The first AnimatedDocumentary.com Award at FAFF 2016!

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We were thrilled to be part of this years Factual Animation Film Fuss festival: hosting an event, giving our first ever award, and mingling with the great and the good of the UK animated documentary crowd.

The festival is in its second year, run by Daniel Murtha, and hosted at the Genesis Cinema in London, UK. In addition to several programmes of the best new work in animated documentary, a Q&A with film-maker Samantha Moore, chaired by Alys Scott-Hawkins, opened out discussions with a number of film-makers in the audience, including Mary Martins, Emma Calder and Alex Widdowson.

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Still from Truth Has Fallen by Sheila Sofian

The AnimatedDocumentary.com award was presented on the final night of the festival. We were very pleased to have our award sponsored by animated documentary director Sheila Sofian. The winner received signed original artwork from Sheila’s film ‘Truth has Fallen’, a feature length documentary we have featured on the blog. The film is about about people wrongfully convicted of murder and the weaknesses in the US justice system that allowed these injustices to occur. You can find out more about Sheila’s work on her website here.

The winning film was Spirit Away by Bettina Kuntzsch. We thought that the film was a fantastic example of using existing documentary evidence to engage the audience.

We also awarded two Special Mentions: Loop by Samantha Moore and Life Inside Islamic State by Scott Coello. We made a third award for Best New Voice and this went to The Divide by Mary Martins.

Loop by Samantha Moore

Life Inside Islamic State by Scott Coello

The Divide by Mary Martens

‘Animation Therapy’ workshop and ‘Animation on Prescription’ screening at Encounters Festival 2016

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Helen Mason, founder of Animation Therapy, has been running Animation on Prescription conferences biannually at Encounters Festival since 2010. This year she organised a free public screening and a workshop for medical, dental and veterinary professionals designed to help them confront their own compassion fatigue. Helen explained that compassion fatigue was brought sharply to her attention when an occupational therapist colleague committed suicide. Further research revealed that both the dental and veterinary industries had very high suicide rates. Mason suggested that the same must be true for medical professionals, though the National Health Service here in the UK (NHS) does not keep records of staff suicides. She pointed out the irony that NHS staff absences due to illness or fatigue, are documented rigorously.

Lord Stone of Blackheath, an active political advocate for issues relating to mental health, started the morning session by sharing his personal perspective on compassion fatigue. He also discussed the awareness campaign he’s helping Helen Mason to launch.

Unfortunately I missed Lord Stone’s group discussion, but waiting for the next natural interval afforded me time to sketch the beautiful workshop setting. Floating Harbour Films is a Dutch barge moored to the Welshback stretch of the river Avon in the centre of Bristol. This venue, along with the workshop facilitators, donated their time and resources without charging in order to raise money for the Bluebell Charity fund. Bluebell supports people struggling with pre and post-natal depression and anxiety.

 

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After some brief introductions the group began the first set of exercises. The majority of participants were occupational therapists (O.T.’s) looking to learn Helen’s techniques to use in their own practice. Each participant was given a few sheets of uniformly sized card and instructed to draw in landscape format. The first image could be whatever we liked, presumably to warm us up. For the second we were asked to express the concept of compassion (see example drawing above).

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Maria Hopkinson-Hassell, the animation facilitator, encouraged us to place our drawings carefully within the defined brackets on a well-lit board. One by one we photographed our images, importing them straight onto a laptop which was running stop-motion software. When looped, the end result was a chaotic flickering montage, held together visually by the consistent paper size and positioning.

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Our next task was to recall a moment of resilience from the past, a time when we had to keep going despite fatigue or distress. We were asked to express these feelings on a piece of paper, cut to the shape of our hand. An unexpected intimate moment was subtly orchestrated by Helen as she encouraged each participant to have their hand traced by someone else from the class.

This activity resulted in an explosion of colour. A herd of occupational therapists gathered around the art supplies table, gradually spreading them in disarray across the workshop. Time restraints prohibited us from attempting an animation with our kaleidoscopic hands; instead Helen insisted we write our names diligently on the back with the promise that they’d be animated in our absence and safely posted back to us.

After drawing Simon Critchley colouring in his paper-hand, we had a quick chat. In a few words he articulated why animation seems to lend itself so well to art therapy: for a lot of his clients, control is not something they have experienced much in their recent history: animation offers a chance to play with extraordinary levels of control, if only for the duration of these short improvised productions.

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Nigel Smith, a retired-doctor-turned-animation-workshop-leader, volunteered his face to co-star in the next pixillation exercise. A rostrum-mounted camera photographed his expressions from above as a second workshop participant moved figures, cut from magazines, across a glass table which intersected the photographic field. This method sparked a conversation about Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer music video, produced in 1986 by Bristol- based Aardman Animation.

Following a sunny lunch on the deck of the barge, Helen gathered us in a circle to facilitate a group discussion about compassion fatigue.

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Helen (above, identifiable by the black dress) concluded the group discussion by asking us to write a postcard to our future selves. In two weeks this will be sent back to us, along with our illustrated hands. We all wrote supportive advice that should remind us how to be kind to ourselves and help us prioritise our well-being.

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The final animation activity was facilitated by Tim Webb, Royal College of Art, and the director of ‘A is for Autism’ (1992), a seminal animated documentary which emerged from a collaboration with several young people with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

Each workshop participant was instructed to make a miniature version of themselves out of colourful lumps of Newplast Modelling Material.  The 11 tiny figures shared the limelight in a claymation ensemble within the short film which gradually emerged. In between frames we participants huddled around the set, incrementally adjusting our respective putty avatars.

At 3pm we dispersed across Bristol city centre, congregating a few hours later at the Watershed, Encounters Festival base camp. Helen presented two programmes of films; the first consisted of animations created in collaboration with service users. The aforementioned ‘A is for Autism’, kicked off the programme as an example of best practice.

The screening also included films produced by Animation Therapy such as ‘The Haldon’, a film made by staff and service uses at a ward for people struggling with eating disorders in Exeter.

The second programme included films by professional animators, many of whom are well known for their animated documentary work. Helen emphasised the value of collaborative work with animators when exploring therapeutic topics.  Andy Glynne’s production company, Mosaic Films, featured heavily; several shorts from their British Animation Award winning series ‘Animated Minds: Stories of Post Natal Depression’ were included. ‘Mike’s Story stood out to me, as particularly touching.

Follow this link if you wish to donate to the Bluebell Charity fund for people struggling with pre and post-natal depression and anxiety. We look forward to many more years of Helen Mason hosting Animation on Prescription events at Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival.

Moving Pictures & Top of the Class – Encounters Festival Animation Programme 2 & 3

Encounters, the Bristol based UK animation and short film festival, continues with an excellent array of animated shorts in their second and third animation programmes.

Animation 2 – Moving Pictures was a collection of shorts that explored complex emotive narratives. Of the fiction work in the programme, ‘My Home (Chez Moi)‘ directed by Phuong Mai Nguyen, shone through as a truly touching and sophisticated exploration of a young boy coming to grips with his mother’s new romantic partner.

Two films from programme 2 that hit the animated documentary remit, both of which take place during the Second World War.

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Zoltan Aprily, director of ‘Ungvár’, explores his grandfather’s memories of working on a Hungarian commercial ship which was leased to the German navy and appropriated for war.

The central moral dilemma of working alongside the historical villains of the 20th century is illuminated through crystal clear symbolism: the Nazi soldiers are quite literally depicted as faceless or monstrous henchmen, while the civilian crew are shown as a hapless bunch of normal-looking lads struggling through a precarious situation.

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Michael Brookes was commissioned by the Bletchley Park Trust to reconstruct a key moment in British military history. Notes rescued from a captured German U-boat led to the British code-breaking teams cracking the German Enigma encryption. This 3D animation is rendered in a soft colour palette, with intricate textures reminiscent of the early 20th century printing of posters used during the Allied war effort.

‘The Petard Pinch’ is essentially a tale of duty and sacrifice. The stiff-upper-lip stoicism of the film serves only to sharpen the emotional response in the audience.  This informative and moving short film clearly deserves the success it has already received from D&AD, Shorts of the Week and as a Vimeo Staff Pick.

Animation 3 – Top of the Class draws attention to animated films selected for their craftsmanship. Three of the films were identifiable as animated documentaries, but the of fiction and non-narrative work my attention was grabbed by the French-Hungarian co-production ‘Love‘, directed by Réka Bucsi.  This fantasy nature documentary tracks the impact solar movement have on a weird and complex ecosystem.

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Volker Schlecht & Alexander Lahl co-directed ‘Broken – The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck (Kaputt)’. This beautifully crafted film is narrated by Gabriele Stötzer and Brigit Willschütz, political prisoners from Hoheneck Castle in East Germany. These unfortunate women were forced to make garments which were sold for great profit across the border in West Germany.

The animation is classically drawn frame by frame. After scanning one step, the drawing was erased, changed or completely re-drawn on the same sheet of paper and re-scanned (a technique used by William Kentridge). The attention to detail in this film is truly astonishing. It seemed somehow telling that the directors chose to integrate the subtitles, perfectly matching the aesthetic of this powerful animated documentary.

‘Stems’, directed by Ainslie Henderson, is a straightforward documentary about creating stop-motion puppets. The director narrates as his characters are assembled is if through the magic of stop-motion. It’s all very meta.  Henderson laments, “they are like actors who are destined to play just one role”.

‘Mamie’ is a touching portrait of director’s grandmother. Janice Nadeau tries to decipher her personal memories of this aloof and unforgiving matriarch. Although not explicitly stated, it seems clear that this is based on first hand recollection. If ‘Mamie’ is entirely invented character I must apologise for suggesting this is an animated documentary and commend Janice Nadeau for the realism in her writing!

Encounters short film and animation festival runs from the 20th -25th September across a number of venues in Bristol, UK.

 

The Weight of Humanity – Encounters Festival Animation Programme 1

The first Encounters Festival animation programme focused on politics, conflict and cultural identity. Amongst the short animations were a number of works of fiction which directly satirise world affairs and political systems. Others made unambiguous references to hot topics like North Korea. In terms of documentary approaches, four films stood out for me:

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Having completed the AniDox:Lab under Uri and Michelle Kranot’s tutorage, I feel compelled to support the notion that their experimental film, ‘How Long, Too Long’, is a documentary. The animation conveys a loosely structured message of tolerance through appropriated historical footage and symbolic imagery. Each live action scene is manipulated though their highly distinctive paint on paper rotoscoping technique. The scenes are contextualised by the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose voice has come to symbolise tolerance. This film developed out of a collaboration with live action director Erik Gandini. His film ‘Cosmopolitanism’ (2015) on Vimeo is a more conventional documentary short which addresses similar subject matter and shares some of the animated scenes.

Click here to watch the ‘How Long, Too Long‘ trailer

While thinking about how to categorise this film I was reminded that Uri had said animators often dismiss his and Michelle’s recent films as not real animation; while the structure and form of their films are lyrical enough for documentarians question their authority as a documentaries. However you might choose to define this short, Michelle and Uri’s contribution to animated documentary as educators is invaluable.

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‘City of Roses’, directed by Andrew Kavanagh, mixes live action and animation to distinguish between recent history in Ireland and 1930’s USA. A young boy discovers an abandoned suitcase filled with letters home, written by an Irish emigrant.

These written documents both form both the basis of the narrative, and litter the aesthetic of the film. While the animated sequences are clearly an earnest attempt to represent historical documents, it is hard to know how literally one should read the live action scenes.

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‘A Terrible Hullabaloo’ was commissioned to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Easter Uprising. In 1916, while the United Kingdom was distracted by war in Europe, Irish republicans rose up in an attempt to end British sovereignty.  This film depicts a first hand account given by a fourteen-year-old patriot who found himself garrisoned in a biscuit factory during one of the most deadly weeks in Irish history.

Director, Ben O’Connor, initially conceived a stop motion animation but the sensitive historical deadline forced his production team to adopt live action puppetry. One of the more distinctive aesthetic choices was to composite human eyes onto the puppets. The uncanny effect some how makes the film both more and less realistic. O’Connor remarked in a Q&A session after the screening, that he considers the film a documentary because he made every attempt to remain faithful to the historic subject matter. Vinny Byrne’s testimony was recorded in 1980 for the documentary ‘Ireland: a television history’. While this is most certainly a documentary, it is fair to argue that this should not be considered an animated film. The vast majority of the footage is not created frame-by-frame or interpolated; instead puppets are filmed moving in real time, as are the digitally imposed eyes.

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The final film on the Weight of Humanity programme was ‘Tough’, directed by Jennifer Zheng. This student film, from Kingston University’s Illustration and Animation undergraduate degree, explores the film-maker’s relationship with her mother and her own dual national identity. Zheng adopts a bold colour palette and traditional Chinese imagery while confronting difficult personal and political truths.

In the same Q&A session Jennifer declared her own problematic feelings about categorising this film as a documentary.  She considers her audio interview as authentic documentation, but the animated action was entirely invented and features unrealistic or devised scenes.  I would argue an artist’s interpretation of a conversation is just as valid and perhaps more meaningful than a ‘talking heads’ shot. Zheng, however, prefers the term “docu-fiction”.

Encounters is an international animation and short film festival basted in Bristol, UK. It is running from the 20th to 25th September 2016.

Animated documentary events at Encounters Festival 2016, Bristol, UK

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AnimatedDocumentary.com is getting ready to cover the Encounters Short film and Animation Festival. The festival runs from the 20th to 25th September across a number of Bristol’s cultural venues. Friday 23rd September looks to be an exciting day for Documentary Animation fans:

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At 12 noon the 5th Animation programme, A Look Inside, will be screened at the Watershed, focusing on the aspects of medicine, emotional and psychological conditions. The programme explores topics like memory, ageing and perception. It features recent films from Samantha Moore and George Sander-Jackson, familiar names in UK the UK ahi-doc scene.

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On the same day Animation Therapy will also be running a workshop from 10am-4pm under the ‘Animation on Prescription’ banner. The workshop is focused on the theme of compassion and is aimed at health professionals, dentists and vets. Documentary animation directors, Tim Webb and Em Cooper, will be teaching along side the occupational therapist and director of Animation Therapy, Helen Mason.

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Later that day at 4.30pm there will be an Animation on Prescription screening and networking event featuring examples of films created in a therapeutic context. Great Ormond Street Hospital, Aardman Animations and TPO Uganda are just some of the institutions featured.

Alex Widdowson from the blog team here at AnimatedDocumentary.com will be attending the entire festival looking for other ani-doc snippets. Click on the event links for details about booking tickets.

LIAF 2015 – animated documentary programme review

London International Animation Festival’s Animated Documentary screening returned to the Barbican in London in December 2015, showcasing a diverse selection of animated docs from around the world.

Many films of the selected films did not include any live action elements, and featured voiceovers which were obviously scripted and acted – raising questions about what makes a film a documentary at all. All these films were both presented and received as documentaries, but in many their claim to real world truth rested on trust – there was no ‘evidence’ presented in the film that what we were witnessing was real.

This is an interesting quality of the animated documentary – one which sets it apart from most live action work and which can, when successful, elevate it. This programme of films offered a rich variety of perspectives; not only on the world but on the documentary form itself.

The screening kicked off with Everyone is Waiting for Something to Happen, a mixed-media piece by UK-based animator Emma Calder. Calder’s film used the social media posts of one of her acquaintances to create a portrait of him over the course of a critical time in his life – his cancer diagnosis and treatment. The film offers a light-hearted look at the images we project of ourselves on social media, and the audiences we do not always know we have, who observe these.

Everyone is waiting for something to happen (Official Trailer) from Emma Calder/Pearly Oyster on Vimeo.

The Beast Inside by US filmmaker Drew Christie is a portrait of a homeless young person, determined to live a compassionate, creative and optimistic life in spite of his circumstances. The film is upbeat, with a lively, musical pace, but has moments of deep pathos that make an impact, such as when the protagonist is refused a job at a fast food joint because – he is told – he looks as if he would steal money or scare the customers. The young man’s hurt at the apparent indifference that the general public has towards the fate of those on the street, also provides a moving and memorable perspective.

The Beast Inside from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Drew Christie’s second film in the programme is Psychedelic Blues, an animated interview with ‘freak folk band’ Holy Modal Rounders which explores their formation and early days. This is a non-stop, acid- and amphetamine-fuelled celebratory rollercoaster of music and absurdity. The characters move fluidly between their old and young selves, caught up in moments that they’d never forget, if only they could remember. The gonzo glory of the memories is tempered by a twinge of sadness, evoked by the fragility in the voice of the ageing, drug-saturated narrator, allowing an openness in terms of how the film can be received.

Psychedelic Blues from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Baba is a colourful and entertaining short by New Zealand filmmaker Joel Kefali, in which his grandfather describes his experience of arriving in the country as a Turkish immigrant many years before. The film successfully captures the experience and character of an exuberant man, baffled by certain cultural oddities but ultimately filled with humour and joy of life; able to take the world on and adapt to his strange new environment.

BABA from joel kefali on Vimeo.

A Portrait by Greek filmmaker Aristotelis Maragkos is another film about a grandfather, but this one has a very different tone. In this piece, the film-maker’s grandfather is seen from the outside through the memories of his grandson. It is a sensitive portrayal of a complex relationship. The film touches on ugly and violent elements the man’s mysterious past, of which the film-maker only knows fragments – which lead him to fear what potential for darkness may lie inside his own genetic material. This sense of violence is undercut however by the clear love that the narrator has for his grandfather, and the tension between these two perspectives is elegantly brought out in the very short film, making it a moving and memorable work which brought depth to the programme.

Food, by US/China based Siqi Song, is a bizairre and compelling take on the talking heads interview format – in which the talking heads are in fact foodstuffs, discussing their own food choices. A plucked chicken describes its decision to go vegetarian, while a loud-mouthed burger extols the virtues of meat-eating. “I think maybe healthy is overrated” he says, his bun flapping open to reveal a tongue-like slab of meat and cheese as he speaks. The film is comically grotesque and, while the interviews themselves do not tell us anything very new, the delivery certainly makes for compelling viewing which adds a new dimension to the issues discussed.

FOOD from SIQI SONG on Vimeo.

The theme of food was returned to later in the programme with the visceral Canadian production Table D’hote, which combines an attractive illustrative style with repulsive and disturbing imagery, reflecting on the industrial savagery of meat production.

Me and My Moulton is an NFB-supported film by Torill Kove. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Norway and coming to terms with her unconventional parents and her place in the world. The film takes an unhurried approach to storytelling and paints an engaging picture of this girl’s life and the everyday issues she deals with. It balances humour with nostalgia, conjuring a picture of a childhood world that is, while not untroubled, ultimately safe and filled with love.

Me and My Moulton (Trailer) from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

Ode to Joy by UK-based filmmaker Martin Pickles is a tribute to hugely influential but near-forgotten animator Joy Batchelor, affirming her rightful place in the canon of British Animation.

Ode To Joy (2014) from Martin Pickles on Vimeo.

Elsewhere in the programme another film by Pickles, What is Animation?, is an insightful meditation on the nature of animation wrapped up in a portrait of British Animation legend Bob Godfrey. You can read more about this piece here.

In Last Words by Yuwen Xue, the filmmaker interviews hospice residents at the end of their lives, creating imaginative visual representations to capture these characters, and broadening the scope of the film beyond the individual sounds captured to wider thoughts and feelings. The visuals play experimentally with live action and animation, conjuring a fantastical space between life and somewhere else. Fascinating insights into the artist’s process can be found on Yuwen Xue’s production blog.

Words are again the focus in Arlene, by UK filmmaker Farouq Suleiman. This film is a portrait of a woman who suffers from Aphasia, a brain condition affecting language. Her difficulty with words is expressed with strong visuals including the memorable image of letters of the alphabet falling from a tree like autumn leaves.

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Still from Arlene

Hora, by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Brill, is a longer piece exploring same-sex love in Tel Aviv through reflections on public hand-holding. Interviewees discuss the practice of hand-holding, what it means to them and how the meaning changes when it is observed. There are some truthful and tender insights here, delivered with slick and engaging visuals; making for a film that carries you through smiling.

Still Born, by Swedish filmmaker Asa Sandzen, was the most hard-hitting film in the programme, in which a pregnant woman describes the experience of discovering that her 18-week old foetus has serious heart defect, and making the devastating decision to end the pregnancy. The film does not shelter from the painful process of this, taking the audience through the whole physical and emotional journey of late abortion and delivery. The film is made to feel very real by the small but affecting details that are recalled about the medicalised termination process and the disturbed thought process that takes place in parallel. Ultimately this is a raw and truthful film about the pain of loss, that is as disarming as it is memorable.

‘What is Animation?’ by Martin Pickles

Martin Pickles is the director of an animated interview with Bob Godfrey titled What is Animation? This was one of two films by Pickles that were screened as part of London International Animation Festival’s animated documentary programme. Martin is well known through his role as the organiser of the London Animation Club, a monthly screening event in Fitzrovia.

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In What is Animation? Pickles animates a snippet of wisdom from Bob Godfrey (1921 – 2013), the British animation hero responsible for creating Roobarb and Henry’s Cat.

When thinking of this film in the context of animated documentary, I was struck by how relevant Godfrey’s words are to one of the larger tensions within the genre: how does a filmmaker faithfully document their subject matter without simply replicating it? Godfrey encourages animators to be whimsical and to forget the limitations of physics or representation.

The key phrase he uses, one which I have heard many times before, is “…if this thing can be done with a live action camera then for God’s sake do it with a live action camera.”

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While Godfrey wants animators to confront the “absolute freedom” of their medium, animated documentary makers maintain an adjacent balancing act. Our challenge, perhaps, is to find a subject that requires a Godfrey-esque whimsy in order for the story to be documented usefully.

Without wanting to sound pretentious, it’s all very ‘meta’. Not only is this an animation about how animators should animate, this short documentary is also structured around an almost visible feedback loop.

Firstly there is Martin Pickles the director, interviewing his hero Bob Godfrey, who effectively imparts wisdom and instruction to the audience. Then, much deeper in the mechanisms of this film, we can feel Martin tangibly being inspired by Bob’s words and legacy – Martin even credits meeting Godfrey as the stimulus that pushed him to study animation at the Royal College of Art. The next revolution of the feedback loop begins with me, the viewer, inspired enough by Bob’s words and Martin’s film that I chose to write about it. It’s fair to predict that this whole process might inform my own or someone else’s next animation; and so the wheel spins.

Ignoring my theoretical posturing, the true joy of this film can be found in its back-story. Martin Pickles and Bob Godfrey met in Croatia at the Animafest Zagreb festival in 2004. A fan since childhood, Martin sought every opportunity to foster a friendship with Bob. Officially, he found himself in the role of odd-job-man – when they met there was always a light bulb or whatever that needed replacing. Over time, his visits to Godfrey’s ACME studio in Deptford became much more social in nature.

Martin spoke about Bob’s aptitude for story telling and teaching with great affection. One day, as Martin sat opposite his hero, sipping tea, he felt that it didn’t seem right that he was the only one experiencing this. He was struck by the realisation that no one had made the effort to record these pearly nuggets of wisdom. With a real sense of urgency he got his hands an old tape recorder, and with Bob very much enjoying the spotlight, they recorded over two hours of rambling fun from one of the British animation scene’s more charismatic icons.

The two animators started to hatch grand schemes for what to do with the material. Collaboration seemed on the cards until Bob’s health began to suffer. By this point Godfrey was in his late eighties, and with great sadness Martin witnessed his gradual decline. Out of respect the project was put on hold indefinitely. A while after Bob’s passing in 2013, his family and the Bradford Animation Festival released an open call for archival content relating to Bob’s life and work. Following that the rest of the pieces fell into place.

You can read a full transcript of the interview here.