A few months ago while wondering what to watch with a friend of mine, he suggested La planète sauvage. I hadn’t even heard of it before, which made me wonder how many mind-blowing old animations, films and books I haven’t discovered yet. I had to know more. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was agreeing to but I trusted my friend’s judgement (as he doesn’t normally appreciate animations as much as I do), and thank the heavens I did.
Fantastic Planet (as it is translated in English, though the literal translation is The Wild/Savage Planet) is a 1973 sci-fi film – a cutout stop motion animation – based on the 1957 novel Oms en série by French writer Stefan Wul.
The story takes place in the distant future on the planet Ygam, home of the giant blue humanoid Draags, a technologically and spiritually advanced society. They have brought human beings (called Oms, from the French word for human ‘homme‘) from Earth, considering them to be animals and keeping some of them as pets. Others live in the alien wilderness and, like any pest, their population is kept under control by the Draags.
An Om mother is teased to death by three Draag children and her baby is found by a key Draag leader, Master Sinh, and his daughter Tiva, who names him Terr and keeps him as a pet. She is affectionate and careful not to hurt him, though like any pet she is instructed to keep him disciplined, else he’d be taken away from her.
So the baby Om is given a collar. We dive deeper and deeper into the increasingly strange world the Draags inhabit, following Tiva and Terr. She brings him to education sessions – the Draags have special headphones which transmit knowledge telepathically, directly into their minds. A defect in Terr’s collar opens him up to that transmission as well, so he receives knowledge Oms normally wouldn’t.
As Tiva grows into her teens Terr is already a young man (Draags have a much longer lifespan and don’t reproduce as much as humans do). She performs her first Draag meditation, which allows them to communicate and travel with their minds – an absolutely mind-blowing bit of animation.
By that time Terr has already acquired a sufficient amount of Draag knowledge to steal a pair of headphones and run away into the wilderness…Now, this is one of those moments where I want to continue, but I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll leave it at that.
The surreal psychedelic imagery (created by writer and artist Roland Topor, production designer and co-writer) is what makes Fantastic Planet so recognisable and scarily captivating – at times you want to look away but you just… can’t, it’s transfixing.
Apart from its visual appeal, this film, or the relationship between the Draags and Oms which changes as the story unfolds, can be seen as an allegory of the relationships between us humans and between humans and animals, it could be related to themes of racism and speciesism as well as class division. The ending of the film (as well as the events that lead to it) carries a hopeful moral – violence suddenly stops, both Draags and Oms realise there is nothing to be gained from mutual destruction. Peace prevails…
But there is so much more (don’t think just because you’ve read this you know how the film really ends, there’s so much more to it than just this aspect of the plot)! It’s astonishing that the story was conceived in 1957, and it was animated in ’73 – the vision of such a world, such a future, is (even today with our ‘advanced technology and knowledge’) an extraordinary example of science fiction. A timeless feature, which makes you rethink and reevaluate all you think you know about human nature, the nature of society and the nature of relationships between yourself and others.
If you haven’t seen it, rectify the situation as soon as possible – better to see it and not like it than not see it and miss out on such an outstanding film.
I had the opportunity to briefly work on a live project, illustrating a children’s book. I decided to do a little research, as illustrating for children is not really what I’m used to. In the library I found a book which sparked my interest – Magic Pencil: Children’s Book Illustration Today.
The book was published to coincide with the British Council exhibition of the same name. I found it inspiring as “illustrators don’t often find themselves in galleries” (Joanna Carey, p11) something that’s been on my mind since first year.
Anyway, I was focusing on this book mainly because after flicking through, I saw some examples I recognized, as well as others which I found curiously compelling. Here’s some of what I came across…
“I’ve got two sorts of drawing. I draw passionately all over paper tablecloths, napkins and backs of envelopes. But drawings like that are difficult to convert into anything useful. Sketchbooks are different, important to me, so I can jot down ideas on the spur of the moment that probably wouldn’t come back to me otherwise – dreams, and other things that pass fleetingly through my mind.”
I can very strongly relate to what she is saying as my summer has been concentrated precisely around a sketchbook of that kind. I was impressed by this image instantly, as soon as I saw it I was there, running through the woods with that girl and all the animals… despite the disproportionate figure, everything about the image takes you to that place, and everything you see is in motion. The animals being caught in action is what makes them disproportionate yet highly realistic and… well, believable. The mind only needs an outline, a scene to fill with subconscious content. In this case, my love of the forest, the sensation of running in the forest, and my adoration of Princess Mononoke, probably one of the most developmentally influential films of my childhood. This is what I believe our tutors are trying to push us to achieve for ourselves in our illustrations. That ’empathy’ that all of second year was about.
To be honest though, I was equally if not more impressed by her illustrations for Voltaire’s Candide or Optimism.
With my own affinity to pen drawings and cross sketching I can’t help but be amazed by these pieces. I can’t even put it in words; let’s just say everything about them simply resonates with feeling and meaning. I especially love the touch of a bird flying over the head of the gentleman whose head’s being blown to bits. There is a similar element in Piero della Francesca’s “Baptism of Christ” (1450), a dove flying right above Christ’s head, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. “It is foreshortened to form a shape like the clouds.” (Source) In this case, not being able to see the whole bird makes you initially think it is a seagull, (nautical theme in place and all that), and yet, the spread of the feather tail is wide enough to be a dove’s (not to mention that seagulls are quite large birds). Touches like this add so much more depth to these already impressive, intelligent (thought-provoking) artworks!
“One thing I’m always conscious of is that illustrations can fail. I’m well aware of the dangers. I know that the wrong illustrations can literally destroy a dream and, however powerful the text, it’s the images that stick in the mind.”
I felt the same weight with the work I was focusing to do, so I can relate to what he is saying. I was remembering my own impressions with illustrations as a little child and all those books that I refused to even touch, and I would hide at the bottom of the book case my younger sister and I shared. I used to hate them because of how dark and scary the illustrations were, how bright and overwhelming the colours were, it all felt like acid being chicked at my face, I didn’t feel inspired either by the look or the feel of it. Even my mum reading the story out without me having to even look at the book was an unpleasant experience and I’d insist that she changed it. Because I come from a heavily communism-influenced country, the illustrations I was exposed to at a young age weren’t always the most considerate ones, if I can say that. It was amazing when I did find books I agreed with, and that happened more often than not, but I can’t help but remember the negative emotions I associate with some illustrations…. (You can see those in a separate post here.)
I see this as a really important illustration advice. For some reason it feels like our tutors are trying to teach us the same thing but without the honesty of whether the purpose we have given our work is being fulfilled. Whether our work influences in the way we wish it to or differently. Sometimes it’s better to be told you’re going in an unfitting or downright wrong direction, than to be left doing tons of work for something which would just be discarded or refused. But then again it’s about us knowing the type of work we do and how it fits in the world. In the end it is our fault if we’ve put our work in the wrong context, and so we must live with the ripples that choice has created.
“When you start to draw a building, for example, as you get to grips with the perspective, you begin to understand how it works, how it’s put together, and with cutaways you can explore it even further.” I find it very important, when portraying something to know what you are portraying. In a sense, that analytical way of looking at things is what I grew up to admire. Wishing I could be Sherlock at a very early age, I was really interested in noticing the details that no one else would, the little bits that could give you secret hints about how the whole thing (or person) works.
When I first saw Stephen Biesty’s illustrations when I was little, I was just entranced. I couldn’t look away, I had to assimilate every single detail and just know how those things worked. As far as I remember it was a castle, and I was just amazed at all the little tunnels and the servants’ quarters, and then there was the stables and the chimneys and the hidden doors and stairwells and dungeons and… there was just so much going on! It didn’t matter where you looked, there was something going on in every bit of the image.
I find it ultimately impressive and inspirational, and yet, Biesty says himself “There’s a huge amount of research, the work itself is very laborious, and so it all takes a long time — often as long as fifteen months to complete one book.” This is something I feel like I’ve never experienced. It made me realise how much time i usually spend on my own artworks and how I usually get frustrated and leave them after a while. As this year, we will be working on one project which will bloom into our degree show, I feel like staying with the same project for a longer period is something vital in the practice of any illustrator, even if for just one project. It’s about how far you can take an idea once given the chance, how well you can understand it for yourself and interpret it visually.
“I can’t say the work gets any easier. In many ways I keep making it more difficult for myself, trying to make things more real, not in a literal, photographic sense, but in an emotional sense, telling the story by capturing the essence of the situation, giving it some meaning. Ardizzone did it, not just in books, but also as a war artist, and Quentin Blake does it. It’s a question of creating another world, believable in its own right. It’s all in the drawing.”
I can’t not agree with these words. Whenever I do my own work I am constantly asking myself the question of whether I am truly portraying something on an emotional as well as cognitive level. In a way, illustration, and all art really, opens you up to what could be interpreted as a sixth sense, the ability to see, understand, relate, and respond instantly to that world within the image…
“One of the first things I realised when I was studying illustration in art school was that most illustrators, with a few exceptions, like Tomi Ungerer, or Saul Steinberg, only work in one style, which they stick to for the rest of their life. And I realised early on that I didn’t want to commit myself in that way. My work changes according to the text. It’s such a great luxury to read a text and just draw, without worrying about ‘style’. And it’s good to keep changing – it makes you feel like you’re still learning something.”
Interestingly enough, I came to the same conclusion myself, with my own course-mates. It was a struggle at first, I didn’t think illustrators were really allowed to change styles… but then everything became clearer and clearer when I took a step back and realised it was impossible for me to limit myself in such ways. I agree with Tony Ross that it is incredibly important to be able to explore your capabilities and to change, shift, adapt, morph, with every next text that comes up, learning, becoming better, finding ways to draw you never thought you would… And not to mention, all art movements started off with a series of experiments and explorations of new ideas.
Literally translated as ‘Us, Gods’, Nous Les Dieux is the first novel of a trilogy, in which the main character arrives on a strange island inhabited by all kinds of mythological creatures, where he would learn the hard task of being a deity under the guidance of the Olympian gods and goddesses.
The whole idea for the series came to be through the question “Well if you were a god, what would you have done?” In the books the focus shifts from what we perceive of the gods to the divine point of view, thus revealing a new understanding “of our historic past, of the possible future, of the struggles of our kind, and of the struggles of the gods.”
Apart from the existential part of it, I decided to pay special attention to the descriptions of the “mentor gods”. They were portrayed in a very specific way, and apart from the similarity of their clothes and the vague outline of their physical appearance, they are left to the imagination. All apart from Aphrodite… With the noticeably detailed portrayal Werber brings us to the idea that, ultimately, love, as well as beauty, is different for everyone. How many faces does the goddess really have? How many faces does God?
note: This book is quite important for the point I’m trying to raise in my dissertation. The questions of how we view the gods and what the gods really mean to us, and how that differs from how they were interpreted in the Renaissance and ancient times are, to an extent, explored within this book. The author’s unlikely choice of characters, famous historical figures as well as celebrities, who are being taught how to be gods, makes us question our definition of a god – can therefore anyone become a god, and if so, then why and how?
I am really looking forward to reading the second novel (Le Souffle des Dieux/ The Breath of the Gods), and then I’ll possibly try and get the third one when I go to Bulgaria in the summer. It is so unfortunate that Bernard Werber’s books haven’t been officially translated and published in English (neither in the UK nor the USA, which I find quite curious) because I can’t use any of the text directly as a quote unless I translate it myself.
On a separate note – I would actually love to create a few paintings inspired by the trilogy. Drawing up a new version of something because I don’t like how it looks takes me back. I used to do it all the time with characters from different animations. I must say that I am really not impressed with the images for multiple reasons. Perhaps as art and design in Bulgaria have only recently been reborn (and growing stronger and more highly appreciated than ever for the past ten years) and things like dreadfully assembled book covers weren’t really something to consider much and were being endlessly excused and made acceptable by the constant repetition of popular sayings, namely, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Well, sometimes an incredible book needs an incredible cover.
Akira has been coming up in my life since I first started watching animes (which to be completely honest is somewhere in my childhood past, I remember being obsessed with Princess Mononoke at the age of 5). Again and again people have been praising it and it all went in one ear and right out the other, the whole time vaguely remembering it’s on my anime ‘to watch’ list.
Now that I am in uni, I am obviously much more inclined to actually look into what people tell me (especially tutors) so when I finally saw Akira it was everything I had expected and beyond… far beyond.
Considering the film was made in ’88, I was surprised at some of the deeper existential topics explored within it and the strikingly contemporary view on the matters. The idea of power (what power can do to people, how we handle it, and not only metaphorically – the deeper, psychic power which unleashes the uncovering of secrets of the universe and inevitably leads to God; the psionics who show an incredible range of skills and abilities as well as a connection to each other which very well explores a completely different type of communication and a higher form of being in the world, all due to a secret military project, which brings those abilities forth; which leads us to the idea of AKIRA, the experiment gone wrong… and yet Akira is a deity, worshipped by the people, feared, buried and tabooed by the scientists and a spiritual leader to all the psionics. The answer to who Akira really is, what he/she is capable of and what happened to him/her becomes a main issue in the film both for the characters as well as the viewers – much like the real questions about life and about God.
It is not very often that a film can make the unreal sci-fi/fantasy bits seem fathomable yet here this animation is, showing you an incredibly well calculated and simulated view of the human psyche – depicted through the main characters – the two best friends whose friendship completely changes once one of them unlocks his psychic abilities (the idea of a sudden change in the direction of the wind, the butterfly effect if you will, which may cause the most serious of consequences) , the tireless chase after a love interest, despite the world being on the verge of crumbling (the idea of how much ‘love’ can alter our actions), the idea of wisdom and the respect for knowledge (represented through the psychic children, wrinkled and silver-haired, emphasise the youth/age paradox.
Something else which caught my attention was the sense of scale and immensity. The power which one of the characters manages to unleash is so well presented that at times I was literally trembling with adrenaline, staring wide-eyed in utter awe at the screen, unable to believe it because it was that good.
These are some of the beauties of Akira that impressed me personally as some of them perfectly fit with scientific/religious/esoteric views on life I’ve been looking into. AND don’t even get me started on the animation itself. What I will say for now is that anyone who hasn’t seenor read Akira definitely should, and those who have, need no explaining.