I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to be an artist in residence for a year in the animation department at the Edinburgh College of Art. This meant I had a studio space, shared with the Master’s students, and that I could use most of the facilities at the University and ask staff from different disciplines for guidance.
It meant that I had a reason and time to dedicate to a personal project: a music video, of course! Over the summer I had been reading about the Firth of Forth and sea birds and waders. I had also been reading The Peregrine by J.A. Baker and Escape from Bubbleworld by Keith Skene. The author of this last book had come to speak to us in one of our classes at the Botanic gardens in Dundee two years before, and had handed us a copy each. I will write down the inscription he wrote for me when I asked, just because it’s proper nice: “light up the world and shine with all the others”.
When the residency started mid September this was my mental background. I wanted to keep learning about the Forth estuary and about birds so I kept doing research and decided to use this on a video for a song. I chose a lullaby I had written a long time ago, there was no connection to the theme of the music video, I simply chose to make a video for it because I thought it was one of my nicest songs.
September – December 2017
I spent the first months of the residency reading and taking notes intensively although research went on throughout the year. I had some sketchbooks to get drawing but I can’t bring myself to doodle in them, all I end up doing is writing. This is what they look like:
(I dedicated most of the time these first months to another side project about perfectly usable objects going into landfill, for which I had a few meetings with people very keen to help, and I had got some ideas together but unfortunately I couldn’t get any funding to go ahead with it and I paused this project to focus on the music video and commissioned work instead.)
The first months were also spent going out and filming birds for footage and inspiration. Although I took buses to explore different areas of the Forth, Levenhal Links in Musselburgh became my favourite spot to spend time in. Dave Allan, an expert ornithologist who had taken me there, said “put your camera down and observe, I want you to understand the place”. The light was always very different and each time the place had something new to see.
I spent some time in the printmaking department working on collagraph prints inspired by my outings. Although at one point I thought that the the style of the prints was not really suitable for the video for the lullaby I was motivated to keep printing because the artists in residence from the different departments had an exhibition on at the Tent gallery in ECA in February 2018 and I had been so focused on research I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to display. This was very lucky because those prints ended informing the animation quite a lot after all. These same prints have also been part of the Shoreline exhibition at the Botanic gardens in Edinburgh later in the year and will be there until the 28 October.
January was a month dedicated to a commissioned project. I still hadn’t found a story to make sense of all the research done for the lullaby. I was looking for images of birds at dusk or night, and although I was very aware that this was not a good idea, I didn’t know how else to make sense of the birds story and the lullaby which talked about the “beautiful colours of the night”… what was in my mind when I’d written that? who could know…
I started doing some research for this commission over Christmas time. Two animations would open and close a puppet show by a theatre company based in Edinburgh in collaboration with a Jordanian creative company. The animation was about the star Sirius and the dog constellation. Sirius was a very playful, energetic star and it would jump out of the group and the rest of the constellation would turn into a dog and chase it. It was a really great project to work on, but more than that, it was more related to the lyrics on the lullaby than all the research and ideas I had had so far. Then I thought… birds do fly…. birds do migrate…. some use the stars as navigation guides.
Something else that was incredibly inspiring when I went to see the representation of Little Light, was that inside the bedouin tent where it happened, some of the story was told with a projector lamp… something you would use at night for a young child, something to go with lulling music… I asked Charlie Macintyire, a member of the production team and who had made the lamp, if he would show me how to make one and he did.
And that lead to the next chapter.
At some point before Christmas I had started making a godwit puppet and had put it on hold. I still didn’t know what the overall style was going to be or what exactly I was going to do with the puppet. All I knew is that one thing leads to another so I was working with the hope that everything would lead to a good place, a clear idea, at some point soon.
February was dedicated to other projects but I went back to working on the puppet.
In March I slowly started getting ready to make the projector lamp. This took ages as I had never experimented with electricity before and it took me a while to get the bits and pieces together and actually start making it. Painting it was something that again took ages and I suppose my subconscious kept delaying this process because I still didn’t know what the backgrounds I intended to paint over it were or how it was going to be used within the animation. When I finally started making it it was an incredibly interesting and satisfying project, and I wondered what had taken me so long – Fun fact: I started making it on the day of my birthday in… May! March and April were strange months as I had moved out of a flat and was staying at my granny’s empty flat until I found somewhere else to stay. Not the most productive of months! But even then there was always something going on, of course. It was snowy outside and the mental background was Nan Shepard’s book The Living Mountain and research was again heavy, concentrating on black-tailed godwits.
I painted it and realised there and then I had made a lamp with a size that could illuminate the chambers of a castle (or a big bedouin tent). The shapes were distorted at a close distance and I ended up using the colours and the light as textures to work on the backgrounds digitally.
By the end of May I had decided what kind of backgrounds to use in the film: some landscapes from Iceland, breeding ground of the subspecies Islandica of black-tailed godwit, where they would initially appear, and other landscapes from places where I had based my research in Scotland, a passing place for some, although in this music video and for the sake of telling a story in three minutes, Scotland appears as their wintering ground. The First animatic happened on the 6th of June, the ideas had finally come together and this was just the layout for me to get a sense of timing with the music for each sequence and basically make things up as I went, based on all the things or most of the things I wanted portray.
A second animatic, on the 5th July, once the lamp had finally been painted (hallelujah) and tested and its projections photographed, and the godwit puppet was finished and also photographed. This second animatic was made with the intention of showing it to the animators I was hoping to collaborate with.
June 2018. Birds and stars – After reading about bird migration and what it is understood about it to familiarise myself with the minds of these little creatures, it was still a mystery how exactly they travel small and wide distances to land on specific spots. How do they know their way? How do they know when the moment has come to take off? Different bird species use different systems. Some use their senses over the Earth’s magnetic fields, some use the stars, the sun, to position themselves, some use their sense of smell apparently and maybe things we don’t quite understand. They can be influenced by the tides and wind and the moon… Through the university I got in touch with Matjaz Vidmar, from the UK Space and Innovation program, who is based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and who was keen to help me get some ideas together about stars, their symbology and physics. We met on the 15th June and he enlightened me about constellations and the things that stars are made of as we visited the dome to have a look at the telescope. Amongst other links he recommended using Stellarium (an astronomy software), and I enjoyed seeing in “real time” how the stars would move, spot on for my projector lamp kind of movements. They already move in a circle around the Northern star from our point of view. Sweet. What I was also very thankful to the heavens for was that when looking towards the north the constellations don’t change that much in the different seasons, so I didn’t take the time I didn’t really have to make two different starry skies for autumn and spring which had been my intention initially.
I asked the master’s students who I shared the studio for a year with to collaborate with me for two reasons. The first is that I know about the magic of collaboration and the surprises that can come out of it, mostly due to playing music with other people. The second is that I liked them and admired their work and I wanted to have a little bit of them in my film for posterity, and it really made it a much more interesting and fun project to work on once they were on board. (click on their names to check out their work)
Jennifer Berglund – Eurasian wigeons. I sent Jen and Jorge a list of birds to choose from with some footage and links for inspiration. Jen liked these little guys.
Jorge Gonzalez Miksi – Golden plovers and typography. Jorge chose the plovers and offered help with the typography. It wasn’t until the final days of editing when I realised that help with the credit design would be extremely helpful and Jorge did the title and the end credits design, which was really beautiful and very much in his style.
Lauren McCredie – Murmurations, dog and cattle. When I showed Lauren the animatic on the 16th July, I suggested she could maybe do the murmurations, or the pug or the cows in the distance. When she said she was keen to do the three things I could have done a little dance for joy. I was so short for time that what had been a suggestion to adding her touch to the film turned out to be a great deal of help as well.
Hlin Davisdottir – godwit chicks walking. Hlin had been a tutor in the animation department when I was a student in Dundee. I bumped into her at the Edinburgh College of Art while thinking about the film and asked if she would like to collaborate. She very kindly said yes and this is the rest of the story:
Amy Bruning – Knots. Amy had been a 4th year animation student during my time in the department, she had recently graduated and we shared a studio for some days during the summer when the rest of the animation space was very, very quiet. I wondered if she would like to draw a bird for my film and she said she would, how cool was that.
Scott Gemmell – North star, magnetic fields and compass. After my second meeting with Matjaz Vidmar at a later stage with the animation, to talk about possible formulas to use to depict how complex and mysterious an event a migration is, we agreed to simplify it to the star constellations for guidance, a compass and formulas for the magnetic fields. After this I realised I would have to spend some hours doing further research about magnetic fields and I needed that time to animate everything else. I thought about Scott, a former classmate from the animation degree. We had worked together on an outer space animation and I thought this could be second nature to him. I wrote on very short notice and asked if he would help me out, and he said…
Although I had been working on the film throughout the year, it wasn’t until July that the intensive film-making started. With all the ideas set into place, the three different mediums I had been working on – printmaking, light projections and the puppet – started coming together in the design. I looked for quick ways to animate for some scenes and for others I invested a great deal of time. Although I could have highly improved the animation by working on it for another six months, I had chosen to finish it by the end of August when my year long residency ended. I put everything together while still working on parts of scenes and it wasn’t until the last day working on the film that I decided on an end: the godwit chicks coming out into a new world with wonder and starry eyes.
The song – Waders’ lullaby was written about 17 years ago and was originally called Moon Time. I met Danjeli Schembri, a talented musician, composer and software engineer from Malta, through some friends while putting the exhibition of the prints up at ECA in February 2018, and he agreed to help me record the song. He recorded the original draft, with me singing and playing the guitar, and added some electronic beats and different keyboard tracks with effects and distortion and it was great fun to listen to all these intricate midi produced sounds and hear how the song was enhanced and transformed. Listening back to it I thought it called out for a clarsach and so I called out for a harp player and got in touch with Fiona Rutherford who had been recommended to me by a friend. We met and rehearsed the song together once and I told her a bit about the music video and what my intentions were with it, and I sent her some images of godwits for inspiration. We met at the university’s recording studios in Alison House after that and Roderick Buchanan, the technician there, helped me set up for the clarsach recording. Before this I had recorded the voice and guitar again to have a more simple track of the song as a base. The song then called for a real bass guitar player and Fiona got me in touch with Lawrie MacMillan, who came all the way from Fife to Edinburgh just to add the bass line for this simple lullaby, the day after coming back from playing a big concert in Poland. Danjeli and I met once again to do another mix of the song with the new tracks, using some of the sounds he had added to it initially but keeping it more simple. The final touch, recorded on the 23rd July, were the beautiful backing vocals by Susan McAndrew, who had come all the way from Spain to visit her sister who was very busy trying to finish an animation, and yet managed to also be a fantastic hostess. After having done a very quick final mix, on the 3rd of August Roderick Buchanan did the mastering and I had a brand new music track all ready and shiny to add to the animation. This, ladies and gentlemen, is great motivation.
A heartfelt thank you for watching Waders’ lullaby and for reading this.
For all the people who made this happen with me.