In addition to teaching book arts and making/sending large quantities of mail, some of you may know that I have also spent a bit of time creating “paper props” for television. When I first started binding books, I never even considered the fact that I might possibly end up making things for film or photos. All those wonderful tomes and relics seen on the silver screen – for example, the grail diary in “Indiana Jones” or any of the text/spell books in a Harry Potter movie – seemed like objects spun out of thin air by art departments with incredibly large budgets and multitudes of time. My ideas around this would soon change.
In the summer of last year, I received a phone call from a long-time friend, someone I had worked with here-and-there. “Jennie, I need a bookbinder,” she informed me. “I thought of you right away.” There was a tone of excitement in her voice. And since I’m always up for a spot of adventure, I agreed to help her out.
I was told time was of the essence, that really there was a mere 72 hours in which to create a version of the Codex Gigas – an enormous, 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide goliath. (currently, the real version of this book is housed at the National Library of Sweden, in Stockholm) Filming was due to start on Monday. I was called late in the afternoon on a Friday. Large quantities of caffeine were involved over those three days, as well as a thumping soundtrack that kept me motivated into the wee hours of three consecutive nights.
I wasn’t surprised when the same friend called me four months later. “There’s a new project, and guess what? It involves a book. A pretty interesting book, written by a bit of a nut-job.” Already, I was intrigued. It turns out that some production company somewhere was currently “into” making TV shows about weird historical books with controversial histories – go figure. I was about to get a crash course in the Malleus Maleficarum, a.k.a “Der Hexenhammer”. Published in 1487, it was one of the first “mass produced” books, coming onto the scene approximately 30 years after Gutenberg’s bible. The book outlines various ways to determine if someone is a witch, and if so, how to mete out punishment. Since I have a fascination for history-based book projects, why not tackle this one? “Alright,” I told my friend. “I’m in.”
There are many ways to approach a project. Some people reason and fidget everything out, down to the last detail (and then some). Others throw caution to the wind and dive right in. I like to land somewhere in the middle – making lists, gathering tools and materials, then getting down to the business of building a book. And so, that’s how I began.
The studio was quiet. I laid out my tools. Carefully, using a combination of electric paper cutter and hand-tearing, I created pages and signatures. What kind of thread to use? What would have been appropriate for something bound in 1487? Should the text paper be toned? Textured? Handmade? What’s going to look good on screen, not be too “loud” or jarring? These were all questions I asked myself, things I researched in person and on the inter-webs.
Getting down to business was the easy part. Bookcloth had to be hand-dyed; after all, today’s modern colors didn’t exist in 1487. Hell, bookcloth didn’t exist in 1487. Through trial and error, a modern girl figures out how contemporary materials can be made to look old. I mixed inks, sponged bits here-there-and-everywhere, worked to get the perfect shade of oxblood and/or umber.
Sewing together the textblock was the easy part, since I’ve always liked sewing. Casing in (attaching covers to textblock) is always a bit nerve wracking, but as I mentioned, the studio was quiet and I took my time. Two versions of the book were created: a version used in a scene where the Malleus arrives “fresh from the binder’s”, and another scene which takes place about 50 years later – a witch trial. As I’m sure you can appreciate, two Maleficarums means twice the amount of time to complete.
But once the books were finished, it was time to move on to paper props. Letters, posters, papal bulls: all had to be made. Have you ever thought about the people who make those items? Neither had I. And yet, there I was sitting in the studio putting together missives sealed with wax and string. Not so different, really, from any other day of the week.
At the end of a weekend of non-stop work, I blew out the candle I had been using for sealing wax, gathered up scraps of paper and thread, bundled all the tools of my work life into a tidy group. I left the two books for the evening, settling into their new anatomies and skins. Walking out of the studio, and into the cold San Francisco night, I rang up my friend. “Your bibles are finished,” I told her. “Six hundred years in the making.”
“Witch Hunter’s Bible” airs on the National Geographic channel
Sunday, May 9th at 10pm. For more info (and photos!), take a look at the website: