Not everybody enjoys a fool
on Vikings and animation
History has eternally bored me to tears. As a former high school science teacher I’m loathe to cast the blame on my teachers, because I think that what I needed was for all twelve years of the topic to be tied up into a system that compared timelines and geography and layered in stories to provide narrative depth and breadth, allowing us as students to explore and excavate and discover the world, Magic School Bus-style - an impossible task for any individual teacher, let alone a school system. Learning history had always seemed so completely overwhelming, and in my school days nothing ever quite grabbed me as a way in to unravel and understand our past.
The Last Kingdom was something I turned to on a hazy July afternoon, bored out of my mind and desperate to be entertained, and to that end The Last Kingdom delivered. But by the third episode I found myself tugging at the threads of history the show had exposed, and hitting pause every 10 minutes to look up events and characters in an effort to knit together a cohesive narrative of the Danish thirst for conquest at a time when Alfred (soon to be the Great) had usurped the Wessex throne and sought to unify England under a single ruler. It had taken almost 40 years, but my love for history has slowly started to unfold over the last six months.
Despite my Irish Catholic heritage, I’m biased towards the stories of the Danes—and Vikings in general—and have been working my way through books and research articles on the subject during my moments of downtime. It’s not that I think Vikings are good or better, but that their stories tend to be more intriguing. The media I’ve been consuming has tended to favor the Vikings as well, casting them either as the protagonists of the story, or at least humanized as much as the Saxon characters.
And so when I sat down to (finally) watch The Secret of KellsI was immediately struck by the differences in how the Vikings were portrayed in comparison to their Irish counterparts. It’s a deliberative narrative device (and one I agree with!) that sparked a moment of “ah yes, perhaps the Vikings were also the baddies.”
The Secret of Kells absolutely broke my brain. I honestly can’t tell you much about the quality of the story because the animation was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I spent most of the movie with a furrowed brow whispering “you can do that?!”
One of the many things that makes the art and animation of The Secret of Kells unique is that it is almost entirely hand drawn, by which I mean almost every frame was drawn and colored by hand, on a physical surface, and then compiled into an animation. This is a painstaking labor of love, and you can feel it as the imperceptible heartbeat of the film.
It’s also a type of animation that I’m desperate for not only as a viewer, but as a creator. As I’ve moved between various online art classes over the last few years I have come to realize how much I love creating within the physical world, whether it’s painting, drawing, or stop motion animation. When I work digitally I feel constrained, like I’m frenetically scratching at a 3-inch thick pane of glass to get at what’s underneath, while when I work physically I feel absolutely calm and consumed by what I’m trying to bring into the world.
When I think back to the most immersive thing I’ve made in the last year, it has to be this short from my Intro to Animation course at RISD. I wanted to push myself by animating a walk cycle, and spent two weeks hand-crafting everything but the rain, which is done digitally. It was intense and I learned the only way I know how: by running full-speed into the brick wall of my limitations.
I’m not currently working on any stop motion animation due to constraints of time and space, but I am getting back into my drawing habits with the goal of developing my 2D animation skills, and friends, it’s hard. I spent large chunks of my childhood drawing and have a solid baseline amount of skill, but after a 20+ year hiatus it’s no longer a simple source of joy but rather frustrating and exhilarating and exhausting to sit down and be awful - but occasionally brilliant - at something.
And I suppose that’s the lesson, isn’t it? If it were easy to take what’s in my brain and put it on the page would I value it? Would it have any meaning? I know that I have the capacity to build worlds for people to enjoy and explore locked inside my brain case, all I have to do is sit down and draw them.
The Last Kingdom follows the story of Uhtred, a Saxon-born boy who is kidnapped and raised by Danes, and spends the entire series struggling with this identity clash amidst the backdrop of the unification of England.
The Secret of Kells is an animated film that creates a backstory for the very real Book of Kells, a brilliantly illuminated (illustrated) book containing the four Gospels of the New Testament.
This really resonated with me:
“When I work digitally I feel constrained, like I’m frenetically scratching at a 3-inch thick pane of glass to get at what’s underneath, while when I work physically I feel absolutely calm and consumed by what I’m trying to bring into the world.”