McKean talking about their work on the film together:

McKean’s sketch for the giants

Really Useful Book

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Full steam ahead

In Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve a post-apocalyptic London has become a Traction City, a great wheeled machine roving round swallowing up smaller cities. (There are of course similarities with the present-day City of London which with its banking swallows up cities around the world.)  The heroes take to the air in airships to fight it.

Even if you don’t know the book, you might recognise that it belongs to the sub-genre of Steampunk, with it’s clockwork and steam powered wonders. It’s a new and perhaps unfamiliar sub-genre,  we’ve been coming across it all over the place:

Laputa – Castle in the Sky:


The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello (Website):

Also, in the same Lotte Reiniger style: The Invention of Love:

There’s a fashion element to it too. Sam was intrigued by this video, and would like to try his hand at similar things:

Some steampunk creations:

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Alexander Calder and his circus

Alexander Calder, Little Clown, the Trumpeteer, from Calder’s Circus, 1926–31. Wire, cloth, paint, yarn, thread, rhinestone buttons, electrical tape, rubber tubing, and metal horn, 12 × 3 1/2 × 3 in. (30.5 × 8.9 × 7.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from a public fundraising campaign in May 1982. One half of the funds were contributed by the Robert Wood Johnson Jr. Charitable Trust. Additional major donations were given by The Lauder Foundation, the Robert Lehman Foundation Inc., the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation Inc., an anonymous donor, The T.M. Evans Foundation Inc., MacAndrews & Forbes Group Incorporated, the De Witt Wallace Fund Inc., Martin and Agneta Gruss, Anne Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller, the Simon Foundation Inc., Marylou Whitney, Bankers Trust Company, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth N. Dayton, Joel and Anne Ehrenkranz, Irvin and Kenneth Feld, Flora Whitney Miller. More than 500 individuals from 26 states and abroad also contributed to the campaign  83.36.8a-d© 2009 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photograph © Whitney Museum of American ArtRoll up! roll up! Come and see some amazing children’s picture books full of the creativity of artists and inventors….

Books like The Day-Glo Brothers about the two brothers that gave us Day-Glo paint:


Or A River of Words about the poet William Carlos Williams:

I came across another recently. It’s called Sandy’s Circus, and it’s about the sculptor Alexander Calder:

This is about just one part of Calder’s amazing creativity – when he was in Paris and created a circus out of wire and bits and bobs. Here’s a video of him with the circus later in life:



As a boy, his parents always made sure “Sandy” had a workshop and tools.

He made his friends toys and jewellery from scraps of wood, leather and wire he would pick off the street. Sandy built his sister Peggy a castle for her doll – complete with a moat! He and Peggy made toy animals and played circus in the workshop.

The next year, 1926, he decided to go to Paris. Why Paris? Because that city was alive with art. And Sandy said, “In Paris it’s a compliment to be called crazy.” Sandy rode through the streets of Paris on his orange bicycle. He carried a roll of wire around his shoulder and a pair of pliers in his pocket.

When Sandy bumped into a friend, out came the wire and pliers. He would twist and bend and curl while he chatted. And before they said adieu, Sandy would give his friend a gift – voila! A small portrait of the person – made of wire.

The wire pictures are a bit like the ones he drew for a version of Aesop I have illustrated by him.

And I hadn’t realised that Alexander Calder invented the mobile (as in the hanging sculpture, not the portable telephone of course). It seems so ubiquitous and… obvious, that the thought of it being invented so recently is strange.

Here’s someone with a very long spoon actuating a couple of Calder’s mobiles:

And here’s one self-actuated:

“All Calders tend to make someone happy”:

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Mr Benn

I said before that there were only two of David McKee’s Mr Benn stories published as books. Well, we were at the Tate modern and we saw that this is not true: there were five: Mr Benn – Red KnightBig Game Benn123456789 BennBig Top Benn and Mr Benn – Gladiator.  The Tate is republishing them. Last year was the 40th anniversary of the creation of Mr Benn.

Though the video versions are fantastic, I love the alternate full colour and black and white illustrations of the books. There’s such detail in the black and white pages.

Big-Top Benn was written and illustrated by David McKee 30 years ago and is now made available again in its original format from Tate Publishing.© David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

In Big Top Benn, Mr Benn makes his way to the special costume shop as usual.

McKee was born in Devon in 1935. While studying fine arts at Plymouth Art College he started selling his drawings to the national press, submitting cartoons to Punch and TES. © David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

He sees a clown costume and puts it on.

“Mr Benn has been a part of my life since 1965,” says David McKee, “but it feels as though he’s always been there. Over the years public reaction to him has been very rewarding. The fact that Tate has published him in his original form is really the icing on the cake.”© David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

And off he goes in his clown car.

The hilly landscapes in Big-Top Benn resemble Widemoor in Dartmoor where David McKee grew up as a child.© David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

He meets a travelling circus. They come to a canyon that they can’t cross. Each of the circus acts wants to get across in their own way.

After publishing his first children’s book at the age of 29 David McKee went on to create several well-known characters including Mr Benn, King Rollo, Not Now Bernard and Elmer the Patchwork Elephant. © David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

Mr Benn suggests they work together. They do, they cross the gulf and the circus comes to town.

The first Mr Benn TV episode was aired by the BBC on 25th February 1971 and has since been repeated over 60 times, enjoying cult status with succeeding generations.© David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

David McKee has over 100 children’s books to his name and continues to write and draw at the age of 75.© David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

2010 is the 30th anniversary since Big-Top Benn was first published. Tate Publishing’s re-release of the book illustrates David McKee’s original painted and pen and ink drawings.© David McKee. From ‘Big-Top Benn’, Tate Publishing

Here it is on YouTube:

(The DVD is still amazingly cheap.)

The Mr Benn phenomenon seems to be growing, snowballing. Theatre group Tall Stories are performing a theatrical Mr Benn:

Mr Benn Red Knight was the first book.

Here it is on YouTube:

These two books are available:

– but I can’t find Big Game Benn. 

Have a look at this short audio slideshow of David McKee talking about Mr Benn and his other creations.

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Wabi Sabi

Another Ed Young book – and I am bowled over by it straight away.

It illustrates, and explains, something in Japanese culture that I kind of understood, but didn’t know had a name: wabi sabi. It was there in the Japanese illustrations of La Fontaine’s fables that I mentioned before. It’s there in haikus, in their quiet minimal holding of a moment in time, in nature. It’s there in the zen garden and the rough, chunky and irregular bowls of the tea ceremony.

Thumbnail for version as of 14:37, 24 January 2005

And this book illustrates wabi sabi through a story. A story about a cat called Wabi Sabi who wants to understand his name.

So, what is wabi sabi? Here is the author of the book, Mark Reibstein, and the illustrator, Ed Young, talking about the book:

Ed Young used collage for his illustrations. As he says in an interview here on How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator:

“It’s easier to change around, nothing is permanently pasted down,” Young said. “It’s flexible and alive. With other mediums you often get tight too quickly, then you get attached to it and it’s hard to change. Collage was something I used for sketching in the past. Now I use it to finish my work.”

“It’s really play. You don’t get down to make something firm until the [pieces] start to talk to you.  Then you listen.”

wabi sabi 1

wabi sabi 2

The cat’s tail twitching,

she watches her master, still

waiting in silence.

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The House Baba Built

Have a look at this BBC video of master illustrator Ed Young talking about making a book about his childhood.

I love every book by Ed Young I have, and they are all so different. He does a lot of traditional tales, among them The Lost Horse, Mouse Match, The Turkey Girl – a Zuni Cinderella, Seven Blind Mice.

This book, The House Baba Built, is autobiographical, and wonderfully so:

The shifting styles of illustration seem to reflect the focus and blur of memory – the moments remembered clearly, almost photographically, and others more of a blur, the knowledge of place, often our best.

Not only the book, but the family and their difficult but wonderful time during the war and Japanese occupation. The father couldn’t buy the land in the safe part of Shanghai, so he asked the landowner if he could build a house there which he would give to the landowner after 20 years. This was agreed, and not only Ed’s but two other families lived there during the war.

"The House Baba Built" (2011) centers around the home that Ed Young's father constructed in Shanghai leading into the World War II era. Young calls it the most complex book he's done.<br /><br /><br />

Japan, looking like a silkworm, and China like the mulberry leaf:

Ed’s grown up cousin Sony listened to Ed’s description of a cowboy, one Ed couldn’t get on paper, and – like magic – drew it just like he had seen it:

There is also this interview with Ed Young about his book –

“Well, I didn’t intend for such an elaborate book when I first started it.  It began with my first trip to China after 20 years of being cut off, when I visited my father’s house with my sister, who was brought up there too, and her daughter.  We got ourselves into the house by telling the owners that my father built it and giving them some evidence of what the house looked like inside.  Being inside the house again evoked a tremendous number of memories, and I put some of these into verse as a sort of reminder of what happened in the house when we were growing up.  So the book started with maybe 14-20 verses of different moments in the house and I was just going to show comic figures/caricatures of us doing different things as a fun book.  However, that didn’t go very well…”

What I like most of all is saving, keeping that time, that place, that childhood that is gone, and doing it with such care and artistry. How good to gather up and pass on some of our memories, to “husband nature’s riches from expense” as Shakespeare calls it. This is an excellent kind of history.

“I’ve noticed that many people have responded to this book by remembering the flavours of their own childhood homes: the smell, a certain kind of noise surrounding it, the colours and patterns, and all kinds of things that conjure up memories of their own childhoods.  I think this is universal because everyone grew up in a place, just that details might be forgotten until somebody else mentions something.   I had lived so long in the United States that I didn’t really think about all these things from the past.  Then, when my sister and I started talking about them, all of these memories started coming back, like measuring ourselves against a wall. All you need is to tickle your brain a bit and it all starts popping out.”

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watching Hugo

We went to the beach at St Martin de Brehal to try out rollerblades and do cartwheels.

Then we went to see Hugo at the cinema in Granville. It was dubbed in French, but that seemed OK as it’s set in Paris. I was just careful not to look at the lips too carefully.

It was great boxing day entertainment, though the 3D glasses didn’t do a lot for me. One of the things I liked about the film was the layered-ness of it. Behind the story is the real figure of Georges Méliès, who really did create wonderful silent films, disappear from public life to run a toy and sweets shop in Gare Montparnasse, and get rehabilitated in later life.

Then there’s the automaton. There were really automatons that could do such things, the Jaquet-Droz automata. These 18th century figures could really play music, write, draw pictures. I’m impressed that a company, Dick George Creatives, could recreate such a thing, and even get it to work:

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Ivor Cutler

I don’t remember much about my teachers or lessons at Paddington Green Primary School. Teaching, if my school was anything to go by, was nowhere near as good in those days – disorganised, unambitious, uninspiring. I don’t remember the names of my teachers, not even the glamourous one in my class picture:

(I’m the little boy with the red jumper and blond hair.)

But I do remember Ivor Cutler. You can see him here top left in this shot of the staff:

This picture (wrongly labelled) is from this film about Ivor Cutler. You can see the whole film here.

He used to take us in the school hall for movement and music. He would get us telling stories. He was surreal, sensitive, gently anarchic, always surprising. Once he said that he would give us packets of flower seeds if we would promise to sprinkle them between paving stones.


He also wrote some books for children. Like Meal One, with pictures by Helen Oxenbury:

One morning, Helbert woke with a plum in his mouth. He pulled it out and held it between his fingers for a good look: it was purple and juicy.

“Who put a plum in my mouth while I was asleep?” he wondered.

“Me!” shouted his mum, stretching her head out from under the bed with a great grin on her lips. “Hello, Mum!” he smiled.

Helbert stuck the plum back, chewed it and spat out the stone.

‘”Let’s plant it, Mum,” he said.

“Where?” she replied.

“Under the bed,” he laughed, sleepily, stretching his right arm.

So they both cruched under the bed and cut a hole in the floorboards…

At first the tree doesn’t grow, but together they address the plum stone:

O Stone! O Mighty Plum! Send forth roots and shoots. Grow with our love into a plum tree, with lots of plums!

When they go downstaires for meal one they gasp at what they see in the kitchen:

In the ceiling was a jaggy hole.

Throught the hole was a tree.

The roots of the tree hung over the table, spread with meal one.

There was a lound sucking gobbling noise.

But meal one is not lost. Helbert’s mother manages to set it to rights, by the simple expedient of turning the clock back an hour. Helbert again wakes up, this time with nothing in his mouth.


You can hear Helen Oxenbury talking about this collaboration here.

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The Reinvention of…

What was most remarkable about Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was the wonderful drawings that fill the book and tell much of the story.

Interesting to see how the film without the drawings will work…

Here’s Scorsese talking about making the film. It certainly has a good look about it…


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