'Breathless Puppets' can be viewed here.
Postcards From Now is a five-part series showcasing the work produced by international artists during the covid-19 pandemic. 'Breathless Puppets' was created to be part of that series, and paired together world renowned choreographer Akram Khan and up-and-coming animator Naaman Azhari. The two artists worked as co-directors and co-writers on the project, bringing together their differing areas of expertise and imbibing the short film with a sense of genius that could be felt right down to its very core. It's about two young men who want to pursue a career in dance, despite the expectations and disapproval of their fathers.
'Breathless Puppets' is beautifully animated. It used a technique named 'rotoscope animation', which overlays live-action footage with hand-drawn images. Rotoscope animation can often feel limited, as if the technology can't quite move past its janky phase where lines blur and faces occasionally lose their features. This was not the case here. Details were vivid and stylistic, any moments of malleability were quickly overshadowed by the clear, evocative expressions of the characters. It can even be said that the shifting lines that made up their faces helped to emphasise their furtive glances at each other, betraying a burgeoning affection between them. Whilst there were abstract elements to the short film's visuals, faces were always drawn to match reality. This stylised realism of rotoscope animation paired exquisitely with the dance sequences, which are consistently breathtaking — movements both small and sweeping flow perfectly. When the two protagonist's dance together it feels almost as if the audience is playing the part of a voyeur, stealing a front row seat to the unspoken intimacy of two young men, portrayed through wonderfully choreographed intertwining motions. It is clear that for the protagonists, dancing leads to a clarity that dialogue does not.
The dialogue is another example of an aspect of animation that is enhanced by rotoscope techniques. It feels like a real conversation, complete with stuttering, speaking over each other, and awkward pauses. Really, the sound design is exemplary all-round, but it's the non-diegetic mixing that steals the show. The background sound effects that play throughout 'Breathless Puppets' are rooted in physicality. Throbbing music that blares in time with heartbeats, intermittent white noise reminiscent of heavy breathing, and sharp noises that almost physically jerk the characters from their own thoughts, the audience can almost hear the inner turmoil of the young men during these moments; ordinary conversations are turned into ordeals.
Moments of increased intensity within the audio are often accompanied by a change in the animation. Whilst rotoscope realism is at the base of every scene, the animation becomes steadily more abstract as time goes on. This variance is often associated with an upheaval in the narrative. It is at these moments, where the animation, choreography, sound design, and narrative elements all combine in a medley of artistic mastery, that 'Breathless Puppets' becomes a transcendent experience. They are as enthralling as they are intense, the meaning of them can be felt in the nervous system of the viewer. The short film becomes as much a physical experience as it is a visual one. The final sequence will leave even the most conceptually limited viewer reeling.
'Breathless Puppets' is an uncompromising depiction of dance as an art form. It speaks to love, passion, art, and tragedy, and it has more to say in 17 minutes than many feature length films have in three hours.