After the break at last month’s Nicer Tuesdays, Melissa Kitty Jarram, an illustrator and artist based in London treated us to a run-through of a recent film made alongside director Anna Ginsburg. Titled Ugly, it illustrates an eponymous poem by Warsan Shire in an intricate and movingly beautiful style that merges Melissa’s paintings and Anna’s animations. The journey to get there, however, was one of perseverance, as Melissa explained…
Both creatives were introduced to each other’s work on Instagram, where they admired from afar. But, as all great stories begin, it was at the pub and through a mutual friend that they finally met in real life. “We started talking about each other’s work and what we liked about it and decided we wanted to do a collaboration – the journey began…” Melissa told us. While Melissa assumed that Anna wanted to work with her digital illustrations because “that would have been so much easier,” what Anna loved about Melissa’s work was her paintings. Rightfully terrified, it was after seeing how well Anna could translate these paintings into digital animations that Melissa was sold. “She really made my paintings come to life, which was something I had no idea someone could do,” she continued.
After discussing making a few gifs, the pair landed on the idea of animating a poem. Their first choice was Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and so they produced a few tests which Strange Beast saw, loved, and subsequently offered to produce the film. While amazing, the funding meant the pair had to secure the rights to use the poem and so they sent a treatment to Mary Oliver’s agent who replied with a very short email saying “No!”. Melissa recalled: “We were gutted about this but we thought, we can’t let this stop the project, we’re going to have to try everything we can.” With a little light detective work by Anna’s cousin in America, they managed to find Mary Oliver’s home address and sent her a letter and some original paintings. But, in a cruel twist of fate, the very same day that Melissa went to the post office to send them, Mary Oliver died.
The challenge was then to go back to the drawing board and find another poem – which Anna did. The duo’s new piece came from award-winning British poet Warsan Shire, in the form of a piece titled Ugly. “A lot of her work is about the experience of being a migrant – she moved to the UK [from Kenya] – and the problems and difficulties she had with integration, especially from a women’s perspective,” Melissa explained. Ugly very much touches on these points, as well as notions of beauty and how trauma can affect your self-confidence, but ultimately with an uplifting ending which is that “there is a lot of beauty in strength.” It was the combination of these ideas which made the piece the perfect source material.
Again, however, the duo had to approach Warsan’s agent to secure the rights to use Ugly. They sent the treatment over, and got a reply: “No!” Anna and Melissa tried emailing Warsan directly and "sliding into her DMs” but, still, to no avail. Not deterred, it was once again some amateur sleuthing which produced the goods. Melissa was looking at Warsan’s profile and noticed it was a business account which meant that her phone number was on there, texted her, and finally they received the go-ahead they needed.
From here, Anna and Melissa started working together really closely, “going through the imagery, forming ideas on how it was going to look and what was going to happen.” Melissa produced a bunch of drawings which Anna turned into an animatic and they could begin colouring, which was “like solving a Rubix cube.” As an artist, Melissa doesn’t work sequentially and this meant it was near impossible to develop colour that would flow from one scene to another and still look good – as the shapes changed, the balance of the colour changed too. Until that was, they remember that there was a paint bucket tool. They used the stills from the animatic and, together with producer Becky from Strange Beast, went through frame-by-frame and decided which colours worked and which didn’t. For some perspective on how long it took, Melissa told us: “I produced close to 100 original paintings which took an average of five hours each to make. The more intricate frames could take up to an hour to colour digitally, and with 12 frames a second, that’s 12 hours to colour a single second!”
It was the conclusion of Melissa’s talk which ultimately got the crux of what makes this project so special. “Because the topic of the poem was dealing with something that was so intimate to the writer, but also with the current refugee crisis, all of us felt like there was something more we could do with it,” she explained. “We didn’t want our screening to be about our film in particular and we wanted to give a platform to other artists, especially migrants and refugees.” They, therefore, hosted a ticketed screening in London’s Old Street, the profits of which went to Counterpoints – an organisation supporting and producing the arts by and about migrants and refugees and ensuring that they are recognised within British culture. In summary, Melissa told us: “I feel like art is really at the heart of culture, and a really useful tool to communicate different perspectives and by doing that we can challenge opinions and it helps us begin to understand other people. And, at the risk of sounding super cliche, I really believe that helping people understand things better might ultimately help us all treat each other better as well.”
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