The Blackheart Gang tell ‘The Tale of How’

You don’t really interview The Blackheart Gang. It’s more like being offered an invitation to step into their world and, like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass, it’s an invitation that can’t be accepted half-heartedly.

The Blackheart Gang tell 'The Tale of How'

 This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 12/13 September 2009. Find out more on Tonight.co.za .

I meet the Gang’s illustrator, Ree Treweek, and their story-man and musician, Markus Wormstorm (nee Smit) in the back nook of at Dunkley Square’s Roxy’s, probably the city’s longest running left-of-centre gathering spot. Absent is animator and director Jannes Hendrikz, who is in Los Angeles where the trio’s acclaimed and multiple award-winning animated film, “The Tale of How”, is being screened. The screenings are accompanied by an exhibition of sculptures based on its characters and the trio have recently returned from speaking at the F5 conference in New York dubbed, “a gathering of the world’s best creative minds”. Jannes is representing at the Flux Super 8 annual showcase, “celebrating eight of the most exciting film-makers, video artists and design collectives from around the world”, Markus is back from Europe where he’s been touring with his electro duo Sweat.X and Ree is still grinning about trips to Singapore to oversee the printing of “The Tale of How” book and Indonesia where she sourced the puppet-maker to craft its sculptures.

“The Tale of How” began life as an animated short film populated by piranhas, who are “kind and sincere”, and share a fraught existence with the few remaining dodos, all living in fear of the multi-tentacled Otto, a crusty old sea monster who terrorises them – and eats many of them – until the remaining few are forced to gamble all on the bold escape-plan hatched by Eddy The Engineer, a cunning mouse who heeds their pleas for help. Released in 2006, the film took nine months to craft. It has been flighted at everything from trance-music festivals to book launches, is a perennial internet download hit and has gone on to garner a slew of international film festival, animation and creativity awards. Of the book, The Blackheart Gang say, “If we were to imagine that a coffee table was a person, then the ‘Tale of How’ coffee table book should be considered to be some sort of fabulous wig or magical hat that the above-mentioned person could wear out to parties and things. Theses Parties will probably share very little resemblance to your average “birthday-cake-and-balloon” jobs.” They also note that  it is suitable “for widows and children alike”.

“We all wanted to do a book, once,” says Ree, folding herself up from the lounge-cushions with a kind of staccato grace in the back nook of The Roxy. “We did the video project, which was an animation that we decided to set out as though it was the pages of a book, and now we’ve done the actual book.” “You know how life can be,’ says Markus with the grin of a mischievous imp, rising up from his cushions beside a leather-satchel filled with car fines, “You start doing something, and then it is washed along by the tide. There was ‘Ringo’ (the Blackheart Gang’s first foray into animation and film-making) and ‘The Tale of How’ started out as an idea for a book that became an opera, and now it’s a book.”

Perhaps the real success of “The Tale of How” – the film, the installations and exhibitions, the sculptures and the book – is that they are a creative tour de force created without compromise that have gone on to garner critical success and a kind of commercial viability. “I don’t know if we really expected anything,” says Ree. “We were just doing it because it was fun and, then, we wanted to see what people would think about it. We didn’t know there was such a big industry out there, or much about animation and films. When we started getting invited to film festivals it was really surprising to discover that world.”

“It all seems to be very natural,” adds Markus. “The projects started as a product of me and Ree’s friendship and the creative chemistry between the three of us. It’s a really cool thing because none of it was really planned; it was just that, when we met, we started working together right away. It’s hard to distinguish between where our work ends and where we begin.” Ree pauses and then adds, “We just get really bored if we’re not making stuff.”

In addition to the Blackheart Gang, Ree and Jannes are partners in Shy The Sun, a production company doing commercials. and music videos. Their “Sea Orchestra” won a Silver Clio award for animation for their client, United Airlines, and South African audiences will have seen their work in the enchanting “Bakers Precious Biscuits” ad, where cookies falling from a picnic basket spark a frenzy in the forest undergrowth. The illustrator also completed an intro sequence for the XBox “Rock Band” video game based on The Beatles, which sees international release this week. “We were able to start our own company after ‘Tale of How’,” says Reed, “We’ve got all the infrastructure and all the machines. Now we can do whatever we want to – we just need the time.”

Markus, meanwhile, has set up a new sound production venture, Mysterio.tv, after an amicable parting with Saythankyou, the music hotshop he co-formed with celebrated DJ and producer Sibot. The pair’s musical collaboration, The Real Estate Agents, continues, and fans will be happy to learn that a new album is on the cards, even as Markus’s collaborations with Spoek Mathambo in Sweat.X, continue.

All this and, of course, “The Tale of Then”. “It’s a prequel to the book,” explains Markus, “A serious project with a full classical orchestra and a mixture of live action, animation and puppetry – a joyride of motion. We’re also doing a few installations, like the one Jannes just went over for in LA, which has been getting some cool reviews.” Ree adds: “The current project is also bigger than the book – there are limited edition prints and the sculptures, and we are also customising antiques – we want to take this world into as many different forms as we can.”

The pair start to explain “The Household”, an idea which took form in “The Tale of How” – a place where all the animals that have been suffered extinction are now living, and where Eddy The Engineer continues to work his magic. Hints around new projects also include “The Netherwoods”a tale based on the appearance of Saint Anthony’s Fire in medieval times. The ergotism and the apparent madness it spawns seems to follow the Netherwoods as they travel the isles – but, when the Netherwoods come to South Africa, it takes an entirely different form in affecting the early Dutch colonists and they become determined to find the source of the Nile. “We got the idea from this old picture we bought at a market,” says Markus. “It would be like the sketchbooks that the early European settlers did when they explored ‘deepest, darkest Africa’,” adds Ree. And, with that, there are many, many more tales of The Household and the Netherwoods, of wearing animal suits on top of Table Mountain, of charcoal portraits and a woman with the leg of a horse, of being told to wait outside the F5 after-party following an incident with a pile of rubbish, of a kind of living museum that The Blackheart Gang is planning, of voiceovers by Christopher Walken, of the ongoing “Dodo Trilogy” and what’s really going on six feet under the ground

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“The Tale Of How” book will be launched at The Book Lounge on Thursday 24 September (71 Roeland St, from 4pm). The event will also feature live music by Magdalene Minaar and elements of The Blackheart Gang exhibition at Flux Super 8. See more on TheBlackheartGang.com,ShyTheSun.tv and Mysterio.tv, and on YouTube and Facebook.

 This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 12/13 September 2009. Find out more on Tonight.co.za .

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