Connected \\ December 13, 2019
What is blue and white, makes you smarter and cracks you up?
I am the director of integrated media at PEM, but when people ask me what I do for a living I describe myself as a digital storyteller. In essence, I get to learn new things every day and find creative ways of sharing those things with visitors so that they can find their own meaning from them. So yes, as you might imagine, I love my job.
My team works closely with exhibition planners, curators, interpreters and the exhibition design team to cook up a whole range of experiences, like videos, immersive sound installations and touch screen interactives that aim to surprise and delight visitors. Hopefully this makes museum visits more memorable and enriching. I work with some incredibly talented and creative people, and we do a lot of work in-house, but sometimes we have the opportunity to collaborate with amazing outside partners on special projects.
Screen capture of landing page image on Fablevsion website
We recently had the privilege of working with the Boston based multimedia production company FableVision Studios on a short animation that is featured in the Asian Export Art gallery of our new expansion.
Checking location of the vase during construction phase of the project. Photo by Jim Olson
While PEM is well-known for its important collection of Asian Export Art, which is a big draw for scholars and porcelain enthusiasts, the project team hoped to create an experience that appealed to a wider range of visitors, something that brought the work to life in a new, more accessible way. The team was honest in assuming that some people, myself included, just find a room full of blue and white China pretty boring and we aimed to change that.
We wanted something that would be of interest to both experts and casual visitors, both children and adults, and it didn’t take long to figure out that we had the perfect, albeit crazy story to engage all audiences. I distinctly remember the moment that Karina Corrigan, PEM's H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art, told the team the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Augustus the Strong. The man was obsessed with porcelain, so obsessed that he imprisoned the alchemist Johann Böttger, who claimed that he could turn base metals into gold, thinking that if he had more gold, he could buy more porcelain. Not loony enough? Augustus traded 600 soldiers for 151 pieces of porcelain and remarkably, one of those vases is one of the centerpieces of the Asian Export Art installation. The story was so crazy that I knew a fun and punchy animation, sprinkled with some tongue-in-cheek dark humor and absurd scenes, would be the best way to tell it.
Asian Export Art gallery with Augustus the Strong vase and porcelain wall. Photo by Jim Olson
Most importantly, the ridiculous Augustus the Strong story ties to one of the overall themes of the reinstallation, that desire, obsession and greed have fueled our complex global economy for centuries. After watching the video, we hope visitors will introspectively question the role that desire and consumption plays in their own lives.
Before consulting with FableVision, the team did extensive research looking for other animations that explored historical events or told complex stories in innovative ways. We were particularly enamored with the wildly popular educational YouTube videos of CGP Grey and John and Hank Green’s Crash Course History series. They both create animations that are irreverently funny and full of facts that their millions of enthusiastic viewers eat up. I have to admit that it was pretty fun to sit in my office researching these videos as my colleagues walked by thinking I was slacking off ... again.
Moreover, I was also inspired by a couple of recent videos produced by museums that were somewhat unconventional, but hugely successful. The first was The Invention of Thanksgiving produced by my friend Dan Davis at the National Museum of the American Indian in collaboration with animator Josh Raskin. They animated a lecture by their associate curator Paul Chaat Smith that debunked the myth of Thanksgiving. The other was an absolutely hilarious tour of The Hammer Museum exhibition The Stories of Almost Everyone given by curator Aram Moshayedi with comedians Will Ferrell and Joel McHale as his guests.
We didn’t really have a strong sense of what the actual animation would look like, but we knew we wanted it to be playful, minimal, and make a nod toward the general palette of and styles depicted on blue and white China. The team at FableVision came up with several design comps, but our entire internal team immediately agreed that the moodboard depicted below, which included animations from Disney’s Moana, was a perfect design direction for the project.
Moodboard created by FableVision Studios.
Detail of dragon on Augustus the Strong vase.
With the aesthetic decisions made about look and feel, we needed to establish a main character or narrator for the story. We explored a few other options, but landed on the dragon depicted on the actual vase since the ultimate goal was to direct attention to the real vase displayed next to the animation.
You have no idea how pleased I was when I saw this first design draft for the main characters Dragon and Phoenix. They absolutely nailed the dragon on the first try. He was just plain perfect. One of my favorite details of the whole animation is when Dragon uses his tail to point at the Phoenix as if it is a hand, and for some reason it kills me every time! Watch the video, you will see what I mean!
Character studies by FableVision Studios.
FableVision had a couple of options for Phoenix and we asked them to meld a few of her characteristics and they came up with the perfect character below. I am not a tattoo guy, but if I ever got one I would consider this Phoenix! It totally fit the bill for the somewhat snarky, wise cracking character depicted in our script. At one point our interpreter and editor on the project, Jeanne Goswami, described Phoenix as her spirit animal! The characters became the perfect foil for each other.
The next step was to cast voice talent to tell the story in a compelling and dramatic way. FableVision auditioned six Chinese American actors, three women for the role of Phoenix and three men for Dragon. As is generally the case with animations, the professional voice talent really seals the deal in bringing the characters to life.
Character studies by FableVision Studios.
August the Strong vase with middle portion left blank as backdrop for animated characters.
Augustus the Strong’s vase, which is in our permanent collection, is mounted on a pedestal directly above the two touch screens playing the animation (illustrated in previous gallery image). As you will see in the video, we used the surface of the vase as the backdrop where Dragon comes to life. Meanwhile Phoenix lives on a plate similar to some of the plates installed in the galleries.
It was really fun to see the draft drawings become full-fledged animations and feel the entire story coming together and getting fleshed out. Here is one example of a draft and the finished scene.
Draft drawing of porcelain factory scene.
Final porcelain factory scene
As you watch the video, pay attention to the fun sound effects, hilarious facial expressions, and subtle jokes. I still find myself chuckling when I watch it again.
Augustus the Strong imprisons Johann Bottger
FableVision script document.
While our internal PEM team had a really good idea where they wanted the story to go, we knew we needed the expertise of FableVision’s talented writing staff to fine tune the script and to find the right language to make it all work. They came up with some wonderful material that kept a perfect balance between just simply funny and entertaining, and didactic yet memorable. Take a look at this draft script to get a sense of how the language and the camera pans and shifts work together to unfold the story and keep it interesting.
We waited until the very end of production to give the piece a title and I have to say our discussions got really interesting. We wanted it to be eye catching and funny, but we really needed it to give visitors a true sense of what the story was all about. We also wanted to send a signal to adults that this wasn’t just a cartoon for kids. While we ended up calling it Obsessed: The Augustus the Strong Story, here are some of the funnier alternatives that we contemplated:
Atop the Porcelain Throne: The Story of Augustus the Strong
Cracked: The Story of Augustus the Strong
Porcelmania: The Augustus the Strong Story
Augustus the Strong: The Elector Collector
Still from screen saver image. Augustus the Strong swimming through porcelain.
So, what is blue and white, makes you smarter and cracks you up? Well I hope it is this video! Give it a watch and let us know what you think.