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‘Behind the Eyes the World’: An Evocative Group Portrait of Animation Filmmakers

Timo Viljakainen’s book of photographs is a testament to the inner world of the artist and a celebration of the international animation community.

“When a person closes his eyes,” writes Finnish photographer Timo Viljakainen in the introduction to his new book, “he breaks the connection with the viewer. He retreats into himself: with his eyes closed, it is easier for him to think, dream or reminisce. Seeing a photograph of such a person, you wonder what he is thinking about, and you look for the answer…”

Since the early 1990s, Viljakainen has been taking pictures of animators. Some are in their studios, others are in nature. Still others have been captured in and around the festivals – Utrecht, Baden, Annecy, Ottawa, Turku – where Viljakainen got to know many of his subjects and did the bulk of his work. All of them are photographed with their eyes closed.

It’s a surprising, and perhaps eccentric, organizing principle for a collection of artist portraits; yet, as Viljakainen observes, the idea isn’t new. Subjects with their eyes closed comprised a significant component of surrealist iconography. For the writer and poet André Breton, one of the founders of surrealism, elimination of the senses “meant turning one’s gaze inwards, towards the subconscious and towards dream images.” Likewise, the renowned twentieth-century photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, took many photos of people with their eyes closed, always including contextual elements that appeared to reflect his subjects’ inner worlds.

Viljakainen’s work – with its careful, yet unfussy composition, evocative settings, and eye for the telling detail – seems very much in this tradition. He has an affinity for textured backgrounds – walls, doors, sculpture, stairs ­– and the frame often includes unidentified passersby, or a scene glimpsed through a window or other aperture. While the filmmakers and producers and festival directors are clearly the focus of the photographs, they’re not the whole story.

For those familiar with the world of international animation, the pleasures go beyond the purely aesthetic. Many of Viljakainen’s subjects are celebrities in this rarefied milieu, and the inclusion of such legendary figures as Frédéric Back (The Man Who Planted Trees), the Quay Brothers (Street of Crocodiles), Marv Newland (Bambi Meets Godzilla), Ruth Lingford (Death and the Mother), Bill Plympton (Your Face), and Chris “The Animation Pimp” Robinson provides an extra bit of glamor (if that’s the right word) and the fun of recognition.

The volume, which includes some 70 photos, concludes with a brief essay by critic Heikki Jokinen, who has been a member of the selection committees and juries of many leading animation festivals around the world, and has served as vice president of ASIFA, the International Animated Film Association. Titled “The Realm of Infinite Freedom,” it offers a thoughtful overview of the art and craft of animation and is an apt coda to the purely visual presentation that preceded it.

Prior to being collected and published in book form, Viljakainen’s portraits were exhibited at a number of festivals, beginning with the Holland Animation Film Festival in Utrecht in the autumn of 1996. In many ways, these events, which offer animators a respite from their lonely labors and provide them with a true sense of community, were the perfect venue to display Viljakainen’s art.

However, with the publication of Behind the Eyes the World, this unique body of work has now been made available to everyone, which is cause for celebration. Hopefully, for those who have never had the opportunity to see Viljakainen’s photographs before, it will be an eye-opening experience.

A selection of the photographs will be published at Animafest Zagreb, running June 6 - 11, 2022. To purchase the book, email the author at

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.