December 12, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #52: Elly MacKay

Elly MacKay might be the most patient illustrator I've ever spoken with. If you aren't already familiar with Elly's work, you should know that she creates light box dioramas, or paper theaters, from scratch and then photographs them. Every character, mountain, and leaf is hand-cut and then placed into a small 3D world she has created. Elly's process is highly unique, and you can read about it more on her site here, but for the purposes of this interview we focused mainly on her new book Waltz of the Snowflakes, which, in addition to being her first wordless book, sets out to explore visual narratives in an entirely new way. Enjoy the read! 

About the book:
It is a cold and rainy evening when Gran gives her granddaughter something special: tickets to the ballet. Her granddaughter is reluctant to go. The weather is terrible and they have to wear fancy, uncomfortable clothes. But as the curtains rise on The Nutcracker, the girl's eyes light up as she's introduced to the magic of the theater. The bright costumes, the intricate dances, the magical music, and a new friend all combine to captivate the girl and to bring color to an otherwise dreary evening.

Let's talk Elly MacKay!

LTPB: How did the story for Waltz of the Snowflakes evolve over the course of creating it? Why did you decide to distinguish between the girl’s world and the Nutcracker’s world by making one black and white and the other colorful (without spoiling the ending, if you can!)? 

EM: I’ve been really interested in the idea of parallel stories. I was thinking about our trips to the theatre as a kid and how I often remembered the day itself (the ride there, waiting in the dark, my mom giving us candies to suck on, looking around at the crowds), even if I couldn’t remember much about a performance. I thought it would be interesting to weave the story of theatre goers into a well known story, like The Nutcracker. I like that our emotions often reflect what is happening on the stage and how unifying that is, to have a shared experience. I went to the Nutcracker as a kid and was about to take my own kids so it was on my mind. 

To tell the story, I first broke the ballet down into sections that I thought would be recognizable. Then, I came up with the narrative of the grandmother and granddaughter. I thought it would be interesting to have the girl connect with someone other than her grandmother too. Adults don’t often show as much emotion as children, and I needed this for the story to work. So, I decided to mirror Clara and the Prince by adding a boy to the story.

I decided to distinguish between the girl’s world and the Nutcracker’s world through colour. I limited colour in the girl’s world and made the theatre world colourful because the theatre holds such spectacle. I wanted it to pop. The greyness of the girl’s world also reflects the dreary humdrum weather outside and fit with the low lighting of the theatre. And when the girl’s imagination is sparked, we can see colour in her eyes. 

LTPB: This is your first wordless picture book, so what made you decide to explore this story wordlessly? What was it about this particular story that made you realize it should be told through art alone? 

EM: When I pitched this book to Running Press, I made a couple of sample illustrations. I wanted to make the world of the girl and her grandmother out of only white paper to contrast the bright stage scenes. As I began working on the story, it became clear to me that in order to tell the story, I needed to show the expressions on the character’s faces. Children are so good at reading facial expressions, even if they can’t quite name an emotion. I decided to focus in on the girl and the boy sitting beside her to tell the emotional tale of watching a performance and also how we interact when we share an experience. Even if they aren’t talking, their faces tell us how they are feeling throughout the ballet.

Here are the sample illustrations I made for Running Press early on and here is an early sketch. The grandmother changed quite a bit and so did the layout for the scene.

Now, when I introduce this story to groups of children, I talk about how we read wordless book and what we can infer from the pictures. We talk about emotions and play a game with these eyes and mouths to make expressions.

LTPB: As someone who creates light-box dioramas, what is your process like from start to finish? Do you map out each spread before you create your paper theaters? How do you plan out the visual stories in your books? 

EM: When I first started making books, I found it very difficult to translate between two and three dimensions. I was very clumsy in doing this. Most of my images were made by playing around, hoping to get everything in the right place for the photograph. Often my illustrations looked quite different from my original drawings. Running Press was patient in letting me figure out the steps. After several years of doing this, with more knowledge about which lenses to use, scale, and better planning, I am able to have my final illustrations look fairly close to the the original drawings. Illustrating with this method has some advantages. If something isn’t working, I can change things out, the atmosphere can be altered with lighting, and I can use the same set if the background shows up in the story again. 

Here is a sketch and illustration from my upcoming book Red Sky at Night (Tundra, 2018):

I usually begin a book by drawing. I start by mapping out a book with thumbnails. Sometimes I do this even before I have any of the text. Then, I create a book dummy. All of the pages that use the same setting are colour coded. I put everything up on the wall so I can keep track of what has been done and what still needs to be completed since I can’t work chronologically. Once I’m happy with an illustration, I print it out and post it to the wall too. It helps me make sure I have the lighting right throughout the book. Here is my wall of sketches for The Tallest Treehouse:

LTPB: What are you working on now, and what do you have coming up next? 

EM: The next book coming out is Red Sky at Night. It is the story of a grandfather who takes his grandchildren out on a camping trip. They have to make it back before the storm arrives. It is all told with old weather folklore sayings. It comes out in May with Tundra.

Right now, I am working on a book called, The Tallest Treehouse. It is a fairy book that takes place at our local waterfall. The two fairy friends are very different. While in a competition to build the best treehouse, they find that they can create something more extraordinary if they share their skills and ideas and ultimately, make a shared treehouse. It is about embracing your strengths and weaknesses and also about being a good friend and overcoming obstacles together. 

This is a sketch of Pip. The wind is picking up!

LTPB: If you could have one illustrator, dead or alive, illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why? 

EM: That is hard to imagine. But, okay, it would be a story of a kid who is growing up in the country, who loves spending time outdoors. I grew up surrounded by wetlands, forest and fields, near Georgian Bay. If I could pick someone to illustrate the birds, beavers, herons, foxes and all of the creatures I love, along side me, it would be Lita Judge. I met Lita last year and can’t imagine finding someone who has more of a love of nature or better ability to show the personalities of these animals than her. She is a true kindred spirit.

It was such a treat talking to Elly! Thank you so much to her for answering so many questions for me (I had a lot!). Waltz of the Snowflakes published from Running Press in October.

Special thanks to Elly and Running Press for use of these images!

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