Lessons on design learnt from the 1903 iteration of Alice in Wonderland

By Ashini K Ekanayake

One can draw inspiration from refining the design process anywhere you look. In this instance, a visit to Singapore’s Art and Science museum’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition has provided a good example. The unique exhibition followed the titular protagonist, Alice, through her ventures in the zany world of wonderland, tracking her journey through popular culture and how the story had evolved over time. The interactive and visually appealing exhibition consisted of astounding audiovisual artworks, depicting how artists and filmmakers have portrayed Alice and her story for over a century. Since her first appearance on the page in 1865.

The most intriguing part of this exhibition was the dawn of the introduction of special effects in live-action movies, despite the technology for doing so was barely in its infancy. Scenes from the book meant to be displayed, such as Alice’s venture through the mirrored halls as well as her fated meeting with the Cheshire Cat would have been made easier via modern Computer Generated Imagery (CGI). However, the directors at the time, Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, made do with premature camera technologies, and even if it seems odd and choppy to us now, these techniques were considered as innovative and a marvel for its time in 1903.

The movie was made 38 years after the novel was originally published, and is an incomplete film, with about three minutes of its original 12-minute run time missing. The 9-minute film jumps from key scene to key scene with sudden cuts in between, with the effect considered as actually conducive to the tone of the story. Examples of such special effects include Alice's shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and in her large size, stuck inside of White Rabbit's home, reaching for help through a window. Another example included the superimposed image of the “Cheshire Cat”, which was Hepworth’s family cat, surrounded by black space and clearly didn’t want to be filmed.

The “cheshire cat” in the 1903 iteration of Alice in Wonderland

The “cheshire cat” in the 1903 iteration of Alice in Wonderland

Well, the lessons that can be applied to our design ethic are as follows.

Firstly, with regards to the projects received, it can be achieved, as long as the project is defined in a way which frames it as one which can be done. By defining the brief properly, we can view a problem statement from differing perspectives, allowing one to redefine the use of current technologies and suiting it to solve the issue.

Secondly, with regards to internal projects, the fact that Hepburn was able to mold the primitive technology available in that time to achieve marvelous special effects for that time proves that the former should be possible to complete, regardless of blockers. One must have the ability to push for these projects using perseverance and brute force, completing the personal project no matter the problems which appear.