09 Jun 2017

Reflections from an Animal Kingdom

by Dean Kavanagh

I never had designs to create any kind of authoritative document on witchcraft in Europe or elsewhere, though these are moments in history that interest me. I was more concerned about addressing a certain overlap between practices of witchcraft and cinema itself.  Filmmaking is an unusual practice, the coming-together of different people in a pact to achieve the completion of a strange audio-visual artefact and then to offer it up on the alter of cinema as a record of time. Consider then that this ethereal artefact does not truly exist in the same way that you or I do, and the very nature of the movie-going experience is ritual to this artefact; we sit in a darkened space where we are both together and alone staring up at the large, flat void, and we wait. A person will appear in silhouette visible through a tiny window at the rear of the auditorium and from this booth they will inaugurate the proceedings. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographic series of long exposures from old grand movie theatres reveals a pseudo-religious spectacle: lavishly decorated rooms, some as tall as churches, all of the pews empty and facing a large rectangular vortex glowing an immaculate white. When looked at from a distance, this is a completely surreal ceremony that we all accept and some of us deeply require.

 Lake Atlitlan, Guatemala, c. 1875-76, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), © Kingston Museum and Heritage Service, 2010

Cinema was built on the back of illusionists such as the great Georges Méliès who defined the single cut through which we could achieve an infinity of (im)possibilites. The question is not whether or not you believe in black magic or wizardry but rather appreciate the detailed system of trickery in force; it does not matter if it is real or a fake, “it’s whether it’s a good fake or a bad fake” (F for Fake, 1973). Under the spell of cinema the masses flocked in droves to sit silent and obedient in near total darkness and await instruction. Filmmaking is the art of trickery, a form of charlatanism with sleight-of-hand technique at its epicentre, and the greatest works of cinematic art render the audience complicit in the illusion.

The Sin [Die Sünde] (1893), Oil on canvas, Franz von Stuck  (1863 – 1928)

Animal Kingdom was informed by the great masters of silent cinema such as Georges Méliès, Benjamin Christensen, F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, Segundo de Chomón and R.W. Paul among others. Visually the work of Salvator Rosa, Francisco de Goya, Agostino Veneziano, John Martin, Francis Danby and Franz von Stuck are very important to the film. I feel there is a particular influence of luminist Albert Bierstadt, as well as photographers Edweard Mybrudge, William Hope and Frank Hurley.  I was inspired by much 16th and 17th century music for lute and theorbo, in particular the work of Johann Daniel Mylius. This was stewed in an atmosphere of Aleister Crowley, Franz Kafka, Georges Bataille, and to a certain degree J.G. Ballard and Louise Cooper (The Book of Paradox, 1973), and a formative trip to the Zeiss planetarium in Jena, Germany. Much information gleaned from these sources became a pseudo-screenplay of sorts which guided me through most of the pre-production. To a certain degree the film shed this formative skin and began to metamorphose into something quite different – after all a film dictates where it wants to go. It proceeds like Frankenstein’s monster turning back on its creator with murder in its eyes; after a certain point you can only move out of the way.

Spirit photography by William Hope (1863–1933), Paranormal Investigator

Filmmaking for me is a séance activity, one that connects the living with a past. It could be seen as an equivalent to a form of sorcery or necromancy.  I wanted to create a film that preys on the atmosphere of the cinema space, activating those moments in the dark in an attempt to utilise the cinema theatre to its fullest sensory potential. My aim was to create a film narrativity that is at times akin to a driver-less truck spinning out of control – a detailed system in which there is a sense of danger and chaos for the audience. As Raul Ruiz once said “[…] whenever we see a film, we in fact see two films: the one we watch, and the one that watches us” (Ruiz, 2005). I want to cast a spell on the audience; as if there is a demon in the film lurking in the void between the frames.


-F for Fake (1975) [film] USA: Orson Welles

-Ruiz, R. (2005). Cinema is Another Life. LOLA, [online] (Issue 2: Devils). Available at: http://www.lolajournal.com/2/cinema_another_life.html [Accessed 22 May 2017].

-Featured image: Animal Kingdom (2017) hand-painted 70mm celluloid, 5K digital intermediate, Dean Kavanagh