I'm not the first one to say this, but this year in film has been quite, (to put it politely) peculiar. From the urban live-action/animated fantasy film noir, Detective Pikachu, based on the Pokémon game of the same name, to the direct-to-video SyFy horror adaption of The Banana Splits, it seems any type of adaption can easily get greenlit regardless of how absurd it can be. In a sense, these ideas are rather interesting solely for their weirdness. I don't expect any of them to age too well, but it's still fascinating to consider how this year for movies will be remembered years from now. However, as far as film adaptions of 2019 go, I think we can all agree that the one that left everyone the most perplexed is the upcoming live-action adaption of the 1981 Andrew-Lloyd Weber musical, Cats. Ever since it was announced in mid-July, the film has received a mostly negative reaction from spectators highlighting how uncanny valley it looks. From its bizarre blend of CGI and live-action, to its overall aesthetic and just the mere presentation of the characters along with the universe they inhabit, the look and feel of this movie leaves an unpleasant imprint on the viewers' visual senses.
You can view the trailer here and see for yourself how uneasy this film looks on the eyes. I can safely tell you, that 'unsettling' is a bit of an understatement. The movie is slated for release on December 20th, but it's already obvious why the aesthetic choices don't do these characters or the story any favors. First off, at the beginning of the trailer, we see two of the characters in the middle of the streets wandering about. At first glance, they look like humans emulating cat-like behaviors, which comes as no surprise as that's what the cast of the Broadway musical did, too, except in the next scene, the viewer gets a glimpse at how the characters are costumed. The shot introduces us to this version of Victoria (Francesca Hayward), but unlike the Broadway show, where the costumes look organically blended with the actors, the costumes look oddly intertwined with the actress's body. It doesn't look like a costume. The CGI effects make it so that the fur is part of a human body, rendering it (no pun intended) to look like a mutation between a person and a cat. The next shots showcased in the trailer don't get any better as it goes on. In the following scene, we see Victoria and Mr. Mistofflelees (Laurie Davidson) running to a gate to meet another cat, revealing what the rest of the cast of characters all look like. They all suffer from the same problem: The costumes look way too much mutations than cats! I think the designs of Macavity (Idris Elba), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bustopher Jones (James Corden) and Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson) to name a few of the more elaborate characters in their appearance add another layer of blurry confusion of where the costume, the CGI and the live actor begin and where they all end. By the way the rest of the cast is outfitted, the costumes appear more skin tight to the point it becomes difficult to discern what is what, which all those factors lead to an uncanny valley foul taste. In addition, the perspective is another aspect of the film that doesn't sit very well with audiences and with good reason. Given the fact that the characters look like a bad combination of both human and cat, the locations and sceneries where they interact are just way too strange and quite unsettling on account of how small everyone appears to be. To match the size of a cat, the actors are set in a way where everything looks relatively as big as it would to the eyes of a cat, but given the character designs, the perspectives come off as incredibly wonky, making it slightly nauseating to lay eyes on.
Admittedly, the soundtrack and vocal sound very promising, but unfortunately with all those factors ruining the overall appearance of the movie, I highly doubt very many music fans, much less die-hard Broadway buffs are going to be too enthused to obtain a copy either physical or digital. The movie in comparison to the Broadway show brings me back some fond memories (so to speak) of when I went to see the musical in 1999 as a pre-teen. I remember being impressed with the choreography, the songs and the layout of the streets the Jellicle cats (as they are referred to) would all gather in. I liked how the costumes naturally suited the performers and how the make-up was done that it presented the characters' personalities and traits so well. You also have to figure that while the premise of Cats is quite simple, there is a certain depth and meaning in the story that adds to its timeless quality like its source material by T. S. Eliot and why the film adaption is just going to end up being a product of its time.
That's actually not to say a film adaption of Cats can't come into fruition, that is, if done correctly. In fact there was an animated version planned. It has been confirmed that in the early-90's, Steven Spielberg's now-defunct company, Amblimation had an animated version in the works, but was scrapped upon the studio's closure. According to the catsmusical.fandom.com site, Spielberg "decided to set the show during the Blitz in London (1940-1941)" and veteran animators, Hans Bacher and Luc Desmarchelier posted some concept art on their blogs. Hans Bacher was responsible for the look and feel of the film and "spent a lot of time researching some rather 'unusual' London environments". Part of the task involved seeking the "trashiest spots [the team] could find" and scrolling down after a photograph of the creative team are some rough sketches and other related art by Bacher himself. In an additional post, Bacher writes about when he came on aboard with the rest of the team, which at the time they were a few months into the project. At the time, the idea was to blend miniature models with traditional animation. However, Steven Spielberg envisioned the animated world of Cats during the Blitz, so Bacher "started fresh with [his] designs" and thus began the research and reimagining of the film. Hans Bacher adds that in London, "behind all the sightseeing tourist area, there were 'backyards', a hidden world of trash and destruction" and that he "still [had] a map of '[his] real [L]ondon' where [he] marked this reference world". He adds that after 17 years, most likely, there's nothing left of the trash and war torn environment. (Mind you, he posted this on October 19th, 2008).
Luc Desmarchelier adds his various pieces of concept art to his own blog, which not only does he do an outstanding job of highlighting the vision for the film, but the audience gets a sense of how the cats themselves might have been animated. Character designers, Carlos Grangel and Nico Marlet worked various pieces consisting of how the characters would have been reimagined for the film and certainly, their art captured the personalities and traits associated with each of the prominent characters spot on! Old Deuteronomy looks as grand as one would have imagined an animated counter part of him. Grizabella looks just as worn down and shabby as she's portrayed in the musical, that the viewer instantly sees how past her prime she is. Macavity looks just as sinister as his musical depiction.
With the abundance of concept art and potential the film could have had, it's unfortunate it never came to be, but upon simply examining it, it's no surprise that it had more visual appeal to audiences than the 2019 film does. To this day, an animated adaption of Cats can still be a viable choice with the right art direction. The key is not only garnering an understanding of the stage show itself, but making the sceneries and character designs more organic. Put simply, the team behind the live-action film appears to understand the stage show very well, but the combination of CGI animation and live-action, coupled with the wonky perspectives is what throws the audience off. You may know the ropes of the source material and nail it perfectly in that regard as well as having a solid cast, but if the visuals don't mesh well, it fails to resonate with the audience the way it was intended to. Unfortunately, this is what happened with the live-action film. Had the audience gotten the planned animated movie by Steven Spielberg or something similar to it, then the reception would yield more positive results.
The concept created by Spielberg works in every possible way because it doesn't try to emulate the live performance the way the live-action film does. From what can be gathered about the production of the animated Cats movie, the environments the characters inhabit would have been far more appealing to look at for a variety of reasons. For one, the characters would have blended better with the perspectives more. At the time, 2D animation was still commonplace in the animation film industry and the trend in 1990's theatrical releases were mostly animated musicals, so designing the characters and sets best suited of a 2D setting is accessible. Once the environments are designed, deciding how the characters should look is easy to decipher. Knowing how a film looks gives the character designer an idea as to what type of character designs would be fitting for the environments created.
This brings us to the second reason why an animated movie would tip the Cats story in its favor. It's common knowledge that when designing a character, the final product should tell the viewer on a basic level who the character is and what their role might be based on visual cues. Putting it into action is easier said than done. Taking live actors from a stage show and deciding on what their animated counter parts should look like is a daunting task, one that requires multiple drawings as with any other animated project. In the case of Cats, it's a matter of understanding the characters and making sure the animated versions showcase those basic traits in their overall appearance. A major flaw of the live-action film is that it lacks showcasing character personality and/or leaves little room in the designs for audiences to get invested in the characters, which we'll compare and contrast in a moment.
Finally, it's the story itself. Cats the musical is a very simple story with a relatable moral. While we all get so caught up in things of glamour, those are things that fade over time and thus, will never bring true happiness. Grizabella, an aged cat, the best years of her life long passed, reminds the other Jellicle cats that in her iconic musical number, Memory. It was easy for them to reject her just because she's old and lost much of the charm of her youth, but if they welcome her back, they will remember never to take the best years of their own lives for granted and that the moment they are presently living in will someday be a memory just like her glory days. Simple stories with thought provoking themes don't need over complicated designs and sets to convey a narrative. Animation is a visual medium that if well written, drawn and directed, it can speak volumes to its viewers. The character designs and layouts of the animated Cats do what animated movies are often known to do: know the story and let the visuals tell it. Both story and visuals should go hand-in-hand and what Spielberg had in mind conveyed this spot on! This applies to any visual piece, especially if it's an adaption of a pre-existing stage show, so these creative decisions are very important to take into account.
The character designs in the live-action lack what this animation could have been because there seems to be less focus on who the characters are and more on trying to create impressive visuals while trying to look like the stage show. This doesn't work because on one hand, these designs fail to resonate with the viewer. If your interest is geared towards taking advantage of modern technologies and less on letting your characters tell a story visually, that is a fundamental flaw in which will prompt your audience to be less engage and rather more perplexed. As stated before, the character designs in the live-action film blurs the line between CGI and the costumed character. This could easily work if there was a proper balance of CGI, live actor/actress and costume (rotoscoping, maybe?), but in this case, it's clear the emphasis was geared towards visual appearance a little too much. The designs became over saturated with CGI and live action, thus creating an uncanny valley mess with little to no focus on designing a character that says who he or she is at first glance. Surely you can spend so much time on CGI in hopes it will match up to the quality of what you hope to achieve, but if your end result is being discussed less about who the characters are and their story and more about how their design is unsettling, your intent to grab the audiences' attention becomes futile. Viewers complained about the character designs in the live-action Cats for that reason. Pair that with the perspectives of their environment and that just adds to the problem. Making visuals too overcomplicated when they don't need to be doesn't encourage audiences to be invested in a story. Sometimes it can easily drive people away or be less invested in the story because there's something too distracting about the visuals. The animated movie on the other hand makes use of the simplicity of Cats by coming up with a specific idea of what their world would look like and how to properly fashion the characters. All of those factors are important to take into account because at the end of the day, each component will be a major factor in what draws people into the story, relate to the characters and (in the case of Cats being a musical), get into the soundtrack.
The main question I had going into this post was if Cats could ever have a more effective retelling and if so, what would have been better suited for it than the live-action film?. In order to answer that, it just takes a specific understanding why the live-action film fails on so many fronts, understanding what worked for the stage performance and how the scrapped animated movie demonstrated a more ideal alternative. Aside from its musical numbers, the show relies so much on character and setting. While visuals are important, they go hand-in-hand with the characters and their environment. If making a live-action film was of the interest of the directors, it would have made more sense to focus on choosing CGI animation over live actors or rotoscoping than trying too hard to blend the two. The reason the canceled 1997 project would have done the story and characters of Cats justice was because the environments and character designs were carefully taken into consideration in regards to story. With the right combinations and less emphasis on just visuals, the goal shouldn't be trying to be the stage performance of Cats, but let it be its own thing. It's an adaption of an iconic musical, but it should be created to stand on its own. By doing so, this is how the final product resonates with audiences. With each and every puzzle piece put together to create a visual motion picture that best fits the tone and ambiance of the story, you'd be bound to latch onto the audience's attention for the right reasons. This is true with any animation or visual medium for that matter. In an era where CGI has become prevalent in both animation and live-action, it's no surprise Hollywood easily abuses it at times to a saturation point, causing the quality of movies to suffer a great deal. If studios begin to return to their roots where their focus is equally attentive to story and art direction as seen with the potential Steven Spielberg's version of Cats would have been, think of countless possibilities that could come of musical films and other forms of animation and live-action.
Normally, I don't use my blog for news related stories, but as a fan of animation, especially Anime, I wanted to address what happened in Kyoto this month and the major toll it has had on the victims and their families as well as the Anime community. On July 18th, Kyoto Animation, best known for their films, and series, Eiga K-On!, Lucky Star, Tamako Love Story and A Silent Voice endured an arson attack at their studio one facility, leaving at least 34 to 35 dead, and roughly 33 injured.
I was away on vacation when it happened. I heard a piece of the story in passing, but did not gather further information until I got back and settled down from my trip. I got back on Sunday last week and started following up on the story on Wednesday night. From my understanding, the suspect involved did this out of spite, claiming that someone in the studio or the studio stole his idea. He threatened the studio, doused the place and some of the employees with gasoline and set everything on fire.
This is a very tragic news story. Waking up one morning to go to work like any other normal day, it would never cross one's mind to suspect something so horrible like this would happen. Anime merchandising company, Sentai Filmworks, one of Kyoto Animation's partners, started a GoFundMe page with the social media hashtag, #HelpKyoAniHeal to help the victims and their families rebuild. The fundraiser has surpassed its goal and is still going strong. I'll leave a link below where you can donate. Please keep the victims and their families in your thoughts and prayers at this time of need.
Help KyoAni Heal donation page
Rugrats in Retrospect: A Response to Saberspark's Video 'What RUINED Rugrats - The Untold Drama' and Why Paul Germain was Spot on about Good Storytelling
In the 1990's, animation was starting to evolve from toy commercial centric cartoons like Care Bears and My Little Pony to creator driven content as seen with Nickelodeon's hit shows of the time like Doug, Rocko's Modern Life and Nick's then pop cultural phenomenon, Rugrats. At the start of the decade, media and technology entrepreneur, Geraldine Laybourne served as Nickelodeon's first president from 1984 to 1996. She and the rest of the team set out to make Nickelodeon the first network for kids with their unique line-up of shows that were original creator content in order to differentiate themselves from other networks during those years. At the beginning, Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and Rugrats were the first three animated shows to be greenlit into production. Of the three, Rugrats would go on to be Nickelodeon's biggest hit, paving the way for the network's upcoming animated shows like Rocko's Modern Life, Angry Beavers and Hey Arnold!. More to the point, Rugrats became the face of Nickelodeon throughout most of the '90's, but then in the latter part of the decade and the start of the 2000's, its popularity gradually began to die down, eventually being eclipsed by Sponge Bob Square Pants.
There is a very specific reason as to why that happened. However, contrary to popular belief, the decline in popularity for Rugrats wasn't so much for the addition of new characters, though, there is some merit to that assumption. The real problem that caused this series to lose its momentum, as seen in Saberspark's video, What RUINED Rugrats? - The Untold Drama, had everything to do with the show creators failing to see eye to eye. The show was created by then married couple, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Cspuo along with fellow co-worker, Paul Germain. In this blog post, I'm not going to delve too much into the notorious drama that went on amongst the writers. I'm just going to pin point the main source of it. Rather, I'm going to discuss my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of an aspiring writer and early childhood teacher. Using my animation and illustration background as well as my experience so far working with children, I will explain with an in-depth analysis on why I favor Mr. Germain's side of the story.
For starters, before Rugrats made its debut, the trio worked on a few episodes of The Simpsons shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987 to 1989 before it made its debut as a television series itself on December 17th, 1989. The Klasky-Csupo team worked on this series during the first three seasons. The Simpsons, which was created by Matt Groening, has been a pop cultural icon for nearly three decades now, and is still going strong to this day, making it the longest running American animated sitcom in history. As we know, the show deals with the titular dysfunctional family and their interactions and responses toward American culture. As simple a concept that may be, what contributes a great deal to the success of The Simpsons is character development and stories that explore the human condition by going into the characters' minds and challenges. Having previously worked on the show, Paul Germain knew that the key to making a top tier animated series was quality storytelling, so his level of expertise would bode well for him in the long run. (I know The Simpsons did suffer a bit in quality over the years, but that's another topic for another day).
When pitching a show for Nickelodeon, Arlene Klasky created the concept for Rugrats with one basic idea in mind that made it truly memorable: "if babies could talk, what would they say?" Having been pregnant during the show's conception, making this a very personal show that was important to her, she had Paul Germain help her elaborate on the idea. Inevitably, Nickelodeon greenlighted production on the series and a total of sixty-five episodes would be in the contract. Rugrats debuted in the summer of 1991. Due to solid promotion, its success and viewership increased immensely. From films, to merchandise, and even a giant parade balloon making its debut in the 1997 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was no denying Rugrats became the crown jewel for Nickelodeon. Unfortunately, as Saberspark pointed out, the events building up towards the show's success was ultimately what lead the show to crumble. There were several feuds between Klasky and Germain that would often put Csupo in the middle as the swing voter between the two.
Long story short, Arlene Klasky favored the idea of the baby characters acting more like their age rather than see them acting on adult-like behaviors as seen in the 1992 episode, The Trial in which the babies have a courtroom setup after one of the children destroys Tommy's favorite lamp. Paul Germain was all for writing plot driven narratives with solid character development like that of The Simpsons, but for kids. To make this disconnect between the show creators worse, it was the introduction of Angelica that increased conflict between Klasky and Germain. Germain created Angelica, feeling that the show having an antagonist would tip the scales in its favor. Klasky, having not created the character, strongly disliked Angelica and often complained about her portrayal being too cruel towards the younger children. Inspired by a childhood bully, Germain wanted to explore Angelica's character and craft character driven plots examining why some kids who bully other kids behave the way they do. After Paul Germain's departure in the mid-1990's along with other members of the writing staff, the quality of the writing began to shift. Although that was the time Rugrats skyrocketed in success, a few years later, it began to fizzle and eventually the show ended in 2004. Given all that was happening behind the scenes with this show and in regards to good writing and how children learn and develop through cooperative and explorative play, Paul Germain was definitely on-point when it came to what would have been best for this kind of series.
First of all, since Rugrats is a cartoon about children from ages one to three and a half years old, it should delve into topics that focus on the inner workings of early childhood development. The key ingredient that goes into good writing is having a deep understanding of your subject matter and drawing even more inspiration from the real world. It could be from personal experience, people you know or some new insights you've garnered working with others. All of those elements are vital to good storytelling, if not an important foundation for it. Arlene Klasky was right about one thing. When coming up with an idea for a story, it's a good idea to write something that is personal to you, but her unwillingness to listen to her peers left almost no room for personal growth. Good ideas become stronger when you garner deeper understandings of what you're writing about. If Klasky wanted to make a show that was about babies exploring the world around them, she'd be wiser to take those concepts into account. With Paul Germain's approach to writing, he was willing to add and explore those aspects of early childhood development blended with personal experiences and incorporate them into the plots. For example, when the children mimic adult behaviors, that's a prime example in early childhood development with children letting themselves think freely in a risk-free environment. What contributes to children's growth is their freedom to explore certain attributes of adult behaviors and thus, begin to learn about themselves and how the world works. As is the case with The Trial episode, the babies have a courtroom setting in the living room because they have already seen and know that adults attend jury duty. They are somewhat familiar with how that process works. Certainly they may not understand every little detail that there is to know, but at an early age, children observe adults on one side of a testimony and others representing the other perspective in order to determine who might be guilty and who might be innocent.
To add to this, from my experience so far working with preschoolers and what I've been studying, I've seen how children play certain games like house, kitchen, or store. Social referencing is something that occurs in infants between six to nine months, which is when babies observe how their caregivers react to certain situations and use that as a model for the appropriate response. Preschoolers already know this social cue from their infancy and build up from it. In terms of childhood development theories, Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interaction among other children is what adds to the child making meaning and gaining new knowledge. He also believed that, unlike Jean Piaget, who categorized childhood development in four stages, children's development is continuous and occurs through cooperative learning. Children, thus learn from each other. Jerome Bruner's Three Modes of Representation observes that children continuously and actively learn by adding on previous knowledge. Enactive, which is based inaction occurs during the early years. Iconic, which is image based, occurs during the mid-childhood years. Symbolic, which is rooted in language, takes place during adolescence. Applying this to The Trail, we see these examples playing out in the episode. We see that the children in the cartoon already understand why adults resolve disputes in a courtroom, so there is a bit of social referencing displayed as the babies are seen referencing adult behaviors to respond to their situation. The way that the Lev Vygotsky theory is depicted, the children are interacting with one another and thus, through this type of play, they are learning through cooperation and making meaning in order to find out who broke the lamp. The way that Bruner's theory plays a role is that at the age that the Rugrats characters are, they are learning through action or Enactive imagery and that is knowledge that gets built on with new knowledge over time.
That being said, drawing from real-life examples and knowledge of how children develop are important elements that contribute to good writing. The topic or subject matter you are writing about may be personal to you, but if you don't take the time to build up a deeper understanding from other perspectives and real-life observations, your concept may still be good on paper, but stale in representation. This also leads me to another reason why Germain's approach to storytelling excels over Klasky's, one that should always be at the forefront when crafting a story: who is your target audience? This question may already be a matter of common sense, but its one that seems to get a bit lost as new writers join a team on a show or other type of creative project. As mentioned earlier, Paul Germain envisioned Rugrats being The Simpsons of children's television. What he meant was that the target demographic for Rugrats could appeal to not only children, but adults as well. Just because of the age of the main characters, it shouldn't imply that there can't be stories written in a way that would resonate with older audiences as well. From the sound of the debates between Arlene Klasky and Paul Germain, it was obvious that Klasky failed to understand her audience, much less ever listen to why Germain's writing team was on point. Klasky felt that if they were to make a show about babies, it automatically meant that the main characters should consistently do what babies do. However, there is a major flaw in this thought process: aside from it leaving very little room for character development, it leaves very little room certain topics to be covered, rendering the show's content too stale.
The main problem I see with Klasky's approach as to what she thought was right for Rugrats is that she wanted to play the show too safe. Audiences eventually get bored of that. They can easily tell when writers are taking creative risks and when they are selling themselves short. By having the main characters constantly act their ages, not only are there limitations on story and character growth, but it fails to resonate with audiences. If Rugrats was intended to be a show both kids and adults could relate to, this approach was absolutely not the ideal choice for that demographic. You can't just have one foot in the door for a certain age group and the other one stepping out for another. A good kids show written for both kids and adults in mind should always be an open space for writers to be adventurous and explorative when it comes to dealing with new ideas. Plus this is the type of audience that wants to see something beyond the comfort level. There have been episodes of Rugrats, like the PBS Kids edutainment show, Arthur, where difficult topics were covered, such as neglect, loss of a pet or family member, jealousy, generational differences and of course, child growth and developmental milestones. There have even been episodes that deal with fears adults struggle with and new experiences that come with each stage in life. Even most impressive was that there have been holiday specials that focus on Hanukah and Passover and their religious significance, something that not very many shows at the time were covering. Being open to topics like these make room for both kids and adults to have a dialogue with one another. Because early childhood development is the seed that shapes how we grow up as our earliest experiences shape us, our perception of others and the world around us, it makes more sense that character driven plots were the best way to construct an episode of a show like Rugrats. Playing it safe with very little for the characters to do eventually alienates viewers and thus, that is why Paul Germain had the right idea all along. Even so, when it came to Angelica, her role wasn't solely to be a one-dimensional bully as mentioned earlier, but rather to represent a figure of the type of kid everyone has to deal with at times. As children grow up, they will always encounter a bully. Contrary to some of the stereotypes portraying bully characters over the years prior to Rugrats and other shows afterwards, there are underlying reasons why some children lash out the way they do. Over simplifying or dodging the subject altogether is not only playing storytelling safely, but it's also denying the reality of the world we live in. (I would like to delve into the topic of bully/brat characters in kids shows in a separate blog post sometime because I think it's a topic deserving of its own post).
With all that has been said and done and how well Rugrats aged as a pop cultural icon, in the end, it was Paul Germain's values as a storyteller that made it stand the test of time. With all due respect to Arlene Klasky, who undeniably had a brilliant idea for a television show, her concepts sounded good on paper, but Germain had ideas to help take her concept up another step further. It was unfortunate that Klasky and Germain failed to find common ground, but one can't deny that it's one thing to have a good idea on your hands. It's a whole world of difference to build up on it. Going off of Klasky's approach, there would have left very little room for character development and growth due to limitations on plotlines as was the case with the later seasons. Germain had all the right pieces in mind that fit into crafting good stories that would resonate with the show's respective audience. With an understanding of real world examples, such as studies related to the subject matter that the series centers around and personal experiences along with comprehending who the show is for, those are all important factors that contributes to both a show's quality and increased level of success in the long run. Stories can teach us about our struggles and shed them in a different light when delved into correctly, inspiring viewers to ask themselves the right questions and reflect on their own situations. By playing it safe and shunning other suggestions to further improve your concept as well as knowing less about who your target audience is, you not only put limitations on the potential of your ideas, but also on yourself as a writer. The more explorative you become with your concept and how it relates to the real world along with knowing what kind of stories your audiences are hoping to see, the better rounded you become as a creator. Your concept will grow and flourish, reaching its full potential. As with any creative medium, it will always be a continuing process that no one ever stops learning from because our experiences never stop shaping us and endless knowledge is always being spread around. You yourself will never stop learning. It's either you're open to it or you just stick to what is already familiar to you. By the latter, you will have many missed opportunities. By the former, you will constantly be exposed to them and those new opportunities and insights are what you give your audiences in return.
In the age of online shopping via Amazon, the traditional American shopping mall has gone down a death spiral year after year. However, as the rate of dead malls in the United States continue to increase, so does a growing community of urban explorers on YouTube and other platforms who venture from state to state to visit and document these ailing malls for future generations to see and learn about. Among such talents in the dead malls community include Jack Thomas of www.deadmalls.com, Anthony at Ace's Adventures, Nicholas M. DiMaio of The Caldor Rainbow, Ron and Kristen of UniComm Productions, Anthony from Faded Commerce, Adam from The Vintage Spaces Channel, Ashley, The Neon Explorer on Instagram, Pat and Heather from Raw & Real Retail, Jon Rev of [jonrevProjects], and Salvatore 'Sal' Amadeo of Quite Studios, all of whom are active members of the Dead Malls Discord.
In his video, Century III Mall In Extremis, and Le Flâneur de Beaudelaire, the 36th of his Expedition Log Series and sequel to another video about Century III Mall, Sal and other members of the dead mall community meet at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania for the Inaugural Dead Mall Summit of 2018. It was an event open exclusively for the members of the Discord sever and it mostly took place in the area where Century III Mall is located due to the over-saturation of malls in the area. Therefore most of them were in stiff competition. The main focal point of this video is an analysis of the philosophy of Le Flânuer, which was introduced by 1800's poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire in 1872 and how it relates to the explorations of dead malls (or urban exploration in general), some of which these theories influenced the ideas of Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. Although the ideas Sal expresses in the video are speculative, he brings up some very interesting points and details as to how Le Flânuer relates to urban exploration and the art world, (specifically during the time period of the Impressionist painters such as Degas, Monet, Caillebotte and Renior) as well.
Early on starting in the 11:35 minute mark, Sal talks about how he got into the urban exploration community. He mentions that his interest in urban exploration peaked "quite sometime ago" and that he would venture out into the woods with friends, not to film, but solely out of intrigue. When he discovered Dan Bell's channel, "the interest really kicked into high gear because [he] learned that people were gathering and doing [urban exploration], that there were more people out there that were doing it and since then, [Sal] wondered why? What draws us to that? And if this is a new thing or not?". This is an important question to consider because although dead malls and other such urban exploration videos have gained popularity during the late 2000's and the 2010's, the concept of sharply observing society's urban areas, even in the most obscure corners dates back much further than it would seem.
I won't go into the history of how shopping malls came to be, since it's not the point of this blog post, but the history provided is still worth noting. It starts at the 13:10 mark. Later, around the 30:29 mark, Sal discusses the role Le Flânuer plays in the history of urban exploration. Starting in the nineteenth century, the world began to flourish with urban growth, mainly noted in Paris, France and in the United States. All over Europe and the United States, arcades opened and this concept of indoor shopping centers began to accelerate all across the globe. As Sal highlights:
"This idea of a vast interior shopping center was gaining traction around the world. This intense expansion of commerce was causing social waves among the classes and philosophers were beginning to take notice of a new type of urban figure who reveled in the details of architecture and observing the less traveled paths in a city and within buildings. This new urban figure was coined by Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleurs du Mal or The Flowers of Evil, and refers to somebody who observes a newly industrialized city and its structures while just taking a walk, pondering the philosophical implications of what these new passages and arcades have on society and looking for the secrets that common passers-by would otherwise miss."
This is where the term, Le Flânuer originated. In Sal's opinion, this term might have paved the way for today's urban explorers.
At the 40:50 mark, he goes on the explain that the French verb means to stroll as the noun is used to describe someone who strolls and "wants to discover the secrets of public passageways, arcades, tunnels backstage areas and the like and to see what the general public might never notice". Anywhere most people never walk, le flâneur will step just to take in every little detail one might not ponder on. As a result, this concept became prevalent in Paris, even among professions throughout the Impressionist period, such as the artists of the time. Monet, Caillebotte, Renoir and Degas were all deeply immersed in the concept, that they would venture down less visited paths to paint images of areas and scenes viewers rarely noticed, if at all. Sal offers an analysis of the Caillebotte painting, The Young Man at His Window (1875) as an example of how Le flâneur is depicted in the works of these painters:
"[R]ather than the view of what the man is seeing, you see the man, the man's pose, an orange, velvet upholstered chair and the marble guard just past the window. The idea is that you are now the spectator, gaining an intimate view of something you wouldn't otherwise see. We don't see the man's face or what he sees because he's not the focal point of the composition. The idea of spectating is the focal point".
The backstage areas of performing art centers depicted in the works of Degas are another instance we learn about in this video. Degas painted what happens behind the curtain, all of which is invisible during a stage show. Monet also took his easel and art utensils, ventured into the back of a train station, went behind the rails and illustrated what passengers almost never see. These famous painters might just have been the first urban explorers in Sal's point of view. Given the similarities between today's content creators capturing these mostly abandoned places on camera and the Impressionists painters painting subject matters most people don't typically consider, the commonalities are very uncannily striking. In Sal's narration, he goes on to say the following:
"These in my opinion were the first urban explorers and they brought the idea of preserving a scene for purposes of exposure and archival to mainstream audiences. These people were exploring places that passers-by would never see and they were painting these places. They were capturing that moment and showing other people what they aren't noticing in their daily travels. How fascinating is that that these people were going out and doing urban exploration well before this ever became a popular thing? And now their art is selling for millions".
Next, we hear about Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher from Germany. Before World War II broke out, Benjamin wrote about Le Flâneur, describing it as a representation of modern strolling into the urban culture, walking through the crowds at the arcades and coming across every brand new, shiny thing behind glass. Benjamin believed that because of the rapid growth in which urban culture was increasing along with the changes in socio-economic leanings in Paris at the time, Le flâneur as a trend began to soar. According to Sal's commentary, "[t]his change, which was rooted in budding capitalism, involved the creation of the of the arcades, which again, were the passageways through neighborhoods, which had been covered with a glass roof, embraced by marble panels, so as to create a sort of interior exterior for vending purposes". From Baudelaire's observations, the reason the passageways in which the arcades were designed with such style and grace especially in their shops, was because the concept behind the shopping arcades was to be seen as a small scaled city or a new world. On a social level, he perceived the arcades as a means for visitors to find a relief from the complications and/or monotony of daily life. Taking a leisurely stroll, he'd observe everyone and everything for both pleasure and gaining new insights into what is beyond the surface level.
After describing the feeling of going inside the active JC Penney and then returning to the lifeless mall, Sal delves a bit further into Walter Benjamin's philosophy, pin pointing that "Benjamin laments on the extinction of Le flâneur, who disappeared as the commercial world slowly deserted the interior exterior of arcades for the carpeted, artificially lit department stores that were to replace them". He then quotes Charles Baudelaire in which the main point was that even as the arcades would soon fall out of favor to department stores, Le flâneur will still roam even through such changes. From Benjamin's perspective, the more commercialized, the less Le flâneur would have an incentive to stroll whereas, Baudelaire's saw it as regardless of changes, the explorer will always have a reason to stroll the walkways.
In any case, as arcades evolved into department stores and from department stores to the major shopping mall, the idea for the places in which the public shopped was for them to be pleasing on the eyes and offer a delightful experience for the customers. With the rapid rate in which shopping malls are dying, Sal reminds the viewer that "the same notion of Le flâneur captured the minds of modern day urban explorers" and that the buildings they set out to explore "were something that the public would no longer see because they were being demolished and removed from our everyday lives". Like the mindset of the artists of the Impressionist period, today's urban explorers "felt an urge to capture [the structures'] last moments or moments that society either forgot about or will never see again to preserve what once was for future generations". Just like how the painters of 1800's would use their art to delve into and preserve what the general public didn't see or didn't realize they were taking advantage of, the urban explorers of the 21st century are always capturing what people miss through the lens of a camera.
Sal concludes his observations with this statement:
"While Le flâneur was the rise of interest in seeing these places, Le flâneur gave rise to the Impressionists, who went out and found places of interest that nobody saw and painted those things so that we can see them. Their senses were then dulled by the artificial department stores, which were just bland and bleached out inside until you got stores like Wanamaker's and such, which were gorgeous.
But, for the most part, in the rural sections of the department stores were pretty boring and Le flâneur didn't want to see it anymore. But once these places started crumbling and growing mold and trees inside of the mall where the carpet was, this was a wholly fascinating experience and a cathartic one, too because as the urban explorers were seeing these things, the mall was closed, the department store was closed and nobody would see it, so they began capturing these events as the Impressionists did back in the 1800's and showed the public because it was fascinating. The pedigree of modern day urban explorers in summation comes the idea of Le flâneur and the urban expansion in the 19th century. Urban explorers get their roots from Le flâneur and the Impressionist painters of the 1800's"
While Sal makes it clear that this is just his own speculation based on his own research, it's easy to see the similarities between the Impressionists and today's content creators on YouTube. As someone who shoots to write and draw her own stories that dispel expectations and strives to offer new insights into expected ideas, I find Sal's analysis not only insightful, but accurate. As both the Impressionists painters and urban explorers show spectators of their art new insights into the things they take for granted or don't usually give a second thought to, they utilize creative means to expand the boundaries of their expectations and challenge their perceptions. Our perceptions might deceive us into seeing only what is on the surface without questioning if there is more beyond that surface layer. Once the spectator takes a moment to remove that surface layer, uncovering the underlying details, the spectator can't help but discover new insights into what they thought they knew. Urban explorers, through the content they produce use video as a means to communicate such ideas as the Impressionists did through painting. Works of art indeed are supposed to invoke, not only emotions, but new insights as well. If an urban exploration video inspires a viewer in such a way that offers the new insights and suspends what was perceived early on, the modern day urban explorer successfully accomplishes what the Impressionists accomplished centuries ago.
Marc Brown, who is known primarily as the author of the Arthur children's books series, is a three-time Emmy award winner behind the PBS Kids TV series of the same name. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania along with his three sisters, he grew up listening to his Grandma Thora's stories, which eventually inspired him to come up with and write his own stories as he got older. Aside from sparking his interest in writing, Thora also sparked his interest in drawing. Marc began using watercolors in high school after his teacher introduced him to the medium, which he continues to use in most of his illustrative works. Among his influences are Cubist artist Marc Chagall and fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. Marc majored in graphic design at the Cleveland Institute of Art after receiving help from Grandma Thora. Since then, Marc Brown pursued children's books even while taking up other jobs before pursuing the career path officially.
To this day, Arthur continues to air, becoming the longest running children's animated series in the United States and the second longest running animated show behind The Simpsons. The television series made its debut on October 7th, 1996, two decades after the first Arthur book, Arthur's Nose was published. Both the books and the television series center around the everyday life and challenges of the titular character, who is an 8-year old anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family. The topics of the books deal with issues and challenges children face such as trying new things, first days of school, effort and success and working together with peers. In the television series, there are episodes that cover difficult issues families struggle with such as autism, cancer, dyslexia, Alzheimer's, death of a pet, Asperger's syndrome and coping after a devastating event.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Brown back in 2014 at a talk he was giving at the Boston Public Library. The lecture was a part of the Gateway to Reading Lowell Lecture Series. Marc discussed what inspired him to become a children's book author as well as his creative process, how the people he went to school with when he was in third grade and family members inspired the characters in the Arthur books, other books he was working on and other authors he worked with. When on the topic of how Arthur became a TV show, he cited the late Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) as his main influence. PBS wanted to make a television show based on the Arthur books as a means to encourage children to read. Marc recalls "what PBS wanted to do with Arthur was to make more kids want to read by watching television. I thought that was a wonderful use of both animation and TV. And the best role model was my buddy Fred Rogers, who I think used television in such helpful ways to kids and families. I miss him a lot." Marc then goes on to show the audience some clips from the animated series. "We did a lot of shows, things that you couldn't do in a picture book as well. Like a lot of families, including ours have dealt with the problem of Alzheimer's and Arthur's having some problems with his Grandpa." The first clip shown is from the episode, Grandpa Dave's Memory Album, featuring late comedian and actress Joan Rivers in a special guest appearance followed by another clip from the episode, The Great MacGrady, which dealt with the topic of cancer. Marc then goes on to show more clips from the animated series featuring other guest appearances including Larry King, Matt Damon, Neil Gaiman, Ming Tsai the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Fincke, Michelle Kwan, the late Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Frank Gehry, Yo-Yo and of course, Fred Rogers. After the montage of clips, Marc talks about his experiences meeting four presidents after writing the book, Arthur Meets the President and shares some fun and humorous anecdotes from his travels. He then talks about a book he illustrated, titled Wild About Books, written by fellow children's book author, Judy Sierra. The writing style in Wild About Books pays homage to Dr. Seuss, who is known for famous titles such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax. Marc shows the audience his illustrations as he narrates the book and concludes the lecture by saying "if I ran the zoo, all the teachers would make more money than movie stars because what they do is a lot more important. Think about that".
After the lecture, there is the question time taking place, starting with the kids and then the rest of the audience. When my turn comes up, (timestamp 48:16), I ask about how does the team go about the difficult topics covered in the show. Marc's response goes as follows:
"Well, I'm glad that you are interested in that because...it's kind of a detail that a lot of people don't know about. Because we deal with so many issues that are difficult, most people don't want to deal with those [topics] with kids. We have a wonderful advisory group and we go to people who are specialists in those fields. We talked with a lot of people who know about cancer and they know about families..., dealing with that and how to be helpful, what we should put in the show, what we shouldn't put in, what's age-appropriate. So it's...our advisors who really helped us a lot and as I was saying very quickly when I showed you that little reel about our guest stars, Matt Damon's mom who teaches at Lesley is one of our advisors and she's really good as they all are. And we have great young writers! They...will get together once a year and we'll make a list of things that might make good show shows and...one day I said 'desk wars'! And they wrote a whole story about kids and their desks and classroom and the wars that they were having with... each other...or head lice! Who's going to deal with head lice? We are!"
The next question is from a little girl who asks if any of his books have been adapted in braille because her mother is blind, to which Marc replies that "there are quite a few Arthur books that are in Braille. I was working directly with the Perkins School". At the 52:49 timestamp, Kathy Brodsky, a clinical social worker who also writes children's books herself comments on the work Marc and his wife, Laurene Krasny Brown did on Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families and When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, commenting that she has used the books "for people of all different ages and they've been terrific". Marc turns everyone's attention towards Laurene for a round of applause and describes how she went about writing those stories. "Laurene worked at...Harvard with the brilliant Howard Gardner for many years in project zero and did a lot of research of children and media. And she's so good at taking those hard issues and...getting the right questions for families to talk about". The last question is from a little boy, who asks Marc what inspired him to make Arthur into a TV show to which he responds "well, like I said, I wanted kids to read and I wanted kids to go to the library and pick out more books. And Arthur is all about reading... [W]hen he has difficult things in his life, one of the first things he does is go to the library to try to learn about it". After Marc thanks everyone for coming and supporting his work, there is also a book signing taking place.
I purchased a copy of In New York at the book signing. When I get to Marc's table, I briefly introduce myself and tell him what I'm studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (animation at the time). I then expressed my interest in writing and illustrating my own original stories and characters, so I asked his advice for aspiring writers. Marc's response was very simple: just keep writing and exploring. You just need to find what is inspiring to you and keep practicing the skills. If you have a great idea you want to write about and it's important to you, keep working on developing the story and character you've been working on.
Of all the advice I received that year in regards to getting started with creative ideas, this was one of the strongest and it stuck with me ever since. Sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in the little details about how people get into writing a book (or any other form of media for that matter), but what they often forget that it's the craft that goes into writing and illustrating the final product people value most. The time and effort put into a project and the quality of writing is what resonates with your audience in the end. If you can write good, enriching stories and characters that resonate with the reader, you are on the right path. In the case of writing children's books, it's important to learn about your age group, what your topic is, do the research, seek good help and information from others who specialize in the topic to decipher what is an age appropriate way to tell the story, develop the idea and most of all, you will never stop learning.
Post Trip to Italy: After Thoughts Part 2 What I learned from Elia Stelluto about Capturing Moments through the Camera Lens
Last blog post, I wrote about my trip to Italy, which took place back in October of the past year. In that post, which I decided to make into a two-parter, I started with my visit to Rome and what stuck with me the most when I was there: the Sistine Chapel. This was important because given the wealth of history behind the chapel and the legacy left behind by Michelangelo, I felt that I'd write about how understanding the skill and technique of the old masters is influential to today's artists.
In this post in which I focus on my time in San Giovanni Rotundo, I'm going talk about what I learned from Elia Stelluto, the famed photographer of San Padre Pio. Padre Pio (1887-1968) who has been canonized a Saint, was a friar, but above all, he was a well known mystic and stigmatist. His body remains uncorrupted to this day and is displayed on public view at a church in the Sanctuary of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. Throughout the years of San Pio's work, Elia captured the major moments and highlights in his photographs and they have been on display throughout various locations in San Giovanni.
When my family and I finally met Elia and his sister, Maria, we got to see and learn of the many amazing places throughout San Giovanni and more about his friendship with Saint Padre Pio. As someone who specializes in drawing learning from someone who specializes in photography, there were a few new techniques I garnered from Elia that reshaped my creative process that I wanted to cover here in this post.
When we went to go see the stations of the cross, upon trying to get a good photo of each one, he showed me the best ways to take a solid snapshot. Don't hold the camera too close to the subject matter. Don't place it too far either. Keep it steady. If the subject matter is a landscape, position the camera to match the horizontal position. If the subject matter is portrait, set the camera in the upright position. Also, be very observant of the light source. In this case, because this was outdoors, the sun was my light source, so I had to position my camera in the best ways possible so that the sun wasn't blinding nor darkening which station I was taking the picture of.
Although I was using the camera on my phone to take pictures, (which I normally do for snapping real-life examples that I use as references for my illustrative works), Elia encouraged me to be open to the skill and techniques that go into picture taking. Usually when we take photos with our smartphones, we don't normally over analyze how we do it. We see something that catches our attention and want to document it as quickly as possible especially if it's something that is going to move very quickly like a truck with a rare logo or a billboard while on the road, so we just try to capture it right then and there. However, because there are those special moments we want to capture using any kind of camera and even though photography might not be our main focus, learning the basic techniques of photography from Elia got me rethinking the way I take pictures and why. In some cases, I do it to preserve memories and others as reference for my illustrative works. So, even though I don't specialize in photography, learning from Elia's years of experience has restructured my thought process for picture taking and how it complements the work I do. Ever since then, I just take pictures that I know are going to mean something to me when I pull them out again and that they won't just be a blurry clutter for my phone, both figuratively and literally. If it's a subject matter that I'm going to revisit for a project that I'm working on or an important memory I simply want to preserve from my travels that I want to document and show what I've learned from or got out of it, I felt it was a good idea to take advice from someone who knows the craft and experience and then I start using it in even the most simplest of things.
In the end, I really enjoyed my conversations with Elia and getting to know more about his work ethic and process. Although photography is not something I'm considering to pursue professionally, I felt it was very beneficial to learn a thing or two from Elia's craft. In turn, I started to see we are very much alike. Although our mediums are different, as artists, we share the same goal in our art: to tell a good story that will be an inspiration to others.
For this post, I'm going to write something a little different here. I'm going to share a personal story about my trip to Italy last month and what I got out of it. I went to Rome and San Giovanni Rotundo in the middle of October for ten days with my family. We visited many historic locations, such as the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the resting place of San Padre Pio in San Giovanni. Even so, we met San Padre Pio's photographer, Elia Stelluto, who also gave me a few pointers in taking photos. One month after the trip, I got thinking about what contemporary artists can gain from visiting Italy and getting to know its rich history.
For Part One, I'll start with the Sistine Chapel in Rome first. What stood out for me the most in Rome was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Painted by Italian painter and sculptor Michelangelo (1475-1564) in 1508 and completed in 1512, the ceiling is highly renowned as a staple of the Renaissance era. Upon observing depth and detail that went into every aspect of the piece, I could not help but be utterly amazed by how one person could have taken the time, skill and patience to create such a colossal work of art. Given both the time it took and the intense level of craftmanship (as Michelangelo was known for), this is one sight you just can't miss visiting. It got me thinking about art in the modern world and how craftmanship has been regarded overall since the early 20th century, specifically with the Dada movement. While I don't dislike all art from the 20th century, nonetheless, it was the time period when high skill level was often mocked, ridiculed and looked down upon as 'outdated'. In addition, I also got thinking back on the rules of stylization, -a topic that comes up often in the art world- when reflecting on the art of the Renaissance era to the rise of Cubism. If artists intend to deconstruct a piece and stylize rather than make it look realistic, it's always important to practice and understand the skills behind drawing from life as well as learning about the craft behind the old masters. I've mentioned in a previous blog post about stylization according to fine artist, Stan Prokopenko and how learning the basics helps refine our approach to style.
That said, finally getting to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling in person further extended my appreciation for the high level of craftmanship the likes of Michelangelo was famous for. There are a couple of reasons as to why contemporary artists should observe pieces of the time period and take them to heart. The main reason first and foremost is our historic roots. When the Dada movement emerged, it was a major shift in the art world, but it seems that as the 20th century went on years afterwards, craftmanship was starting to seem like a joke. Aside from the fine attention to detail, even subject matter became increasingly superficial. With the high level of craft, beauty and strong desire to seek deeper meaning in our human existence, the art world accomplished such significance through the classic works. Upon examination of the fine arts, the exploration into the human condition is expansive and the time focused on that craft is as a result, what gives the spectator an immersive amount for self-reflection and evaluation. The artists themselves sought meaning through their craft and viewers can learn a great deal about themselves.
The second reason artists will benefit from observing something like the Sistine Chapel ceiling goes back to the stylization practices. As expert artists say, aspiring artists must know the basics before they can develop a personal style and develop it well. Even so, they are encouraged to learn from the old masters. I'd go another step farther to add on that there is something extra to gain from studying both that will help artists hone, not only their technique, but getting to know their true potential and individuality. As practicing from both life and the old masters goes hand in hand, it was also that the old masters sought their inspirations from life and its greater significance. Although it might seem unrelated at first, it's as classical Greek philosopher, Socrates (470-399 BC) famously stated, "[t]he unexamined life is not worth living". The statement is interpreted to mean that a life without self-reflection is fruitless and therefore, lacks the meaning and potentiality it could have or could have had. The way I see it is if artists want to develop a personal style, something that should say something about the artist as a person in some form or another, those steps are always going to be crucial to the learning experience, but it's also significant for artists to learn more about themselves as well. Artists could know all the fundamental foundations that are encouraged and necessary to enrich their craft. When comes time to develop a personal style, is should also be encouraged for artists to self-reflect on their lives such as the mistakes they made, the struggles they been through and the things they learned from them as well as individual exploration and what they gained out of it. Sometimes artists start on a path that seems like its the one they truly want to take, but through hardships, challenges and growing stronger because of those experiences prompt change.
Although tone and style are different, tone being the attitude the author displays in his/her work and style is the format the piece is designed with, both always go hand in hand and compliment each other. So, without experiences, your tone can express one thing an thus, influence the style you are known for. But when new experiences shape you as a person and you grow from them to better yourself, you learn more about your true self, about others around you and garner a better outlook on life because of the obstacles that come and overcoming each one. You then garner a greater appreciation for yourself and others around you that you count your blessings more than take things for granted. It's also important to note that as time brings about change and your outlooks on life change, your taste also changes, too. Art is based also in one's taste and of course, but styles change as attitudes do. In other words, aspiring artist shouldn't just learn from the old masters from a technical standpoint, but on a philosophical one as well.
When in Rome (no pun intended), if you visit the Vatican, definitely make a trip to the Sistine Chapel. As you browse all the way to the end of the chapel, give yourself permission to ponder the time, skill, practice, craftmanship and thought that went into such a marvel. If you're an aspiring artist, definitely keep the lessons your instructor encourages you to study in mind as well as making room for reflection. I'll discuss my visit to San Giovanni Rotundo in Part Two after the Christmas and Holiday season. Until then, keep exploring beyond your boundaries!
When walking into a coffee shop or a store at a mall or a lifestyle center, some of these places might have a floor decorated with a pattern entirely made up of tiles. Sure, it's not the first thing we think about when walking in, but we might be aware that the color of the tiles are purposefully set up to match the store's brand color scheme, but could something as simple as floor tiles tell a story we often overlook? In an episode of NHK World Japan's The Mark of Beauty, hidden stories are not only told, but there is a level of craftsmanship that makes tiles into a true work of art.
The Mark of Beauty is an NHK World Japan original documentary series that centers around the arts and crafts unique to Japanese culture. It features the art of everyday life arts and crafts that go unnoticed at a first glance, but upon close examination, there is a greater depth and meaning which creates the beauty of such techniques. The episodes center around topics such as the craftsmanship behind embroidery, jade, kiriko cut glass and lacquer-ware. The episode delving into the art of tiles stood out the most to me because whenever one steps into a store or shop decorated with tiles, the last thing that comes to mind is how can it be seen as an art form. Within the three main categories, Style, Versatility and Art, the viewer receives new insights into how something so simple as the way tiles are set up can contain a greater story and craft than they realize.
As Part One of the episode starts with Style, we are introduced to writer, Eri Nishimura and photographer, Junichi Okugawa, who are traveling around Japan taking snapshots of the various tiles they come across. Impressed with the tile work, Okugawa takes pictures of the floor at a shopping arcade clothing store. The narrator then delves into his and Nishimura's fascination on the subject.
"Their love for tiles has culminated into a photo book. They put their feet in the photos for size comparison and also to show that the tiles are indeed on the floor! They say an old shopping arcade is a treasure trove of tiles. Nishimura takes us to a shop that has one of her favorite tiles."
Thus, she leads the viewer to a meat shop, which opened in 1936. It contains such vibrant tiles, shining with reds and oranges with white outlines, laid out in front of the display case. At that point, we hear a bit of backstory behind how such tiles were chosen. "The owner's mother laid these tiles around 1975. She chose this design in hopes of giving the shop a modern makeover" says the narrator. Shop owner, Masayuki Arai tells Nishimura and Okugawa that after plumbing work was being done on the shop, a few of the tiles were cracked, that they had to be replaced. His mother had hoped to find the same colored tiles as the original, but they were so rare, they are practically irreplaceable. Arai goes on to say that "they've been [t]here for so long, so [he's] attached to them". Okugawa "pays homage to the shop's history and snaps a pic", which features Arai's feet standing on the floor as well as another photo with Nishimura's beside his. "It's been taken care of, so the color is still there, not faded. And the cracks in them actually make them tasteful. I feel attached to it and I really adore it" says Nishimura. The narrator then states how much the tiles had supported Arai's shop over the course of four decades, which brings us to the first mark of beauty: "Aging Together". Aside from how long the tiles had been around for, the reason for their selection and what they had endured over the years, even within all their simplicity, they carry a meaningful story altogether. Upon hearing the story behind the tiles, it's no wonder Arai has such a personal attachment to them.
The narrator even goes as far back in history as the 6th century when tiles were transferred over to Japan from China with the example of the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Although tiles were ultimately used in temples to design the floors, it was after the earthquake of 1923 that prompted a more common use of tiles. Since the buildings were wooden structures, making them a fire hazard, this evoked a shift in the type of materials used to build buildings. From wooden structures to concrete ones, tiles became the norm. In the intervening years, they eventually became more and more artistic and stylish as seen in the Tokyo National Museum with a work created by Taishin Ikeda. The wall designed by Ikeda features a pattern of an imaginary flower, which is plastered before the tiles are applied. According to the narrator, "drawing a motif with small pieces of tiles was a revolutionary method at the time" the piece was made. Even in modern times, artisans are always developing new methods to designing with tiles. Contemporary artisan, Amane Shiraishi demonstrates his craft, process and the art behind them by demonstrating the making of a living room wall. The project was made for a client who wanted a 'happy and colorful wall', so Shiraishi explains that he made it colorful, but the important thing was to make it stylish. Citing the works he had been exposed to while being trained in Morocco, he highlighted his observations of tile work done on a mosaic. Along with the array colors used in the design, white tiles were always present between colors. As we often hear the phrase, 'less is more', the end results are a prime example of such. With the large curvy white tiles in the center of each triangular shaped color tile, the ambiance the of wall texture sets a different mood each time of the day. As the sun sets, the bumps in the white tiles change the feel of the setting in the living room than that of how it looks during the day. "And it will watch over this family from here [where it stands] always" says the narrator to conclude Part One of the episode. The tiles will all age together with their own story to tell for years to come.
Part Two, Versatility, as the title implies, delves into the various functions tiles are adapted to. In Kasahara, Gifu, the highest amount of tiles are produced as seen in their shops and cafés. The café featured in this documentary, for example contains colorful tables, decorated with tiles that immediately catches the eyes of visitors. What's even more fascinating is how the tiles are used to create various sections of the shop as if they were separate rooms. This is achieved by decorating the floor with a flower pattern on one section of the shop and using the same pattern, but with opposite colors on the other. The vibe of the pattern feels like a 'charming flower garden' as the narrator describes it. These small sized tiles are used to create a big picture. Café owner, Kumiko Tamesawa offers her insight by indicating that "[t]iles can be used to create designs in infinite ways" and that she "discovered that by just changing the colors you use, you can give a totally different impression". After the narrator highlights how the various combinations of tiles can display an array of expressions, the second mark of beauty is "Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities". Small sized tiles open a window of possibilities for artisans to create an assortment of new patterns as seen in the Mosaic Tile Museum, which is located in the town of Kasahara. The museum itself is a major staple of the town with its historic origins as a town known for its pottery making until the 1950's when manufactures shifted their focus to tiles. Since then, the tile factories produced creative new pattern designs, even drawing inspiration from fashion magazines. "I think most factories then did not have their own designers, so the President or the salesperson of each company were the ones who designed the tiles." recalls chairman of tile trading company and former tile designer, Kazuyuki Nakane "We used to always be thinking of tiles, looking at everything, thinking how they could be motifs for tiles. We were always looking to create new designs". In addition to finding innovative design methods, the traditional means of craftsmanship is still active even in the age of machines. The viewer is then introduced to a tile manufacturing company, founded in 1957, where traditional, hands-on tools are still in use. The viewer then meets a fifty-year veteran tiler named Masako Matsuyama, who demonstrates her process and showcases her craft as well as the reasoning behind her design choices. So, why is such a task still carried out to this day if with all the technology given at our disposal is an option open to designers? "When this is done by humans, you get a soft impression. It's more beautiful!" Matsuyama pinpoints. "When done by machine, it feels calculated". Indeed, there is an organic quality that goes into the craft of tile making that machines simply cannot capture or replicate. This goes to show that tiling is more than just applying a pretty pattern on a wall or floor to simply look nice, but it truly is an art form. This brings us to the final segment of the documentary where Style: Aging Together and Versatility: Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities start to come into full circle.
Art is the third and final segment the episode explores. At this point, we know that style is how tiles age gracefully and versatility is how tiny pieces can paint an even greater picture, but did you know that there are public bathhouses in Japan that contain murals made entirely up of tiles, forming a complete image? A public bathhouse located in Kamigyo, Kyoto has a scenery image on the wall, depicting a lake surrounded by grassy hills, snowy mountains, sail boats and a castle. The lake being placed in front of the bath gives an illusion of flowing water as if the water in the image is flowing into the tub. Because tiles are resistant to water, the mural is still in perfect condition even four decades later from the time it was created, once again highlighting how they age together as well as how such tiny pieces are formed to create endless possibilities. At another bathhouse, located in Itabashi, Tokyo, is decorated with an image of sea fairies, which was completed in 1953. In fact, a Japanese painting piece from that same year also served as an inspiration for its motif. A combination of the light reflecting on the image as well as the steam depicted in the image and coming from the bath give visitors a mystical type of aura. According to bathhouse owner, Shinichi Zenimoto, people post positive comments in their blogs about how relaxed they feel when they see this piece, much to his delight. People even come to the bathhouse because they really want to see the mural. That said, the third and final mark of beauty is "Art, Savored from the Tub". The viewer then receives a glimpse into the creative process behind one of the murals made by architect, Kentaro Imai. The piece he made for a bathhouse in Machida, Tokyo is based on a piece by Yokoyama Taikan. To differentiate his piece from that of the one made by the iconic painter, Imai limits his palette to twelve colors to keep it from being too over saturated in gold. He utilizes a select few yellows and variate with other colors to give visitors the feeling as though they are bathing in the clouds. With a simple color palette, there is a great deal of depth that creates a three dimensional feel. As Imai goes over his process and the reasoning for his design choices, the viewer can see how and why his efforts paid off in the end with comments from guests saying that the mural belongs in an art museum as bathhouse owner, Taichi Tsuchida mentions.
It's interesting and amazing how some of the most everyday structures can be easily taken for granted at a first glance. When taking into account how something seen in everyday life like tiles can be used to create so much more than a commodity, the possibilities start to seem endless. With an array of art styles, to creative techniques, to craftsmanship that can go into tile work, one can garner a new found appreciation of it, be it from the simplest of patterns to more complex variations, to those that form an image. So, the next time you come across a wall or floor with tile work that sticks out to you, don't be afraid to ponder its backstory and ask about it. You might be surprised by what you learn.
At the time of writing this post, I'm studying for an exam as part of a portfolio requirement to get my Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. I have a study guide book, covering everything that's going to be on the test, such as child development theories, math, science, reading and so on. One of the study tips the book offers is to put on background music that contains no lyrics and that music specifically is the great works of Mozart or any type of classical music. This is really great advice, especially for anyone who is preparing for a major test and it works quite well for me. Of course, it's not only Classical music that can be helpful for study time, but anything that is pleasant and without lyrics. (I also listen to modern Jazz as I study). However, I can't actually say that listening to Classical music has made me any smarter. Rather, it makes me a little more relaxed and focused before and as I study. In fact, there have been studies that disprove the 'Mozart effect', demonstrating that it doesn't actually make students smarter. Although there is some truth to the 'Mozart effect' being effective as a bit of a brain booster (as long as you're not just passively listening to a piece by Mozart and instead actually practicing it), the widely popular assumption that it will make you smarter is over simplified.
First, let's start with where the concept originated from. In 1993, a study by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky was conducted on 36 college students and published in the Nature journal. According to Kimberly Sena Moore in her 2010 Psychology Today article, The Mozart Effect Doesn't Work...but here are some things that do, the students were tasked to "take one of three tests of spatial-temporal reasoning". This involved the following:
"These tests, subsets of the standard Stanford-Binet IQ test, asked the students to visualize spatial patterns and, over time, to manipulate them.
Additionally, there were three pre-test listening conditions: a Mozart piano sonata, repetitive relaxation music, and silence. When the students listened to the Mozart, they performed better on the spatial reasoning test. But it was a temporary improvement--the effect wore off after 15 minutes".
Aside from the effects wearing off after 15 minutes, the researchers themselves never insinuated that listening to Mozart automatically makes students smarter. All that the study demonstrated was that listening to Mozart can easily calm the mind as one prepares to take a test. Even so, studies conducted in the years afterwards made no solid conclusions that it's a 100% given that listening to Mozart intensifies cognition.
So, if the 'Mozart Effect' is not effective as popularly assumed, then what is beneficial? Just because there is no easy answer to boosting intellect via the 'Mozart Effect' doesn't mean students can't benefit from learning classical music or any type of music for that matter. There has been evidence that students develop their math and reading skills as well as their abilities for self-expression through music that simple words alone could not express. Among the recommendations Moore recommends instead of relying on the 'Mozart Effect' are "[p]urchas[ing] child friendly musical instruments", "[e]nrolling in an early childhood music class" and "[e]ncourag[ing] participation in band, orchestra, or choir". Children learn about themselves and the world around them through play. By picking up a tangible object, they let unleash their imaginations and desire for exploration as they play with toys, in this case, instruments. Early childhood music classes are also a great way for young children to learn about music as well as taking on the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument. Through social interaction with others in the classroom and collaboration, children will be more engaged with the art form. As a result, they are actively learning the basic craft of music, which requires a deliberate practice.
What might not be a wise idea to encourage students to get involved in music is to solely focus on Classical music and using the 'force-feed' approach. Often when teachers choose to focus solely on classical music, it's usually out of bias for the genre and thus, children are more likely to have a hard time garnering an appreciation for it. Therefore, it does a major disservice to both the student's musical and cognitive development as pin pointed by Rachael Dwyer in her article, Force-feeding kids classical music isn't the answer. "Forcing classical music, indeed forcing any music on unwilling students", Dwyer writes, "is unlikely to achieve the sorts of positive benefits - musical or cognitive - that an engaging and varied curriculum will". The less music teachers encourage variety in music exploration in the classroom, the less likely their students are going to make a sincere effort to be adventurous in learning about music, the craftsmanship behind it or practice it themselves.
Another thing to bear in mind is that because music is an expressive art form, it takes genuine passion and love for the art form to practice the craft and hone the skills. This occurs when students go beyond passive listening and garner a natural desire for wanting to learn how to play an instrument. By doing so, students have not only gained an appreciation for music, but are boosting their brain function and cognition. In her article, 4 Interesting Myths and Facts about the Mozart Effect, Sheena White lists a few example of how music enhances the brain, including '[i]mproving memory', 'superior multi sensory processing skills', '[o]rchestrates neuroplasticity in the brain', etc. In addition to the listed benefits, "it can help kids learn emotional control". When children actively commit to learning an instrument, not only are they honing reading and writing skills, but they learn to take control over their anxieties and cope with stress. Even so, because music is art and art is self-expression, students can express their ideas and feelings through music more powerfully than what simple words can express.
All and all, the 'Mozart Effect' can easily be debunked as it does not necessarily make students smarter. However, exposing students to Classical music and other types of music through enjoyable and engaging means and activities will inspire them to improve their musical and cognitive abilities, leading to more effective results. Without the 'like it or not' approach and instead, exposing children at an early age to music through toy instruments, then building up to an enrollment in music classes and meeting other students as they get older, children will more likely find music pleasing. Their desire to practice more increases and thus, they start to develop their musical skills, cognitive abilities and self-expression. All the while, it's very true that listening to Mozart or any type of classical music of the Old Masters is a great way to relax the mind before studying for or taking a major test, but it's important to put into context how these effects actually work. After all, as an innovator of his time, Mozart was a master at his craft through deliberate practice and therefore, innovative musicians of tomorrow will truly be following in his footsteps by genuine desire and putting in the work.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.