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. 

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.

A day at Deptford Animadocs

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Deptford Cinema

The Deptford Animadocs symposium took place on a warm July day in Deptford Cinema, London. A converted shop edging the bustle of Deptford Market, the venue, which is run entirely by volunteers, is plastered with cult film imagery and local information, combining the laser focus of film obsessives with the inclusivity of a community space. The event attracted an audience  including animated documentary die-hards as well as newcomers to the form and there was a buzz throughout the day as filmmakers, academics and audience members compared thoughts and ideas.

The day included three programmes of short films. Each had a theme. The first, ‘Borders’, was a harrowing collection of stories of migration, protest, and imprisonment. From the near-invisible modern-day slavery of some domestic workers in Leeds Animation Workshop’s They Call Us Maids to the brutal detention of migrants in Lukas Schrank’s Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island, the films told urgent stories with a strong social message.

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Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island Dir. Lukas Schrank (UK/ Australia)

The second programme, themed as ‘Memories’, was a more upbeat and varied screening, lifted by the humour of Dustin Grella’s Animation Hotline and the lateral charm of Carina and Ines Christine Geisser’s Durrenwaid 8. The programme also featured dark moments, notably Susan Young’s visceral The Betrayal, a film in which she explores a traumatic period from her past in which she was put in the care of a manipulative and destructive mental health professional.

Following this was a screening of the feature animated documentary Another Planet (dir. Amir Yatziv). The film follows the creators of various virtual simulations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. These worlds have been created by very different people, each with very different motivations: police forensics, game development, museum exhibit modelling. In the film we see the creators of each simulated camp as avatars exploring their own virtual Auschwitz.

This was one of those films that is very difficult to describe or explain, or even to make sense of your feelings about during or after watching it. It’s strange, chilling, depressing, reflective, and at times blackly funny. It asks smart questions not only about its subject but also about the documentary form, leaving the audience unsettled and unmoored, unsure of whose voice we have been listening to.

The final short film programme of the day, ‘Body and Mind’, saw filmmakers looking inwards and making films that dealt with physical and mental illness, and emotional highs and lows. Kate Ranmey’s Lingua Absentia was a powerful story about a young woman with schizophrenia and cancer, told through the eyes of her mother, while Lizzy Hobbs’s BAFTA-nominated I’m OK was a wonderfully fluid, rich and satisfying way to wrap up the screening.

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I’m OK Dir. Elizabeth Hobbs (UK)

The day concluded with a roundtable discussion, with: myself; Susan Young; Terry Wragg and Jo Dunn from the Leeds Animation Workshop; Dr Victoria Grace Walden, who had organised and programmed the bulk of the day; and Dr Bella Honess Roe, who has written widely on animated documentary and who helped programme the event. It was a lively, discursive panel with a very active audience. Earlier in the day both Honess Roe and Walden had made presentations and led discussions, laying strong groundwork for more in-depth debate at the end of the day. It was particularly interesting to hear Young talk about her process of making The Betrayal, which she produced following a period of poor mental health, building a script from fragments of her real medical and legal records:

I had gone through this experience of being someone who had a voice, an animation director, et cetera, and then ending up with a mental health label and suddenly becoming voiceless. And that was totally shocking. So I wanted to explore that, to actually explore what it meant to me, how it felt to be voiceless. Which is why I used the medical records, to subvert them and take control of that narrative.

Most of the words in the film are seen as flashes of typed text, shot so close-up that the texture of paper and ink is visible, illuminated by sudden flashes of light. The doctor’s words are embodied in a disturbing voiceover, voiced by Young herself in audio that was then processed heavily to create a dark simulation of a man’s voice. This literal using of her own voice exemplifies Young’s intention:

it was really, really important to find my own voice again through playing with the voice of this individual who I’d created through his medical records he wrote about me, and also legal records.

It was also good to hear Wragg and Dunn talk about their work with Leeds Animation Workshop and how it has changed over the years. Particularly interesting was Wragg’s opinion that it is harder now to find ways to get a film seen in a good environment with the opportunity for discussion than it used to be. She explains that:

a lot of our films are quite dense and intensively researched and designed to provoke specific questions. They really work best if they’re in a group where people are around to talk about things, and sometimes that’s not as easy as it used to be.

More positively, the panel discussed animated documentary as a space where alternative and diverse stories and storytellers can flourish. Walden commented on how encouraged she was not only by the quantity and quality of submissions that Deptford Animadocs received, but also the diversity of the filmmakers and the stories represented.

Walden also talked about the way that the documentary value of animated documentary is problematised by the subjectivity of the form, the intent that is inherent in animation. While all filmmaking involves construction and decision-making on the part of the filmmaker, there remains a sense that animation is more constructed and therefore less trustworthy than live action. Walden and Honess Roe discussed the fact that while animated documentary is generally considered to be good at representing subjective, internal experiences, these representations are usually mediated by the animator or director, rather than emerging purely from the subject (Samantha Moore’s work within the collaborative frame is an example of a filmmaker addressing this limitation).

This Animadocs festival, or symposium, or ‘sympestival’ as Walden calls it, was a rich day for fans of animated and alternative documentary. The programme of films was very strong, favouring high-intensity work packing an emotional gut-punch over information-heavy or highly illustrative films. This made the viewing demanding as well as rewarding, but the frequent breaks, presentations and discussions that peppered the day provided relief and variety, as well as seeds of thought and collaboration that will no doubt grow beyond the event itself.


To keep up to date with the future work of Deptford Animadocs, join their facebook group here.

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‘The Divide’ and ‘Childhood Memories’ by Mary Martins

Mary Martins is a London based filmmaker making animated documentaries and experimental films. Her short film The Divide won the Mother Art Prize in 2017 as well as the Best New Voice award at the Factual Animation Film Fuss in 2016.

The Divide from Mary Martins on Vimeo.

In 2018 Martins was commissioned by the BFI and BBC4 to make the short film Childhood Memories, based on her memories of a holiday in Lagos as a young girl. The film combines archive footage with stop-motion and 2D animation to build a rich and evocative picture of a time and place remembered. The narrative for the film emerged from a poem that Martins wrote, which also led the visual development.

Discussing her process, Martins tells me “I turned my memory into a poem to create the rhythm, and that led the animation,  so the animation flowed from the rhythm of the poem”. Her decision to use a mixed media method was driven by both tonal and storytelling needs. “The reason why I chose the puppets was because I wanted to create that feeling that it was a real person going back in time” she explains. “I think you can capture that well with puppets, you can really bring them to life. And then there were bits that I couldn’t quite get from the footage no matter how much I edited it, and that’s where the hand-drawn came into it. To kind of fill in the missing gaps, between the visuals, the footage and the actual memory itself – the narrative”.

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Childhood Memories (2018)

Martins is set to study for a Masters at the Royal College of Art from September, as part of their animated documentary pathway, and sees it as an opportunity to develop her own distinctive voice. “My work is always going to be very experimental” she predicts, “I still don’t know if I have my own style yet, I hope going to the RCA will help me get closer to that… I see my work as a personal journey and really want to work on discovering myself through my work”. 


Childhood Memories can currently be seen online in the UK only at: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-childhood-memories-2018-online

Background on the project can be found at: https://abandonedmemories.weebly.com

More of Martins’ work can be seen on her website: http://www.marymartins.com

 

Deptford AnimaDocs

On July 13th Deptford Cinema in London will be hosting a day of film and discussion exploring and celebrating Twenty-First Century animated documentary. The event includes:

  • An international programme of 16 animated documentary films

  • Introductions by academics working in animation studies

  • Roundtable discussion with filmmakers and scholars

  • Drinks reception

Speakers include: Dr Victoria Grace Walden (University of Sussex), Dr Bella Honess Roe (University of Surrey), Dr Nea Ehrlich (Ben-Gurion University, Israel TBC), Susan Young (Royal College of Arts), Carla MacKinnon (Arts University Bournemouth), Terry Wragg (Leeds Animation Workshop).

Doors 11.30am / Tickets: £10 (£8.50 concessions)

More information on the website: http://deptfordcinema.org/new-events/2019/7/13/deptford-animadocs-1

 

 

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Migraine MyGroan MyGain (Dir. John Akre)

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The Betrayal (Dir. Susan Young)

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I’m OK (Dir. Elizabeth Hobbs)

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O Hunter Heart (dir. Carla MacKinnon)

Yellow Fever by Ng’endo Mukii: animation & representation

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Documentary animator Ng’endo Mukii on Facebook uses animation to challenge hegemonic representation.

She has written on and spoken about her use of animation to document and explore personal histories and identity, on ideals of beauty, and on the problematic representation of indigenous people through traditional documentary.

Mukii recently published a follow up to this final talk in Bright Magazine, in an article titled: National Geographic’s Photography Erased People. It’s Too Late For An Apology.

Mukii’s work rose to international attention with Yellow Fever, her award-winning graduation film, made at the Royal College of Art in London, which you can watch below.


Yellow Fever from Ng’endo Mukii on Vimeo.

A view of Ecstatic Truth 2017

The 2017 Ecstatic Truth Symposium took place on May 27 and explored the field of animated documentary. Presentations by scholars and practitioners from around the world covered topics including memory, trauma, visual and verbal language, industry structure and new technologies.

The day kicked off with a keynote by Bella Honess Roe, who expanded on the idea of ‘absence and excess’ that she put forward in her monograph Animated Documentary. Using the examples of two short films – Abuelas and Irinka and Sandrinka – Honess Roe demonstrated that animation can be used both as metaphorical wish fulfilment and as an exploration of memory, both memories of events directly experienced and memories passed down through families and cultures. Honess Roe spoke about how animation studies academics strive to pin down animation in theoretical terms, but find that definitive conclusions are elusive. She suggested that this is due to the vastness of animation as a discipline: “Very few animated documentaries look alike”. Perhaps this resistance to reductive conclusions is one of animation’s strengths.

In her presentation “Traversing the terrain of space, time and form”, Rose Bond gave an insight into her research and production process when making large scale architectural animations. Her work interprets the histories of buildings into narratives and symbolic motifs that are then projected back onto the windows of the building itself. Her storyboarding process was particularly interesting to see, as she boarded the different narratives that played out across the different windows – a more lateral process than traditional storyboarding. She referred to this “multiscreen” boarding as “a different kind of editing, composing”. The process of storyboarding was the moment of ‘parataxis’, the juxtaposing of individual visual and narrative elements together to create new meaning for those elements. Bond explained that in her work it is important that the audience do not see all the material when they watch – they are required to chose which images to focus on throughout, so the experience is different with each viewing.

Broadsided! (Exeter, UK) from Rose Bond on Vimeo.

Next up I presented a paper about animated documentary and virtual reality, proposing that the absence and excess (Honess Roe, 2013) of animated documentary is complemented by the dual qualities of immersion and alienation present in VR. I supported my argument with the analysis of two recent animated VR documentaries – Nonny de la Peña’s Out of Exile and Michelle and Uri Kranot’s Nothing Happens.

Vincenzo Maselli’s presentation on “Deeper strata of meanings in stop-motion animation: the meta-diegetic performance of matter” explored ideas of performance and materiality of stop-motion, referencing the work of Marks, Sobchack and Barker in an analysis of the relationship between the human body and the texture of filmed material.

Sally Pearce’s paper entitled “Can I draw my own memory?” focused on her work tracking memory, and the problems presented by this. She showed a piece of work in which an animated horse wanders through bleak live action landscapes that represent her fractured memories from a time of serious illness. This record of illness is, she explains, “straight from the horse’s mouth”. She discussed her process of trying to capture and visualise memory, and the frustrations that come with this: “I try to use my pencil as a scalpel to extract a memory whole, but the memory will not be drawn out like a lump of tissue, instead it changes as soon as the pencil touches it. As my memory changes under the pencil, I am changed, I redraw myself.” Pearce particularly noted that her drawings can feel trapped in the language we commonly use about memory and illness and bound up in accepted metaphor, frustrated that “my drawing mind remains locked into the forms of the spoken and written word”.

Barnaby Dicker’s paper “A Quivering Terminus: Walerian Borowczyk’s Games of Angels, animated documentary and the social fantastic” analyses how Borowczyk uses ‘fantastic topography’ to play with tropes of both documentary and fiction, in order to a explore disturbing historical subject. Dicker’s analysis of Borowczyk’s disturbing and powerful short looked at how both imagery and structure worked to create meaning for the audience.

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He commented on the clues the filmmaker’s uses to guide the audience, such as the inclusion of a title card providing assurance that characters and events portrayed in the film are not intended to resemble characters living and dead. Dicker noted that the film is highly abstract and would not in any way invite an assumption that it was portraying real characters – so in fact the title card may be working inversely, to suggest to an audience that what they are watching does, in fact, reflect reality.

The afternoon sessions included a talk from Chinese artist Lei Lei who offered a lively tour of the process behind his compelling and visually stunning artwork. LeiLei uses found materials and processes of enhancing and degrading images to interrogate history, memory and culture.

Recycled from RAY on Vimeo.

Guli Silberstein’s presentation of his work “The Schizophrenic State Project“, gave an insight into the personal context which led him to appropriate and adapt media footage of violence to specifically explore conflict in Israel, Palestine and the region. The presentation offered an intimate view of an artist striving to find a voice to communicate his complex relationship with a disturbing subject matter which is both deeply personal and boldly political. In processing and re-presenting footage of war and protest Silberstein recontextualises it, challenging a viewer to watch and consider it in a new way.

Becky James’ paper “Expanding the Index in Animated Documentary” considered the subgenre of animation about mental states through a close reading of Betina Kuntzsch’s Spirit Away. James also offered insights into the culture around animated documentary production in comparison to the fine art industry where she previously worked, suggesting that there is an absence of critique and serious professional support for emerging filmmakers through canonical institutions in the field of experimental animation.

Susan Young’s presentation “Bearing Witness: Autoethnographic Animation and the Metabolism of Trauma” showcased her PhD research on psychological trauma, in which she reflects on her own experience. Young showed her visceral short film The Betrayal and discussed her process, sharing the ways in which she managed the risks associated with conducting any research on trauma.

The Betrayal (Trailer) from Susan Young on Vimeo.

The 2016 Ecstatic Truth symposium had concluded with a sense of agreement that the arguments around the legitimacy of animation as a documentary form which have dominated much of animated documentary scholarship have reached the limits of their usefulness, and that we can progress better if we start from a working assumption that animated documentary can exist as a valid form. The 2017 event followed on from this, taking a broad perspective on animated documentary that allowed for an open, discursive atmosphere in which diverse ideas could be raised, considered and challenged. There were no definitive answers but, as Honess Roe suggested at the beginning of the day, maybe animation’s ability to elude the finality of concrete definition is at the heart of its charm.

Apply for the AniDox:Residency

The AniDox:Residency is a fantastic opportunity for international filmmakers from The Animation Workshop, building on their successful Open Workshop residency and AniDox:Lab programme.

The organisers are looking for an artistic approach, exploring the possibilities and potential of animation documentary. They will provide studio facilities, workstations, accommodation, support and 27.000 EUR in financial support. For more information and to apply for the residency, go to the AniDox website.

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ANIDOX:LAB 2016

I recently returned from the second module of The Animation Workshop’s ANIDOX:LAB in Denmark. This development lab, supported by Creative Europe, brings together animators, documentarians, artists and producers from across Europe, all united by a common interest in exploring the form of animated documentary. Each participant enters the lab with a documentary idea which is then developed across three modules. At the end of the lab, the participant is expected to have a strong pitch package supported by a two-minute promo for their project. The team behind the programme then continue to support a selection of these projects, bringing them to European film markets where finance may be secured to take the project further.

Anidox is put together by filmmakers Uri and Michelle Kranot, and has emerged from their own practice and research in the field of animated documentary. The Kranots were originally animators, drawn to non-fiction through “a desire to make films politically”. Their work has gained international acclaim and continues to compel audiences with its combination of fluid, poetic imagery and strong political meaning.

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Still from ‘Black Tape’ by Uri and Michelle Kranot

Communities of Practice

ANIDOX launched in 2013, with the original aim of bringing documentarians and animators together to find out what differences there are in their practice, and what challenges this brings to the production of the animated documentary. Over time common challenges which have been identified include:

  • Communication issues stemming from differences in use of language and terminology between the animation and the documentary community;
  • A lack of understanding in the documentary community of the production processes, timelines and budgets necessary to produce animation;
  • A mutual lack of understanding of the very different editing and post-production processes in documentary and animation production; and
  • Other difficulties with effective communication between animators and documentary directors and producers.

In response to these and other challenges, ANIDOX aims to foster dialogue between documentarians and animators, while providing business opportunities and a rich environment for creative development, helping filmmakers to develop the essence of their project and visual approach.

As well as being an excellent opportunity for project development, ANIDOX offers a diverse programme of talks from and about filmmakers, commissioners and other players working across animation and factual film production.


Module 1

In the first Module of the programme, Uri and Michelle Kranot were joined by filmmaker Paul Bush to lead several days of workshops. Kicking off with an overview of animated documentary, Uri Kranot and Paul Bush discussed the history and current state of the field in broad terms. Bush voiced his opinion that while drama has always been influenced by documentary, animation is only now catching up as part of a “coming-of-age for the animation form”. Bush acknowledged that the ‘contract’ with an audience is different in an animated documentary from a live action one, since with animation the audience is clearly aware that what they are watching is not an indexical record of real events, but he claimed that this is a strength of the form. In his opinion the British documentary industry has given up on ethically trying to present any kind of objective reality, although audiences will still automatically believe live action documentary and assume it is ‘real’. In this way, he claimed, animated documentary is less ethically problematic than its live action sister – through it’s transparently constructed nature it is more honest in its complex truth claim.

While documentary often uses animation as a way to limit the damage of missing or poor quality live action footage, there are also many other approaches and opportunities for the form. Bush specifically mentioned the power of animation to show alternative viewpoints, stories told from perspectives other than the point-of-view of the traditionally empowered. This ability of animated non-fiction to challenge hegemonic power structures has been discussed by various scholars and the potential of the form to weave alternative histories to those recorded and presented by the mainstream is widely considered one of its key creative strengths.

In a presentation about the history of animated documentary, Uri Kranot showed a range of films spanning a century and discussed the merits of each, in the context of their time. Kranot believes that we are seeing a coming-of-age not just for animation but also for documentary – an age of creative docs which can question as well as represent reality.

This pit-stop tour of animated documentary took us from Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), through WW2 propaganda films to the more personal work of John and Faith Hubley and Aardman Animation, whose pre-Creature Comforts short films Conversation Pieces (1983) used the conventions of documentary alongside stop-motion to reenact mundane and amusing scenes and situations. Kranot showed how over time the animated documentary moved from telling big political stories to smaller personal stories, such as Chris Landreth’s Ryan (2004) and Jornal Adele’s Never Like the First Time (2007). With this came a plethora of ethical and creative considerations that continue to challenge contemporary filmmakers. The animated documentary form has shown itself to be a powerful medium for exploring these ideas, with films such as Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy  (2013) deconstructing itself even as it tells its story, raising questions of transparency and authorial voice.

The_Tall_Man_Is_Happy_Ausschnitt1-en

Still from ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?’

Kranot also touched on the importance of technological novelty in animation trends, showing how many of the most successful short animated documentaries have found their success in part through the innovative use of new creative technologies.

Presentations on the first ANIDOX module also included talks by alumni filmmakers including Martina Scarpelli, who presented her recently commissioned work-in-progress short EGG, a poetic documentary about an anorexic woman’s complex relationship with food.


Module 2

The second module of ANIDOX took place in Copenhagen with guest tutors including: Swedish-Italian documentary director Erik Gandini; animated documentary producer Andy Glynne (Mosaic Films); Katrine Kiilgaard, Head of Industry at CPH:DOX; Ane Mandrup, Head of Documentary and Shorts at the Danish Film Institute (DFI) and Cecilia Lidin, Documentary Film Consultant at DFI.

Gandini, who works predominantly with live action, screened his feature film The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and talked about his relationship to documentary. After growing up in Italy, saturated as it was with flashy, misogynistic, Berlusconi-controlled media, Gandini then moved to Sweden where he had the life changing-experience of stumbling upon Claude Lanzmann’s 9+ hour long Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) on television. He describes this encounter with documentary as a “reconquering of reality”. Gandini went on to study film and make many documentaries including Videocracy (2009), an indictment of the Italian media and its social context.

At film school Gandini leant the rules of documentary storytelling, which at the time favoured a journalistic approach: an invisible filmmaker interfering as little as possible in the action, no music and closeness to character identified as the most important element. Gandini believes that this approach is “gone now, thank god”, destroyed in part by the rise of reality TV.

Gandini’s own work moved towards an essay-film approach, focusing not on recording objective fact but rather building personal arguments: “Taking command of storytelling… not showing reality as it is, rather showing reality as I feel it”. His work uses manipulation of sound, image and situation to construct a representation of the filmmaker’s subjective perspective on a subject, and he believes that the concept of authenticity in film should include being true to your own thoughts and feelings as well as your objective observations. Despite this, he strongly identifies as a documentary filmmaker, believing that documentary contains an unpredictability which isn’t present in fiction or animation and that documentary storytelling should be open to including representations of fantasy and internal life as well as hard fact – an area in which animation can be a useful representational tool. It is this co-habitation with unpredictability that makes documentary magical for Gandini, and his challenge to animated documentary filmmakers is “to what level can we keep unpredictability a friend even when using animation?”

Producer Andy Glynne brought some good practical advice to his talks. At Mosaic Films approximately 30% of the documentary output is animated docs, usually with subject matter that deals with the internal and psychological world as well as subjects and situations that are inaccessible for various reasons, or that demand anonymity. Glynne spoke about Mosaic’s process for engaging contributors, through which they have placed safeguards to ensure the story they tell remains authentic and respectful to the contributor despite the mediation process of editing and animation. He also offered some valuable insights gleaned as a result of the development of Nothing to Envy, a feature length animated documentary about North Korea, currently in very early production. Originally conceived as a foreign language documentary, the film’s development process has seen it take on more fiction qualities as well as becoming an English language production – changes that were made partly in response to the requirements of the feature film industry.

Both Glynne and the representatives from DFI spoke at length on the issues that can arise when pitching animated documentary. A recurring challenge is the expectation in the documentary industry of having a promo to show of the film being pitched – relatively straightforward for a character based live action documentary but more complex for an animated documentary, where each second of footage incurs significant expense and visual development.

Representing the fast-growing documentary festival CPH:DOX, Katrine Kiilgaard spoke of the festival’s focus on hybrid and interdisciplinary work. With larger audiences than DOK Leipzig and Sheffield Docfest (though smaller than IDFA and Hotdocs) CPH:DOX is a force to be reckoned with on the documentary festival circuit. It is significant that it demonstrates a progressive attitude to form, with a programme that includes industry forums for art-documentary projects, some of which are intended for gallery exhibition rather than theatrical or broadcast. Despite this embrace of alternative forms, Kiilgaard noted that only a small percentage of work screened at the festival is animated – estimated at less than 5%. When asked why this was she responded that the animated documentaries they receive are often at odds with the larger programming direction of the festival. Hans Frederik Jacobsen, a programmer for CPH:DOX also present on the module added that animated documentaries “often don’t fit our understanding of what a film should do”, although he indicated that this was changing, partially due to the work of programmes such an ANIDOX, which help to develop innovative productions that exploit the potentials of both the documentary and animation form.

Through these and other talks, the ANIDOX programme offered its participants a rich insight into thought and industry process related to the animated documentary field. It also provided a fantastic forum for project development, in which ideas could be presented and worked on in a supportive environment with the help of tutors and participants with a great diversity of experience. Ultimately, as with most training programmes, it is this rich peer network which offers the strongest and most lasting benefit. Through this network, participants are able to draw on each other’s knowledge and experience across the spectrum of the industry, in order to develop and strengthen their own creative voices and professional acumen as filmmakers pushing the boundaries of the animated documentary.


More information about ANIDOX:LAB and other residencies the initiative offers can be found at anidox.com.

 

Jan Nåls writing on ‘A Kosovo Fairytale’ by Anna-Sofia Nylund, Samantha Nell, Mark Middlewick

A new online journal, the International Journal of Film and Media Arts, launched this year with a special issue dedicated to animated documentary. The articles in Vol 1 can be viewed online, and offer some valuable insights into the field. They include Drawing the Unspeakable – Understanding ‘the other’ through narrative empathy in animated documentary, by Jan Nåls.

Nåls uses A Kosovo Fairytale (2009), an educational film project for which he acted as a supervisor, as a case study to explore how the use of combined animation and live action can encourage empathy for a documentary’s subject. The film tells the story of a family who were forced to leave their youngest child in Kosovo, seeking safety as refugees in Finland.

A Kosovo Fairytale

A Kosovo Fairytale

In the article Nåls discusses documentary within the historically ethically problematic field of ethnography, noting that “documentary representation is fundamentally informed by the challenges of inter- and multi-cultural encounters since it always entails a dialogue between a film-maker and a subject that exists in the world outside of the narrative – a person, a community or a culture.” He views animated documentary as a valuable tool within contemporary ethnography, which can be used to bring breadth and depth to representation of ‘the other’.

A Kosovo Fairytale was made by five exchange students from Africa and Europe. It combines roughly-made animation with live action footage of a Skype call. The lo-fi look of both the animated and live action sections means that the film’s aesthetic is consistent throughout. Nåls notes that although animation is traditionally an expensive and time-consuming process, it is possible to produce a film such as A Kosovo Fairytale on a very low budget and in a very limited timescale (the film was made in less that three months), and for the film to still be successful and well received in some exhibition contexts. In a tradition familiar to animated documentary and famously used by Tim Webb in his groundbreaking A is for Autism (1992), the characters in A Kosovo Fairytale are presented as figures hand-drawn by the real life subjects, and this integration of the participatory self-portrait helps to justify the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic style.

A is for Autism

A is for Autism

Nåls believes that the combination of animation and live action footage can create a particular empathetic response in the viewer. The animation allows an audience to relate to what is being shown as a universal human story. Nåls believes that much of the specificity and complexity of the situation being portrayed is negated through the use of iconic, “naive and minimalistic” characters and backgrounds. In contrast, book-ending the film with stark live action footage reminds us that this is in fact a very specific story; it is not a fairytale, and it has no happy ending. Nåls relates this to the Brechtian concent of Verfremdung – alienation or distancing which disrupts audience immersion in a story, highlighting construction and challenging the viewer to question the action. He sees the combination of live action and animation in documentary as “a technique of alienation… also a technique of persuasion, a way of convincing the audience of the authenticity of the story.”

Nåls mentions the “unique quality of animated non-fiction as a medium to represent traumatic events”, which has also been written about in detail by scholars such as Annabelle Honess Roe. He believes that the juxtaposition of live action and animation can be particularly effective in evoking traumatic experience, a technique also used to great effect in the final scene of Waltz with Bashir.

While many of the concepts put forward in Nåls’ essay have been discussed in existing scholarship, his use of A Kosovo Fairytale as a case study provides a useful lens through which to explore the ideas in practical terms. His thoughtful exposure of the nuts and bolts of the production process behind the film adds an extra layer of meaning to the viewing of it.

A Kosovo Fairytale from Anna-Sofia Nylund on Vimeo.

Vol 1 No 1 of the International Journal of Film and Media Arts also includes work by Paul Ward, Annabelle Honess Roe, Filipe Costa Luz, Pedro Serrazina and M. Alexandra Abreu Lima.