Monday 9 September 2013

An interview with - Benji Davies

We have decided to further celebrate the launch of Benji's latest gigantic picture book triumph 'The Storm Whale'  with a salty seafaring interview conducted entirely via the medium of messages in bottles. (you can read our full book review here)

messages in a bottle

Introducing inimitably talented illustrator...

benji davies

Message in a bottle 1 - 
Do you develop ideas and concepts in sketchbooks or is it more of an organic process? 
I tend to scribble things down haphazardly, and then have scraps of ideas on envelopes, loose sheets of paper. This helps cement something from my head on to the paper. Then if the idea persists, if I like it the next time I look at it, the next time I pick up my sketch book I have somewhere to start.
Its hard to come up with ideas when confronted by a blank sketchbook unless you have already started the seeds in your head, the day before, last week, last year even. That said sometimes you might come up with an idea while sketching something else, for another project even, and an idea just creeps in.

The Storm Whale is a development of a story that I made as a short film when I was at uni in 2002. It was essentially the same, although some elements have been removed, others enhanced, to give it more readability as a book for children. But the core idea is still the same. I have always loved the sea and so using it as a backdrop to a story seemed very natural.
Its sort of odd to look at the film now, it looks so clumsy and badly animated ! 

Message in a bottle 2 -
Tell us about a book from your childhood which was particularly special to you. 
I still have quite a few of my books from childhood - Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories spring to mind. 
They stayed with me, simple elemental things like the idea of spring being around the next corner. Simple life affirming, universal ideas are strongest i think for picture books.
I always loved the Tiger Who Came To Tea

I love the idea of the this big animal who shouldn't be there, suddenly is in your house. I thought about that when I was writing this story,  back when I was making the short film.
I think it is the imagery or concepts of things that I remember most, something that resonated with me at that age, captured my imagination.

The whale I realised recently is almost identical in shape, the silhouette of its body and flippers and the curve of its back, to a stuffed toy seal that my mum used to have. I think this 3D form is imprinted in my head from childhood and eked its way out when I designing the whale for this story. 

You can see the main characters as they were when I first sketched them over a decade ago - they are more refined now ( I hope!)  but you can see they kept their essence.

Message in a bottle 3 -
Where else might we see you work other than sitting comfortably in a children's book? 
I recently worked on a rug design for Chris Haughton's 
Made By Node project. That was fun to do and I now have one of the rugs on my wall! It was made by the same people in Kathmandu who produced the knitted toy for The Storm Whale.

They're called Kumbeshwar and they employ local women to knit and weave, its a really great Fair Trade system that also supports their own school and orphanage. I'd like to do more in that vein in the future, making physical things, especially with crafts people, either linked to a book project or something stand alone.

I have also worked as an animation director for several years, making animated commercials and music promos as well as short films. I enjoy it, and love to see things come to life on the screen, but I also think the angle of my work is well suited to children's publishing. Primarily I just like drawing - its what I loved doing when I was younger and what I still love now. 

Message in a bottle 4 -
As a fan of all things coastal what your favourite fish dish
I love seafood.. really anything fish, actually  - moules mariniere, yes! 

Message in a bottle 5 -
Where do you find inspiration? 
I feel inspired (I'm not just saying this because of this book) when I'm near the sea. My wife Nina and I love the coast, particularly in Norfolk where we have spent a lot of holidays.
Top tip for you is to go to Wells-Next-The-Sea where if you're lucky The Albatross will be moored up. Its an old dutch sailing ship that is a pub-come-pancake restaurant - that's all they serve, good beer and pancakes. Its a must. 

But really I think inspiration can start anywhere, you just have to be in a receptive mode. Victorian chimney pots, old shacks and nature often set me whirring.

Message in a bottle 6 -
Do you think social media is important in promoting a book?  
Social media I think is really good for connecting illustrators and authors to each other and the people who buy their books. I think its really important now to be involved or I think perhaps you could become too obscure and hidden from the chatter.
Its still quite experimental though - a balance between telling people what you're up to and possibly boring them with the same old Storm Whale news… ahem.
(You can follow Benji on Twitter @Benji_Davies)

Message in a bottle 7 -
Which is your favourite spread from The Storm Whale?  
My favourite spread is possibly the one that kick started the whole thing, which was recognised by my art director, Nia at Simon&Schuster as potential book material, (with Noi's house on the beach, the opening spread). I think the whole story is in this image, even though the whale is yet to turn up.

Message in a bottle 7 -
If you were stranded on a desolate beach who would you like to sit next to the campfire with? 
I think some old sea dogs would be good company in the light of the campfire, to tell a few tales of the deep.

Message in a bottle 8 -
You have a well documented and successful background in animation do you think this feeds through in the way in which you develop and create your picture books in terms of style and narrative? 
I think it must do. its one of the reasons I wanted to study animation over illustration, because I felt it would give me a better understanding of movement and storytelling in my work.

Message in a bottle 9 -
Three men in a boat - If you were abandoned at sea in a small fishing boat with two other illustrators who would you choose?
If I was out at sea with a couple of illustrators in a boat…  I'm not sure about this, I think we'd all go mad! 
Maybe we'd get swallowed by Moby Dick.. 
I'd take a Gustaf and a Gustav.
Gustaf Tenggren, he did the backgrounds & concepts on Pinnochio for Disney, the underwater pics and inside of the whale are brilliant.

And then Gustav Dore. He made incredible engravings of sea monsters like this one..

Message in a bottle 10 -
With the onslaught of e-books and enhanced picture books is there a future in REAL books?
Oh yes I definitely think there is a future for real picture books. I think its something you can't take away from them, they are the real deal, the digital counterpart doesn't feel the same. But maybe there is some nostalgia attached to that.
Me Books are really interesting, by adding sound and voice over, they help create something that might spread the books audience, maybe children who find it difficult to engage with traditional books. I think this is important as children are being bombarded by digital media, and distracted by it more and more, this could help draw them into real books, bridging the gap.  But I don't think this competes at all with the real version - it just provides an alternative way of enjoying a story and hopefully its reach and appeal is then wider. Getting interested in reading and finding access points to books is the most important thing.

THANK YOU to Benji Davies for his thoughtful and insightful answers, always a gent! - we can't wait to see what he's got up his sleeve for his next picture book and Three cheers to Simon & Schuster who are creating great waves with their imaginative and enviably stylish new picture book list! HURRAH 

TOOT TOOT Book Sniffers - more eye-boggling picture books reviewed later this week! EXCITING on a book shaped stick.