An analysis of the stop motion film – Dog, by Suzie Templeton, UK, 2001
This short write-up is an analysis of how I think Susie Templeton has used animation in the most effective way to bring out a strong emotional reaction in her audience and at the same time hint at an underlying meaning. It also looks at how animation as an art form has been used to tell a subtle story that would not have the same impact if told in another way.
You can see the film page on her website for more details on the film and how to buy it (not an affiliate link! I just like to promote the idea that it’s cool to support animation artists).
From an interview in ‘Animation Unlimited: Innovative Short Films Since 1940’ book by Liz Faber and Helen Walters, 2004, Suzie Templeton says the following about her work:
“For me it is vital to distill the essence of the idea and concentrate continually on that essence… short films allow small forgotten moments to come to the forefront rather than the heroic journeys of so many features. The short form encourages the expansion of the minute rather than the condensation of the huge.”
“My films don’t fall into the category of ‘art’ but they are not just illustrations of stories. They are creations born of obsession and will, which have a life of their own beyond my intention.”Suzie Templeton
How does the film work?
Mystery of the ordinary, the everydayness of it. Extraordinary emotional turmoil underneath an exterior of routine normality. Repetition of the good night scene, the daily activities of cleaning, brushing hair, looking at a book. The film opens with a pan across an ordinary moment, dog sleeping, reading a book, or not because the eyes tell us that something else is going on. The sound of the feet in the background warns us that what is unseen is as important as what will be seen. This is the perfect setup for a film like this. As an audience we are set off on the right path, we know now how to approach this film. This is a world where all is not what it seems on the surface.
Minimal means – Templeton only shows us what is absolutely necessary, nothing extraneous, no wastage on ‘telling the plot’. That’s not what it’s really about, she is leading us to the real point of the film, the heart of the film – which is how the characters feel.
Acting – expressive characters, head, eyes, and hands do almost all of the acting. Often they are the only things in the frame that are moving. Those are the most expressive parts of us so that’s why. Body language tells us most of what is going on inside a person, so that’s why it is essential in this kind of film.
The plot is the back story, told as an aftermath situation. The plot is more the means by which to explore these emotions. The film is about feelings, not the plot. So the plot may as well be the back story.
This film allows the audience to keep actively engaged by giving them enough but not too much. We are constantly trying to decipher the story and fill the gaps, therefore we are made to care, to engage. We guess that the mum has died long before we are told it. We also guess that the dog will die too, but the bigger story of the boy’s father and mum overshadow the dog’s situation making it all the more shocking when we see how it dies. That is something we weren’t expecting.
Meaningful silences, ambiguity in dialogue, what is not said becomes important. Also the mistruths in the dialogue, “he’s fine” when the dog is clearly not, “he died peacefully”, and the silences that follow. Dialogue in this world will not tell us what is going on, again we are pushed to look for the truth on another level.
Little details, little movements, little expressions tell so many inner feelings. We are seeing all the minute reactions of the characters, it’s not the actions we need to see but the reactions and responses that are more important. The key things that push the narrative forward are the minute reactions that the characters make to each other. These are what point us to the grand story underneath.
Subtle use of music, atmos sound, weather, rain, like tears, oppressive darkness. In the mise-en-scene, both characters’ inability to grieve is highlighted by the ‘crying’ rain. Just before the father kills the dog, the moment he has to decide to do it, he looks out at the rain dripping down the windowpane, he can’t cry, yet even the sky can cry.
The film is made in three main episodes. Set up, where we see the relationship between the father and son, and the way they are dealing with a death. Conflict, building on set up and illustrating the father’s denial and hopelessness. The resolution, the son confirms the father’s denials.
Why could this film not be made in any other form?
Could it be just as powerful as a piece of writing?
Yes, you could do the same but you would lose the subtlety of the information given in the image, which you might only notice after watching the film a few times. The boy’s room contains many plates and cups as if he had stopped eating dinner with his dad and preferred to eat alone in his room, maybe with the dog as company. In animation, some of the images are there to be read unconsciously, we absorb the detail unawares, and it feeds our reading at a deeper level. This can provide us with more enjoyment on repeated viewings as each time we see more. The film gives us extras, the story expands for us over repeated viewings, and gives us pleasure to find something we missed before.
Could it work in Live action?
I think the audience reaction would be more shocked to see the killing of a ‘real dog’. This would draw more attention to the dog’s story, which is actually the secondary story. The film is really about the mother and how the father and son are dealing with her death. Killing the dog in animation allows the audience to remain distant from the actual dog, it feels more of a metaphor, and we see the relevance of it in terms of the wider story, as well as being shocked at the dog’s death.
Could it work as an illustrated book?
Yes, but the control over the timing of each shot would mean that the impact would be different. The sound, if replaced by text, would not be as subtle and therefore the alternative would appear clumsy. Sound, like art direction and set dressing works at an unconscious level most of the time. When you draw attention to it, it loses its power.
In light of this, what have you learned about filmmaking?
What is the essence of your film, or the film you are analysing? What is the absolute basic one line that you could expand on using the unique qualities of animation? This one thing will inform the entire mise-en-scene. Less is more in animation, and it is surprisingly difficult to pair an idea down to its simplest form. Within this simplicity, we can open up the magnitude of emotion.
If you want to buy the book, you can find the best prices on Amazon (as an Amazon affiliate I can commission from qualifying purchases and this helps me to maintain this blog).