JAK of all trades—on the relationship of screenplay, props, and setting in the film soul blindness by atelierJAK
curator, Nationalgalerie collection at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
The title of a textbook on screenplay writing reads Before the film shoot comes the script. It begins with a quotation from Alfred Hitchcock. When asked about the requirements for a good film, the British-American thriller director answered “you need three things—the script, the script, and the script.” This answer is remarkable since Hitchcock did co-write his scripts, but also relied heavily on another tool for film production: the storyboard. Hitchcock is known as a director who meticulously designed his films with a storyboard prior to production, and therefore could claim that his films had already been completed before any cameraman or editor became involved in the process. Supposedly, due to the work he had done in advance, he hardly had to give any further instructions while filming.
The production of motion picture films is a long, complex and expensive process involving the work of many people. The screenplay and storyboard are two tools that form the basis of film production in order to optimize the process and stay within budget. While the script structures the plot of the film, the storyboard organizes the settings and sequences based on what occurs in the script. It offers a director the opportunity to visualize his or her film in advance, although some changes may still be made during the shoot. Because screenwriters have mostly remained in the background, their influence on a film’s style was long undervalued. However, figures such as Thea von Harbou (Metropolis) and Ben Hecht (Gone with the Wind) have meanwhile gained appreciation for the material they contributed. Later still came the hour of the storyboard artists, whose work has finally reached the center of academic and public interest.
Storyboards are as diverse as the styles and approaches of their creators, or the demands of the production process. This is also the case for screenplays in terms of the personal writing style and the dialogue-writing skills of their authors. For Hollywood scripts, there is a guideline: The text must be written in courier font, size 12, a standardization according to which one page of text corresponds to one minute of film. In addition, the dialogue is usually interspersed with a large number of stage directions.
For the artist duo of atelierJAK, the screenplay is not the beginning of the film. Instead, the pages of the script are created successively—individually or in blocks—before or even during the filming. And furthermore, the chapters of the screenplay emerge in the context of exhibition preparations that are occurring in parallel, meaning that the different steps of the creative process pervade and influence each other. Although atelierJAK is also interested in producing a film based on a synopsis and a linearly developed script, this is where any commonalities with typical commercial film production end. Indeed, the completely uneconomic concept of Soul Blindness, the film’s title, would likely exasperate any Hollywood producer.
atelierJAK’s artistic work centers around the character JAK. JAK suffers from a particular neurological disorder: optical or visual agnosia, referred to as “Seelenblindheit” (“soul blindness”) in German. Individuals with this damage to the brain can see objects or faces, but they do not recognize them and cannot name them. The impact of the disorder on JAK and JAK’s environment is narrated through a variety of artistic means, including images and books, sculptures and objects, and models and installations. These works are not only connected with the figure of JAK, but, at the same time, are landmarks in the process of creating a film about JAK. The result is a situation that is as paradoxical as agnosia itself: The film seems to be the objective and endpoint for atelierJAK, since all artistic creation is related to it and its plot. However, because the individual works assume so much space in an exhibition such as that at Villa Merkel, the film itself seems relegated to a side stage, becoming a mere footnote. This leads to a reassessment of typical film production, during which many objects are created only to be destroyed at the end of filming. These are not the only paradoxes and contradictions that JAK and JAK’s creators permanently find themselves entangled in—but one thing at a time.
AtelierJAK’s artistic approach is a fluid process between various means of expression: The initial ideas for Soul Blindness are captured in books of drawings and notation, which are then incorporated into a constantly evolving script. Not only does the screenplay provide the narrative basis for the film, the texts are processed as works of art. For example, excerpts from the script can be found in the monumental wall piece Soul Blindness #3 (2014). The screenplay is also incorporated into videos and paintings, for example in the animation S#13 (2017), named after the scene number.
For the visual implementation of the screenplay, atelierJAK has developed its own font, which serves as a standard and forms a basis for other works. Unlike Hollywood’s courier font, however, this is not about the ratio of typographic size to film length. Instead, the design of the letters is influenced by the content: the letters are based on a grid with segments measuring 7.6 by 2.6 centimeters. These dimensions are the size of microscope slides. The choice of this format corresponds with the intention of observing the clinical case of JAK and JAK’s story almost scientifically, as if with a magnifying glass.
Comparing the various visual transformations of the screenplay, it becomes clear that legibility is not the objective: In one case, the words have been scattered across the walls, to the extent that considerable effort is required of the visitor if they wish to comprehend the content. In the paintings, lines from a scene have painted over again and again until the structure of the grid overpowers the text. The temporal aspect of the process of creating these paintings is revealed in an animation in which the individual words appear one by one on a green background until they are layered to the point of unintelligibility. The grid-like structure also creates the basis for small objects made of epoxy resin, which are assembled like floating building blocks to form the installations of the series Indescribable scene (2017). Here, the 7.6 × 2.6 cm format is extended into the third dimension. They show drafts for individual scenes as miniatures. Having emerged in parallel with the screenplay, they are alternately a visualization of the setting and part of the preparations for the storyboard.
Not only is the screenplay of the film the starting point for artistic interpretations, the props and the sets from Soul Blindness also become independent works. There are, for example, actual props such as the light object Blue Star (2018), which is presented just as it is in the film. A series of stone and porcelain objects in neutral shades that look as though they have been exposed to high speeds in a centrifuge can also be named to this effect. In the installation Cut To (2014), a number of these have been arranged on the floor and walls of a green interior, a reference to the usage of green screen in film. Conversely, in the installation Tableau of woolly thoughts (2017), they hang from the ceiling of a darkened room, in which green laser light marks an immaterial false ceiling. In this case, a concrete scene from the film is transferred into a three-dimensional space. The abstract sculptures in these stage sets are based on objects that play a role in Soul Blindness, but have been transformed to the extent that their original form can no longer be recognized. In their current form, they give the visitor an impression of soul blind perception: you can see them, but they still cannot be identified and named.
It is, however, not only the handling of the screenplay, props and sets that differentiates atelierJAK’s process from that of typical cinema production. The production of the film itself is also quite unorthodox. There is even a synopsis that gives away the entire story of Soul Blindness in only a few sentences. The plot, however, is first developed scene by scene while the filming of existing parts of the script is already in process or completed. atelierJAK has decided to film the sequences of Soul Blindness in succession and not group disparate scenes together as is typical in film production when, for example, they take place on the same set. This method means that the film is not created continuously, but rather that months can pass between the filming of two successive scenes. Therefore, they can take place in different locations, or different actors may appear, depending on where the film shoot takes place. This way of working, which would be completely irrational for a feature film, means that the viewer as well as the protagonist are constantly confronted with new scenery and figures. They do not know if they are recognized or not, or how these places and people are related. This perspective, as with the abstract sculptures, correlates once again with the experience of agnosia.
This sensation is escalated by an additional conceptual decision made by atelierJAK: In advance, Soul Blindness has been divided into 30 sections of exactly three minutes each. This results in a standard feature film length of 90 minutes, although atelierJAK shows the individual sequences independently. This results in a disruption of narrative, as any scenes that are longer than three minutes are cut off at that point and end suddenly. The plot may continue in the next episode, but with a lack of (the previous) context. This impedes comprehension of the plot and the viewer’s recognition of the environment.
Considering his fetish for planning, atelierJAK’s creative process may have indeed made Alfred Hitchcock’s hair stand on end. At the same time, the master of thrillers such as Spellbound, Psycho, and Vertigo would have likely been intrigued by the story of JAK and its psychopathological orientation. He would have perhaps, after deeper consideration of soul blindness, come to the conclusion that the approach and method of implementation are completely in line with the topic. It is only through the unnecessarily complicated production process of Soul Blindness and all of its related paintings, sculptures and installation that a visual precariousness is created which becomes one with JAK’s perspective and can be transferred onto the viewer. And that is perhaps in the end the great paradox: with each episode of Soul Blindness, more artworks are produced. The portrayal of agnosia, the inability to recognize visually presented objects, produces a wealth of three-dimensional material, running the risk that atelierJAK’s soul-blind works, as in the plot of Soul Blindness, will eventually get out of hand, and reality will take over. But rather than giving away too much, it is perhaps better to resort to the device used in every successful Hollywood blockbuster: To Be Continued …
 Michael Schneider, Vor dem Dreh kommt das Buch. Die hohe Schule des filmischen Erzählens, Konstanz 2007, p. 9.
 Katharina Henkel, Kristina Jaspers and Peter Mänz (ed.), Zwischen Film und Kunst, Storyboards von Hitchcock bis Spielberg, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Emden and Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin, Emden and Berlin 2011; Chris Pallant and Steven Price, Storyboarding, A Critical History, Hamphshire 2015; Anna Häusler and Jan Henschen (ed.), Storyboarding. Filmisches Entwerfen, Marburg 2017.