Alexandra (Ali) Bannister’s role on the front lines of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was just as important—and often just as muddy—as that of soldier-actors in the trenches. Her journey from the English countryside to Spielberg’s set is also as intriguingly serendipitous as that of Joey, the title war horse whose World War I-era story is the heart of the film. Although her connection to the movie began through her art, the breadth of her artistic experience expanded dramatically as she worked on set and gained a unique job title: equine artistic adviser.
Bannister became involved with this enormous film project “back in June 2010, about five weeks into the prep work on the film. I was at my parents’ house, and their neighbors had friends down to try out a horse for their son. I was at a loose end so went with them as a sort of crash test dummy to check that the horse wasn’t going to kill their son!”
The boy’s father turned out to be art director Gary Tomkins (whose previous work includes the Harry Potter films). Chatting at lunch, Bannister and Tomkins “got onto the subject of art, and I showed him some of my work.” Although production had already begun on War Horse, “the very next day I got a phone call from Gary to say that Rick Carter, the production designer who won an Oscar for his work on Avatar, had just seen my work on my website and wanted me to come in for a meeting the next morning! Well, I don’t get phone calls like that every day, so I grabbed a sketchbook and went.”
Already familiar with the book, and given her experience as a portrait artist of animals as well as people, Bannister was uniquely qualified for her “audition” with Carter. He showed her the pieces on her website that he particularly liked. (Bannister’s work is showcased on her own website, AliBannister.com. It also can be viewed at the War Horse art site.) The two discussed “horses, how they show expression, and how to capture that expression.” In one key scene, Captain Nicholls, the officer who will ride Joey into battle, has to sketch his mount. An artist’s work would be needed to stand in for the actor’s drawings. Scans of her art were sent to Spielberg in Los Angeles, and the rest, as they say, is film history.
“I must have produced about twenty-five sketches in pencil and ink.” Bannister had a great deal of artistic freedom and “was allowed to choose my own subjects to work from, so I chose horses I know who have the Joey-like characteristics of strength, bravery and loyalty.” Additionally, production designer Carter pointed out “characteristics from my past commissions that he thought would be good to show in the sketches of Joey. He also mentioned a couple of different actions or poses that might work well.”
Finder’s Key is a particularly striking, expressive horse, and one of Bannister’s sketches of him has a starring role in the film. The recurring image of Joey, often shown in close-up on screen, not only captures the essence of Captain Nicholls’ and farm lad Albert’s shared respect for the horse but also is a tribute to Bannister’s behind-the-scenes work.
Making Art with Myriad Media
By night, often into “the small hours”, Bannister created the drawings that War Horse fans love because they capture both the physical reality and diverse personalities of her equine subjects. During pre-production and then filming, Bannister seldom had time during the day to draw. “In the weeks before we started filming, I would snatch a bit of time near the end of the day, before the light went, to take photos of the horses in various poses. Bobby Lovgren, the head horse trainer, often helped me. I would then take those photos back to my room and draw from them. Once we started filming, our working days became even longer, and it was even harder to find time to draw. Sometimes my only option was to stay near the stables and draw at the weekend rather than going home.”
Like the cast and crew who spent months on this mammoth film project, Bannister’s day job involved long hours on set, often on the muddy battlefields of the film’s most grueling scenes. She began working with and eventually became head of the equine hair and make-up department, where she designed and applied make-up as well as kept track of the horses’ many “looks” required for the World War I epic. Bannister recalls that first “we worked through the script, producing an equine make-up book which showed how the lead horses would look in each scene. Then we did tests for each look and ran the photos by Spielberg. Once the looks were approved, the photos would go into the book, and that’s the look we would create on the day it was needed.”
Although Bannister loves horses, working with them daily posed special challenges on what she modestly calls “adrenaline-fueled mornings.” She explains that she and her team “achieved the impossible on an almost daily basis. One of the most challenging aspects for me was keeping twenty-six make-up artists safe when applying mud to the rear ends of over eighty horses at around five in the morning.”
Most moviegoers wouldn’t notice to which side a mane is combed or if mud smeared down Joey’s neck looks the same in every shot—until something doesn’t match up. One of Bannister’s tasks was to ensure continuity from shot to shot, even if the time between takes was very long indeed. She recalls that “every smudge of mud had to be accurately recorded so that it could be put back in exactly the same place in the right shade for continuity. We had to keep a careful eye on things like which side the horses’ manes were on and whether any of it had moved over to the other side during the shot before. Because all of the make-up was temporary, we would have to be on hand at all times ready to touch-up any bits that had rubbed off. Sometimes we would have to remind the actors and extras not to stroke the horses in certain places as there was a very real danger of the make-up coming off, which would be bad for all of them.”
Applause from the Actors
Reminding actors not to pet the horses was far from the artist’s only interaction with the film’s famous cast. Bannister was on hand during pre-production while Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Major Stewart) took riding lessons. During breaks, the actors sometimes looked over Bannister’s portfolio. “Both Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch were kind enough to compliment me on my drawings. Benedict described them as exquisite, and Tom even apologized for ‘wrecking’ one of my drawings by having to sketch over the top of it during filming.”
The Spielbergs also praised the artist’s work. Kate Capshaw, visiting her husband on set, “asked to borrow my portfolio to look at over lunch and sent it back with her compliments. We would often chat about art as she is an artist herself. I was incredibly impressed by the work she showed me. I would have loved to have seen more of it. Spielberg himself greeted me on our first meeting with ‘I love your drawings,’ which was pretty special.”
No wonder that some of her fondest memories of the film involve watching “such talented people at work; from the director, obviously, to the amazing horse trainers and stuntmen, to the people in the art department, notably Kevin Jenkins, who produced stunning concept artwork for the film.” Of course, starting the job with a compliment from Spielberg is “pretty hard to top!”
For this artist, however, the true joy of War Horse is its artistry. Some memories are a poignant reminder of working on the film now almost two years ago. “With regard to the drawings, the best aspect for me was to see a sketch that I did of my friend’s horse, Beau, who has tragically gone blind, appear in a close up on the trailer. I actually leapt out of my chair when it appeared! Until you see the final cut, you never quite know what will make the film, so I was thrilled to see that he had made it.”
The Fine Art of Drawing
Seeing film or photography from Bannister’s perspective provides new insights into all forms of visual art. She is well known for her attention to detail and sometimes finds “sharp details like eyes, bridles and buckles particularly pleasing to draw, but I don’t look for them when taking photos. When I’m taking reference pictures, I focus purely on capturing the subjects’ character through the expressions they show. The way that humans or animals hold themselves tells us so much about them and how they are feeling. I like to get a good amount of light in the eyes, but the set of the whole body is important.
“I am fascinated by reactions. With both animals and humans I like to try and capture a natural response to something. With animals I like to sit, observe and wait rather than trying to manipulate a pose too much. With humans you have to judge the mood carefully to avoid the sitter becoming self-conscious. People often need more time with the camera off them to be able to relax properly.”
Surprisingly, “horses can sometimes be easier to photograph as they’re less self-conscious and react in a more predictable way to certain things like the sound of a bucket of food being shaken or another horse being brought into the yard. Having said that, I have had some great photo shoots with children, and one of my hardest shoots was with a horse who was so relaxed and confident that we struggled to get him to look interested in anything for long! I think it’s more about the personality of the subject than whether they have two legs or four.”
Her latest projects include animals as subjects, including “a pencil sketch of a mare and foal for an exhibition to raise money for the Adoley Centre Appeal, which is a medical center in Ghana. The theme is New Life.” She also has created “a portrait of a gorgeous dog called Jethro, and a commission for a very well-known person to give to another well-known person, but,” she carefully adds, “since it is a surprise present, I can’t say who they are.” Long before War Horse, she became familiar with working with the famous. She has received commissions from former Beatle Ringo Starr and England cricketer Derek Underwood, for example, and clients include equine royalty as well as celebrities.
Photo (partial) of Ali Bannister with her artwork courtesy of © Bridget Worth
After the War
Bannister’s War Horse art goes beyond the film and has become part of the mythology behind Michael Morpurgo’s popular children’s book. The original story explains that a portrait of Joey, the famous war horse, hangs in the local town hall. Morpurgo could not have anticipated that fans of the book (and, later, of the play and film) would actually come to see the painting. Enter Bannister and what now has become the famous painting of Joey.
The artist explains that “the whole idea of the painting was, in Michael Morpurgo’s words, ‘to change a big black lie into a small white one.’ The painting described in the author’s note was fictional. Fans of the book and the play were turning up at the village hall to see it and were leaving disappointed. For that reason it is important to me that people are allowed to ‘believe their own truth’ about the painting. If my name was on it, it would have spoiled the illusion.” Nevertheless, most people recognize Bannister’s work.
Before the unveiling at the Iddesleigh village hall in December 2011, Bannister was “nervous about how it would be received, so when a fan of the book who was visiting from America saw it and cried, I was incredibly moved and relieved!” She emphasizes that “it was incredibly important to me that the painting matched the image that Michael had in his head, so we talked a lot about how it should look . . . I am thrilled that he loves the final portrait, as he is Joey’s creator after all.”
The artist can empathize with those who feel connected to War Horse and its themes of loyalty and perseverance during adversity. Like many who come to view the painting, she can trace her family history to the war: her great great uncle served in the Artist’s Rifles. She notes that her family has “sketches of my great grandfather in the trenches” and “a painting of my great great uncle’s horse painted by him in oils in a similar style to the one I produced of Joey for Michael Morpurgo.”
Although Bannister’s work on War Horse has brought her additional fame and international attention, she is “surprised by the media interest and surprised that people want to see what I look like. To me the artwork is the important thing, so it took me a while to get used to the fact that people were interested in me, too.” Her family and friends won’t let her forget about her cinematic fame, however. They still give her a nudge when her sketches appear, and Bannister has to pinch herself “when I think about all the people who have now seen my work.”
Although the film’s recent release on DVD/Blu-ray, as well as her relationship to both book and film, will keep her connected with War Horse for a long time, Bannister is looking to new projects to satisfy her artistic impulses as well as to assist the community. “Now that the media interest is dying down a bit, I am getting more requests from charities and schools. It’s nice to be able to give something back, as I remember being particularly inspired by an illustrator who gave a talk at my junior school.” Given the continuing interest in Bannister’s art, she undoubtedly has already influenced many a budding artist.
Upcoming projects may include “a very large piece, maybe a mural of some sort, possibly with a classical theme. There are always so many projects that I have kicking around in my head that I’d love to work on, but it’s hard to fit them in amongst my commissioned work.” With references like Steven Spielberg, among many others, on her resume, Ali Bannister’s future looks picture perfect.