Wonderland – ‘The Fade of Fallen Memories’

The Fade Of Fallen Memories‘The Fade Of Fallen Memories’ (200cm wide)

It is now July 11th, and I’m sat by the open window of my bedroom staring at this blank page, as summer rain falls silently on the garden outside. Once again, everything has taken so long with producing this new picture, that the enormity of where to begin is making my sentences stammer and break before my eyes. I have so much to say, it is the last big scene of the series and for me it really is the mountaintop I have spent 5 years clawing my way towards. After this there is just 1 small intimate picture and the project will complete, something I still can’t imagine, no matter how hard I try.

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(Above, the last four scenes of the series together, below FX media’s behind the scenes film of the shoot)

‘The Fade of Fallen Memories’ is a goodbye, both in the Wonderland story but also within the real world, in my own life. Their parallels entwined in such a way that it gives me chills, it brings me both happiness and sadness all at once, but above all this photograph is about release. In Katie’s world it is the end of her time in Wonderland, the door being the final piece of the puzzle that fits the queen’s key she has carried close to her heart throughout her journey. In my world, it is the metaphor for letting go of the years of grief I have carried with me and taking that final step back towards reality.

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The truth is, I have never been able to look at a photograph of my mother since I lost her, at least nothing from the time when we were both alive together. In my kitchen I keep a frame of faded black and white pictures of her playing as a child and as a young woman (from before I was born). Every morning I make my breakfast and say hello to this familiar ghost of a girl I never knew, who I love so deeply, despite never having met her at that age. My recent memories of us were destroyed by the hospital, they took her from me, what she became in the end was not the flesh and blood that bore me. These memories I block out, I tried my hardest to send them as far away as I could, banished from my heart, I suppose like fallen angels and that is how this title came to be. For me the hardest part is to let go of those nightmares, to let them fade and move forward and this has become ‘my door’.  So once again Katie became my mirror, both of us acknowledging it was time to move on, facing a wall that felt too big to push through but with the promise of something better on the other side. It is an end and a beginning in one moment, exactly how I see losing someone you love.

MUM fullmum x

In my mind I always knew the door scene would be one of my most difficult challenges because ever since I first imagined it over 2 years ago, it has become something almost impossible to live up to. Physically it had to be the most beautiful door I could possibly create, built in the name of kings and queens, and worthy of the lands that surrounded it. It also had to blend with the forest, be ancient, magical, the list goes on of all the things I felt it ‘had to be’, but above all it was my goodbye to a place I have loved, that has helped me through my grief. In my dreams I imagined it left in the woods, like a memorial to the story, so the pressure to honour its importance, felt immense.

When looking at the door many people may connect the concept of a portal between worlds with the story of Narnia and that was exactly my intention and inspiration.  With it came the second challenge for myself, in that I wanted to create a scene where both spring and winter would coexist in the same moment. Like Narnia, I wanted the seasons on either side of the door to be radically different, however unlike films or books I could only express this in one single frame. So we shot in the spring and had to re-create winter as best we could. In my head I had always envisioned the forest like a Victorian theatre set, a staggered silhouette of leaves and branches, framing and guarding their secret within. I had dreamt of Katie arriving on the crest of her floral wave from under the wing of the forests protection. With each step towards the door I imagined her form changing one last time, she was smaller, more fragile, her hair returning to normal as the fantasy fell away revealing the girl she used to be. Above, the last light of spring shone through the vivid leaves, casting great tears of shadows that dissolved in dappled pools on the frozen ground. In her hand, the key silently waits for her last choice…….. whether to stay or leave.

Making The Door

Although it was a very big prop, creating the door was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever made. It was a complete indulgence and journey into the unknown of how on earth I was going to do it. As always I start with the finished look in my head and then work backwards for what to do next, pretty much making it up as I go along.  The base was a huge plastic cast of an original 19th century French door from a special effects company I have managed to track down. This became my base, as well a big selection of ornate casts taken from the same period and some extra wooden pieces and trims I collected from DIY stores. From this point on everything else was made and hand painted by myself, until my husband Matt built the frame we would need to support the structure on location. It was slow going, the plastic was incredibly thick and hard to cut, there were blisters and tears, but the end effect was everything I could have hoped it was monumental.

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Painting the door panels and adding extra wooden pieces for further decoration

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Creating the top section of the door from a mix of period mouldings
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Making the iced effect glazed roses, which I dipped in various tinted layers of liquid plastic, and the stone effect roses with paint.
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My husband Matt had to build a frame that would support the door panels on the location. It had to be light enough to carry and break down into sections

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Dressing the door and trying it out in the studio.

I also collected bags and bags of wild ivy and sprayed it white to help blend the door with the location on site.

me and door

Me looking rather worn out (but secretly so thrilled with my magic door :) !!! )

door motif

You will notice on the door in the finished picture there is an extra piece of moulding that did not exist on the original prop. This was something I had no choice but to create in Photoshop as I simply couldn’t make anything convincing enough in real life. I wanted the door to have an emblem that instantly signified it belonged to the key. Its not something I normally do, but I felt it was a beautiful detail to add for the purpose of the story. It took forever, but when the print is seen at two meters it will have been worth the time.

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The floral coat was made entirely by me from scratch. You can see more about the making of the coat here
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The key was also hand made by me in 2011, from pieces of antique carvings and old rabbit bones. It belonged to The White Queen, and has been carried by Katie around her neck ever since that part of the story ( with out anyone knowing its purpose)
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I doubt I will ever be able to fully explain the level of exhaustion we went through for this picture. It was wonderful, impossible madness involving every level of emotion possible.

To begin I first need to explain a few factors that made a difficult day even tougher to get through. It began a week before the shoot, when the BBC News requested to film me at work on location. This was something I felt I simply couldn’t turn down despite the fact I am very camera shy and it would add significant stress to the day. Second to this, I had just begun my ambassadorship with Nikon and would be shooting the picture using a brand new camera I had never used before in my life. Thirdly this was the first day I would meet Richard Wakefield our new film maker which meant two lots of cameras pointing at me, whilst I was at my most exhausted and fragile. These factors was added on top of the biggest problem of all, getting the enormous door to the location and set up. Typically of me the location I had found was through a wood and down a dangerous steep slope of wet leaves. I always keep my team very small in order to maintain a sense of privacy between myself and the model on a shoot. This meant we had hours of carrying to deal with, including the issue of transporting 100 bags of flour I had bought to create our ‘frost’!

On the morning of the shoot I lay awake staring at rain clouds, I hadn’t slept for 2 days and couldn’t eat my stomach was in knots from stress. All I could think about was what would happen to the beautiful floral coat and the door if it rained, but there was nothing to do but face the music and push on. Once we arrived, It took over 3 hours to get all the equipment and the door (in pieces) to the location. There were only 6 of us to carry everything, it had to be the most demanding set build we have ever encountered. I can’t even begin to explain the comedy of the flour, it started with Matt and Mark attempting to pull all 100 bags loaded on to a car trailer through the wood like a pair of horses. They battled for over an hour until the trailer became stuck in the undergrowth and they collapsed in an exhausted heap. After that we had to resort to dragging huge gravel bags of the flour by hand instead, swearing and groaning the whole way. We were already wiped out before the BBC arrived at 11am and then the cameras were switched on and my anxiety went through the roof. Richard set up a time lapse of the area and work began on building the door.

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Positioning the door panels, to determine the site for the frame
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Matt and Mark building the frame, and bolting on the door fronts
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Me, Elbie and Saskia dressing the door with painted ivy and the roses. Below, Katie (our model) starts sieving the flour onto the floor of the set. On our shoots everyone helps out with the set build, even the poor models !
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Once the main structure was up and stable, adding the flour was one of my brief moments of relief during the pressure of the day. We all laughed as we covered the floor, the leaves, door and branches. On top of the flour I also added a huge sack of artificial snow pulp to bulk up the amount we needed by Katie’s feet. It was such a simple moment of pure happiness, kicking the pulp and throwing flour all in the air, all in the name of creating something magical deep in the woods.

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Being interviewed by the BBC on location
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Dressing Katie

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During the day the weather was wildly unpredictable, the sky was constantly threatening and every now and then we had to run to the door with plastic covers as rain began to fall. The sun toyed with our hopes as sudden flashes of light would come and go, I had no idea what would happen if the sun was lost, we had no lighting equipment and none of this could be created again. It was a lot to deal with in front of the television crew and the whole time I had to repeatedly explain the story and my motives to the reporte,r whilst trying to concentrate on decorating the set.
It was around that time, whilst frantically attaching ivy to the top of the door frame, that I caught myself stopping and noticing the wind change on my neck. The leaves all around were fluttering, almost chattering with excitement like an energy was coming, it felt like the electricity in the air before a storm. Maybe it was just adrenaline and lack of sleep but I swear I felt her, just quietly, mum was with me. As I tried in vain to wipe away the wet flour from the carvings on the door, worrying everything looked dull and flat, sunlight suddenly began to filter through the clouds and lit up the entire door. It could not have been more perfect rays fell through the leaves casting huge sweeping shadows, as sunlight washed over our feet and the ivy shivered in the breeze refracting a myriad of pattens. Everything shivered and shook to life in the breeze and in a single unsaid moment everyone knew it was now or never ………..



I shouted for Katie to be walked on set, the film crew fell back and I set the tripod in position. I remember shaking, fumbling around with this completely alien camera as heat built in the pit of my stomach, but then when I looked through the lens, none of it mattered anymore. It was more beautiful than I ever could have hoped for, the light had raised the entire scene to a level that would have been impossible to create myself.  It is for this reason, despite how hard it makes my life that I will always shoot in the landscape for real. Sometimes nature rips through your ideas and turns them into something you couldn’t have predicted and I have learnt over the years that when that happens, you simply have to surrender to it and embrace the unexpected. My heart was pounding, I could feel the BBC camera burning through my skull, but ahead and all around me were the things I loved, my friends, our Wonderland, a shimmering dream come to life. So I let go, forgot my nerves and pressed the shutter.

We shot for as long as the light stayed with us, we also brought an artificial snow machine and huge smoke grenades for added magic. We and laughed, we whooped and shouted with delight as these various effects were hurled at the set. The smoke seemed to cling to the treetops like an Amazonian mist, dramatically changing the mood and making the sky even more surreal. It was just then as the last of the smoke faded, that the heavens darkened and our precious sunlight vanished like a spell had been broken. The wind began to rush through the leaves, the door began to rattle and as we all looked up at the May sky a hailstorm broke from nowhere. We ran squealing with cameras, throwing plastic sheets over Katie and the door, until we managed to squash the entire team under one small shelter we had set up earlier in case of an emergency.

It was the strangest thing, hailstones thundered down bouncing off the grass in the middle of spring. I remember staring glassy-eyed at our set as I watched it dissolve, the irony of real ice destroying our make-believe efforts. I Absentmindedly pushed chocolate into my mouth, having realised I hadn’t eaten since the day before. I couldn’t stop running it all through my mind, I had no idea the sun would hit the door the way it did, we could have built the set in complete shade for all I knew. How odd we had literally been given one precious window of light, and then it was gone, swallowed the very second we let off the last smoke grenade and now it was all destroyed. I was dazed, drained, exhilarated, relieved and thought of mum.

When the hail stopped I looked behind us at the looming hill back to the van, the soaked door and the enormous sodden piles of flour on the ground and knew we had at least another 3 hours of carrying and cleaning up to go. It is times like this that I am so lucky to work with the team I have, in truth we are all just friends first, I recognise everyone’s talents greatly but at this point only friends could shrug, roll their eyes and get on with the job. We had to leave the scene exactly as we found it and that meant being on our hands and knees clawing piles of dirty wet flour into rubbish sacks and hauling door panels, equipment, and endless kit, back up the hill of doom. It was dark by the time everything was loaded back on to the van, at least 9pm and we had started at 7am. Everyone was shaking with exhaustion, starving hungry and by the looks of the faces on Mark and Matt who had taken the lions share of the carrying, it had been a push too far. We clung to the sides of the cars in the night air, half hysterical but still somehow laughing at the state of us all, we were truly broken. I was dirty, tired, cold, but felt incredible, nothing makes me feel this way, I just can’t explain it. It is the rawest sensation to go out into the landscape and push yourself through something so challenging and be repaid with an experience you would simply never see again. I had talked briefly with Richard at the end of the day, but felt bad I hadn’t spent more time with him; I had no idea what he had filmed and whether he thought it was all a load of chaos or something wonderful. The next day as I packed for my gallery opening in Amsterdam I started receiving messages from the gang. I remember sitting on my bed and laughing a little teary eyed as Mark, Richard and Saskia texted me saying it had been one of the most extraordinary days they had ever had, how much they had loved it, how badly they ached, how crazy the weather had been and how the day had been unlike anything else they could think of. It meant so much we had all felt the same and it wasn’t just me……

giving key

Finally a few short weeks later Richard sent me the first rough cut of the film, I had no idea what to expect and half winced in anticipation as I pressed play. I think it took around 30 seconds before I began to cry, I had never expected the wave of emotion that poured through me when I saw our little team at work. He had captured everything, the light, the shadows, the exhaustion. It was fragile; honest, it was my friends, the same as we had all been back in 2009 when this whole crazy journey first began. Since then we have grown together learnt a lot, but still laughing, still complaining and always giving everything we have on the day. At times the film was more like a quiet observation through the leaves and in the air around us, the music filled me and in my heart it felt like watching us through the eyes of my mother just as I had felt her on the day. I just fell apart, I loved every moment, I had never seen us like that before and I am so grateful I am now able to share it with you all too.
Watching it back over a year later, one scene has gained new meaning for me that I suppose I never registered at the time and that was the moment I gave Katie the key.  I replayed it again and again, and watched myself step into her world, from mine – the walls of our parallel lives gone. For that brief moment we were connected through our grasp of the key, it was like I was finally meeting her and letting her go in real life all at once. The key would unlock her next step in life, set her free, just as creating this series has saved me from grief and now all that was left was for us to both face our doors, and move forward one, last, time………….