Poet Benedict Newbery on collaborating with animator Sandra Salter

still from The Royal Oak by Benedict Newbery and Sandra Salter

A still from “The Royal Oak”

A fascinating interview with UK poet Benedict Newbery has just been posted in the Berlin-based arts magazine Chased. I was especially interested to learn how closely he works with his collaborator Sandra Salter in the making of their widely screened poetry films — it’s far from the passive role that many poets take in these kinds of partnerships. Bettina Henningsen is the interviewer.

Chased: You produced some wonderful and very successful poetry animations together with Sandra Salter – “Cul de Sac” and “The Royal Oak”, which were part of the film programme at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Is making poetry films something you always wanted to do?

B. N.: I fell into poetry film quite by happy accident and had never thought of making one until I was contacted by Sandra in early 2008. We’d met very briefly a couple of years before through a mutual friend. She saw a call for submissions for the 2008 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, remembered she’d met someone who’d just started writing poetry (me)and emailed me. Did I want to make a film of one of my poems? Of course! I replied.
I enjoy film and am interested in how film works. I did a short introductory course on animation a few years ago and would like to make some films on my own. But working full time and writing when I can doesn’t leave an awful lot of room for developing that side of things. I’m happy to let Sandra take care of that side of things for now!

Chased: How did the co-operation of the two of you work exactly?

B. N.: Our first film Cul de sac was a pretty rushed job and we were both improvising quite a bit. Sandra works with watercolours and sent me a few images to start with. So I got a feel for the sort of thing she was looking to develop. After a couple of meetings it was obvious we were running out of time so we agreed that I’d storyboard the film — something I’d never done before but which I really enjoyed. From the storyboards, Sandra painted sequences of animation, each one very small — 5 x 4cm. She then scanned the images, reassembled them, placed them in sequences and then added my voice recording and Paul Murphy’s music. The animation process was done very quickly — there was no registration of images etc. But it worked! And we were shortlisted for the ZEBRA competition that year.

The Royal Oak was a bit more stop-start over a few years. We had met a few times to discuss storyboards and the general direction of the film but with no funding it was proving difficult with jobs and family commitments. Then Channel 4 got in touch with Sandra and asked her to make a pitch for its Random Acts series. The pitch was successful and suddenly we had the funding we needed. By this time we lived quite a distance from each other so we weren’t able to meet up so easily. But we’d email and chat on the phone. And in the end Sandra produced a fantastic film!

Chased: Is the film version of a poem an extension of the poem to you, or an addition?

B. N.: When I drew storyboards for both poems, I was illustrating the narrative flow as I’d realised it in the writing of the poems. I think left to my own devices in the first couple of films, less-interesting films would have emerged. Perhaps just a visual addition.

This was the key with collaborating with someone like Sandra. She’s a very talented film maker. And she also gets what it is that I’m talking about in the poetry. Through her animations she extends the poem into something new, substantive, with its own interpretation of the narrative. She has the skill and ability to take it somewhere else, and surprise me with her take on what is important — or how a particular aspect of the work needs to be given salience. Even though she followed the storyboards for Cul de sac she still brought in her own ideas that lifted the words elsewhere. And in animating The Royal Oak, she worked away from the original storyboards — to brilliant effect.

I think perhaps an OK or average film of a poem adds to the poem, if it’s lucky. A good film will extend it.

Chased: What is your next project?

B. N.: Sandra and I are looking to make our third film together — hopefully in 2015. We already know which poem we’re going to use — exploring the darker, seedier side of the English seaside town. It will see a continuation of Sandra’s style of watercolour transitions.

Do read the rest.

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