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kafkaesque explainer video

Pick Of The Week: What Makes Something ‘Kafkaesque’?

Who among us hasn’t heard the descriptor “Kafkaesque” before? And who among us, at one time or another, hasn’t wondered exactly what that word means? Well, we needn’t wonder any more as the term is analyzed and beautifully explained in our PICK OF THE WEEK: a clever new explainer video entitled “What Makes Something “Kafkaesque”?

Ted-Ed’s What Makes Something “Kafkaesque”? is based on a lesson by writer/comedian/animator Noah Tavlin and makes for a wonderful follow-up to another Ted-Ed explainer of his called What “Orwellian” Really Means.


Both that Orwellian video, as well as “What Makes Something “Kafkaesque”? were both directed by a veteran animator by the name of Jeremiah Dickey. Since 2012, Dickey has served as an Animation Producer at Ted-Ed. Prior to that, Dickey taught at SVA, frequently collaborated with places like Hubbub and Stretch Films, while also producing a prodigious amount of other works. Such as his short film IDEATION, which premiered at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival.

Before we get into what we loved about this explainer video, let’s first answer that all-important question: What Makes Something “Kafkaesque”? Here are a few of the attributes:

  • Used to describe unnecessarily frustrating and complicated experiences like being forced to navigate labyrinth’s of bureaucracy
  • Typically, the whole ordeal becomes so disorienting and illogical that success becomes pointless.
  • Oftentimes, the reason why this is the case is because the character is a prisoner of his or her own ego.

That’s just a surface level overview of the term. To learn more, treat yourself to five minutes of engaging information and compelling art with the full 5-minute explainer video:

Gorgeous Aesthetic (And How it Helps Build the Tone)

The look of What Makes Something “Kafkaesque”? is a bit different than most explainer videos. The illustration is much more stark and subdued than most explainers, and the animation is incrementally paced in a minimalistic dreamlike manner that seems to harken back to a time that was either long ago (or perhaps never existed at all).

Consider, for example, the opening frames:

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If you don’t look closely enough, it may seem like no action is taking place. And even when there is obvious movement, the characters and objects move with no more than a cautious glide…

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As for my comment about it harkening back to a time long ago, or one that perhaps never existed at all, I suspect that’s information by this swirling motif and it’s similarity to a pair of iconic images from some time ago…

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Mazes and Labyrinths

Central to the idea of something being Kafkaesque is a byzantine notion of expensive mazes and labyrinths. Unsurprisingly—being that this motif lends itself to illustration—this explainer features a lot of mazes and labyrinths. But what’s most impressive is not how well crafted Dickey’s execution is, but how shrewdly he deploys this recurring motif.

Whether it’s in a puddle of water or a battalion of watchful eyes, these mazes spring to life:

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And as great as all those are, the most impressive example is one that goes beyond the conventional aesthetics. It’s a sequence that occurs at the 3:32 mark, where—from a first person POV—we experience a failed escape from a seemingly endless world of doors.

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Clever, cunning and impeccably fun.

Bringing it Back to You (and Me!)

It would have been so easy for Tavlin to end his script with something along the lines of “So that’s what Kafkaesque means! Thanks for sticking around!!” But Tavlin goes above and beyond, and I don’t just mean in terms of the final lines of this explainer. I’m talking bigger, more conceptually, about what this explainer video evolves into.

Towards the end of the video, Tavlin goes beyond pure explanation. He uses the notion of Kafkaesque to serve as a prism through which we see the modern world (and ourselves). This is a bold move, but a wise one. Because it elevates this video from something purely informative to something that insightfully connects with the viewer.

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