Less Is More: The Simple Beauty of “Dam Keeper Poems”, “The Big Bad Fox”, and “The Yamadas” – Animation Scoop

Less Is More: The Simple Beauty of “Dam Keeper Poems”, “The Big Bad Fox”, and “The Yamadas”

We live in an era of visual overload.

Animation studios are producing images so detailed, they’re virtually indistinguishable from live action, but why do they want to? How does rendering every leaf in the background make a story more compelling? What does an audience gain by seeing each stitch in a cartoon character’s sweater? Why does a talking animal need realistic fur?

Architect Mies van der Rohe famously said, “Less is more;” we’re living in the corollary: More is less.

The take-no-prisoners realism in many recent CG features is technically impressive, but it can become literal and prosaic, like some Academic painting. In animation, reality should provide the jumping-off point for artistry, imagination and magic. The difference between them, the difference between prose and poetry is evident in Dam Keeper Poems, a series of wordless short films written and directed for Hulu Japan by Erick Oh of the up-and-coming Tonko House studio. As the title suggests, each of the 10 5-minute episodes uses the characters from the Oscar-nominated short The Dam Keeper (2014). Although the films have not yet been released in America, they’re nominated for the Annie Award for Special Production. Here is the World Premiere of the second episode:

In contrast to the dark, richly detailed chiaroscuro of the original film, the Poems have the look of simple watercolor illustrations. The images display an almost arid minimalism without forfeiting charm and emotional resonance. The result is the filmic equivalent of a haiku—austere, elegant and evocative.

When Pig waters a small plant she’s coaxed into blooming, she’s distracted by the arrival of an insouciant fish who demands a share of the vital liquid. Fish quickly makes himself at home, reading and savoring a cup of tea in his pool. As she did in the original film, Fox provides Pig with an emotional bond. Although she comes from a happy family, Fox understands her friend’s loneliness. Pig misses the father who trained him to take over the vital job of dam keeper, and Fox shows her understanding through her actions.

Dam Keeper Poems reminds the audience how much a talented animator can do with clear, simple designs and small, effective movements. Oh creates touching scenes, when Fox joins the hands of snowmen of Pig and his father, and droll ones, when black muzzles and eyes emerge, revealing that a shapeless white cloud is actually a flock of fluffy sheep.

This kind of minimalism is difficult to achieve. When a single line determines the shape of a character’s head and his posture, or the boundary between two shades of water color defines the space in which the action takes place, those lines have to be perfect. It’s easy to hide a mistake in a complicated design or an elaborate background. But with this degree of simplicity, any mistake is immediately evident.

In recent years, more artists have begun to explore simpler styles, partially in response to the hyper-realism of American CG and partially to meet financial restrictions. The hilarious The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales by Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner also uses a watercolor look and simple designs. The impatient, put-upon Pig in Big Bad and the wistful Pig in Poems consist of only a few brush lines, but the animators move them in ways that communicate their very different personalities.

During work on My Neighbors the Yamadas, which has just been released on Blu-ray, director Isao Takahata talked about “the inherently fun aspect of animation of making circles, triangles and squares move.” Takahata not only shared the fun of moving the simple, geometrized characters around the screen, he reminded viewers of lessons UPA artists had taught decades earlier. A piece of furniture and a wash of color can suggest a room, if the characters move in ways that carve out the space and make it understandable. The meadow in Poems consists of a few areas of delicate color, but when Pig and Fox move through it, the audience sees the open spaces and bushes and shadows.

At time when people seem to have forgotten the meaning of “enough,” these charming films offers a welcome reminder that Less truly can be More.

Charles Solomon

Charles Solomon

Internationally known animation historian and critic, Charles Solomon has written over 15 books books including Enchanted Drawings: The History Of Animation, The Art of Disney's Frozen,The Making of Peanuts Animation, and Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Disney Beauty and the Beast .
Charles Solomon
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  • Distractionland Xeth

    Here here!

  • Matthew Koh

    I demand a manifesto from this!

  • Matthew Koh

    By the way, that discussion that you made reminded me of Loos’ ‘Ornament and Crime’.