The small-scale world of insects, fungus and flowers is a fertile ground for metaphor. Its flora and fauna feel familiar enough that it’s rare to give them a second look, but the closer you get to them, and the more you think about them, the more alien it all becomes. The physical dissolution and reconstitution of a moth’s metamorphosis, the cross-kingdom rituals of procreation between bees and flowers, the unearthly blooms of a mushroom—things that are mundane in the microcosmos are so utterly removed from our own experience that the processes themselves are already almost poetry.
Emily Scaife does exactly that in her 2017 film, Attraction. The film was inspired by the question of what a bee feels while it rummages through a flower’s “most intimate parts.” Using macro photography, coloured gels, and a collection of leaves, flowers and seeds, Scaife creates a world built of brief bursts of colour, scattering spores, and, at its climax, an overwhelming, ecstatic sensory overload. It’s an abstract, even off-putting film, but it’s also a grounded one, and you have to wonder how closely it matches the experience of life on the forest floor.
Allison Schulnik’s Moth starts in a similar place as Attraction, but instead of using the animation process as a way to explore the life of an insect, the film uses the natural world as a jumping-off point for a more mystical journey. Set to Erik Satie’s haunting Gnossienne No. 1 (performed by Nedelle Torrisi), Moth begins with a simple image just barely recognizable as a moth. Schulnik plays with that form throughout the film’s three minutes, adding and removing detail, exploring a cascade of wing and body shapes as the insect goes through its graceful, languid motions. The feel of the images changes from second to second, from the paralyzed beauty of the insect collector’s specimen to the otherworldly allure of fairy illustrations and mythical creatures. There’s a stream-of-consciousness throughline tying metamorphosis to motherhood, and highlighting the magic of nature, but describing it so straightforwardly doesn’t do it justice—the film is a masterwork of fluid motion, tonal shifts, and unsettling beauty.
If these two films have you intrigued, both artists have more work that’s well worth exploring. Scaife’s most recent film is a video for folk musician Bill Fay; it’s still fascinated by the natural world, but this time through a gauzier, less confrontational lens. Schulnik’s Eager and Mound are striking stop-motion works—they look entirely different from Moth, but the balletic movement, shifting textures, and morbid beauty make them all of a piece.
dir: Emily Scaife
syn: Urges in the undergrowth. Erupting fungal fantasies. Bursting botanicals… the dust and desires of a tiny alternative universe. Imagining the sensations of attraction and pleasure in insects, and the seduction methods of the plants and fungi that beckon.
(Best with headphones or speakers with bass)
dir: Allison Schulnik
syn: MOTH is a traditionally animated, hand painted, gouache-on-paper film. It is animated mostly straight-ahead, with frames painted on paper almost daily for 14 months. The film seeded and bloomed from the simple act of a moth hitting my studio window and continues as a wandering through the primal emotions of birth, motherhood, body, nature, metamorphosis and dance.