Salmon Deadly Sins
Seven ways to kill a fish.
2014, 7 minutes, 5040 index cards
Music: "Aquatic Hitchhiker" composed by Andy Thorn, performed by Leftover Salmon, courtesy of LoS Records
Screenings and Awards
Praise for Salmon Deadly Sins
The jury stated: "It was very surreal and quite clever. The fast pacing and mesmerizing morphing kept us entertained and interested. From the use of the word, the tint of the images, to the name of the band keeping us on edge it was all salmon, salmon, salmon. Imaginative and creative, this year's ASIFA-Colorado Best Animated Short Award goes to Salmon Deadly Sins by Steven Vander Meer with music by Leftover Salmon."
This is one of the most remarkable animated films I have ever seen. The concept is genius and the illustrations are dazzling. The animation is compelling and magical. In addition, the anagrams created produce visual chapters; the seven deadly sins, one by one, morph into images that you cannot take your eyes off of. I watched the film 7 times!! Every time I saw something I had not noticed before. The sound tract; a rollicking banjo piece that keeps tempo with the rapid images, is wild. At my first viewing, my brain could not keep up w/ the images & music. On my 3rd look I saw an ever increasing "count" in the lower right-hand of the screen. I am not sure if this is the number of images produces in the film; 5040 but that number flashes in the opening credits. The "10 count" at the films beginning is amazing... 10 drips into 9 and 9 becomes 8 and wow! I want to ask Mr. Vander Meer... what came first? The letters for the anagram? Why salmon? Brilliantly clever, humorous, impactful.
Five thousand salmon colored index cards, deadly sins, bizarre anagrams and a host of serendipitous occurrences have mingled in the artist's imagination and emerged on paper as Salmon Deadly Sins. With music by Leftover Salmon, this seven minute flip book style film is a moving drawing; each frame was created individually, by hand, on a 3X5 inch index card. Envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath inspire the vivid imagery, as do anagrams of the main title. The motion, gorgeously drawn and deceptively clever, is fluid and continuous throughout the film, with no breaks, jumps or cuts, and no repeated drawings. An environmental theme emerges, and self portraits appear and re-appear as the artist examines his own complacency.
Unabridged Artist's Statement
In 2008, while working on my previous film (also animated on 3x5 inch index cards) I came across an on-line auction for 59 packs of salmon colored index cards. Because 5900 cards seemed like a good amount for a short film (a little over eight minutes worth) and because I was able to obtain them at a very low price, I decided then that my next film would have something to do with salmon.
A year later, while traveling to Nebraska with my wife Carol and some friends to witness the Sandhill Crane migration, I had the opportunity to visit the art studio of Kent Bellows, soon to become the Kent Bellows Studio & Center for Visual Arts (his studio building had become that non-profit entity after his untimely death in 2005). At the time of his passing, he had been working on a series of paintings based on the seven deadly sins; the paintings incorporated self portraits. Only two of the works were completed, but they were powerful enough to inspire me on that day. I don't know how long it took for the deadly sins idea to bump into the salmon idea that was swimming around in my head, but when it did, Salmon Deadly Sins was conceived.
The third major source of inspiration for the imagery in this film comes from a series of anagrams. When you re-arrange the letters in "Salmon Deadly Sins", you can spell literally tens of thousands of new phrases. From these I chose seven, one for each of the deadly sins, as subtitles for the chapters. For each chapter, the sin, the anagram and the salmon theme all served as kindling for my imagination.
Various environmental issues, some having to do with salmon, some not, emerged as a natural outcome of this combination of sources. But I didn't want to make a preachy, finger-pointing activist type of film, so I kept those issues on a mostly personal level. When an environmental issue appears in this film, it represents (to me) a reflection on my own contribution to the problems that face our planet, and offers no solutions, or it is symbolic of an entirely different problem. I guess you could call it a confession.
Another factor in shaping this piece of work is my fascination with numbers. I am no mathematician (in fact I got a D in high school algebra, and never went further, academically), but I do like to pay particular attention to numbers. I decided, for example, that this film should be exactly seven minutes long. I also decided, at least for this project, to adhere to a pure "flip book" style. That means I would draw 12 index cards for each second of film, using each card only once - no cycles, holds or repeated cards. So, I would use an exact number of my salmon colored index cards: 12 per second, 720 per minute, or 5040 total for the seven minutes. In the lower right hand corner of each index card is a little box that looks like an odometer (I rubber stamped this onto the cards before drawing). Inside that box, the cards are numbered in sequence.
At first it seemed obvious to make each of the seven chapters exactly one minute long, but I soon realized that this would leave no room for the title, or the closing credits. Also, it became clear to me that filling an entire minute for each sin was a bit too much - I just didn't have that much to say. So I shortened the chapters to 45 seconds each, or 540 index cards. This left plenty of time within my seven minute time frame for titles, credits, and even a "leader" at the beginning.
If you are not too young, you will remember watching 16mm films in school, usually using a projector that was pushed by a nerd or a teacher's pet into the room on a cart. They always began with a length of leader, which was full of scratches, dirt, bad splices and symbols, followed by the SMPTE countdown sequence, or the Academy one on older films. Given the nature of films shown to youngsters in a small town Catholic elementary school in Iowa, the leader often turned out to be the most interesting part of the film for me. Call it early inspiration or call it nostalgia, but most of the films I have made include a hand drawn leader of some kind. My leader for this film is 360 index cards long and the teal color is the result of "inverting" the salmon color into a negative. To get the scratches and faux dirt, I strung the index cards together using Scotch tape, and spooled them on film rewinds that I had retrofitted with plastic paint buckets. While spinning the rewind with one hand, I was able to draw or splatter ink with the other hand on the cards as they went by. This loose, abstract and free-form section is another recurrent element in my artwork over the years; it is in stark contrast to the controlled, precise movement in the rest of the film.
You may notice the odometer numbers going backwards in this section; this is because I created the leader after having completed the rest of the film, which begins with card number "1". At the end of the seventh chapter, the odometer reads "4260" and then jumps to "4621" for the start of the closing credits. This lapse of 360 numbers is to make up for the 360 cards in the leader, not only keeping the total number of cards to 5040, but also making sure the last card on the screen has the number 5040 in the odometer.
The film opens with a self portrait, drawn from life by looking in a mirror. I use self portraits a lot in my work, it's appropriate for pieces that are introspective and, let's face it, self absorbed. Behind me a swarm of tiny salmon make up the background. These little guys will reappear throughout the film. I draw them by making a simple mark with a pencil (a dot at the head, with a line for the body), and then later going over that mark with a Bougainvillaea Copic Sketch marker, roughly indicating a fish shape with a tail. My lips part, and out comes the phrase "I love Anagrams" in blue rubber-stamped letters (I made the stamp set especially for this film). The majority of people who see my film will most likely not be reading about it, as you are, so I felt it was necessary to explain the anagram concept. You will see the blue rubber stamped letters fall from the top of the screen, to near the bottom, at which point they will have re-arranged themselves into the anagram. The fact that "I Love Anagrams" can make "I Ravage Salmon" was a funny coincidence, and may have contributed to my malevolent treatment of fish in the film. To further illustrate the use of anagrams to the uninitiated, I also re-arranged "A Film by Steven Vander Meer" so that it would spell "Seven Mermen Farted Viably". I was pleased to get the number seven in there; the other part just seemed like a really fun thing to animate, so I did. My hope is that these two funny anagrams prepare the viewer to keep an eye out for the anagrams to come.
The main title now appears (also rubber stamped), and a brief reprise of the self portrait morphs into the title for the first chapter. I chose to order the seven chapters alphabetically; I am not sure if there is an official order for the seven deadly sins.
CHAPTER ONE: ENVY
"My Denials and Loss" is the anagram of the main title for this chapter. We've all heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch, that gyre of mostly plastic debris floating in the North Pacific Ocean. The plastic in the gyre is not still in the shape of bottles and containers, it's made of tiny little bits, but I drew the bottles because they are the recognizable origin of the plastic. On each of the seven bottles is an anagram of the word "plastic": sit clap, talc sip, clasp it, cap list, cast lip, cat slip and last pic. These words morph into the seven letters in the word "plastic", and then disintegrate into the waves before the plastic bottles sink and morph into skulls. Meanwhile, on the ocean floor, a worm emerges from the sand and then burrows back down, probably afraid of what's happening above him. The skulls then morph into fish, which in turn become fish skeletons. Can I deny that my own use of plastic eventually contributes to the destruction of animal life?
A reprise of the anagram appears on the side of a large salmon. I drew this fish by looking at a life sized model of a Sockeye salmon, made from a cast of a real fish by a taxidermist in Texas. The purpose of the fish here is simply to wipe the scene away and leave, in it's place, the title for the next chapter.
CHAPTER TWO: GLUTTONY
"Mindlessly as a Nod" is the anagram of the main title for this chapter. "Gluttony" was one of two finished paintings by Kent Bellows that inspired me. In it a self portrait of the artist (not the stereotypical big fat glutton we've all seen in illustrations) sits surrounded by luxurious but untouched food, and behind him is a painting within the painting, depicting a dark and mean looking sea. Candles on the table smoke as if they have just suffocated. Seeing this large scale painting in real life gave me chills.
The chapter title is eaten by a large, fat fish. A smaller blue fish becomes lodged in the mouth of the fat fish, and proceeds to morph into a pizza. The pizza slices part to reveal a cow (hamburger), which in turn becomes a wedge of cheese. The cheese morphs into macaroni & cheese, which is swallowed to reveal a chicken, and the chicken morphs into a keg of beer, which morphs into a large serving of French fries. All the while, as swarms of tiny salmon swim in both directions in the background, the fat fish gets smaller and smaller, and when the last of this collection of my own favorite foods is swallowed, the flesh of the fish disintegrates, leaving a skeleton, which also disintegrates. The big sockeye returns, briefly displaying again the anagram for the chapter; it wipes the scene and reveals the title for the next chapter. Do I consume food (or anything) mindlessly, to the point that it would be considered gluttony?
CHAPTER THREE: GREED
The main title is back, and it re-arranges into the anagram "Dismal and Sly Ones"; those words suggested to me a nighttime scene. A fishing boat is revealed, it lowers a net into the sea as a yellow moon hovers behind. The net is very small at first, but you can see the swarm of tiny pink salmon inside it. As the net grows, the boat shrinks. It is interesting to note that the fishnet pattern in the net is static - it never moves or changes. Meanwhile, the yellow moon is also growing; it continues to grow as it sinks into the sea where it combines with the still growing fishnet. Together they become a mermaid with yellow hair. She is still connected to the now tiny fishing boat, and as she pulls her hand closer, you can see that the boat is now just decoration on a ring (jewelry). Two large sockeye salmon pass through the scene, one of them takes the ring in his mouth, and they wipe the scene, again showing the anagram and leaving the next chapter title in their wakes. I do eat fish, but I'm not crazy about it, and I definitely don't go fishing, so this chapter is more symbolic - taking more and more of a thing, until it becomes a burden, reminds me of collecting things just for the sake of collecting, which I have done. Things seem valuable if only for the fact that they have been collected.
CHAPTER FOUR: LUST
The blue rubber-stamped letters of the main title fall from the top to the bottom of the screen to spell "Oily Sand, Send Alms". This phrase, combined with the sin of lust, inspired me to draw an obviously phallic oil derrick, and then expand on the theme of oil, gasoline and sperm. A seven-armed octopus wearing round glasses (that's me) grabs what used to be the oil derrick but is now a gasoline nozzle, and proceeds to fill up the tank of his Honda Fit. Once filled, the car morphs into a salmon, and the fish swims away. Meanwhile in the background, a swarm of sperm are swimming upwards. After the salmon and the octopus are gone, the sun appears, or it might be an egg yolk, or just an egg, and the sperm are seen swimming directly into it. About this time, an attractive and semi-nude young lady wearing fishnet stockings swims across the screen, wiping away the scene and leaving the new chapter title in it's place. Her swimming movement is more realistic because I used a rotoscope technique for this part. Her yellow hair remains as a horizon line across the top of the screen, inside of which the main title once again appears. Owning a new car and being able to fill it with gas, isn't that sexy?
CHAPTER FIVE: PRIDE
The anagram of "Salmon Deadly Sins" is "Malady Ends in Loss" for this chapter. Having grown up in the midwest, the words "malady" and "loss" made me think of farming, so I imagined a salmon farming scenario. A large wheel, or gear, wipes the screen to reveal the farmer (wearing round glasses) on his tractor; a swarm of tiny salmon appear to be swimming inside of the tractor's engine, and a noticeable amount of pollution is emitted as he drives the machine along. In tow behind the tractor is a device that is planting seeds, and as it begins to rain (from the cloud of pollution) the seeds grow into a row of vertical salmon. When all the fish are full sized, they immediately begin to die and skeletonize. The malady (pollution and over mechanized farming methods) have led to the loss of his entire crop. The row of fish skeletons, still vertical, morph into the kind of fence you might see around a grave yard. Then the gaps in the fence morph into grave stones, inside of which swim the tiny pink salmon. The anagram returns briefly, written on the side of the large wheel or gear as it wipes the scene in preparation for the next chapter.
CHAPTER SIX: SLOTH
The letters in the main title slide down and re-arrange to spell "So Many Landslides". In my geographic region (the Pacific Northwest), landslides are commonly caused by deforestation from timber harvesting. Silt and debris wash down into streams and rivers, causing the fish that live there to suffocate or overheat. My illustration shows a barren mountainside with rocks plummeting down and into the water, where a swarm of tiny pink salmon are disturbed. The texture on the mountainside was done by rubbing graphite on the paper with a piece of wood behind it. The mountain moves across the screen from left to right, and reveals an underwater scene with dead fish wedged between rocks, plus one large fish, still alive, on top of the rocks, half in and half out of the water. As the panorama of rocks moves from right to left, the larger fish is pushed up out of the water; the parts of the fish that are exposed to "air" become skeleton, eventually this includes the whole body of the fish before it sinks back down into the water. Once again, the big sockeye salmon comes through with the anagram written on his side, wiping away the scene and revealing the next chapter.
CHAPTER SEVEN: WRATH
In Kent Bellows' painting "Wrath" his self portrait is definitely not smiling (it depicts a suicide), but the anagram I chose for this chapter is "And Sadly Smiles On". "Wrath" was the other finished painting in his series that inspired me and, with permission from the Bellows family, a sketch of that painting appears momentarily during the climax of this violent chapter. It was my way of saying "thanks for the inspiration". I don't know that I am capable of making art that is even half as dark as this painting, and probably wouldn't want to; my sense of humor usually wins out over anything profound or heavy. Still, Bellows' way of physically and meticulously constructing a scene in real life to serve as a model for his painting is something I greatly admire.
The title scroll of this chapter morphs into a partial self-portrait (just my eyes and round glasses). The eyes become two fish, nose to nose like they are kissing, while the glasses become waves above, and a dike or dam below. The dam begins to grow and wedges the two fish apart; it continues to grow and breaks the surface of the waves above. On the right side of the dam, the waves remain high and the fish looks sadly at it's companion, while on the left side of the dam, the waves get lower and lower, and that fish turns up-side-down (and we all know what that means). Like so many fish before it, the body becomes a skeleton. Meanwhile the dam is growing bigger and bigger, until it fills the entire screen. A crack appears in the middle, spreading out quickly until the dam breaks open, revealing a scene from the previous chapter (sloth). The cracks re-appear and the scene breaks open as before, revealing a scene from the chapter before sloth (pride). In regular succession, all of the previous chapters are re-visited this way. Now the cracks are appearing more quickly, and other scenes are revealed, first the pencil sketch that I based on the Kent Bellows painting, then other elements such as the octopus, skeletons, swarms of tiny pink salmon and skulls. Cracks and exploding scenes are now at a furious pace, there are gears, plastic bottles, worms, sperm, stars and finally, another self-portrait. This drawing I did in the mirror while making a raging face, teeth bared, eyes fierce; but it gradually morphs into a calm, not quite smiling, staid portrait. Meanwhile in the background, the chaotic swarm of tiny pink salmon have organized into neat rows, like wallpaper. The animation freezes and fades to black, with the portrait going transparent, ghost-like over the background. With this effect I broke my own "pure flip book" rule, it was done in Photoshop by separating the scene into layers.
I animated the credits with the same stubborn purist attitude that I employed on the entire film, writing the credits by hand on twelve index cards per second of film, no repeating. Not that I consider that a mistake, but I probably wouldn't do it again. The credits were drawn on the same salmon colored index cards, then inverted to negative (a beautiful deep teal color). Each set of credits is wiped and the next one revealed by a double band of waves (still pink, not inverted) featuring the ubiquitous swarm of tiny pink salmon.
Composed by Andy Thorn
Performed by Leftover Salmon
courtesy of Los Records
Re-mix by Ryan Roberts
For decoration, an electric banjo and a salmon frame these credits, and they morph back and forth between salmon and banjo.
"Aquatic Hitchhiker", a re-mix of which serves as the entire sound track, is a song I chose from an album of the same name by the group Leftover Salmon. During the three years I spent drawing this film, I would often think about what kinds of sounds or music I might like to put with it. Just because of the name, I kept thinking about Leftover Salmon, but it seemed too silly so I set that idea aside.... several times, as the idea kept coming back. One day, near the completion of the animation, I decided to look more closely into the idea of Leftover Salmon, if only to eliminate it once and for all. I used to listen to them back in the nineties, but I didn't follow them and was not aware if they were even still together.
Turns out they are still (or back) together. After the tragic loss of their banjo player, the band laid low for a while. In recent years though, a new young banjo player joined and revitalized the group; he even composed the title track for their 2012 "come back" album called "Aquatic Hitchhiker". I ordered a CD of the album because I knew that listening to the entire album, as well as reading the liner notes, would tell me with certainty whether or not this was a path worth exploring. When the CD arrived, my first listen revealed a familiar sound and yes, I liked it. I was keen to find out if any of the tracks were instrumental and yes, the title track was an instrumental and featured the banjo, so this was starting to look promising to me.
"Aquatic Hitchhiker" sounded so good, in fact, that I decided to play it concurrently to a video rough cut of the animation. I saw right away that it was the fit I was looking for. The song ends abruptly and, coincidentally on the first viewing, the rough cut video ended precisely when the music stopped - another good sign! Then I read the liner notes, trying to learn all I could about this band. They included a section that listed what kind of instrument each member played. Andy Thorn (he composed the song), it said, plays an electric banjo made by Ian Davidson. This shocked me because Ian is a neighbor of mine, his banjo shop is right down the street, and we have even visited each other's workshops. It really seemed like an unlikely coincidence because we are in a remote, Northern California coastal area, and Leftover Salmon is from Boulder, Colorado!
Ian (the electric banjo maker) is a member of a local group called The Absynth Quintet. They all know the members of Leftover Salmon, having opened for their shows and gone surfing with Andy (the electric banjo player). I took all of this as a green light for me to pursue a music synchronization license. Another member of Absynth, Ryan Roberts, has a recording studio and he did the re-mix of the song so that it would fit the picture. I later met the members of Leftover Salmon and was relieved to find that they enjoyed the film, and were happy with the re-mix of their song.
Kent Bellows Studio & Center for Visual Arts
and the Bellows family
as a major inspiration for this film
and for permission to reference the original painting
"Wrath" by Kent Bellows.
Behind these credits a small flock of sandhill cranes glides silently overhead, recalling my reason for being in Nebraska when I first was shown the Kent Bellows studio. Back then it had not yet become a "center for visual arts"; it was, in fact, very much the way he had left it when he left this world. This credit is a thank-you for the inspiration, as well as a thank-you for allowing me to honor that inspiration with a reference to one of the paintings.
SALMON DEADLY SINS
Copyright © Steven Vander Meer
I began working on this film in the spring of 2010, and finished it in October of 2013. A chunk of that time (about one year) was taken up with the renovation of my new workshop; I did not do a lot of animating then. Framing this credit, just for fun, are two of the farting mermen who first appeared at the very beginning of the film. The bubbling sound is a recording I made from a batch of homebrew - the CO2 escaping through a "blow-out" hose, into a jar of water.
I couldn't resist adding one last anagram. Not finding any for "the end", I lengthened it to "This is the End" allowing for an anagram that reads "Heed it's Hints". If you didn't pick up on any of the hints by watching the film, I hope this long synopsis did the trick.
~Steven Vander Meer, November 2013