Chasing Time (28 June, 1905)

Juan Estela
5 min readDec 10, 2019

This piece was inspired by Alan Lightman’s novel, “Einstein’s Dreams”. The fictional novel is written from the perspective of Albert Einstein as he is working on his theory of relativity, therefore he dreams of multiple scenarios in which time plays an important role.

On a whim, I chose to dive into the last chapter — or rather, dream — of the book before the epilogue: 28 June, 1905. In summary, this dream declares that nightingale birds were highly sought after, declaring that they were time. The story goes if one were to catch a bird in a bell jar, they could freeze time. The tragedy of the story, however, is that the people that want to catch the birds most, the elderly, could not catch them because the birds were too fast for them; the only people that could catch the birds were kids, but they already felt time moved too slow, therefore they would never bother.

I remember reading this out loud in my living room as to better concentrate on the content. The content garnered several strange looks from my roommates, and rightfully so; upon a first read, this story dream felt incredibly absurd. Despite its quirky nature, the text ultimately resulted in a simple, yet meaningful solution to translating it to a poster and accompanying poster and animation.

Poster Ideation

Initial sketching phase, featuring keywords and relevant doodles.

Before starting the project, I pulled various themes and images from the dream in hopes of creating a bit of a “mood board” as one might say. Though they seemed like the most obvious solutions, the use of the belljar and the nightingale felt imperative to my final piece; I felt like these two images alone had such a graphic presence in relation to the story, so I definitely wanted to incorporate these in the final piece. I did, however, want to consider what other graphic motifs I could use.

The goal of my end product was to reproduce the urgency caused by birds/time. It was important to capture the beauty of the nightingale and capturing it, as well as conveying the seemingly oppressive nature of time. Do the people in this dream wish to entrap the birds because they felt entrapped themselves? This is the question I chose to pose through my poster.

Demonstration of copy & pasting from the “Einstein’s Dreams” PDF.

I also copied and pasted some of the source text into a separate document to inspire my thinking. Interestingly enough, the PDF I pulled from removed all of the spaces between each of the words. This made me consider the potential use of typography in my final piece; spaces can be considered a grammatical tool to freeze time by pausing between words and thoughts. What if spaces were redacted as to remove that ability?

Final Poster

Clearly, many of the thoughts from the ideation stage made it to the final product. To represent being entrapped by time, I chose to reduce the human form to just arms and hands, trapped by a nightingale perched on a bell jar — again, trying to pose a question of time and control of it. I also included a flock of birds as to illustrate the overwhelming nature of time in this dream, taunting those who wish to catch them. As for the typography, I used the entire text from the dream, sans-spaces, to create a frame around the piece; this was a subtle allusion to Lightman’s ability to create vivid imagery out of a fantasty. The imagery is only so vivid because it is rooted in some truth — that there is this natural desire to freeze time and hold onto our youth. For that reason, I chose to let some of the flock protrude from the frame created by the text to represent the story’s believable nature. The text is also typeset in Charter, a font which is contemporary with when the text was written.

AR Animation

To bring the poster to life, a layer of augmented reality was added to the poster using the Artivive app. The app scans images, almost like a QR code, and it displays the AR by the creator of the work. I wanted to take advantage of this technology to push the narrative.

I knew one of my goals was to animate the hands to emphasize the inability to grasp at the birds. I also wanted to animate the flock of birds to enforce their portrayal as these menacing beings. Finally, to enforce the dreamlike quality, I wanted to end the animation by reversing the roles in which someone freezes the scenario, bringing this imaginary ability to life.

Simple storyboard, outlining the progression of events.

The most tasking thing for the animation was definitely the hands component. To animate the hands, I recorded myself reaching upwards behind a wall and use After Effect’s chroma-keying features to isolate my hands. It took some trials and errors, but after making a make-shift blue screen, I managed to do what I had set to do.

Original “blue screen” footage and the final, chroma-keyed silhouette.

In leading up to the moment where the situation is reversed, I “counted down” to that reveal by doing an angular wipe of the text frame, blurring the line between dream and reality; who is really in control of time? Once the wipe is complete, another wipe occurs which inverts the colors. This wipe symbolizes a shift in dynamic, ultimately revealing a hand catching the birds.

Below, you can see the resulting animation, as well is how it displays in the context of the Artivive app and how the audience interacted with it.