In this months Animators Unearthed, Chris Robinson sees Run Wrakes Rabbit.
You know those Dick and Jane books, eh? They tell the adventures of two little kids (umm Dick and uhh Jane), their dog Spot etc (See Spot Run). They live in a carefree and innocent world. The illustrations, like the text, are clear and simple. I dont recall reading them as a kid, but my son Jarvis certainly read them. Might have been the first book he read. Typically (of my juvenile leftovers anyway), while Jarvis reads to Kelly or me each page, I inevitably began to think dirty, dark thoughts about these puritanical little darlings. See Jane do Dick and assorted clever stuff like that. Across the blue in England, a chap named Geoffrey Highman was a book illustrator who created similar books. British animator, Run Wrake (creator of many nifty films including one of my all-time faves, Jukebox), perhaps fuelled by the same unsavoury imaginings I had about Dick and Jane decided to take Highams original illustrations and turn them into a bizarre little film called Rabbit.
From appearance of the first word, muff, we know were in for something different. A Dick and Jane type boy and girl kill a rabbit running in a field. They take the dead animal home, cut it up and out pops a mysterious little idol. Seems that this creepy little freak can change flies into diamonds. As they dream of becoming wealthy, the devilish little duo decide to exploit the situation and entice the idol to create more diamonds. However, when their greed goes too far, the boy and girl pay the price (I wont spoil the delicious ending) for their wicked ways.
The story alone is nothing special, but combined with Wrakes clever use of the Highams original illustrations complete with accompanying text to describe every image in the film (just in case you want to brush up on your reading) Rabbit becomes a disturbing and sinister atmosphere that recalls David Lynchs Blue Velvet.
The roots of the film go back a couple of years. While setting up a new studio, Wrake stumbled upon some abandoned items at the bottom of a drawer. In the early 80s, I found a few dusty old envelopes containing a selection of 50s educational stickers in a junk shop. They settled themselves at the bottom of a drawer for 20 years, until I rediscovered them.
The idea for the film came from this collection of educational stickers created by Higham. They have an innocence about them, partly because they are for children, but also because they come from a seemingly more innocent time, and I thought it would be interesting to present them as they have perhaps grown up, in an age where greed is often regarded as a virtue.
Wrake laid out the hundreds of illustrations in order to find a potential storyline. He found the inspiration in the I is for the idol sticker. I thought that it was an odd choice to illustrate the letter I for children, it stuck out from the rest. I knew that I wanted to incorporate some drawn morphs into the film, and this led to the idea of the idol having magical powers of transformation. I was a big fan of the moomins (books by Tove Jansson) as a child, and loved the hobgoblins hat, which changed any object placed in it into something else. I think this may have been an influence also.
With the concept in place, Wrake then scanned the original illustrations into Photoshop and laid them into movable body parts, and animated in After Effects.
We love to mock and scorn old educational films (in the mid-1990s, I stumbled upon a horde of old 16mm educational films that dealt with proper social etiquette, work behavior, etc I screened the films at a local bar and people loved them in this ironic, detached way) or innocent creations like Dick and Jane. Is it because weve become a cynical generation that has lost touch with rituals or just a symptom whatever the era of becoming an adult and losing that childhood innocence and naivety?
I guess in every age, says Wrake, what has gone before is treated as somehow less important/relevant than the present culture by the majority of people. Often true, so much culture is intrinsically linked to the events and mindset of its time. However, the human condition never really changes at its most fundamental level, which is why the paintings of the Renaissance or the music of Mozart are as relevant today as they were in their time.
We may think we are more advanced because we have cars with sat nav, computers and endless TV channels, but emotionally we are the same as ever.
Wrake, though, was less interested in scorning the past, but rather placing them within the realities of the modern world. In an age where the slow exhaustion of resources by an ever expanding population is becoming an inevitable reality, the simple nature of the illustrations and their content, and the world they represent, dont seem so foolish.
The effectiveness and uniqueness of Rabbit stems from the clash between Highams righteous dream world and the truth of human nature; we know that such a virtuous world doesnt and cant exist.
We laugh, but its really quite sad.
The best we have are moments.
Chris Robinson has been with the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1991. A noted animation critic, curator and historian, he has become a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. His acclaimed OIAF programming has been regarded as both thoughtful and provocative. In May 2004, Robinson was the recipient of the Presidents Award given by the New York chapter of animators for contributions to the promotion of independent animation.
His books include Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHLs First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze.
An anthology of Robinsons Animation Pimp columns will be published in 2006. He is working on Fathers of Night, a novel about angels, devils and everything in-between. Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly and sons Jarvis and Harrison.