‘Escapology: the art of addiction’ directed by Alex Widdowson


Escapology: The art of addiction is a short animated documentary about addictive behaviour,  which attempts to be non-judgmental while avoiding gritty drug clichés. This film was recently released on Vice Media’s online platforms and received over half a million views in the first week. As a long term contributor to AnimatedDocumentary.com I thought this was a good opportunity to write about my own work, dissecting a project from the director’s perspective.

Having attended two Alcoholics Anonymous open meetings in 2013 when supporting a friend who was struggling, I was struck by how practical the advice was. Their stories and rhetoric helped me understand my own cannabis abuse as a teenager, but also put into perspective my less pronounced addictive behaviours. Part of the focus of those meetings involved encouraging new attendees to acknowledge that their relationship with alcohol was problematic.I connected with notion of ambiguity when defining addiction; if one enjoys a substance with complete clarity it must, on the surface, seem rational to seek it out at every opportunity. However at this point the difference between wants and needs become indistinguishable. Having quit cannabis in 2008 I couldn’t help but adopt a strong anti-drugs policy. Over the years I observed the nuances of those AA meetings being played out in my friends drug use and frequently appropriated the rhetoric when dispensing unsolicited advice.

In early 2016 I was looking for a warm up exercise before enrolling in the inaugural year of the Documentary Animation masters degree at the Royal College of Art. The Philadelphia Association seemed an obvious starting point. I had been working for this psychotherapy organisation as a graphic designer and had come to know many of the therapists. Nick Mercer, before completing the PA training, had worked for decades as an addiction counselor, often in prisons. Nick had struggled with heroin addiction in his youth and entered recovery through the Narcotics Anonymous fellowship.


Nick invited me to a discussion group on addiction at the PA. His charisma and storytelling abilities were striking. It became clear that NA and AA functioned as a training ground for public speaking. Each member ceremoniously took the lectern in order to transform their fractured and painful experiences into a set of coherent and digestible narratives.

Following the meeting I set up my recording equipment in the PA’s historic library and began our interview. Once I’d whittled down the 2 hour tape to a 3 minute edit my task was to develop a visual translation of his words. There is always a danger that an interview based animated documentary becomes an illustrated podcast. I feel this risk increases the more interesting your interview material is. Thankfully a moment of inspiration split my visual and verbal narratives, helping me to avoid the drudgery of tautology. (Read ‘Show and Tell’, chapter 6 from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud for more on the interplay between image and text).


Nick spoke eloquently about the feeling of existing in the moment for the first time when he took morphine. I pictured the excitement of a performer who comes into his own on stage, but as he repeats the process all meaning is lost until he’s just going through the motions. This image brought me back to my heady days as a drug user. I remember boasting to my uncle about my adventures. He responded calmly, explaining that “it sounds like you’re just self medicating. You’ll figure it out eventually.” This short phrase shattered the romantic notions I’d conjured about my rebellious lifestyle. I realised, as Nick says in the film, my life had condensed down to something very conservative.

The narrative arc of an addict also reminded me of Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, a documentary about the Amazing Randy, whose magic act escalated from simple tricks to incredibly dangerous feets of escapology, until finally he came close to dying live on television while trapped in an enormous milk tank. I was excited by the slightly discordant parallel between an addict and magician. There was enough substance for an audience to draw parallels regarding the excitement of the early days, along with the increasingly extreme self destructive behaviour. I also liked that the links weren’t seamless; the audience would need to do a little work to fit the two sides together.


After the film was animated I developed the audio with a long running collaborator, Vicky Freund: musician, engineer and sound designer. The rich foley, atmospheres and score helped balance the stark black and white aesthetic, transforming the project from an elaborate exercise into a finished film.

Escapology was a watershed moment for my practice. It was partly responsible for my first experience of international recognition. I was invited to  participate in the Au Contraire mental health film festival in Montreal and later recruited as assistant festival programmer. On the back of this project the Philadelphia Association invited me to become artist in residence, culminating in the creation of Critical Living, a film about critical psychiatry and the PA therapeutic communities. Finally, Vice UK licenced the film for distribution online. Today it has been viewed internationally 629,425 times.



The first AnimatedDocumentary.com Award at FAFF 2016!


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.

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


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.



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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


‘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.


‘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.


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.

‘Seeking Refuge’ series for television by Andy Glynne


A series of animated shorts illustrating young people’s perspectives of living as refugees and asylum seekers. Part of the BBC Two Learning Zone, this series won a Children’s BAFTA in 2012.

Produced by Mosaic Films in London, UK.
Director: Andy Glynne
Animation Directors: Salvador Maldonado, Karl Hammond, Tom Senior and Jonathan Topf


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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