- Flatland the Film
Flatland the Film is an animation that has been heralded as a masterpiece (Phil Hall review at http://www.filmthreat.com), and so it was with high expectations that I came to view the DVD signed by the animator who single-handedly created the imagery. In the age of Pixar, Flatland the Film is unusual in being an independently produced feature-length computer-generated animation. It is an adaptation of Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884); such has been the staying power of this novella that the most recent edition was issued in 2006. Ladd Ehlinger's animation, the fourth animated adaptation of Abbott's writing, draws extensively on the novella and thus is informed by Abbott's knowledge of the landscape of mathematics and theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Ehlinger's animation follows the novella in being divided into three sections in which we are introduced by the character A Square to the dimensional and social organisations within Flatland the Film. First we see the two-dimensional Flatland itself; then we are offered a one-dimensional world via A Square's dream of his visit to Lineland; finally, we encounter the three-dimensional world of the visiting character A Sphere: Spaceland. Throughout these sequences we are treated to mathematically inclined explanations of the various orders of dimensionality. For those interested in the consequences of perspective these [End Page 167] moments can be compelling, but for the non-mathematically inclined they painlessly flow by, though sometimes for a touch too long. In addition to the maths, the various dimensional encounters also introduce their differing social organisations, with the purpose of revealing a central concern of Flatland: the conflict that ensues when different ways of knowing the world confront established belief systems or commonly held views of the world.
Animation is ideal for allowing a filmmaker to visualise dimensionalities that could not be experienced in the actual world, or even easily rendered using live-action techniques. Flatland the Film opens with a brief suggestion of a Flat-lander's visual perspective (a line). In the guise of A Square giving his son a lesson in 'sight recognition', a single vertical line appears on the screen. This is accompanied by a series of questions:
Q: What do you see when you look at me?
A: A Square.
Q: Is that what you really see?
A: Um… A line.
Q: Is that all?
As this dialogue continues, the brief glimpse of the Flatlanders's perspective gives way to an overhead view of A Square and his son, but we learn from the voiceover that Flatlanders know shape through a nuanced reading of the shading of the single line that they actually see. Luckily viewers are able to know the various shapes of the Flatlanders because we have an overhead view of shapes interacting and moving through a flat plane (left to right and top to bottom of the screen). These overhead views are simply constructed to emphasise the polygonal shapes of the Flatlanders and their architecture, with online-map-like locators, 'zoom and up, down, left, and right', often used to place us within the geography of Flatland. Our introduction to A Square's physical and social environment is accompanied by a series of intertitles that perhaps reveals a lack of confidence in viewers' ability to make sense of what they are seeing. This tactic might help a younger audience follow events, but for an older viewer they have a capacity quickly to irritate. Throughout the Flatland sections Ehlinger exploits his chosen overhead perspective effectively to show the different shapes of the Flatland inhabitants, and also the massing of the various groups as they eventually come into conflict with one another. When it eventually becomes apparent that there is a higher order of dimensionality, as viewers we realise that we too have been viewing Flatland from a higher order of things, though quite what this might mean...