William Blake’s paintings tread the streets of London, animated by Sam Gainsborough

A trailer for Tate Britain’s major new exhibition on painter, printmaker and poet William Blake sees his works digitally “graffitied” and animated to treat the London streets he once frequented. Directed by Sam Gainsborough and produced by Blinkink, the short animation brings to life the characters in Blake’s paintings as giant spectres inhabiting the city.

For the project, Tate gave Gainsborough access to super high-res imagery of the original paintings to work with. “It was such a luxury to have these amazing quality images,” Gainsborough tells It’s Nice That, “you could see all the brushstrokes and the scratches.” Given a completely open creative brief, Gainsborough was tasked with bringing Blake’s paintings to the forefront “as most people know him for his poetry” and framing Blake’s work in a contemporary way. “We wanted to take his paintings and make them ghostly retread the streets he lived in.”

Gainsborough explains that his film drew from a personal obsession with the street artist Blu. “I always wondered how you could do that digitally,” he says. Working from digital images of Blake’s paintings, he worked closely with animator Renaldho Pelle to first figure out how the paintings should move, then painstakingly transpose the works into animation, frame by frame. “We just did it by eye, there’s no computer trickery. It’s just Photoshop, and a month or so of long days!”

To source backdrops, the Gainsborough and cinematographer Ronnie McQuillan went on a research day around London to shoot buildings and streets that Blake lived in and frequented. “I didn’t want it to seem too posh, just centred around the gallery,” says Gainsborough, “because he was an advocate for the working man, so some of the photos of the streets are a bit more gritty.” The opening scene, for example, shows the creature from Blake’s Ghost of a Flea walking across the walls of Broadwick Street, where Blake was born in 1757.

The film is backed by original music composed by Seymour Milton with a voiceover by Jasmine Blackborow reading excerpts from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

Gainsborough surmises: “Just being allowed to animated these paintings was really special.”

William Blake opens at Tate Britain today until 2 February 2020.

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