Automata Films
Detail of music box from the Musicians Automata installation by Jessica Field

Jessica Field

Automata Silent Film Series, 2011

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Automata Silent Films from Jessica Field on Vimeo.

Overview

This project is comprised of 3 silent films that portray ideas using automata actors, a blackboard drawing that scientifically isolates the importance of each automata film and draws connections between them to explain a larger view. Lastly, the automata mechanisms that control the characters are displayed as inanimate sculptures so the only proof that they do anything at all is in the films.

The first film is called the Musicians; it is a spin off to the commercial dramatizations used in the early days of silent film that were played before the feature presentation.

The second film is called the Parable of the Strawberry; it is an automata dramatization of a parable from Zen Buddhism from the sutras told by the Indian Patriarch, Bodhidarma in 4th to 6th century A.D.

The last film is called Death and the Maiden; it uses a piano accompaniment to dramatize the famous story in the history of painting of death coming to take the maiden away.

Concept

Schematic of Parabolic Behaviours Blackboard drawing by Jessica Field
Schematic of Parabolic Behaviours (12 ft h x 14 ft w) Blackboard Drawing


To read about the concepts around the blackboard drawing click on image to go to magnifier and explanation.

The Musicians is a piece that plays with the contradictions between the beauty of handcrafted objects that appear to play music and the limitations of a mechanical instrument in playing sounds. The instruments are beautiful and have a handcrafted feel but without the human player they sound like a monotonous shadow of themselves. The video intentionally is silent as it advertises the grandeur of the automata as a piece of perfection to give the viewer time to make their own assumptions of how good the piece will sound. Then at the climax the reality of the piece is revealed in the tune Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The Parable of the Strawberry is a koan that deals with a man who is trapped by two tigers on a cliff and two mice are eating away at a stick that he is holding on to dear life. Instead of panicking and living the last few moments of his life in terror and bitterness about what a horrible way to go that life nothing but a rock and a hard place with no compromises but eminent death. The man sees a strawberry and takes his last pleasure by eating it and enjoying every moment of the taste of it and dies in a state of obliviousness to anything but the taste of the strawberry. The mystery of the koan lies in how can a person be able to do that, eat and enjoy a strawberry minutes before their death with no awareness of peril? Thus, the years of religious pursuit would begin.

The automata actors are not real so the story is not just about a koan from an ancient time. It is automatized, fake and superficial in its repetition of an important event so does the original meaning have any hold on the viewer or is it lost because of the inanimate and repetitive quality of the work?

Death and the Maiden is a film where a Maiden is fawning over all of her belongings by obsessively touching and looking at them until Death comes from the floor and takes her away underneath. Her stuff is all that remains of her.

Technical Info

To make this project, I researched many automata books on how to make mechanisms. My favourite of my series of books is by a Canadian Rodney Frost from Orillia, Ontario who wrote a great book called Making Mad Toys and Mechanical Marvels in Wood. Without this book, I would not have been able to make the band for the Musicians so the piece is in some respect an ode to the maker who wrote this wonderful book.

My other great book is the Cabaret of Mechanical Movement written by Aidan Lawrence Onn and Gary Alexander. It is published by Cabaret of Mechanical Theatre a wonderful organization in England. There are plenty of great You Tube videos of their work and they have many great ideas in how to make things move.

These automata pieces were first made in cardboard, foam core and paper to plan how they would work. When the plans were finished, I then made the pieces out of wood and then fastened motors onto each mechanism. The pieces are not computer controlled yet. I have yet to add the switches and sensors required to replace the manual switch operating system with an automated computer.