The Hess Report

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Elephants Dream: Review and Comments 

For those of you reading this who either haven't read the Hess Report in the past or are unfamiliar with the Orange project and their short animation Elephants Dream, a little background. I am involved with a Free and Open Source software project called Blender, a 3D modeling, animation and rendering package. Last year, the members of the Ruling Council of the Blender Foundation decided to advance things from both a technical and public relations perspective. To that end, they put together an animation studio, pulling from the best of the Blender community, set an ambitious goal, and created a ten minute short animation. They have just released finished product on DVD.

As I had worked on the project (I got "Additional Artwork and Animation" and "Software Development" credits -- look for "D. Roland Hess"), the Blender Foundation generously provided me with several contributor copies of this unique short animation. I say "unique", because all of the content used to make the final product -- models, textures, music, sound effects, software -- are included on the DVD and are free for anyone to use as they wish. Someone could, in theory, re-record the voice acting if they didn't like it; or re-edit the movie and change the musical score to make it a comedy; or even change the character models to have butts for heads, then rerender the whole thing and sit around snickering while the finished butt-short played on their TV. The point is that it is open content, under the Creative Commons license, and the user can recreate with it at will, among other things.

I doubt the movie will receive a review from any of the standard sources for such things, so I thought that, in light of my humble writing skillz, I would attempt to provide one. Here it is:

Elephants Dream is a great first project from a startup animation team. That sounds a bit qualified, and it is. The short features some technical and artistic triumphs, though it suffers at times from what I would consider freshman writing problems, and an overly-ambitious deadline. That said, in my opinion, no artistic project is ever really finished, it's just abandoned because you ran out of time. There are always things you could have gone back to tweak or fix, and I'm sure that the Orange team knows exactly where they would go back to redo a line of lip syncing, or tweak the timing or center of gravity of a certain piece of animation, if they only had another month or two. And for that reason, I'm not going to pick nits with that aspect of things.

I'll get to the good later, but I'll just dive into weaknesses straight off.

First, I didn't like the voice acting for Emo. Proog was just fine, but something about Emo's accent or just the timbre of his voice bugged me. It was over-emotive when compared with the placidity of Emo's physical animation.

On to my second gripe. The presentation of the story.

Now, what follows is born of my history in the savage writing workshops at Penn. Things were basically no-holds-barred there, and many times people (but not me) were reduced to tears. If you worked on this project, please don't take offense. I punch hard because I love:

My only solid gripe besides Emo's voice acting, and this should be considered a loving constructive criticism from someone who was involved a little and who has seen this many times, is with the way the story was presented. Spoiler Warning This paragraph contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the short and don't want to know, skip to the End Spoilers tag. The story of the short is that the main character, Proog, is a delusional paranoid, who can only deal with the real world by viewing it as a gigantic, terrible machine. He has found a traveling companion, Emo, who he tries to convince of the reality of his vision. In the end, Emo rejects Proog's delusions, and that rejection causes Proog's world to rise up against him. Proog kills Emo, and in doing so, is able to reassert his view of reality. End Spoilers

There's nothing wrong with that premise or the objective story line. As a fiction writing major at an Ivy League University, I've seen people make a half dozen variations on the same theme. So, my problem is not really with the story, but in how it was executed (the subjective story line). One of the stated goals of the project's production team was to be ambiguous, letting each viewer make their own interpretation. That's also fine. The problem arises, though, because viewers (or readers) want to know what is going on in a story. If, as a writer, you are going to make the circumstances of characters a mystery (who are they? where are they? why are they there?), you have created in the consumer of the story a craving to have those questions answered. Clues are left by the writer (and actors, animators, etc.), that should ultimately lead the viewer to a realization of what's going on. It doesn't have to be spelled out explicitly, but if the viewer is too little to work with to resolve the tension created by their lack of knowledge, they are left unsatisfied, and not in a good way. Many beginning writers think that this sort of ambiguity and lack of literal exposition is a strength and will argue vehemently for it. In fact, I've seen and heard them do just that. With experience, though, they eventually get past that. Well, the good ones do.

And that's the main gripe that I've heard about the short. It's not that it's ambiguous. It's that most people leave the short with a sense of narrative dissatisfaction. A good story with great presentation fires on all levels, the literal, the symbolic and the anagogic. It can say something about itself, about things the authors never considered, and even about life and death. It will have a level of internal consistency and reality that reinforces itself both literally and thematically. But, even if you have your symbol ducks in a row, if you don't give enough clues as to the literal, the rest of it can fail.

So, that's enough about the story, and I just hope that next time (Orange 2!), they bring someone in with a bit more of the technical chops (and yes, it's technique) for creative a narrative.

On to the good: there are some moments of artistic brilliance. Proogs dance across the typewriter keys absolutely lives. It's a great piece of animation, on par with anything I've seen from the acknowledged masters of the art. The elevator ride (or, as I call it, the kegger) is similarly great. It flies along with a sense of danger and true kinetics. Proog's expressions and facial acting are excellent -- you can feel the crafty malice behind his eyes. I love the camera panning down the translucent clock/wheel in the telephone scene. Also, the beginning and end pans. The intrusion of the vines/tentacles and appearance of the hands are done perfectly. There are little touches throughout, some that I've forgotten that are simply great pieces of work.

And here, we see how certain other excellent efforts by the animators, say, Proog bouncing violently around inside the elevator while Emo stands placidly still, are mostly wasted on the viewer because they have no way to contextualize it within the story. Ah well. Next time.

The music is superior. It's consistently the best thing about the short, and with the touches of genius in the animation itself, that's saying a lot. Jan Morgenstern did a smashing job, and I'm glad that the music is being made accessible separately, so everyone can enjoy it on it's own. I know it's on the DVD-ROM for the ambitious to get at, but it really deserves it's own release. Check out the Orange blog for news on where you can get it (yes, it's free). I'm not claiming to be a professional musician (I'm not), but I have been paid to make music, so I'm not exactly a complete lay person on the subject either, and when I hear music like this, it makes me jealous that I wasn't the one who wrote it.

A web version of the movie will be available soon, and I think that many people who watch it will say "The hell?" But if you like me, and if you're reading this blog you probably do, I'd encourage you to take ten minutes out of your day and watch it, so you can see something I'm a bit passionate about. I think this is just one of the first of many great things to come in the future of Blender, and by consequence, for the future of free artistic expression of people around the world. I'll put a link in a future post when it's up.

So, to the Orange team: Congratulations! You've produced something of very high quality on a tight deadline, and with the inclusion of Open Source and Creative Commons to the equation, you've done something that no one else has done before. Thanks for having enough respect for my own work (and enough desperation on deadline!) to let me help out with the project. I'm looking forward to Orange 2!

To everyone else: listen to music. Watch the video. If you're a philanthropist, you could do worse than to chuck the Blender Foundation some cash (think poor inner city kids being able to use a completely free professional art production package -- kids need art!). And don't be a Proog.

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