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The Visual Word in Time

Simultaneity, Sound and Image

A Poetry film is a cohesive and simultaneous rendering of poetic meaning in both sound and image. It engages us in more than one sensory mode and it can offer up the poem as a reading for our ears, a set of literal or metaphorical images for our eyes or as visual representation of text to read, interpret and comprehend. In any number of combinations, the words may be read aloud or not; they may appear as text or not. Furthermore, any visible text can be presented in motion or as a static image; as written word or as set type. I will make a distinction here between typography and calligraphy, but there are both similarities and differences with regard to how each is used in the time and space of a film.

Typography and calligraphy are an offering of words that compels us to read, and this demands both time and the processing of written language. An understanding of this is particularly critical when combining an audio presentation of a poem with the visual revelation of its text. Listening and reading at the same time involves two functions simultaneously sharing the same cognitive space. The brain is called upon to organize input from two different senses, and engage language in two different modes.

If comprehension (and appreciation) favors one mental task at a time, or one engagement over another, some content may be reduced to sensation, ignored as background, or suppressed as either redundant or contradictory. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and multiple modes of expression can add layers of complexity to the ensemble of voices. It is, however, something that needs to be recognized, as choices are made about the aesthetics and purpose of text in a composition.

Trying to time the audible word to match the visual expression of that word might seem to be an obvious choice, but an attempt at simultaneity has consequences, particularly if one ignores the differences between the pace of silent reading and the speed of speech. Even if the two experiences can be successfully synchronized, the result can seem redundant, having the effect of a simple subtitle or close captioning; not a bad thing if this is the function, but maybe not always art. We might miss the opportunity to let the spoken voice sing or visual words shine. At worse, text and spoken word can lock together in a forced sensory march, each competing with the other (and any other visual imagery).

An alternative is to avoid simultaneity. Here the spoken word and visible word dance independent of one another, perhaps held together by an element of music. Allowing this can open up interesting creative possibilities for rhythm and meaning, but unless the two are temporally discrete, it risks dissonance as we hear one thing with our ears and read something quite different with our eyes. Such tension, like redundancy, can be a useful device and can add wonderful complexity, but it can also prompt a struggle to reconcile disparate sets of abstract language signals from two different sensory modes.

A third option is to choose between the audible sounding of a poem and a visual expression of the text. This avoids, entirely, the issues just described. Most of my own work in poetry film uses this option as I focus on written calligraphic words as the primary visual experience. 

I animate a calligraphic text in what I imagine as a sort of choreography. These are words that write themselves on, dancing across and off of the stage. It can be a rather abstract offering of the poem. Some words may be scaled beyond the screen and cropped to form shapes that are less than legible. Others may be layered on top of each other to create rhythms or textures that act as a visual chorus behind more readable lines of the poem.

In one of my first poetry films: Write Out: A Scribe’s Haiku #1 , a single word: ›word‹ persistently, writes itself onto what becomes a background teeming with layers of active writing. Other words grace the screen and the entire haiku appears, but it is the relentless writing of ›word‹ that provides both a rhythmic and conceptual foundation.

My choice of calligraphy as a visual element in animation comes from decades as a practicing calligrapher. The physical act of writing calligraphic letters is one that is quite dance-like to me, and that is reflected in my animation. That being said, I also recognize typography as its own expressive element both in design and in film.

As I have stated, I make a distinction between typography and handwritten words, and this, more than anything else, is based on a relationship with time.

Typography, however graceful, is a mechanical thing. By this I mean that individual letters are prefabricated, arriving instantaneously and fully formed for our use. Calligraphy, on the other hand, is born of time, stroke by stroke. To me the two forms move differently in time and space. As visual images, they can have different connotative meaning, as well as different possibilities of cadence and music.

In Write Out: A Scribe’s Haiku #2, I use letters created by a mechanical typewriter together with calligraphic words to personify the poet and scribe respectively (letters and ink-drops are the only visual images). The interplay of these two letterforms provides both visual contrast and meaningful interpretation of a concept.

I also use type rhythmically as something that carries a more percussive potential, appearing suddenly and whole rather than taking its time to be written before our eyes. Calligraphy, on the other hand, can flow and grow organically from a single stroke.

An exception to my practice of choosing text over voice in my work is my collaboration with Lucy English on From This Train for her Book of Hours project, for which I was given a recorded reading. Here the movements of calligraphically written words create visual puns wavering between a readable text and a representation of the thoughts being expressed. The suggestion of a tree line on the horizon as it might be seen from a train window is created by words constantly moving past in layers that are not always synchronized with the spoken poem and are often barely legible. The poem is present in audible words as well as the overall visual representation of text, but the challenge of balancing simultaneity of spoken and visual words was ever-present in the process.

Animated calligraphy and typography are visual interpretations of words in time. Such work is more than a manuscript set in motion. It has the potential to be a cohesive aesthetic (and perhaps even kinesthetic) experience that is both thoughtful and arresting, and in which timing is everything.

About the Author

Kathryn (Kate) Darnell comes to poetry film only recently after several decades as a professional calligrapher and illustrator in traditional media. Her »animated calligraphics« grew out of experimental calligraphy on paper in which she layers words and uses transparency to create abstract manuscripts and calligraphic paintings. The intent is to express shapes and rhythms; both from the poetry she is representing and those inherent in the act of writing. Adding the element of time by animating the written letters was a natural development in this work that plays outside the boundaries of literal.

A native of Michigan in the U.S. and a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Art, Kate divides her time between commercial art and fine art practice. The former has been part of everything from children’s books to annual reports; from company logos to award certificates. In 2005 she designed her first font: Sweeney, a type design with both Celtic and Italic attributes. Her personal artwork is regularly exhibited in galleries, and she is also an adjunct professor of art, teaching drawing and color theory at Lansing Community College.

She lives with her husband in East Lansing, Michigan – a bicycle ride away from her downtown studio.

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