Samuel Beckett's "Not I"

Project type: Individual
Timeline: Three weeks

For a kinetic typography assignment in the CMU School of Design course Time, Motion, & Communication, I chose to visually render the first couple minutes of Samuel Beckett's short play "Not I."

From the beginning of this kinetic typography assignment, I knew I wanted to have some recorded dialogue that was fast and complicated. Therefore, having a great performance of an illustrious text would make or break this project. I’m really glad that Prof. Boyarski suggested I use a short play by Samuel Beckett. I was really happy to find a recording of Lisa Dwan reciting this play, along with reviews in the New Yorker praising her performances.

The second page of the script, with my notations.

Since I had a frenetic and fast-sounding recording, I was concerned about doing an animation that would be fast and maximalist, and also pulling off a minute and a half’s worth of video over the course of just about three weeks!

One idea I had involved using a physics engine to have words and phrases falling from the sky and piling on top of one another, knocking each other out of the way. I thought instead of using After Effects, I could write it using javascript and then record “video” of it from the browser. However, it seemed like a lot of effort for a minimally rewarding result.

One iteration had me using a Wacom tablet to create paths in the shape of handwriting. That way, instead of having the words appear right to left, it would look like a pencil actually writing each stroke. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out where to go with this concept beyond the initial idea of writing.

In this iteration, I randomized each phrase from the script and placed them in a force-justified layout. (The script consists entirely of single words or short phrases, each separated by an ellipsis, which made it very convenient for me to find natural separations in the text!) As each word or phrase is spoken, it turns from white to dark gray. After a few phrases, though, it’s hard to see where the new words are each disappearing from. This iteration is closest to my final version.

After deciding to go with the visual scheme where words and phrases randomly appear and disappear from a black background, I then had to figure out how to make the visuals interesting and varied. I kept things pretty simple, primarily by erasing the words on the screen periodically (which was necessary so that the viewer wouldn’t get too distracted as the screen fills up). On certain very important words, I changed colors, either of the text or of the background. Near the end, I started changing the size of the text as well for the first time, because I wanted to build up to the finale.

A screenshot from close to the end of the video.

This semester, I learned a lot about the workflow of using After Effects, and this project gave me an opportunity to exercise what I’d learned. The file for my video is clean and easy to understand, even when I haven’t looked at it in a few weeks.

I also enjoyed the opportunity to explore different visual variations (in the same style) that were varied enough to be interesting to the viewer, but also meaningful in terms of interpreting the text. The variations on the visual theme that I included served not only to distract the viewer from boredom; I tried to make them reflect the text and the sound of the performer’s voice.