The Clinton Street Theatre was abuzz with excitement on a recent Thursday evening as patrons piled in past the concessions booth to find their seats, greeting director and Portland local Luca DiPierro along the way. Though many of the visitors seemed familiar with DiPierro’s work, it was also clear that plenty of newcomers were about to experience the premiere through new eyes. Rising, a three-minute-long mini-film exploring death, suffering, and consequence, opened the evening to a round of enthusiastic applause. Afterward, The Cadence, DiPierro’s newest 33-minute work, which spent five years in creation, had its first U.S. screening after a world premiere in the Czech Republic in July.
An artist, animator, and filmmaker originally from Italy, Luca DiPierro spent much of his youth living close to the Italian-Austrian border, where he developed many of his aesthetic preferences based on the imagery and old folk tales of his childhood there. Though he began his career with the desire to become a writer, he felt a distance between himself and the English language upon moving to Portland from Italy 17 years ago. He started to experiment with paper, and found a new medium of playfulness through which to express his ideas.
“My work does not have words deliberately,” he later explained to the audience during a Q&A portion of the evening. “By taking something away, you’re pointing at it. Silent movies, for example, were not silent. They were always full of sound scores.”
The Cadence has more than 400 captivating sound effects, including meat slapping against the floor, and minor vocalizations. DiPierro has also been working closely with two Italian musicians, freddie Murphy and Chiara Lee, whom he calls “monks of sound.” With a working relationship that goes back more than 20 years, DiPierro puts his full trust in their musical process, turning over his finalized film and allowing them to develop the sound score as they see fit—an he always finds himself surprised by their choices.
“I love the simple starkness of it,” he said. “When you start to work with somebody like that in such a small operation, they know what I want and they know what I do because they know me so well. They’re able to bring out the tragedy and darkness in some of my whimsical work that I don’t always know is even there.”
DiPierro was first exposed to animation when he saw the work of avant-garde filmmaker Lawrence C. Jordan, and was drawn to the way Jordan used looped imagery as well as the work’s simplicity and the rawness that he witnessed around the frame’s edges. While he’s still inspired by Jordan’s looping, DiPierro is set on creating a repetition of his own by his marionettes. Every scene in the film is an original, with no digital looping whatsoever, he told the audience, contemplating that manual rhythmic playing with time and repetition may be the reason the film was titled The Cadence. He also insisted that as a self-taught artist, learning patience and being open to mistakes when choosing an artistic path is of utmost importance.
“Not knowing what you’re doing makes you want to explore roads you might now have taken otherwise. I may make a lot of mistakes, or I make a lot of work with whatever I have—like tape and spit and so on—so even if something doesn’t make it into my work, it’s a great experiment,” he said.
From a book of illustrations he had as a child, DiPierro draws upon images that come back to him when he animates. “The part that takes the most time is these characters,” DiPierro mused. “They’re made of different layers and have a lot of depth. I love to project shadows and make sure the shadows are moving. They can then exist in that little space between being two and three-dimensional creations.”
While DiPierro is impressively self-taught and very talented at his craft, he humbly says that he doesn’t necessarily consider himself to be skillful. The reason he continues making his work from scratch, he says, is that he would rather develop his own new imagery than become an artist who uses existing collages. That said, DiPierro has no qualms about using his vast catalog of personal memories from real events to compile fascinating and dreamlike scenes throughout his work. Watching The Cadence, we witness a haunting and gorgeous scene in which a woman with an axe chops off the hand of a man with a knife. According to the director, the moment was inspired by a story about a local village woman he knew as a child and her forest encounter with a mysterious knife-wielding man.
“I never invent anything, I don’t like the idea that I invent anything. For example, puppet theater is limited and everything that is created now comes from the romantic nature of traditional puppet work,” DiPierro said of his process. “I try to work within that serial nature and give up some of my thoughts and ideas, and let the paper tell me what to do. I try to give in a little bit.”
The aesthetic inspiration for the type of drawing that DiPierro does and that can be seen in The Cadence, according to the artist, comes from 19th-century movable book paper engineers such as Lothar Meggendorfer, and from technicolor movie color schemes from Warner Brothers films like Casablanca and Doctor X. Most of the materials used to accomplish such vibrancy are book cloth and old hardcover books. “I like the warm, old quality that shows through, and to put chiaroscuro in my work,” DiPierro said, “and I don’t want to buy things. I go on walks and I find dead insects, food, and other found items. The surrealists did that all the time, it’s not new, but I like to emulate that method.”
When working, DiPierro makes use of his custom-made animation table, which allowed him to use its four depths of frame to deliver in The Cadence the voyeuristic feeling of peering through the leaves and trees of a forest. The depth, he says, helps him to mask his own experiences in the iconography of the era.
“Many artists say they do what they do to make sense of the world, but for me, I kind of want to make the world incomprehensible—like when someone whispers something in your ear and you can’t quite hear what they say. It’s interesting, and it’s not a traditional narrative,” DiPierro explained when asked about the role of the viewer in his work. “I like when the whole is cut into pieces that you need to recompose. There is less cause and effect and more analogy in the work. Things can take unexpected directions and wander a bit, so I don’t want to tell the viewer what to think. They build their own narrative … after all, we don’t need to be constantly entertained.”
From medieval imagery, encounters with otherworldly beings, references to Macbeth, and a vaguely painted line between mortality and death, to Eastern European iconography, folklore, pirates, time travel, animal uprisings, mysterious children, underwater portals, and wild horses, DiPierro paints a tragic, humorous, and thought-provoking impressionistic film. Through his cyclical subtextual vignettes and experimentation with tenderness in the midst of violent situations, he transports the viewer into a fantastical realm of excitement, sorrow, and beauty in this can’t-miss short film.