Revisiting Dance in Woodward’s “Thought of You”

A couple of weeks ago I found a link to Ryan Woodward’s “Thought of You.” Woodward is apparently a storyboarder for Hollywood movies. This piece, though, is the opposite of what one would expect from Hollywood. An exploration of form and the potential for expression of movement in animation, it looks to maximize upon minimization. Using actual dancers directed by a modern dance choreographer as a guide, Woodward hand drew his own interpretation of the dance. The focus is not on the dancers, though, perhaps most clearly exemplified by their using two pairs of dancers as the basis for the animation. Instead, the focus is on the dancers’ movements ,and the emotions those movements embody.

Set to “World Spins Madly On” by The Weepies, the dance is a love story that begins as a man’s effervescent and ephemeral dream of the woman he loved, but ends with the man leaving the woman when her form hardens from his dreams into reality. At the moment she turns to him, real at last, his form loses the shadowing that signified his concrete nature. The dance speaks of the man’s deep love for the woman he once knew, a love that was tainted by some event in the past, building a rift between him and the woman she now is. At the same time that she changes from an ephemeral spirit he realizes that he can no longer be with her, and it is she who lays heartbroken on the floor in the end. Longing, love, and sorrow are in their abstract portrayal, perhaps most easily understood, and that is how they are portrayed here, in all their heartrending beauty. For when was love ever something concrete and easily grasped?

The strength and originality of Woodward’s portrayal rides upon many factors. Firstly, the dancers are portrayed in a draft form, the guidelines and circles that make up the dancers underlying forms still visible, while hands and feet remain drawn in often the only vaguest fashion, and their faces are left completely blank aside from guidelines. Secondly, the woman is drawn in white with no shading what-so-ever, and with the man sometimes showing through the undefined lines of her body, while the man is drawn in black with some shading. All of this occurs on a beige background, completely blank aside from one scene in which day turns to night, and the background darkens with a solitary white crescent moon shining out. The woman with her white form often shapeshifts and vanishes, turning to water, air, thread, and a bird. Although the man also shapeshifts in one scene, his transformation results in his grounding in the earth, in contrast to the woman’s release from it.

Yet, for all of the simplicity of the portrayal of the dancers’ forms, there is incredible detail in their execution. Hair and dresses flow gracefully, individual feathers fall from wings, threads flow into circles and sparkles, and pebbles fly up from the ground. Movement is emphasized by wisps of mist following the woman’s movements. The pliable nature of animation also allows movements to be frozen in time, slowed down, and speed up seamlessly.

The shift in the woman’s form from ephemeral to tangible, and the shift in the man’s form from tangible to ephemeral in a less obvious nature is achieved through color, detail, and shading. With darker colors, more details, and shading the forms appear to us to be more tangible. The beauty of animation is that this shift can be woven seamlessly into the work, rather than the glaring visual shifts we see in live action movies. While the woman’s final shift from white to black and shaded is clear, the man’s shift from shaded to unshaded at the same moment is far more subtle, although out eyes naturally recognize this and focus on the woman as the more concrete of the two.

In short, through employing the potential for minimalist representations of the dancer’s appearances, in contrast with detailed representations of their movements, Woodward allows us to see dance for what it is: movement. And in doing so he gives us something beautiful, graceful, and seemingly timeless in its simplicity. With all the recent emphasis on detailed computer graphics in place of the simplistic cartoons of the past, perhaps Woodward’s dance will allow us to remember the value that can be added to works through simplicity rather than simply through added detail.

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