something very far away
Something Very Far Away was a co-creation with me and Mark Arends, an actor I met working on Beauty and the Beast at the National Theatre. 

During rehearsals for Beauty and the Beast Mark told me the outline of a story he was interested in trying to make into a theatre show and I was keen to develop the live-animation style of puppetry I had already explored with some shorter pieces, like Nosferatu & Me, Cabin Doors to Manual, and Walter Knitty.  I had used a single camera to make all of these shows and I thought it would be interesting to experiment with a multi-camera process for a longer narrative, with live editing.
 
We developed the story at the National Theatre Studio over a few months and the show opened at the Unicorn Theatre in London, June 2012.

Here are some of my storyboards and design sketches, scroll down for photos and some videos.   
These are some initial storyboards, scene-by-scene - partly made to work out how to tell the story without words, but also to develop how colour could be used through the show.   I probably did more storyboards and design drawings than I usually would for this show - partly because if I'm working with a larger team of people there is usually less opportunity to improvise, so the story has to be more structured from the beginning - but also because the images created on stage had to tell the whole story clearly, we couldn't use words to explain anything complicated, so the story relies on being a sequence of moving pictures.
 

  (click to enlarge)

Here are some larger storyboard paintings, to structure the pace of key elements in the story and balance the composition between scene changes.  
We were trying to tell the story without any words being spoken, so I found it useful to keep drawing the story out as a sequence of pictures as a way to discuss the story with the other people working on the show.
(click to enlarge)
design sketches and paintings, working out staging, puppet mechanisms and other misc. designs (including various abandoned ideas) . . . .

here are some photographs of the design and making, and production process (click to enlarge) :

If you want to make some puppets like these you can watch my make-your-own puppet videos!  
part two  . . . .
the last part . . .
Here are some more photos from the making process . . . .
horse horse man puppets tim scrol painting


old man dancing, he doesn't dance in the show, we just got excited after we glued his beard on . . .
Emma Watkins, What'sOnStage, 7th June 2012 *****

Entering the Unicorn Theatre’s Clore Studio, you're greeted by a bewildering array of techie gadgets spread across the stage. There are lights, tripods, cameras, projectors, screens and a mixing desk, but no room for actors… a pretty big clue that you're about to witness something out of the ordinary.

The show is, in fact, completely extraordinary. The action is animated before your eyes by five performers through the use of puppetry, shadow puppetry, projection, lights and live and recorded music. It can be said with some certainty that this is a theatrical experience unlike any you will have had before.

The story, written by Mark Arends, is simple. An astronomer loses his wife in a tragic circus accident and, remembering that "the deeper into space you look, the further into the past you see", he decides to build a spaceship to see if the same is true in reverse. If he travels away from Earth and looks back, will he be able to see his wife again?

It can be said with some certainty that this is a theatrical experience unlike any you will have had before. Matthew Robins’ design and animation is exceptional. The techniques in use are constantly changing but seamlessly mixed, providing angles and effects of which any animated film-maker would be proud. The possibility to glance away from the action on the main screen to watch the creative processes involved reminds us, however, that this is all being done live. I defy any audience member not to remain entranced for the show’s (all-too-short) 35-minute duration.

Declan Randall’s lighting design perfectly sets the mood for each scene, with one particularly magical sequence that seems to envelop the audience as the spaceship makes its journey through the universe.

This is a beautiful show, telling an uncomplicated but moving story about the lengths to which people will go to remember their lost loved ones. Told in an endlessly inventive way that will enthral adults and children, it is quite simply captivating.


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Jake Orr, A Younger Theatre, 7th June 2012

When Purni Morell took over the artistic direction of The Unicorn Theatre there was an air of excitement over the work and artists which she could bring across from her time leading the National Theatre Studio. Something Very Far Away, a piece first developed under Morell’s leadership by Mark Arends and Matthew Robins at the NT Studio is given a full mounting in the studio at The Unicorn Theatre, and rightly so. A tale of heartbreaking beauty and tender loss, which travels to the outer depths of space in the search of universal answers to love and life. Whilst billed for ages eight and above, it could render any adult blubbering into their tissues. It is a production of epic proportions told in miniature puppets and animations.

Robins is no stranger to giving a quirky story a twist of animated life; his continuous adventures with Fly Boy (yes, a boy who is a fly) have been running for several years, played with a band of musical players and puppeteers. Whilst Arends may not be known for his creative style, his work with Katie Mitchell in recent years in productions such as The Cat in the Hat and Beauty and the Beast have clearly edged him into the fun-filled quirkiness of thinking imaginatively with theatre. Something Very Far Away, at just 35 minutes long, is a wonderfully inventive and playful piece written and directed by Arends with puppetry and design by Robins – a delightful collaborative pairing.
The story is extremely simplistic but this makes it even more endearing. Kepler, after losing his wife Tomasina in a tragic circus accident, sets about building a rocket in his home that will fly him to a distant planet. For it is only by seeing into outer space, will he be able to see the past that has been. Kepler travels for light years, stopping at planets and gazing back at the world he left behind. He even reaches the end of the universe (it’s still under construction) in his quest for the enduring the love he once had. Poetic, silent and beautifully emotive, this tender tale is lovingly played out for its audience through projection, animation and simple puppetry.
Similar to Robins’s previous work, and touching on filmic qualities of another puppetry company The Paper Cinema, Something Very Far Away uses cameras and layering of rod and shadow puppetry to blend this poetic story. Through its simplistic nature, which has a rough-around-the-edges and hand-made quality to it, we get lost in Kepler’s tale, perfectly manipulated by the puppeteers against live guitar and recorded soundtracks. The piece is inherently a silent one, but the tale is clear and the themes universal.

It’s great to see a show aimed at young people aged revelling  some of the more complex emotions that we humans experience. The loss of a loved one is never easy, and here I speak as someone who has recently been bereaved, but in Something Very Far Away is is never played down, never simplified for the audience’s sake; it is, as grief is, simple and honest, a declaration of love that is universal and endless. For those who do take young children there is nothing to fear in this work, it should be celebrated for its level of maturity and beauty.


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Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, Sunday 10th June 2012 ****

How far would you go for love? That's a question raised in this infinitely touching little piece about deep space and deep affection that uses live animation techniques similar to those used by Paper Odyssey, so that you see the show being created before your very eyes. The puppets and the settings are manipulated by the performers in front of video cameras while at the same time you see the projected image up on a massive screen. You know that rain falling is created with a sieve; the explosive crackle of a cannon is a lit sparkler, and you can see that the planets are made out of papier mache.

Oddly, seeing the process of creation alongside the final created images doesn't detract from the experience, but actually magnifies it. This show may be small – a mere 35 minutes long – but it is big in every way, particularly its emotions. At its heart is Keppler, an astronomer who loves the stars and his wife. But when she is killed in a circus accident, Keppler remembers that the deeper into space you look, the further into the past you see.

Emotionally, the show taps into intense feelings of loss and the urge to see your beloved one last time. But the whole thing – suitable for the over eights – is done with a lightness of touch and a delightful quirkiness. Despite the amount of kit, this is actually a very low-tech show whose real strength is its consummate storytelling, with echoes of Orpheus and Eurydice. The only thing that would improve it would be if audiences got a chance to play with the techniques themselves afterwards. Then this wouldn't just be gorgeous, it would be truly inspirational, too.

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something very far away credits

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