Excerpt from Application for Research Grant


The principal aim of the proposed study is to negotiate successful creative collaborations with artists of other disciplines. The completion of this research would yield an exquisite eight-minute computer animated opera. The digital work would be a composite of human performance, computer animation, and original music. This work requires the exploration of original cutting-edge processes of computer animation. The proposer would collaborate with a music director, seven vocalists, a sound engineer, and a small film production crew.

Background - Contemporary Collaborative Work in Cinema

We are approaching a new Renaissance, in which artists and scientists from every discipline are meeting in the creation of fantastic new media art forms. Hybrid works incorporating new languages and ideas of theater, music, computer engineering, cinema, genetic engineering, astronomy, painting, biology, architecture, animation, poetry, and literature are emerging. Many of these works over-consciously tote the interdisciplinary aspect of their works as being revolutionary, some may prove to transform our lives.

The value can be quantified in several ways. We can think about the value of the work itself, which when viewed by a general audience, allows for interpretations that tend to explore human culture in the said work as a complex, interrelated network of metaphoric ideas. Secondly, by creating new formulas of expression in these works, we revitalize our methods of research. These collaborations offer opportunities of discovery for finding the role of digital media in fine art practices. Thirdly, when we collaborate with masters of other media, possibly from other nations, we deepen the implications of our research and expand the language of our work. And finally, by collaborating we find the opportunity to make fantastic large-scaled works, consisting of interlocking, well-crafted components.

A striking example of cross-disciplinary dialogs that reiterate parallel themes is in a recent work, Monsters of Grace, by Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson. Monsters of Grace, an opera written in the 70's by Glass, is inspired by the lyrics of the 13th century Persian mystic Jelaluddin Rumi. In 1998 Glass and Wilson contracted a computer animation company, the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, to "collaborate" in the creation of a theatrical opera consisting of live music and stereoscopic large-projection computer animated scenes. For Wilson, this proved to be "one of the most embarrassing things in my life." (Salon, June 99) Wilson was very displeased with his collaborative relationship with Kleiser-Walczak because the incorporation of this technology proved to render the creative process immalleable. This is indicative of the experience artists have when working on high-tech projects managed by commercial agents. The conflict is a struggle between the streamlined creative process of the industry, and the free form, less economical, creative process of the independent artist. A solution might be in finding a creative process protocol for collaborative communication.

Mathew BarneyŐs recent series of well-funded, highly regarded films, Cremaster 1-7, have succeeded in supporting a very visceral and sculptural vision. Barney, a contemporary sculptor, has been endowed for the past decade with the opportunity to work with a professional production crew, composers, costume designers, animal trainers, landscape architects, and actors. The finished works are stunning, enduring artworks. Nevertheless, BarneyŐs collaborative relationships are different than those formed in the production of Monsters of Grace. Glass, Wilson and Kleiser-Walczak join to discover parallel visions. Mathew Barney curates members with specialized skills and particular aesthetic sensibilities towards the creation of a monolithic vision.

Description of Proposed Research

The principal investigator of this grant is a practicing studio artist who has created short poetic films combining various media such as digital sound, digital video, film, original music, and computer animation. The completed works have been exhibited internationally in digital film festivals, animation screenings, contemporary art galleries and in new-media conferences. Recent artworks exhibited by the proposer have been recognized for both their technical craftsmanship and their conceptual sophistication.

The proposed digital work would be an 8 minute musical animation. The operatic work would quiver with call and answer chants between an "actual" twelve year old human actor, and a computer generated donkey. The libretto, a short poem of seven stanzas, was written in the spring of 1999 by the proposer.

One summer evening in Beirut, a boy enters his last philosophical dialogue with a donkey beneath a moon-lit willow tree. We see beautiful animated shadows cast across the set by the swaying movement of the willow branches. They exchange their beliefs on the human relationships with decisions, faith, appetite, patience, observation, spirit, and finally love. As we listen to these chants, we see abstracted underwater sequences with large swimming turtles, we watch a black-eyed pea prancing on the rim of a bowl of "hoppin-john", and many other rich, dream like montages.

Act III - Appetite Act IV - Patience

current and raw oats, red dots so soaked
bring a bread, vigil and thigh
celery, roll peas, cold fibrous root
andouille, black eye, and chive
sip wine, surrender flight
choose carefully, and right

when you were thinking. . .
on the leaves of weeping willow trees?
of their weight and lightness
of their lines of kindness
root tips crest fallen feathers. . .
sorted thoughts sing.

Although the lyrics were originally penned in English, they have experienced the intentional residual effects of an english-spanish-english translation. In this cinematic exploration of very particular relationships and meaningful environments, the translation of language signifies the transformation of ideas as language is reinterpreted during our travels, immigration experiences, and between the generations of our families. This personal exploration of a youthful immigration and a newly forming consciousness is at the heart of Joshua's thinking. The lyrics will be translated to Arabic, music will be scored, and the opera will be sung by seven qawwals. The recorded performance will become the soundtrack for the animation.

Innovative Technical Aspects

This production of this work would require original technical inquiry.

  • The natural swaying motion of the three dimensional willow branches will be achieved by a combination of computer programming and virtual reality simulations. The simulations operate on the behaviors of dynamic forces such as gravity and wind. Maya, the animation industries' most powerful open-architecture software, has been used in the production of recent feature film special effect simulations. The proposed work will combine Maya's tools with original animation processes.
  • Develop techniques which combine real actors with computer animated actors (Digital Compositing).
  • Develop personalized characteristics and effective techniques for lip syncing for virtual actors (the singing donkey).
  • A continued exploration in the language of film montage and digital non-linear editing.
  • The soundtrack will be digitally recorded, mixed, and mastered.

Specific Objectives

The objectives of completing this work are:

  • The publication of the proposerŐs work in established venues, (e.g. in digital film festivals, animation screenings, contemporary art galleries and in new-media conferences), will strengthen the international reputation of the University of Pennsylvania in its' high level of integrity towards digital media research.
  • The interaction of the collaborating project members spans nations (Canada, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, and the United States) and span disciplines (film lighting, direction of photography, language translation, music, and computer animation). These aspects provide for productive dialogues which have great potential for expanding our understanding of culture, and our developing languages of integrated media.
  • The exploration of strategies for interdisciplinary collaboration will be documented and applied towards further research in collaborative work.
  • Computer animations are quite common. Passionate, concept-driven computer animated works are a rare art. The completion of this digital film incorporating cutting-edge animation technologies would be a prized accomplishment.
  • The process of working on this animation will allow the proposer to contemplate the pedagogical placement of digital media in the school of Fine Arts.
  • Exploration of Innovative Technical Aspects (above) that are useful for further work and in teaching
  • The production of this work will help in gaining future funded projects because it would serve as a component of future proposals, and it will naturally suggest new directions for further research in this field.

Time Frame

The digital film would be released August 20th, 2001.


The implementation of the work would include its submissions to international festivals, conferences, and galleries.