Picture the scene: it's May 2020. Lockdown has erupted all over the world. The theatres are closed. Poets are frantically fighting to stay heard, the thriving open mic scene in tatters. Theatres began dishing out digital commissions like no one's business. Performers making work in mediums they've only previously looked at in horror and awe, and me, sat alone in a dark room feeling disparate at the desperate realisation that finger puppetry isn't the kind of digital theatre that people were hungry for after all.
From this chaos so much innovation came. Zoom slams. Zoom theatre. Invitations to improv musicals zooming out of my notifications. It was AMAZING to witness the hundreds of new ideas pouring out of an arts industry eager to adapt. And the zoom poetry was gorgeous. Suddenly the various pockets of incredible poetry all over the world were connecting. New Zealand, New York, Toronto, Norwich even. All different time zones and so many wonderful connections and different voices. It was really beautiful and such a healing balm to the fear of closing live events for a year or more.
I was enjoying all of this but as great zoom poetry was, I really yearned to be in a venue again, to feel the energy of a crowd, and the seed of an idea began to sprout. I am neurodivergent in various ways and as much as I love poetry I find it hard to focus at poetry events, but I love to draw and I found out a few years ago that if I draw while listening to the poetry, the drawing calms my frantic mind leaving me free to absorb the words more easily.
So I began drawing poets, and as the years went by I got better and better. Last year I got an iPad and then, as an avid animator, I started animating poets too. My task: to capture the essence and feel of the poet and their poems, but the rule I gave myself is that you're only allowed the time it takes them to perform their set. This means that sometimes I only had three minutes to capture a poet and had to be efficient and bold with my choices. I've had so much fun with this and couldn't recommend it more. Below is a clip of Shruti Chauhan at Funkenteleky in Birmingham.
Back to May 2020: I'd made a couple of short animated film projects before, and I animated a lot for the projection mapping in my theatre shows but I'd never made anything longer than 10 minutes, and when HOME and Harrogate theatre got in touch, offering a small commission along with the freedom to create anything I wanted, I knew the wild idea I wanted to breathe into existence: an Animated Poetry Slam with 6 poets, three judges, and the simple, rough, hand drawn style that matched the doodles I so often made at poetry gigs around the UK.
I put a call out and got so many wonderful poets applying. It was such a joy and a privilege to pick the six. I then set about storyboarding and animating their poems, as well as the in between sections of me hosting the show.
It was a monumental task and I learned a huge amount making it. It's 25 minutes long and I somehow managed to get it done in three weeks of pretty much constant 16 hour days working on the last day for a literal and very unhealthy 24 hours straight. It was ridiculous to attempt, but I am so proud of it and glad I managed to make this happen. For perspective, one minute of animation will usually take anywhere between a week and a month, depending on the quality, and though there are a lot of tricks to animation, the basic process I adopt is frame by frame, where you draw 12 pictures for every second.
In theory that means you're making 720 images a minute but there are lots of techniques for reusing images and animations, so in reality I ended up making around 1600 images for this project. It took 3 days to storyboard it, 10 days to draw the art in Procreate, 1 day to upload the images, organise them neatly and import them into after effects and then 7 days to stitch it all together. So making 1600 images in 10 days means that in a 16 hour day I was drawing a new frame of animation, on average, every 10 minutes. In reality it was more like sometimes spending an hour making a particular image really good, and then another hour animating a new frame every few seconds. I based the location on the Genesis Cinema, home to one of my favourite London nights, the Genesis Slam. Instead of synchronising the lip movements exactly to the words being said, which would have taken too long, I had 12 mouth shapes and I set it to loop through them in a random order. I was surprised to find it's actually not too bad like that. It's great the things you learn and the solutions you find when you challenge yourself like this.
It's now almost a year later (two days ago was the anniversary of the theatres closing their doors). So much has happened in this past year, politically, emotionally, personally, in theatres and on the world's stage. And that animation slam was a springboard for me, to find a lifeline - a way of survival independent of theatre, and a way to use my skills to bring positivity and change through art online. Since then I've been lucky enough to work with the Young Vic, Milk Presents, 1623, and a host of amazing performers and artists. I also took 12 weeks out over the summer to take School Of Motion's amazing Animation Bootcamp, which focuses on the fundamentals of animation for motion design work. I'm now animating full time, fitting in occasional acting work, looking forward to touring my shows again later this year, and making the first episode of a series of monthly YouTube animations to help challenge the rise of transphobia in the UK. The Animation Slam was enjoyed by many on the HOME website until 2021 and is now available for free on YouTube here: