or Who Cut up My Newspaper into Scary Things
It’s weird art time again, so the burning questions of the day are quite obvious: Who was Etienne de Silhouette? What has he to do with Hans Christian Andersen, and why are we interviewing those excellent scary film-makers Mansfield Dark at the same time?
I’d better start at the beginning. Old Etienne de Silhouette was an 18th century finance manager in France. Being a bit of a cheapskate, things done as inexpensively as possible became known as a la silhouette. And because cutting little profiles and shapes out of paper was also inexpensive, they became known as etiennettes. No, I’m lying again. Obviously they were called silhouettes.
Scherenschnitte, the German art of scissor cutting, was an accomplishment of the 19th century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. The 1952 film with Danny Kaye is – cough – not about the real Andersen. He was a rather odd fellow who had hopeless, interminably long love affairs with men and women, mostly unconsummated, and drove Dickens mad after overstaying his welcome in London. In between writing books, poems and fairy tales, Anderson hacked away producing cut-outs and… silhouettes (see?).
We can’t recommend de Silhouette book-keeping ledgers as a good read, but we did enjoy Tiina Nunnally‘s 2005 translation of the fairy tales. This collection also includes some of Andersen’s later and darker tales, plus a detailed biography and many examples of his paper-cutting.
But this is greydogtales, obsessed with hounds, and so our favourite Andersen tale is The Tinderbox, with the three dogs who have eyes as big as tea cups, then mill wheels, then round towers. We have long meant to do a feature on the darkness of early fairy tales – as a quick example, we should point out that even in Andersen’s story, the soldier is about to be hanged when he summons the three dogs, who help him against the judge and council by “flinging them high into the air so they fell back down and were crushed to bits.” Not a happy ending for some.
Rather curiously, while picking out the illo for this bit, we found out that John Coulthart, an artist we’ll be featuring later in our weird art run, also wrote a piece on The Tinderbox some time ago, with some more classic illustrations:
Which leads us to Mansfield Dark, with their silhouette animation and puppetry films. Richard and Daniel Mansfield are two guys who produce a wide range of short films, from out-and-out horror, through creepy fairytales and onwards into mad live-action spoofs.
Rather than a long-winded greydogtales commentary, we are delighted to have an exclusive interview with Richard Mansfield.
greydog: Welcome! We were particularly keen to have your participation in our weird art series because of your unusual range of films, which may not be familiar to many of our listeners.
richard: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure!
greydog: The obvious connection to our abiding interest in classic horror is your recent adaptation of Count Magnus. Tell us something about the reason for choosing that particular M R James story.
richard: I had adapted two classic ghost stories into shadow films and I always had my eye on an M R James adaptation. I got in touch with the M R James Appreciation Society on Facebook and asked what story they would like to see adapted and Count Magnus was top of the list. It wasn’t a story I was familiar with so it was great to get to know it better and see the potential for an engaging film. All of the Count’s backstory is fantastic and lends itself perfectly to shadows and the phantasmagorical effects that are possible with silhouettes.
greydog: We would have to describe your range as eclectic, given your use of live-action madness, romance, puppetry and animation. Was this deliberately planned to produce a diverse portfolio, or do you just wake up and go for whatever springs to mind?
richard: I’ve had no great plan in mind other than to be free to make whatever I feel like. A lot of my early work was about teaching myself how to make films. I’ve never wanted to limit myself to one particular thing but I can see themes that have been present in my work since the beginning. I saw Daniel making his live-action films and I wanted to do it myself and I made ‘The Mothman Curse’. I’ve recently started making shadow films again and an E F Benson cartoon ghost story animated on an iPad. It’s been lovely to return to making shorts after a few years of features.
greydog: We know that Mansfield Dark is primarily a two-man show. Is the work divided equally between you as it comes, or does each of you have a specific creative or production role?
richard: Daniel and I both share a love of film and TV. We’ve both made numerous short and feature films but we rarely collaborate. We work better that way. Ultimately one of us is in charge on our own films and the other will help out. Daniel has filmed all his features as have I with mine. Daniel has done voiceover work on my shadow films as well as puppeteering. I’ve filled in a couple of minor live-action roles in a few of his films too and we’ve both made the sandwiches and been each other’s runners! Daniel is currently working on a photography project.
greydog: Silhouette animation seems to have started around the start of the last century, but it’s not common nowadays. We’d love to know what inspired you to revive this unusual approach.
richard: I had a small shadow theatre with a couple of friends and we did cabaret shows, we then ended up collaborating with band Little Sparta on a music and shadows project that we managed to get some development funding for. I really realised the scope that the shadows had. In the past I had had to build all the 3D scenery and props which was very time consuming and took up a lot of space. With shadows you can create whole worlds and sets and it’s all cut out of card. The effort goes a lot further with silhouettes and I’ve had a lot of great feedback from audiences. There’s something very interesting about the use of light and dark. We all have a shadow and I think we’re hard-wired to see the hidden detail in the shadows.
greydog: Oddly enough, Mansfield Brewery produces a Mansfield Dark Ale. It’s described as slightly sweet, but with a touch of bitterness at the finish. What sort of flavour and finish would you say your work has?
richard: I’ll have to try it. There is a sweetness to some of my work but always with a touch of darkness or a splash of blood. I love ghost stories and the mystery of other worlds that we could come across at any point. All my live-action films have been about hauntings and strange figures glimpsed or dreamt about. Oh and death.
greydog: Which is where we came in, but whilst you’re here, we also wanted to ask you if your LGBT work is political, personal or just for fun.
richard: 2013 was the year Daniel and I both decided to make our LGBT films. I made period-drama romance horror ‘The Secret Path’ and Daniel made erotic vampire thriller ‘Drink Me’. I think we were both feeling frustrated with gay cinema. There seemed to be very few releases with something different to say. Personally I wanted to make a film where the couple were secure and happy with themselves. I wanted to show a snap-shot in the lives of two men that had found a place to be themselves. It almost feels like found footage and both actors were fearless and passionate about bringing the characters to life. Lots of gay cinema deals with self-loathing or homophobia but I wanted any negative influence to be external and I love genre films. With ‘Drink Me’ Daniel looked at an affluent middle-class couple torn apart by a desire for the dangerous. There can be expectations to aspire to be heteronormative and ‘Drink Me’ is satirising that. It questions whether we really want to follow society’s norms or forge our own path. I’d love to see more gay horror, sci-fi and thrillers but there is virtually no support to filmmakers. You pretty much have to self/crowd fund and make it off your own back and hope a distributor will take it on. This is why we’ve never spent more than we could afford to lose. Things are changing rapidly and we’re experimenting with different forms of self-distribution. We both had a lot of fun making both films and The Secret Path was our first film to get a commercial release with a distributor so it’s been a real eye opener from start to finish.
greydog: And finally, we have to ask about the Jane Austen connection. We’re great fans of hers here. Is the name of your company just a rather neat pun, or does it reflect an actual interest in Austen?
richard: I’ve probably enjoyed film adaptations of her work more than I’ve read it but her influence is there in the period dramas. It’s a pun really, rolls off the tongue easily and sounds familiar. Plus it’s a perfect name for our output of films and art.
greydog: Thank you, Richard Mansfield. Coming out next from Mansfield Dark is Daniel’s spoof-comedy ‘Showgirls: London Calling’ Daniel’s love letter to the camp classic ‘Showgirls‘ and Richard’s horror feature ‘Video Killer’ about a demon stalking his victims through a series of haunted VHS tapes. In production is an animated adaptation of E F Benson’s ‘The Room in the Tower’ and a new M R James shadow film ‘The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance’. To find out more about Richard and Daniel’s work, click here:
And if you fancy grabbing a copy of their Count Magnus film, click here:
Do remember, dear listeners, that greydogtales does not recommend running with scissors, especially if you’re cutting out silhouettes at the same time…