Inspiration for Ella Ch.1

by

In the lead up to the release of White Elephant ― a comic book, an app and an invitation to change the way we look at wildlife, this article introduces the project through the influences on its art and story. In storytelling, like in design, we communicate with imagery that is familiar, symbolic, even iconic, to drive focus to specific details that communicate a unique, visual tone. Here are some of the art works and the artists that have championed the culture and design of wildlife art.

Chapter 1: Wildlife Art

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, 30,000-32,000 BP


A Look Back at Wildlife in Art

Look way back to the beginnings of visual storytelling, to cave art that is as aesthetically textured as it is rich with historical implication, to the most pertinent example: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, “located in a limestone plateau of the Ardèche River in southern France.” The decorated cave, above and below, “contains the earliest known and best preserved figurative cave paintings in the world,” around thirty thousand (30,000) years old, “they demonstrate a range of techniques including the skillful use of colour, the combinations of paint and engraving, anatomical precision, three-dimensionality and movement.”

From the earliest days, [humans have] tried to capture in drawings the living quality of the creatures around [them]. […] For some presumptuous reason, [we feel] the need to create something of [our] own that appears to be living, that has an inner strength, a vitality, a separate identity ― something that sepaks out with authority ― a creation that gives the illusion of life. Twenty-five thousand years ago, in the caves of southwestern Europe, [the early modern humans] made astounding drawings of the animals [they] hunted. [The] representations are not only accurate and beautifully drawn, but many seem to have an inner life combined with a suggestion of movement.―Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation (1981)

A second and topical example: Phillipp’s Cave, which features a white elephant painted more than five thousand years ago. There, in Namibia, “the Erongo Mountains offer a reliable water supply, thanks to impermeable granite pans, which are filled during the rainy season,” and has historically allowed for rich wildlife. The white elephant, below, is among numerous rock paintings in the Erongo Mountains that tell stories of ancestors of the indigenous people of Southern Africa, and their ancient lives among animals.

Phillipp’s Cave, 3,200-3,500 BC


A later milestone of note for its glorified display of visual storytelling: Trajan’s Column, which follows and depicts wars between Romans and Dacians. The sculpture may seem impractical relative to a comic book today, however, a Roman triumphal column showcased a similarly unique capacity to depict an epic journey nearly two thousand years earlier.

A Look at Wildlife Through a Lens

Nature is beautiful. Our perception within the woods however differs in appearance from the picture chosen to represent what may be seen there. The wildlife artists: painters and photographers with pictures and motion-pictures celebrated in culture have defined for many the picturesque wonder of the natural world. The African landscape is inherently beautiful and with good reason has predominantly influenced the visual tone of White Elephant. We look to visual reference through the lens of artists who have given glimpses of our wild world never before seen, and we commend those working to raise the public consciousness about the value of the natural world.

Through expression of value in those things that are vanishing, the art of Robert Bateman has set the example for projects at Animat Habitat. In his book, An Artist in Nature (1990), Bateman expresses the realization, “that we are living in a disappearing world,” that his art, “hearkens back to a distant, mythical age when the world was a Garden of Eden and animals.”

Bateman’s paintings are what the outdoors is all about, what wildlife art should be.―San Francisco Chronicle

He has come to believe that every living thing is a unique individual. Bateman says he knows some lions so well, “that when [he sees] them on TV [he recognizes] them.”

Every bald eagle’s face [he has] seen has its own individuality. It only stands to reason that every zebra stripe is different, every fingerprint, every snowflake is different, unique. […] If we started thinking about the planet earth in this way and paying attention to the particularity of the different species and the different races, we would probably have a different attitude toward wiping things out.―Robert Bateman


The photography of Nick Brandt has similarly documented the disappearing of the natural world. Brandt’s focus has been the animals of East Africa, with the vision, “to create an elegy, a likely last testament to an extraordinary, beautiful natural world”, which manifested in a trilogy of books with the full title: On This Earth – A Shadow Falls – Across The Ravaged Land. Across The Ravaged Land, the last of the trilogy, is a treasured reference work and motivational resource for the White Elephant project.

In the book, Brandt shares a stark portrayal of animals, which offers a poignant look at the tragedy for African ecosystems. He describes the choice to photograph in black-and-white as not purely aesthetic, “it accentuates the impression of the images belonging to another, much earlier time […] already long gone.”

[…] there is a continent-wide apocalypse of all animal life occurring across Africa. When you fly over such a vast continent with so much wilderness, it’s hard to imagine that there’s not enough room for both animal and man. But between an insatiable demand from other countries for animal parts and natural resources and a skyrocketing human population, the animals are being relentlessly squeezed out and hunted down. There is no park or reserve big enough for the animals to live out their lives safely.―Nick Brandt, Across The Ravaged Land


The hope is: to pass this message along — to share White Elephant with a generation that has been exposed to wildlife through images on a screen, more often than not, in company with the narration of Sir David Attenborough, legendary face and voice of BBC nature documentaries. The BBC Natural History Unit have documented invaluable visual archives of our planet — on film, and in so doing have defined a high-standard for cinematography in nature or otherwise. The art direction of White Elephant has drawn from how elephants have been framed and photographed throughout art history, with particular attention to the “Deserts” and “Great Plains” episodes of Planet Earth (2006), the “Mammals” episode of Life (2009), and the “Kalahari” and “Savannah” episodes of Africa (2013). As well, for a wildlife animator looking for reference footage, there may be no better place to start than the BBC Motion Gallery.

Africa (2013), e/2 “Savannah” © BBC Natural History Unit


Continue to Chapter 2: Daydreams


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