Collaboration in a Sentence

An Electric Literature Single Sentence Animation – Jonathan Ashley imagines Michael Cunningham

An exploration by Alexa Velez


Writer Michael Cunningham and animator Jonathan Ashley collaborate to create a single sentence animation of one line from Cunningham’s novel Olympia.  The selected sentence states, rather bluntly, that a boy named Peter tried to murder his brother.  The thirty-three second animation begins with a dark screen coupled with the disembodied sounds of birds singing.  Wooden floorboards suddenly materialize as three drops of blood fall, the drip-drip-drip being noticeably audible, creating contrast with the birds’ merry chirps.  The image shifts to a hand holding the object responsible for the source of the blood—a screwdriver.  An image of a child crouched in the fetal position appears and it is revealed that he is holding the bloody screwdriver.  One hand holds the tool; the other hand covers his face in shame.  The scene expands and a large birdhouse appears adjacent to the boy.  The two images share the screen, creating aesthetic balance.  Above these two images, the following sentence appears trailed by an ellipse, “Peter tried to murder his brother only once…”  As the words fade, the sounds of the birds singing and the blood splattering against the wood become most noticeable, heightening the weighty pause in the animation.  These two sounds are ongoing, continuing beyond the animation when the scene disappears and the end credits roll.

One element that makes the work successful is the soundtrack that plays as the images flash across the screen.  Even though it is not exactly what most would call “music,” the sounds of the birds singing and the blood dripping create an eerie musical backdrop that instills an unsettling feeling more morbid than if the sentence were to appear in silence.  The heavy, even rhythm of the blood as it drips and the erratic high-pitched singing of the birds generate an unusual form of harmony—lulling, yet disturbing.  It is important to note that the songbirds are the first to be heard in the audio, establishing a false sense of normalcy in order to create greater contrast with the first image (blood spattering against wood).  The moment when the audio is most powerful is when the sentence disappears and the image of the boy and the birdhouse dominate the screen.  The images are still, but the audio keeps the scene alive.  The power of the audio effects hold the viewer transfixed even when the image vanishes and the screen goes black.

Only one sentence is used in this piece, “Peter tried to murder his brother only once…” The sentence is simple but open to multiple interpretations when coupled with the images provided by the animation.  The wording in the sentence makes it difficult to determine whether or not Peter was successful.  If the sentence were simply “Peter tried to murder his brother” and ended there, it would be clear that it was a failed attempt.  However, because the words “only once” are added followed by an ellipse, this opens the possibility that the murder attempt was successful.  It only takes one try to make something so horrible permanent.  Another point worthy of speculation is the identity of the child in the animation.  Is the boy holding the bloody screwdriver Peter or his brother?  Though it would be natural to assume that Peter is the boy in the animation, it could very well be his brother.  Perhaps we are witnessing the brother holding his injured eye after removing the screwdriver, which Peter used as a weapon.  The idea conveyed by this one sentence animation is powerful and draws a parallel to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam.  According to the Bible, Cain committed the first murder in human history by killing his brother, Abel.  In fact, Peter is also a biblical name.  The sentence, which comprises this new media piece in its entirety, is effective because it is simple, powerful, and open to multiple interpretations.

When I first came across this piece at the beginning of the semester, I did not fully understand why it was so disturbingly effective.  After working on my own new media project, where music plays a prominent role, I have become more aware of how sound factors into the elements of storytelling.  From this single sentence animation, I learned that a successful soundtrack does not have to be a complex piece of music.  Normal, everyday sounds also have the power to generate an emotional response.  Who would think to combine the sounds of birds singing with blood dripping?  It is mind blowing that this thirty-three second animation is able to disturb viewers with noises of the mundane.

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