Pahóm: An Interview With Adam Kramer

The name of this moving and haunting clip is Pahóm, created by Adam Kramer, an up-and-coming Israeli artist. The clip was shortlisted for the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play contest, and is currently being considered as a finalist. As a student of conflict and cooperation, I was naturally intrigued by Pahóm and wanted to know more about the work and the artist behind it. I sent Adam some questions and he graciously answered. Check out our interview below.

Q) Adam, can you please tell us a little about yourself?

I am 21 years old. I live in Israel, in the Tel-Aviv area. I attended MOR Metro-West High School, where I studied music theory and bass guitar performance. After high school I joined the IDF for 3 years of mandatory service, wherein I served as a truck driver for a short while and later moved to a human resources office in the Tel-Aviv area. I studied 3D animation at “Hasifa”, a visual arts wing of the Open University.

Q) How did this clip come about?

Pahóm was my final project for an animation class I took at the Open University.

Work began with character design – shaping and defining the physical character on paper. Understanding the characters anatomy and trying to understand how this character would move if it were real. We all know what a cat looks like when it walks; the tail swaying back and forth, the shoulders gliding up and down, the hesitation before every step, the ear twitching at every sound. Those things are obvious to us, because most likely, along the course of our lives, we’ve seen our share of cats. But nobody can really know how a sphere shaped creature with stubby little arms and legs would go about performing actions like walking, bending over or pouncing on someone. All we can do is guess, and the better the guess – the more believable your animation will feel.

After I felt I understood the physical dynamic of the characters, I tried to find the behavioral characteristics I felt matched the style and feel of the design. Those slow paced, curious, shy characteristics that they show at the beginning of the short came simultaneously with the physical shape and style of the character. It was the story that brought forward the darker sides of these guys, but that wasn’t until later.

Q) What kind of software did you use?

The animation class I took taught 3D computer animation in Maya. Maya is a piece of software developed by a company called AutoDesk. It is the most incredible 3D tool and covers just about every aspect of the field be it animation, modeling, visual effects, simulations or anything else you can think of. The Open University supplies its students with computer labs that are equipped with all the hardware and software they need, so that’s where the short was made.

Pahóm was modeled and animated in Maya 2008. It was rendered in Mental Ray (which is an engine that can calculate realistic lighting and optics). And finally it was all edited and put together in Adobe Premiere Pro CS3.

Q) The beings in the animation, while lacking basic facial features, are nevertheless highly expressive. How were you able to pull that off?

Well, an important part of character design is making the character readable. If your character expresses an emotion and the audience can’t figure out what emotion he’s supposed to be expressing – you missed your mark.

In designing the characters for Pahóm, I knew I wanted to keep them simple. I was sketching different options for facial compositions and came to the conclusion that if I had to keep one feature to convey emotion – it would have to be the eyes.

A part of the reason eyes convey emotion so well is the reflection of light on the surface of the eye. You’ll notice that many models, when shot for magazine covers or fashion modeling have a great big stroke of light across their eyes. That reflection breathes life into the subject – making him look alive, and giving a sense of depth and reality in the photo. I aimed to apply the same technique in Pahóm to bring the characters to life, and adding a sense of emotion, feeling and believability.

Maya has a feature called Blend Shapes which allows the animator to create a bank of facial expressions and control and animate them easily. With these characters it was actually quite simple. I didn’t need to worry about facial muscles, nostril flares, lip curls and all other nuances that animators might face when animating a standard character. All I had to worry about was the eyes, or to be exact – the brows. So, basically, I just put allot of good effort in those brows and hoped it would do the trick.

Q) The music is very powerful, hypnotic and emotional. I tell people to make sure the volume is up when they are watching the clip. How did you go about selecting it?

I’m so glad to hear the music played an important part in you experience because I feel the same way too!

The music in Pahóm is performed by a great musician named Andrew Bird, of which I have been a great fan for the last couple of years. Bird plays violin, guitar, the glockenspiel and other various instruments. He’s an amazing singer and has this incredible hypnotic whistle that comes in for a melody every once in a while.

The music was something I chose very early in production. If I recall it was even before I had the full story in my head. When Birds last album, “Noble Beast”, was released, there was a limited edition version of the album that came with another CD – “Useless Creatures”. “Useless Creatures” was an entirely instrumental album and when I first heard it I instantly loved it. I listened to it a few times the day I got it and it really stuck with me the following day. “Carrion Suite” (the main piece in Pahóm) had this beat that stuck to me all day and wouldn’t let go (not that I wanted it to). When I put the album on again and skipped through the tracks looking for it, I couldn’t find it. It was only after listening to the whole CD again that I realized the part I was thinking of was about three or four minutes into one of the songs. The part I ended up using in Pahóm is actually two and a half minutes into “Carrion Suite”.

Q) How is the clip doing in the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play contest?

YouTube Play is really great for Pahóm – since the shortlist was announced, Pahóm has been viewed by over 20 thousand people. It feels great to know that something I put so much effort into is being viewed all over the world. I’m really very grateful for the opportunity to be up on the shortlist with all those other great videos.

Of course it’s also great to be among of the 6 Israelis who made the shortlist. If I remember correctly, Israel was the top third country making the shortlist, and I’m proud to be a part of that. Israel’s a very small country and I think it’s things like this that reflect just how much creative talent is concentrated here.

The winners, I believe, are to be announced later this month. I’m hoping for the best, of course, but really, the shortlist is more than I could ever ask for so either way – I’m really happy with how the video did in the contest.

Q) Lets get into the content: The story in Pahóm is clearly inspired by Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ Can you speak to that?

Well, when I read ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ for the first time, I filed it away in my mind as a good solid story about classic greed leading to classic self destruction. When the idea for Pahóm first came up, I automatically made the connection, and the name seemed perfect.

If you would like a basic analogy of the two you could say – “My” Pahóm didn’t physically die, but doomed himself to live alone forever. And I’d say the room “my” Pahóm is doomed to be stuck in, alone, translates to the six-feet-from-his-head-to-his-heels grave at the end of Tolstoy’s story.

Q) In addition to Tolstoy, I also see biblical allusions to the Adam and Eve and Cain and able stories. Adam/Eve in the sense of first beings coming to life and the role of exploration, temptation and alienation. Cain and Able in the sense of competition and envy leading to murder/death. Did you have these stories in mind when you created Pahóm?

Growing up in Israel the story of Adam and Eve or of Cain and Able are taught in elementary school. In middle school, they are revisited and taught again, and in high school you are required to learn them once more, this time analyzing the many writing styles and techniques used to tell them oh so well. These stories are tucked away very neatly in the back of my mind and whether I like it or not – they might be pulling some strings back there.

But to put it simply – no, these stories weren’t consciously a part the creation of Pahóm.

Q) What does your animation say about human behavior and human nature? It seems to me that Pahóm bespeaks of two kinds of orientations: On the one hand you have the impulse towards togetherness with its concomitant behavior of cooperation. On the other hand you have the impulse towards possession with its concomitant behavior of competition. Sadly in the end, competition “wins” over cooperation. Is this your view of human nature, or do you think there is something in the structure of the relationship and the environment that caused the competition to get out of hand? Could there have been a different ending? If so, how?

The characters in Pahóm are confused. I think throughout the short they reflect both sides of the conflict you propose as a result of that confusion, as do we in our world.

The problem with the characters in Pahóm is – they are inexperienced. Inexperienced people make mistakes; and if they were not educated to learn from the mistakes made by the people before them, they are doomed to repeat them.

Pahóm doesn’t try to label human nature as something tainted, damaged or malfunctioning – only occasionally a bit confused.

Q) Another interesting aspect of the clip is the way in which desire is passed on from one being to the next. The video brought to mind Rene Girard‘s insight into conflict and the mimetic nature of desire. According to Girard, desire is contagious and passed on through imitation – in this case it would be the desire for gold coins – and when two desires converge on the same object conflict is bound to happen. What in your opinion causes the beings to desire the money? What is the significance of inserting the coins through their heads? Why after “tasting of the fruit” does all hell break lose?

The way I see it, the reason these beings desire the gold coins is the same reason all beings desire gold coins – it feels good to have them. Unfortunately for them, the characters in Pahóm took it a little too far.

And the reason all hell breaks loose is simple, too – one coin, two beings.

Of course it doesn’t take long to realize that more coins would have kept falling from the sky and that the murder was a terrible waste, but as we all know – shiny gold coins tend to be quite blinding.

Q) It seems that everything in Israel is somehow affected by the conflict. With Pahóm, the characters can be viewed as stand-ins for Israelis and Palestinians. All the more so when you name the clip after a character’s insatiable and self-destructive appetite for land. Do you see this connection? If so, was it a conscious effort on your part?

Well, Pahóm was not intended to make any political statement whatsoever, although you are not the first to think so. Actually, my favorite thing about Pahóm is the freedom the style gives the audience. The style and design serve as a clean canvas for the viewer, allowing Pahóm to tell the core of a story, yet still give the viewer a very long leash for interpretation.

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One response to “Pahóm: An Interview With Adam Kramer

  1. Beautiful and powerful animation. I hope you will be in the finalists, you deserve it!

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