Still from Vincent de Boer's The STroke (2020)

Vincent de Boer’s six-minute short The Stroke is something of a love letter to the texture of a brush stroke. Opening on a simple horizontal line, it soon starts playing with its simple forms, folding over itself, rippling in watery waves, stretching and folding into 3D worlds rich with scale and depth.

As the imagery evolves, so does the visual ambition, swelling from simple black-and-white imagery to multi-coloured abstractions, swirling shaped swelling and ebbing in a constant parade of surreal landscapes, impossible architecture, alien calligraphy and sinister shapes. And through it all, the one constant presence is that brush stroke, the rough patterns of its fiber always visible in the image.

Hand-painted by de Boer and his collaborator Hans Schuttenbeld, the film was intended from the beginning as a collaboration with jazz outfit Ill Considered, who improvised the score in a single take on their first viewing of the finished visuals. de Boer had provided album art for the band since their 2017 debut, and their creative alchemy was strong enough that he was essentially considered a member of the band; even still, it must have been a nerve-wracking process to keep the visuals away from the band until that first recording session.

Despite their seeing the film for the first time, there’s nothing tentative about the score, which echos the strange geometries of the animation with shrieking saxophones, martial drums and patient, plodding bass lines. The band ended up recording a handful of takes on the score—it pays to be cautious with this sort of thing—but ultimately, that initial take is the one that stuck.

The Stroke has been well received since its release six months ago, with coverage in major design blogs like Designboom, It’s Nice That, and Colossal, among plenty of others. One odd tendency of that coverage, though, is that they all go along with the description of the film as a “music video in reverse,” playing up the novelty of the fact the visuals came before the music in the creative process. That may be unique for music videos, but it’s not exactly new for animated shorts, even abstract ones, to develop their score after the animation is finished—or to mix the processes together, with multiple iterations of visuals and score informing each other as the film develops.

Of course, it’s up to the artist to decide how they want their work presented, and de Boer emphasizes that creative reversal in his description of the short. And for what it’s worth, it is certainly unusual for a score to be improvised in a single take on first viewing of the film. The harmony between the creative visions of de Boer and Ill Considered is hard to deny, and the resulting film is striking enough that it doesn’t really matter whether you see it as a reverse music video, an abstract animation, or something else altogether. Take it for what it is—a rich, rewarding audio-visual collaboration.

The Stroke

dir: Vincent de Boer
syn: The Stroke is a hand-drawn animation film that reverses the roles of audio and visuals for a music video. Improvised on its very first viewing, the music for The Stroke was the immediate response of the musicians to the artistic and emotional visual journey. The drawings of the film are used for the 10th vinyl release of Ill Considered. All 338 records come with 12 unique drawings: one second of the film.

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