Retelling a popular story is never a waste of time. It is in the rereading and retelling that stories are kept alive, and the reinterpretations revitalise the original. In The Digital Pilgrims, I set out to portray Chaucer’s Canterbury travellers in another, very different, setting. The type on the pages of a book may be fixed, but their meaning never is in our imaginations. And we do not retell stories to make them better, but to love them more.
One of my creative threads within my machinima is relating today’s world to things that went before, by blurring, combining and relating in a digital format. Partly this is because I think people really don’t change that much – it’s more the circumstances in which they live their lives that change. Out of those daily processes people make culture, a process that flows through the present from the past and into the future.
I have an enthusiasm for finding things and wanting to share them. I spend a significant amount of time in making machinima looking for additional material. I very rarely make a machinima purely from material recording in Second Life. If nothing else, I’m looking for appropriate music. I find myself in a cycle of discovery and rediscovery, invention and reinvention, interpretation and reinterpreation – the ‘combinatory skill’ that Kenneth Goldman says is more significant for individual expression than originality.
Here’s the machinima, and The Digital Pilgrims has now been selected for showing at the Supernova Outdoor Digital Animation Festival, September 22nd & 23rd in Denver, Colorado.
I’d had an idea of using a location in Second Life, Furillen City, to film a series of ‘drive by’ scenes. In particular, I had in mind those in I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan biopic, where movement and music meld together. Perhaps I could do a series of scenes within modern interpretations of the characters ‘hanging around’, using an older story, like Canterbury Tales? However, the practical problems of having several avatars and getting a scene to rez fast enough on a tracking shot meant I gave up on the idea. I left it to lie while getting on with other things, and time passed by… until…
Serene Footman sent out a notice that Furillen City would be closing soon. Very soon. Like the end of the week. And I had to find props – many, far more than I had needed before – get there, and film. I got most of it done before the sim metaphorically shut it doors for the last time. However, I don’t storyboard – I go into making a machinima with an idea, collect material, and then see where it goes in the editing stage. Everything evolves in that process, and I will usually need to go back for something more or something different.
But as the sim was closed, I had to find somewhere different for the extra scenes. I am not sure how, but I came across Foxcity. They explicitly welcome photographers and machinima makers, which is always encouraging. So the remaining scenes were filmed there.
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (Middle English: Tales of Caunterbury) is a collection of tales, not a complete story, written in the late fourteenth century. It centres on a group of disparate travellers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, Chaucer relating what the pilgrims say as they take part in a story telling contest.
The Tales were already well known when Caxton chose it for his first major project in English language book production. So, also at this time it was an example of ‘new media’, being reproduced with set type in the new printing presses.
The Digital Pilgrims
The first decision I had to make was ‘which pilgrims?’ This started with an internet search as a very basic filter. However, locating full text versions was important for developing my characters, and I used two: Librarius and Project Gutenberg. It was precisely because I wanted to relate the tales into digital space that I wanted to try and include Middle English. It is then not just a translation, but a dialogue across time.
As usual, I made a search on Internet Archive. I found an old film (best left in the past) and some Librivox recordings. Kristen Hughes’s reading of the prologue stood head and shoulders above the rest. Modern English versions lose the rhythm and musicality of Middle English, and I didn’t think the benefit of greater understandability was worth it. By co-incidence I had gone to a reading of Sir Gwain and the Green Knight at Lancaster Castle a few days before which was useful context as it was written around the same time and in Middle English. But I’m also a northerner with some knowledge of Danish, and I think that helps in relating to how it is phrased and rhymed.
I decided to just ‘label’ each character with an initial letter in the first section, then include two lines about each character in the second. Some of these are taken directly from Librarius or Project Gutenbery versions, others are a line of that and a line of my own, and a couple are entirely my own words. But my intention was to relate the description from the past to the present – a kind of dialogue. I’ve listed the descriptions at the bottom of this post.
I went on to search for Chaucer in the British Library Flickr site, which I know has a big range of digitised archive material that it is free for reuse. This located the initial letters, which were mostly from a book on Chaucer and were supplemented from other books in the same style. I converted them to black with a transparent background, but they weren’t visible enough, so each one was individually coloured, sampling from the scene they were in. The small cameos on the poster were also drawn from this source.
For the music, I was looking for a piece that was system music, and I returned to Circus Marcus, one of my favourite creative commons artists on Free Music Archive, with Levantarán el vuelo. Usefully, it was in two versions, for piano, and orchestral (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial).
Characters in the machinima, in order of appearance
Blender of old and new,
I am she and she is many.
Clad in coat and hood of grene,
A sheaf of papers, mind bright and kene.
All that she myghte be lent,
On bookes and on lernynge she it spente.
A Knyght there was, and that a worthy man,
Trouthe and honour and curteisie.
Today’s lover and lusty bachelor,
Is less strong in the arm than in the dollar.
That of her smiling was full simple and coy
And none suspected her greatest joy.
She knows the grain as lager and spirit,
With a miller’s sack for her drinking jacket.
Keep well thy tongue, and keep thy friend;
A wicked tongue is worse than is a fiend.
Wyf of Bath
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Hir shoes gold soled, soft and newe.
Chocolate, cinammon and almond for sale,
No longer poudre-marchant tart and galyngale.
Riche he was of holy thoght and werk,
He was a learned man also, a clerk.
Narrated words (Project Gutenburg version, not as read)
WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot*, *sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender’d is the flower;
When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath
Inspired hath in every holt* and heath *grove, forest
The tender croppes* and the younge sun *twigs, boughs
Hath in the Ram his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
(So pricketh them nature in their corages*); *hearts, inclinations
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands,
To *ferne hallows couth* in sundry lands; *distant saints known*
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen*, when that they were sick. *helped
The Digital Pilgrims by Tizzy Canucci.