Imagination is a collaborative experimental film effort by brothers Eric and Jeffrey Leiser, which combines hand-drawn animation, stop-motion puppet animation, pixilation, and time-lapse techniques (by director/animator Eric) with a haunting musical score (by composer Jeffrey). They co-wrote the story about a neuro-psychologist’s attempts to understand two twin girls: Anna, who is diagnosed with a rare form of autism called Asperger’s, and Sarah, who is diagnosed as legally blind. The girls connect with each other through the realm of their imaginations, expressed through surreal animated imagery. Most of the film consists of using these abstract dreamscapes to show a window into how the girls experience their world, and other dialogue scenes of the psychologist with the girls’ parents tie the story together.
The idea behind this film resonated with me personally, given that I am not only a stop-motion animator, but also have a younger brother with autism. Many autistic children, such as those my mother works with as a special education teacher, are non-verbal, but my brother Jonathan is of a higher functioning kind, very similar to Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. I often wish I could enter my brother’s brain and see how differently he sees the world around him, so I appreciate how Imagination uses animation to suggest this very idea. Leiser’s animation, inspired by the work of Czech stop-motion legend Jan Svankmeyer, also resonates with spiritual symbolism, including the recurring appearance of a white fawn or stag. The white stag is a traditional symbol of Christ which harkens back to the medieval myth of St. Eustace, and has been alluded to in contemporary myths like Narnia and the Harry Potter series. In my own experience with autism, I believe that there is a direct connection these children have which possibly brings them into a very close intimacy with the spiritual realm. It’s possible, in my view, that people with autism and Asperger’s have keys to certain doors in the human brain that for the rest of us are simply locked. (My brother, on occasion, used to wander around the house repeating to himself that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” To him, though he may not understand the theological implications behind this, it’s simply a fact that he understands in his own way…I often wonder if he understands it better than the rest of us.)
I asked the Leiser brothers about the origins of Imagination…
Eric Leiser: The idea behind the Asperger’s came later, after I had started a series of animation based on visions that I had in my head right before I went to sleep. This goes back to ideas I had when I first visited Prague in 2003. The girls in the film were based on real girls with a similar condition: one was blind and the other had Asperger’s. This led me to study more about Asperger’s syndrome and incorporate these visions into the creative evolution behind the story. Through using every possible animation technique I could and exploring my own style, I really wanted to emphasize that the film was being told from the perspective of these two girls and what they were going through. The story was also a personal reflection of the relationship between my brother and I, and the bond that we share. We have a very close bond, almost psychic, where our talents compliment each other in the way we work together.
Jeffrey Leiser: Eric and I do have this understanding that goes beyond words. Even physically, we have started resembling each other to the point where other people think we are twins, although technically we’re not. It was strange how we ended up living the story we were telling while making Imagination. On the first day of shooting, I was diagnosed with the same eye condition (a thinning of the cornea) that the Sarah character has in the film. The bond between the twin girls who acted in the film (Nikki and Jesse Haddad) was amazing as well. When I gave them lyrics to the song I had written for the film, they sang it in unison right on the first take, and the result was very haunting and beautiful at the same time. Musically, the way Eric and I work together is that sometimes I will come up with a piece of music that just happens to compliment the animation perfectly, and other times my music will give Eric ideas for the animation. At the end of the day, I think films can be more than just entertainment, but they can also open up worlds that other mediums may not do as well.
Eric Leiser: Many of the previous films we’ve made were very difficult, but I do feel that God blessed this film and I felt His presence through the process. With my work, although my personal relationship with Christ informs things, I don’t really want to make “Christian film” necessarily, like the things you find in Christian bookstores. I prefer to explore experimental film techniques that still glorify God without being blatant or preachy. I do like to leave much of the symbolism to the audience’s own interpretations. I was really drawn to the albino fawn/white stag imagery prior to this, which led me to learn about the St. Eustace legend. Through working that into the film, it was a symbol that really clicked with me. I feel the white stag was leading the girls through this vision of their life, as a symbol of Christ Himself.
Jeffrey Leiser: Eric and I are both Christians, but a lot of other Christians don’t understand us. It’s like we’re seen as these mystics with isolated visions from God, which is weird for some people. I think it’s interesting to have a spiritual vision of something that’s a little bit strange. Through composing the music for our films, I do feel that God gives me direct, unfiltered inspiration and that it’s not coming just from myself. All of the images have a direct meaning as well, each with a larger story behind it. There’s only so much that we are able to put on film to express these visions through our own music and imagery.
DVD Release date: February 26, 2008. See official website for Upcoming Screenings.
Official Site for Imagination: http://www.albinofawn.com/