after effects interface

Pentheus & the Bacchae film- proposal for my next uni project


I wrote this proposal for my next project at uni to send my tutor. I’m doing an MA in Sequential Design. Basically I can do anything I like, as long as it’s based on storytelling in art, and after the term I’ve just finished, you have to set yourself your own projects. So here’s what I’ll be working on after Christmas (subject to any changes suggested by my tutor)

So this is one of the films based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses that will make up my major project. It’s going to be an animated film about 3 minutes long, animated with paper cutout puppets done in the style of greek vases. It’s one of the nice blood-thirsty Greek myths.


My next project is based on a section of Book 3- the story of Pentheus & the Bacchae, I’m going to use the Euripedes play as a base more than the poem though, because I like that version of the story better.

Basically Dionysus rolls into Thebes with his chaotic entourage, Pentheus the local king refuses to let the people go and join in his rites, and has Dionysus arrested. Pentheus interrogates Dionysus, who puts a spell on him not to recognise the god, and Pentheus gets nowhere while Dionysus plays with him. Dionysus then uses his magic to escape the palace, causing it to fall down in an earthquake. Pentheus is unharmed, and when a mysterious messenger (ie Dionysus in disguise) arrives and tells Pentheus that the women of Thebes, including his mother, are in the forest with Dionysus making milk and honey spring out of the ground, decorating their hair with snakes and tearing cows apart with their bare hands, he wants to go and investigate.

Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress up like a woman to infiltrate the women-only rites. Pentheus goes into the forest, and climbs a tree to get a view of what’s going on. Dionysus then turns up, and points out Pentheus to his followers, who rip him apart with their bare hands. Pentheus’ mother, still under the spell, goes home with his head as a trophy, until the spell wears off and the horror of what’s happened hits her.

One of the ideas often used to analyse the story (more in later times than in contemporary Ancient Greek thought though) is to have Pentheus representing the Apollonian side of the Apollo-Dionysus dichotomy, but with Pentheus as a pale over-rigid copy of Apollo, who is usually Dionysus’ equal.

Pentheus represents order, sobriety, the city, hard masculinity, logic over emotions, and the desire to impose order and logic on the chaotic, but without the lightness and power that characterises Apollo. He’s the king in the hierarchical structure of a city, with the women under his authority, and under the impression that he is truly in control. He wants to organise and control things because he is afraid of disorder, not because it’s in his nature like Apollo.

Dionysus represents disorder, magic, altered states of consciousness, wandering from place to place, acting on pure intuition and emotion, and loose associations rather than hierarchies, and is always accompanied by his group of Maenads/Bacchae, women totally removed from the standards of behaviour expected of them in Greek society.


I want to emphasise this aspect in the aesthetics of the film. Bacchae are a common decoration on Ancient Greek wine amphorae, and I’d like to have the film in the style of the vase paintings. There are two types of Greek vase painting, red figure (black ink backgrounds, terracotta people) and black figure (terracotta background, black ink people), and I’ll use the different styles to represent the two different aspects of the story.

The city will be represented in red figure pottery, it’s the later style and was considered more sophisticated at the time. I also thought the smooth, featureless black backgrounds are a good fit for the feel of the city.

Black figure pottery is the older style, and I thought the rougher look of the natural terracotta would be a good fit for the wildness of Dionysus.

Initially the city scenes would have the black background, and the forest scenes the terracotta background. When Dionysus is being interrogated though, the city background will change to his colour to show that’s he’s in control. When Pentheus’ mother recognises what she’s done, the colour will change back to the city colour.

There won’t be any dialogue. I’m planning to have greek words appear and disappear, like the lettering on the pottery, with words from the play, but not for people to understand or read (unless my audience turns out to be surprisingly hot on their ancient greek), mostly for aesthetics, but sometimes for storytelling effect. When Pentheus is firing questions at Dionysus I want the words to continue appearing in Pentheus’ colour, even though the background has changed to Dionysus’ colour, to show how he’s trying to assert control (and failing). The words will also be really tiny and packed in to show how pointless his words are, to contrast with Dionysus’ lack of an answer, and self satisfied smirk. When characters appear, their names will also appear in slightly scattered letters round their head, like they do on the vases. This will also be useful for identifying Dionysus when he’s in a disguise.

So the story will be told mostly through the movement of the characters, and also with sound. I’ve written a lot of theoretical/historical stuff here, but I want to be able to use the look and feel from the art historical context to communicate the feeling of the story to the audience without any prior knowledge or explanation being necessary to understand it. Hopefully this will work.

I was researching ancient Greek music, and I’ve got no wish to do some historical reconstructed thing with the sound, but to take a couple of aspects from it.

I happen to have two harp type things, which can be tuned however I want, which seem an appropriate instrument to use. The Ancient Greeks had strong ideas about what scales/tunings went with what kind of settings, so my idea was to borrow some of those ideas to also increase the contrast between Dionysus and Pentheus

I think Dionysus’ bits would be tuned in the Phrygian mode
It was named after some mountain people in Asia Minor (where Dionysus is often said to come from in stories) who the Ancient Greeks found a bit strange and exotic, and they thought listening to music in this mode made you wild and excitable. To modern ears it sounds a bit sinister, and it gets used in jazz, which sounds about right for Dionysus.

Pentheus would be in Hypodorian, because that was associated with military matters. Also the harp-thing’s already tuned like that. I think his bits will be in more rigid rhythms, and Dionysus’ looser.
A – B- C- D E-F-G- A

I haven’t given much more thought to the sound- I’m going to do all the animation first and then do the sound afterwards to fit in. I know I want an eerie silence when the Bacchae look up to see Pentheus in the tree.

(this bit was aimed at my tutor, but hey, might as well be you fine readers too)

So what do you think of that so far? The way I’ve explained it does sound a little theory/background heavy I know, but I can picture it in my head how it looks and is, and it will be easier to show when I’ve done sketches and a storyboard. I’m hoping to have it finished (or nearly so) by the review of work day, because I’ve got a lot of free time coming up after Christmas.

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