The Secret of Kells

animation, art, Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history

I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I’ve had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C’mon, I’ve heard it’s good.”

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that’s when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.

Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle’s will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you’ve just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)

Which is excellent, because the movie begins: “I have seen the book which turns darkness into light.”  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It’s also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.

Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it’s not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they’re talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:

Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats’ feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.
This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It’s quite a work of art — the movie as well as the book.  
Good luck — you’re in for a treat.

Tyger, Tyger in a Folded World

animation, architecture, art, Cabinet of Wonders, neat stuff, paper, surreal

I just came across this, pretty much by accident.  It’s amazing, a small film by Guilherme Marcondes, a Brazilian filmmaker, based on the William Blake poem. He uses puppetry, illustration, photography and CGI to make a fantastically rich little gem:

Mr. Marcondes is influenced by the pastiche of Brazilian culture and the DIY quality of the Brazilian film schools of which he came.  Clearly, he uses anything he can get his hands on, including things like origami and the ancient Japanese puppet-art of bunraku.  It’s all very stylized and fabulous, and makes me want to know more about his earlier life — did he study all these kinds of art?  He must have.

I went to his website, where he has samples of his work, and I found this, from a movie called Bunraku, the opening sequence of which he was given carte blanche to do:

 I never heard of this movie, Bunraku.  It looks like it was released in France and Canada, but not here…?  It looks like a very violent movie, definitely not my type of thing, but the art direction looks really interesting: the pans through cities seem to unfold like a pop-up book, and the scenery is an odd conglomeration of bits.  Which leads me to the fact that Mr. Marcondes originally studied architecture: 

“I like experiencing architecture, not practicing it. Just as I go to the movies or listen to music, I like to wander around a city, paying attention to how the space is organized, how the transportation works, etc. I’m interested in how the environment we live in changes and conditions our personalities. That’s clearer in Tyger than in any other film I’ve made. That also explains why I like J.G. Ballard so much!”  [link]

And on that note, I will leave you to ponder a world where cities are made to pop up as you move through them, and when the apocalypse comes, flowers of light grow through the cracks of the world.

Dragon Hunters

animation, Cabinet of Wonders, children

By pure accident tonight, I watched Dragon Hunters, an animated French movie for kids which was released in America in 2008 with English voices, most notably that of Forest Whitaker as the hugely muscled, sweetly earnest Lian-Chu.

Based on a French TV series which I’d never heard of, the movie is a 3-dimensionalized story about two men, friends from their days in an orphanage, who work as dragon hunters, along with Hector, their blue… dog? dragon? rabbit?. Gwizdo, the unscrupulous brains of the outfit, is a fine foil for Lian-Chu’s stolidly heroic personality, and though they never seem to get the money they need, they have each other. Their quest in life is to make enough money to retire to a little farm, where they will grow — “sheep,” puts in Lian-Chu, whenever it comes up: Lian-Chu is an avid knitter.

The two are discovered by Zoë, a young girl who lives in a vast castle with her blind dragon-hunter knight uncle, who doesn’t appreciate her. She dreams of becoming a knight and dragon-hunter, and has left home to find knights who can help her uncle kill the “world gobbler” dragon who is coming, as it comes every twenty years, to wreak distruction and disaster.

This sounds like a normal fantasy, similar to many animated features churned out by Hollywood. Believe me, it’s not. The art direction, the scenery, and even the premise is actually totally unique. The landscapes are an amazing fiddle of physics, requiring conceptual leaps which are both disorienting and wonderful, because they live in a floating world, made up of fragments of land which float and move, but nevertheless have their own gravity. Moving through this space consists, often, of stepping from chunk to chunk of ground which either floats near you by accident or is held in place by roots or other debris. The opening scene, where Lian Chu is trying to kill a slug-like dragon which drags him around and around a variety of little ball-like floating planetoids, scraping off the vegetation which takes to the air, floating all around them — this is like nothing Hollywood would make. The whole thing has a non-American flavor, from the weirdness of the world to the odd details of character and humor.

It’s these details that are wonderful, funny and awe-inspiring and vivid, like when Hector, in the middle of an action sequence, pulls a booger out of his nose, and in the next shot wipes it, unnoticed, on Gwizdo’s sleeve. Or the passing moment when Zoe comes out from behind a pillar, pulling up her pants. Or when, as they come closer to the end of the world, they encounter the wreckage of some past civilization, looking like Prambanan and Palmyra, all taken apart and floating everywhere, filling space with lost chunks. Or the calendar Zoë’s uncle makes to predict when the World Gobbler will return, which gives the inspiration for some of the best credits I’ve ever seen, full of awesome little clockwork devices that appeal to the deepest part of my clockpunk soul. The details fill out the movie, taking it out of the realm of mere kid’s adventure and putting it up with Carl Barks‘ duck comics or the best of the Asterix books, an endlessly repeatable classic.

Oh, and did I mention the music? I noticed gamelon-ish music going by, as well as some sort of arabesque mix, and I believe there was a Cure song in there somewhere; quite a collection, and very un-Disney.

It was so engaging, so awesomely mind-bending and beautiful in its production, that I found myself looking around for more by the same people. But it seems to be a combined effort of several French cartoon directors and writers, and what they’ve done before is mostly for TV. However, make note of Guillaume Ivernel, who did the really beautiful backgrounds for the Dragon Hunters TV show and was the art director as well as co-director for the movie with Arthur Qwak, the creator of the series. So the luminous anti-gravitational universe through which the characters walk — and which gives the whole thing its surreal style — is his doing, though the original concept came from Qwak. It’s clear that they had a blast doing this movie, and though it may be a one-off, one can’t help hoping for more.

More details about the movie here.

3 Small Web Animation Experiences

animation, Cabinet of Wonders

My friend Gwyan sent me these today, and I wanted to share them. Silly, meaningful, and just plain interesting…

My favorite is this one, by Evelien Lohbeck:

Then there is this, uh… music video?? by a band called Sour.

Lastly, you could spend quite a few minutes exploring these super-simple but curiously arresting short… uh, thingies by Aron Sommer. Art pieces? Yes, I think.


Independence in Games

animation, art, Cabinet of Wonders, games

My friend Gwyan just sent me a link to Offworld’s guide to the 2009 Independent Games Festival. I’m not a big gaming person (at least, not digitally). But I do find it interesting when someone really breaks out of the gaming mold. Gwyan teaches game design, among other things, so I hear a lot about what students (and more professional gamers) come up with, and there’s little real imagination (as far as breaking out of the preset paradigms) out there. Therefore, when someone really thinks outside the (X)box, gets truly imaginative and artistic, and gets away from the sort of 3-D genre stuff I’ve come to expect from the gaming world, I find myself actually paying attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with digital games as they stand – lots of people like them. They just don’t appeal to me. And, of course, I’d like to see more games that are designed for people like me, who aren’t interested in the same old climb-and-jump-and-kick activities, regardless of complexity and beauty of interface, or who don’t like to be stuck behind a gun. Puzzles are interesting, and some kinds of moving-character-doing-something, but once I’ve played something like that for a few hours, I feel pretty much like I’ve done that, regardless of how it’s dressed up. So that’s just my $.02.

However, the nice thing about the IGF can be summed up by their byline: “Rewarding Innovation in Independent Games.” So not only are you getting away from big industry, but you are getting the most unusual games real people are designing. I think that’s very cool.

A few of my favorites are here:

Machinarium, which while employing some of the usual climb-and-jump motions, seems to manage to include a certain amount of puzzle elements as well as interesting little pop-up interactions – and, well, they are totally fascinating to look at, taking place in a sort of grubby futuristic junkyard place. I haven’t played the game, but the design looks really wonderful, kind of Wall-E meets steampunk meets illustrations from the book Arrival.

Night is a little hard to tell about, since there’s no platform for it yet, but it looks beautiful. It’s not the usual Mario-type running-person action, as the main character is a ball who needs to move through environments that challenge the physics of rolling. It’s all in silhouette, and it’s very attractive.

But I think my favorite of all is Blueberry Garden, by Erik Svedang. It appears that one draws one’s own environment…? And the characters, the weird things they encounter, and the surrealist surroundings are so simple and yet so mindbendingly odd. It’s like a little kid’s dream. This is one of the few games that I drool at when I see it. Plus, you get to fly. And the bad guys wear party hats, and kiss each other a lot to make offspring (and thus overpower your ability to get blueberries, apparently). How great is that?

On another, non-IGF note, if you have not played Jason Rohrer’s game Passage, you should. It takes 5 minutes, and is interesting in its emotional impact, being surprisingly touching. And its designer is now being consulted in the creation of a new game (codename LMNO) in the pipe as part of Stephen Spielberg’s development deal with Electronic Arts, which promises to be “the first major video game whose action will not pivot on jumping puzzles or twitch-reflex fusillades but on a nuanced relationship.” [link to Offworld]

Perhaps I, and others like me, can learn to be gamers, after all.