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Drums West (1961)

Chico Hamilton was a jazz musician from the 1950’s until early in the twenty-first century. He was known for playing a series of instruments, but most regularly for the drums. Hamilton was an inspiration for Jim Henson, and in 1961 Henson created an experimental short film called Drums West. In this two-minute film Henson creates vivid expressions using vibrant colors against a solid, black backdrop. He brings the music of the aforementioned Hamilton to life in new ways, and viewers get to see a visual representation of what his music meant to the world.

The world knows that Henson is talented, and we all know that he’s more than capable of creating riveting content that blurs the lines between mainstream and experimental cinema. Drums West is an example of this, but it errs more on the side of experimental, as it may take some time for viewers to understand the purpose. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure that there is a purpose other than visually representing what music means to the world. That visual representation is simplistic but incredibly colorful and vibrant–and it seems that Henson is attempting to make his short film as accessible as possible to everyone. While the film is accessible, and the sounds and visuals are readily available to everyone, the process by which Drums West came to be is one that might amaze individuals–and the tedious nature of what Henson had to do may not be as obvious as one might think.

The animations appear to be computer generated, something created using a computer program. That seems to be simple enough, but, as Drums West comes to a close, Henson is seen sitting at his desk, manipulating the individual tiny shapes one at a time using tweezers. While Drums West was already entertaining, seeing the time and effort that Henson put into the production of this film is simply incredible. What I was already impressed by managed to be even more impressive given the process.

There’s something alluring about how perfectly paired the audio and visuals are. There are obvious expectations regarding the audio and video present in a film, but to see it paired so perfectly is a tall task. The movement of the shapes are choreographed to Hamilton’s music, and the two aspects of the film marry together incredibly well. At the beat of the drum shapes shift, colors change, and the dynamic of the abundance of moving pieces becomes one with what is being done musically. Henson is one of a kind. While he’s not the only one capable of bringing something like Drums West to life, it’s possible that he’s the only one that could have birthed this idea and brought it from an infantile stage to what it eventually became.

It almost sounds silly to say that a series of dancing shapes can be moving, but what Henson creates does move viewers. It allows them to see the beauty in all of the simplistic things in life, and Henson has a unique way of allowing this message to come to be. Drums West is a quick journey through the brilliance of color and music, and it’s a touching, posthumous tribute to Jim Henson.

Written & Directed by Jim Henson.

Starring Jim Henson.




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