Bringing Hans to Life with Nadia Roden

The illustrated animations that breathe life into Hans Laube are created by Nadia Roden.

Hans believed that everything on this earth had a smell, even emotions. He was an innovator, ahead of his time and lost to history. Until now.

Here Nadia reveals how she got ‘roped in’ and her process of bringing Hans back. 

“Tammy and I have known each other since school in London, when we were about 13 years old. Although we now live very far away from each other- Tammy now in Australia and me in New York- when we meet, we just kind of start off where we left off. It’s very natural.

Last year Tammy came to New York for her research and to show her work at the Cornelia Street Café stage. She needed someone to play Elizabeth Taylor and thought I was the right height and had blue eyes so she roped me in. I’ve never been an actress but I got into the part and really enjoyed the evening.  The whole project seemed so fascinating and so quirky.

The first scene I drew was Hans at the table. Tammy’s brief was that he should be sitting at his kitchen table coming up with a new invention, trying to figure it out. I drew him from the back to keep him a mystery, big and lanky hunched over this very small table in this very intimate room, in his own world, intensely involved in what he was doing. I did some research into the furniture of the time but that just sets the scene, 1950s chairs and curtains and everything, but really it’s more about him. 

Being an animator I think is a bit like being an actor in that you need to get inside the character. My first drawings were a little stiff, but gradually, through studying his body language in old photos, and also his physical features, I was able to give the viewer glimpses into his personality. 

To me the art of animation is very much like life, you don’t just see a person and that’s who they are, you gradually get insights or glimpses and I kind of feel that’s how animation works. You are creating something that is alive rather than a still image so it engages and affects us in a very different way.”

As Hans’ daughter Carmen Laube describes her complicated father, we see him emerge from the page and onto the screen:

“In this scene it was almost as if I was Carmen drawing, and whilst she is talking, this image could be in her mind. Part of capturing Hans’ character is focusing in on elements of his face as well as the way he stands. His glasses became very important, the most important feature because you can recognise him in a second. And his very black and imposing suit. At the same time, I was trying to take a step away so that there was another point of view, trying to keep the serious aspect and also give it a bit of humour. Sometimes humour can endear or add another layer to a character.

As an animator, because it is a very slow process, you are working on the minute detail and the viewer doesn’t necessarily realise that they’re experiencing or seeing everything that you’re drawing, because it’s moving so fast. But subconsciously it does sink in. You can be quite manipulative by adding something. Even in just one frame, with 12 frames a second you would not necessarily see it, but your subconscious would.

Carmen was describing how Hans wore a little ring on his pinky, how she remembered it. I filled the whole screen with his hand and the pinky ring. Just before that happens, the smoke coming from his cigarette turns into little hearts and then goes back to normal. This happens in less than a second. So just little things like that you might not notice but they give you a kind of feeling as they go by.

It’s a lot like life: you don’t know why your mood is changing or why you might suddenly feel sad or happy, just something changed in you and you didn’t realise what. I like to think that my animated drawings are a bit like that too. Something happens and it affects you but you don’t always know what it was.

Carmen said people would ask her mother whether she was worried when Hans was working with Liz Taylor that there might be something going on. Her mother said “Oh no, Hans is a perfectionist and Liz had a scar.” I was thinking, oh well that’s what they thought and it’s probably true but, like a camera having a sort of mind of its own, I can show another perspective to what Carmen is saying. Maybe there was something going on? So the viewer sees two different aspects: they hear Carmen’s point of view, very considerate of her mother, and the viewer also sees something else. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken liberty to give suggestions that aren’t in the script- but I couldn’t resist.

I thought it was really important that Hans was drawn smoking, with cigarette smoke always in the frame. Hans in the scene without the smoke means the nose is not engaged, you’re not smelling the scene. Hans’ cigarette smoke brings the nose to life for the viewer, even if they don’t like the smell of smoke. It brings that sense to life for them.

I’ve been told that I have a very good sense of smell. I think our sense of smell is so important and one of the big pleasures of life. I can’t imagine not smelling. Just the smell of coffee in the morning is so satisfying. Smell is also very closely related to taste, although not something we are conscious about. I think smell is very much part of the sensual experience of eating and cooking too. When I’m creating a recipe, apart from using my taste I’m also smelling.

I’m working on an illustrated 300 page history of French cooking from the Middle Ages to the present day. I like to bring to life the characters that created the dishes. I think the story around a dish makes us love eating it more because it means so much more to us. Smell can bring you back to certain moments, like Proust’s Madeleine (as he recalled in Remembrance of Things Past). I think a dish can do that too, a whole story can come flooding back, just from a taste. 

I’m painting a whole world in the book, visualising the little stories behind all the dishes. So that when you make and eat them, maybe you will remember the whole story and have an appreciation of character and history at the same time. I bring a little humour into it as well, so as not to take things too seriously.”