Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I Love Animation: The Tell-Tale Heart


The world of animation is an ever-changing one, with long held assumptions about the medium constantly being challenged by new generations of artists. Sometimes these changes take effect gradually, the new idea passing through many hands and many different projects before finally taking hold with the general public. Computer animation, for example, did not begin with Pixar any more than hand-drawn animation began at Disney, but it took Toy Story to convince the world that a computer animated film could be both a critical and commercial success. But in some cases, an entire movement or concept in animation really can be traced back to one individual or studio. UPA is one such studio. Though their name and work may not be well known to the modern public, UPA was almost solely responsible for creating a graphic style of animation that still influences the medium to this day.

Founded in the early 1940s, UPA was born in part from the 1941 Disney animators’ strike. In addition to their dissatisfaction with Disney’s labor practices, some of these artists felt that Disney’s dedication to naturalism in animation was too restrictive and too pervasive in the industry. Former Disney layout artist John Hubley and other several other ex-Disney artists founded Industrial Film & Poster Service, which was later renamed United Productions of America. At their new studio, these animators pursued a radically different graphic style of animation that drew more inspiration from modern art of the time than from real life. Taking inspiration from Chuck Jones’s groundbreaking short The Dover Boys, UPA also pioneered the “limited animation” style, which uses a more limited number of movements, fewer drawings per movement, and more animation cycles that “full” animation. The UPA style had a huge influence on studio animation throughout the 50s and 60s and limited animation became an invaluable tool for studios trying their hand at producing animation for television, which requires a much smaller budget and faster production schedule that theatrical films or shorts.

(Please note that the terms “full” and “limited” animation are not quality judgments. Limited animation can be used to amazing effect while full animation can be absolutely terrible if the execution is poor. These are not “good” and “bad” animation styles, merely different approaches to animation. To learn more about limited animation and its history, check out parts one and two of an essay on the subject from Between The Frames, the TallGrassRadio Studios production blog.)

Today, UPA’s most well known works are the Mr. Magoo cartoons and Gerald McBoing-Boing - the story of a boy who speaks in sound effects instead of words based on a story by Dr. Seuss. Gerald McBoing-Boing and several of the Mr. Magoo shorts are excellent cartoons and still hold up well today. The only thing that has changed is how surprising the graphic imagery and limited animation feel. Since these cartoons were made, several generations have grown up with TV animation and are comfortable with the style of flat drawings and reduced movement that UPA pioneered. The only way to understand now how new and revelatory cartoons like Gerald must have seemed to audiences of 1951 is to imagine yourself in that time, when the cartoons of Disney and Warner Brothers set the standard and all other studios pretty much followed suit. Since then, the UPA style has been adapted or outright copied by everyone from Hanna-Barbera to Disney and Warner Brothers themselves and what was once new and challenging now feels familiar and inviting. But there is still at least one UPA short which manages to remain surprising and shocking, because is it both unlike any other UPA cartoon and unlike any cartoon I have ever seen, even to this day.

I was already familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart," a story of murder, guilt, and madness. I knew from a couple of animation books that UPA had made an animated short based on Poe’s classic tale. But until a few years ago, I had never seen it. All I had were a few still images, none of which really prepared me for what the film itself would be like. I came across the short almost by accident. My husband and I had picked up the special edition of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and were surprised and delighted to find that it included four UPA cartoons which the title character watches during the film. The included shorts were Gerald McBoing-Boing, two later Gerald McBoing-Boing, cartoons, and The Tell-Tale Heart. I still can’t think of a better way to see this film – except for maybe projected on a big screen in a theater – than coming across it unexpectedly and watching it with all the lights turned off and barely a clue as to what we were about to see.

I was stunned. I was amazed. I was completely in love with this film.


Even were it not for the opening text – almost a warning explaining the film’s origins in the Poe short story and introducing it as the tale of a madman who “like all of us” thought himself perfectly sane, the film’s dark nature would be clear from its first frame. A tall house sits completely alone on an impossibly low and otherwise empty horizon line against an ominously darkened sky. In the foreground is an ornamental urn atop a pedestal, almost like a grave marker. As the credits begin, the camera draws back and house and statuary are shown in an empty picture frame sitting on an easel, perhaps a nod to Magritte. The soundtracks starts with the distant tolling of a bell, then gives way to discordant music, completing the feeling of foreboding.

The story begins with a man’s voice, a human shadow against a dark blue background, and a bright white moth fluttering around. The moth flies up close to the camera. A human hand, rendered in stark white highlights and black shadow, snatched the moth from the air. This first scene establishes a number of the film’s key concepts. Obviously it introduces our narrator the madman, and the idea that he does not understand that he is insane or why anyone else would think so. It also introduces the theme of light and shadow, which will be present throughout the film. There are several scenes in which there are no moving characters, only shadows and light. Here we have a white moth and a man who is seen almost exclusively as a shadow who snatches the moth from the air. The final point this opening scene makes is that the entire film is shown directly from the madman’s point of view. All that we see of our narrator is his shadow and his hand coming out to seize the moth after it flies into the camera, his eyes. This is one of the most chilling alterations from the original story. Poe puts the reader in the role of someone the madman is speaking to, giving readers a view into the madman’s twisted mind, yet keeping them at a comfortable distance. In the film, we still get the impression that the madman is speaking to someone. He starts out admitting that he is quite nervous, then asks “But why will you say that I am mad?” But “you” here is not the audience. We never see the madman’s face, or anything other than what he sees. “You” could be the moth for all we know. In the film, there is no safe distance from which to observe this man and his insanity. We are the madman.


The madman then introduces us to his victim, the old man with whom he lived. By the madman’s admission, he did not kill the old man over any slight – real or imagined – or any desire to possess whatever wealth the old man had. His only quarrel was with the man’s one strange, discolored eye. The actual movement of the character is minimal. The old man is briefly shown walking, but he doesn’t turn his head to reveal the offending eye. Instead, the light shifts from one side of his face to the other.


Seeing what the madman sees also gives us access to his subjective view of the world around him. Thin white tendrils grow out from the eye and branch across the screen like cracks in glass. A full moon decays into a crescent in a series of still images that fade into one another. Juxtaposition or cross-fading of still images is another technique the film uses again and again. From the moon, we go to an inky black and white vision of the old man and his horrible eye as the madman sees them, then to a white pitcher sitting on a dresser in skewed perspective. As the madman tells us how the eye was inescapable, “everywhere, in everything,” the camera zooms in on the pitcher, which lies broken on the floor in the next frame. When the madman concludes “Of course, I had to get rid of the eye,” we may not agree with him, but we can understand how he came to that conclusion, having seen the way he views the world.

The madman’s belief that he is not mad rests largely on his perception of what qualities madmen do and do not possess. Madmen are easily agitated and often hysterical, but he insists that he can tell his story calmly, even though it soon becomes clear that he cannot. Madmen have no patience, but he waited for seven nights after deciding upon his plan before putting it into action. The very fact that he had a plan seems to be an argument against his madness, if madmen act on wild impulse.


Shadows continue to play an important role. Only the madman’s shadow advances towards the silhouette of the old man over a background that is the barest suggestion of a room, a window, and floorboards, which will feature in the story later on. Other important imagery gets highlighted as well: the old man has a white pitcher identical to the on the madman smashed for its similarity to the eye. We see the old man’s bed, with its particularly shaped footboard and checkered bedspread. The madman relates his nightly ritual of secretly looking in on the old man as he sleeps and for once, his presence is represented not by shadow, but by the light that moves up the stairs and peers through the open door. Time is another major player in the story. The madman says that his nightly observation of the old man took place “in the hour of the slowest clock.” Shadows and time come together as the old man’s shadow spills out across the floorboards in stages to represent the madman’s week of patient waiting passing by. The face of a clock decays much like the full moon compared to the eye earlier, revealing its slowly turning gears as the madman describes the slowness of his movements as time itself grinding to a stop. When the old man is suddenly startled awake by the fluttering of a moth in front of the madman’s lantern and the madman snatching it from the air, the madman remains motionless for a full hour to avoid being seen and talks of being able to “feel the earth turn.”

It is impossible to discuss The Tell-Tale Heart without talking about James Mason in the role of the madman. Mason seems determined to put everything he possibly could into the performance, yet he does so without ever striking a false or hammy tone. The script itself is greatly changed from Poe’s original text, so much so that hardly a sentence remains that is completely intact. I am not sure what the reasoning behind this decision was, but one of the results is that some of Poe’s more archaic and verbose passages are lost, freeing up the visuals to tell their part of the story and Mason to give a tour-de-force performance that feels entirely natural. What Mason gives the story in place of what has been taken out is a tone of voice that brings out aspects of the character not evident in the original. Mason’s madman starts off with the calm retelling of his story that he believes will prove him sane. But as the story unfolds, he not only grows more agitated, but turns from being the narrator of past events to being completely present in the moment he is describing. He goes from describing his slow, careful movements as he enters the old man’s bedroom on that last fateful night to crying out in alarm when the disturbance of the moth threatens to unravel his plans. Neither the visuals of this film nor Mason’s performance can exist without the other. Mason’s narration becomes especially crucial when the madman is waiting silently in the darkness and there is nothing on the screen but black for nearly 20 seconds. It is he who makes clear the madman’s growing sense of dread as he hears the old man’s heartbeat grow louder and louder and begins to suspect that his victim and the entire world are aware of his presence and intentions, while abstract veiny patterns throbbing on the screen in time to the increasingly louder heartbeat give visual emphasis to the madman’s torment.


The actual murder is shown with the most actual animation in the film. The camera leaps past the white pitcher to where the terrified old man is huddles in his checkered bedspread. The distinctive black and yellow pattern not only makes the location – and later, the old man’s corpse wrapped in the bedspread – easy to recognize; it also gives definition and meaning to the swirls of black and yellow punctuated by the thrust of an arm and a ghoulish head that are the murder of the old man. There is no blood or weapon, but the stabbing staccato notes of the soundtrack, followed by a shot of the bedspread falling over a still hand, leaves no doubt of what has happened, even before the madman tells us that the heart was now still and the eye dead.


Numerous fans and critics have compared the style of this short to that of Salvador Dali and I think the resemblance is most striking in this shot. (I’ve reconstructed the complete artwork from the pan so you can see the whole thing.) The old man’s corpse, covered by the checkered bedspread, lies on the wood floor. Nearby are his bed and an overturned black table, both of which we’ll be seeing again. The white bedsheets are strewn over the window shutters, winding around to the top, where the shutters twist and skew strangely. The walls and ceiling are gone, leaving the room fully open to the night sky. “I was free,” says the madman and the absence of the walls could be seen as evidence of that freedom. But the full moon, already associated with the eye in our minds, looks down unimpeded over the whole scene. Even if the madman does not realize it, we know that his deed has not gone unnoticed and his freedom will not last.

No sooner has our narrator concealed the body beneath the floorboards and set the room back in order than a knock on the door draws his attention. “So soon?” he muses, bringing the theme of time back into the narrative. The neighbors heard a scream and called the police to investigate. The madman sounds as calm as we ever hear him as he easily explains both the scream and the old man’s absence. Our only clue to his inner fears is in the visuals, where the policemen turn from realistically rendered figured to rough black and white renderings of fragments of faces, brows drawn low and eyes staring accusingly. His voice does not betray any agitation until the moment the policemen are about to leave and, curiously, the madman asks them to stay for a cup of hot tea. Is he so completely convinced that he has committed the perfect crime that he can’t resist flaunting his success? Or is his reasoning, like his madness, beyond even the madman’s comprehension?


A dropped teacup lying shattered on the floor echoes the shattered white pitcher from earlier in the film and kicks off the madman’s downfall. The return of the heartbeat is represent by the repeated fall of single drops of water, though we never know if this is the real source of the sound. It hardly seems to matter. The madman is convinced that the sound is real, that he knows what it is, and that the policemen can all hear and identify it as well. The madman’s descent is portrayed through a series of nearly still images around the room: the table, the spilled tea on the floorboards, a shot of the whole room with the camera drawing closer and closer, step by step. At last, the madman can take it no longer. He screams out his confession and reveals the body in its checkered shroud to the policemen, now portrayed as dark, seemingly headless figures. They cast long shadows over the newly uncovered corpse as the madman wails “It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The next shot is of a metal surface with two neat lines of bolts, much like the two neat lines of buttons on the jackets worn by the policemen. We hear the madman repeat his admission from the beginning of the film that he is very dreadfully nervous. The camera pans up and to the left as the madman’s hand slams against the metal surface. A small, barred, window is revealed in what we now realize is a door, just like the other we can see through the window. It is now the madman’s only view of anything or anyone in the world outside of his cell. There is still no clear addressee as he plaintively asks “But why will you say that I am mad?”


The greatest achievement of UPA’s The Tell-Tale Heart is that it sheds a light on the story that even Poe’s original tale never does. The reader of Poe’s work is presented with the horror of conversing with a madman who thinks that he can prove that he is sane and his actions justified. The animated short introduces the new horror of being the madman so thoroughly trapped by his own madness that he cannot see what is wrong with him. Because we have literally experienced the whole series of events through his eyes, we can even sympathize with his predicament, condemned as insane and locked away for reasons he cannot understand. He is still just as frightening as he was when Poe created him, but it is just as frightening to think that our confidence in our own sanity may not reflect reality, that the way we see ourselves could be completely different from how the rest of the world sees us.

The passage of time is not always kind to visual innovation. What was once cutting edge and exciting can become conventional and familiar at best, dated and forgotten at worst. Some animation survives because of its solid story and characters, elements that stand the test of time when state-of-the-art visuals have become commonplace. It is a rare film that retains its power to shock audiences with its visuals and engage them with a compelling story over fifty years after its release. The Tell-Tale Heart is one such film and anyone who makes the effort to track it down is in for a rare treat.

All images in this article are copyright Columbia Pictures Television.

No comments:

Post a Comment