Driessen: Multiple Image and Audience Expectation

By Ruth Lingford


Animation is well known as a particularly demanding mistress – the hours spent over a light-box or computer screen inducing the poor posture, repetitive strain injury and social maladjustment so common among the animation community. So it is both awe-inspiring and slightly galling when a film-maker who already produces hand-drawn films at a prolific rate uses a split screen technique that multiplies the amount of work by two, three or, in the case of The End of the World in Four Seasons, by eight. Driessen’s work has its roots in cartoon drawing, where multiple images are a common way of telling a story or juxtaposing ideas for comic effect. They are also part of the aesthetic of the comic, and it was aesthetic considerations that prompted Driessen to take the multiple image into animation.


Driessen is an artist whose mercurial intelligence rebels at the business of telling a simple story frame by frame. He uses stories within stories and visual games to divert himself and keep himself working. He also claims to use split-screen and sound-track as ways of avoiding drawing the straightforward, preferring to represent the whole by the fragment, or leaving things and events to be heard off-screen. Driessen uses split-screen, along with other devices such as manipulating misinterpretations of a story, or telling it from different viewpoints, to subvert the audience’s preconceptions, upsetting it with sudden inversions of scale and orientation.

He also uses the sound-track to set up expectations to be exploded. The humour in his films often results from the sudden confused sensation of having been duped, a frisson of surprise and a feeling of collusion in outrageous acts of cruelty. It’s uncomfortable, as Driessen creates and destroys his characters with the despotic cruelty that is a characteristic feature of animation. When I have done animation workshops with children, I have often seen the dawning realization that they have total power over the moving image, followed by the animated creations being subjected to acts of mutilation, explosions and violence. In On Land, On Sea and in the Air Driessen split the screen vertically into three. He animated each element separately, shooting each with masks to allow their re-filming together. The film was meticulously planned, but with some leeway left for independent editing of the elements.


In The End of the World in Four Seasons Driessen takes the technique to what must surely be its limit, keeping eight independent panels on the screen in a film that is virtually unwatchable on a television monitor. He even discussed using IMAX for it. Driessen invites the eye to slide around from panel to panel, drawn by action, and often lured into missing tantalizing events even on repeated re-viewing. Each time I have seen this film in an audience, I have been frustrated by audience laughter at something I have missed. It is a seductive but tiring film to watch. Driessen used a computer to assemble it, but on account of the project’s complexity and the computer’s limitations, he was not able to view it usefully as he worked on it, and so again had to use a heroic combination of planning and memory to co-ordinate the elements.


His latest film, The Boy who saw the Iceberg, uses a screen split vertically into two. The left-hand side shows us an objective view of the story of a little boy, while the right-hand screen shows us the world as perceived by him. On the left, we are taken through the sterile routines of his day as the child of a rich but frigid family, while, on the right, his imagination dramatizes the anxieties of his humdrum life in scenarios of extreme and exotic dangers. There is humour here and, unusually for Driessen, a chance to identify and empathize with a character. The boy’s family take him on a voyage aboard an ocean liner, which, we realise with a sinking heart, must be the Titanic. Events unfold rapidly, until we are taken through the long moments of the boy’s death. The left side shows us the bleak reality of his drowning, while, on the right, his imagination clings to the now precious routines of waking in his bed.

The gradual impinging of reality on this image is, for me, one of the bleakest and strongest moments in animated film. Driessen has found a new refinement on his overturning of audience expectations. His previous work leads one to expect a quick, cruel punch line, allowing the viewer to escape rapidly, laughing with relief. But here we are left stuck in the experience, the artist at last taking responsibility for his creation. By sacrificing the gag, Driessen gains something stronger and more memorable.

Ruth Lingford, an award-winning animator herself, also teaches at the Royal College of Art, and the National Film and Television School. She spoke to Paul Driessen during his recent visit to London. Driessen was born in 1940, worked on Yellow Submarine in 1967, and made animated films for the National Film Board of Canada. He continues to be a prolific director, and has now made over 20 short films. He also teaches animation at Kassel University in Germany.