DANTE’S INFERNO has been kicking around the cultural playground for over 700 years. But it has never before been interpreted with exquisitely hand-drawn paper puppets, brought to life using purely hand-made special effects.
Rediscover this literary classic, retold in a kind of apocalyptic graphic novel meets Victorian-era toy theater.
Dante’s Hell is brought to lurid 3-dimensional, high-definition life in a darkly comedic travelogue of the underworld — set against an all-too-familiar urban backdrop of used car lots, gated communities, strip malls, and the U.S. Capitol. And populated with a contemporary cast of reprobates, including famous — and infamous — politicians, presidents, popes, pimps…and the Prince of Darkness himself.
“This stuff – exquisite mixtures of the grandly fabled and the South Bay prosaic, hand-painted two-dimensional puppets moving by hand and wire through a hand painted hell via traditional filmic and theatrical techniques – is intoxicating. “
“…feels like the unholy offspring of Mike Judge and Robert Crumb.”
“One of the best-looking films in Park City…wondrously detailed…I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”
Melding the seemingly disparate traditions of apocalyptic live-action graphic novel and charming Victorian-era toy theater, Dante’s Inferno is a subversive, darkly satirical update of the original 14th century literary classic. Retold with the use of intricately hand-drawn paper puppets and miniature sets, and without the use of CGI effects, this unusual travelogue takes viewers on a tour of hell. And what we find there, looks a lot like the modern world.
Sporting a hoodie and a hang-over from the previous night’s debauchery, Dante (voiced by Dermot Mulroney) wakes to find he is lost — physically and metaphorically — in a strange part of town. He asks the first guy he sees for some help: The ancient Roman poet Virgil (voiced by James Cromwell), wearing a mullet and what looks like a brown bathrobe. Having no one else to turn to, Dante’s quickly convinced that his only means for survival is to follow Virgil voyage down, down through the depths of Hell.
The pair cross into the underworld and there Virgil shows Dante the underbelly of the Inferno, which closely resembles the decayed landscape of modern urban life. Dante and Virgil’s chronicles are set against a familiar backdrop of used car lots, strip malls, gated communities, airport security checks, and the U.S. Capitol. Here, hot tubs simmer with sinners, and the river Styx is engorged with sewage swimmers.
Also familiar is the contemporary cast of presidents, politicians, popes and pop-culture icons sentenced to eternal suffering of the most cruel and unusual kind: Heads sewn on backwards, bodies wrenched in half, never-ending blowjobs, dancing to techno for eternity, and last, but certainly not least, an inside look at Lucifer himself, from the point of view of a fondue-dunked human appetizer. Each creatively horrific penance suits the crime, and the soul who perpetrated it.
As Dante spirals through the nine circles of hell, he comes to understand the underworld’s merciless machinery of punishment, emerging a new man destined to change the course of his life. But not, of course, the brand of his beer.
Born in Florence, Italy, Dante was a poet and politician who is generally credited with “creating” – or standardizing – the Italian language through the popularity of his writings. At age nine, he met Beatrice Portinari – a chance occurrence that had a profound effect on his life, as she came to embody pure Love in his work. Involved in the politics of his day, he was exiled for life from Florence at age 36 and never returned, dying in Ravenna at age 56.
Dante Alighieri’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy” has long been considered one of the most important works in Western literature. Written in the 14th Century in Italy, it incorporated the most profound theological concepts of the day and blended them with a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and geography into an envisioned tour of the afterlife. Often divided into three books – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – the epic poem traces Dante’s imaginary journey through the various levels of the afterlife. Descending first into Hell in “Inferno”, Dante is guided by the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil. Along the way they meet historical personages and people from Dante’s hometown of Florence, witness the tortures and punishments of Hell, and discuss the universal and timeless themes of morality and justice.
Examples of Gustave Doré’s incredible engravings for an 1861 edition of Dante’s masterpiece.
It was artist Sandow Birk’s random discovery of an old copy of The Divine Comedy in a used bookstore in Los Angeles that sparked the five-year project. The worn volume featured the iconic illustrations of French engraver Gustave Doré from the late 1800’s. Sandow was captivated not only by the classic text and its vivid depictions of the afterlife, but also by the exquisite, detailed images that placed Dante’s poem in a concrete reality.
The book floated around Sandow’s art studio for more than a year. Eventually he realized that both Dante and Doré were a starting point for a new project. The concept was to mimic the style and feel of Doré’s illustrations, while depicting urban America in the 21st Century. Soon Birk realized that illustrating a text was useless without the text itself, and it was while sitting in a bar with his writer friend Marcus Sanders that he mentioned the project and his search for a useable English translation that was true to the original and yet spoke to a contemporary audience. “We could do it ourselves,” Marcus said, after perhaps one too many pints.
The project developed with Trillium Press into an ornate book Dante’s Inferno, printed in an edition of 100, containing 72 hand-printed lithographs and bound in gold-stamped leather. Dante’s Purgatorio and Dante’s Paradiso followed, and all three books were published in commercial editions by Chronicle Books to great success – garnering reviews in the London Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, and selected as one of the “Best Books of 2005” by National Public Radio’s David Kipen.
> Sandow Birk featured in Cornell University’s “Visions of Dante”
Each of the three books was presented as an art exhibition that featured all of the original drawings along with several large oil paintings of the key scenes, and with the elaborate volumes displayed. In Birk and Sanders’ adaptations, each of the three levels of Dante’s afterlife is represented by a different American city, and the exhibitions were held in those cities. “Dante’s Inferno” was shown at the Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles in 2003, “Dante’s Purgatorio” at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco in 2004, and “Dante’s Paradiso” at PPOW Gallery in New York City in 2005.
Curator Susan Landauer at the San Jose Museum of Art saw the exhibitions and realized the impact they would have if they were united into one large show, and so in 2005 the SJMA presented the exhibition “Sandow Birk’s Divine Comedy”, bringing all of the works together for the first time. The exhibition then traveled to the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California, and then on to the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi, and to the Mesa Art Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Based on Doré’s 19th Century engravings, here are Sandow Birk’s remarkable, updated visions for each of “Inferno’s” 34 cantos.
Building the Underworld: Art Direction
As with the book projects, the inspiration for the look of the film were the engravings of Gustave Doré, but now developed in the contemporary works of Birk’s illustrations – setting the action in urban America. The filmmakers wanted to retain the look of engravings in both the puppets and the world they inhabit, with dense line work and an intricate drawing style full of small details, and the film was shot in high-definition video to capture the ornate drawings and the intensities of colors throughout the film.
As the script was developed, each scene of the film was storyboarded and the action was broken down to specific movements and facial expressions. For each new feeling or action, a new puppet had to be made – more than 100 for protagonist Dante alone – resulting in more than 500 puppets in the production. The puppets were hand-drawn on artists’ board, then hand-colored and cut out with scissors and razor blades.
Each moving part of the characters had to be built and joined separately, the joints connected using fishing line and wire and manipulated by metal rods or wooden sticks (disposable chopsticks were particularly good). As the production progressed, periodic meetings with the puppeteers were held to rehearse the use of the puppets and to allow for alterations in their functions to match their choreographed movements.
Most of the action was shot on a wooden stage roughly the size of a pool table. The proscenium was built with functioning curtains and a removable floor. The film required 46 sets to be built, and color schemes were chosen to reflect the mood and feeling of each scene, adding emotional depth.
The combination of state-of-the-art photography techniques and the hand-made feel of the production combine to create a visually exhilarating film, where the enchanting aura of puppets and dollhouses blends with the serious nature of the plot and dialog to captivate and invoke contemplation. “Dante’s Inferno” is a unique film – stunning, engaging, personal and meaningful – hand-made in the age of computer effects.