Friday, December 19, 2008

Schwizgebel revisited: L'année du daim

Originally, I was about to post some thoughts about the artistic premises of 3D in standard narrative films. But in the middle of putting the piece together I came to the conclusion that a lot of ground has already been covered lately by people like Roger Ebert (here and here). So for the time being, I decided to direct your attention to something entirely different (maybe I’ll come back to 3D later):

I have often stated that I’m most drawn to animation because of its potential to marry music and image in a way no other medium can. One of my heroes in this respect is Georges Schwizgebel, one of the few Swiss animators with a reputation outside his native country. For a short biography look here.

In anticipation of his latest film Retouches that I hope to see on January 22 at the Solothurn Film Festival I’d like to focus on some of my favorites within his oeuvre.

Let me start with a film that is rather untypical of Schwizgebel’s personal trademark style: L’année du daim (The Year of the Deer, in the following abbreviated as “Daim”), made in 1995.

What sets it apart from most of his other works is the fact that Daim is more narrative than associative. While L’homme sans ombre (The Man Without a Shadow, 2004) is based on a Chamisso novella, it is not important to understand anything about the Faustian pact (one of Schwizgebel’s favorite subjects) in order to appreciate the film. Here on the other hand, the underlying Chinese fable is paramount and easily comprehensible.

In fact, the deer may be the only Schwizgebel character with actual facial expressions. He originally wanted to take the concept even further from a natural deer in the beginning to a finally domesticated Bambi-clone, but discarded the idea in preproduction.

As always, music – and in this case for the first time professional sound effects – is crucial to the filmic structure. Inspired by Schubert’s unfinished string quartet in c-minor (Op. posth.), he had someone compose a dense score that fit his storyboards based on Schubert’s motifs and style. The first and last notes are roughly the same as in the original piece, only a little faster.

Schwizgebel as interviewed by Olivier Cotte (English by Sarah Mallinson):
GS: I constructed the film like this: There are four parts and in these four parts are bits of animation, steady shots, dissolves and cuts that appear when the animal is hit to make him change his behaviour. […] As the film progresses [it] is hit less and less violently, but always on the same piece of music, so it’s like a refrain. […] I wrote four pages that represented the four seasons with the intersection points at the same moments for the four parts, after which Philippe Koller, the musician, composed the music following this structure.
OC: Was the fact that the film is divided into four parts and that each one has a similar structure a personal constraint?
GS: Yes, and it was also done to make sure the narrative was clear, because I was afraid the audience wouldn’t follow the story and that would have been a real shame. Putting those fixed shots always at the same moment helps the audience to understand the evolution, because we see the same element and the changes at the same time. Winter follows autumn and the dog is beaten less. I repeat: I like constraints and aesthetically, it pleased me to have the same thing four times.*
These four seasonal parts are already introduced in the “Leader”, the 11 second countdown that is one of Schwizgebel’s trademarks.

The first “shot” then looks exactly like we have learned to expect it in a Schwizgebel short: the title morphs into fog while an imaginary camera flies over a painted landscape (animated mostly on 4s). But unlike most of his other films, Daim isn’t primarily based on metamorphoses and constantly moving cameras. There are unusually many cuts that rather emphasize the musical structure than contribute to a more conventional continuity.

in fact, these are the only two morphing shot connections

Virtuoso camera movements that require constant repainting of foreground AND background are confined to scenes of the deer running around. Most of the violent shots consist of only a few stills with hardly any animation at all. “Illusion of Life” animation has never been Schwizgebel’s ambition or intention. His mathematical background may be felt in the rhythmic editing and the detailed visual structure, but apart from the hunter’s garden there are no geometrical objects present like in many of his other films.

A two-color scheme

To really enjoy and understand the quality of the animation and the musical structure, motion** is indispensable. One thing that can be discussed looking at stills, though, is the film’s highly restricted color palette. Apart from black and white (that looks more like blue) there are only the complimentary colors green and red (towards ochre). Only water and sometimes the sky are rendered in light blue. The dog’s eyes and collar are always yellow-green while the deer remains red.

All four seasons are limited to the same basic colors (red and green). Especially the different shades of green (mixed either with black, white or red) are important for setting the particular mood. There is always only one light source and almost always hard light, so that we get strong cast shadows (usually black). Consequently, all the objects and characters have light areas and shadow areas. I specifically like that the shadow area of white objects like snow and the dog is olive green.

Apart from the metamorphosis there is another transformation present: In the domesticated deer’s point-of-view shots we see the painted dog dissolve into a blander looking pastel dog with less menacing eyes. This visual cue pays off later when the domesticated deer doesn’t recognize the danger of wild dogs/wolves anymore, even if they are as impressionistically colored as those three.
There is much more to this animated gem, so if you haven’t already seen it, I hope you’ll be able to find it somewhere**. I don’t think it’s on youtube, though.

* all the quotes come from a book called "Georges Schwizgebel – Animated Paintings". Although parts of this trilingual publication are linguistically inadequate (at least in German and English, I’m not sure about the French text) with minor factual flaws, I’d recommend it because of its high quality pictures and because it brings up all the aspects of these films. Besides, to my knowledge it was the only book available on the cinema of Georges Schwizgebel, unfortunately out of print now.

** Schwizgebel’s films up to 2004 are available on DVD (Les peintures animées de Georges Schwizgebel)

All the images are the property of the owner.

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