Wonderland – ‘The White Queen’

The White Queen‘The White Queen’

The Queen's Armada‘The Queen’s Armada’

The Faraway Tree‘The Faraway Tree’

The Twilight Covenant and The Promise of Home‘The Twilight Covenant, And The Promise Of Home’

Well, it has been 9 long months since I last uploaded a new Wonderland photo, and now…. finally I can take you with me on the second part of this journey. I’m writing this as a free, self employed woman, having left fashion design on the 29th of December to step into the unknown, and see how following my heart truly tastes. It has taken me a full 8 days to pull together all the photographs of the development and creation of this first character ‘The White Queen’, and its been quite overwhelming looking back at everything I made considering I was still working full time. Back in April last year I had a discussion with an art curator who advised me to step back from the internet and the crazed world of constantly uploading. Instead, he told me to focus, and push myself to the absolute limit by creating less, but also the very best I physically could. To invest my time and money into something I truly believed in, and create an entire vision from start to finish with no compromises ……. So this is what I have tried my hardest to do. Its been extremely difficult not showing anyone what I have been up to, and even harder sitting on piles of unedited shoots, constantly having to go from the development of one character, to the next, without the satisfaction or release of editing a final image to share. I’ve watched other photographers racing ahead with their projects and ideas, and felt quite alone working on everything pretty much on my own, apart from shoot days, or the occasional help of friends and the visits from dearest Elbie. Having said this I am so very glad I put myself through this period. I have learned a huge amount about being ruthlessly selective with my work, balancing a body of images across a large number of shoots, and each time contemplating the colours, scale, and perspective based on what was achieved with the previous ones. I have also learned a very hard lesson about knowing my limits, as once again I made myself extremely unwell with stress and exhaustion, and its taken nearly 3 months to finally getting back on the path to feeling better .
So before I go any further I should point out this entry is an enormous one as there are over 6 months of photos following the development of the costume, the props and finally the two major shoots we produced. I have split these elements into sections, starting with the ‘making’ and ending with the actual shoot days in case people find this all a bit much to wade through. I have also made a short film of the steel ships being manufactured, and I figured I’d better show that here first, before anyone falls asleep !!

Wonderland’s “The White Queen” from Kirsty Mitchell on Vimeo.

So now you’ve seen that, this the story of how ‘The White Queen’ came to be …………….

The queen started over 18 months ago when I had an extremely vivid dream during the early stages of Wonderland.  The dream was basically exactly how ‘The Queen’s Armada’ now looks, and to be honest it’s quite emotional to look at that picture and know that I managed to create it so accurately with my bare hands. Wonderland is all rooted in the stories my mother read to me as a child, and one of the most beautifully illustrated books I can remember was ‘The Kingdom under the Sea’. I had become fascinated with paper cuts, and had stumbled on the the extraordinary work of Elsa Mora which is utterly bewitching. Looking at her work triggered off distant memories of the books illustrations and after finally after wracking my brains, I remembered the title and tracked down the original 1973 edition. Looking through the pages and remembering the stories, touching each beautifully drawn image made up my mind that I wanted to tackle the idea of paper coming to life, in a ‘3D pop up book’ kind of way.  This thread of inspiration became entwined with my urge to create a beautiful, but evil queen who was to be part of the darker side to ‘Wonderland’, a character who wasn’t about colour, and one who would be instrumental in the ending of the series. As the character began to develop, her involvement in the story became clearer, and it was suddenly vital that the queen should be linked with the under current of ships that can be found in the series. This cast my final idea in stone, and I found myself dreaming of a white ‘sculpted’ Elizabeth the Ist, commanding her armada of paper-cut ships, gliding through misty waters deep in the woods……  I knew exactly how it would look, now I just had the enormous problem of making it!

Below is the finished costume, made entirely by me from scratch, apart from the corset which was a vintage buy that I hand painted, and the crown which was an antique I sprayed white.

The White Queen’s costume

The finished steel ‘paper-cut’ galleon prop

Below I have tried my absolute hardest to reduce the ‘making of’ the costume into bite size chunks.  It is the biggest, hardest costume I have ever made, and there where many times I found myself sitting in the garden staring at pile of unpainted fans losing the will to live. It is the most determined I think I have ever been to make something, and do it ‘properly’, as a lot of the previous Wonderland costumes were destroyed on the shoots, were recycled into something else, or just couldn’t stand the test of time. I thought a lot about the problems raised when shooting an entirely white character, and so decided to hand paint deep shaded contrast into and around all the fans, it took forever but was a life saver on the day of the shoot. The skirt and headdress were made from over 240 delicate fine wooden fans from China, and the whole costume took me over 5 months to make in my evenings, weekends and annual leave. I also made the necklace and key prop from a very strange collection of antique items (and bones) I sourced through the internet and vintage fairs from 3 different countries. It took 6 months to find all the different bits I needed, and unbelievably I managed to match two 1920’s celluloid galleon brooches within 4 months of buying each one! My main focus was to create a hard, stiff sculpted version of an Elizabethan silhouette, that suggested a cage…. like an evil prison. I chose to use an antique pair of Balinese shadow puppets at the front of the domed skirt to suggest a pair of fighting gate keepers, whose locked hands were the fastening to the queens body inside.

The key prop is very important to the story, and will reappear at various points in the hands of different characters. It is the symbol of beauty and death, a continuous flow from the form of the fairy through the body of the skeleton to the bare bones that make up the teeth. I think it is possibly my favourite prop in the series and one I will keep forever.

Whilst working on the costume, I finally had to face the fact that I needed to design the galleon ship props myself after unsuccessfully approaching a few paper cut artists hoping for a collaboration. I have never done anything like this before, and had no contacts and no idea what I was doing. Its been one of the hardest things I have ever attempted, and there were many times when I nearly gave up. In my ignorance I thought I could just draw a galleon ship silhouette, take some of the book illustrations and work them into the shape. I presumed I could have the stencil cut in light wood any size I wanted, and that it would be reasonably affordable….. I had no idea how wrong I was.

To start with the illustrations were more like fine ink drawings than hard clear silhouettes suitable for a stencil. After I had finished my galleon outline and roughly tried to place some of characters into the shape, I began to release the enormous problem faced with positive and negative space – how no line could overlap without being connected, as it would just simply fall out of the design when it was cut. Everything need to be supported, connected, and extremely sharp in its details and shape – basically everything the original illustrations were not. After three 12 hour days I was close to giving up. It was an incredibly complicated, and utterly mind numbing process having to re-draw every single detail using a computer tablet by hand. The only thing that kept me going was that this prop, more than anything else in the entire series was a direct, real and tangible link to my mother, and the nights I remembered pressed against her arms while she read to me.
Seven long days later I finished my design, but was then faced with the mountain of ‘production’ and began to contact factories …….

My first experience with a factory was www.lasercutit.co.uk  They were incredibly kind to me, and offered to help produce the props at a reduced rate to be involved with the project, for which I was, and still am so grateful. They work with a lot of artists and creative people, and seemed the perfect choice for my idea. They tested different materials and sent me a range of beautiful test cuts which took over 3 hours each for the lasers to cut. I was completely unprepared for the projected costs, and once I discovered the limited materials available and the size of their laser cutting bed, I had to face the fact that my design was not suitable.  I needed a major industrial factory to make my design, and a far stronger base material which also had to be waterproof.
Eventually after writing endless begging emails, and lots of rejection because my design was ‘too detailed’, I finally found a factory with a cutting bed the size I wanted. The only problem was it meant that the galleons would have to be cut in steel by a state of the art nitrogen cutter.  It was at this point everything seemed to be spiraling out of control. It had taken weeks of trial and error to get this far, and I finally found myself involved with an industrial steel cutting factory, with a price tag to match. But by now the costume was almost made, the idea was rock solid in my head, and there wasn’t any other way I could imagine producing the picture. This was the first time I had to make a very serious and expensive investment in the project. It was a huge leap of faith for me, but I felt I had to pursue the concept, and get to the end no matter what. So I bit my lip and did it, and with hindsight I am so glad I did……..

On the day of the props being made, I arrived at the factory Cirrus- Laser to be met with the sight of the computer screen below (first picture), which looked like s star constellation of thousands of reference points for the machine to follow. The amount of work that had gone into the programming was completely mind blowing and extremely humbling. It was the most complicated design the machine had ever had to cut, and I felt extremely guilty about the fact I had refused to simplify it.  After a few hours of stop / starting and a lot of fine tuning, the first test piece slowly began to take shape, and that was when everything took on a completely different emotional level.
Until then it had just been a very frustrating, expensive money-pit of a ridiculous idea, one that made me nervous and quite sick with worry. But that all changed when the operator stepped out the booth with one of the first metal silhouettes to fall from the design. At that moment, at the age of 35 I found myself suddenly holding a physical fragment of a memory. The factories noise blurred and faded as I looked at the little steel mermaid in my hands. It was real… and despite my hand drawing, it was still instantly recognisable as the character from my mothers storybook, it took my breath away. Then the full ship followed, and all at once everything came to life. It was an incredible feeling, a mix of sadness, relief, happiness, and disbelief that it had worked and not fallen apart!  If I’m honest I went home and cried, nothing had prepared me for the sudden emotional lurch of holding the mermaid, and the rush of memories that came with it. This was something deeply personal that I was so proud of making, I sat and flicked through the book again on my bed and hoped that somehow mum knew what that day had been like for me.

So the ships were finished and painted white, the costume was ready, and the original factory www.lasercutit.co.uk had also made me 5 smaller solid ships to help create an armada for the queen. The next hurdle was the fact that in my dream the queen was also walking on water whilst connected to her ships. I suppose you had to laugh really as this was just making things about as difficult as possible. I refuse to fake such effects in Photoshop, so the next challenge was finding a suitable beautiful location with water, that was shallow enough to build an underwater platform for the model to stand on. After several weekends I finally found the perfect place, which was a little ornamental island on a fishing lake. It wasn’t too deep, but smelt pretty bad, and was verging on ‘swamp’ but that felt just right for the intended tone of the picture.
Unlike some shoots this one was not about emotions. It was simply long, hard, and difficult. The only extremely lucky thing that happened was that the UK had a freak heatwave for 2 days in the middle of October. The development of the ships and costume had taken so long, that the shoot had been pushed back and back from July to October. I had been terrified of it raining on the delicate costume, bad light and freezing temperatures for a model standing in water so this was a huge relief.
To be honest it was hard going, my number one concern was getting everything to the location, in one piece as the costume and the props were extremely delicate and expensive, and finally getting them and the model into the water safely.It took  a total of 5 hours to set up. The model Ashleigh had the patience of a saint, but must have been bored out of her mind. I stood at the waters edge barking orders at poor Matt wading through the stinking slime, desperately trying to position the ships and constantly having to rush from one to the other to stop them falling over. It was extremely stressful and the sun was getting lower with every minute that passed.
But as always that familiar excitement began to build as everything fell into place. It was an extraordinary sight, and once the wooden planks had been taken away, Ashleigh truly was the ultimate vision of a our queen standing on the waters surface. It is usually at this point that witnessing the finished scene is a big moment for me, to stand back and take it all in, but there was no time, the light was dying and I felt sick to the stomach with nerves. I was staring at months of work and a huge amount of money. So I went into autopilot….. I was numb, exhausted and shaking a bit. The smoke was pumped into the air, and after several attempts from different angles we got the picture.  I then took some close ups at the waters edge, and before we knew it, it was pitch black and no one could speak they were so tired.
It was only when I got home, and everyone had gone their seperate ways that I looked at the pictures. I hadn’t used any lighting equipment, I never do, and this was something I was quietly very worried about during the shoot.  But there on the screen, after several blurred shots I was suddenly faced with the reality of my original dream staring back at me. I couldn’t believe it, the second to last frame, just before I gave up. It was beautiful, strange and otherworldly, the smoke looked amazing, and somehow….. god knows how, we had pulled it off !

Original location shown above, below setting up the picture, with poor Hannah as the body double for the model ! Plus an example of when smoke seriously goes in the wrong direction !!

So it was over…… but before the euphoric feeling of getting the finished shot had faded, I decided to launch headlong into an idea Elbie had suggested a month or so before. Looking at the design of the ships and remembering the original book illustrations being solid black, it dawned on us that we could reverse the entire concept of the shoot using the ships like shadow puppets or lanterns. We felt the first image did not necessarily show the cutwork of the props to their full potential, and so the concept for ‘The Faraway Tree’ was born. This time I wanted the galleons to be taken from the water, and instead have them hanging like giant magical lanterns from a tree. The props and the costume were perfect for the purpose  –  the skirt of the dress could be lit up like a lampshade, and all that was white in the first scene, would become black. Feeling we had overcome so much with the first picture, this second idea seemed ‘achievable’ and not as daunting as the first, but as usual I was completely wrong again!

It was now October 17th 2011, and ‘The Faraway Tree’ was the final shoot of the year. We were all tired, and I was becoming quite unwell at this point, but after testing the concept in sunlight (see above) the ships as lanterns looked so magical, we simply had to make the final push. I named the picture after another one of my childhood story books, and the final image seemed to fit the name so beautifully. Once again setting up the location was quite excruciating. The warm weather had turned and it was now cold, drizzling and very windy – basically the worst conditions we could hope for apart from heavy rain. Adrenaline was pumping through everyone as the boys scrambled up the tree with reels of wire in the fading afternoon light. I stood and directed the ships into position following a  photoshopped mock-up of the scene I had made as a plan for their positions (see below). For any photographer reading this, I would like to point out this was a life saver on the day because there wasn’t any time to spend hours moving the ships into different positions, they were far too heavy and  it was extremely slow progress.  I made the plan by visiting the location the day before, and photographing the tree with Matt holding one ship beside it for a true scale reference. I then cloned the image and produce the rough placement for the ships. This was vital to getting everything ready accurately, and as quickly as possible

As far as lighting went, it was the first time I have ever shot a scene at night. All the lighting was powered from one very small petrol generator, and I permanently had my heart in my mouth worrying it would just give up and choke on us. The bulbs were standard energy saving ones so they used less power, and all of it was run off a very long home made cable Matt had wired up. As the light finally disappeared, and the wind picked up, I remember standing in the dark thinking it was never going to work. The whole thing smacked of being a disaster, wires everywhere and expensive steel ships furiously flapping in the wind. I kept whispering to myself ‘it will be ok’ over and over again, nervously looking through the viewfinder of my camera on the tripod . But then the roar of the generator broke the silence and the bulbs suddenly sparked into life. What had previously been an uninspiring flat looking scene of blank ships hanging lifeless from a tree, burst into the most magical vision. Everyone whooped! It was incredible, Elbie was jumping up and down, so was I, and I could see the relief on Matts face when the power kicked in. Genuinely it has to be one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in the series so far, I had tears in my eyes, the rush of emotions were so overwhelming … it was magical … truly…. truly. I was excited, over tired, emotional, shaking and so, so thrilled… this is why I do what I do…. being there in that moment…. I was standing in a dream. My heart soared as the galleons lit up, and there before us were the perfect black illustrations from the book brought to life. The sense of achievement after all the stress of the last few months was immense.
So the finishing touches were made –  a raised platform for the model to stand on, and them around that we built a construction of old twisted branches I had brought from another wood the day before. The intention was to make the tree look like it was coming to life and raising up out of the ground on magical roots – like it could walk off into the night at any moment. It worked so well and once everything was ready and lit, I got the shot and we were finished by 9pm.
I know I will never forget that night. I remember walking around in a daze collecting crates and wires, tripping over things in the dark, still thinking about what had happened. We dragged everything back to the car, and the look on everyone’s face was a picture. It had been relentless for hours, the pace of setting up, and then rushing to get the picture,….. to finally stop felt quite strange. Everyone looked exhausted but so triumphant, we ended up throwing ourselves into a shaky group hug in the glare of the car headlights laughing and groaning, patting our backs ….we had done it! It was the final picture, and now the weather could do its worst, everything that needed to be done had been achieved.
While the others loaded the cars, I pretended I had forgotten something back at the tree and walked off into the night to just take a moment. I knew I had over done things again, my stomach was lurching with cramps and my skin was tingling. I couldn’t remember the last time I had sat quietly in months, but that night, it was honestly worth all the bad stuff that came afterwards. I had made two pictures that were not only for my mother, but they were direct, strong and unbreakable links to her, and the memories I had. I felt like I had taken a few more steps away from my grief, and closed another door on the ghosts of hospitals and unapologetic doctors……… it was all for her.
So thats it. An ENORMOUS first blog entry. There are plenty more to come, and lots of beautiful pictures. ………Wonderland is finally back, and it feels so good ! x