On the art of observing the world from outside
A wizened old man stands on a balcony. The view is dreary; the sky is darkened by the smoke of countless factory chimneys. The man thoughtfully waters a single flower that defies the poor conditions in its rusty box. A zeppelin-like vehicle approaches and drops a package into a designated chute entirely automatically and without any sort of human contact. As the man gently opens the package, he notes with some astonishment that hidden in the dark depths of this compact box there is miniature world that looks exactly like his own surroundings. Factory chimneys, high-rise buildings, polluted air. As he uses a flashlight to illuminate the package’s darkest corners, the glaring light shines right into his own window. He realizes, to his horror, that he cannot only see the world from outside but even alter it. It takes a while for him to begin drawing conclusions about this insight, but eventually he takes a small shovel, carefully loosens the miniature city from the ground and plants it next to the flower. He places the flower in the box instead of the city, closes the lid and admires his work. DELIVERY (2005) is an alternative version of the story of creation, produced by Till Nowak in 2005 using a motion capture process as his final degree project in media design at the Mainz University of Applied Sciences.
DELIVERY – http://www.framebox.com/delivery.htm
The 25-year-old would never have dreamed that his film would be shown at 200 international film festivals in the following years, winning over 45 prizes. In fact, Nowak recalls, he generally hadn’t put much thought into DELIVERY, but followed his gut instead. Of course, this approach was far easier to take for a film he created mostly alone, on a small budget, over the space of six months, than it would have been for a production requiring a large sum of money and an entire team. In retrospect, some of these gut decisions proved tactically clever. In this way, not only the film’s universal and trenchantly told story but also the “speechlessness” of its hero made DELIVERY a perennial festival favourite and allowed Till Nowak to become a globally esteemed short-film maker.
Before DELIVERY, the eloquent Rhinelander considered himself more of a nerd with a pronounced penchant for moving images. It was only thanks to the film scene’s positive response that he even thought about becoming a filmmaker himself. Nevertheless, and despite having made further successful short films since then, Nowak still prefers to see himself as a digital artist. Having spent several years producing commissioned works after the release of DELIVERY, he believes this definition simply describes his career spectrum more accurately. Over the course of those years, his projects included creating animation sequences for TV productions (for example for the documentaries “Zum dritten Pol” and “Flucht in die Freiheit”) as well as for several commercials.
In order to balance out this spectrum, Nowak developed several parallel independent art projects, including many light installations. In 2006 he began working on the project EDGES (2006–08), a series of light installations that makes use of the geometry of different rooms. Nowak uses selectively positioned pulsing lights to bring interiors to life, creating a sort of choreography for corners and edges. A project that is similar in approach yet much more complex is RED AND BLUE (2009), which consists of a 20-minute performance in which a site-specific digital animation is projected onto the outer skin of the historical Castel dell’ Ovo fortress in Naples. Nowak is a pioneer in the field of these so-called “mapped projections”, using architecture both as a starting point and projection surface.
It’s hardly surprising, considering the number of projects he is involved in, that it took Nowak a few years to finalize his next short film, THE CENTRIFUGE BRAIN PROJECT (2011). At first, the almost seven-minute film appears to be a dry documentary about a scientific study exploring the effects of centrifugal force on the human intellect. A scientist describes his attempts to stimulate the learning capabilities of test subjects through the development of sophisticated carousels. The film shows highly realistic images of these increasingly daring constructions in operation, as well as their building plans. Not entirely by coincidence, Nowak’s research on the topic of centrifugal force also inspired an art project. THE EXPERIENCE OF CENTRIFUGAL FORCE consists of a series of construction plans for fairground machines and rides that are the secret stars of the short film. The technical drawings were printed in a limited edition and exhibited at the Media Art Biennale in Seoul and the Transmediale Berlin, as well as elsewhere. Indeed, the existence of these detailed blueprints contributes enormously to the realistic impression made by what can be seen later in the film.
A further (possible) guarantee for realism, which is commonly used in TV documentaries, is the existence of omniscient experts. Wearing a stoic expression, Dr. Nick Laslowicz describes the reactions of subjects who were hurtled through the air inside small, colourful cabins. The lab-coat-clad investigator emphasizes that “the test subjects’ brain activity exceeded that of those on the ground by more than 30%”. There were practically no problems at all, other than the time when a carousel was “placed a little too close to a building”. With a facial expression that makes it clear how unimpressive such trivialities should be to a great genius like himself, Laslowicz moves on to the next topic without further comment. We can only imagine what has been lost.
THE CENTRIFUGE BRAIN PROJECT – entire film: www.icr-science.org
Nowak still chuckles as he explains how during cinema screenings he can see the exact moment when viewers begin to doubt the degree of reality contained in the film’s narrative.
“Usually only a few people laugh at first, but the number of doubters increases with each crazy ride. Most of the audience realizes that something must be wrong at the very latest when the Ferris wheel that takes 14 hours for one revolution appears.”
However, now that the film has been made available online by the Hamburg Short Film Agency, and has been viewed nearly four million times, the director does receive entirely serious inquiries from time to time as to where one might be able to ride the featured contraptions. Apparently, his method of subcutaneously “infecting” real scenes of conventional rides with digital animation in order to tell a story that gradually distances itself from reality works even better than planned.
“I didn’t intend to shoot a mockumentary, but I wondered what would happen if one was to look at our normal everyday life from the perspective of an alien.”
After all, even in the real world people do actually pay money to sit in brightly coloured machines in order to be hurtled through the air to the muffled sound of disco beats. What if there were more to this than the pleasure of distraction? What if it were a scientific project? Could reality perhaps be even more whimsical and surreal than Nowak’s vision?
To this day, the question of the boundaries between normality and insanity has not lost its hold over the director. His latest film, DISSONANCE (2015), is a masterful response. The nearly 20-minute long film, in which real footage and animation, fantasy and reality, are linked in a number of different ways, premiered at this year’s Berlinale. It revolves around a homeless piano player whose world has gotten more and more out of hand. You can almost physically feel the man being worn down as he is caught up between the logic of the outside world and his own (psychotic) inner world, and yet he seems to be the only one aware of the existence of a spherical world beyond his everyday life as a homeless hurdy-gurdyist. In this other world, he is an outstanding pianist who plays daily concerts for his daughter. However, this sphere-world is unstable – reality keeps barging in (for example in the form of his ex-wife, who wants to ban him from seeing his daughter), endangering the self-image he laboriously maintains. As the sphere-world begins to decompose, Till Nowak illustrates this process of destabilization and dissolution by using digital animation to visualize the fragility of this inner reality.
DISSONANCE trailer – www.framebox.com/dissonance/index.htm
DISSONANCE is divided into three chapters. In the first, fully animated, part, we see the musician in his inner, Escher-esque sphere-world as reality crashes in and it increasingly loses its integrity. In the second part, Till Nowak uses a number of different techniques previously tested in THE CENTRIFUGE BRAIN PROJECT to fuse animation and live-action footage. The head of the actor Roland Schupp, who plays the pianist, is replaced by a realistic, yet oversize version that sits atop the small body like a foreign object. The real streets and paths on which the actor moves keep crumbling and rolling towards people like threatening waves. In the third and final part, the intermingling of animation and live-action eventually comes to a standstill as the pianist takes a bold step out of the sphere-world into reality. As the real world loses its horror, the protagonist changes in a surprising way …
“With DISSONANCE I wanted to prove to myself and to the world that the two entirely different areas of animation and live-action, which operate under very different laws in the ‘normal’ film business, can certainly be combined in meaningful ways. I wanted to show that they complement each other perfectly and can become one single film.”
There are two impulses that appear repeatedly in Till Nowak’s artistic practice: a desire to manipulate the real world using digital media, and a habit of questioning cultural common knowledge. In the process, he moves constantly between the areas of film, art and (commissioned) designs (for music videos, commercials, or animations for other film projects). Naturally, maintaining a balance between these three poles is a challenge, especially as all three realms obey very different laws.1 Nevertheless, Till Nowak maintains that this balancing act is worthwhile. As long as you avoid losing yourself in an attempt to adhere to totally different conventions, and simply remain true to yourself and your own artistic expression, these multiple anchors provide a perfect survival strategy that prevents you from making too many artistic compromises. Since the spring of 2015, Till Nowak has been testing this strategy overseas – he recently moved from Hamburg to Los Angeles to get a little bit closer to his dream of penetrating the worlds of film.
More information about Till Nowak and his films:
2011 THE CENTRIFUGE BRAIN PROJECT
1 While the art world banks on exclusivity and prefers to strictly limit editions and thereby regulate accessibility, the most important sign of success in the film world is a large audience. While Nowak usually forfeits all rights to his commissioned work, he is for the most part paid well, so the question of whether working on an artistic project is financially worthwhile is always a gamble with the future. After all, the market for short films is so small that it’s hardly in a position to refinance expenditures.