How The Storm Whale Came To Be by Benji Davies
It was late 2009 and I had been working on new samples to show publishers. I already had several picture books under my belt as illustrator but writing was not something I had ventured into. It was something that appealed to me, but I hadn’t had the time to really get on, to actually write something of my own. Animation was my main pursuit back then and had been for five years or so, working as an animation director making commercials in London, with several well-known British brands on my showreel. But creating my own stories was what I really wanted to do. At the time the best route into this seemed through making short films. I had studied animation, was making a career from it, and it was what I thought I knew best.
Making short animated films is on the whole, whilst romantic, a sweat-inducing affair. Any money scraped together goes into the production of the film, not putting bread on the table. Some filmmakers may find the umbrella of a good studio who are willing to put up a budget, with an eye to creating something show-stopping to attract new clients and feed back into the studio funds. But I wasn’t attached to that kind of studio and whilst they did all they could to push some of the film ideas forward, siphoning money here and there, we just couldn’t get any projects off the ground.
So, 2009. A visit to the seaside, a coastal town called Whitstable, had my head awash with oystershells and salt-drenched beach huts.
I did some ink sketching and took some photos. Inspiration struck me and when I got home I set to work on this image, which if you are familiar with The Storm Whale you will recognise.
I showed it to my art director, Nia Roberts at Simon & Schuster.
“Whats the story in this one. There must be a story! You need to write it.”
The fact was that I had already written a story. Further than that I’d made a film.
Seven years earlier as a wide-eyed animation undergraduate, I had made an animated film called A Bowl of Soup. The story was about a boy finding a whale on the beach and taking it home. There was too much of a growling dad character, a chopping board covered in fish heads, and ladlefuls of briny soup. I had a soft spot for it, perhaps it conjured in me a nostalgia for my simpler, more desperate student days, and had always wondered if it would make a book. Tucked away in a cupboard, it was time to let it resurface and find out.
I continued working as an animation director, and in the background my soup film bubbled. I tried out several versions, storyboarded them, made dummies, added words. I removed the fish heads and chucked out the soup. The dad’s anger became more imagined between the pages and words. Stylistically it changed for the better, became richer and more lived in. Meanwhile the narrative arc, the spine of the film, stayed true.
My editor went on maternity leave, came back and then eventually left for another publisher. Several stand-ins later and my now editor, Lara Hancock, arrived on the scene. Together we carefully crafted the words and pulled the final version together. It had all happened in between other work; another two and a half years had passed. But the film had become a book.
With writing I found I could hint at imagined things, say subtly different things from the imagery, and let the reader fill the gaps. In the film I had shown what the characters were feeling and thinking visually and without dialogue. In the book I could hint at those ideas and emotions through words, guiding the reader over and through the pictures.
There is something magical about writing picture books and I was hooked. This year I wrote my second, Grandad’s Island. This one came from scratch, straight from my sketch book and notes. I thought I would skip the filmmaking part.
I still have a longing to make my work into films. To reverse the process that made The Storm Whale, back into animation, would be as fulfilling as it would be hard work. And whilst the story would remain the same I know it would evolve once more and take on new layers. But for now I have found a way to make films, to get those ideas, stories and characters out of my head and into other peoples. It’s just that my films are made of paper and glue and ink and you can sit in a big chair and hold them.
Benji Davies is an author, illustrator, and animation director. As a child, he was often found painting at the kitchen table . . . a habit he has continued into adulthood. He lives in London with his wife, Nina. You can find him online at benjidavies.com