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Rolling Through Time (Evocative Animated Short)

Animation and reanimation of the spirit of play

This evocative (3-minute) animated short was created by graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University. (If video isn't playing try clicking here)

What do you think is happening? What is your interpretation of the ending?

Eavesdrop on my conversation with one of the creators …

Me: This piece is an open canvas – there's no speech or text, and barely a title. It's like a projective test. I bet every viewer will see something a bit different. It’s quite layered.

John Baxa: I’m not sure my friends who made this with me or I have all the layers yet. I think we have to experience more of life first.

But Time has always been interesting to me. It’s this thing we all experience together but we are not aware of it, and yet it takes hold of us. And there are these few cultural moments - like when you turn 21, or 30 - when we stand back and see it happen.

Me: I love how at the very beginning, the old man is shown as almost inseparable from the park bench. The park bench is striped, like a jail. He’s almost inorganic like part of the chair and also imprisoned. When the ball comes to annoy him, that’s when he starts to move around.

John: Yes, at the beginning he’s annoyed by the ball and I guess it’s a very adult thing unfortunately. Things that used to inspire us and make us feel happy as kids no longer hold that same power, either because we forget the power they had, or we actively reject them to say ‘I am an adult’. I wanted the ball to encourage him to recover where it all began, by being about play.

Me: Everyone will draw lines between what's imagined, what's metaphorical, and what's real in a different way ... it really is like a projective test.

The way I see this is that it’s in his mind. As he continues to go after this ball, in his mind he is younger and younger, and he’s bounding. And the transformation inside is what makes the sky and the trees and all the world around him change color.

John: When we were animating that passage, I asked the artist in our group: "make sad trees, then sort of happy trees, and then super-happy trees". Also with the sky, we started with stark white but studied color palettes from different decades- what colors were popular in the 70s, 80s, 90s.

And the red ball, of course - red is love, anger, passion.

Me: Yes, is it a real ball or if not? And what does it symbolize? This seems open to your own reading...

Me: I haven't worked out the symbolism of the ball. But as a psychologist interested in perceptual illusions, that red ball was fascinating to me. I watched the short five times before I realized that the red ball isn’t rolling! It’s shifting on the horizontal plane and pulsing slightly, but we interpret it as rolling …

John: You’re right, it’s not rolling.

Me: Also, at first it looks like a flat red circle but as the landscape gets more layered, it’s amazing how it gains dimension and it seems to turn into a ball!

Can you talk about the music? It has a transcendent quality.

John: It’s ‘Words’ by Goldmund, the artist Keith Kenniff. We chose this music because it was really beautiful and one of the most cinematic pieces we found. From an animation and storytelling standpoint, the piece felt like it had an act structure that could mirror the story we were trying to tell. And from a functional standpoint, the song's changes happen almost every 10 seconds, allowing us to plan the animations more easily.

Me: What happens toward the end, when you see the ball “rolling” up to the small child?

John: Well, it could be that the boy is himself, a younger version, and that’s why he has a natural impulse to turn away? Or... could it be a real child? The child understands what a ball is, what play is, and his natural reaction is to pick up the ball and toss it to another person. At first the man’s surprised and then he becomes the self he feels inside and has sort of discovered.

Me: Oh, I see the child as real. It’s at the moment when he sees the real child that the man loses the illusion that he’s young. It’s a shock into reality - and that’s when he has to turn away. But in the end he starts to chase after the boy rather than the ball. He has found a way to reconnect with his youth in a way that's real, versus symbolic.

John: You’re giving me a flashback to when I was structuring that moment. I wanted that confrontation to happen and for him to end in a positive place.

Me: As a developmentalist, I also see echoes of Erik Erikson of course. The boy may be in the stage of Initiative vs. Guilt. He shows agency and purpose in picking up the ball and throwing it to someone.

And the old man is facing Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Past and present are intertwined for him. He's got to wrestle with fully accepting his life with all its triumphs and defeats, and what was accomplished and what was left behind.

So: if you were to tell the visual story in a sentence, how would you do it?

John: I’d say it’s about an old man walking through all of his past selves and going back to his youth and trying to recover the spirit … that's still there.

"In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play."

~Friedrich Nietzsche

Animation short by John Baxa, Phillip Chung, Hongsa Chen, and Victor Qin: Carnegie Mellon University.

Music: ‘Words’ by Goldmund (Keith Kenniff)

Post by Dr. Siu-Lan Tan, co-author of Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance and co-editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia

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