Sterling Library inspires student’s animated film—a love story

  • Clock face with wide silver rim with numbers with different-colored crayons and "Colorful Library" written in colorful crayons at center
  • Stacks of green, blue, and yellow books with base of wooden chair on rollers on top
  • Wooden library chair in front of row of red books with one book tipped between slat of chair back
  • Tall man with red hoodie walking across dark skyline, wheeling a red cart with shelves and walking a brown and white dog wearing a red coat
    Filip Birkner (MFA '23) and Medi
March 24, 2023

Colorful Library, a five-minute film by Filip Birkner (MFA ’23), stars Sterling Memorial Library and several of its inanimate occupants. This stop-motion animation tells the story of what happens in the library after hours one night—when the colorful volumes on the shelves assist with more than just research.

The inspiration

Birkner did not begin with a plotline or with a planned storyboard, which is the typical starting point for animation. His starting point was Sterling Library itself. “When I really like a space, I want to do something there, and then it clicks later,” he said. “I’m searching for a certain atmosphere, which I am not sure how to describe.”

Birkner, a graduate student in the graphic design program of Yale School of Art, designs innovative books, portable and stationary book shelving, and multifunctional chairs.

Wandering through the stacks of Sterling, he found the inspiration for a film: rows of shelving, colorful book bindings, and a wooden “library chair” on wheels.

“I have a certain obsession with chairs,” he said, “but as objects, not necessarily as a perfect tool for sitting. So I got the idea of trying to animate a chair, to see how it would move, how it would act. Sterling helped me to focus—the spaces, the lighting. The combination of bookshelves and the chair was like triggering point to try to do something.”

The process

Over the course of the semester, Birkner regularly visited Sterling Library in the late hours before closing, when there would be fewer patrons in the stacks. On each visit, trusting to intuition and serendipity, he would press a random button in the elevator to travel to one of the library’s floors, to search for the right conditions. Birkner eventually photographed on all 14 floors of Sterling’s stacks.

In stop-motion, or still-motion, animated films, the filmmaker manually positions objects in a series of small incremental shifts and photographs each repositioning as a still frame. When the frames are assembled sequentially, the overall effect is that the objects are moving.

Birkner shot approximately 15,000 photos for this project, and each film sequence required its own session in the library. He worked alone (until the final scene, which contains a pas de deux, assisted by Birkner’s friend Betty Wang [MFA ’22]). Birkner’s process required that he continually move back and forth as he positioned and repositioned the objects and took photos. “It was like a physical exercise, because you have to move and then move again to click. It’s also just like meditation, moving little by little, clicking.”

Colorful Library is synched with a musical score, but the music was added later, when, late in the process, Birkner decided to make the film into a story—a love story.

The soundtrack was performed by Ilana Zaks (MM ’22), a classical violinist now with the Seattle Symphony. Birkner and Zaks met in drama class, and, after discovering a mutual admiration for Bertolt Brecht, Birkner asked her to collaborate. Zaks agreed. Although Zaks is an accomplished concert performer, this improvised music is her first original composition. She watched and rewatched the film and eventually produced 15 minutes of music in 13 layers. Birkner edited her recordings and assembled segments into a score for the film.

Next ideas

Colorful Library is Birkner’s first animated film, but he can quickly list many more projects he has in mind with Sterling Library at their center. Perhaps another animation showing how books move through the Library Shelving Facility. Perhaps a viewing in Sterling of this film set in Sterling—for an audience of books and attentive chairs.

“I was introduced to Filip’s video through a friend at the Yale University Art Gallery and found the work delightful,” said Barbara Rockenbach, Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian. “We often think of the life of a book as it travels from library to scholar and back again. This video inspires us to think in a new way about the books and objects that surround us.” 

Birkner, a native of Slovakia, is in his last semester at Yale. He is acutely aware that he has more ideas than he has time to realize them all. “I love this place,” he said of Yale Library and its collections. “The only issue for me is that there’s just so much.”

Watch Birkner’s stop-motion animation Colorful Library.

—Deborah Cannarella

Images: Stills from the stop-motion animation The Colorful Library; Filip Birkner with his Red Wheelbarrow shelf and his dog, Medi