29 November, 2010Issue 14.4Film & TVThe Arts

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Letter to the World

Suzie Hanna

Director’s Note:

In October 2009 I received an e-mail from Barbara Dana, chair of the newly formed Emily Dickinson and the Arts Committee in the Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS). She asked if I would be interested in putting forward a proposal for presenting a piece on an arts panel at the EDIS Conference, which was to take place at the University of Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute in August 2010. I was fairly sure that Dr Sally Bayley had a hand in this communication and was aware that she was working on her latest book Home on the Horizon: America’s Search for Space, from Emily Dickinson to Bob Dylan (2010). We had collaborated successfully on an animated film based on an extract from Sylvia Plath’s teenaged journal The Girl Who Would Be God, and this seemed a good opportunity to create a new film in response to some of Emily’s tropes. The film came about through the combination of Sally’s detailed knowledge of Dickinson’s life and works, my research into visual practices and relevant technologies (as well as reading many books on Dickinson and her published poems and letters), and the collaborative contributions of actress Elisabeth Gray and sound designer Tom Simmons.

The resulting 9-minute animated film, Letter to the World, is an interpretative response to some of the themes in Emily’s life and works, with particular reference to her reduction and enlargement of territories and spheres of influence, her poetic egotism, lucid descriptions of miniature worlds and Nature, her mathematical precision, and ultimately, her triumph over Death through the legacy of her mind. The stimmung sound track uses breath and voice to create an internalised and feminine audition, rising to song when she escapes into Nature, and is accompanied by the sounds of civil war. Musket fire and galloping horses underpin explosions of fresh flower fireworks and fluttering moths at the end of the film. Emily sends letters to the world, posting them out of her window where they head for the blue horizon. But she receives no reply. After her friend the bee dies and she conducts his funeral in her pen case, she gets a critical letter from the world in the form of a map of herself. After Emily obsessively folds her poems and hides them in a box, this becomes her sarcophagus into which she descends, shutting the lid on herself. When the box opens, poems and flowers fly out to create celebratory explosions and poetry moths are left fluttering in the smoke.

I created the animation through pixilated shadow play of the American actress Elisabeth Gray. Every move she made was captured as a still image, so she appears to progress unnaturally like a puppet in the confined and defined space of her room. This combines aesthetically with a shadow puppet of the actress, as she lives her fantasy life beyond the domestic frame, engaging in playful investigation of flowers in the company of her friend the bee. The pixilation reaches a crescendo when Emily receives a letter back from the world and she shakes and shudders. This is a reference to Lyndall Gordon’s research relating to the possibility that Emily may have suffered from epilepsy.

The artistic influences from Dickinson’s lifetime—including cartography, costume, daguerreotypes, and optical devices such as magic lanterns and other early lens technology—are used to enhance the sense of scale and location.

Suzie Hanna

The full length film will soon be available on Suzie’s website: http://www.suziehanna.com

Suzie Hanna is the subject leader in Animation and course leader for the MA in Animation & Sound Design at Norwich University College of the Arts.