Monday, June 26, 2006

Shynola's Pyramid Song (Animated Music Video)

PYRAMID SONG (Animated Music Video to a Radiohead Song)
Directed by Shynola, U.S.A., 2001, 5 minutes

Source: (Gateway site is in Spanish; click "Aqui" at the bottom of page)

We open to a moving, aqua-green canvas speckled in white. Light piano chords play on the soundtrack, followed by a wailing human voice in song. As the canvas continues its fluid movements, the frame shifts upward and we gain perspective: it is the surface of an ocean that we are tracking across. As we continue our journey across the ocean, an elongated structure – what looks to be a large ship – becomes visible in the distance. Nearing the shape, and tracking over it, we see that it is a square structure – a building top, protruding from the ocean. In the next shot, a figure on the building top enters the frame – he is a light gray silhouette, with no specific features. He walks to the edge of the building top and places his hands on the ledge. He looks behind him, and sees an oxygen tank on the ground. In the next shot, framed from beneath the ocean’s surface, we see the figure penetrate the water, swimming downward; an oxygen line is attached to his back, and a beam of light, a searchlight, shines from the area of his face. He descends the structure of the skyscraper and reaches the ocean floor, which is comprised of a modern city’s ruins. We track forward, viewing the figure from behind, as he swims past street lights and other urban structures, as well as strange glowing configurations of light, his white oxygen line bending and zigzagging with his movements as bubbles ascend from his (implied) breathing apparatus. Tracking past the figure, but with his searchlight still visible, we pass submerged plants and see cars below. In a series of moving shots, with the figure’s searchlight guiding what we see, we track past an abandoned car; a two-laned street below; a wooden fence; a book and various scattered papers; and, most intriguingly, a cluster of human skeletons floating in front of a brick structure. We then see the figure’s flashlight beam shine across a row of suburban houses, as he swims alongside of them. His beam shines on the doorway of a house. From the perspective of the house’s front yard, we see the figure standing outside of the perimeter’s wooden fence. In the next shot, we see him enter the front door of the house from the perspective of the house’s interior; the door swings open and he flashes his light to and fro. He shines his searchlight across a table, then enters another room of the house, where a chair is floating upside down. We see him place the chair into place in its slot under a dining table, which is set with plates. In an ensuing shot, the figure, shown in side profile, slowly takes a seat in a recliner, his oxygen line still visible, his searchlight still shining from his facial apparatus; we track backward, away from him, as he settles into the chair. Next, we see the house’s exterior from above, the figure’s oxygen line visible from outside; as we track upward and away from the house, we see the figure’s oxygen line ascend, apparently cut free. In the final shot, a long take, we tilt upward from the surface of the water, where the top of the skycraper is still visible, to a view of the sky, which is now a dark orange-ish hue. A yellow dot of light circles the sky, followed by a red dot; the two dots circle one other, illuminating the clouds, before three other luminous dots join them. The dots form a diagonal line, and then extinguish, one by one, as the music dies down and we gradually fade out.

The animation here, namely, 3-D computer animation, is striking. The animators, a creative collective named Shynola, managed to capture the look and texture of ocean water – how it appears on, and beneath, the surface. The water is very much alive here, from the movement of the waves above the surface, to the bubbling of water below. Also remarkable is the play of light and shadows within the water, as in the shot before the protagonist dives in. In this shot, our perspective is from beneath the ocean’s surface, looking up; in a composition similar to the final image of “A Movie,” the animators manage to capture the appearance of sunlight penetrating the water, with its exquisite sparkling effect. Similarly, the rendering of the protagonist’s searchlight casting its water-drenched halo upon the dimly-lit submerged world has a remarkably authentic feel. While the latter elements are rendered in as photo-realistic a fashion as possible, the protagonist remains a somewhat “blocky” silhouette, with unconnected spaces between his head, torso, arms, and legs. Something about his design, I found appealing – there is something ethereal about him, as if his covering is just a shell (i.e., for a soul, etc., if you will, which will ultimately find its escape). The figure’s feature-less design also lends itself to a certain universality of human form. In all, there is a certain quality to the protagonist and his epic, otherworldly surroundings which I feel a live action rendition would struggle, both budget-wise and execution-wise, to capture equally well. The use of animation here is thus a conscious, rather than gratuitous, choice. The form has an element of exaggeration, a way of conveying the wondrous and the abstract, that is well-tailored to the depiction of this entirely different world.

Beyond the quality of the animation itself, the “shots” in the video are framed and designed in highly cinematic ways. We are constantly tracking along with the figure, following him from behind, or following his point of view in tracking shots across various objects when he is not in the frame, making for an active and adventurous, highly cinematic visual voyage. Even when the protagonist is out of the frame, we see his searchlight shining across the objects in our view, which is an extremely clever motif. The overall sense is one of mystery and wonder, as we shine a light along side of him upon the dark corners of a submerged world as if uncovering its ancient mysteries and memories. I also liked the transitions in the video between “shots,” primarily through the use of dissolves. The dissolves themselves suggest a “passing,” almost, a ghostly transition, if you will, from one shot to another, much in the same vein as the protagonist’s “passing” from life into another state, perhaps from his silhouette form into the form of one of those glowing dots swirling the sky (if you choose to interpret the end of the video in such a way).

Of course, beyond its classification as animation, the short is a music video in form, and succeeds extremely well as such. The lyrics of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” (which you can find at narrate a surreal journey into the afterlife, whereby the speaker jumps into a river (perhaps the River Styx, according to some interpretations), where he sees “all the things [he] used to see” and is accompanied by those he used to know on a journey to “heaven in a little row boat.” Instead of fear, the speaker experiences a sense of comfort in death: “There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt.” The narrative motif of the video conveys the essence of the song extremely well, while straying from a literal enactment of the lyrics (and, thankfully, straying from any depiction, animated or otherwise, of the band, which would prove intrusive to the narrative). In the video’s narrative, the figure is seemingly the last remaining person after a great catastrophe (i.e. a Flood), and dives into the submerged world to survey the wreckage while seeking out his home, which he straightens up a bit (i.e. the chair) before settling into a chair and letting go of his oxygen cord, thereby making his own peaceful end. While there is not a one-on-one correlation between the visuals of the video and the imagery of the lyrics, there are well-timed matches in many places. For instance, the motif of the lyric “Jumped in the river, what did I see?” is well-conveyed and well-timed with the figure’s entry into the ocean. Similarly, the lyric “All the things I used to see” is well-conveyed and well-timed with the figure’s exploration of all the things in the submerged world (i.e. streetlights, cars, etc.) he would have presumably seen before the catastrophe. Particularly well-timed and -conveyed is the final lyric, “There was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt,” which appears on the soundtrack a final time as the figure settles into the chair and releases the oxygen cord at the end; the sense of acceptance and peace in death is conveyed brilliantly through the figure’s gesture, resulting in a particularly poignant climax. The song’s swelling, instrumental finale kicks in after this point, and is matched particularly well to the image of the glowing, swirling dots in the sky, perhaps representative of spirits of the living that have been released. All in all, there is a wonderful catering of the visual to the rhythms and spirit of the song, resulting in a sublime and moving fusion of animation and music.


Christine said...

I saw in the commentary that this video was based on a dream. If this is true, I think the digital animation of this city-under-water brings the dream-like qualities to life in a way that could not be done with live action. The animation enables us to enter voyeurism, following the figure as it makes its way through a former world that he literally cannot grasp. The juxtaposition of flashing vivid images, such as the skeletons, in the otherwise clouded chaos is interesting. I don’t know if both the song and the video were inspired by this dream, but even so, the song’s tempo and lyrics echo a sense of disconnect from the world. At the end, the release of the oxygen cord does seem to offer a sign of acceptance or peace with the past or death…or perhaps signals an awakening from fantasy, or blissful ignorance, and a return to reality. Really neat video!

ltpalm said...

Contrary to my statement in class, I am a big Radiohead fan. I believe that this video, very representative of all of their videos, is true art that both coincides with the lyrics but also stands alone as its own short film. In fact, Radiohead packaged some of their videos a while back on a VHS/DVD that I used to watch for the spectacle of the videos more so than the songs. At any rate, this video in particular reminds me of the ending of AI where the main character returns to the flooded city and drives down into the ocean searching for the blue fairy and hence, his past reality. Here we get this same scenario. What the animated man wants is his old chair in his old house despite what has transpired. Interestingly, the animated man is only a shadow. What is the reasoning for this rendering? I suggest that he is a ghost, if not literally than figuratively, revisiting the past.