What if you could see the original artwork depicted on ancient Greek vases come alive in a series of animated pictures?  Sonya Nevin, co-creator alongside with Steve K. Simons of the Panoply Vase Animation Project talks to greektv all about Panoply.

Interview by Michael Klioumis

M.K: How did you come up with the concept of Panoply?

S.N: It was during my doctorate at University College Dublin. Steve (i.e. Steve Simons – Panoply’s animator) and I started messing around making stop-motion ancient world stories with toy-figurines, just for fun. I showed at a few student society events and they got a great response. Then I heard from teachers that some of them were showing the animations in school. So we decided to push the ancient-world animation concept further. The idea of working with vase scenes came to us and really began to explode the potential of what we were doing. From there we began working on getting the movement right and on ways they could be beneficial in museums and beyond.

M.K: Do you create your own stories or do you base them on Greek mythology?

The animations are an addition that can help make people more inclined to do that study by helping them to understand and enjoy it.

S.N: The starting point is always the vase scene. How it develops from there depends on the project. For a scene such as Achilles and Ajax playing a board-game, there is no specific myth attached. So, to create Clash of the Dicers, we drew on ancient myths about the two heroes to guide us in how the characters would behave to create a new story. Achilles is superior to Ajax, so Achilles wins the game, and Ajax doesn’t take losing well, so he gets upset and indignant. Some of the animations are based on history rather than myth. For Hoplites! Greeks at War, for example, we drew on Greek history and vase iconography to create a story that reflected the key aspects of a soldier’s experience. For some projects, we have worked with young people who planned stories based on existing myths, such as Sirensor Pelops, or new stories based on mythical characters, such as Bad Karma, featuring Nike.

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M.K: Can you tell us about the uses of the animations on vases?

S.N: In the Ure Museum in Reading, UK, and in the University College Dublin Classical Museum in Ireland, museum visitors can watch animations alongside the vases they were made from. I absolutely love that. It encourages people to look again at the vases – to understand the scenes, to feel their movement, and to think creatively about what the artists chose to depict.

Some other museums have licensed existing animations to show alongside other vases. Several were included in a very impressive exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Canada, and Hoplites! Greeks at War appeared in a fabulous exhibition on ancient warfare at the National Museum in Warsaw. When the vase animations are shown alongside other vases people can still apply the ideas of energy and movement to the artefacts on display, so they make a fun and helpful addition to the exhibitions they’re in, even if their own vases aren’t there. Most of the time the animations are probably watched in people’s home or in the classroom. It’s really reinforced to us that people all over the world love ancient Greek culture.

M.K: Would you say that Panoply holds a supplementary role on teaching ancient Greek mythology in schools or universities?

It’s really reinforced to us that people all over the world love ancient Greek culture.

S.N: Oh absolutely. They can serve as a lively way to illustrate topics that you’re talking about. Say amazons come up in a class discussion; the Amazon animation is an approachable way to address stories about amazons and the sorts of images of amazons that come from the ancient word. I know one university lecturer who shows Hoplites!to his warfare class and then simply says “Discuss” – the students find analysing what they liked or didn’t like about it an effective way to explore what they think about ancient warfare. The animations are a good springboard into other activities. They can act as a stimulus for creating alternative images to represent myths, or for planning out animations for other vases through storyboards. We’ve included downloadable material on the Panoply website to help teachers with these sorts of activities. The animations are not a substitute for studying ancient literature or artefacts; they’re an addition that can help make people more inclined to do that study by helping them to understand and enjoy it.

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M.K: How’s the reception been so far?

S.N: Wonderful. I always enjoy showing them to a new class. People respond to them very warmly. They get used to seeing static images and it really perks up their attention when they then see some of them moving. I have enjoyed seeing alternative storyboards that people come up with – they’re always very creative with their ideas and find different aspects of the vase scene to draw out. We get emails from teachers all over the world who have used them in their classes. It’s been pleasing that people in museums have been positive about them too. I’d like to think that this will be something that will continue to expand. Ancient Greek vases are so beautiful, they reveal so much about ancient culture, and they can prompt so much creative and intellectual experimentation – I’d like the animations to be part of making them an even greater force for cultural activity than they already are.

M.K: What are your thoughts on using animation as a teaching tool?

Ancient Greek vases are so beautiful, they reveal so much about ancient culture, and they can prompt so much creative and intellectual experimentation.

S.N: That it can be engaging, inclusive, fun, and thought-provoking. It helps to show how antiquity is part of the future as well as the past. Watching the animations in combination with looking closely at vases is a great way to learn about art and ancient culture. And the activities that can accompany the animations, the storyboarding, script-writing, reviewing and so on, are enjoyable ways for students to develop their group work and communications skills, their literacy, and their attention to detail. They can do work on these things while expressing their ideas creatively. We have put a lot of ideas about using animations in teaching on the website, and I also published an article in the Journal of Classics Teachers (it’s free to download: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S2058631015000057)

M.K: Do you have a favorite story you’d like to show through animation?

S.N: I love the stories of Achilles at Troy. The British Museum holds a phenomenal vase depicting Achilles fighting Hector – we’ll animate that at some point. That episode and that vase-scene have all the stuff of life in them: the perfect warrior with existential angst, the family man approaching a premature death, a deity being protective, one turning away… exhilarating, heart-rending stuff. And the artwork in this case is fantastic. The mortals are nude with weapons and helmets, the gods clothed and brilliantly executed. Beautiful balance. Lovely detail. And a lot of black background so the red figures have amazing pop.

Panoply Vase Animation Project, www.panoply.org.uk

M.K.: What should we await from Panoply in the future?

S.N: This is a big year for us. We have just given the website a complete re-fit, so it looks better than ever and it’s easier to navigate. It also has a shop now. We have mugs, t-shirts, bags and other things with designs taken from scenes in the animations. They look lovely and I’m looking forward to seeing people enjoying them. There are new animations on the cards too. We’re about to begin a project called Ancient Action with Oxford University and the Ashmolean Museum. The project’s funded by the University’s Knowledge Exchange fund; they’re very committed to sharing their resources and presenting them to new audiences. They have a fantastic collection, so all in all that promises to be a super project.

Later on in the year we’ll be starting a long-term animation project within a larger project called Our Mythical Childhood. The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. This is a huge project organised by Professor Katarzyna Marciniak of the University of Warsaw and supported by a grant from the European Research Council (ERC). It will be a great breakthrough in the understanding of the role of myth in children’s culture. For that we have plans to work with the National Museum in Warsaw; I’m really excited to see that take shape.

For more information and animations you can visit the Panoply Vase Animation Project site:

http://www.panoply.org.uk/index.html