~ The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross ~

Drawing from a wide range of poetry films, an award-winning artist and animator looks at what works and what doesn’t work, and why.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Streamschool (Patakiskola)”

Streamschool (Patakiskola)
poem: Zsolt Miklya
director: Péter Vácz
background: Kati Egely
narration: Piroska Molnár
music: Yvein Monq
English translation: Joseph Wallace

The Vimeo description reads: “A little girl has an adventure with water as she travels from a small brook to the sea. A tale of growing up based on a Hungarian poem.” And Péter Vácz adds that “The film was made in (MOME) Moholy- Nagy University of Arts and Design in 2012 as my BA graduation in Animation.”

One thing I can say about my own animation students: they are dedicated and make great illustrators. That’s because they are pushed into honing their craft. Some of the best work I’ve seen comes out of film schools. It’s fresh, interesting, and ambitious. It’s always good to see a young artist present their thesis. In my opinion it usually turns out to be among their best work. Such is the case with Péter Vácz.

Streamschool (Patakiskola) is a beautifully rendered work of art. The combination of tactile materials such as plastic and cloth adds to the sweetness of the piece and depicts childhood as an exquisite journey. The music-box effect flows stunningly as well as the gravelly voice of the narrator, which reminds me of a loving grandparent. His use of stop motion (Dragon Stop Motion software) reminds me of the claymation that was very popular during my childhood, and continues to be so. Also, I like the fact that Péter posts the process of his work. Not every artist is this generous.

All in all, Péter Vácz is a serious technician and an amazing craftsperson. It’s good to see that one does not out-weigh the other. I checked out his other films, which are just as charming and a lot of fun. As a bonus, here is the making of Streamschool.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: Brent Green and Sam Green

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Brent Green and Sam Green: Live Cinema at BAM’s (Brooklyn Academy Of Music‘s) Next Wave Festival.

I love alternative multimedia theater, especially when it includes animation. What was so special about this show was the fact that it’s not just the entertainment, it’s the whole experience. From the moment you walk into the theater and wait to be seated, the show begins. Seating is on a first-come basis and a good portion of it consists of old furniture. I had the pleasure of sharing a couch with the person I came with. A cash bar was available and everyone was encouraged to take advantage before and during the performance.

The show was billed as “live cinema.” I had never heard of Sam or Brent Green before this. As it turns out they are cousins and well known in the art world. Their credits include Sundance, Whitney Biennial and MOMA.

Sam is a filmmaker specializing in documentaries. What makes his work special is the fact that he chooses topics that are not necessarily what one would expect. The World’s Largest Shopping Mall, The Oldest Person in The World and a pet cemetery in Ohio (I believe the pet cemetery is a work in progress) are three examples. Although the theme may seem a little dark, there was nothing depressing about it. They were done with love and humor.

Brent on the other hand is the poet, musician and self-taught animator. A master of slam poetry, he too is considered a documentarian by Sundance.

Much of Brent’s storytelling is observational and unusual. His narrative is without judgment and reservation (OK, some judgment, but no reservation). He’s just reporting the facts and like Sam uses humor, which adds to the quirkiness to the show. Both artists set their stories to Brent’s animation and music. He reminds me of an older Bob Dylan, raw and fresh. In my opinion he is the quintessential Outsider artist.

I would say that if were to consider any of this video poetry, Brent would win hands-down. His animations are rough, exquisite and captivating. Hearing him recite his poetry live as opposed to on YouTube makes a huge difference. His ability to slam the story actually gave me chills.

It’s good to know that there are those out there who embrace subterranean lifestyles and spin them into art. If you can catch the performance at some point I highly recommend it.

Check out Brent Green’s work on Vimeo. Here’s an example:

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “It turns out”

It turns out
poem and film by Martha McCollough

Martha McCollough is one of my absolute favorite artists. It turns out is another one of her pieces that is over the top.

She combines one voiceover that uses echo with another that is just plain-spoken. And she gives us two formats in one, the written work and spoken word. It’s as if they are two separate poems. Could it be one is imagined and the other based in reality? What is the message? We ask for help, but does it exist?

There’s a nice collage effect, interlacing texture with line animation and design. I love the voiceover. Images of a floor plan are juxtaposed with talk about no help from a help desk. I often feel that way. Are we to assume that we must venture on alone? Could she be talking about immigration? Electing Trump? Trying to escape from the horrors of war and reality? We are left to fend for ourselves, applying her words however we can to assist us on our journey. Have technology and the media impaired our senses and way of being? Or am I reading too deeply into what has been in front of us all along?

We see imagery of people running, wolves running towards them — a metaphor. There are so many questions to be asked in such uncertain times.

So how does one go about critiquing a work that is perfect in its imperfection? It turns out does seem somehow very fitting for the post-election funk we are feeling. Can we call it prophetic? Is this what people have been trying to say all along? It makes me wonder what is real and what has been manipulated to appear so.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Forgetfulness”

poem and voiceover: Billy Collins
animation: Julian Grey of Head Gear
part of a series produced by JWT-NY

We are brought into the reality of forgetting what we once enjoyed. What was once important, now a memory… at best.

Sometimes I feel guilty writing a good review. I assume my readers prefer to be forewarned concerning a video poem that is sub-par so as not to waste their time. I know I do. There are times when I will forgo watching a film or reading a book that was panned in the media. But when I stumble upon a work that I believe is worth noticing, I can’t help but sing its praises. Such is the case of Forgetfulness by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins.

Forgetfulness is a visual treat. Animator Julian Grey of Head Gear employs the old-film technique that gives the video an overall feel of nostalgia. Technically the video appears to rely quite heavily on its use of masks. This helps to make images disappear and assists in building movement, thereby contributing to its fast pace and timing.

Grey incorporated a small amount of animation, which blends in very nicely. I like to call this method altered video. (Perhaps I am coining this phrase because I Googled it and there doesn’t seem to be a concrete definition. Well, at least not where Google is concerned.)

I love the overexposure and pastel colors that are anything but soothing, giving the video an almost creepy feeling.

The poem reminds me of growing older and losing the memories we once had. Lost are the stories, words and events that have slipped out from under us, barely a memory at best. I can’t think of a more gentle way of addressing a part of life that is inevitable.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Wayne the Stegosaurus” and “Cigar Box Banjo”

Wayne the Stegosaurus
poem: Kenn Nesbitt
co-directors: Aran Quinn, Jeff Dates
3D lead artsts: Rob Petrie, Jeff Dates
produced for Motionpoems

Wayne the Stegosaurus is a delightful, airy children’s poem written by Kenn Nesbitt. The animation is rendered beautifully and produced by The Mill, a Chicago-based production company.

The poem is intended for children. I watched it a few times looking for a clue if the artists were withholding a nightmare. No such luck. Just a plain and simple video poem intended purely to entertain.

The animation is delightful. Pastel hand-painted watercolors move about. The action appears to be frame-by-frame and alludes to a stop-motion effect. I may be wrong, but since this is a high-production studio, Wayne the Stegosaurus was probably completely done on computer. It’s a treat to see the artist’s hand at work and it would be nice if this had been done “old school,” but no matter how it was done, the outcome is magnificent and charming, and the viewer can’t help but fall in love with it.

That being said, there is nothing to analyze or rip apart. It’s perfect in its simplicity.

Then I stumbled upon Cigar Box Banjo by Kim Addonizio. The content is much grittier and more to my taste.

Cigar Box Banjo
poem: Kim Addonizio
voiceover: Johanna Braddy
director and sound designer: Danny Madden
editor: Mari Walker
performers: Hannah Elder, Jon Thibault, and Iere Castagne
produced for Motionpoems

The editing is terrific. The footage is seamlessly woven together and reads like an indie film, powerful and poignant. It’s well done, not at all corny, and a good mixture of old and new footage. The song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” written and performed by Blind Willie Johnson, is a perfect addition and allows the piece to flow very nicely. I also have to mention that the design on the entire piece is sophisticated and exciting to watch. I found it refreshing, and I have nothing negative to say on this one either. I liked watching both videos back to back.

Aside from both being poetry films, Wayne the Stegosaurus and Cigar Box Banjo are very different. Wayne embraces a colorful, safe world, while Cigar Box tells an entirely different story. But both are well written and visually outstanding — examples of video poetry at its finest.

Editor’s note: A huge congratulations to Cheryl — and to her collaborator, the poet Nicelle Davis — for having a film accepted for ZEBRA, the world’s foremost poetry film festival, for the third time in a row!
Active Shooter Event will be screened at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival Münster|Berlin, October 27-30, 2016 at the Schlosstheater cinema in Münster, Germany. —Dave B.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Beer”

direction: Nerdo
poem: Charles Bukowski
art direction: Daniele Gavatorta
coordination: Diego Pizziconi
animation: Daniele Gavatorta, Simone Cirillo, Milena Tipaldo, Erik Righetti, and Alessandro Durando
original music and sound design: Enrico Ascoli
voiceover: David Wayne Callahan
recording engineer: Andrea Pestarino

I acquired a taste for beer many years ago while at an artist residency program in Saarbrücken, Germany. I attribute this phenomenon to my good friend and installation artist, Claudia Brieske. Upon meeting the poet Nicelle Davis, I was introduced to the world of video poetry. In my opinion the two go hand-in-hand. So it’s no wonder why Beer based on a poem by the famous Charles Bukowski caught my eye. I’m a big fan of Bukowski, so to find a video poem that embraces not one but two things I am passionate about is a rare treat. In simpler terms, it’s worth the price of admission.

That being said, my favorite place to start is always with the visuals. I love fast-paced, well-designed art. The animation is smooth and lyrical. It conveys a feeling of nostalgia in a postmodern sort of way, meaning the vector images are all computer-generated, but they contain images of objects such as a telephone that were a part of life back in the 20th century. All have either disappeared already or are about to disappear.

As far as the writing is concerned, I think most of us can relate. Break-ups with women, waiting for the phone to ring, just adds to the bloat of this self-imposed condition, hobby or should I say pastime of beer drinking. But when it comes down to it, life is just a matter of waiting for the next thing, waiting for something that will get us closer to the brass ring. In the meantime we have beer, the vehicle that will help ease the frustration and pass the time.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “The Clinic”

The Clinic (Kliniken)
poem and voiceover: Annelie Axén
design and animation: Kristian Pedersen
produced by Gasspedal Animert

One of my least favorite activities when I was a child was visiting the dentist. It was a major cause of anxiety. However, there is something about The Clinic that addresses this discomfort in a unique and bizarre way.

Despite my deep love for nostalgia and the fact that I lean left-of-center concerning my taste in entertainment, The Clinic kicked up memories that were not pleasant. Reminiscing about the dentist is not exactly what I call a good time and the sound of drilling puts me over the edge. Despite my discomfort, there is no doubt that it’s a great video. The visuals are clever and fit right in. I am particularly fond of the teeth x-rays, the distressed film look and the brilliant use of typography and Adobe After Effects.

The Clinic uses teeth as a metaphor. From the beginning, we are made to feel as if we are about to encounter impending doom and are made to feel nervous. We are coldly asked questions that feed into our fears and anxiety. There is no comfort offered, just more questions. Eventually it is revealed that we are just a number. As the toothless grind their jaws, perhaps the antidote to the uneasiness we feel is the white powder with our information on it.

The Clinic in my opinion is a very successful, Orwellian piece. Not only does it get the message across, but it creeps me out. Seeing the work is feeling it and again, and at the end of the day this is what matters most. It’s traditionally been said that great art should evoke powerful emotions, and by that standard, The Clinic certainly qualifies as great art.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Double Life”

Double Life
poem: Cindy St. Onge
concept & editing: Marie Craven (read the process notes)
music: Purple Planet
images: Prelinger Archives

“The sleeping woman is not the dreamer, because the dreamer smokes…”
—Cindy St. Onge

Sitting in front of the TV watching old movies was a huge part of my childhood. I loved the imagery. It didn’t matter what the storyline was; to me the visuals were the most important thing. That being the case, it’s no wonder why I am so enamored with Double Life by Marie Craven.

There is no voiceover, just words and repeated and mirrored images, hence the title. Craven’s clever use of old footage succeeds in establishing a sense of nostalgia. This is total film noir. Her color palette emulates that of artist Barbara Kruger. Kruger’s work also lends itself to a specific moment in time. Her colors are limited to black, white, grey and red, which Kruger made popular (modern 20th century).

This being a video poem, words do play an important role. Craven uses red subtitles, which further complement her choice of colors. The only criticism I have is the typeface. My guess is she used Helvetica but I may be wrong. I would have liked to see something that better fits the mood. Other than that, Double Life is simple and well done. The music by Purple Planet guides us through this journey of smoke and mirrors. I suggest watching Double Life at least two or three times — first to enjoy the visuals, second to read the poem, and third to experience the two elements together.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: Poetry Film in its Infancy


from Two Too Young
poem: “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, performed by Carl Switzer
directed by Gordon Douglas

In my quest to find the perfect video poem I stumbled upon a wonderful piece that brought me back to my childhood: “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as performed by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer. Could this be the early days or even perhaps the first poetry film?

When I was a child the preferred baby sitter in our house was the TV. Back then morning television was limited to Farmer Grey cartoons, and reruns of The Little Rascals.

The Our Gang/Little Rascals version of “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” may not actually be the first poetry film, but it does have a place. Strictly humorous, watered down and marginalized, for many it was our first exposure to the art form better known as pop culture. I assume the intention was not to spark a new genre, however producer and creator Hal Roach did just that. If not the first at least he played a role in the development of video/film poetry. Unintentionally history or film poetry history was made.

This particular YouTube version includes some of my favorite actors: Spanky McFarland, June Marlowe (Miss Crabtree) and Eugene Gordon Lee (Porky.)

Not to stray too far off topic, Warner Brothers had a part in introducing young minds to this satiric (distorted) form of our art as well. What’s Opera Doc? from what I can remember is probably my first opera. I got hooked not only on the music but it assisted in deepening my appreciation for the art of animation, hence my love of video poetry.

Wagner’s Siegfried starring Elmer Fudd as the titular hero and Bugs Bunny as Brunhilde. Elmer is again hunting rabbits as they sing, dance and eat the scenery. For me it’s a walk down memory lane:

What’s Opera, Doc?
directed by Chuck Jones
screenplay by Michael Maltese
voice actors: Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “A Nose That Can See Is Worth Two That Sniff”

A Nose That Can See Is Worth Two That Sniff
poem: William Carlos Williams
animation: Isaac Holland
narration: William Carlos Williams
sound and music: Skillbard
Part 4 of Poetry of Perception, an eight-part series featuring representations of perception and sensation
produced by Nadja Oertelt

It’s great to see The Fundamentals of Neuroscience embrace video poetry. Any organization that uses an art form such as this is in my opinion groundbreaking. The main reason why I even mention it is because by doing so it increases our audience.

A Nose That Can See Is Worth Two That Sniff is one in a series of animations illustrating their online course at Harvard University. Another fun one to watch, although not a video poem, is Perception Is In The Eye Of The Beholder:


Makes me want to enroll in the course.

Now getting back to A Nose That Can See Is Worth Two That Sniff: The work is incredibly charming. Beginning with the visual (my favorite place to start), the colors are somewhat subdued. This allows the viewer to glide through the poem without distraction. The illustrations are made up of flat vector computer-generated shapes. The old scratchy film effect combined with vector imagery makes it even more interesting. It’s a great blend and adds to the atmosphere of the piece. The outcome is not only successful, but bears the imprint of the artist’s unique style. I love the use of type, and the movement is terrific.

There is an echo in the voice. My guess is that it was recorded on computer or using a small microphone. It’s the poet’s own voice, which is a nice, simple touch. Perhaps the sound is deliberately distressed to match the visuals.

All in all, A Nose That Can See is Worth Two That Sniff is well worth checking out.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Western Civilization”

Western Civilization
poem by Peter Jay Shippy
directed and animated by Alicia Reece (MotionGnome) for Motionpoems
lettering and lead actor: Emory Allen
make-up: Ashley Burke
music: Joey Verskotzi
additional animation: Valerie Lockhart

Western Civilization is a well-produced, breathtaking piece. Based on a poem by Peter Jay Shippy, it was one of many short films to debut at the 2014 Motionpoems premiere. The design, poetry and voiceover work flawlessly together. This is as close to perfection as one can get.

I’ll begin with the design. Alicia Reece works with a limited color palette, then switches to black and white, then back to incorporating color against a scratchboard-like background. Add an old scratchy film effect, and we are taken back in time. If I’m not mistaken, the animators used actual video footage and applied the cartoon (special effect) using the Adobe program After Effects. This is a nice, smooth way to simulate animation. It appears that Reece does a lot of commercial work, which is apparent judging from the execution.

The poem is wonderful. It’s hip-hop coupled with American twang. Sort of like Paris, Texas meets Rihanna. The voiceover fits perfectly. I’m back in the 60s or 70s, tripping on mushrooms or peyote and looking for god. Or in this case Keith Moon (former drummer of The WHO.) The reference to popular music is a bonus. This makes the piece a total postmodern experience—or pop-culture experience if you will.

The combination of styles and the use of type all blend successfully, which clearly communicates how we can know, and have known, the American west. I’m ready to get in the car and drive all the way to New Mexico, or in this case Utah. I think it would be fun meeting up with a shaman who is familiar with rock music.

Western Civilization is truly a beautiful piece with a wicked sense of humor.

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Working Order”

Working Order
poem by Dora Malech
video by Gentleman Scholar, for Motionpoems

Gentleman Scholar is a group of solution-driven artists situated at the intersection of story, style and technology. Wielding extensive experience in strategy, live-action production, animation, digital and print, we help the world’s leading agencies and brands tell their stories.
bio on Vimeo

Gentleman Scholar created fabulous effects to illustrate the poem “Working Order” by Dora Malech. They have used a combination of animation programs to achieve a fluidity that enhances as well as captures the essence of the poetry. I personally prefer this painterly approach (there are several brush stroke filters in Photoshop that imitate painting) to the usual bells and whistles that go along with 3-D modeling, Maya and whatever else, that intends to dazzle the viewer.

The pace is fast and combined with a motion blur, Working Order gives the illusion that the paint is moving. It would be great to see it in 3-D. That would be a nice touch.

I love great art that moves. Gentleman Scholar are highly successful in their application of digital painting. A good many video-poetry artists struggle to get the same impact using illustration, photography and/or enhanced video. This group shines through and brings new life to the genre.

The combination of Malech’s poem and Gentleman Scholar’s visuals has resulted in a stunning work of art. By using this method they have not only bumped poetry video up a notch, but have succeeded in making it the quintessential platform of the 21st century.

For Gentelman Scholar’s own assessment of the video, as well as the full credits, see their website.