William Kentridge: South African Artist

In February, I watched a EuroNews report about a South African artist named William Kentridge, whose work is being shown in Copenhagen, Denmark. Here’s the article video.

Link to the article on EuroNews.com

I was very interested in learning more about the artist after seeing that he uses a combination of video installations, animation, and live action. As seen in clips in the article, he’s also not afraid to explore the difficult history of his country. As MoMA puts it, “Dealing with subjects as sobering as apartheid, colonialism, and totalitarianism, his work is often imbued with dreamy, lyrical undertones or comedic bits of self-deprecation that render his powerful messages both alluring and ambivalent.”

This can be seen in the following video, which is embedded in the text of the article. It’s like a New Orleans marching band, set in a lyrically dystopian world.

When I looked up more about the artist, I was surprised to find that he was not ethnically African, because as the video shows he is using black subjects in the artwork. In my experience, it’s not that common to find an artist using the experience of another ethnicity in their artwork, although it does occur in decorative arts, photography, and performing arts.

I suppose performing artists do this because music, dance, and theater are somewhat universally accessible for all people. Photography is a little different, in that the photographer has to take a documentarian or voyeuristic point of view, as opposed to being part of the art. Wikipedia explains that Kentridge is Jewish, with attorney parents that fought against apartheid. Perhaps he felt like both an outsider, voyeur-documentarian and part of the struggle in South Africa.

What I find revealing is how well Kentridge’s use of African subjects shows his strong empathy and understanding of apartheid and this difficult period of South African history. He says, in Pain & Suffering, shown on art:21, that artists use the pain and suffering of others for their work.

Animation Style

Wikipedia explains one of his animation methods:
“in all of his animated works do the concepts of time and change comprise a major theme. He conveys it through his erasure technique, which contrasts with conventional cel-shaded animation, whose seamlessness de-emphasizes the fact that it is actually a succession of hand-drawn images. This he implements by drawing a key frame, erasing certain areas of it, re-drawing them and thus creating the next frame. He is able in this way to create as many frames as he wants based on the original key frame simply by erasing small sections. Traces of what has been erased are still visible to the viewer; as the films unfold, a sense of fading memory or the passing of time and the traces it leaves behind are portrayed.”

The video above doesn’t show one of this animation style very well, but his style can be seen in other clips. He also uses stop-motion.

Other Work

Aside from animation, he uses live video and different masking and editing effects in his work. Here’s a video of him, from the Danish museum, the Louisiana, interviewing himself:

More Resources

I won’t be in Copenhagen anytime soon. But if you’re interested in learning more about William Kentridge, there are examples of his work online.

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Of course, there is the Louisiana Museum that is currently holding a William Kentridge exhibition. It looks like an interesting exhibit. The site is in Danish, but Google should be able to translate.

art:21

art:21 has the most examples of him working and explaining his process. There are several clips of some of his video/media pieces.

MoMA

MoMA has an archival page documenting his 2010 exhibition, Five Themes. Also still available is a flash-site that contains many examples of his work and his process.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia also has plenty of information about Kentridge, from his bio, to listing his films and many exhibitions around the world. There are also external links, if you’re interested even more information about this artist.

Kihachiro Kawamoto: Japanese Animator

I recently watched The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto. I had never heard of this animator and I did not know what type of animation I was going to get. But, being a fan of animation, I looked forward to watching the DVD.

After watching a few, I did a little research. It turns out that Kawamoto was a well-known animator in Japan and internationally. One of his signature animation styles is stop-motion animation, especially his use of puppets. As Wikipedia points out, Kawamoto was well known for his puppet making skills and design.

The Films

I wanted to share these films as another example of storytelling. Japan has so many traditional methods of storytelling, which these films are a part of. As far as World and Character go, many Japanese stories are set in the samurai/Edo period. Most of the films below are the same. I suppose that frees up the storyteller to focus on the subtleties of how the story is told, rather than convincing the audience that the world and characters are believable. For instance, in Dojoji, there’s a scene where the woman chases after the priest. I love that Kawamoto takes the time to animate her breathing.

All the Kawamoto films were good, but there were a few that stood out to me. Here they are below:

Dojoji

19 minutes

Dojoji is a well-known Japanese play and one of the few that involves a large prop. The play tells the story of the installation of a new bell in Dojo-ji Temple. After the monks have been hypnotized by a mysterious dancer, the abbot tells the story of what happened to the first bell. The story is a woman falls in love with a priest who stays in her father’s inn every year. When the woman admits her love, the priest rejected her. She pursues him anyway, across a river to Dojoji Temple. In her passion, she transforms into a demon that kills him and destroys the bell. Kawamoto’s version of Dojoji is the story of the woman and the traveling priest. It is very tragic.

Going into the story of Dojoji more, I’d heard of this story after watching a Japanology episode on Kabuki and Noh. Dojoji was one of the examples of Kabuki, which is more elaborate than Noh and features a female dancer.

I was very impressed with the beautiful watercolor backgrounds serving as the backdrop for Dojoji and House of Flame (below). The sets are also well done.

The Demon (or Oni)

7:30 minutes

The Demon is also based on an old story, but I did not come across any versions of it as a play. The story is that an old woman, who has had a hard life, now lives as an invalid with her 2 sons. One day they go out to hunt and come home to a shocking discovery.

The postscript of the story is: “It is said that parents in their old age become demons who will consume their children.” Maybe this is the origin of the practice explored in Ballad of Narayama?

House of Flame

19 minutes

House of Flame is another stop-motion puppet animation that caught my interest. This one animates a horse, very realistically. I was quite impressed. This is also the only story with a narrator for the puppets. The story is about a woman who cannot decide between two suitors and lives in guilt forever more.

As I mentioned above, this one is another example of beautiful backdrops and sets.

A Poet’s Life

19 min

I chose this story for the interesting story about a worker who is fighting for worker’s rights after losing his job. The details of this story are too unusual to give away, but it is a very unique story.

This animation is a drawn style, though it still could be stop motion using paper cutouts. It reminded me more of The Snowman, by Diane Jackson, because of the way the pencil markings jump around frame by frame.

Pixar In A Box: The Art of Storytelling

It seems like every few weeks I see a tweet, essay, or article mention about storytelling. Many of these articles seem to be written with the idea of using the concept of a story to convincing others to trust your business idea.

Storytelling is a very old art form that serves that has also served as a cultural communication tool. I find it somewhat disappointing that “storytelling” has been co-opted for the purpose of selling a business plan. As a kid who got lost in stories but gave verbal book reports that started off strong, but finished off weak, I could actually use some tips at telling a good story. One thing I don’t see from these posts is info about how to tell good stories, or what the components of a good story are. I am cynical that these storytelling articles are really about storytelling.

How to tell a good story

To learn how to able to tell a good story, I should learn from the best, right? Enter Pixar in a Box, The Art of Storytelling, a lesson series by Khan AcademyCan you believe it? One of the best contemporary storytelling companies on the planet is giving free lessons on how to tell a good story.

Available right now is Lesson 1: We are all storytellers. This lesson is broken down into 6 videos and 4 activities. The first few videos explain what story telling is, and then a few people from Pixar talk about their own inspirations and how they got started.

Here’s a breakdown of the videos and activities/exercises:

  • Intro to Storytelling
  • Your Unique Perspective
  • Exercise 1: Expressing memories
  • Your Favorite Stories
  • Exercise 2: Your three favorite films
  • What if?
  • Exercise 3: What if?
  • World and Character
  • Exercise 4: Characters & worlds
  • Storytelling advice

Yes, but will studying how to tell a story actually make me better at storytelling for business?

That is a good question. I don’t know about putting video clips from Finding Nemo into presentations, but I am going to participate in this course. I mean…who doesn’t want to learn from Pixar? This is going to be fun!

Still from Finding Nemo
When you embark on a new educational journey: “Hold on, here we go! Next stop, knowledge!” (From, A Finding Nemo Quote for Every Occasion). You had to know that’s where I was going, right?)

Hold on, here we go! Next stop, knowledge!

Activity 1: Expressing memories

The first activity is about using written words, drawings, or telling a story to someone to describe a vivid memory. This activity follows a video in which Pixar artists talk about their own experiences as storytellers. They’ve obviously been doing this for a long time.

I chose to draw an emotion.The instructions say to use only lines and shapes to draw the memory. Here is a link to examples of shapes that describe emotions. As you can see, it’s OK to be abstract.

The overall emotion to the memory I chose is sadness. It’s a strong emotion. I chose a very simple sketch. Hopefully the isolation of sadness comes across.

"Sadness"

You may think that the Pixar folks, being animators, stuck with sketches and expanded on this initial start into memory and emotion….

But no! They went on to explore inspiration!


Activity 2: Desert Island stories

Part A: Identify the three films that you would take to a deserted island…. 

Part B: Why do you think you connected with these stories? Come up with at least one reason for each.
Part C: What, if anything, do these three films have in common? How are they different?

 

Gosh, oh gosh, oh gosh!

This was the question after a video with Pixar storytellers talking about stories that made an impression on them as children. What would I pick? Why did I connect with them? Here are some movies that came to my mind and why I think I connected with them:

The Last Unicorn DVD cover
Yes, this is my personal DVD cover for The Last Unicorn.
The Last Unicorn, 1982 (IMDB)

I used to watch this over and over. Given the unique drawing style, I came to realize later that this was the start of my appreciation for anime. It also has great songs by the band America.

Why I connected: I loved the animation and the fantasy setting – and the songs! I like that it’s a story about innocence…or, rather, the loss of innocence. It is a movie about about growing up. The price of knowledge is the loss of joyful ignorance. I like that it rewarded the goodness in the characters, and the creatures, even scary monsters, get justice. In this movie, almost everyone gets what they deserve.

Anne of Green Gables, 1985 (IMDB)

I’m not sure any girl of the 1980s survived without crossing paths with Anne of Green Gables. This was a great story about imagination and youthful spirit. Sometimes when I watched this, I would get so lost in this story that I didn’t notice when my friends actually showed up…and left.

Why I connected: It’s a movie about growing up, about using your imagination and being creative. A big part of the story focuses on Anne trying to fit in, even though she’s different. And, I especially liked that friendship and goodness were so important in this story. (Who can forget Matthew?)

The Madness of King George, 1994 (IMDB)

As an adult, I watch this often. I think it’s a funny story about how the king loses his mind, yet instead of treating him like a true patient, the pressures of court life still require everyone to behave like nothing’s wrong.

Why I connected: This is a movie I return to again and again, when work gets overly hectic. I use it to find the humor in what can be the absurdity of everyday life. It helps me laugh when trying to do what’s expected doesn’t seem to be working, because what’s expected is wrong or absurd. As a fan of history, I appreciate the historical context of this movie, and as an Anglophile, all the great English actors.

The Last Emperor, 1987 (IMDB)

Also based on a true story, I really enjoyed the historical context in the movie. The change of the emperor over time in embracing new ideas and people is both entertaining and tragic.

Why I connected: I again love the historical context, and this movie introduced me to Asia. It came out in 1987. My father took me to a “Son of Heaven” museum exhibit at COSI in Columbus, Ohio, that was all about imperial China. We looked at real artifacts, such as the yellow robes the emperor wore, as well as bells, and other artifacts from China. I even got to buy music – a cassette tape! I also appreciated that so much of the story was about growing up and losing innocence.

Apple with a hole
…Wait! There’s something missing!

I got so caught up in thinking about my childhood that I forgot to write what I thought was the connection between these films. So:

  • 2 of these films were books before they were movies
  • 2 of these films are based on historical events
  • 3 are about growing up
  • All four have a thread about losing innocence
  • They all focus on the importance of friendship and companionship – something that’s so easy to forget.

Having written all that, and having reminisced about my childhood, this gives me something to think about for a while. So this is a good place to pause until jumping back on the story wagon.


The next part of Lesson One on Storytelling is called: “What if?