Wonderland – The Reign of King Gammelyn

The Fall of King Gammelyn‘The Fall of Gammelyn’ The Puppetry of Fools‘The Puppetry of Fools’

The Thousand Empty Days of a Frozen Heart ‘The Thousand Empty Days of a Frozen Heart’
A Floral Birth‘A Floral Birth’ The Coronation of Gammelyn

‘The Coronation of Gammelyn’

The mini series of King Gammelyn took a total of four months to produce. It was photographed from the Autumn of 2011, through the snow of winter, to the first buds of Spring in 2012.

The whole concept and creation of Gammelyn has been a huge challenge and one that truly took me out of my comfort zone. It was the first time I have ever introduced a male role to the Wonderland series and the first time I have used two models to depict the life span of one character (old and young.) It was also the first time I have stretched an idea across a number of seasons, constantly developing the costume throughout the process to evolve with the story. I even had to shoot the order of the pictures in reverse, so I could add more flowers to the outfit between each stage, finishing with the king’s opening scene ‘A Floral Birth’.  So it has been a huge learning curve to say the least, but now it is over I am so very glad it happened.

The reason I put myself through this unexpected journey was all down to one rather remarkable man Tim Andrews. Tim wrote to me almost two years ago in June 2010, he was a complete stranger and wanted to know if I would consider taking his picture. My initial reaction was I had no time and was up to my neck in Wonderland, but as I read further into his email he hooked me with his story. You may already recognise Tim’s name, as over the last few years he has been photographed by many well known photographers. In fact, the total number is now up to 180, and Tim and his project ‘Over The Hill’ has been featured many times in the national press, including this BBC’s culture show

The thing about Tim is that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, and as a result had to leave his job as a lawyer in the city. Some people may have seen this as a time to retreat and take life more gently, but instead what followed for Tim has been an extraordinary roller coaster of possibility. Tim decided to make life an adventure and has spent the last few years handing himself over to artists to ‘do what they wish’ with him, to be captured nude, clothed, indoors, outdoors, strong, vulnerable, you name it, it has been done.  He has been quoted as saying he has ‘never been happier’ in the sense that he now has complete freedom to do whatever he wishes. He has embraced this artistic journey and for me is someone we could all learn a thing or two from. So here was a challenge and I was intrigued, I admired Tim for his spirit and energy and wanted to be involved. However, the only way I could find time to shoot him was to make Tim a part of Wonderland, and that meant creating a very special character, and waiting over 15 months for the right point in the series.

From the offset I already knew there could only be one possible reason to introduce Tim into the project, and that was to give Wonderland a King. It was going to be tricky seeing as the series was awash with beautiful girls, flowers and butterflies. It would be a fine line creating a suitable male who could rule these elements, without looking like a pantomime prince. I wanted to develop an idea that gave the character integrity, and at the same time commented on Tim’s real life situation in an underlying way. I had over a year to think about this idea, as I wanted the King to enter in the later stages of the series, at the point where the White Queen and her key had arrived. I saw his character as someone who ruled the natural forces in Wonderland, but was also a part of it. Half human, born from the very elements that he controlled.As I have previously mentioned in this diary I love the dark twists in fairytales, how vanity can be the downfall of a character, or how the wish to become human often ends in sadness. So the framework of an imagined life began – a young king, half born from the flowers who bargained his life away to become flesh and blood, ending in tragedy. Ultimately I decided the costume had to be made almost entirely from flowers, but all of them had to be uniform in colour and tone as it was not about their individual beauty, they were to be very fabric of the Kings body. I cannot even begin to guess how many flowers I used for the costume but it was probably thousands, and every single one had to be individually painted 3 different shades of black, blue and white to create depth and highlight. The colours and loose appearance of the King once again came from the illustrations of my favourite childhood storybook ‘Moonlight and Fairyland’ with its palette of midnight blues, purples and lilacs. Pauline Martins illustrations made such an impression on me when I was young, that they are still the colours I always associate with magic and mystery and continue to reign over so much of this series.

The costume

 

and the props ……….

Making The Costume

The King’s costume was one of the most complicated I have made to date, covered in hand beading, embroidery, dyed vintage fabric pieces and of course the hand painted silk flowers. It was then varnished into hard sculptural shapes and looked absolutely extraordinary when I finally put it all together on the mannequin.

Making the Kings skirt took the longest – I had to hand paint the design, over dye the fabric to give it a washed out appearance, fuse the silk to canvas, make the drawstring waist, decorate it with antique bells and attach the fake flowers to the under-layer.

The crown took 8 solid days to make and was made up of hundreds of individual petals which were graded in colour and size, hand stitched and glued into place, and finally sealed with enamel.

Elbie worked up the wig for Tim’s shoot and then I added levels of flowers between pictures for the young king

PROPS

The various scenes brought many new challenges for me, including learning how to use resin. After discovering you simply cannot buy false icicles that look remotely convincing anywhere, I faced the fact I would have to make my own. It took 3 weeks and a lot of mistakes, but in the end I managed to make icicles, sheet ice, and even crushed ice for the snow scene. I was however faced with the fact I need far larger props to help create the atmosphere I was looking for. So after endless searching I finally found a special effects scenery maker who could produce huge sheets of plastic icicles at a price I could just about afford. They were incredibly basic, just vac-packed clear plastic, but after I had cut then out and painted them, the effect was perfect for the shoot.

Finished painted scenery

Shoot Day 1

Once the costume and props were all finished, the first shoot was set for the 26thof September 2011.Tim arrived at my house in the morning and it was the first time I had met him in person. I suppose I had been so focused on creating the character and the costume, that I had never actually taken the time to consider the matter of Tim’s condition.  My plans were not exactly easy for him, one involved digging him into the side of a deep pit in the woods, and the other was to tie him to a giant puppet cross piece, hung from a tree. When I showed Tim the costume I noticed him shaking and I began to worry. I think at this point both of us found ourselves in a situation where we could have backed down and tried to simplify the concepts, but in the end we just went for it with no compromises. This is something I later realized was important for my relationship with Tim, the fact I didn’t partonise him over his Parkinson’s and that the shoot made no allowances made it a challenge, which was something I think he relished embracing.

The first scene was the King’s close up ‘The Fall of Gammelyn’. I had discovered a deep pit in my local woods that had fine tree roots dangling through the soil along its edge. I wanted to embed and tangle Tim into them – the idea of him living an underworld existence just beneath the surface really appealed to me, and echoed the character’s connection with being born from the land. Tim was incredibly patient while I threaded the roots through his wig, shook dirt over his clothes and sprayed highlights of lilac over them to bring out a surreal contrast.  After much fiddling, dust and spiders, we were ready. I talked to Tim about how his half of the character’s life span was one of tragedy, steeped in regret and sadness. I needed the picture to be emotional and taken seriously even though he was in a such a bizarre costume half buried into the earth.
When the area was clear and Tim was comfortable, I looked through the viewfinder to find myself experiencing one of those moments I have so often described in the past, when the real world melts away and I utterly believe in the character before me. The sadness in Tim’s eyes exaggerated by the make-up wasn’t something I was prepared for, chills ran down my spine and my heart felt heavy, he was without doubt my vision of the King. It was just at this point that the sun broke through the gloom casting a shadow that ran from Tim’s eye in a perfect dark streak down his cheek. It was the strangest coincidence as earlier I had considered asking Elbie to paint a tear on Tim’s face, but worried it would look too contrived. Yet now, the effect of this unexpected shadow was far more haunting and it sealed the atmosphere in an instant

The second scene was our larger set up which portrayed the King as broken puppet. To this day I have never spoken to Tim about my reason for doing this because I didn’t want him to approach the idea with any preconceptions. It was intended as a mixture of his reality, and the life of the character together. The cross piece was a metaphor for Tim’s Parkinson’s disease and the way it will sometimes take control of his body no matter how strong his will is. Whilst in the Wonderland story it was a dark play on the downfall of his character becoming fully human, that despite his transition, the king would now grow old yet still remain controlled by the trees from which he was born.
At first I expected the scene to be in colour, and brushed lilac powder over the branches and vines, but in the end it felt more final that the image was made sepia and dull and like an old photograph. Tim had coped so well throughout a tiring day, but I had spent too long on his portrait and setting up the crosspiece had taken much longer than expected. The light was now fading and I could see he was feeling the pressure and unfortunately that was when his tremors really took hold for the first time. It was almost all too poignant that this had happened just at the very moment Tim had been tied to the crosspiece. I could see how incensed he was at being unable to stop the effects, and it was the first time I fully appreciated the magnitude of coping with the disease. I was desperate for him to not worry and just know honoured I felt that he had approached me to be part of his project. I called out from behind the camera for him to not worry and take as long as he needed, but I could sense his seething frustration at not being able to finish the job. The pressure was mounting as the sun began to fade and the set grew cold but finally with one last desperate attempt we managed to just scrape the final picture before the light was completely gone.
Later that evening when we were home and Tim was preparing to leave, we talked about what had happened. I asked him how he managed to overcome his shaking and he said he’d imagined my mother had been sitting there beside him, telling him it would be alright and to pull himself together. He said while I had been looking at him concerned for his welfare, he had equally been looking back at me thinking about how important the picture was because of my mother and sad he was for my loss. I suppose both of us had been through some dreadful things in the last few years and I was deeply touched by what he had said.  My only real regret about the day was that I didn’t have any time to get to know Tim better. I wish we’d had much longer to talk and now stay in touch via email, and I am slowly learning backwards about all the wonderful things he has done. Sometimes it never ceases to amaze me the people Wonderland has brought into my life and Tim is certainly no exception.

Shoot Day 2

Now that Tim’s section was shot, we moved backwards to the first half of the story and the young King Gammelyn, which was played by my long suffering assistant Adam Richardson. I wanted to make sure that his part remained relatively anonymous and did not take anything away from the fact the role was created for Tim. I saw his character as a silent soul, with eyes closed and no emotion. It was this inner emptiness and lack of humanity that fuelled his desire to become flesh and blood. As all the scenes were created in reverse our first shoot was in fact his characters last – ’The Thousand Empty Days of a Frozen Heart’ which was designed to demonstrate the emptiness of young Gammelyn’s life. The weather was a metaphor for his loneliness, his pose was deliberately like a statue in order to amplify a sense of the world moving and changing around him, while he forever remained the same. The moral being, without the ability to feel love, there was no point to his existence.

All I will say about this picture is that despite how beautiful and haunting I find the final image, the actual shoot was one of the worst I had encountered in months and it left me physically shaking with exhaustion. I had been obsessed with shooting the King in the snow and had even gone to the lengths of making giant icicle scenery in case I had to build an entire artificial set. I had worked around the clock for days making props in my garden in freezing temperatures, watching the weather report like a hawk, only for the snow to arrive when I simply wasn’t ready. Within 2 days everything had melted and I was devastated I had missed my chance. I sulked for days until the news announced that the snow would briefly return at the end of the week and so I fixed the date and crossed my fingers.
The day began with a list of disasters starting with the fact that Elbie couldn’t come and I would have to attempt Adam’s make-up myself. I was let down by two assistants and there were only 3 of us left to carry everything to the location. The promise of snow had been correct, but the amount was woeful and to my absolute horror it was already melting by the time we left the house at 11am. Luckily the location was in permanent shade so it held on to what was left better than most areas, but we still had to bale extra buckets of snow on to the set, which was back breaking and took far too long. The day was passing so quickly and I really struggled to fix the plastic scenery in place. It was basically chaos and there would be no second chances as the forecast was set to get warmer, and this one brief day of snow was all I had. The only blessing we received was that it took so long to set everything up, that as 3pm arrived and the sun hung low in the sky, our little set suddenly trapped the low golden light and a gentle magic filtered through the trees. I managed to grasp a few moments of calm to take pictures whilst we were blessed with gentle flurries of snow, until dusk stretched to darkness and the scenery drooped in it’s piles of melting snow. I had taken just 75 pictures and  walked away feeling numb and physically sick. I had no idea if I had any of the shots had been good enough and that night as I ran the pictures through on my laptop to my absolute relief there were two two that were good enough. It was the closest to disaster I had been in a long time, but somehow, someway, we had got through it.

Shoot Day 3

Finally at long last Spring arrived and in March we shot what I describe as the ‘birth’ of Gammelyn. Obviously not in a literal sense but it was the moment King Gammelyn enters the series born from the flowers on his overgrown throne. By now the costume had been pushed to its absolute limit with all the flowers, it was so solid Adam could barely turn his head once the wig and crown were in place. I had created the throne from a huge collection of tree roots I had cut from a nearby wood, where a storm had left endless trees unearthed. I spent weeks painting and nailing the pieces together to create a frame that would lock together on location over a base chair. It was so simple and effective, and the shoot for once was a perfect clear day, with no problems at all. There were just a handful of us, surrounded by birdsong deep in the woods. We teased Adam as Elbie painted his lips shades of purple and pink and brushed glitter across his eyes, and the final shot was easy and relaxed, in complete contrast to misery of the snow a few months earlier. So I end this entry with a long sigh of relief, I feel satisfied I have accomplished what I set out to do, I covered all seasons and brought a credible male character into the series, but I can also safely say that I never, ever, want to see another artificial flower as long as I live!

Adam getting his make-up done, and below building the throne

(Above) setting up for the final picture, and below Laura and Elbie with Adam. I absolutely love these pictures so much, it was great fun to create such a bizarre picture without any pressure.