The Black Dog’s Progress

In this post I’d like to go off-theme a bit and briefly explore a short animation that has stayed with me as a personal favourite since I first saw it on Channel 4 in 2008. Stephen Irwin’s ‘The Black Dog’s’ progress was originally commissioned by Animate Projects as a web-exclusive however, with a bit of help from Arts Council England funding, it was instead broadcast on Channel 4 as part of a show called AnimateTV.

Irwin himself encourages the film as something that can be re-watched and explored at the viewer’s own pace and, once ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ has been viewed, one can see why Irwin encouraged a few re-watches (at least!). The frantic and non-linear ensemble of this animation’s narrative can leave the viewer’s eyes darting from one frame of this grim (but compelling) tale’s flip-book structure to another, not wishing to miss a single moment. However, with the help of a spotlight as a guide, the main story still manages to entice the viewer’s attention—allowing them to share in the tragic experiences of this animation’s naïve protagonist, the black dog.

Whilst I encourage people to watch the animation themselves (despite its possibly disturbing themes) I’ll also give an overview of this animation as I interpret it.

As the first flip-book comes to view on a rather blank screen the black dog is seen popping out of a birthday box, ready to be welcomed into his new home with open arms. This moment, however, is short-lived as the young boy starts to sneeze and the now-unwanted dog is swiftly and unsympathetically thrown into the trash.

It is at defining point of abandonment—in which the black dog falls out of the trash can, and finds himself questioning exactly where he may find his home—that the neighbourhood starts to expand. Both the troubling, erratic flip-book imagery and the sinister music make it apparent that the black dog’s story shall not be a happy one and, as a spot light comes to guide us along the dog’s journey, it’s not too long until this suspicion is confirmed.

Reaching out hopefully to a potential new owner the black dog finds his paw sharply bitten off, as all it can do it scream out in pain. Screaming out, but with no home to rest in, the black dog continues to desperately try and find a home, paw prints of blood seen behind him.

Unfortunately this neighbourhood offers no respite, and the black dog finds himself being literally consumed by his next ‘home’, as the carnal desires of the home’s owner mean that the black dog soon finds himself the distressed victim of bestiality. Screaming out once more.

The experience leaves the black dog bleeding once-more, and not even things that we would usually associate with innocence and childhood (a balloon and a flower with a smiley face) can offer solace to the black dog. Emaciated and exhausted by his search for a home all the black dog can do is vomit on the flower whilst bleeding—any sense of his initial hope and naiveté lost in the moment.

In the next point of progression the dog’s expression has changed dramatically. Far from looking hopeful or victimised the dog instead looks determined. Placing on boots (with one foot still bleeding heavily) he ventures onwards.

This moment is very interesting from my point of view. The way I have chosen to interpret this is that the dog now wishes to try its original home—the genesis of its progression and the only point where he actually encounters a friendly face (if only for a moment) in the form of the boy he is gifted to. However, with the boys allergies to dogs he cannot go back in his current state and so he determines to change himself, become something that the boy will not sneeze at, become human.

In the tragic conclusion, however, by the time the black dog gets back to his original home his experiences at the hands of the worst of humankind has changed him irreparably and he returns home a monstrosity—not human, nor dog, and certainly not welcomed by the mother of the home.

As he looks down at the mother of the home with a pleading expression the mother doesn’t hesitate to burn him where he stands. The black dog lets out one final scream of pain (symbolised to great effect by the musical score of this animation) as the word unravels around him—flames, blood and black smoke bleeds outwards from various points until we are left with very little (and yet so much) to look at. In this jarring conclusion we are left with the title of the animation ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’.

For their efforts when it came to ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’, Stephen Irwin & Sorenious Bonk both received high acclaim—with ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ winning the Best Short Film award, and Sorenious Bonk being awarded the Best Sound award at the 2010 British Animation Awards, and this comes as no surprise.

Technically ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ is impressive. Over 50 flip-books were made in order to represent all of the various scenes, and these were hand-drawn, scanned and then assembled in Photoshop before becoming the finishing project that we see on the screen. Composer Sorenious Bonk also does a fantastic job with the accompanying music for this animation—as violins, double bass, trumpets, percussion a mandolin and a 100-year-old autoharp came together to collaborate near seamlessly with the catastrophic adventures of the black dog.

Meanwhile the motivations and the inspirations for ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ don’t go unnoticed within the animation itself. Irwin claims to have taken inspiration from William Hogarth’s ‘A Rakes Progress’ and, like a Hogarth, his anxious narrative allows the viewer to look at ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ over and over again and still manage to spot some new element and there’s that sense of multiplicity.

Irwin’s tragic animation was also inspired by a news story he had heard, in which a woman who had tried to get rid of the family dog numerous times without success decided to set it on fire, only to have the fire spread and kill her young children. This can be seen in the animation as the mother of the story is represented as a body with a giant mouth on her head—she has no eyes and doesn’t judge the situation, she only shouts orders, commands and reacts instead of viewing the black dog’s plight, or alternative methods of re-homing the dog. This is her eventual downfall, as her fire burns and destroys the animation, leaving only blood.

In this way it can be assumed Irwin was also trying to make a nod back to the inspiration of Hogarth’s artwork, as Hogarth, too, was known for trying to depict the issues of the day in his busy moral narratives.  However, this is where the clear parallels end and, at the end of the day, as much as I adore ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ I can’t help but feel that this inspiration point is unclear at points.

Whilst ‘A Rake’s Progress’ takes on Tom Rakewell and its ‘modern moral subject’, and makes an example out of his foolish choices to succumb to the temptations of the opulent world of depravity and self-destruction that he found himself in (despite the many chances of redemption he gets in the form of the poor, but moral, Sarah Young), the black dog is simply a casualty of the abusive neighbourhood that it has found itself in.

The lack of agency that the dog has and it’s simple and understandable drive to find a home means that, far from being a ‘modern moral subject’ the black dog is the innocent party within an abusive landscape—the overall moral message, as Irwin highlights, concerning animal cruelty. As such there is a mismatch, a misunderstanding or perhaps just a deliberate oversight of the key structure of ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (and Hogarth’s moral narratives in general) and, whilst Irwin would perhaps suggest that the black dog is metonymically aligned with Tom Rakewell, I personally cannot help but see him as more aligned with the victimised dog from ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty- The First Stage of Cruelty’—who finds itself subject to Tom Nero’s cruelty, as him and his friends hold the dog down whilst an arrow is inserted into the dog’s anus.

However, despite this, ‘The Black Dog’s Progress’ does not lack anything as a result of this divergence, and manages to stand alone as a very strong piece of animation that, for some audiences (such as myself), will resonate with the viewer long after they have seen it.




For more on Stephen Irwin why not check out his website?

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