I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“Something Close to Magic”: The Animation of Piotr Dumala

by Anthony Galli
April 5, 2014

What really happens when we dream, and when do we know we are dreaming? Do we dream in weight and shade, and do we ever dream in color? When does that dream allow itself to burst into a full-fledged nightmare? Is it possible that what we dream is, in fact, reality?

Piotr Dumala thinks so. Or, at least, the “reality in dreams” part.

As a filmmaker, Piotr Dumala feels that it is his obligation to forego the stereotypical avenues of animated entertainment. One will not find underwater swimming princesses, or unfrozen troll trusting princesses, or even half-animated chipmunk chatting princesses in Dumala’s animation. For example, Czarny Kapturekhis (variously Black Cap, or Little Black Riding Hood), his adaptation of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, features a murderous Riding Hood, a lecherous Wolf, and, it appears, a Grandma “on the prowl.” This is certainly not the Little Red Riding Hood that children have come to know, but a deeper, darker version that reflects the nightmare visions of the unconscious, somewhere far out of reach from the innocent daydreams of grade school.

To emphasize the casual horror of the story’s violent underpinnings, Dumala creates his adaptation with the most rudimentary design available; stick-figure renderings from, what might be, the unguarded imagination of a curious child’s mind.

In technique and style, Little Black Riding Hood is decidedly different from much of Piotr Dumala’s subsequent work. Black Riding Hood ‘s tone is almost slapstick, as if he were satirizing children’s cartoons, as well as animation in general. Thematically, however, it fits quite readily into his canon. His work seems to ask, “What is happening just beyond the dark?”

Dumala was a sculptor and painter before he ventured into animation, and, while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, developed a revolutionary technique, which is lovingly characterized as “Destructive Animation.” Where traditional animation is engendered from a succession of individual drawings sequenced to generate the illusion of motion, destructive animation relies on a solitary surface where a single image is manipulated to create the appearance of movement.

I know, right?

Traditional animation, before the advent of CGI and other digital techniques, required background art and foreground character movement to achieve the impression of motion, time, and space. For example, 1914’s crudely drawn (but, indisputably, state-of-the-art at the time) 5-minute Gertie the Dinosaur (or, to give it its full name, Winsor McCay, America’s Greatest Cartoonist, and Gertie) used an estimated 10,000 celluloid drawings, “cels,” to come to life. In contrast, Walt Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,, the world’s first feature length animation, utilized an estimated 1,500,000 cels. That’s a lot.

The destructive animation technique, as popularized by Piotr Dumala, employs a single plaster slab that Dumala scratches and paints over repeatedly to achieve the appearance of movement. For each few frames of film, Dumala must add new scratches to his plaster, amend his drawing by erasing or painting over it, and repeat this process for, oh, perhaps, the next two or three years. Literally.

Dumala’s technique provides for a singular style that resembles nothing less than a continuous series of fine art etchings, rather than what we have come to regard as standard animation. But, as a result of this technique, each etching must be destroyed in order for a new etching to be completed. South African artist William Kentridge, similarly, utilizes destructive animation principles, but works in charcoal and paper, a little more traditionally, instead of plaster and sharp objects.

With singularity of purpose, Piotr Dumala’s work brings light to the shadows that threaten to consume anyone’s life. The isolation and confusion of modern man is explored in Dumala’s work, but he doesn’t appear to offer any cheap advice or routine recommendations on how to make our lives any less bewildering. The world is submerged in uncertainty, and all one can do to survive is accept the unknown and consider the present moment to the best of our abilities.

Alfred Hitchcock was long a proponent of what he termed “pure cinema.” Much to the dismay of actors, actresses, and screenwriters, Hitchcock believed that his story needs to be told solely through image and sound, and not, as others believe, through dialogue or spectacular performances.

As Hitchcock relayed to François Truffaut in 1962:

I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting; but I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the sound track and all of the technical ingredients that made the audience scream…It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.

One doesn’t need to know the true story of Franz Kafka to understand Piotr Dumala’s Franz Kafka, just as one doesn’t need to have read, or even be conversant with, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to appreciate Dumala’s adaptation Zbrodnia i kara. As none of Dumala’s animated work features dialogue, it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to assure, through light and shade and sound, that the narrative is revealed and the necessary non-verbal connections are communicated.

Piotr Dumala has likened the results of his imagination to “Frankenstein’s monster,” yet, not a single sentence later, he refers to it, also, as a “miracle,” where “one form of energy was transformed into another.” Although a fragment of Dumala’s work has appeared in an advertisement for MTV, there is probably no chance that we will be seeing his animation in a 3D multiplex format anytime soon. It is too real for that.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.