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Audubon goes animated

By Jim Regancsmonitor.com / June 30, 2004



John James Audubon's book, "The Birds of America" was published in the early 1800s, and has become one of the most recognizable titles in the history of publishing. A four-volume set measuring 29 by 40 inches, and taking 12 years to complete, Birds cost $1,000 at time of publication, and in March of 2000, a copy sold at auction for $8.8 million. And yet, in all the years since publication, and in all the ways the book and its contents have been reproduced for public consumption, Audubon's birds have never been presented like this. Harmonie/Harmony brings animation to Audubon's avifauna.

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Created as companion to a 2002 exhibit at Canada's Museum of Civilization in Quebec, this bilingual exhibit (hence, Harmonie/Harmony) takes a handful of Audubon's engravings and uses Flash to bring them together with music and verse. The entire 435-image collection is also available in its traditional format, but the animations are what will draw visitors in (and, no doubt, drive some away).

Harmony's menu page presents an attractive, but not exceptionally unusual example of Web design. A composite of several engravings fills the frame and offers visitors a dozen links further into the site. These links aren't visible unless you move your mouse over a hotspot, so there's a bit of searching to be done, but when found, each link reveals, well...an egg - with the title of the presentation behind it. (Titles cover themes like Frailty, Lovers, and Dreaming.) Above the main image, a series of small boxes illuminates in accordance with the presentation being selected below. (You can't actually link to the animations from these boxes, but they do let the first-time visitor know how many links to look for.)

Select a theme, and things really get interesting. Each link opens into its own window and uses one or more of Audubon's original illustrations to create a short multimedia production - difficult to describe, but for fans of Monty Python, imagine a more respectful - though certainly not stuffy - version of Terry Gilliam's cutout animations. Each animation is also accompanied by music (owls bobbing their heads to some soft jazz, a harp playing as a trumpeter swan cuts through the water, a solo voice lamenting extinct species), and a selected piece of poetry. (In most cases, there are parallel English and French poems, in some, translated versions of the same piece.)

Each animation also exhibits a unique style of presentation. In one, the site's virtual camera may be panning over an unchanging image, in another, disembodied heads might fly across the screen, to later be reunited with their bodies. Though not as varied, text is also delivered in several ways - from a "sidebar" window that slides open to allow access to its contents, to a scrolling passage behind a scene's main subjects. A progress bar indicates the unfolding of each piece (a minute or two in length) and a Replay link appears when the presentation has completed a first run-through.

The method of delivery is certainly unusual (even the site's Credits page is enhanced by an animation), and of course, some themes work better than others, but I must admit I found the overall approach growing on me - helped, no doubt, by the choices in the musical accompaniment, and a few pieces of writing that I had never encountered. (One of which I liked enough to track down in a copy-and-pasteable format). If you're not a fan of cliche, though, the last theme might have you leaving the site with a bad taste in your mouth - especially after spending so much time in such an atypical site.

(If you are particularly drawn to a specific piece of music, the Credits page offers links to each of the Quebec-based musicians who contributed to the soundtrack, as well as an English translation to the French folk song performed with Friends).

As mentioned above, visitors can also peruse the source material - stills from "The Birds of America," complemented by background information about each subject. Individual plates can be accessed through the Catalog link, which also includes an introduction to the 19th-century publication, and a minimal biography of the artist. The book can be explored in the original page order, by manually entering specific page numbers, or through an index (with common and Latin designations), if you'd prefer to jump directly to a favorite bird. The requisite collection of recommended links includes more information about the wildlife artist, as well as ornithology, poetry and museums.

It's a safe bet that Audubon would have never imagined his work being presented in quite this way (unless he was prone to erratic dreams), and we can only imagine his reaction to this production. For those of us surfing the Web though, this is simply another example where a modern reinterpretation might actually serve to create a new appreciation for the original work.

Harmonie / Harmony can be found at http://www.mcq.org/audubon/menu.html.

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