Genesis of the Film
It was Sandow Birk’s random discovery of an old copy of The Divine Comedy in a used bookstore in Los Angeles that sparked the five-year project. The worn volume featured the iconic illustrations of French engraver Gustave Doré from the late 1800’s. Sandow was captivated not only by the classic text and its vivid depictions of the afterlife, but also by the exquisite, detailed images that placed Dante’s poem in a concrete reality.
The book floated around Sandow’s art studio for more than a year. Eventually he realized that both Dante and Doré were a starting point for a new project. The concept was to mimic the style and feel of Doré’s illustrations, while depicting urban America in the 21st Century. Soon Birk realized that illustrating a text was useless without the text itself, and it was while sitting in a bar with his writer friend Marcus Sanders that he mentioned the project and his search for a useable English translation that was true to the original and yet spoke to a contemporary audience. “We could do it ourselves,” Marcus said, after perhaps one too many pints.
The project developed with Trillium Press into an ornate book Dante’s Inferno, printed in an edition of 100, containing 72 hand-printed lithographs and bound in gold-stamped leather. Dante’s Purgatorio and Dante’s Paradiso followed, and all three books were published in commercial editions by Chronicle Books to great success – garnering reviews in the London Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, and selected as one of the “Best Books of 2005” by National Public Radio’s David Kipen.
Each of the three books was presented as an art exhibition that featured all of the original drawings along with several large oil paintings of the key scenes, and with the elaborate volumes displayed. In Birk and Sanders’ adaptations, each of the three levels of Dante’s afterlife is represented by a different American city, and the exhibitions were held in those cities. “Dante’s Inferno” was shown at the Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles in 2003, “Dante’s Purgatorio” at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco in 2004, and “Dante’s Paradiso” at PPOW Gallery in New York City in 2005.
Curator Susan Landauer at the San Jose Museum of Art saw the exhibitions and realized the impact they would have if they were united into one large show, and so in 2005 the SJMA presented the exhibition “Sandow Birk’s Divine Comedy”, bringing all of the works together for the first time. The exhibition then traveled to the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California, and then on to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, and to the Mesa Art Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Building the Underworld: Art Direction
From the outset of the project, there was the intention to make a contemporary film without the aid of any computer effects whatsoever – to make a film that was true to a toy theatre production of the Victorian era, a hand-made film. If it couldn’t be done with tape, string, and glue, then it wasn’t to be in the film.
As with the book projects, the inspiration for the look of the film were the engravings of Gustave Doré, but now developed in the contemporary works of Birk’s illustrations – setting the action in urban America. The filmmakers wanted to retain the look of engravings in both the puppets and the world they inhabit, with dense line work and an intricate drawing style full of small details, and the film was shot in high-definition video to capture the ornate drawings and the intensities of colors throughout the film.
As the script was developed, each scene of the film was storyboarded and the action was broken down to specific movements and facial expressions. For each new feeling or action, a new puppet had to be made - more than 100 for protagonist Dante alone - resulting in more than 500 puppets in the production. The puppets were hand-drawn on artists’ board, then hand-colored and cut out with scissors and razor blades.
Each moving part of the characters had to be built and joined separately, the joints connected using fishing line and wire and manipulated by metal rods or wooden sticks (disposable chopsticks were particularly good). As the production progressed, periodic meetings with the puppeteers were held to rehearse the use of the puppets and to allow for alterations in their functions to match their choreographed movements.
Most of the action was shot on a wooden stage roughly the size of a pool table. The proscenium was built with functioning curtains and a removable floor. The film required 46 sets to be built, and color schemes were chosen to reflect the mood and feeling of each scene, adding emotional depth.
The combination of state-of-the-art photography techniques and the hand-made feel of the production combine to create a visually exhilarating film, where the enchanting aura of puppets and dollhouses blends with the serious nature of the plot and dialog to captivate and invoke contemplation. “Dante’s Inferno” is a unique film - stunning, engaging, personal and meaningful – hand-made in the age of computer effects.
Toy Theater: What and Why?
The film DANTE’S INFERNO is performed entirely on a toy theater stage, using small paper puppets, props, and sets to create an entire world…or underworld, in this case.
A contemporary version of Dante’s hellish adventure presented a problem when we decided we wanted to translate Sandow Birk’s artworks into a film. Live action wasn’t an interesting option, as it seemed too limiting. Toy theater, on the other hand, had the advantage of being almost unlimited in what we could create and unleash on an unsuspecting audience. And the form presented a three dimensional way to bring Sandow’s prints and painting to life.
Toy theater began in England in the latter half of the 18th century as a diversion for children, mainly boys, when the form was also know as “Juvenile Drama.” Kids would purchase what was called “penny plain and twopence coloured” sheets that had characters and sets printed by a host of publishers, including the most famous, Pollack’s. The publishing houses based the sets on both classical and contemporary plays, sending artists to professional productions to sketch the scenes and turn them into toy theaters.
The figures and scenery would be snipped off the sheets and then mounted onto small wooden blocks and horizontal wires for manipulation. Sometimes the puppets were operated with vertical wires through tracks cut in the stage floor. The main characters came in a number of different poses suitable for the action of the show, and elaborate scenery and wings were included. Plus there was an abridged script enclosed so the whole family could set up and play the show in the living room.
The show would be performed in a miniature version of a stage’s proscenium, as Pollack’s and others made copies of renowned theaters and opera houses of the period. Laurence Olivier, Ingmar Bergman, and Orson Welles built and played with toy theaters in anticipation of their work as adults.
There is currently a renaissance of the art form that has been spearheaded by the New York based theater company, Great Small Works, who consulted on the INFERNO. In addition to performing their own new toy theater shows, GSW produces festivals of the form every two years in New York. Puppeteers all over America and Europe have embraced this miniature and elegant form in an explosion of new toy theater productions that fly in the face of the high tech entertainments we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
Theatre on a Tabletop by Kuang-Yu Fong and Stephen Kaplin, New Plays Incorporated, 2003
Strings Hands Shadows by John Bell, Detroit Institute for the Arts, 2000
Puppets and the Puppet Stage by Cyril W. Beaumont, Studio Publications, Incorporated, 1938
The sets and puppets were so detailed and rich with textures of the ink and paper that it was decided to shoot in high definition video using 24p (progressive) not 60i (interlaced) video). The sharpness of 24p allows the great detail to be captured and allows an easier workflow option if a 35mm film out was needed for distribution. The film was shot using Panasonic’s Varicam 720p HD camera.
Two lenses were used during production. One was a 6-30mm Fujinon Cine-style HD lens for capturing definition and color detail. The other was the Innovision HD Probe lens system. It’s a long narrow barrel lens system with interchangeable focal lengths. The main barrel is 19” long and less than 1.7” in diameter! A traditional cine-style lens can be over 6” in diameter compared with the 1.7” diameter of the HD Probe. The end of the barrel can use different focal length lenses along with 45° and 90° prisms. Most of the film was shot using the Innovision HD Probe with 45° lens adapter. This configuration allowed the camera to view our 6” puppets from low angles and see the world from the perspective of a 6” puppet.
It’s one of the first independent HD feature films to be recorded directly from the camera to RAID hard drives as uncompressed video. The RAID was built using four sets of four Seagate 7200.8 400GB SATA drives (two sets for the master recording and two sets as backup). The drives were installed in an eight bay removable SATA tower and connected to a Macintosh G5 using a Sonnet PCI card that supplies eight external SATA ports. This is an economical way to get very fast RAID configurations, but the Sonnet card connections to the external tower are a little temperamental. Also, when using RAID 0 (our only option to fit our budget) there’s no data redundancy, which makes it necessary to perform back-ups frequently. The RAIDs were configured using SoftRAID. Each evening after wrap every video file was backed up to one of the back-up RAID sets. As a third redundancy, tape was used. Also due to technical reasons recording to tape was necessary in order for the editing system to correctly record the video at 24p.
The video was recorded as 10bit 4:2:2 720p23.98 Quicktime files, which uses about 58MB/second of disk space. The video is recorded from the camera using a Blackmagic Decklink HD Pro PCI card. The fifteen hours of raw video data used up three terabytes of storage (plus a back-up of three more TB). That’s three million megabytes. It was edited in HD using Final Cut Pro and was color corrected using Final Touch HD with a Barco 2K video projector at HollywoodDI. The film was color corrected and mastered to disk as a 10-bit
4:4:4 RGB Quicktime file and to HDCAM-SR tape at 1080p23.98.