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Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself' Becomes a Trippy Cartoon

A Harvard neuroscience course uses poetry and Sophie Koko Gate’s stunning animation work to teach students about perception.

Animation, poetry, and neuroscience come together in animator Sophie Koko Gate’s newest piece for a Fundamentals of Neuroscience online course at Harvard. Poetry of Perception Part 1 is an excerpt of Walt Whitman’s "Song of Myself" smoothly read out loud and set to a fun and unusual soundtrack.

“The animation is an introduction for [the Harvard course],” Gate tells The Creators Project. “The course is all about the human senses, each week focuses on a different sense and has a corresponding animation to introduce the topic. I suspect it’s to ease you into the hard stuff.” The course includes videos of lectures on topics like the Neuroscience of Art, and other animations of an Emily Dickinson poem, a lesson on Neuromodulation, and more. The use of whimsical animation styles like Gate’s brings a difficult scientific topic to a more artistic and experimental online audience.

We chatted with the artist about her relationship to the project and her animation dreams:  

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Screengrabs by the author

The Creators Project: How does a project usually come about for you? For example, for the Whitman piece, were any of the images or animations ones you were already working on before Harvard stepped in?

Sophie Koko Gate: Before the project started I was getting bored of my work looking so flat, so I tried to mix it up and try new things. It all got a bit groovy in the studio for about a week. I was interested in seeing if there was a way to imitate claymation in 2D using Photoshop brushes with grain and animating shadow. I worked it out and used the technique in the Harvard piece! All my designs were done after I got the poem but I knew the overall look was going to be influenced from my recent experiments.

The characters and images in this animation are so whimsical and original. Who are your influences? Do you have a favorite animator/artist that you try to emulate?

Oh god. I can’t answer that, there is no one person I try to emulate. Sometimes it’s best to look for inspiration in other areas. For this project I went to my grandma’s house and read a load of her books on Brancusi, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie. Her house is covered in ceramics and pots, lovely textures and colours. I also had some books on pond life that were lent to me by a botanist friend which inspired the floaters in the film. I always end up looking at plankton for inspiration, or anything translucent and bad at swimming.

I find new animators to fall in love with all the time, the indie animation scene is so hot right now. My early influences were people like Sally Cruikshank and other Sesame Street dudes, Jan Svankmajer, Igor Kovalyov... But mainly, if I’m honest, Daria and Rugrats.

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Tell me about the process for this Walt Whitman piece. Who reached out to whom, etc.? The project was made for a Harvard neuroscience course.  Is that something you've been interested in before? And how does it fit into the course? 

The course is produced by the amazing Nadja Oretelt who has used RCA [Royal College of Art] animators before for Modules 1 and 2 of the Fundamentals of Neuroscience. I was recommended by one of the animators and the composer who had seen my graduation film. I’ve always wanted to be part of their cool science meets animation team which includes Daniela Sherer, Lily Fang and Oswald Skillbard—all amazing creators. Nadja chose Whitman to introduce the course, for me he is a sensual sensory wizard and his words can arouse all sorts sensations. A good fit for an introduction on the senses I feel.

I love science, listen to Radiolab and The Naked Scientists religiously, and get a lot of my film ideas from real life science facts.

Did you know that the moon is travelling away from the earth at the same speed that our fingernails grow? Coincidence? Maybe.

I watched Half Wet, your graduation film. I was again struck by the wonderful mixture of whimsy and depth. Is that something you intended? Can you say anything about the relationship between the two films?

My characters come from a very serious attempt at creating a world in the middle of the classic TV cartoon, and the awkwardness of IRL. The intention was to make a film that isn’t funny but might be amusing, to have a script that sounds like the characters have been given a 10 second head start to prepare what they will say, but even then they get it wrong. To address issues that only exist in the heads of individuals. To be designed in an ugly but somehow endearing way. I know exactly the kind of film I want to make, and I’ll make it one day. Half Wet was a step in that direction.

I hope that some of these points were carried across in my Harvard film but it’s okay if they weren’t, as commercial work will always be commercial work however brilliant the brief (and believe me, the brief was brilliant).

Part 1/8: Poetry of Perception from MCB80x Neuroscience on Vimeo.

Where do you see your work going in the future?

It would be cool if my siblings tuned into Cartoon Network and my hit TV series Marcy’s Tenderloin: Reloaded was on, and meanwhile I was in LA, asleep in my bed because of the time difference.

Aiming pretty high though, haha.

Take the Harvard course here. See more of Sophie Koko Gate’s work on her website.

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