RSC Micro-short Animation Research Essay
The fantasy genre of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was the main aspect that encouraged me to choose this play for the micro-short animation for the Royal Shakespeare Company. With its themes of vengeance, humanity and desire for freedom, I was drawn into the story and eager to craft my own from it. In this essay I intend to share what inspired me, my research process and how I aim to achieve the final film.
Upon reading the Tempest, the two characters that stood out to me most were Caliban and Ariel. In my animation I want to focus on their relationship that is hinted at in the book. From the dialogue between Prospero and Ariel in Act 1 we learn that Ariel was trapped in a tree by the witch Sycorax for a dozen years, during this time the witch died and left behind a deformed son named Cailban. Once freed by Prospero Ariel holds a grudge against Caliban for the horrible things his mother did to him. I aim to portray this relationship in a playful manner. Set around the tree to pay homage to Ariel’s past, Caliban is resting on the job of carrying wood to Prospero, however is disturbed by a mischievous Ariel who plays tricks on him and utilises many disguises to mock and confuse him. The animation will end with Caliban finally catching the tiny spirit, there will be a moment of stillness when the two characters exchange looks of mutual understanding, Ariel finds revelation by realising that Caliban is a gentle creature who means him no harm. They will then both go their separate ways.
The tree is the most important part of the setting of my animation as it plays a big part in the character’s back story, though this is not shown in the animation, therefore it is there to reference the source material. As for the actual setting of the animation I would like to achieve a Scottish Celtic look. This is a culture that has always been close to my heart and I believe it will work well to compliment the story and give it a nice style and cultural touch.
A few existing films have inspired my concept, the one that has influenced me the most is Peter Jackson’s 2005 rendition of ‘King Kong.’ There are a few silent moments in the film where the audience can see the extraordinary connection building between Kong and Ann Darrow. With no dialogue spoken the film makers really portrayed the emotion of the character through body language and facial expression and the audience could easily read what Kong was thinking or feeling at the time, which are two things I aim to achieve with my animation. Two films that I looked into a lot for the character of Caliban were David Lynch’s 1980 “Elephant Man” and William Dietaries’ 1939 interpretation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Both films portray a gentle soul through a rough exterior. The characters of John Merrick and Quasimodo, like Shakespeare’s Caliban were “not honoured with a human shape,” (Shakespeare, 1968, Pg.74) and where seen as monsters or animals rather than men. This characteristic of being misunderstood is one I wish to reflect on my rendition of Caliban, which in turn I hope to invoke feelings of empathy from within the audience. For the scene in my animation where Ariel plays tricks on Caliban, I naturally look to the works of such animators as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery for inspiration. Their sense of comedic timing is what makes the “Looney Tunes” and “Tom and Jerry” cartoons work so well as timing is the underpinning of pantomime comedy.
During my travels in London I fortuitously came across a sculpture in Cheyne Walk that caught my eye as a source of inspiration for the character of Ariel. The piece shows a dynamic, young male figure grasping onto the fin of a dolphin, the two seem to soar gracefully through the air portraying a whimsical expression. Upon inspecting this sculpture I learned that it was called “Boy with a Dolphin” and was cast by David Wynne in 1975. After some further research I discovered that this piece had deeper meaning, and some of Wynne’s other work also reflected my concept. Wynne himself stated of this particular sculpture;
“The boy is being shown that if you trust the world, the thrills and great happiness are yours….if one meets a dolphin in the sea, he is the genial host, you the honoured guest.” (Wynne, 1975)
This quote speaks volumes to my concept, if Ariel were not so quick to judge Caliban for the terrible things his mother had done and trust him from the start he would find that he is in fact a pleasant soul and a friendship could have grown from their shared desire of freedom from their master Prospero. Wynne also sculpted “Guy the Gorilla” in 1962. As I want Caliban to have some likeness to a gorilla I went to Crystal Palace Gardens to observe this piece, and I was amazed just how much it contrasted with “Boy with a Dolphin.” Both pieces are made of heavy material but the presence of “Guy the Gorilla” somehow seems more powerful and weighty compared to the “Boy with a Dolphin” which bizarrely appears to soar elegantly through the air despite being made of solid bronze. This is another aspect I aspire to pull off with the two characters in my animation; Ariel and Caliban are complete opposite in size, presence and attitude.
When designing the characters I researched Scottish Celtic mythology. For the character of Ariel I studied fairies and spirits to find many different kinds, a few of them with similar characteristics of both the character from the source material and my own. The Glaistig is a shape shifting spirit like Ariel from Shakespeare’s play, these creatures typically take on the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a goat, however can take on any shape that they desire. A Seelie Court is a term from Scottish Lowland folklore used to describe a group of “good” fairies, they are said to have a sense of humour and to be constantly accompanied by music. Moor Sprites closely resemble pixies with a human form accompanied by a clear or golden aura, they are said to be quite shy but are talented pranksters if approached by humans. All of these characteristics were considered when creating my version of Ariel. After initially drawing Ariel with a full human body I was really keen to try some concepts with goat legs like the Glaistig and I found this to look much more charming.
Stories from Scottish folklore tell of trolls or similar creatures that leave their offspring in the place of a human child as tribute to the devil every seven years. These replacement creatures would be seen as deformed in the eyes of human beings leaving them frustrated and unhappy. I took advantage of this fitting opportunity to reflect upon this particular lore in my character of Caliban. I saw this relevant because although Caliban is a humble creature, he is distant from being anything close to human and yet carries a similar charm to that of a well-loved offspring. A legend depicted in the book “The Queen Mother’s Family Story” written by James Wentworth Day in 1967 also influenced my portrayal of Caliban. This tells of a member of the Bowes-Lyon family named Thomas, who was kept locked up in a secret room in Glamis Castle in Scotland because of the misshapen way in which he was born. In the description given of Thomas in the book his limbs were said to be “toylike” against a massive chest. Whether or not this story is true is still unknown to this day and I wanted to pay homage to this legend in the designing of my character. Even though Caliban must be very strong to carry out his slavish duties for the enchanter Prospero I experimented with him having one frail useless arm. As the deformity of Caliban could have endless potential in the designing of the character and he in the play was in fact referred to as a “moon-calf” I took the terms literal meaning as an abortive foetus. I took this opportunity to visit Darwin’s Spirit Collection in the Museum of Natural History to draw inspiration from the extraordinary specimens they have there. When observing the specimens I noticed that the mammals limbs looked delicate and curled into the foetal position, sketching them I paid close attention to this as I have been trying out the idea of Caliban having one underdeveloped, useless arm. The term is also used as an expression to describe a dim witted person who spends a lot of their time absent-mindedly daydreaming, which are personality traits that Caliban will carry in the story.
As for the research behind the setting of the animation, I firstly looked into trees as this is the most important part of the scene to the story. I came across The Methuselah Tree online and was blown away by how beautiful it was. The way the tree twists from the thick roots to jagged tips of the short bald branches really makes it look the part for a prison of spirits as it played in “The Tempest.” I am a strong believer in actually being in the presence of whatever it is you are talking influence from to really get the feeling from it. Due to the trees location being out of reach for me all the way in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California I searched for similar trees in parks around London and finding a few in Richmond Park I sketched those. I also took inspiration from nature for the character design, for instance sketching ideas for horns, warts and skin textures from logs and tree bark.
For the rest of the scenery I took some research trips to places around Scotland such as the Maell Morr Mountains in Glen Coe, the Machrie Moor stone circle in the Isle of Arran, and the Falls of Dochart and the Breadlebane Folklore Centre in Killin. While visiting these places I carried out some paintings and pastel sketches to aid in my colour palette for the landscape, finding that the scenery was rich in greens, reds, yellows, oranges browns and blues. I rediscovered some photos from a visit to Highland Mystery World in Fort William from my childhood. Besides being a deeply nostalgic experience, looking at these photographs again also delivered great inspiration for the scenery and characters in this project.
Art of the ancient Scottish celtic people known as the Picts can still be found on stones mostly to the eastern side of Scotland. Pictish symbols were carved into the stone and their meaning has mostly been lost over the centuries. There is much debate over what the mysterious symbols known as the “v-rod” and “double disks” represent, however some symbols are easily recognisable as animals or mythical creatures. After looking at these charismatic carvings it seemed fitting to include such an intriguing part of Scottish history in this project, so I experimented with designing my characters in this style. Finding the outcome to be quite compelling I believe that symbols of my Ariel and Caliban in the Pictish style would work well to compliment the title screen or credits on my animation.
With this pre-production research attained the next step is the actual creation of the film. This is intended to be drawn traditionally and then coloured and composited in Adobe Flash. With this animation I aimed to tell a story based around the implied relationship between the two characters form Shakespeare’s play, putting my own perspective into the narrative and culture into the film.