Archive for the ‘Ocean’ Category

Song of the Sea

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Song of the Sea

The new animated film Song of the Sea is an artistic triumph, and its strong connection to nature only enhances its power. The story is based on the legendary Selkie, a creature who can change from a seal to a human and back again. Inevitably this pulls in themes of the nature, humans’ relation to the sea, and what it means to be human ourselves.

The film was produced by Cartoon Saloon, whose first feature The Secret of Kells was reviewed on this blog a few years back. I don’t want to give away any of the wonderful surprises in the new film, but I will talk about three things that make it especially powerful in relation to themes of nature.

Song of the Sea

The folklore in the film draws from ancient tradition, and a time when stories were used to explain the mysteries of the world. By entwining the lives of humans and animals, folk tales convey an interconnectedness that is largely lost in today’s world. Science tells us more about nature than we ever knew before, but folklore lets us experience it on a more visceral level. In a recent interview, director Tomm Moore says, “I felt it important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture.” The film manages to bridge all of these worlds very effectively.

Song of the Sea

Another way the film celebrates nature is through the animals. The big sheepdog, even though he doesn’t speak (which is refreshing in an animated film) is more perceptive than most of the humans, and serves as a link between the world of humans and the magical world of animals and fairies. The seals are another constant presence, beckoning the humans to sea, and helping them in their time of need. The film is populated with creatures of all shape and size, and the constant tug between land and sea is a central conflict and highlight of the film.

Song of the Sea

Finally, the visual style of the film is not only gorgeous to look at, but has an organic quality that helps convey the natural setting. The watercolor backgrounds evoke the watery world of the sea, as well as the damp hills and landscapes of Ireland. The geometric abstraction of Secret of Kells gives way to a softer, more organic design sense, though the strong shapes and patterns make each scene a marvel of beauty and design. Nature is built on pattern and form, and the style of the film conveys this beautifully.

Everything works together for the greater good of the story, which is not just about Selkies, it is about humans and families and never giving up on each other. We are all part of a bigger world, we are all connected, and that is a message worthy of any work of art.

For more information about the film, visit the official website.

 

The amazing whale photographs of Bryant Austin

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Beautiful Whales book coverPhotographing whales is no easy task, but Bryant Austin has developed a unique method to create giant detailed portraits of these huge and enigmatic creatures.

Bryant had worked as an underwater photographer and marine biologist for many years, but new inspiration literally tapped him on the shoulder one day in the form of a 45-ton humpback whale. This close encounter, described eloquently in the video below, led him to quit his job and sell everything he owned in order to begin a new artistic journey — to capture images that convey the amazing experience of meeting a whale up close.

But simply enlarging a regular photo wasn’t enough, it could never capture the full detail of these creatures. So he invented his own technique. These giant photographs, currently on display at the Museum of Monterey in California, are created by taking a series of 5-foot-wide photos using a 50 megapixel camera, which he then pieces together to create the whole image. But before he can even take the photos, he spends up to three months getting to know a group of whales so they feel safe enough to approach him on their own terms. The results are truly spectacular.

Photographs by Bryant Austin

Photographs by Bryant Austin on display

Life size photograph of a minke whale

Life size photograph of a minke whale

Bryant hopes that his work will help call attention to the plight of these creatures and inspire people to want to help them. Here is an interview about his work and his journey as an artist.

He also has a new book of his photographs, which includes fold-out pages to help convey the detail in these images. Below is a video where he talks about the new book.

You can read more about his current exhibit at the Museum of Monterey in California here.

You can see many of Bryant’s photographs in this recent article from Wired.

You can learn a lot more about Bryant Austin at his website.

North by East: the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent

Monday, July 18th, 2011

N by E coverLast summer I did a whole series of posts about the ocean, and how it was depicted in books, paintings and films. My post about Moby Dick featured artwork by Rockwell Kent, known for his dramatic woodcut illustrations for that story. A few months ago I came across another nautical book by Kent, this time written by him as well, called N by E.

Rockwell Kent was a traveler and adventurer who spent his life painting and drawing epic scenes of nature. N by E is, in the words of the preface, “the story of an actual voyage to Greenland in a small boat: of a shipwreck there and of what, if anything, happened afterwards.”

These illustrations are little gems of composition and line. They are all the more remarkable when you realize they are woodcuts, where the white is literally carved away and the black areas left alone. There is no “undo” in this process. There’s something stark and powerful about these images, which evoke more drama with two colors than many artists do with a full palette.

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

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Cartooning under the sea with Jim Toomey

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

This recent talk by cartoonist Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon, is a great example of an artist who not only draws inspiration from the ocean but also uses his art to educate and raise awareness about earth’s largest ecosystem.

As he says, there are things in the ocean that are more strange and bizarre than anything an artist could dream up, and humans are destroying it little by little. You can see more of Jim’s work at his website.

And with this post, I bring my summer ocean theme to an end. I’ve had fun this summer writing about how the ocean has inspired authors, artists and filmmakers all over the world. You can be sure I will return to the sea from time to time, as I’ve only scratched the surface of this vast and deep source of inspiration. Thanks for sharing the voyage with me!

Turner and the art of the seascape

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner

The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest English painters of land and sea, and far ahead of his time. Many of his works are so wrought with raw color and emotion as to be nearly abstract.

The ocean has always been a subject for artists, though I sometimes wonder how far we have come since the 19th Century. Are any painters still exploring nature with the kind of vision that Turner had? I don’t mean just showing the beauty of nature, but really trying to get to the heart of it, to discover new ways of seeing it.

Many seascapes today are happy depictions of sun-soaked waves and smiling dolphins, which is all well and good, but only shows one side of the teeming, turbulent, mysterious ocean. Turner seemed to be searching for something deeper, trying to discover something that no one had ever seen before. One hundred and fifty years later, his paintings are still remarkable.

Fishermen At Sea - J.M.W. Turner

The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner

The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner

Stormy Sea With Blazing Wreck - J.M.W. Turner

Shipwreck of the Minotaur - J.M.W. Turner

Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner

Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner

Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner

Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner

Animated films under the sea

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Many animated films have used the ocean as a setting. It’s a colorful place that appeals to all ages, and has a mystery that lends itself to the imaginings of a creative animator. Crabs can sing, clown fish can converse with sharks, sponges can live in pineapples. Rarely do animated ocean films stick to realistic portrayals, though ironically there are many real things under the sea that are more strange and bizarre than anything Disney ever came up with.

Here are several animated films that take place under the sea. It’s interesting to see how many different ways the ocean can be seen through the eyes of an animator.

Fantasia – Disney, 1940

This film is a classic in the world of animation, and one of the few feature-length films that focus entirely on the artistry of its subject, not on a traditional narrative. The beauty of the animation speaks for itself, and it recalls a time when animation was more unique in the film world, and appreciated for its own sake.

The Little Mermaid – Disney, 1989

See how much Disney has changed in fifty years. This film has been criticized for draining all of the magic out of Andersen’s original story, and replacing it with trite Disney formula. But it does have some creative portrayals of the ocean, and some of the best songs ever written for the movies (by Menken and Ashman) which lift it to emotional heights that the scriptwriters don’t deserve.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie – Nickelodeon, 2004

This movie is just plain silly, and a great example of how creatively you can portray the ocean in animation. Although the focus is on the characters and the sight gags, the ocean is ever-present, and the film mixes live action and animation in unique ways.

Finding Nemo – Pixar, 2003

This film has some amazing ocean animation, covering the bright coral reefs down to the murky depths, and featuring whales, sharks, jellyfish, turtles, and hundreds of other sea creatures. Besides being a great story, brilliantly written, it is like a virtual tour of the ocean and a feast for the eyes. It even sprinkles in some real facts about the ocean.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – 2008, Ghibli/Disney

This film is quite realistic in its portrayal of people and setting, but also the most fantastical of all the films here in its use of mythology and imagination. Ponyo is a magical goldfish who can turn into a human but in doing so offsets the balance of — oh never mind, the story is too complicated, and in a way, beside the point. This is really a visual poem about the human world and the ocean world coming together and making peace. It contains beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring animation of the ocean by one of the world’s greatest animators. (You can read more of my thoughts on Ponyo here.)

So, there are just a few animated films that feature the ocean as a major theme. Out of all of these, I think Fantasia and Ponyo are the ones which provoke the deepest thoughts about the ocean. What are your favorite animated ocean films or scenes? How well do you think animators have done in portraying the ocean, and what new depths are there to be explored? As the ocean becomes more and more of a focus in our shrinking world, I hope more artists choose to explore it through animation.

Moby Dick, a whale of a book

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Continuing my summer ocean theme, I’d like to discuss one of the great novels of the sea, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was never forced to read the book in school, and probably wouldn’t have liked it if I did. This is not a book that one can step into lightly or reluctantly, you have to dive in head first and grapple with it, like the great sea creatures it describes. It was only later that I discovered the quirky qualities of this epic tome.

The book is more famous today for its reputation and symbolism than for the actual text, which is too bad. The writing is unlike any other book I’ve read, rambling and unfocused, yet sharp and perceptive. Everyone knows the storyline, of the manic Captain Ahab who hunts the world over for Moby Dick, the white whale who took off his leg; it’s a gripping allegory with enough symbolism for a dozen dissertations.

But the tragedy of Captain Ahab is, to use another nautical metaphor, just the tip of the iceberg. The book goes far beyond its characters and events to delve into matters of philosophy, culture, science, religion, human nature — in short, it’s a book about everything. I’m sure the kitchen sink is in there too.

book coverI think this is why movie versions can never do the book justice, for the actual scenes in the book are merely hooks for the author to hang his litany of metaphors and observations about life, the real subject of Moby Dick.

As far as the nautical theme of the book, the author spends a great number of pages contemplating whales in excruciating detail, right down to their anatomy and bone structure. There is also detailed description of how the crew hunts, kills, and dismantles a whale on board the ship, scenes that have nothing to do with Ahab or the storyline at all. So then we might ask, why are they in the book? Would this have been a better novel if all of that had been trimmed down, leaving a compact 400-page adventure story?

If this were simply a tale about revenge or a sailor’s journey, something along the lines of Stevenson, then certainly it could have used a good editor. But this is a book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all the minute details and melodramatic ponderings contribute mysteriously to its power. Even as it expresses some 19th Century notions that we might find outdated, the scope of its insight far outweighs its datedness.

One of the ironies of the book is that even as the author describes the capture and slaughter of whales, often portraying them as monsters, he also expresses admiration and respect for them, as he does for everything he writes about. Here is a brief excerpt, concluding one of the many chapters describing the power and majesty of whales:

“Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam in the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”

One of Melville’s famous quotes is, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” This weighty book might fail a modern writing class, but it certainly is original and amazing.

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Whale Rider revisited

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

The film Whale Rider won acclaim in 2002 for its moving story of a young Maori girl and her struggles to find her place in a changing society. It brilliantly weaves together themes of tradition, family, gender roles, and indigenous culture.  Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is one of those rare cases where a film veers away from the book and yet remains true to the book’s spirit.

At the heart of both is an ancient legend of a man who came out of the sea riding on a whale, and who founded the village where the story takes place. The heroine of Whale Rider is his descendant, and must come to terms with her identity against all the pressures of family and society.

The sea is an omnipresent backdrop to the story, and a powerful symbol of the struggles the characters endure. The book and film evoke the magic of the sea in different ways. The film incorporates stunning images of the ocean and landscape, as well as the music and poetry of the ancient culture. The book delves more deeply into the Maori mythology, and incorporates some beautiful writing about the sea. Here is a brief excerpt, telling the ancient legend:

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

The book skillfully intertwines the modern and the mythical stories, provoking questions about how our ancient stories define who we are. And the film is brilliantly directed by Niki Caro. I recommend the book and the film, which both contain universal themes that will inspire teens and adults alike.


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Monsters of the sea

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Arion by Albrecht Dürer - 1514

The ocean has always been shrouded in mystery because it is almost entirely hidden. Imagine a time before submarines and scuba gear, before ships ventured beyond the horizon. People literally did not know what was out there, above or below the surface, and had to rely on stories from sailors. It’s no wonder that myths and legends grew up around the sea.

But even as the ocean was a mysterious and hazardous place, it also inspired romantic notions of adventure and discovery. Even as people conjured up visions of sea monsters, they searched the world to prove their existence. The sea represented something just out of reach, something we wanted to know better.

And now in the twenty-first century, do we know the sea better? We know a lot more than we used to, but there is so much that remains a mystery, in some ways we are still like our ancestors, groping around in the dark.

Here are some images from artists long ago trying to depict the creatures of the sea. They come from a wonderful website called Strange Science where you can see more such monstrosities. These days we can photograph any animal we like, though an artist’s depiction can sometimes tell you a lot more, even those that come entirely from the artist’s imagination. Today we still try to imagine the things we cannot see, and probably always will.

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The Big, Blue Ocean

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010
Illustration by Alicia “Kat” Dillman

Summer is here, and for the next six weeks or so, I am going to devote this blog to one of our greatest and most inspiring natural resources, the ocean.

Since ancient history, the ocean has inspired art, poetry and storytelling in every culture. In fact there are so many great works of art and literature about the ocean, I think we’ve taken it for granted as one of those eternal things in life that will always be there, impervious to anything. The ocean is always described as “mighty” and “powerful”, something that humans must battle and which always has the upper hand.

Anyone who has witnessed a storm at sea knows how powerful it is, yet it is not invulnerable, as we’ve learned in recent months. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only the latest and most visible blow to a living ecosystem that is slowly dying. So in the next few weeks, I will be highlighting some famous and not so famous art, books and films inspired by the ocean, to help us all gain a better understanding and appreciation of why it is so unique.

I’d like to start by highlighting a wonderful blog called Ripple started by artist Kelly Light to help animals harmed by the recent oil spill. The images in this post are all from that site, and I encourage you to check it out.

Also, the Smithsonian Institution has a new website called Ocean Portal, which has many cool features about the ocean’s history and ecology, definitely worth taking a peek.

Illustration by Gina Marie Perry

Illustration by Alicia Padron

Illustration by Renee Kurilla

Illustration by Katriona Chapman

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