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The Defenestration of Prague may seem an obscure choice of subject for an animated film, but for award-winning US independent animator Steven Subotnick, who explores the event in his short film Glass Crow, it is an entirely natural step. Subotnick’s filmmaking career has long been characterised by an interest in myth, folklore and history.

His 1998 animation, Hairyman, was a 'subjective' folk tale about a swamp man who eats children. It employed a variety of animation styles, and won Best Animation at the New England Film and Video Festival in 1999. His other works include The Devil's Book (1994), a visual interpretation of a book in which the devil inscribes the names of the damned, and Snow Woman (1985), an animation based on a Japanese folk tale about the union of a man and a snow spirit.

Written by: Rowena Robertson
Original interviews: Terri Dentry
Header images: Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2007
Republished with permission
The Defenestration of Prague in 1618 saw a group of Protestant nobles throw imperial Catholic ministers from the windows of Prague Castle; the Protestants believed that Catholic officials were violating a freedom of religion act. The defenestration sparked the bloody Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants. Subotnick's interest in the period was first piqued by strangeness of the term ‘Defenestration of Prague’ itself; he then found himself becoming intrigued by the way religious battles dominated European history.

“I was fascinated by the fact that arguments over religious belief so completely convulsed Europe for so long, and that in the end, the war achieved nothing," says Subotnick. "I wanted to express something of the complexity and irony of this war through focusing on the moment of the defenestration.”

In the film, the crow is literally transparent (hence the ‘glass’ of the title). Images flicker at a rapid pace upon – or through – its body. “I needed a main character to move the viewer through the landscape … I chose a crow because I wanted an objective, neutral character who represented the world of nature," says Subotnick. "The crow eats almost anything, including the carcasses on battlefields. I made the crow a window that reveals what it has seen – and eaten.”

Subotnick's decision to use the crow, with its associations with doom and evil, to move the action forward seems an appropriate one given the gloominess of the subject matter. It is an interesting twist that the crow is an observer and a scavenger, rather than an active participant in the dastardly goings on or a portent of doom. However its presence serves to provide a constant reminder of the darkness of war and, indeed, the darkness of the human spirit.

While the density and compact nature of animation means that each scene is just as important as the one that comes before and after it, when pressed Subotnick is able to pinpoint what to him are the key scenes in Glass Crow. "There are three sequences which I felt most evoked my feelings about the war. These were the image of the falling angel at the beginning of the film, the image of two wrestling figures behind the castle window, and the last image of the souls rising to heaven."

The mysterious and impressionistic opening sequence of Glass Crow, which features this (abstracted) falling angel, seems to evoke from the outset the uncertainty and instability that war creates. “My original idea was to have an angel fall from heaven to earth, move across the earth (viewing the war), and then try to return to heaven again at the end," says Subotnick. "Eventually, I assigned those movements to three separate 'characters'. In the beginning, the angel falls, the crow moves through the landscape, and at the end, souls rise to heaven. To me, the falling angel represents the failure of divine influence on humanity, and it echoes the fall of the man in the defenestration.”

The second key scene depicts a physical struggle between a Catholic and a Protestant in the moments leading up to the defenestration. These figures foreshadow the dark, faceless, seemingly anguished figures that will appear during the scenes of war.

The sequence where the souls of the dead, represented by black marks, rise from earth to heaven is eerily poignant. A glacial sky and then sinister dark clouds are the backdrop for the souls' return to the afterworld. The crow is writ large, silhouetted against the sky. "The rising of many souls felt like a natural counterpoint to the falling angel at the beginning of the film," says Subotnick.

The scene immediately preceding this shows crows pecking at the bodies of the dead. While, as it states in opening credits 'The struggle for souls was a feast for crows', it seems that in this sequence, the crow has become more than just a scavenger: it has actually become an unwitting 'angel', in that its pecking at the bodies appears to set the souls of the dead free. While Subotnick may or may not have intended this, here his glass crow seems closer to the angel of his original script.

Watching the film one is struck by the ‘painterliness’ of it: there are clear nods to Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. Subotnick also harked back to the art of the period to help create its visual language. “I looked at a lot of Dutch landscape paintings from around that time. In particular, I was influenced by a Rembrandt etching called The Three Trees. From this, I had the idea of emphasising landscapes. I used gestural painting techniques (rags instead of brushes) to create rough and abstract landscape images, and I used a variety of techniques and styles."

Black and white photography, ink drawings and collaged leaves and feathers are used alongside the paintings, creating an extraordinarily rich, almost overwhelming visual effect. To produce such dense imagery was Subotnick’s intention from the start, as it reflected the complexity of his subject. “There were religious, political, and national motivations that fueled the war," explains Subotnick. "I also wanted to express the idea that there are multiple levels of reality – the natural world, the human world, and the divine world – so I needed images that were highly textural and visually complex. To achieve this, I used a lot of layering in both my painting technique and my compositing technique … I used real objects like leaves and feathers to suggest the natural world, I used illustrative drawings to describe the human world, and I used gestural abstractions to evoke the divine.”

All Subotnick's films are essentially made the same way, though with Glass Crow he began to make more use of technology. “I [always] start by making a lot of artwork and animation sequences around a particular theme or subject," he says. "Then I begin to string them together to create a larger structure. After that, I make more animation to connect and integrate the original work. I work on sound towards the end of the projects. The main difference between Glass Crow and earlier films is that this last project was made on my computer rather than on film. The great advantage of working digitally is flexibility. I can work at home, and I can rework images and sequences fairly easily.”

Subotnick scanned all the artwork for Glass Crow in Photoshop, composited sequences in AfterEffects and created the soundtrack using ProTools. Departures from his usual processes and techniques helped to create Glass Crow's unique feel. "Sometimes I painted entire scenes as they look in the final animation, but most of the time I created artwork with the intention that I would later composite them digitally," says Subotnick. "For example, the crow was animated as a black silhouette on white paper. Later, on the computer, I used the silhouettes as mattes and combined them with other layers of animation."

The music, composed by Alex Stolmack Ness (tarantella) and Joan La Barbera creates an alternately intense and haunting backdrop to Glass Crow. Subotnick expresses a desire to have actually travelled to Prague and the Czech countryside to record images and sounds for the film, but the triumph of imagination that Glass Crow represents somehow brings us closer to what one imagines to be the true feeling of the period than perhaps any 'authentic' sound or image could.

Rowena Robertson is a freelance writer, a former editor of Poster magazine and a subeditor at Metro and Screen Education magazines.

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Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick
Glass Crow (2004), Steve Subotnick