Posts Tagged DMVI

Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Stranger in a strange land

This is the third in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

VCoT Local Customs Still

‘It is the eve of St George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?’ She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. It was all very ridiculous but I did not feel comfortable. However, there was business to be done, and I could allow nothing to interfere with it. I therefore tried to raise her up, and said, as gravely as I could, that I thanked her, but my duty was imperative, and that I must go. She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her neck offered it to me. I did not know what to do, for, as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind. She saw, I suppose, the doubt in my face, for she put the rosary round my neck, and said, ‘For your mother’s sake,’ and went out of the room.’—Dracula, Chapter 1

This scene from Bram Stoker’s novel, lays the groundwork for terror as Jonathan Harker enters the Carpathian Mountains, hoping to locate the man who hired him. First, however, Harker is introduced to strange food, strange landmarks and even stranger people. The opening of ‘Dracula’ plays a little like a travelogue, as Harker tries his best to reconcile his new surroundings with his ‘modern’ Victorian upbringing. This scene would proliferate hundreds of copycats in horror literature and cinema. We see it adapted in the film Nosferatu (1922), the first screen adaptation of Stoker’s novel. The German solicitor, Hutter, plans to find the castle of Graf Orlok after a short meal at an inn, only to be told by the proprietor that ‘You can’t go any further tonight. A werewolf is roaming the forest.’ It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or culture you’re from, there is always a place where the food tastes funny and the people are strange. We even have a version of this scenario in the American West, where I grew up. It always begins with ‘You ain’t from ’round here, are ya?’

Nosferatu Innkeeper

Being raised on Universal horror movies, I always felt a little kinship with these tiny villages, as my own town was remarkably similar. However, while the angry mobs of Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941) deal perpetually with the supernatural, my hometown deals with who’s planning that year’s ‘Huck Finn Day’. Reconciling these Hollywood caricatures with my own upbringing inspired me to look at these gothic, provincial settings from a new perspective. Every monster has to have a village to terrorize, don’t they? A place where fog persistently hangs thick on the countryside, and provincial folks still hold to old world superstitions. A place where being ruled by a vampire lord is, well, normal?

‘Local Customs’ was inspired by my fascination with the opening chapter of Dracula, along with my upbringing in a small town. I wanted to explore the idea of an Eastern European village that was plagued by the supernatural, but also had to negotiate a burgeoning tourism industry. I would discover later that my idea of Transylvania and tourism, while a humorous one, is also a reality for those currently living in ‘Dracula Country’. So art imitates life imitates art, I suppose.

I also have to give thanks to writer, performer and producer, Stephanie Yuhas, who lent her voice to the production as Magda, the innkeeper’s mother. Stephanie is best known for her work on Nerd vs Geek, Project Twenty1 and is quite familiar with Transylvania, since that is where her family is from, as detailed in her short film Nagymama.

Being a stranger in a strange land is difficult. The locals aren’t always welcoming, and the weather can be hard to deal with. However, a good cabbage and potato stew will help you put up with almost anything, even being cursed with raccoons for hands.

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker, probably best known for the comedic, animated web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre produced by Cinevore Studios. He studied Theatre Performance and Education at the University of Northern Colorado where he began writing plays and short stories. His work has been featured on Kotaku and Nerdist. He lives in Colorado with his wife and their two socially inept cats. You can follow him on Twitter or on his website robwalkerfilms.com.

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Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Robot butlers and the art of detection

This is the second in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

Close-up from 'A Touch of Murder'

My first foray into the world of the mystery story began in the fourth grade when I read ‘The Adventure of The Speckled Band’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes from that day forward, and the hawkish detective led me by the hand to Agatha Christie and my countryman, inventor of the mystery story, Mr E. A. Poe. It wasn’t long before I began reading the entirety of the Holmes canon, and was thrilled to finally run across a collection which featured the original illustrations by Sidney Paget. Paget would create the definitive Sherlock Holmes in his work for The Strand Magazine, and this would be the look by which all future portrayals would be judged. Paget’s illustrations led me to seek out other Victorian illustrators, and I soon found my way to Tenniel, Rackham and Caldecott. If I am to trace the roots of Victorian Cut-out Theatre, or at the very least episode #11, ‘A Touch of Murder’, I would discover the partnership of Doyle and Paget. These artists both led me to explore their own inspirations and contemporaries, allowing me to draw my own connections. It would be decades later, almost out of necessity, when I would put these twin inspirations together in the first episode of VCoT.

In 2010, I found myself in-between projects and the stable of performers with which I was used to working had all moved on to other things. So for the first time since graduating university, I was left to my own creative devices and animation seemed the best way to be a one man show. I ended up tinkering with a crude short called The Arrangement which would set the tone and aesthetic for future VCoT episodes. In the creation of that proto-episode, I scoured the internet for public domain images from the 1800s, looking for full characters or at the very least parts (arms, faces and backgrounds) that might be ‘Frankensteined’ together to create what are essentially digital rod puppets*. These puppets were then animated frame by frame in Final Cut** to tell a story about an English Lord who had impregnated his Irish housemaid, and then a bear shows up.

This short proved to me what could be done with my tools and experience, and in 2011, I was asked to make more of them for Cinevore Studios. I adore doing the series, because despite the different settings and vague time-period, I can tell whatever kind of story I want. There is a cultural cachet that comes with illustration, and choosing 1800s drawings as my tools gave me a historical shorthand to pass on to an audience. I don’t have to tell them it’s the late 1800s, they can just look at the first frame of yellowed scrawling and feel where the story takes place. Once the setting is established, I can then add fun things like robot manservants.

Victorian Cut-Out Theatre, 11: Still from 'A Touch of Murder'

‘A Touch of Murder’ is my silly love-letter to the genre that informed a large part of my artistic upbringing. The episode is essentially the final act of a mystery, in which the key players have been gathered in the drawing room, before revealing the murderer. We’ve seen this many times in parody, but I think the original idea came from Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’, which was turned into a stage play a few years after its publication and performed under a more unfortunate name. This episode is filled with references to mysteries in literature and popular culture. I’ve included nods to CLUEDO, Prof. Moriarty, Hitchcock’s Psycho and Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, but perhaps the clearest homage (or is it outright theft?) is to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film which I love, and is itself a story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

So here we are: a manor house, torrential downpour, an incompetent detective and a trio of suspects, one of whom has wrenches for hands. The game is afoot!

*I discovered many clip art sites, but the best for finding high resolution images from the Victorian era was the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration. It is fortuitous, then, that I have been asked to contribute to this blog.

**An old-fashioned and arduous way to animate these days. Starting with season three, I’ll be using new methods.

Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker, probably best known for the comedic, animated web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre produced by Cinevore Studios. He studied Theatre Performance and Education at the University of Northern Colorado where he began writing plays and short stories. His work has been featured on Kotaku and Nerdist. He lives in Colorado with his wife and their two socially inept cats. You can follow him on Twitter or on his website robwalkerfilms.com.

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The experiment: Engaging undergraduates in advanced university research

frankenstein1

It started out as an experiment. We took the brains of a dozen undergraduate students and carefully placed them into the flailing bodies of several research projects; we fired up the electricity (well, actually, set up a webpage) and … the Project Management and Research module was born.

I have become very fond of what we have all created this year. Anthony and I have worked together on projects for over a decade now (hard to believe, I know) and it seemed like a good idea to share some of what we have learned along the way and pass on our genuine enthusiasm for project-based work. In an academic environment that is increasingly stressing employability and the transferability of skills, this module ticks all the boxes. I hope that it has given our first cohort of students a taste of research in an academic context and the opportunity to exploit the talent they have and bring out new talents they never knew they had. Read the rest of this entry »

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DMVI schools workshops

On Thursday 13 October, we held two workshops with local schools to explore the potential use of the Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration as a teaching and learning tool. The fact that the database is full of images that illustrate literary texts and contain a wealth of historic detail makes it significant for a range of humanities subjects, including English literature, history and religious studies.

The morning workshop consisted of staff and students from Stanwell Comprehensive School in Penarth. The first exercise involved giving the participants 25 illustrations and asking them to arrange them in order, with the aim of analysing how pictures can create narratives. Anthony had spent a considerable amount of time cutting the images out with great precision and they looked impressive spread along the desks. Some interesting stories emerged, a few of which came near to recreating the actual source text (Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). We then gave out the captions to see if that would help or hinder the creation of the story. The exercise was a very valuable one both for the participants and for us because it made us think about the relation between word and image in illustration and how these Victorian pictures can be ‘read’. The second half of the session involved a demonstration of the database and the new social networking features, which the students seemed to particularly enjoy. They were given the chance to try it out for themselves before a very hearty buffet lunch was served.

We had just about demolished the chocolate éclairs when the next school arrived for the afternoon session: St David’s College, Cardiff. We tried out the same exercises again with similar interesting results. This group were slightly older and managed to work out that the pictures were from Coleridge’s poem. After another demonstration of the database, tea arrived, so we forced ourselves to eat more plates of sandwiches and crisps.

The day provided us with lots of ideas of how to go forward with the education strand of the project and convinced us that this was really something worth doing. The feedback from the students suggested that the workshop had made them think differently about illustration and its value, so our job was done. Now all that was left was to do was to finish off that plate of muffins …

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DMVI Phase 2 launch

Lift off!

On 29 September 2011, the enhanced version of the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration was officially launched. A select coterie of dignitaries gathered in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) to get the first glimpse of the revamped DMVI website and the innovative features that the enhanced version will contain.

The launch went remarkably smoothly – or at least as smoothly as anything involving computers and at least three different academic institutions can. Special thanks go to Mike Pidd and Matt Groves from the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) at the University of Sheffield for coming all the way to South Wales to deliver their presentation. The efforts of the HRI team have been fundamental to the reconfiguration of the database. They have done the hard computing work, and produced an open-source back-end structure that allows the search and display capabilities of DMVI to be significantly more flexible and dynamic. Read the rest of this entry »

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Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration, Phase 2 launch event: 29 Sep 2011

Background to the project
The first version of the Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration (www.dmvi.cf.ac.uk) was launched in January 2007, emerging out of a desire to raise the profile and status of Victorian illustration, both within academia and beyond. Based in Cardiff University’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research and with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the aim of the DMVI project was to digitize and mount on a publicly accessible website a cross-section of illustrations from different literary texts by a range of artists and engravers. Key innovations included the ability to view the over 850 illustrations at high resolutions, a sophisticated system of iconographic classification to describe the content of each image, as well as rigorous bibliographical and technical data. 

The current phase
In 2010, a second AHRC grant was obtained to enhance the database and make its innovative technologies accessible to the widest possible audience – in terms of language, location, background and user profile. Elements of DMVI had already been deployed in external projects, and this second phase has opened up the possibilities even further. Working with the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute, the project team has expanded the core elements of DMVI to include:

  • conversion to an open-source platform compliant with today’s web standards
  • extension of our iconographic cataloguing system to communicate with other platforms (e.g. ICONCLASS)
  • enhancement of the advanced search capabilities and user experience/interface
  • integration with Web 2.0 technologies (e.g. Facebook), to support user engagement, interaction and feedback
  • development of teaching resources through pilot workshops with local schools and colleges

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this phase will be our release in October of an open-source Digital Image Curation Environment (DICE), which allows users to create web-based systems for displaying, cataloguing and describing their own image collections. DICE is an easy to use system aimed at individual users, groups and small institutions, in order to enable group or public participation in community and outreach projects, making it ideal for local history clubs, galleries and museums, and individual collectors, as well as researchers within academia. By making DICE freely accessible under Creative Commons licensing, the project team hopes to support and encourage other researchers, teachers and collectors, by dramatically reducing the technical development costs and timescales associated with similar projects. From the familiar context of a web-browser, potential creators will be able to upload their collections of paintings, maps, photographs and any other image-based material; describe their content using our preloaded vocabularies or devise their own ones; add important technical and bibliographical data; and supply additional contextual material, such as hyperlinks, essays and annotations.

Launch event
On 29 September 2011 at 3pm, the DMVI team will be celebrating the completion of this second phase by holding a launch event in the Special Collections and Archives (SCOLAR) for the expanded and enhanced database. The event will include demonstrations about the new DMVI system, an overview of the DICE image management system and a discussion of applications of both resources to research and teaching.  

The launch event will be followed at 5pm by a drinks reception and the inaugural Cardiff Rare Books and Music Lecture, to be delivered by Professor Hans Walter Gabler (University of Munich), who will be presenting ‘Ideas towards Interfacing Digital Humanities Research’, as part of the University’s Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Professor Gabler is known for his pioneering work on manuscript and genetic criticism, particularly his landmark genetic edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The titles of some of his recent publications testify to the significance of his current research: ‘Making Texts for the Next Century’, ‘There is Virtue in Virtuality: Future Potentials of Electronic Humanities Scholarship’ and ‘Theorizing the Digital Scholarly Edition’. Professor Gabler is currently Chair of the international COST Action Open Scholarly Communities on the Web initiative, the aim of which is to create a research and publication infrastructure on the web and an advanced e-learning system for the Arts and Humanities.

If you’d like to come along to the event, please get in touch via CEIR@cardiff.ac.uk.

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Beyond Collections: Crowdsourcing for Public Engagement conference

On 26 May 2011, a one-day conference was held at the University of Oxford, titled ‘Beyond Collections: Crowdsourcing for Public Engagement’ (details of the conference and video recordings of the speakers are available here). The event was hosted by Oxford’s RunCoCo community collections facilitation project and sponsored by JISC. The aim was to explore the ways in which online communities can participate in and add value to digital resources—to the mutual benefit of both projects and participants.

Speakers from inside and outside academia with experience of the advantages and pitfalls of a crowdsourcing approach told their stories, and the intention was also to locate the potential for harnessing the power of online communities within wider discourses of grass-roots civic leadership, entrepreneurship, and the politics of the ‘Big Society’—not to mention the all-pervasive HE context of the REF’s ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ agendas.

As part of the Enhancing DMVI project, the team are looking at the possibilities for developing tools which will allow communities of users to describe (tag) digital images in various ways. We are also interested in the potential for people to come together and share their readings and discussions of Victorian illustrations. It was from this perspective that we attended the ‘Beyond Collections’ day—hoping to benefit from the experience of previous projects. Read the rest of this entry »

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