On the Rainbow Trail

by Gerald McDermott

I’ve been on a journey past paper mountains, flying men, foolish spiders, talking trees, and the flaming arrows of the solar fire. It  has been a journey of discovery through the bizarre and exotic forms of world mythology. The Rainbow Trail has become a path for my work as an artist.

The riches of myth are usually lost to us in adulthood. As Mircea Eliade has lamented, “in the West the tale has long…become a  literature of diversion (for children and peasants.)” But myths have a deep appeal and significance for the human mind, and the task of the artist is to reawaken these images. The purpose of my journey has been to explore and share the evocative qualities of these ancient tales with those still open to the message of myth.

Animated films and illustrated books have carried me along this path of exploration. The choice of these media grew out of early experience with several forms of artistic expression. Encouraged and supported by my parents, I attended special classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts from the age of four. Every Saturday, from early childhood through early adolescence, was spent in those halls. I virtually lived in the museum, drawing and painting and coming to know the works of that great collection. I’ve kept a brush in my hand ever since.

A brief but glorious career as a child radio-actor had its influence. From the age of nine until eleven (that is, until my voice suddenly changed), I was heard regularly in a show that specialized in dramatizing folk tales and legends. Working with professional actors and learning how music and sound effects are integrated in a dramatic context were indispensable experiences for a future filmmaker.

And, of course, I was directly influenced by motion pictures, especially those animated epics that evoked a dream world. My view of these changed, however, under the discipline of Bauhaus-based design training at Cass Technical High School. As my ideas and tastes formed, I began to feel sure that the medium of animation could offer more than giggling, white-gloved mice. These interests merged during my college years when I began to experiment with animated films. My principal goal was to design films that were highly stylized in color and form. I also hoped to touch upon themes not dealt with in conventional cartoons. Instinctively, I turned to folklore as a source for thematic material.

The Stonecutter, a Japanese folk tale taken from a childhood storybook, was my first animated film. It is an ancient fable of a man’s foolish longing for power — a tale of wishes and dreams that can be understood on many levels. Its attraction was its elegant simplicity and magical quality. In its structure and symbolism, The Stonecutter prefigures my later films: The story contains in microcosm the basic theme of self-transformation that was consciously developed in my later work.

While my approach to the graphic design of The Stonecutter was unconventional traditional animation techniques were used to set the designs in motion. I’ve continued to utilize these methods because they offer the greatest possible degree of control over the final film. The basic device is the storyboard, a series of about one hundred quick sketches outlining the high points of the action. This serves as a visual script and is referred to continually throughout the many months of production. Because from four to six thousand drawings were required to animate each of the later films, the storyboard was an essential device in quelling those shape-shifting creatures — design and continuity.

The storyboard is crucial to the second phase of production: the composition and recording of sound-track music. An original musical score has been commissioned for each of my films. The  composer studies the storyboard, mood and pacing are discussed, and scene timings are established. The musicians assemble in a studio, and the resulting recording is transferred to sprocketed magnetic tape. This tape is run through a synchronizer, frame by frame, and each note of music is marked on a master timing sheet. We know precisely where each beat falls, and the thousands of final drawings are done to these exact notations. In this way, a perfect synchronization of sound and image movement can be achieved — an effect impossible to obtain if music were added on after the filming was complete.

The bulk of production time is devoted to rendering the thousands of final drawings on paper, acetate, and colored gel. It is obsessive work, at times repetitive and boring, and demands a degree of fanatic devotion — one identifies with the medieval Irish monk illuminating a manuscript in his cell. And budgets for educational films often impose a monk-like austerity.

Once the drawings are finished, they are carefully numbered and noted on the master timing sheets. The cameraman photographs the drawings, one by one, in sequence with the sound track. Finally, after a year of research, planning, recording, drawing, and photographing, the work is complete, and twelve minutes of animation unreels upon the screen. It is an exciting twelve minutes, however. Unlike live-action production — where a mass of footage is shot, viewed, reviewed, edited, and reedited — the first time I view my film it is complete.

Soon after finishing my first film, I had the immense good fortune to meet Joseph Campbell. Dr. Campbell has written extensively and eloquently of the relationships between mythology and modern psychology. In his four-volume study, The Masks of God, he has traced the evolution of myth and its function in world culture. Campbell has shown that ·the prime function of mythology is to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, “to waken and give guidance to the energies of life.” These ideas,  illuminated in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, became the basis for all my subsequent work.

During the production of Flight of Icarus, Anansi the Spider, and The Magic Tree, I consulted with Campbell on the meanings of the tales that I had chosen to animate. He pointed out that all these mythical stories, even though from cultures as disparate as Japan, ancient Crete, and Africa, share a common theme. Rather than being simple fables that attempt to explain natural phenomena or justify social systems, they deal with the universal idea of the hero quest. Its classic form is delineated by Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to  bestow boons on his fellow man.” *

One can visualize this quest as a circular journey where certain symbols, clothed in the garments of the culture that created the myth, are encountered again and again. Tasaku, the lowly stonecutter, seeks to rise in power through the transforming magic of a mountain spirit; Daedalus and Icarus seek release with magic wings; Mavungu seeks happiness with a magic princess. All journey forth and undergo a series of supernatural events.

Even that lovable rogue, Anansi, goes on a journey. He is a trickster, a comic shadow of the mythic hero. No mystical experience beckons Anansi; he simply “gets lost and falls into trouble.” His descent into the abyss consists of being swallowed by a large fish. He has no inner resources with which to save himself; instead, these are divided among six spider sons. His sons do manage to rescue him, but because of this division, the celestial reward of the moon eludes them all.

In each of these films, I was concerned with the circular journey of the individual who sets forth on a quest of self-fulfillment. In psychological terms, he must make a break with the past, overcome obstacles to change, and grow. Ideally, the seeker can then return, his full potential realized, and take his place in society with the “wisdom and power to serve others.”

This theme finds its fullest expressions in my book and in my film of Arrow to the Sun with a significant difference. In previous works, the circle was broken. Through some weakness or failing, or perhaps sheer foolishness, the protagonist fails in his search, and the ultimate boon is lost. In this Pueblo Indian tale, however, the circle is complete, and the questing hero successfully finishes his journey. It is the symbolism of this beautiful myth that I would like to discuss.

Before I do, however, I want to mention one of my personal artistic trials: the transition from film to printed page. This jarring shift from a medium of time to a medium of space posed some special problems. When George Nicholson, now Editorial Director of Viking Junior Books, put forth the idea of book adaptations of my African folklore films, it seemed an easy task. After all, four thousand discarded animated drawings were stacked up in my studio. Why not simply shuffle through them, choose forty, and send them off to the printer? Because the result would be a souvenir program of the film — a totally unacceptable solution.

We returned to the original film storyboard, and I tried to reconceive the visual material in a series of doublepage spreads. It was an unsettling experience because the control I enjoyed as a film director was lost. There was no longer a captive audience in a darkened room, its gaze fixed upon hypnotic flickering shadows. Gone were the music and sound effects and the ability to guide the viewer through a flow of images with a carefully planned progression. Now the reader was in control. The reader could begin at the end of the book or linger for ten minutes over a page or perhaps merely glance at half a dozen others. As an artist, I was challenged to resolve these problems.

When I began my work on Arrow to the Sun (Viking), however, I knew from the outset that the book and the film would be conceived concurrently. With the sensitive and patient collaboration of my editor at Viking, Linda Zuckerman, and my art director, Suzanne Haldane, I sought to solve the problems of continuity and design present in the earlier books. The introduction of large areas of quiet space, filled with solid, rich color, improves the pacing. The use of the Rainbow Trail motif, a multicolored band, helps to guide the reader’s eye across the page. The elimination of text from many spreads allows the images to speak. These are some of the techniques that eased my passage as an artist. Though story line and character design were shared, the book in form, texture, and color took on a life of its own.

In outline and impact, this ancient, pre-Conquest Pueblo Indian tale is a perfect example of the classic motif of the hero quest. The hero of this myth, which is the creation of a solar-oriented culture, is a young boy who must seek his true father. The object of his search, the Lord of the Sun, embodies the constancy and power of life-sustaining solar fire — a symbol that is central to Pueblo ritual. The sun, in Carl Jung’s phrase, is “the classic symbol of the unity and divinity of self.”

Corn, the staff of life for the people of the pueblos, is an important companion symbol to the sun. The constant, life-sustaining warmth of the sun nurtures the golden ears of corn. In searching for a graphic motif that would unite these two concepts, I slowly turned an ear of corn in my hands, studying the color, texture, and form. Then I broke the ear in half. At that moment, the symbol hidden beneath the surface was revealed — a moment re-created in my film. The cross section of the ear of corn, with its  concentric rings and radiating rays of kernels, forms a perfect image of the sun.

If one looks at the tip of an ear of corn — an important ritual article in Pueblo culture — one sees that four kernels come together to form a quadrilateral sign. I took this flowered cross, with its four kernel rays, and bound it by a solar circle. This became the unifying visual element in my retelling of Arrow to the Sun.

It first appears as the spark of life, then as the hero’s amulet. It identifies him as he proceeds on his journey through a landscape permeated with the golden hues of sun and com.

The Boy is a child of the divine world and the world of men. He is the offspring of Sky Father and Earth Mother — a lineage he shares with other great heroes of world mythology. "[T]he hero destined to perform miracles…can have no earthly father…his  seed has to be planted by heavenly powers. His mother, however, is earthly, and so he is born both god and man. Always the chosen one unites within himself in this way the two spheres."**

His questing path is the Rainbow Trail — a multihued border motif that appears in the sand paintings, pottery designs, and weaving of the Southwest. It runs through the pages of my book as well; down through the sky to the pueblo, across the earth, blazing up to the sun, framing the drama of the kivas, and bursting forth at the moment of the hero’s assimilation to the sun.

The Arrowmaker is encountered on the Rainbow Trail. He is a shaman — a man of magical powers. Only he has an open eye and the inner vision required to perceive the Boy’s true heritage. He provides the supernatural aid that enables the Boy to continue his journey. The magical arrow that he fashions releases the Boy from his earthbound state, just as one of wisdom opens the closed mind of another. He sends the Boy on the self-revealing way of the father-seeking hero.

Upon passing through the fiery sun door, the Boy confronts the mighty Lord of the Sun. This is hardly the completion of the journey, however, but the beginning of the true challenge.

Despite its colorful surface and happy conclusion, like similar myths, “its content proper refers to a terrifyingly serious reality: initiation, that is, passing, by way of a symbolic death and resurrection, from ignorance and immaturity to the spiritual age of the· adult.”***

The Boy must descend into the abyss of the ceremonial chambers — the four kivas — to prove his heritage. He must face these tests and emerge reborn from the dark womb of the kiva. A true hero, he accepts the challenge, "'Father,…I will endure these trials.’” Lions, serpents, and bees await the Boy. In the ensuing confrontations, though threatened by these creatures, he is not destroyed. Significantly, neither does he destroy the animals, for they represent the dark forces of our own unconscious. They are the shadow beings of the dream state, the internal demons that torment us and block our growth. We cannot destroy them, but we. can calm them and integrate them with our functions. We can assume their positive qualities and put them at our service.

This interpretation is quite different from the one we might apply to the mythology of the West which is most familiar to us. It represents a kinship and reverence for the natural world that is opposed to Greek and Hebrew tradition. Heracles destroys the titanic snake, the Hydra. He kills the lion, strips it, and wears its skin as a symbol of his dominance. Absolute domination is the message of these myths. But for our Indian hero, the human world and the animal world are reconciled. The Boy assumes the strengths of the lions, even as they become purring kittens at his feet. He overcomes the squirming chaos of the serpents and creates a circle, a symbol of wholeness and unity as is the corn-sustaining sun. (The serpents inhabit the maizefield and devour the corn-destroying rodents.) The bees, which can sting with killing power, instead give the miracle gift of sun-colored honey to the Boy.

The deepest point of the descent into the abyss occurs in the Kiva of Lightning. Here flashes the polar opposite of the constant warmth of the sun. Unpredictable and violent, it shatters the  immature form of the Boy. When he emerges from this final crisis, he is reborn and “filled with the power of the sun” — filled with a spiritual awareness born of his trials. If this solar symbolism seems remote, perhaps we should listen to the response of a nine-year-old to Arrow to the Sun: “I think that the Lord of the Sun knew all along who the Boy really was, but he made the Boy go through the tests anyway, so that the Boy would know who he was.”

The journey on the Rainbow Trail is near its end. The Boy, radiant in his new garments, returns to earth bearing the message of his father. He began as an individual searching for his true identity, isolated from his community. He completes the journey as a self-aware messenger of life-sustaining powers, ready to take his place in the community. As Joseph Campbell has observed, “The ultimate aim of the guest, if one is to return, must be…the wisdom and power to serve others.” Surrounded by the people of his village, joined with the Corn Maiden, watched over by Sky Father and Earth Mother, enclosed within the arc of the Rainbow Trail, the hero steps onto the World Center and joins in the Dance of Life.

The Rainbow Trail of the artist has come full circle. It is not an end, but a continuation, an ever-repeated cycle. The challenge is eternal: to descend again and again into the “image-producing abyss” to discover visual evocations of the compelling myths of mankind.


* Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press, 1949), p. 30.

** Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse (Pantheon, 1948), p. 184.

*** Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (Harper, 1963), p. 201.


This article, originally published in the April 1975 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Gerald McDermott and Arrow to the Sun.
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Alan Morris

Your line: "The bulk of production time is devoted to rendering the thousands of final drawings on paper, acetate, and colored gel" shows how intense and deep your work is! What a fascinating insight into the work you put into all this! Fantastic narration of your art. A huge 'well done' for a brilliant piece of writing and a deep look into your fascinating craft Gerald. Thank you very much for sharing.

Posted : Jul 09, 2015 09:28



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