Close-up from 'A Touch of Murder'

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.

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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