Toon of the month: Unity

Tobias Stretch’s stunning short animates life in one fell swoop.

Chris Robinson
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When you’ve been watching 2,000 or so animation films a year for two decades it becomes increasingly rare to find a film that surprises you, gives you glorious goosebumps and triggers a series of profane verbal outbursts that bemuse and confuse your colleagues. But it happened this year to me courtesy of American animator Tobias Stretch’s glorious music video for Christopher Bono’s haunting choral piece, Unity, a meditation on Plato’s question in The Republic, “What is absolute unity?”

After a transient man appears to die outside an abandoned shack on a beautiful fall day, a trio of otherworldly figures appear (are they angels? Ghosts? People from the man’s past? Parts of him?) and initiate a sort of ritualised dance of reclamation/regeneration with our hobo friend. (Stretch calls the characters, who stand at over five feet tall, ‘puppetures’. They are made of PVC, armature wire and various kinds of foam and paint.)

I’m not much for notions of the afterlife (not that Unity is necessarily saying there is such a thing) or us having a soul; I’ve always preferred Heraclitus’s notion that we never step into the same river twice because we (including nature) are always in a state of transformation, that our physical/mental/emotional landscapes are always changing even if it’s barely perceptible to others or ourselves. I like to think of the notion of ‘God’ as finding yourself, which harkens back to that Delphic aphorism ‘know thyself’. And maybe it’s only in death – when we return to the beginning and merge with nature/the universe – that we can achieve that sense of harmony or oneness.

That notion does seem to be at the root of Unity – although part of the film’s richness stems from its mystery and ambiguity. It’s only in death that this suffering transient finds a state of calm and balance with himself, nature and the universe.

Stretch’s unusual techniques (a combination, he says, of “stop-motion, HDR, street/landscape animation and some frame-blending in post”) give the film, which took a year to make, a restless, ethereal quality. Nothing, no one is still. The landscapes, seasons, figures are in a constant state of flux and unrest. We’re never sure what’s real or not. Was the rural landscape merely in the mind of the dying transient man – perhaps a memory of a childhood home – or was it the moment where his life changed before he become an urban street dweller? Fittingly, it’s the seamless unity of sound, concept and visuals that elevate Unity from your average age-old story about spiritual transformation/redemption into the sphere of the magical, ambiguous, inspiring and soul-shivering.

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