Dan Sousa is not a typical animator. Instead of creating films with strong narrative structure and central characters, he prefers to captivate his audience with an immediate visceral reaction. According to Sousa, he “wasn’t even conscious of animation as an art form,” while growing up, and attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to study painting. Eventually, however, he combined his passion for animation, his formal artistic training, and his personal fascination with mythology to create emotionally rich stories infused with elements of mysticism and suspense.
In a February 16 talk at the Carpenter Center, Sousa discussed his past works, interspersing his commentary with screenings of his films. Ruth Lingford, Professor of the Practice of Animation at Harvard, introduced the talk, describing the animator’s work as “both incredibly aesthetically beautiful and nuanced. Its aesthetic sensibility is paired with a deep humanism.” Lingford, also the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Visual and Environmental Studies, added, “I never watch his films without thinking, ‘I just couldn’t do that.’ The two words which epitomize his work are gravity and grace.”
Sousa showcased his five films in chronological order, beginning with his degree project from RISD. “Carnal Ground” (1994), Sousa recalled, “started as an illustration of Cain and Abel, but became the story of a man and a beast in the wild. The man is torn between becoming friends with this animal and killing it for food.”
Sousa’s early projects “tended to focus on the internal struggles between intellectual and cultural pressures.” He soon began to draw inspiration from mythology, however, a fascination that manifested itself in his 1999 film “Minotaur”. “I wanted to focus on the point of view of the beast, not Theseus, the hero,” Sousa said. “What would it feel like to be trapped in a labyrinth? I saw the beast as this child who would lash out in violence.”
For Sousa, animation offers the “ideal medium” to explore complex topics like psychological conflict. “In animation, every frame is precious, representing a unique moment in time,” he said. “With my films, I seek to probe the fragility of moments, to see how long I can have a moment last onscreen.” Since animation as an art form is linked more to painting than to traditional storytelling, these moments are often conveyed through symbolic imagery.
In particular, these strong visual symbols vivify films like Sousa’s 2005 project “Fable.” Alive with bloody footprints, moving wallpaper and a panicked heartbeat, the film combines momentary terror with constant unsettlement, presenting in a world in which a man and a woman struggle to reconcile their human and animal forms, including their violent bloodlust for each other.
Sousa drew on experiences from his own life for his next two expressive and emotionally- charged pieces. “To get to a point where a work is very honest, it must come from personal observation,” he said. “Windmill,” a 2007 film, was inspired by a building located near Sousa’s former home in Portugal. “It was an abandoned windmill, at the edge of the forest. Going there, I felt somewhere between civilization and wilderness.” As in “Fable,” the main character, from whose perspective the story is told, changes into an animal at the film’s conclusion. Yet in contrast to the sanguine monstrosity of Sousa’s earlier protagonist, the hero of “Windmill” slowly transforms into a bird, finally soaring to the top of the structure.
While several of Sousa’s films carry deep symbolic and psychological weight, other projects merely convey moments of artistic beauty. “Drift,” a 2009 film, was inspired by Sousa’s observations of shadows and leaves moving across the plains. Without using words or even characters, Sousa was thus able to capture a story that was “more universal—anyone around the world can watch the film and see what’s going on.”
Whether probing the dark crevasses of the human mind, or simply crafting delicate studies in aesthetic pleasure, Sousa’s films consistently captivated his audience. Basia Goszczynska, a fellow professional animator in attendance, remarked that she has been a fan of Sousa’s work for a couple of years. “It was an amazing experience to see all his work in one sitting, especially in chronological order,” she said.