22 February 2023

Spotlight on the Gloucester shipwreck animation

L-R: Shem Jacobs, Katie Smith, Dean J. Smith
L-R: Shem Jacobs (credit: Andrew Florides), Katie Smith, Dean J. Smith

With the opening this week of the exhibition about the Gloucester warship, we spoke to some of the UEA alumni, staff and students involved in the creation of an animation about the ship’s final voyage in May 1682. 

The Last Voyage of the Gloucester: Norfolk's Royal Shipwreck exhibition is officially opening at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery on Saturday 25 February and will run until Sunday 10 September 2023. This exhibition tells the story of the last, tragic voyage of the Gloucester warship, which sank off the coast of Great Yarmouth in 1682, and publicly unveils the artefacts brought to light after its initial discovery 15 years ago by Julian and Lincoln Barnwell and James Little.  

As part of this exhibition, a specially commissioned animation dramatising an argument that happens on the ship between James Stuart, the Duke of York and Albany, and naval officers was created to be revealed at the launch. This short drama recreates the likely debates that took place on the Gloucester as to the fastest or safest course to navigate the seas off East Anglia on the night before it foundered. Steve Waters, Professor of Scriptwriting at UEA, was responsible for writing the animation’s script. His role involved considering known historical facts about the ship, in addition to finding a way to detail the final journey of the Gloucester shipwreck and its passengers within just four minutes. 

He said: “The animation is narrated by one of the characters present, the captain John Berry, and we then witness a terse exchange between James Stuart (later King James II and VII), and the different factions on the ship, with some arguing for a safer but slower passage out to sea and another suggesting there is a safe, securer route closer in to shore. James then fatally splits the difference between the two options and may as a consequence have ensured the doom of the vessel and the consequent huge loss of life. 

“This was an exciting but difficult task - I had to ensure I honoured the meticulous research of colleagues such as Prof Claire Jowitt and Dr Ben Redding, who have pored over documents to work out why the ship foundered  - and yet had to meet the brief of finding a lively and visual way of clarifying the fate of the ship through these characters and all in a matter of minutes. Not easy, but fun, and I have loved seeing how Eye Films turned my script into something rich and visual, and working with the actors to conjure up these long-dead figures. 

“The whole tale is so haunting and fascinating, a genuine mystery and indeed tragedy, and for me a tale of the arrogance of the powerful in the face of those who know their trade.” 

Mike Bernardin, course director for the Drama MA in Theatre Directing at UEA, was responsible for bringing together the UEA cohort involved in the voice acting for the Gloucester animation.  

He said: “The Gloucester shipwreck is such a fascinating piece of UEA historical research, made accessible to the public via this brilliant exhibition. UEA Drama were approached to cast the voice-acting for the animation element, for which Steve Waters had written the script. I run the UEA Ensemble LAB, where current and former UEA students train together and collaborate on projects such as this. 

“What was different here was the approach to the narrative form: we decided that a story populated by male characters could be more engaging if it were narrated by a diverse group of voices - reflecting, perhaps, the larger range of people affected by the tragedy than just those making the fateful decisions. We’ve been commissioned for voiceover work before, but the collaboration with the researchers was an exciting new experience for us and hugely helpful to the actors in finding their characterisations.” 

We also spoke to graduates Shem Jacobs, Katie Smith, and current UEA Drama student Dean J. Smith, who all lent their voices for the animation. They spoke about the techniques they used for  voicing such historic roles and the impact that working alongside one another can have upon performance. 

What role did you play in the animation, and how did you embody it with your voice? 

SJ: I voiced Mr Gunman, who captains an accompanying vessel the Mary yacht. He's trying to be heard from his ship across the waves and wind, so I spoke with authority and breadth, mimicking shouting. 

KS: I played Ayres, who was the pilot aboard the Gloucester, responsible for navigation. Ayres was described to me as a respected, authoritative figure who would likely have been 35-45 around the time of the voyage. There is a possibility that he was a 'Scot', so I gave it my best attempt at a Scottish accent and pitched down from my usual speaking voice. Ayres must have been certain about his proposed course, so I tried to speak with assuredness and confidence. 

DJS: I voiced the role of Mr Holmes. As the master of the Gloucester and an experienced sailor, I figured it made sense to give Mr Holmes a somewhat authoritative voice.  

What preparation did you do for your role? 

SJ: Prior to recording we'd had a read through and play around with casting options, and it was simple enough deciding where to place the character voice. 

KS: Before the recording, we had a Zoom call with the whole creative team behind the project. This was a great chance for us to get a feel for the characters and how they might speak, as well as starting to discover the relationships between them. I had already worked with almost everybody involved in this project, either as a student or since graduating in 2019. That familiarity was hugely helpful here, especially given that I don't have much experience with voice acting. 

DJS: I'm a voice actor by trade so this is my bread and butter, really! I'm also currently a drama student at UEA and we've spent a lot of time focusing on character work, so I found that really helped given how little time we actually spend with Holmes during the piece. 

Why did you want to get involved with the Gloucester animation? 

SJ: It was a bit of fun really. The graduate ensemble hadn't had a project for a while, and this was a short one to get people in the same room working on something again. 

KS: I was part of a group of people contacted by Mike Bernardin about the Gloucester animation project, through the UEA Drama alumni ensemble he set up in 2019. Since graduating, I've been lucky enough to perform Steve Water’s writing on a few occasions, like Phoenix, Dodo, Butterfly at Norwich Arts Centre in 2022, and it's always been a hugely rewarding experience. This was no exception! I jumped at the chance.  

DJS: I'd actually never heard of the Gloucester project until it was mentioned to me by a lecturer of mine, Mike Bernardin, who approached me to see if I would be interested in being part of the project. So, I looked it up and realised how I'd never even known that such a historic maritime discovery was made off of the coast of my home county!   

L-R: Katie Smith, Joe Kirk and Immi Lea during the recording process for the Gloucester animation
L-R: Katie Smith, Joe Kirk and Immi Lea during the recording process for the Gloucester animation (credit: Mike Bernardin) 

What was your favourite part of the recording process and why?  

SJ: It's always enjoyable recording live, with all the performers in one space. Often recording can be a little isolated but when you're together it's like theatre, you can feel the rhythm and feed off one another more naturally. 

KS: I loved hearing all the different voices in the room during the recording session, especially with the mix of genders and accents we had. It felt like a really collaborative, live process, with script edits and character decisions evolving over the course of the evening. 

DJS: I really enjoyed being in the room with everyone and listening to their performances. Most of my work recently has been remote over Zoom, so it was nice to actually do some recording in person. 

Has this experience made you want to get involved with future voice acting projects? 

SJ: Yes, I am a voice actor currently working on audio dramas and educational materials, looking into audio book reading. I also was involved in another UEA project, The Adventures of Zacharia Jaeger, and am the reader of the children's audio guide at Norwich Castle. 

KS: I'd be very eager to get involved with future voice acting projects. This experience was hugely helpful in demystifying what actually goes into audio drama. I really enjoyed working in the UEA Media Centre and getting to grips with a professional recording setup. 

DJS: I love voice acting and would be honoured to be involved in future voice acting projects. This experience with UEA has only made me more excited to do more in-person recordings in the future.