Laura-Beth Cowley on Her Animated Tale of Contemporary Witchcraft ‘The Gift’

The first film as part of our coverage of this year’s FrightFest is Laura-Beth Cowley’s The Gift. It’s a beautifully composed animation which sees a young protagonist confronting visions of a witching past. Dealing with themes of femininity and internal power, Cowley’s film uses contrasting colour palettes to weave a timeless tale of repressed femininity. Twelve Cabins spoke with Cowley on the eve of this year’s FrightFest to talk folklore, superstitions and Britain’s long history with witchcraft.

Where did the concept for The Gift come from?

So, the film came about after I finished my Animation Masters, I set up a collective with two other women from my course, Fiona Viani-Pericchi and Hannah Stevens, both of whom worked on The Gift as well. We wanted to continue working together after we finished our studies, so set ourselves up as The Weird Eye Collective. We wanted to make a series of films centred around bad luck superstitions as we were interested in folklore and dark storytelling. We did a bunch of research into various bad luck tropes and I chose to develop a film focused on the taboos and superstitions to do with menstruation as there are absolutely loads, many of which are negative and seem to have been created to make people who menstruate feel ashamed or dirty, as if cramps and menstruation weren’t bad enough. 

However these taboos, like spoiling dairy products with a touch or making plants wither, could also be read as acts of power or magic, so I thought if all of these things are true why can’t we harness them and use them for our own ends? This is where the initial idea came from. When I make films I tend to start with a single image and I had this very clear idea of a woman sitting in a half moon window, drinking tea and then experiencing horrendous cramps. The other girls and I continued to send each other articles and facts we found about menstrual taboos and superstitions from other countries and started putting them together into scenarios.

I’d been toying with the film on weekends for a while and then I saw an open call for a development programme for young filmmakers with Calling the Shots in Bristol called New Creatives, which was in association with BBC Arts and Arts Council England. The call was to make a short film about living in modern Britain and, as witchcraft has a long history in England, I was able to draw parallels between both modern and historic ideas around both witchcraft and menstruation. I was then teamed up with my mentor and producer Emma Lazenby who is herself a BAFTA-winning animator who makes films that often look at female health. So, it was a perfect union. We bonded over our love of horror films and she was the one that really pushed me to include more of the horror vibes. 

It’s a refreshing take on the witch narrative too, did you draw upon any particular films or filmmakers in developing the idea? 

Witches are fascinating, they really are the only predominantly female ‘monster’ character. There genesis is so complex historically both in fiction and in real life; they have been seen as hags, villains, succubi and victims. So, as a subject going into a film you never know where the story may go.

There is a quite blatant Rosemary’s Baby reference in the film, which is my favourite film. I am also a huge fan of Ari Aster and the way he portrays grief, pain and how the women in his films hold themselves. As well as folk horror films like Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Devils, Witchfinder General and The Witch. Also podcast series like Lore are a big influence to myself and the other Weird Eye members. 

The visual style is really beautiful and striking, how was the process in creating it? And was it important for you to have distinctly contrasting visuals style between both time periods in the film?

Thank you so much. Quite early on in the development I knew I wanted to work with a new style and I reached out to illustrator Karl James Mountford who is German but based over the bridge from me in Wales. I actually just messaged him on Instagram and told him the idea for the film and highlighted some of his work that I loved. He works a lot with book covers and most of his work was already licensed out, so he offered to do an original piece, which served as the design for the central character. From there my collective colleague Hannah Stevens did all the backgrounds and 99% of the additional artwork. She’s amazing! She also animated some of the scenes in the film.

Originally I was going to get a completely separate artist to work on the art for the vision/dream/other time period scene but ultimately thought it would be too jarring for the audience in such a short film. But it was important to visually divide these two sections, as this is when Brigid (the main character, her name never comes up in the film as she’s on her own) realises what’s been going on, all the strange happenings in the film have been because of her and her inner ancestral power.

Almost all the animation was done in After Effects by creating Photoshop cut out puppets and rigging them in After Effects. Then animated by myself, Hannah and my partner Ben Mitchell who also did all the foley, sound and editing on the film. Fiona did some digital 2D frame-by-frame work in another software for the water and fire effects. I was able to get my old school friend Rowan Carmichael to make the groans and small noises that the main character makes throughout the film and the rest of us made up the crowd in the vision sequence. It was a super small crew, all of whom I know very well. I love the freedom of creating a world and showing only what’s needed in animation.

If I’m not mistaken, The Gift marks your first animated foray into horror, what appealed to you about the genre? And do you see yourself coming back to work in it again?

Oh, I absolutely love horror. One of my first films when I was much younger was a kind of horror, it was a film about Stephan Bibrowski (Lionel the Lion-faced Man) based on the poem Fable by Janos Pilinszky which was set as a university project. It’s pretty rough but I remember it was the first film I got some positive feedback on from an emotional place and that was really encouraging.

Honestly I wasn’t sure if The Gift would be considered a horror, so I was delighted when Fright Fest picked it up as I felt like I had been accepted into the fold. I do tend to slip a little bit of horror into all my work either consciously and unconsciously. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a horror writer but I was very dyslexic and didn’t feel I had the ability. Now however I write a lot, both journalistically and as an academic about animation. I still tend to tell stories visually, I find it’s easier and quicker to get across my ideas visually, art and animation are my first loves and horror is a very close second. I think horror and animation are terrific bedfellows and now that I have a foot in the creaky door of horror I’m definitely not leaving. 

What’re you working on next?

I’m working on three animated short films at the moment, all of which sit within the horror genre. One is a commission based on historical fact, one is a micro short horror-comedy and one is a folk/psychological horror, once again focused on women. I’m also writing a collection of short stories that may become films in the future and I’m in the planning stages of a new podcast series about animated horror that I’m doing with Skwigly Online Animation Magazine.

The Gift is part of our spotlight on the 2020 edition of FrightFest. You can find the rest of our festival coverage here.

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