As part of its Urban Legends: Northern Lights Festival, Absolutely Cultured, the arts organisation behind Hull’s year as UK City of Culture 2017, wanted to take stories from ancient mythology, fairy tales and oral history and use the buildings, pavements, shop windows and winding alleys of Hull city centre as the pages on which these stories would be told.
It commissioned internationally renowned artists, Davy and Kristin McGuire, to transform three shop windows and captivate visitors using Hans Christian Anderson’s most-loved stories as inspiration. The installations, collectively entitled Still Lives, would delve into the fragile personalities of each of the characters from The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen and the Emperor (from the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes).
Each shop window, dressed to set the scene and create atmosphere, would have a mannequin as the central focal point for each story. A monologue would give each character a voice but projection onto the mannequins’ faces would actually bring them alive! High brightness, reliable projectors were needed to create this spine-tingling effect to the mannequins.
In addition to the monologues, the team wanted the Emperor to feature a live performance and interact with the audience.
Absolutely Cultured worked with the Studio McGuire team previously when they created Micropolis – the mini metropolis that delighted the crowds as part of Hull’s UK City of Culture 2017 Acts of Wanton Wonder.
The Still Lives installations were unveiled in three shop windows on Whitefriargate in Hull city centre on the opening night of the four-day festival (29 November - 2 December). During the festival the Emperor’s performance was live and interactive, after which all three stories remained open for visitors to enjoy the pre-recorded monologues every evening until 6 January 2019.
Each window used two EH200ST short throw projectors with an additional ML750ST short throw LED ultra mobile projector for the Emperor's face.
Local actors, Rick Bland and Jack Chamberlain alternated in sitting behind the stage with a microphone and a monitor, which showed the crowd watching the emperor from a hidden camera. With their faces projected onto the naked male mannequin and their voices booming out from the speakers, they interacted with the audience to truly bring the vain emperor to life. The window display allowed the audience to humorously probe the emperor’s motivations and beliefs.
Kristin said: We had never done a live face projection before so we had to work out the best technology for this. Both Rick and Jack didn't have to keep their heads too still because a small action camera was attached to a helmet which sat quite firmly on their heads. This setup ensured they were not be too restricted in their expression and movements. They could move their heads and the small camera would move with them and keep their faces mapped properly.”
Co-designer and local artist, Anna Bean, designed the graphics for the walls and created the flower arbours around the mermaid and award-winning playwright, and dramaturg, Richard Hurford, joined the team to write the Snow Queen's monologue, the mermaid's lyrics and the emperor's monologue which the actors then used to improvise and interact with the audience. These played through the external speakers in conjunction with the video content projected onto the mannequins’ faces.
The voice and face projected onto both the Little Mermaid and Snow Queen belonged to Kristin but the mermaid’s song, Not Another Word - The Last Song of the Little Mermaid, was composed and sung by Michelle Eaton. The process involved filming Kristin’s face narrating the monologues and then lip syncing to Michelle's song for the mermaid. Her recorded face was then adjusted to make both eyes and the mouth fit onto the mannequins’ features.
Kristin McGuire said: “The real challenge for the project was making sure the faces were mapped perfectly. If the projector for either the Little Mermaid or the Snow Queen moved by less than a centimetre they became really ugly which completely kills the magic of these two characters that are embodiments of femininity and beauty in most people's imaginations!
“We created the content and used After Effects video software for post-production effects. With the mannequins in place, we exported the video and put this onto a media player so that it would not need a PC or software running in the background.”
She added: “We used Optoma projectors for the installations as they are really versatile, strong, bright and small but have great image quality.”
Urban Legends: Northern Lights Festival brought together artists from the UK and Scandinavia and, featuring six commissioned installations, ran from the 29 November to the 2 December. The Still Lives installations by Studio McGuire, which included the Snow Queen, Emperor and Little Mermaid, then remained open for visitors to enjoy in the evenings with the pre-recorded monologue until 6 January 2019.
Lily Mellor, Absolutely Cultured’s Producer, said: “Urban Legends: Northern Lights was our biggest event so far as Absolutely Cultured, with around 60,000 people visiting the installations over the four-day festival. All six commissions brought something very different – many of them large-scale, covering whole buildings or streets – and all of them ambitious. Studio McGuire created a more intimate and magical experience with a really creative use of projection and an incredible attention to detail in each of the scenes.
“Visitor reaction to the installations was massively positive. You could see kids’ faces pressed against the glass in absolute delight and crowds gathered around the windows, watching the stories unfold. The characters were great for families as they were engaging and humorous but also with darker undertones, so there was something that appealed to everyone. With the stories cleverly playing on each of the fairy tale characters’ vanity, visitors described the Snow Queen as enchanting and the interactive exchanges between the Emperor actor and the audience as captivating and brilliant. The Emperor was definitely the most popular because we kept the interactivity a secret, it was just so unexpected!
“We were so pleased to be able to keep the three installations live for a couple of weeks after the festival ended. It brought life to this part of the city and animated this main thoroughfare over the winter period.”
Bill Gee attended the event and said: “I loved the Emperor. The fact that it was a live character was again a really different thing for me. It was really captivating seeing the quality of the improvisation between the kids and the Emperor. Whoever it was doing it, when I saw it, was brilliant.”
Kristin added: “We were delighted with how they looked and the audience’s reaction to them.”
The Snow Queen
In Andersen’s story the Snow Queen is depicted as a mysterious figure who abducts a small boy upon which he loses his emotions and empathy. Her character has ignited people’s imaginations beyond her modest appearance in the original story. In popular culture her elusiveness and perfection make her a figure of fantasy and desire, in a similar way to the unobtainable beauty and perfection of contemporary models in fashion advertisements. Although the snow queen may be perfect, this perfection brings loneliness. The team wanted to present the snow queen as not only a figure of danger and glamour but also a character who is isolated and trapped in a gilded, frozen cage. This window display was a confession of the snow queen from her contemplative point of view.
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The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is a young female sea creature that longs for the love of human prince. She sacrifices her beautiful voice, mermaid tail and habitat in return for the ability to walk on land and attract the prince’s attention. This attempt to fit into a world that seems more desirable, and to be loved fails however, as she is ignored and left to die, unloved, in a body that causes tremendous physical pain. This story reflects peoples’ desire to sacrifice their natural appearance and wellbeing, in an attempt to reach an unobtainable ideal, please an unavailable lover and fit into a judgemental world. This window display reintroduced the pre-Disney sentiment of The Little Mermaid’s character in beautifully melancholic song.
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The Emperor’s New Clothes
The emperor in Andersen’s story commissions a tailor to make him a new suit. Blinded by his own vanity and by the tailor’s compliments, the emperor is fooled into revealing himself naked in public, with the conviction that he is wearing the most beautiful outfit ever made. His story could be seen as a reflection on today’s selfie culture where people’s fragile self esteem and identity is upheld by empty compliments and exaggerated affirmations by superficial friends off and online.
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Concept and Design: Studio McGuire
Writer: Richard Hurford
Co-designer and photography: Anna Bean, Bluebeany
Composer: Michelle Eaton
Live Performers: Rick Bland and Jack Chamberlain
Voices: Jack Chamberlain (Emperor), Kristin McGuire (Snow Queen), Michelle Eaton (Mermaid)
Technical Assistance: Ed Grimoldsby and Jon Witts
Commissioned by: Absolutely Cultured
Based in Hull, Davy and Kristin McGuire export their work all over the world. Whatever their canvas, from international theatre stages, cinemas and gallery walls, to marble statues, the couple transform the familiar into the fantastical and breathe life into inanimate objects that draw you to dark and delicious destinations.
Absolutely Cultured was the arts organisation behind Hull’s year as UK City of Culture 2017. It connects people and communities and commissions work that is ambitious, surprising and imaginative to cement Hull's reputation as a place where creativity and culture thrive. For a list of forthcoming events visit its website: www.absolutelycultured.co.uk
Richard Hurford is an award winning theatre, radio and multi-media performance playwright and dramaturg whose work has been produced throughout the UK and Europe.
Michelle is a British composer and sound designer working on projects spanning film, animation, art installation, trailer and dance.
Using various tools of the cinema and theatre, such as makeup, costumes, props, and scenery, photographic artist Anna creates dream-worlds filled with Gothic horror and surreal humour. Alongside her photographic work Anna also creates photo-montage, collage, digital collage and lino prints.
Photography copyright: Anna Bean, Bluebeany