Marlies van der Wel’s short animation is a calming look back at Earth from outer space

The animator hopes her short film, set to a serene piece of piano music, will awaken in viewers a sense of wanting to protect our fragile planet.

3 February 2020


Inspiration can come from unexpected places. For the Dutch animator and director Marlies van der Wel, two very distinct influences – classical music and astrophysics – combined to inspire the creation of her latest short animation Charlotte’s Daydream.

“At the time of developing the concept,” she says, “the first picture of a black hole was released. I dived into the science behind it and dug through a lot of space articles.” It seemed strange to her that people would focus on a black hole thousands of lightyears away, instead of looking at what’s happening to our planet right now. “It made me think of inverting the situation,” she says. “Instead of observing a black hole from the earth, displaying the earth from a black hole.”

Marlies considered what it might be like if her main character, an astronomer, jumped into a black hole and experienced what’s known as “the overview effect” – a feeling many astronauts describe of “seeing our lush blue planet in that endless black universe, a fragile ball of life, awakening a feeling of wanting to protect it”. Could animation help us all feel something like that, perhaps, she wondered?

At the same time, her friend, Sam Sjamsoedin, with whom she had worked on her previous film Emily, introduced her to the music of the pianist Pieter de Graaf. “I fell in love with Pieter’s piano play immediately,” says Marlies. “And when I heard his song Charlotte’s Daydream, I just wanted to instantly start drawing and animating a video with it.” Between this piece of music and her research into black holes and the overview effect, Marlies had the perfect conditions for a new short film about space and our planet.

The atmosphere of the film is incredibly peaceful and serene, aided by the fact that the scenes are mostly quite motionless, any dynamism stemming instead from the moving point of view – a lot of the time, we move like a planet, passing over the still world below. The piano music only serves to enhance this sense of pleasing tranquillity, something akin (we can only guess) to the feeling of the astronaut’s overview effect.

Visually, the film has a very particular aesthetic. “After the concept phase, I started doing research for the design,” says Marlies. “I was intrigued by Japanese stencil artists, using strong cut-out shapes, patterns and colours. I started sketching compositions based around a big black dot. After drawing all the shots with pencil and paper, I digitally coloured them.”

She was, at the time, spending a lot of time looking at the post-impressionist landscapes of artists like Simon Bussy and Félix Valloton. “I love how complete scenes and landscapes are set in one tint, making a few accents with contrasting colours,” she says. “It fitted well with my plan of setting the story by night.” Meanwhile, when it came to the animation itself, Marlies was keen to push her techniques. “I wanted to develop my frame-by-frame skills,” she says, “and tried to animate most of the shots traditionally frame by frame.”

GalleryMarlies van der Wel: Charlotte’s Daydream (initial sketches)

While it was inspired by space and music, for Marlies, the project was also a way of finding a new kind of creative fulfilment, which she had previously felt had gone missing. “While productions were getting bigger, I really longed to work just by myself again,” she explains. “After finishing my last film, Emily, I felt the need to dive back into solitude, with no teams or producers involved. I wanted to expand my own style and take the time to investigate new areas and techniques.” That was the main impulse for starting a new project.

For Marlies, expanding her style and exploring new ideas and methods meant something quite specific. “In general,” she says, “I wanted to develop my designs into a more graphic, simplified style instead of the density that you see in my earlier work. I was looking for a way to tell a story, by only displaying the necessary in designs and movements.”

However, getting back into a more independent creative flow wasn’t straightforward. “The most challenging part was to go through this phase of creative blankness,” she admits. “After my last film, I found myself empty and it took a while to get the ideas streaming. I planned to create this project in a few months, or weeks, but in the end, it almost took a year.”

While the process was a bit more involved than she’d expected, eventually she did reach a certain point, “when it all came together, the concept, style and technique. From that moment, the frustrating struggle went into an automatic flow, and I finally reached the very satisfying point of creating in solitude.”

GalleryMarlies van der Wel: Charlotte’s Daydream (stills)

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About the Author

Matt Alagiah

Matt joined It’s Nice That as editor in October 2018 and became editor-in-chief in September 2020. He was previously executive editor at Monocle magazine. Drop him a line with ideas and suggestions, or simply to say hello.

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