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Pictures of the Floating World

[ Woodblock-printed Animation ]

Our Task

Our friends at Common Works embarked on a very ambitious and truly unique visual project: Pictures of the Floating World. They asked us to create the soundtrack. Here’s how they explain the project in their words:

Taking it’s name and narrative inspiration from the 17th century Japanese art form Ukiyo-e, Pictures Of The Floating World is an experimental animation made entirely from woodblock prints, produced using traditional cell animation techniques and custom digital programs.

Each hand drawn frame is laser cut into wooden boards before being hand printed, scanned and reassembled into a moving image. The film represents a meeting point between tradition and technology: the fusion of ancient craft with the digital production possibilities of the modern day.

The project is also an exercise in efficiency and automation. To create a film from woodblock prints using traditional methods would be a near impossible task, so we needed to develop automated CAD/CAM processes and programs to reduce the amount of frames needed to be cut.

We partnered with the expert printmakers at Slaughterhaus to develop a process of printing woodblocks large enough to accommodate as many frames per board as possible. Each woodblock is printed using traditional techniques and printing presses. Each print has 21 frames on it which had to be scanned and cut out before being reassembled into a moving image. A total of 3312 frames were needed to create the final film spanning 53 large scale prints. These were scanned at high resolution and batch processed through our program to reassemble the image sequences. We developed programs to aid the digital to analogue workflow by automating lengthy and laborious processes. This included removing any repeating frames from the finalised image sequences, arranging the frames into contact sheets to be laser cut into woodblocks and recompiling the image sequence – reinserting the aforementioned repeating frames after printing and scanning.


So… When it came to the soundtrack we needed to attempt to match the creativity, scope and craftsmanship of the visual side of Pictures of the Floating World. One way we attempted this was to draw parallels between the techniques and materials used in both aspects of the project. We decided an interesting interpretation of this would be to take that comparison very literally: the predominant instrumentation for the soundtrack would be wooden.


The instruments we settled on were: Viola and Mbira for the melodic sections paired with all manner of wooden percussion. We then decided on a venue for our recordings. Both Common Works and ourselves are based in Somerset House in London, as many readers might know there are lots of cavernous spaces available here which make for perfect natural reverberation chambers. After writing some initial musical ideas we set about recording a load of source material that could be used both for sound design and music. These recordings were then merged with composition elements created using analogue synthesisers. The thought process around this was to reflect the processes used to create the film through the merging of traditional instruments and natural sounds with modern synthesisers.

Sound Design

We wanted the sound design to also reflect the carefully constructed nature of the film; with this in mind we decided to record as much original foley for the project as possible. This even meant creating the whale’s call ourselves (it’s actually Dougie’s voice pitched and transformed). We wanted the sound to be semi-convergent with the music in this way, trying to keep the sounds naturalistic and subtle while conveying a sense of surrealism and otherworldliness through their use and placement in the world. The use of space and silent sections was important to us, we wanted to give as much space to the visuals as possible. Due to the stop frame nature of the film and the looping nature of some scenes we felt the minimalist approach worked nicely.


Pictures of the Floating World was first exhibited at Somerset House as part of “Into the Wild: Decoding the Creative Journey”. A viewing space was constructed from the inky black woodblocks, engaging the viewers with all aspects of the project, including a selection of the prints, a ‘making of’ film and the final animation. 

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