On UK art schools and animated documentaries

I recently conducted a study of short UK-produced animated documentaries programmed in film festivals between 2015 and 2020.  Of 146 films, almost a third were student productions. In many cases these films emerged from art universities, and they were often directed, researched, produced, designed, and animated by a single filmmaker. It got me thinking about animated documentary, and creativity, and art school. Animated documentary production involves so many skills – animation, design, storytelling, research, legals, ethics, communication… what kind of a degree programme can best support a student to make these kinds of films?

My own creative practice is, in large part, a product of my undergraduate education at Sheffield Hallam University, a former polytechnic that proudly counted Nick Park among its alumni. In the art campus, then situated away from the main university and blessed with a sense of being entirely forgotten by the outside world, I tinkered with 16mm film cameras, Steenbeck edit machines and rostrum film cameras, nestled amongst modern digital equipment. My attempts at animation and filmmaking owed much to the work shown to us our irrepressibly enthusiastic tutor Paul Haywood: Jan Švankmajer, Stan Brakhage, Len Lye, Carolee Schneemann, Kenneth Anger, Andrew Kötting, Sadie Benning, George Kuchar, and more. These were the films that sparked my imagination and wove themselves into my own creative DNA.

I graduated in 2004, and even then the campus and course felt like outliers, soon to be swept up in a tidal wave of digitisation and change. The website The Lost Continent includes an article about the impact that art school education had on the British independent animation scene of the 80s and 90s. Referencing Andrew Darley, it links this both to the political context of the time and to the cultural history and theory prevalent in the curriculum. Darley’s commentary, written in 1997, goes on to criticise a growing focus in art school animation education on conformity and commerciality, at the expense of experimentation and critical enquiry. 

In the UK, a conflict between priorities of technical training and those of creative experimentation in art education existed long before the 1990s. Lisa Tickner’s book Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution (2008) presents a detailed account of the Hornsey College of Art’s 1968 occupation by students, in a protest over funds that escalated into a broader protest about art education. In the Epigraph, a student letter is presented which calls for ‘a curriculum in which individual needs are no longer subordinated a predetermined system of training requiring a degree of specialisation which precludes the broad development of the students’ artistic and intellectual capacities’.

Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution

Animated documentary is a practice that bridges multiple industries and multiple communities. Through the fuzziness of its genre associations and its complex relationship with representation, it carries enormous scope for creative innovation. Over the course of my PhD research I’ve interviewed and read accounts from many influential animated documentary makers who talk about their art school education in terms of the creative mindset it left them with, above the technical skills it taught.

Among the animators whose work was emerging in the 80s and 90s, Liverpool College of Art is an establishment that comes up frequently. Animation was taught as an option on a wider graphics course and the college’s alumni include a number of filmmakers who went on to make boundary pushing work that used animation to depict reality. Sarah Cox, Stuart Hilton, Susan Young, Bunny Schendler, and Jonathan Hodgson all passed through the institution, as well as Chris Shepherd, who studied Foundation there before continuing his education at Farnham UCA, another institution which has been highly influential in the development of British animated documentary. When I interviewed Shepherd in 2019, he partially credited his art school education with the attitude that allowed him to create innovative work that combined dark social realism with technically experimental animation. comparing this with his experience of the 21st century feature film industry, he observes that in the film industry, gatekeepers ‘want [the work] to be like everything else. But I went to art college, and I was always told to do something that’s different’. 

Brexicuted, 2018, dir. Chris Shepherd

Bunny Schendler’s introduction to animation practice came as a result of working in proximity to animators while studying sculpture at Liverpool College of Art. When I interviewed her in 2019 she remembered seeing the work of students that had come before her, including Sarah Cox and Stuart Hilton. Schendler reflects that these films had an impact on her, as ‘unlike most highly finished commercial cartoons, it was unpolished, you could see that it was moving drawings which allowed me to connect my own practice-experience of drawing with what I was seeing.’ Schendler went on to teach herself how to make her own drawings move, initially bringing situations from her own lived experience to life, and leading to a successful career in commercial animation as well as directing observational, fiction and documentary animated shorts.  

Men Talk About Mother, 2016, dir. Bunny Schendler

Susan Young had also studied at the college, graduating ahead of Schendler. Speaking at the 2019 Deptford Animadoc event, Young remembers drawing inspiration from their lecturer Ray Fields, who ‘encouraged us to do non-narrative documentary, so to go out and observe things in the street or equally observe your own internal state or your internal response to something that was happening, and everything was equally valid so we would create these kind of observational documentary films that gave equal weight to what we were observing objectively but also what we were thinking subjectively’. Jonathan Hodgson also acknowledges the impact of Fields’ teaching on his practice. Speaking BFI Southbank as part of Edge of Frame weekend 2018, Hodgson remembers that sketchbook keeping was the cornerstone of the teaching, and students ‘were taught to draw very minimally […] finding a shorthand to create images quickly. But then it had to be meaningful, it had to be about something we observed.’ Echoes of Fields’ approach can be seen in much of the prominent British animated documentary and observational films of the 80s and 90s, and in subsequent work that has been influenced by these films.

Feeling My Way, 1997, dir. Jonathan Hodgson

Fields’ teaching style can be glimpsed through the documentation of his 1988 Stuttgart Animation Festival workshop which is accessible online through the Animator Mag archive. In this workshop, he contrasts the method of storyboarding in film development with the method of keeping notebooks, using these as symbols for broader approaches of ‘collective communication’ versus ‘self-communication’. Fields proposes that ‘the production of commercial work can be an incomplete experience. There is always a need to extend oneself through experiment’. However he also notes that ‘It is difficult to make the bridge between sketchbook, self actualisation, and what other people require for profit.’

The push and pull of different priorities in art education, and specifically animation education in art university environments, remains a source of concern for students and educators. The responsibility to produce employable entry-level practitioners can sometimes be seen as a trade-off against the responsibility to nurture a critical and experimental practice, or to cultivate an environment that embraces political dissent and creative resistance. In our current education environments, these debates are scaffolded by complex and changing financial and structural systems in higher education, political pressures, and shifting landscapes in the creative industries. 

These considerations play on my mind as an educator in art school environments. For me, one the most exciting parts of my job is seeing students develop their own unique creative practices and languages. For many, these will stay with them throughout their lives, as they continue to learn and develop. Even for those who do not choose creative careers, the ability to process and communicate experience through creativity will be a place to which they can return whenever they wish. Learning to read can take you to new disciplines, new ideas, new perspectives, new approaches. Learning to think creatively and to make creatively has similar lifelong benefits in both personal and professional spheres. 

I don’t think there is any single right answer to the question of how to weigh a course in terms of creative and critical experimentation versus the development of technical skill and standardised professional process. Perhaps each institution needs to think carefully about where they sit on this spectrum, and students entering art education should take responsibility for selecting a course that meets their needs and expectations. But maybe this attitude is too binary, excluding career-focused students from the benefits of the more experimental approach while limiting the commercial studio employability of students who want to explore artistically. The ideal may be a more holistic approach, in which students can fulsomely access both paths of learning over the course of their university education.

Is this possible without compromise? Are there institutions that are doing this particularly well, in the UK or elsewhere?  I would love to hear thoughts from educators, students, employers and audiences on these questions. 

‘LIFE IN DEATH: My Animated Films 1976-2020’ by Dennis Tupicoff

First Edition published April 21, 2022

If you haven’t heard already, Dennis Tupicoff has written a book about his films and his approach to animated documentaries. The book accompanies 9 of his films, curated and freely available on a Youtube channel.

A little about the book: “Dennis Tupicoff, world-renowned animator, writer, and producer, is an expert on the narrative application of death in animation. Take a journey with Tupicoff as he goes in-depth into the many themes, associations, and practices found in film and especially animation. Life in Death: My Animated Films 1976–2020 explores death as it relates to experience, storytelling, theory, and narrative. The examples in the very readable text are organized into three broad categories: cartoon, documentary, and hybrids of various types.”

Access to the book is here: /https://www.routledge.com/Life-in-Death-My-Animated-Films-1976-2020/Tupicoff/p/book/9781032042206

http://www.dennistupicoff.com

‘The Classical Animated Documentary and Its Contemporary Evolution’ by Cristina Formenti

Hot off the Press! Cristina Formenti’s new book is the first book to provide an historical insight into the animated documentary.

The publishing wesbite goes on to say: ” Drawing on archival research and textual analysis, it shows how this form, usually believed to be strictly contemporaneous, instead took shape in the 1940s. Cristina Formenti integrates a theoretical and a historical approach in order to shed new light on the animated documentary as a form as well as on the work of renowned studios such as The Walt Disney Studios, Halas & Batchelor, National Film Board of Canada and never before addressed ones, such as Corona Cinematografica. She also highlights the differences and the similarities existing among the animated documentaries created between the 1940s and the mid-1980s and those produced today so as to demonstrate how the latter do not represent a complete otherness in respect to the former, but rather an evolution.”

There is the link to where to buy the book, https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/classical-animated-documentary-and-its-contemporary-evolution-9781501346477/

and the ebook version of The Classical Animated Documentary and Its Contemporary Evolution (Bloomsbury 2022) has now been included in Bloomsbury Collections. So if your library has access to Bloomsbury Collections, you can find it there as well!

AnimatedDocumentary.com are looking forward to getting our hands on a copy!

Animated documentaries at LIAF 2021

Every year, London International Animation Festival shows a programme of global documentaries in a specially dedicated screening. In last year’s festival, the selection included a wide range of films, from personal, autobiographical independent short films, to branded content and museum commissions. Many of these films are now available online, so here is a short overview of the programme.

Save Ralph (Spencer Susser, 2021) is a darkly comic mockumentary following a rabbit who “works” in the cosmetics testing industry. With a star-studded cast of voice actors and very high production values, the film has much to admire technically and creatively, and a message that cuts through the humour to leave the viewer feeling very uncomfortable indeed. The film ends with a message from The Humane Society encouraging action to help ban animal testing. 

Timeline (Osbert Parker, 2020) is a poetic film commissioned by The Migration Museum. The film weaves together single frames with diverse imagery. From this visual cacophony, the fluctuating image of a single line emerges. This takes us through an abstracted history of migration, from 1620-2020, and beyond, hinting at a possible future of human migration to space. Patterns develop and evolve, punctuated by interjections of stop-motion and mixed media animation. It’s a dynamic piece that stands repeated viewings, as it is easy to miss details on a first watch. 

Heart of the Nation (Tribambuka, 2020) is another film commissioned by the migration museum. This is a more explicit narrative focusing on the contribution that migration has made, and continues to make, on the staffing of the British NHS. It focuses on communicating a clear message informatively, attractively, and persuasively, and achieves its aims in this.

The Train Driver (Zuniel Kim, Christian Wittmoser, 2021) examines the psychological impact on a train driver of the six suicides of strangers that he has been caught up in through his job. Simple blue and yellow tinted sequences develop against a black background, offering an elegant counterpoint to the narrator’s words and allowing the audience to focus on the sensitive story he is telling. 

In Nature (Marcel Barelli, 2021) takes us to the other end of the spectrum. Using vivid and varied colours alongside a cartoony aesthetic, this film playfully demonstrates diverse manifestations of homosexuality in nature. The film is funny and well-paced, full of excellent visual gags, and does a great job of educating without ever feeling preachy or lecturing. 

In the Shadow of the Pines (Anne Koizumi, 2020) is a meditative piece in which a woman reflects on her memories of her Japanese father, and the shame he felt as a child at his culture, character and his job as a school janitor. In the second part of the film, we hear her father’s voice explaining his actions, and how his behaviour was a response to his own traumatic childhood. Finally, we are told that this conversation never really happened; her father died before they could make sense of the past, and of their relationship, together. The film is affecting. Some of the details in the memories are so raw and real that they cut to the bone, and there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout.  

Only a Child (Simone Giampaolo, 2020) is a well-executed mixed media animation illustrating a speech made by twelve-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki at a UN summit. She speaks powerfully on the dangers of climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. At the end of the film, we discover that the words were spoken in 1992, a chilling reminder that the urgent call to action they contained was not heeded, and our environmental crisis has deteriorated in the years that have passed since the speech was made. The film is beautifully animated, with a production process that engaged more than 20 animation directors working on separate sections, and it moves gracefully between styles and techniques.  

The Chimney Swift (Frédéric Schuld, 2020) is a brooding film, with a script drawn from accounts of ‘Master’ chimney sweepers, who sent small children up chimneys in the Victorian era and who had themselves been sent up chimneys as children. A sketchy and stylised, artistic design approach combined with a flowing animation style creates an immersive viewing experience, while the savagery of the experiences described are still disturbing to hear almost two centuries after they were written down – partly due to the final frame, which reminds us that child labour practices still continue around the world.

Darwin’s Notebook (Georges Schwizgebel, 2020) delves into Charles Darwin’s notebook from 1833. He was aboard the Beagle as the ship travelled to return three kidnapped indigenous Alakaluf people of Tierra del Fuego to their home country. The film flows beautifully from one image to the next, with a painterly style combined with impressive, cinematic camera moves. The film follows the kidnapped people, from their previous life in their homeland through their violent abduction and attempts to replace their own culture with contemporaneous European ideals. When they are returned to their home they are adorned with the clothes and materials of the ‘civilised’ world, but these are soon abandoned. The film ends with a title card stating that the Alakaluf people were ultimately destroyed by western disease, persecution, and the deprivation of their natural resources. 

The Torture Letters (Jocie Juritz/Laurence Ralph, 2020) is a New York Times Op-Doc about racism and police violence in Chicago. The voiceover describes the narrator witnessing two young people being stopped-and-searched, an incident which triggers painful memories of his own. The narrator then discusses his research into wider police violence in the city, and tells the stories of Dominique “Damo” Franklin, who was killed at 23 by police taser, and of Andrew Wilson, who in 1989 filed a civil suit which brought down a police commander who had encouraged a culture of torture in custody. The film ends with a broader reflection on discrimination and violence in the US. The film is dense with information, which means it offers more with each viewing, suggesting avenues for further research. The monochrome visuals, moving between literal illustration, symbolic interpretation, and abstract shapes, lead the viewer through the multiple stories.

All Those Sensations in my Belly (Marko Djeska, 2020) tells the story of a young trans woman, her developing identity through childhood and adolescence, and her struggle to find a loving and lasting relationship. The film progresses through a range of visual and animation styles as the lead character moves through stages of life, from the darkest places, to transcendent moments of self-discovery. The sound design adds a strong layer of emotion to the story, ratcheting up the tension at points and at others creating a deep empathy, without resorting to sentimentality. The result is a moving film portraying a complex, vulnerable, resilient, sympathetic and highly relatable character.

One of the striking things about this programme of shorts is how many of the films have strong social and political messages, often accompanied by explicit calls to action. The social issues presented here span discrimination, identity, racism, abuse, migration, climate, mental health, and animal welfare. The creative approaches taken are as broad as the subjects covered, but every film in the selection points clearly to a desire to tell stories that can help us to move toward a better, fairer, and kinder world.

London International Animation Festival (LIAF) is an annual event taking place in November and December across multiple London venues. Full listings for the 2021 festival can be found on the website.

ANIDOX:LAB by The Animation Workshop & Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Did you know that the Anidox Lab was involved in the R&D process for the animated documentary Flee?

Here Michelle Kranot gives us some insights into the process of working on animated documentary ideas in the early stages:

“We salute the team of FLEE for their hard work and conviction. ANIDOX are proud to be engaged in the early development of this project, when director Jonas Poher Rasmussen joined our ANIDOX:LAB. We helped him make his first teaser, and ‘matched’ him with the Animation production studio SunCreature. We also followed the process closely and consulted whenever it was useful.

We hope others feel as inspired by this film and as energized as we do – We believe that more filmmakers, artists, journalists and producers will now consider this unique marriage of animation and documentary – and that audiences become more open and curious.

Applications for ANIDOX:LAB 2022 are open until 20.4.22

ANIDOX:LAB 2022 Call-for-applications

Our friends at the Animation Workshop, Denmark, have a new call-for-applications for ANIDOX:LAB ’22

https://anidox.com/applications/

Application Deadline 20.04.22


ANIDOX:LAB is a tailor-made professional training course – for documentary and animation creatives, directors, producers and professionals with an animated documentary project in development.

We offer a series of seminars and consultation sessions running between June and September 2022. For in-depth guidance and a supportive framework. Expand your international network and engage in new collaborations!

The ANIDOX:LAB uniquely addresses visual and immersive animation storytelling. The goal is to pitch a teaser/trailer and build knowledge, network and resources. We focus on collaborative processes, matchmaking, reaching audiences and new ways of working.

The coaching seminars and creative workshops are designed to progress from fine- tuning an initial idea, through visual and narrative development, to a pitch package and a teaser/trailer.

It is a laboratory which brings professionals together to maximize their capacity and cultivate new skills, while developing their respective projects. Teams are encouraged to apply as well as artists working in cross-media, hybrid forms and new technologies.

Select participating ANIDOX:LAB projects have the opportunity to showcase their work at various prestigious international events and festivals.

________________________________

ANIDOX:LAB is a part of The Animation Workshop / VIA University College’s professional training programme. With support from Creative Europe MEDIA and in partnership with the Danish Film Institute, The Swedish Film institute, Viken Filmsenter, CPH:DOX, Nordisk Panorama and Documentary Campus.



Michelle Kranot
ANIDOX
The Animation Workshop
VIA University college
Kasernevej 5, 8800-DK
E/ anidoxlab@gmail.com
W/ www.anidox.com

‘Flee’ by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi as he grapples with a painful secret he has kept hidden for 20 years, one that threatens to derail the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband. Winning many awards and accolades including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, this film has garnered much critical acclaim since its release in 2021.

Told to director Jonas Poher Rasmussen under an alias, we witness the life-threatening, heartbreaking journey undertaken as a child refugee from Afghanistan. The animation is interspersed with archive footage from Afghanistan, punctuating the memories with indexical images; the sequences striking a resemblance to events currently unfolding in Ukraine. This is further heightened by the plight of the refugees trying to find a way through systems to safe places, which in this story took many years. Alongside this is the sub storyline of Amin’s sexual identity and his coming of age as a displaced refugee.

Flee was initially developed as part of AniDox Lab.

https://neonrated.com/films/flee

Factual Animation Film Festival 2021

The 7th Edition of Factual Animation Film Festival was held at Queen Mary University of London’s Hitchcock Cinema on the 16th October 2021. The festival programme was also made available online until the 24th October. For full details visit factualanimation.com

The programme consisted of curated screenings and a series of interviews with animation directors conducted by Holly Murtha, festival director, and Alex Widdowson, festival producer.

The Beauty of Mathematics, an interview with Sarah Gorf-Roloff

In Absentia, Interview with Adriana Monteforte

I Want To Be Bored & The Things Around Us, interview with Magda Kreps

Skeleton of A Moth, interview with Emma Kay Smith

Moosehide Slide – Interview with Dan Sokolowski

Awards

There were two awards presented at FAFF this year: Best Student Film and Best Animated Documentary Film

The award for Best Student film went to Magda Kreps for I Want To Be Board

The award for Best Film went to Laurent Leprince for Waka Huia

You can visit the FAFF website here https://factualanimation.com/

‘Perinatal Positivity’ by ForMed Films

Still from Perinatal Positivity

This is an Animated Documentary and wrap around campaign to raise awareness and talk about some of the mental health wellbeing difficulties parents may face during pregnancy, birth and after. The aim is to emotionally support parents and enable them to find support. First hand testimonies along with animated characters and storylines open up conversations and experiences that are often difficult to start or hear. This film is directed by Emma Lazenby through ForMed Films, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company.

Rising of the Lusitania Festival 3, Gdansk Poland

The festival who shares the name of the first known Animated Documentary features a stellar line up of films. Their selection includes a mockumentary category and a Rising of the Pandemic category on films made about and during the pandemic.

The festival is screening on location, alongside a hybrid online/ offline conference. You can find more details here: www.animadoc.pl