Malwina Chabocka Graphic designer for film, tv, theatre, art & music Sun, 11 Dec 2016 17:41:34 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 Cats, ravens & madmen. Edgar Allan Poe in animation. Sun, 11 Dec 2016 17:41:34 +0000 As soon as November comes, with its gloominess and cold, my (already big) appetite for all things dark and morbid grows even bigger. To be fair, as someone who blossoms in light and warmth, I do actually find it hard not to succumb to misery when days get significantly shorter and darker, but I try to make the most of the sombre ambience, turning to books, films and music which are most appropriate for this time of the year. One of the authors I seek comfort in is Edgar Allan Poe, whose Black Cat short story is one of my favourite pieces of literature, and one I created a live performance around many years ago.

Extraordinary Tales / The Masque of the Red Death

Poe has been an inspiration for an infinite amount of works of different genres, including film and animation work. The latest adaptation is a 70-minute anthology of five Poe stories directed by animator Raul Garcia, which came out last year. I was very excited to see it but apart from The Masque of the Red Death, which I consider a very successful adaptation, the others unfortunately disappointed me and I can relate to Jordan Hoffman’s rather cool review of the collection: “a welcome respite for any middle schooler sitting through a boring lecture. But if we were ever asked if we wanted a second viewing, we’d have to quoth the raven: nevermore.” The problem I have with Garcia’s rendition of the stories is that they fail to convey the gloomy, creepy and altogether eerie tone of Poe’s writings. Despite the fact that each of the five films has its own distinct style and aesthetic, besides the Masque, they all have that too-crisp-and-polished video-game feel, which prevents the dark soul of Poe to come through. It is a shame and also an irony, because the director’s very intention was to escape precisely that sort of 3D artificiality, as he said in an interview for IndieWire Magazine: “I’ve always tried to find those distinct approaches because this is a 3D animated film and I wanted to stay away from the style that all 3D animated films have today. They are all rendered in the same manner with photorealist textures. I tried to make something much more pictorial, so that the audience wouldn’t know if they were watching something done in 3D, 2D, in oil paintings, or made out of cut-outs.” The textures are indeed quite nice, especially in The Fall of the House of Usher and The Facts in the Case of M Valdemar, and the influences of Egon Schiele, including the smudged watercolours and his unique way of painting limbs and hands are definitely visible in the Masque, but overall the films are too polished, too nice. The policemen who come for the main character in The Tell-Tale Heart, which style-wise is perhaps the most interesting film in the collection, are not scary at all (compare them with the headless silhouettes in James Mason’s 1953 film. presented below, and you will see what I mean). I’m not sure if the desire to create five completely different films was quite simply too big of a challenge for the director, or whether it’s the case of looking at a sketchbook where a good drawing is surrounded by either mediocre or poor ones, but The Masque of the Red Death does get lost int the anthology, which is a shame, as it would make a successful independent short film.

Stills from “The Masque of the Red Death”, directed by Raul Garcia

The Tell Tale Heart

Directed by James Mason, designed by Paul Julian and animated by Pat Matthews, The Tell-Tale Heart is a very enjoyable watch. Interestingly, the film was originally intended as a 3D film, and it was the first cartoon to be rated X in film history (which means suitable for adult audience only). I love the surreal collage’y style of drawing, the expressive spatial distortions which emphasise the overall creepiness. The film is on one hand playful, and on the other seriously dark. And like in Garcia’s vision of The Masque of the Red Death, in which we see both Schiele and Bruegel, some of the stills from Mason’s film could appear on a painting by Max Ernst or Salvador Dali. Among a large volume of praises on YouTube, I’ve come across the term “classic animation”, which, as I guess, is how people refer to 2D animation to distinguish it from 3D. Here the term is clearly meant as a compliment, because the film, despite being 63 years old, still doesn’t have many contestants.

Stills from “The Tell Tale Heart”, directed by James Mason

The Fall of the House of Usher

Jan Svankmajer, who is one of my favourite artists of all time, has taken a very particular approach when making an adaptation of Poe’s story (here is a version with English subtitles, but in a lower quality). Incorporating real footage combined with his signature clay animation, this 1980 black and white film contains no characters, only interiors and exteriors (and a raven at the end). It is built on visual metaphors — one can see inanimate objects (i.e. chair frame, falling stone) as symbols of the characters (Roderick, Lady Madeline), as well as on exaggerated and unsettling sound effects, such as groans and creaks. With its very experimental character, it is certainly less accessible and more challenging for the viewer than Garcia’s straight-forward film, but I like the fact that it stimulates one’s imagination, which is something I especially seek in visual adaptations of Poe’s prose.

Stills from “The Fall of the House of Usher”, directed by Jan Svankmajer

The Raven

The Raven, directed by Mariano Cattaneo & Nic Loreti, with narration from Billy Drago and music by Claudio Simonetti, is a little like Mason’s Tell-Tale Heart in its use of eclectic drawing styles. Despite cartoonish and somewhat innocent-looking characters, it remains deliciously dark. In fact, I actually quite like the contrast between the childishly drawn characters and the ascetic sombre spaces. I love the textures and its gloomy outdoor scenes — those eerie trees have sent me proper chills. It is very well directed and among all the films I am presenting here, I think it has the best sound design. A lot is achieved with spectacularly subtle effects, such as eye movement or gentle panning across the images, but it is enough to convey the story and stir up the viewer’s emotions. I am always puzzled as to why so many animators feel compelled to go to great lengths trying to mimic the reality as close as possible (and get obsessed with 3D, for that matter), when subtle suggestion is often way more powerful.

Stills from “The Raven”, directed by Mariano Cattaneo & Nic Loreti

A very different vision of The Raven comes from filmmakers Don Thiel and Chris Saphire, whose adaptation is a fast-paced trippy footage-based film with real actors and an eclectic colour palette — from black and white to sepia and psychodelic magenta. The film won a few awards (“Best Short” H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival 2011- Judged by Guillermo del Toro, “Best Actor” LACF 2011, “Best Editing” LACF 2011) and quite rightly so, as it’s a brave experiment in a demanding style. While I find the main character, who solely carries the narration, a little too sane for my liking, I think that the overall atmosphere is very powerful, not the mention the superb editing work.

Stills from “The Raven”, directed by Don Thiel and Chris Saphire

The Pit and the Pendulum

Like Svankmajer, Marc Lougee also uses clay, albeit in a much more conventional way, building figures. His adaptation of Poe’s tale of condemnation, hope and redemption during the Spanish Inquisition, also won a few awards at various festivals where it was screened (over 250 in total). The sound design, at time quite epic (making one think of battle scenes in films like Braveheart) works well with the visuals, though the narration is slightly redundant in my opinion — the complete lack of thereof (save for one line) in The Masque of the Red Death proves that a story can be successfully told without words. Nevertheless, it is a successful film and a testimony to what a powerful tool stop-motion animation is when it comes to building an atmosphere which is both charming and creepy (which is why it is so extensively used by many artists, including Quay Brothers).

Stills from “The Pit and the Pendulum”, directed by Marc Lougee

Riddle of the Black Cat

Finally, another artistic and “classic”, to use the YouTube language, adaptation. Based on two different tales, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Black Cat, directed by J. W. Rinzler with art by Greg Knight, the film uses lots of different techniques to create motion and convey the narrative. Zooming in and out, incorporating Ken Burns style panning on still images, interesting shots, distorted perspective, smudges charcoals, nervous lines, and a deliberately scarce use of colour (which occurs occasionally), it is yet another example of how much can be done without the use of Maya or Rhino. While the choice of music is in my opinion debatable, the visual style suits Poe’s writing very well. It is that edginess, and expressive sketchiness that I would love to have seen in Garcia’s anthology.

Stills from “Riddle of the Black Cat”, directed by J. W. Rinzler

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Dark strangelands in music videos Mon, 31 Oct 2016 21:55:12 +0000 Despite an enormous interest in music from my early childhood, I didn’t grow up watching music videos. At home we had neither MTV nor any other music channel, so it was only when I was visiting friends that I could watch videos accompanying songs I was listening to. With the arrival of YouTube, I finally had a chance to fill the gaps in my limited music clip experience and so I would binge-watch them with the enthusiasm of a child exposed to sweets for the first time. As a result, I have seen tons of videos, but to be honest, there aren’t very many I remember. Just like film trailers, which are becoming more and more descriptive and generic, most music videos are made using a similar pattern, which features the band playing their instruments, often against some “dramatic” landscape. In an attempt to give the film some depth and intrigue, some vague characters and a lightly stitched plot are artificially added to what is essentially a recording of a live music. The thing is, if I want to see the band play, I will either go to their concert or watch a documentary based on a live performance. It is not what I seek in a music video. My favourite ones are those which either don’t feature the musicians at all, or they create a unique and surreal enough visual world for them to play and sing in, which makes the song more powerful and memorable. Having recently seen a superb video for Behemoth’s The Satanist, I decided to share a few particularly powerful music clips which have made a last impression on me.

1. Behemoth – The Satanist

Behemoth’s video is unique for many reasons. First of all, its director, Andrzej Dragan, is not only a filmmaker and photographer, but a physicist with a PhD in quantum physics, numerous awards and scholarships. The video is one of the first projects that came out of his movie production studio, Weird, established in 2014. The premiere production, Time Dilation, received the Golden Sword award for the best personal work at the KTR ad festival (2014) and Best in Show and Best CGI awards from Creative Review (2014). The music clip to The Satanist was shot in Warsaw and Starogard, a small city in western Poland where Dragan got fascinated by a subway passage next to the train station, particularly its tiled floor. The concept is based around the idea of a meeting point between the physical world and the underworld, which a young girl is drawn towards, as she stumbles in a faceless crowd down the streets of Warsaw. With (digitally) distorted facial features, she immediately brings to mind characters from Quay Brothers’ or David Lynch films. The latter is no coincidence, for one of Weird films is a re-shooting of the famous “I’m at your house” scene from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Also, the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks might be another inspiration for the “unknown” world in The Satanist.

What makes the video so strong is not only the fact that it is beautifully shot, and very well acted, but that is manages to communicate the ideas and themes in Behemoth’s song and music in general in a way that escapes cliches and pretentiousness. Occultism, demons, black magic, are a very hard topic to handle in a way that avoids grotesque and pastiche. Dragan’s film is sensitive, empathetic and moving; it sends us chills but also makes us feel compassionate for the main character, and the underworld it portrays is not laughable, it could be interpreted as a scary metaphor for the underworld of one’s troubled mind.

2. Nine Inch Nails – Closer

Another music video that makes several reference to the work by other artists and incorporates elements that would not be out of place in an alchemist’s studio, is Mark Romanek’s video for Nine Inch Nails Closer. Despite being made 22 years ago, it is still one of the most controversial videos on YouTube, due to its use of sexual and religious imagery accompanying a fairly explicit song. There is a nude, bald woman with a crucifix mask, taken literally from one of Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph; Man Ray’s metronome; a monkey tied to a cross, a severed pig’s spinning head; a diagram of vagina. Reznor features as dressed in leather with an S&M mask, a ball gag, meat wings (a nod to Francis Bacon), suspended in shackles, and finally he is shown in silhouette as he’s licking a breast-resembling old-fashioned microphone. Closer is a very powerful song, with explicit and disturbing lyrics, and the video enhances its subversiveness. Trent’s own comment on the video was: “The rarest of things occurred: where the song sounded better to me, seeing it with the video. And it’s my song.”

There is a very good behind-the-scenes documentary in 3 parts on YouTube: Part I, Part II, Part III.

3. prodigy – smack my bitch up

An even more disturbing video from a sexual point of view, is Jonas Åkerlund’s film to Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up. Filmed from a first-person perspective (at a time when, as Jonas recalls, GoPro cameras weren’t widely available, which meant that the director of photography had to walk around with a gigantic old 35-mm film camera taped onto him — “I even have photos of him napping with it on.”), it depicts a night out in London which includes heavy drinking, drugs, violence, vomiting, vandalism, nudity and sex (there is also an unedited version with a scene of heroin use and a full sex scene). The protagonist ends up picking up a stripper (played by model Teresa May) to bring home and have sex with and it is only when the stripper leaves that we realise, seeing the protagonist’s reflection in the mirror, that the violent drinker is in fact a woman.

The video received very polarised opinions, including those from the feminist circles. Some considered it misogynistic, while others praised it for subverting gender stereotypes. In Åkerlund’s own words, the video “was supposed to be outrageous and over the top, and we considered it comedy when we watched it later.”

Like any piece of visual art work, narratives for music videos can often start with a single image. In the case of Prodigy’s clip, that image was of a man… sitting on a loo at a night club. Åkerlund describes how the idea was born on a night out not dissimilar to the one he shot for the band: “(…) at the end of the night Hans and I were at a strip club around the corner from the hotel. (…) We were totally wasted and I kept losing him, so I remember at some point going into the bathroom and finding a locked stall and thinking Hans was stuck in there and something went wrong, so I kicked open the door and it was just some poor random dude taking a dump. That image in my head of kicking down the door and finding a random guy taking a dump is what gave me the whole idea for the video.” First sent as a rough edit on a VHS, it got rejected by the band, and it was only when a final, exquisitely edited version was shown to the singer, that the band fell in love with the work and insisted on keeping it. Which shows what difference a high-quality post-production can make. And in the case of Smack My Bitch Up, the distortions to both image and sound, mimicking the drugged experience of the protagonist, are done in a way that blows one’s mind off.

4. depeche mode – wrong

Depeche Mode’s video for Wrong, directed by Patrick Daughters and often referred to as “the best 3-and-a-half minute David Fincher video never made”, is also controversial and disturbing, albeit for different reasons. Inspired by the famous dead-end cab ride from David Fincher’s 1997’s film The Game with Michael Douglas, it depicts a car driving backwards in LA with a man in a latex mask lying asleep and duck-taped in the front seat. That man is played by Julian Gross from the band Liars, the musicians are virtually absent from the video except for a basic cameo, while Spike Jonze plays the part of a man jumping onto the car’s hood and rolling on the street.

According to Daughters, the original concept was even more ambitious and dramatic than what we see in the video. “The main character was going to get into a big accident halfway through instead of at the end– and not quite die. An ambulance comes, but the car starts rolling again. Then it crashes through a fence and ends up in a river. But that wasn’t really possible to execute. I envisioned it on a Hollywood movie studio budget”, he said in an interview for Pitchfork. Unfortunately, not only was the budget modest, but because of various hiccups on the first day of the shoot, when the most expensive piece of equipment got accidentally destroyed, the crew had to invest their own money, and rely on the generosity of MPC, the post production company, who put some extra time into editing the video. Nevertheless, the result of their efforts is a film that not only leaves a lasting impression on the viewer, but appears to be a much bigger a production than it really was.

5. Justice – Stress

The music video for Stress from the French duo’s debut album †, directed by Romain Gavras, caused an avalanche of controversy on the internet and was immediately banned from the French television when it got released in May 2008.

In his work, Gavras, who runs the Kourtrajmé collective of artists born in the sort of banlieues he portrays, pays homage to the aesthetic of Mathieu Kassovitz’s award-winning 1995 film La Haine (Hate). The video follows a group of youngsters who go around Paris, committing gang violence, which involves harassing passers-by, vandalizing property,  carjacking and setting the vehicle aflame. Since most of the characters are of black skin, the video was instantly labelled racist, yet Gaspard Augé’s response to that criticism was that “If people see racism in the video, it’s definitely because they might have a problem with racism; because they only see black people beating up white people, which is not what happens.” Through this shockingly brutal and blunt piece of work, Justice wanted to “to open a debate, raise questions, something done regularly by cinema, literature and contemporary art”, but as Jeffrey T. Iverson points out in his article for Time, they failed to get their point across mostly because of the medium their work is presented in. Lacking a context and a dialogue, the visual message is likely to be misinterpreted.

“(…) as the video rages across the Web, it leaves in its wake a flood of commentary from viewers who see it as everything from a tasteless marketing ploy to a brutally effective critique of the media’s portrayal of the banlieues, the desolate and poor neighborhoods on the edge of French cities, which exploded in violence in the autumn of 2005. (…) The Stress video controversy draws out precisely this dubious quality of the Web. Justice calls the hoopla a reminder of “just how difficult it is today to control the destination of images and the integrity of their meaning.” Indeed, that integrity seems to get fuzzier with each new viewer clicking play — and, for that matter, with each new dot-com article about it.”

But despite the backlash, the song received a lot of praise, and those who managed to look at the video beyond the simplistic interpretations, praised how well it matches the music, and enhances it. I don’t listen to Justice but ever since I watched the video (not long after it was made), the song has stayed in my memory, for it is the video that makes it unforgettable. And that’s a great achievement.

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Neons. On preserving the endangered type. Fri, 30 Sep 2016 10:41:58 +0000

They say that good design doesn’t make itself visible, so you don’t notice it, whereas you will immediately notice bad design. I’ve been wondering if the same applies to typography in public spaces, i.e. whether the well-designed signs are indeed so invisible (the fact that the bad ones are only too visible, is something I have no doubts about. In my own city, Warsaw, the clutter of awful posters, ads and shops signs is frequently subject of protests, and I myself signed a campaign against illegal billboards marring the city centre (there’s an interesting article about how uncontrolled advertising turns the city into a caricature). Despite the fact that so many people graduate from graphic design courses each year, and that the internet provides access to examples of beautiful design, there is still a shortage of good typography in public spaces.

Furthermore, just as hand-painted signs got replaced with much cheaper vinyl-cut ones (something I wrote about a while ago), the same process is happening to traditional neon signs. Storefront is therefore becoming increasingly standardised, family run businesses are packing up, and the distinctive signage of the past century is slowly disappearing from cities. This sad process doesn’t go entirely unnoticed though, for there are many typography fans, who are making efforts to at least preserve the old signs which would otherwise end up in a skip, by collecting them, restoring and turning into a collection. Two of these places I’ve recently visited were Neon Museum in Warsaw (which is part of Top 10 on Trip Advisor) and Buchstabenmuseum in Berlin.

Located on the corner of Claudiusstraße, next to the S-Bahn station Bellevue and U-Bahn station Hansaplatz, where the museum has moved early this year, the Buchstabenmuseum is still in the process of organising its permanent display, which is why I was told that the ticket I bought on my visit will be valid throughout next year. The work-in-progress state means that a lot of the signs are in storage, most of them aren’t lit and apart from the entrance, there is no information regarding the origin of each sign. However, the lovely staff working at the museum are more than happy to go around, briefly turning on each sign to show its colour, and tell a bit about its story. Thanks to their help, my friend and I learned that the large letter E located in one of the further rooms, was used in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) as part of its set design (which becomes obvious when you go around and see the back of the letter) and was a gift from the director to the museum.

There is a great variation in terms of typefaces as well as the materials, including delicate wood and robust steel. Also, the museum has its own font, made from selected museum objects (it can be downloaded for free from the website). I look forward to visiting the museum when it’s ready, and finding out more about the individual signs, especially if they gather more stories like those presented in the foyer, where a few authors describe how they got the be owners of some of those old signs and letters. Jürgen Huber, professor for typography at the FHTW in Berlin, recalls his “rescue” story:

l no longer remember exactly when it was I noticed that a change was taking place sometime at the end of the nineties, when Lichthaus Mösch moved from the Tauentzienstraße in Berlin to the Stilwerk in the Kanstraße, which was new back then. lt was the special offers and the window displays, which were growing empty, that heralded the change. The following day l rang up and was told that Lichthaus Mösch was moving. l wanted to know what would happen to the wonderful shop sign and at first the woman on the phone seemed to have nothing against me having the letters. However, after a little, while she stopped and began to backtrack. “Actually, no. It all sounds a bit odd. So, you want the letters, hmm? Could you send me a fax perhaps, and explain what it is you want, so that I’ve got it in writing?” So l explained in the fax that I was a typographer, that having an interest in fonts was part of my job and that I was keen to have the neon letters for my in home. Finally I got a call: Yes, that would be fine, Mr So-and-so would be there to switch off the fuses, we would have to bring our own tools and “take everything with us, leaving nothing unsightly behind.” They were talking about the Ö.

On the date agreed, we unscrewed the letters early in the morning before work, and brought them home in several trips in Gregor Ade’s little car, where they remained, dirty and smelly, for weeks. The pigeons evidently found them as attractive as we did, if for different reason. Afterwards, we shared the letters between friends and acquaintances, though mainly with designers, as most other people wouldn’t see the point in filling their homes with unwieldy lumps of metal. Until we moved in 2011, I still had an L, an H and the Ö. What’s happened to the Ö is obvious. I kept the neighbouring S. It’s currently hanging in my seminar room at the University of Technology and Economics In Qberschoneweide. The lab engineers Rainer and Norbert hung the S up just below the ceiling, upside down at first. As a font designer, however, the response “don’t  worry, no one’ll notice” didn’t sit well with me. It’s been hanging there for nearly three years now – the right way up too. I hung it there to remind me of the expressive Lichthaus Mösch font, of the fun I had with Gregor Ade rescuing the letters, and of early days in the business. Now the S has become a classroom decoration and an inspiration for my students. As a typical example of a slab-serif linear antiqua typeface, it’s also great presentation material, but most of all it’s one thing: beautiful!

With its beautiful display and an attractive location in Soho Factory right in the middle of the artistic and edgy Praga district, the Neon Museum is a serious competitor to Buchstabenmuseum, for it is currently the largest museum of its kind in Europe, and was set up around the same time as the Berlin one, in 2005. It’s also very tightly linked to our turbulent history, which makes it even more interesting.

The first neon in Warsaw (the “Philips neon”) was lit in 1926. Few neons made it through the second world war, but after Stalin’s death in 1953 the country experienced a boom of creative expressionism. Neon signage was meant to bring excitement and glamour to the cities devastated by the war, which were slowly being rebuilt, and break away from the gloomy Stalinist era. The year 1956, when Władysław Gomułka became the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, marks the beginning of a “Neonisation” programme, while the true “golden age of neon” was the 1960-70s. In the 50s, as we can read at the museum, “the idea behind neonisation was (…) to turn Warsaw into a modern European city. Neons were intended as decorative elements, appropriately merged with the urban environment, in harmony with its architecture. The designers of neons were brilliant artists, architects and graphic designers. In their projects, they enciphered their pre-war graphic inspirations; they referenced a period during which creating signs and advertisements turned from craft into art.”

However, after the later turbulence: the Martial Law implemented on 31 December 1981; he Solidarity movement formed as a reaction to the authoritarian government’s violent politics, and the formation of a new government in 1990 in the newly formed Republic of Poland, neon signs were looked down on, considered remnants of the communist system, and therefore many of them were destroyed. Directors of the Neon Muzeum, David Hill and Ilona Karwinska, as well as other typography aficionados, are putting significant efforts to preserve the ones that escaped the post-socialist cleansing.

There’s a lot more to keeping neon signs than using them as a piece of furniture in one’s hipster flat. Neon letters are like rare and exotic species of parrot that are in danger of extinction and therefore need to be preserved. Unless we want to live in a world where the efforts to minimise the cost of sign production and increase their legibility will lead to homogenised urban typography, where shops, streets and cities blend into one another, we need to join those typographers in preserving old neons. And start paying attention to the relics of the past left in the skip.

Further reading:

Pismo w przestrzeni publicznej (PL)
Warsaw Neons
Old neon signs in Poznań
The History of Typography and Place
Vernacular Typography

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Women, art & obscurity. Seers, Knights, Lassnig. Wed, 31 Aug 2016 21:41:12 +0000

Women artist don’t enjoy the kind of spotlight men often get.

Kira Cochrane from the Guardian wrote 3 years ago:

How many female artists featured in the top 100 auction sales, ranked by price, last year? Gemma Rolls-Bentley, an independent curator, decided to find out. One day, not long ago, she sat down with the 2012 list, “and spent a couple of hours writing M next to the artists. I got to the end and there wasn’t a single F.” Some of those artists were alive, some were dead, all were highly valued – considered “great” or “genius” – and all were men.

Maybe because I am a woman, maybe because I am a feminist, or maybe because I am in awe of people who pursue their goals whether or not they are recognised for their work or completely ignored by the art world, but I like discovering women artist. A while ago it was Dorothea Tanning, Eva Švankmajerová, and Lee Krasnersg, who were no less talented than their husbands’ (Max Ernst, Jan Svankmajer, Jackson Pollock). Today it’s three women you’ve probably never heard of: Lindsay Seers, Winifred Knights and Maria Lassnig.

These are women of different periods, different origins, different backgrounds, different disciplines, but what they have in common is the fact that they all had some major obstacles to deal with. And that they struggle(d) to enjoy the recognition they deserve.

Lindsay Seers didn’t speak until the age of 7 and lost her step-sister, Christine Parker, who went missing in Rome following a moped accident which led to a catastrophic memory loss.

Maria Lassnig’s childhood was far from happy: My early childhood was a real life-drama / the pots and pans went flying through the air / The small child screamed aloud: „Stay alive, dear Mamma!” / The poor child suffered from her parents’ war, she sang in Kantate. The Ballad of Maria Lassnig.

Winifred Knights, while fortunate to have had grown up in more fortunate circumstances (being the daughter of a Guiana sugar plantation owner, who “combined socialist convictions with the happy knack of making money”, as Kathryn Hughes describes in her article, she didn’t have much to complain about), did go through some trauma too. She lost her baby brother at the age of 15 and gave birth to a stillborn boy in 1928. When she finally gave birth to a healthy son, John, in 1934 she was already experiencing mental problems, and refused to leave the child with a nanny or let him out of her sight.

And they all virtually dedicated their lives to art. Lindsay Seers’ obsession with photography started by the age of nine and hasn’t stopped since. Maria Lassnig was painting until her very last days; her 80s paintings were showing her on a hospital body, frail, wrinkled and limping. In her animated film Cantate (1992), she sang: I just don´t feel my life as nearly ended / I still go skiing, ride my motor bike / And each new day that breaks — brings new dimensions / so Art has kept me young in ways I like. Even Winifred Knights, who lived at times where women were much less free to make their own choices, and who had a period of withdrawing from work and focusing on family life, returned to painting eventually and had it not been for a brain tumour which caused her sudden death, she probably would have continued working.

Trailer for Winifred Knights exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2016

They all have been acclaimed. Lindsay Seers, who lives and works in London, recently received a few major awards: the Derek Jarman Award (2009), the Paul Hamlyn Award (2010) and the Sharjah Art Foundation Award (2012). Winifred Knights became the first woman in England to win the prestigious Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome for her critically acclaimed painting The Deluge. Maria Lassnig was the first female artist to win the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1988 and was awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art in 2005.

Kantate (also known as The Ballad of Maria Lassnig), 1992

But even the most talented and acclaimed women can somehow fall into the shadow of obscurity. Upon moving to New York, the country of “strong women”,  Maria Lassnig struggled to find audience for he work, which got labelled “strange” and “sick”. Unmarried and childless, she was well into her sixties when she began to receive widespread recognition – though nobody I told about the recent exhibition at Tate Liverpool knew who she was (I didn’t either). Despite being called a genius, Knights became virtually forgotten – I discovered her thanks to the wonderful exhibition at The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Not a single obituary appeared upon her death. Seers is still active, but besides her own website, I struggle to find much on the internet about her in terms of photo- or video-documentation, and exhibition reviews not written by niche art critics, but art fans. Maybe she enjoys the privacy. But maybe she doesn’t have a choice in the matter.

Lindsay Seers — Chalkie Talkie from “Objects Do Things” exhibition at Centre For Contemporary Art Ujazdowsky Castle in Warsaw

So, I’m inviting you to check out the work of these three female artists. Because it’s really good and special. Lindsay Seers’ inability to speak in the early childhood led her to develop eidetic memory (i.e. photographic memory), which later got replaced with obsession with photography. But Seers had her own very personal and interesting take on photography. She internalised the technology of the camera and used her own body as well as puppets to produce photographs – “the cavity of her mouth became the camera body and her lips became the camera aperture and shutter”, to borrow a quote from the website of Goldsmiths University, where she lectures in fine art. Maria Lassnig took the art of self-portrait to a different level, experimenting with a huge number of styles, techniques, combining painting and animation. There’s a beautiful and very well designed website for a recently (2015) established Maria Lassnig Foundation, that shows the incredibly vast scope of the artist’s work. Winifred Knights developed a very unique painting language, mixing Italian Quattrocento-inspired religious imagery with elements of a modernist style. All the paintings I saw at the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition (which, given her premature death, weren’t very many) have stayed in my memory.

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Art meets facts. Animation in documentary films Sun, 31 Jul 2016 09:54:19 +0000 There’s a term I’ve always liked: cross-genre, and I’ve often used it to describe my own work. Just as I avoid pigeonhole-ing things in life, I’m attracted to works that escape genre classifications and narrow paths. I find that it’s at these intersections of styles and forms that true magic can be born. Once-upon-a-time a complete theatre-addict, these days you won’t find me sitting through a “play” with a set design consisting of two chairs on stage. But when it’s a site-specific performance with choreography and aerial, I’ll be the first to grab a ticket.

So I’m happy to see that a film form generally considered very traditional and serious – a documentary – is beginning to adopt new storytelling techniques, animation being one of them. This new exciting direction can really widen the range of ways to express ideas, though not everyone might be inclined to try. Beige Adams writes in his article for The International Documentary Association that  “A growing sub-genre of documentary film, the animated documentary poses a network of challenging, existential questions for the form. And while purists might cling to traditional, sanctioned mores, a healthy re-evaluation of our inventory is inspiring filmmakers to experiment and push the boundaries.” And I’m all for the latter.

“(…) Two years ago, when I heard doc I thought, I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t pollute the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t make genocide in Europe. I’m not a secret closet maniac. Those are all what documentaries are about”, says Wayne White, artist and hero of Beauty is Embarrassing documentary in an interview with Michelle Higa Fox for Motiongrapher. For its director, Neil Berkeley, the film was a big leap from motion graphics background into a feature-length debut. But he was the perfect man to tell Wayne’s story and, since animation is a huge part of Wayne’s art practice, it was only natural that it should be incorporated into the storytelling. Combined efforts from BRKLY, Neils studio, Lifelong Friendship Society and Gentleman Scholar, and Wayne himself who art-directed the end credits, resulted in a film that is very intimate, sensitive, as well as lively, fun and very inspiring. The saddest moment in the film, a scene depicting a car crash Wayne experienced with his parents and sister in his childhood, is told through a very beautiful hand-drawn animation created by Gentleman Scholar.

Car accident sequence from “Beauty is Embarrassing”, animated by Gentleman Scholar (above) and end titles, created by Wayne White (below)

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen, which I saw recently, is another example of a documentary that not only paints a very detailed portrait of an artist, and almost manages to x-ray the thought process behind his work, but also touches the viewer on a very deep level. An absolutely superb use of animated graphics and photography takes it far above the “matter-of-fact” documentaries based solely on footage. The documentary is unusual in the sense that it focuses more on presenting the wide spectrum of Kurt’s talents besides his music passion. It also shows some material which nobody close to the musician knew existed, and that includes a story Cobain taped in 1988, discovered by Morgen in a box marked “cassettes” in a storage space the director was granted permission to access. Cobain’s recorded tale, Montage of heck, which inspired the documentary’s title, is a semi-fictitious account of his adolescent life. Morgen was very keen to include the story in his film but struggled to find the right way of presenting it, until he came across the work of Dutch artist/filmmaker Hisko Hulsing. As he describes in an interview for Business Insider, “I felt that he had a similar dystopian view of the world that Kurt had, but a much better craftsman than Kurt (…) But the view and the tone had a lot of similarities, a lot of darkness and twisted reality.” So Hulsing was invited to join the project, and animated both the Montage of Heck story and another audio recording where Cobain was describing his daily life in the 80s. “From his small studio in Amsterdam, Hulsing compiled a team of 27 people (18 of them animators) and for four months they worked on not only the Cobain audio story, but also on the other portion of the film Hulsing was responsible for. For the 85 shots that were Hulsing’s responsibility, they produced 6,000 animations and 60 oil paintings on canvas. Some of those canvas paintings were as large as six feet”, we read in Jason Guerrasio’s article.

Still from Hisko Hulsing’s animated sequence in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (above) and Hulsing talking about the animation process (below)

Apart from Hulsing’s animated sequences, there are several scenes showing Cobain’s journals being scribbled, doodles and written in, created for the film by artist Stefan Nadelman. These sequences are also very skilfully done and make his notes and drawings literally come to life. I’ve rewatched them several times, each time in awe of the creativity, skill and an exceptional sensitivity to the music – the image/sound synchronisation is absolutely superb.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (animated sequences by Stefan Nadelman) from Bent Image Lab

Compared to both Beauty is Embarrassing and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, uses relatively little motion graphics and animation. But when it does, it is done very well indeed, bringing life to facts and ideas, and creating an emotional connection with them. Purist and some critics, for example Cynthia Fuchs from Pop Matters, seem reluctant (“Such tricks are distracting more than illuminating in this film, which is otherwise focused on the artist’s craft and talent”, she said in her review), but I would strongly disagree. If nothing else, these animated sequences make the documentary far more memorable, and, given how obscure Cazale has become, it can only be a good thing.

Animated sequence from “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale”

Another very interesting example of what a documentary can be is Chris Landreth‘s short film about the life of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, who rose to fame with his psychedelic Oscar-nominated short Walking (1968) but ended up being homeless, near-forgotten, and with drug and alcohol addictions before Landreth’s documentary brought him to the attention of critics and audience again. The film, which is a computer-animated interpretation of an interview of Larkin by Landreth, was made over the course of several years following a chance meeting between the two in 2000. It was their conversation, not a storyboard (which came later) that gave the film its structure and narrative. The result is an interview-style cinéma vérité documentary with a very particular visual style and atmosphere, which is very powerful and moving. The animation was created at the Animation Arts Centre of Seneca College in Toronto, and there’s an interesting “documentary on documentary”, called Alter Egos directed by Laurence Green, which examines the process of developing the Oscar-winning animated short.

“Ryan”, Chris Landreth‘s short film about the life of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin

Finally, I will quote Robbins featured in Beige Adams’s article, who says “None of us wants to be stuck in a documentary world where we can’t break rules. In general, I’m pleased to be working in a form where the rules are getting broken; I take that as a good sign.” I do too. When done right, animation is one of the most effective and versatile forms of communicating ideas, because it breathes life into inanimate objects and speaks to people’s emotions through visual metaphors and associations. Why not use it then in documentaries if it can really enhance the narration?

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Retro dreams in retro animation Wed, 08 Jun 2016 18:10:47 +0000 My life has recently been revolving around animation, as I’ve been working on a little animated intro for my website and finishing an old project, which is an animated music clip to Fly on the Windscreen by Depeche Mode. The latter involved getting deep into expressions, which, as every After Effects adept knows, is not an easy territory. But after months of work, I am beginning to see the light at the end of a tunnel.

All this work coincided with a few animation-related things. A few weeks ago I went to Docs Against Gravity festival, where I saw two films which incorporated animation in interesting ways: Dreams Rewired and The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda), the latter being more of an art installation than a documentary, with an emphasis on visuals and mood rather than a narrative. Secondly, there was a film/puppetry exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle called Objects Do Things which had quite striking marketing materials and spooky animated trailers created by Noviki Studio. Last week, the internet was mourning the passing away of Studio Ghibli pioneer Makiko Futaki, who was behind masterpieces such as Akira and Princess Mononoke, and a few days later, Google commemorated Lotte Reiniger’s would-be 117th birthday with a fantastic Google Doodle (bravo to Olivia Huynh!). Plus I stumbled on a few random things whilst researching stuff on the internet (as you do).

I am not going to talk about everything though, for I want to focus on the kind of animation I am most interested in: collage / mixed, hand-cut and stop motion animation. And everything retro.

All of which can be found in Dreams Rewired.

Directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, and Thomas Tode, and narrated by Tilda Swinton, Dreams Rewired is an essay on technological utopias, which questions our post-modern all-time connectivity. Created using footage from 1880s to the 1930s, it reminds us of the excitement, hopes and dreams surrounding early technological inventions such as the telephone, television and cinema. Visually stunning, it does however seem to fall into the “style over substance” trap, and I agree with Christopher Gray from Slant Magazine, who says that the film’s “promises of insight into the modern and postmodern psyche go unfulfilled”. But what I took away from the mostly footage-based film were a few exquisitely animated bits by Hanna Nordholt and Fritz Steingrobe. I was instantly intrigued and wanted to see what else they did.

This intriguing animator-illustrator duo, whose roots are in Hamburg’s avant-garde scene, has been making short films since 1984, when they first made an animated film using a Super 8 camera from a series of pictures in a dance school manual, according to this article. They combine found audio and video with 2D and 3D animations, both traditional and computer-generated, to make films that revolve around technology, machines and sound. “We like scientific films, love experimental films and can’t really be pigeonholed. What we’re doing is film research,” says Nordholt. They work in “monk like” conditions, without external assistants, in order to preserve total control of their work.

Unfortunately, besides a Vimeo page, they don’t seem to have a website where they showcase all of their work, but those few animations on Vimeo are enough to see their unique style. In Three Graces (Drei Grazien), the three Faraday sisters — Optica, Acustica and Writing — are incited by the first ever recorded human voice to visit various 20th century workshops where humans are connected to machines so that the artist-engineers can open new circuits. The film is about “human-machine couplings and how these connections affected creative processes and artistic output in the 20th century.” Pa Tak, inspired by media theorist Friedrich Kittler, is a homage to three poets and their passion for sound recording devices: Rilke — phonograph, Burroughs — tape recorder and Pyncheon — thought recorder.

Obviously, if we’re talking retro, one cannot think of anything more old-school than the work of Lotte Reiniger, who gained an international acclaim, for as Philip Kemp said, “No one else has taken a specific animation technique and made it so utterly her own. To date she has no rivals, and for all practical purposes the history of silhouette animation begins and ends with Reiniger”. Kemp isn’t exactly right here, as there were other artists who worked in this technique (notably the French filmmaker, Michel Ocelot), but it is true that Reiniger introduced the Asian shadow play into Western animation. Famous for free-handed cutting of paper characters without prior sketches, she created nearly 60 animated films in her lifetime (40 of which have survived until this day). Her films, mostly adaptations of famous fairy tales, are incredibly unique, and the simplicity of the visual language is what makes them so strong.

An artist who is very much inspired by the old masters of animation, notably surrealists Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Svankmajer, is Jennifer Linton aka Lady Lazarus. Her Domestikia films present a series of surreal events that take place within an imaginary doll house. Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery uses a dreamlike narrative, elements of horror and dark humour to explore the anxieties and challenges experienced by those who have small children. I think that Linton has her own unique style and I like how she incorporates autobiographical elements into her work, including turning herself into one of the characters. Her style of drawing and incorporating text into her animated tales makes me think of Edward Gorey’s books (he too had a thing for a Victorian / gothic aesthetic).

Finally, as I was searching for collage/mixed animation, I came across a beautiful film created by Hua Peng, a young Chinese artist, of whom, like in the case of Nordholt and Steingrobe, there is very little information on the internet (at least in English). The video, hosted on a YouTube-like website, was linked to by another obscure blogger, and after fruitless efforts to access the site, I decided to download the video and reupload it on my channel so others can enjoy – for it should be seen! The video, titled Inhibited the time to live, and created by mixing dream-realm animation and photographic realism, is a metaphor of a life in a surreal post-industrial world. Well done Hua Peng, wherever you are. It’s beautiful.

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Against the tide. Element Talks conference afterthoughts Sat, 30 Apr 2016 12:00:17 +0000 Element Talks, photo by Pat Mic

Photo by Patrycja Mic

Last weekend, I took part in a conference called Element Talks, dedicated to practical aspects of working as a designer. The event, this year in its 3rd edition (though the first one to be held in Warsaw, the previous two were in Poznań), attracted hundreds of people, including students, professionals, as well as commercial and non-profit companies who came to hear talks, take part in workshops, portfolio consultations, to network and also purchase some lovely books and accessories from brands such as Pan Tu Nie Stał, Papierowy Dizajn, SHOF, or Bookoff.

As a two-day event of continuous talks and workshops, with barely any breaks except for a lunch break, it was an incredibly intense experience. Needless to say, even those short breaks were spent either exercising one’s patience in the bathroom queue, or networking and chatting with people, so there was virtually no time to be with one’s own thoughts. On Sunday night, as I was stepping out of the vast warehouse on Mińska Street, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed with the amount of information my brain was processing. But it was all good. I left the event feeling motivated and inspired, my mind and eyes nourished with captivating stories and gorgeous images. And, even though the theme of this year’s event was “cooperation”, a different message resonated much more strongly with me. That message was: there are absolutely no rules to run a successful design business.

Young designers (myself included), are often hungry for books, articles and talks that can guide us in the meanders of working in the design industry as a freelancer or an independent entrepreneur. Hundreds of books on the topic have been published, with established design gurus giving advice on how to “make it” and how to brand yourself (which Hans Wolbers of Lava once referred to as “incredible amount of bullshit”).

The truth is, with an increasing competition, a growing number of schools and courses, and access to more and more sophisticated software, there is no guarantee that being an Adobe expert with solid experience, a flashy website, and social media presence will land us clients and jobs. Watching more experienced professionals and studios, and aiming to match their level of quality, working methods and their way of presenting themselves, is not necessarily the way to go. What it does is breeding clones with near-identical style and lack of character. Many design studios websites look so alike, that they merge into one in my head.

Interestingly, the book I’m currently reading — Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework — fits in perfectly with some of the thoughts I had after Element Talks. The successful people are not necessarily those who cater for clients, work 60/80/100 hour weeks, aim to expand and grow their business, write mission statements, long-term business plans, contracts, and sit in team meetings. They are often those who, to paraphrase the authors, ignore the real world and scratch their own itch. So below are a few conclusions I’ve come to thanks to the conference and the book.

Element Talks, photo by Pat Mic

Photo by Patrycja Mic

You don’t need a hierarchy

Pentagram, one of the biggest and longest-running design agencies in the world, has followed the same model for the past 45 years: the company’s profit is shared evenly between its partners (currently 21). There is no CEO, no pyramid structure, and those partners actually get to do what they love: design. Yes, as Luke Hayman said, some of those partners could probably earn more if they left the company and worked elsewhere. But they wouldn’t be part of a truly amazing team of exquisite talents, working on some of the most prestigious, challenging and exciting projects.

You don’t need an office

The team at Nozbe, a productivity app for computer and mobile devices, developed by Michael Śliwiński, consists of 20 permanent employees and about the same number of associate workers. All working from home. Śliwiński, who is constantly asked where the company’s office is, has a hard time explaining that there isn’t one. To most people, the concept of running a company without having a physical office is unimaginable. But cutting down overheads such as office space not only means more money for the company (and more independence as a result) but more time, which is no longer wasted on commuting.

You don’t need the branding pigeon hole

Luke Hayman said that the team at Pentagram refuses to be specialists. Studio Dumbar, whose Creative Director Liza Enebeis and Project Manager Wouter Dirks gave an excellent talk at ET, believes in a free-spirit approach: they oppose micro-managing the design process with “an endless stream of self-justifying concepts, precepts and admonitions” and “trust talented and committed designers to come up with truly fresh and surprising visual ideas”, to quote Rick Poynor from his article on Dutch graphic design. They are keen to hire young and inexperienced people and are open to their own visual thinking, as opposed to forcing branding guidelines on their team.

You don’t need to be a master in everything

Anton Repponen and Irene Pereyra from Anton & Irene, two designers who quit their work at advertising agencies in order to, as they say, “get to be choosy about what work we take on — client or self-initiated”, told a funny tale of making a web video for a German client. The video was suggested by the duo as an alternative way to express a rather clichéd motto that “creativity is for everyone”, which would replace a slideshow with captions. Having no experience in film-making, camera work or film-editing, Anton and Irene shot an amateurish video merely to show their idea. If approved by the client, the final video was to be shot by professional film-makers. But when the client saw their video, not only had he (to everyone’s astonishment) burst into tears, but also insisted that they do a series of those “guerilla-style” videos, exactly in the same way. He felt that the video was fresh, original, and expressed his ideas a lot better than a professional and polished film would.

Finally: you don’t need uniforms & gear

It is somewhat funny to see how many people feel obliged to get into the designer’s uniform: hipster glasses, tote bag and a MacBook pro with cool stickers and the latest Creative Cloud Suite inside. But, as Fried and Hansson say, “Tone is in your hands. Many amateur golfers think they need expensive clubs. But it’s the swing that matters, not the club. Give Tiger Woods a set of cheap clubs and he’ll still destroy”. Having until recently worked in Adobe CS3, I couldn’t help but smile when I heard people obsessing over new shortcuts and tricks in CC which apparently beat CS6 to the punch. My own computer doesn’t have a brand — it is a custom-built workstation, a big black box with a kickass processor and enough memory to handle the most demanding animation work. I can’t take it to a cafe to work whilst drinking a latte. But my home espresso maker is pretty good. 🙂

So make up your own rules. Go against the tide. Scratch your own itch. And, as Bruno Sellés from Vasava Studio said: if your dream project isn’t coming, just invent it. (Below is an example of an “after hours” project done for fun, which turned out to be a commercial success.)

Special thanks to Patrycja Mic who allowed me to include a couple of her beautiful photos from the conference.

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3 logos I like: Geek Girls Carrots, Moderat, Jadłonomia Thu, 31 Mar 2016 06:45:57 +0000 1. Geek Girls Carrots

Geek Girls Carrots is an organisation dedicated to connecting, teaching/learning and inspiring women in Tech and IT. Why carrots? Kamila Sidor, the heart and soul of GGC, explains: “Geeks and long-lasting coding are usually associated with pizza and junk food. With carrots we wanted to make sure our community was associated with a healthy lifestyle.” She thinks that girls in general tend to care about their health more than guys. They wanted an English name to open up the possibility of becoming global – which they successfully have.

The first GGC meeting took place in 2011. Now they hold meetings in 22 cities in 7 different countries, inspiring women to learn programming, build working teams and startups, become entrepreneurs, network and have fun. As a result, more and more women are colonizing this masculine industry to the point that journalist Natalie Lekka has even called Poland “the land of ‘IT’ girls, home of ‘she-geeks’”.

The Geek Girls Carrots visual identity consists of a striking logo, that is geeky, fun and very memorable at the same time, the colour – orange, as well as gadgets, and their signature carrot cake. Their promotional materials are always fun and playful, presenting the organisation as a welcoming, safe and exciting environment to be in. These women, some wearing flannel shirts and square glasses, some in miniskirts and heels, break with the stereotypical image of a programmer who communicates in an abstract language non-geeky people won’t understand. They do sports, dancing, baking, travelling and adventure games. Having been to their meetups, I can certify that they’re as friendly and inspiring as they’re presenting themselves through their branding.

1. Moderat

Moderat is a Berlin-based collaboration between Modeselektor (Sebastian Szary and Gernot Bronsert) and Apparat (Sascha Ring), who create soulful dance music, with roots in techno and IDM. Szary says that people get easily bored of listening to very clean electronic music so their is playful, based on re-sampling with the use of analogue gear, and making loops. “It’s like a little domino game, you hit one and they all start falling.” On March 29th 2016 their third album III was released in Germany, following the release of a video to Reminder a month earlier on YouTube. The video and artwork for the album were created in collaboration with their long-term creative partner, Pfadfinderei, a design and motion graphics studio also based in Berlin.

By using a comic-book / gaming and avant-garde aesthetic, Pfadfinderei creates designs which closely accompany and support the music. Its playful, experimental spirit comes across very well in their visual identity. The shape and composition of letters in their logo creates an effect of being drawn into the artwork, as one can get easily drawn into their looping beats.

1. Jadłonomia

Jadłonomia (Foodonomy) is a vegan food blog created by Marta Dymek, which made its way onto the Jason Hunt list of the most influential blogs in 2014. Dymek is also an author of a book (under the same title as the blog), the first two editions of which got sold out immediately, so a new edition got issued.

Dymek, 27 years old, became a vegetarian a decade ago, and she doesn’t use any animal products in her everyday cooking. She doesn’t, however, call herself a vegan because while eating vegan at home, she’s not always able to avoid animal products when she’s travelling. With her inventive recipes which are largely based on local ingredients, she’s determined to prove that Polish cuisine is not limited to meaty dishes, and that a plant-based diet can be exciting and delicious. In the recent years, meat consumption in Poland dropped by 8% so it seems that more and more people share Dymek’s enthusiasm for meat-free cooking.

Until recently, the blog’s visual identity was based on a hand-lettered typeface, but it recently underwent rebranding. Her new logo was designed, like the website, by Emilia Obrzut aka Obszar Roboczy, who commissioned illustrator Magdalena Pankiewicz to draw the beetroot. I think it works very well, emphasising the bespoke, hand-made and soulful nature of the work she does, and the values she stands for.

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Game & graphic wonders of Alice in Wonderland exhibition Wed, 03 Feb 2016 22:13:53 +0000 At the end of last year, I had the pleasure of seeing a wonderful exhibition at the British Library, which celebrates 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The exhibition contains an abundance of fascinating material to read and look at. We’ve got Lewis Carroll’s original handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, as well as his diaries where he wrote about the publication and success of the book. There’s an entry, which describes the “golden afternoon” of 4 July 1862 when he first told the story to Alice Liddell and her sisters, and the original woodblocks with illustrations by John Tenniel. In the “Alice Re-imagined” section of the exhibition, we are presented with numerous editions of the book, and a variety of visual interpretations of the story—from Arthur Rackham’s atmospheric drawings, William Andrew (“Willy”) Pogany’s “flapper” Alice, D.R. Sexton’s bobbed Alice, to Salvador Dali’ surrealist lithographs and Yayoi Kusama’s trippy, psychedelic pattern-based imaginings. While there is no shortage of styles, I kind of wished to see my favourite illustrations by Polish artist Olga Siemaszko (below), but this is hardly surprising given how many illustrators have interpreted the story since 1865. Still, and I’m not sure if it’s a childhood nostalgia bias, I consider her illustrations to be my favourite ones (below are scans from my excruciatingly battered copy of the book).

The exhibition was very successful and I was very pleased to see that it wasn’t limited to presenting books and printed artworks. As much as I enjoyed looking at the numerous illustrations, I was even more excited to see the incredibly imaginative computer games designed by young people, based on Carroll’s book. Ever since seeing the excellent Indie Game: The Movie documentary directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, I have been running a personal crusade to help remove the low-art stigma from computer games, for they can often surpass many others art forms in the sophistication of concept and complexity of skills they require to make. The Wondering Lands of Alice, which won the Off The Map competition, a collaboration between the British Library and GameCity, was created by Off Our Rockers, a team of six students from De Montfort University in Leicester. Two other games presented at the exhibition were Chris Lonsdale’s Alice Gardens, and A Curious Feeling developed by Game Art students Hare Triggers Games. These three games, however different in style, are excellent visual and narrative interpretations that give Carroll’s masterpiece a whole new dimension. Needles to say, I would be happy to play them all.

Finally, there was one other aspect of the exhibition that stood out for me: the actual design of it. Having designed my own exhibition a few years ago, I know that designing the spatial narrative is as important as the artworks that are presented in the space. Fiona Barlow, who teamed up with 3d designers Lyn Atelier to design the exhibition graphics, did an excellent job there. She said that their team wanted to “capture the surreal, dreamlike sense of the story and Alice’s childlike logic in the face of irrational events.” The exhibition is structured as a journey where visitors follow instructions and are presented with typographic renditions of quotes taken from the book and printed on the fabric wrapped around a frame that runs through the gallery. There is a wonderful attention to the details, that can be found beyond the actual exhibition, and in the pop-up shop.

The palette is quite minimal; it uses black, white and red, and there is a great emphasis on truly exquisite typography: various styles and widths of Bodoni, Univers and, as I’m guessing, Folio. It is a great example of the kind of graphic design that is beautiful to the eye, perfectly fitting in with the world of the book, but it doesn’t take anything away from the artworks, allowing them to shine.

All in all, a great visual feast. Catch it while you can, it’s open until Sun 17 April 2016.

Photography wasn’t unfortunately allowed at the exhibition, therefore the images I am presenting come from Fiona Barlow’s website. Please visit the website to see and read more about the exhibition. 

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Lot in Sodom cover design Tue, 05 Jan 2016 15:53:34 +0000 I love working with music. So I was very happy when Colin Z. Robertson aka Hands of Ruin asked me to design a cover for his soundtrack album to James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s 1933 silent film, Lot in Sodom, based on the Biblical tale of the city of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Prior to Lot, Colin designed a soundtrack to Watson and Webber’s earlier film, a 1928 horror film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, about a story of a brother and sister who live under a family curse. The Usher soundtrack, currently available to watch on YouTube, will also be released on Bandcamp, and I’m in charge of its cover and booklet design too.

Both films use experimental techniques, like superimposed shots, shooting through prisms and various optical distortions. They very much fit with the avant-garde and expressionist art of the 1920s and 1930s. Since this is probably my favourite period in art, I was incredibly excited to design something in that vein. Colin and I looked at lots of film poster design, such as these gems from 50 Watts website:

I started with some sketches and soon came up with two ideas for composition, which I executed as black and white drawings. Colin was happy with both of them, but since we both wanted to pay homage to the wonderful geometrical architecture in the film, we went for the second version. I therefore started experimenting with colours, and came up with a colour drawing, turned into a collage.

At that point, I was happy enough to start drawing the whole thing in vector in Illustrator, which was quite a long process. Again, I came up with a few variations, using more or less flat surfaces and outlines, before we found a version we both liked.

It was very important that the cover doesn’t look like an image that came straight out of modern vector graphics program—Colin wanted it to resemble that old style of print design as much as possible, with very limited and subdued colour palette and uneven texture as if the image was printed on a large sheet of paper.

And so we finally reached a point when I got an email saying: I love it! It’s looking great!, which is a deeply satisfying moment for every designer. But there was still some work to do—adding the text.

Again, I looked at modernist and futurist typefaces, and made a shortlist of those I thought would work well with the imagery, shapes and style of the illustration. I knew straight away that the phrase “Soundtrack by Hands of Ruin” would be in Canter font, designed by Christopher JH Lee, while I had a few ideas for “Lot in Sodom”: Canter, Zebrazil (as the font is only in Regular style, I added a bit of stroke to thicken in), Bazar, Akura Popo and Forgotten Futurist. Zebrazil was designed by Zarni, Bazar by Olinda Martins, Akura Popo by Fahrizal Tawakkal, and Forgotten Futurist–by Ray Larabie.

Bazar was the one we decided worked best, but it occurred to us that it might also be a good idea to experiment with hand-drawn lettering, based on the letters that appear in the film, which would tie it more to the style of it. I thought it would be a shame not to make use of this wonderfully stylized typography. And voila, here it is! There is also a booklet which is distributed together with the soundtrack, with some information about the film, the project and a list of tracks. You can watch Lot in Sodom on YouTube, and the album is available to buy from Bandcamp.

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