The Night Watch

8 minutes

The mechanics of bird flight

3 minutes

Shepherd’s delight

8 minutes

We are built to be kind

5 minutes

Footprint: where the towers stood

18 minutes

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How Rembrandt used light and motion to make a mundane commission a masterpiece

The oil painting Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (1642), better-known as The Night Watch, is probably Rembrandt’s most famous work. Its status and critical acclaim, though, have little to do with its subject matter: a civic-guard group tasked with keeping watch on the city walls. In 17th-century Amsterdam, it was highly common for these guilds – mostly well-off men who rarely saw anything resembling conflict – to commission portraits of themselves wearing their uniforms and holding weapons. So why has The Night Watch endured while so many similar portraits have drifted into obscurity? In this video essay, Evan Puschak (also known as the Nerdwriter) examines how Rembrandt’s riveting interplay of light, motion, texture and expression transformed a commonplace commission into a masterwork.

Video by The Nerdwriter

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Flight manifest: from take-off to landing, a bird’s eye introduction to flying

It seems to be a deeply human experience to catch sight of a bird on the wing and stand there entranced, whether by a hummingbird’s frenetic zipping lines, a hawk’s graceful curves or any of the countless other forms of avian flight. Created by the US animator Stephen Cunnane as a tool to demonstrate realistic bird movements to other animators, this breezy short renders winged flights using silhouettes, detailing the key manoeuvres of avian aerodynamics. If only this how-to manual allowed us to take to the air ourselves… For more from Cunnane, watch his companion animation Animal Gaits.

Video by Stephen Cunnane

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A horse walks into a pub: on the excruciating trauma of being told a joke

You’re at a party, perhaps finding your next drink, when someone you hardly know comes up and asks: ‘Hey, want to hear a good one?’ The real answer is almost always: ‘No, thank you,’ but as a polite guest, what choice do you really have? This excerpt from the film Shepherd’s Delight (1984) drops the viewer directly into this awkward scenario, with a quip about two racehorses talking shop in a bar. As the joke-teller eagerly addresses his audience, a wry running commentary breaks down the psychological minutiae of joke-telling, including the many emotions – from discomfort to sweet relief – experienced by the audience. Infused with a peculiar, subversive sense of humour, the UK filmmaker John Smith’s short is a mad meta-comedy – clever, a bit mean and discomfitingly relatable.

Director: John Smith

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Don’t misread Darwin: for humans, ‘survival of the fittest’ means being sympathetic

One of the shockwaves from Charles Darwin’s idea that humans evolved from other animals was moral panic. If our ethics are not guided by an omnipotent and all-knowing god and, instead, life is driven by ‘survival of the fittest’ via natural selection, how could we possibly expect humans to behave with anything other than brash self-interest? Yet Darwin’s use of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was hardly meant to suggest that existence was a knockdown, drag-out fight – he was very clear that generosity, sympathy and all those other traits that give us warm feelings are central to human survival. In this short video, the psychologist Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley puts kindness in evolutionary context, connecting his own recent neural-imaging work on compassion with Darwin’s view that sympathy is a cornerstone of human flourishing.

Video by Fig. 1

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At the 9/11 Memorial, grief, confusion and remembrance take countless shapes

‘Imagine the despair. Everything standing still… the world standing still.’

The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in downtown Manhattan opened exactly 10 years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2011. Footprint: Where the Towers Stood observes the rhythms of a day near the Memorial’s two square reflecting pools that mark the former location of the Twin Towers. Against a background of flowing water and busy city sounds, visitors – largely tourists, from all corners of the world – experience the place in a multitude of ways. There are tears. There are selfie sticks. Parents attempt to explain the the tragedy to children born long after it. Tour guides repeat their well-worn explanations of the Memorial. The site has become what the US filmmaker Sara Newens describes as ‘a tourist destination and graveyard at once’, and she encourages us to observe deeply, noting its strangeness, its solemnity and its many meanings. 

Director: Sara Newens

Producer: Laura Heberton

Aeon for Friends

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How Rembrandt used light and motion to make a mundane commission a masterpiece

The oil painting Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (1642), better-known as The Night Watch, is probably Rembrandt’s most famous work. Its status and critical acclaim, though, have little to do with its subject matter: a civic-guard group tasked with keeping watch on the city walls. In 17th-century Amsterdam, it was highly common for these guilds – mostly well-off men who rarely saw anything resembling conflict – to commission portraits of themselves wearing their uniforms and holding weapons. So why has The Night Watch endured while so many similar portraits have drifted into obscurity? In this video essay, Evan Puschak (also known as the Nerdwriter) examines how Rembrandt’s riveting interplay of light, motion, texture and expression transformed a commonplace commission into a masterwork.

Video by The Nerdwriter

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