Ottawa Animation Festival: Caterpillarplasty offers David Barlow-Krelina’s take on body beautiful

A scene from Caterpillarplasty by David Barlow-Kalina. Courtesy National Film Board of Canada.

Ottawa born animator David Barlow-Krelina begins with the human body. He always has.

“I guess it started with drawing and styling the human anatomy. In art school I was looking at the body and learning all the detail of the anatomy and having fun with taking it and distorting things in my head and putting that on paper. Human anatomy is embedded in my digital memory so I can draw a figure from different angles.

That has led to thinking about larger notions of beauty and what we think of as beauty. 

He also likes to explore “ink splats or shapes in wood or abstract shapes that don’t have much meaning and seeing forms in them. This is where you can see these distorted faces. Once you have them, you start noticing these images in the real world and proceed from there.”

Add in a sense of what is known as the “uncanny valley,” and you have Barlow-Krelina’s first animation for the National Film Board of Canada called Catepillarplasty.

David Barlow-Kelina. Photo courtesy NFB.

Barlow-Krelina’s five minute 3D animation is a science fiction satire of our current obsession with body shaping and plastic surgery. It centres on a clinic  that has cultivated new standards of beauty that is robbing us of individuality. The animation was produced by Jelena Popović.

Intriguingly Barlow-Krelina’s grandmother on his father’s side was an entomologist at the Experimental Farm. 

In a statement on the NFB’s website that “I … spent most of my life up to the age of 18 (in Ottawa). I grew up in an area of the city just south of the Experimental Farm and my grandmother was an entomologist working at the Department of Agriculture building close to there. I used to bike through those fields a lot as a kid.

“My friends and I used to play street hockey in the Cityview–Skyline–Fisher Heights area. I went to J.S. Woodsworth and Merivale High School. I played ice hockey for the Nepean Raiders. In one of my earlier films, Bless You, you will see a poster inside the subway with a hockey goaltender wearing the Nepean Raiders jersey.”

His grandmother came to Canada from what was then Czechoslovakia  with her family in the 1960s when Barlow-Krelina’s father was 13.

He remembers “looking at these books that she had and seeing posters on the walls of electron microscope photography showing butterfly scales. I have been thinking in retrospect if there was a connection there to Caterpillarplasty.

“But it wasn’t a conscious thing when I went into this project. I did a lot of design stuff in the film of caterpillars and chrysalises and butterflies. I am  just thinking this is where I saw that and started to enjoy that kind of design. These insects are amazing things.”

When he was thinking about this film, he has said that “I was intrigued by the process of insect metamorphosis and how the caterpillar undergoes complete disintegration inside the chrysalis before emerging as something new. It deals with the notion of shedding the old to become something more beautiful.”

Barlow-Krelina has written that he has always had “a fascination with science fiction, psychedelia, the unknown, the alien and the grotesque. Insects fall into this category. The butterfly is used as a shorthand symbol for positive transformation in beauty salons all over the world. Yet at the same time, some people find insects to be repulsive.

“The title Caterpillarplasty has a number of connotations including the notion of interspecies hybrids and mythological creatures like the chimera. There was something unsettling about the idea of humans being so clever in some ways — having a great deal of mastery over the material world — yet being so out of touch in others. I wanted to make a film that uses a ramping-up narrative structure, where the scenes are continually one-upping each other and moving further and further away from anything we consider to be normal.

“I imagined a fictional “beauty cult” that holds certain aesthetic values as religious dogma. An institution in a fictional universe that has its own set of rituals and mythologies where the butterfly is a divine symbol and the people engage in practices to move closer to that image of perfection. The people in this society think they are beautiful, but they’re so self-obsessed and caught up in their own heads that they’ve lost touch with anything real.”

After high school, Barlow-Krelina went to Concordia University in Montreal, where he still lives.

In Caterpillarplasty, he said he is not necessarily making a broad critique of society’s beauty obsession. Instead, he says, “I am using it as a context to set the story which is about beauty in general. I was thinking that I see people who look a certain way and I am intrigued by it.”

That did evolve into thinking about making “an entire universe in which our values have shifted. Humans tend to choose one feature and it seems that we will promote the life of one particular organism and then destroy all the others.”

The film is exploring where that would go and what would be the extreme of that process of selecting a particular trait or organism.

The film, in the end, has caused Barlow-Krelina to think more these concerns. 

“I felt, as I was looking at it, that there was this weird intrigue of repulsion and attraction. Why we are attracted to certain subjects. There is also something interesting about body positivity. After you get past the surface, they are doing they want with their bodies which is also interesting.

“People today can amend their bodies in all kinds of ways that couldn’t be done before such as limb extensions. But we also have been amending our bodies for millennia with tattoos, earrings and piercings,” he said.

“First on a visceral gut level it’s the animal response to looking other humans. Then going deeper and seeing more social and cultural and language. All of these things have meaning.”

The 30 year old has been doing animation for the past seven years. But he started dabbling in high school.

“I am kind of a computer nerd and I was building computers and software in the early days of the internet. As soon as we got a family computer I was messing around with photoshop. I got  into Flash animation in the 2000s. The introduction of flash made it easy to try out.

“The act of putting something down and seeing drawings come to life in sequence captivated me and made me dive into it fully.”

Caterpillarplasty is his first professional film, but he does have other films to his credit including the previously mentioned Bless You which toured in the Animation Show of Shows and the Ottawa International Animation Festival’s Best of Ottawa. Bless You also won Best Canadian Short at the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International in 2014.

Going forward, he is working on a new animation that is building on the universe that he established with Caterpillarplasty using similar character designs with exaggerated faces.

“I want to build on that style and start bringing in (more human) body movements and facial movements.”

You can catch a screening of Caterpillarplasty on Sept. 29. For more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.