Volstok x Hazazah: The Art Dispute (2021)
Above: animation-centric cut of series trailer
The Art Dispute is an 8-episode documentary television series about historical artifacts that have been stolen -across the world and throughout recent centuries- to be put on display in prestigious European museums. Each episode traces back the journey of a particular item, revealing a continuing history of greed, deceit and bloodshed at the hands of Western imperialism. For depicting any historical events (such as the actual theft of the artifacts) the series’ creators wanted to work with animation.
The in-house team of animation veterans at Volstok have been involved with the production from its early stages. They were initially asked to develop an illustrative visual style that wouldn’t be too manipulative towards the viewer. After all, the series’ main intention was (and still is) to open up the debate about rightful ownership in changing times, rather than casting judgement.
However, as the edits of the first episodes advanced it became clear that the series would be at risk of watering down the violent and unjust nature of some events by keeping the animation style too neutral or abstract.
By the time I was brought on board, the Volstok crew had already done a lot of the heavy lifting by pushing their earlier designs and animation tests to the limits and determining what would and wouldn’t work for the evolving tone of the live action part of the series. I was tasked with a complete redesign and animation.
The vision behind the redesign was to avoid subtlety (I now realize I was indeed the right person for this job). We wanted to highlight the brutality of the past, making it confrontational rather than illustrative. Characters are ugly creepy puppets. Colours are flat and intense. There are only pure black hard edge shadows. Everything is covered in a thick dusty layer of grain.
The style intentionally avoids any pretense of realism. It refuses to make up the viewers’ mind for them through any sort of dark pattern. The patterns at work are quite obvious, actually. The truth within these animations is of a mire mythical nature, similar to how it might be experienced in dreams, theatrical performance or folk art. Indeed the traditional visual culture attached to each artifact(1) has greatly informed the animation design.
Other notable influences would be European and American comic book art, expressionist cinema, and post-anime limited animation techniques (2).
The first 4 episodes have been completed and broadcast on Dutch television in early 2021. A follow-up run of 4 more episodes is planned for the near future.
(1) The influence of culture-specific traditional art on Art Dispute’s animation style happened on two levels. That of the artifact’s country of origin, as well as the country where the artifact is being preserved. For example the episode on Congo naturally features colours and iconography inspired by Congolese art. But the unsettling sequences taking place in Belgium do seem to have traces of Magritte and Ensor in their DNA.
(2) Compare, for example, the sequence from The Art Dispute in which Greek statues are transported at sea during a storm (embedded below) with the inventive kitsch masterpiece La Serenissima (Guido Manuli, early 1980s).
Above: standalone edits of sequences from Episode 1, set in 18th century Sri Lanka under siege by the Dutch.
Below: various looping animation excerpts from (top to bottom) episode 4 (Egypt-Germany), episode 1 (Sri Lanka-Netherlands) and episode 2 (Greece-England)
Documentary director: Hans Pool
Documentary presentation: Erik Dijkstra
Creative direction: Wouter Sel
Animation, design, compositing: Joel Rabijns
Additional animation: Soren Selleslagh, Dries Van Broeck, Manpaard
Animation production: Johanna Keppens
Animation project manangement: Sarah Verhofstadt
Documentary production: Maarten Kuit, Jeroen van den Idsert