ROME – There’s just something special about animation. Cartoons and computer-animated films have demonstrated time and time again that this medium is not just a success at the box-office, but also in the hearts of children and many adults alike.
Mix that with a powerful Christian undertone, and you’ve got a winner.
‘Message of the Animals,’ born from the creative mind of director Elke Markopoulos and the technical skills of Rainer Ludwigs, does just that, marrying the religious symbols of Christianity with a compelling animation and message.
The nine-minute film was the first animated movie to be nominated for best short at the eighth annual Catholic Film Festival, Mirabile Dictu, founded in 2010 by the filmmaker and producer Liana Marabini under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
This film is a long way from the loud musical numbers and big-eyed characters of other animated films, such as the successful Disney and DreamWorks features. Instead, with no dialogue and realistic animation, the short takes a more muted approach aimed at encouraging the viewer to look inside himself through “the poetical and associative impressions and symbols.”
The story, which treats man’s exploitation of the earth’s natural resources and the consequential destruction of its creatures, becomes something that the audience must internalize by analyzing its own relationship with nature.
“It is part of the concept to create these films without any dialogue or any other explanation during the film. I prefer to let the pictures speak,” explained Markopoulos, who is Greek Orthodox, in an email. “I wanted to bring forward the urgent need of all creation, in this case especially the one of the Animals.”
This is Markopoulos’s third short film, aimed at showing what will happen if humanity continues to pollute and destroy the natural habitat of all living beings. According to the director this would lead to the destruction of “the biggest gift we got, which is life itself.”
According to statistics by the World Wildlife Fund, more than 10,000 animals are extinct every year due to human-caused habitat destruction and climate change, leading experts to declare a slow-acting and progressive extinction crisis.
The importance of promoting the marriage between faith and care for creation has been an important focus in the current pontificate. In his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis underlined the importance of encouraging a sustainable relationship between humanity and the other living creatures that populate the planet.
“An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world,” the pope wrote. “Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.”
Again, while speaking with leaders of the Pacific Islands Forum in early November Francis called the international community to cooperate to combat climate change. Such a shared approach “can prevent us from remaining indifferent in the face of grave problems such as the deterioration of the environment and of the health of the oceans, which is itself linked to the human and social deterioration experienced by humanity today,” he said.
Though Markopoulos said that she did not have Francis’s words in mind when she began to develop the concept and story of the short, she feels “close” to him and his concerns. “I appreciate very much that he himself is creating strong impressions in the way he celebrates his view on life and faith through his position,” she said.
From the very beginning, ‘Message of the animals’ is wrought with Christian symbolism. Images drawn from the Bible, such as Noah’s Ark and the Annunciation, are ever-present, starting with the opening sequence, where the Archangel Gabriel – as painted by Italian master Botticelli – gifts the Virgin Mary with a Lily.
“This is the key for understanding the message of this film,” Markopoulos said in reference to the scene. “Within this symbol we get the ‘link’ to think of the sense of the message of Jesus. He came to us and gave us through his life and words a treasure of ethical values. By turning our life again towards the worth of his universal love and the peaceful treatment towards ourselves and others, there will be hope for the existence of all beings.”
The short is also an ecumenical endeavor, with different Christian beliefs cooperating in its development. The creators, Rainer Ludwigs and Tetyana Chernyavska, are respectively Protestant and Russian Orthodox and see in their work a representation of the positive union between religion and environmentalism.
“I think we could be kind of avant gard with this movement,” said Ludwigs in an interview with Crux, adding that he is pleased and encouraged to see how the Catholic Church advocates for the care of the environment and hopes that it will continue to do so in the future.
Animation, he added, is the perfect medium to communicate between faiths and beliefs, as was shown by the short’s appreciation in countries such as Bali, India, China and Eastern Europe. “Everybody has his own very individual view on his religion and that fits with the art of animation, because animation is also not really concrete,” Ludwigs said.
Through Christian iconography and images of animals vanishing in a cloud of black smoke, viewers are encouraged to connect the dots in order to contemplate the lasting effects of human development on the planet.
“I thought it was interesting to make a film just out of pictures,” Ludwigs continued, saying that the artistic vision of the director created a stimulating and different take on storytelling. “Our part was to make these pictures concrete. It was a real challenge because she would tell us about something she feels and we had to find pictures for what she could have meant.”
The entire film is computer generated, except for a sequence showing hands and fists reaching into the screen, which were shot live with a camera and then edited to blend into the animation. “The hands that grab to the air are meant to show our [desire] for material things, for money, but in the end we will be left with empty hands,” Ludwigs explained.
Despite its subtle warning, the short finishes with hope for the future with a dolphin leaping out of water symbolizing a positive outlook for animals. While some might consider this perspective overly optimistic, given the rate at which animals are endangered and the lack of global commitment to combat climate change, it provokes a debate over what would happen if people of different faiths and cultures worked together to ensure the survival of the planet and all its creatures.
“Everybody and everything has its own value and therefore we have to learn again to be careful and be respectful towards all that is existing,” Markopoulos said. “We are asked to take responsibility and give turn again to the true values we all carry inside.”