Celebrating Black History Month: ‘Hold Tight’ by Jessica Ashman

Still from ‘Hold Tight’

“‘Hold Tight’ explores the importance of Carnival across the UK and how it’s celebrations provide an important lifeline to heritage and identity for younger generations of the Black Caribbean diaspora in Britain. It is a journey into the feeling of belonging, through the rituals of Carnival attendance and the power of bass.” – (via)

Ashman’s short animated documentary is a 2018 film which attempts to connect Caribbean people to their heritage, and celebrate London’s diversity. Using spoken word narration and hand-drawn 2D animation, layered with pixilation, Ashman illustrates the vibrancy of Carnival.

Still from ‘Hold Tight’

‘Hold Tight’ was part of a six-part series of micro-animated films titled ‘Untold Tales’. The project was commissioned by Anim18 and Animate Projects with the aim of creating films which would explore Britain’s culturally diverse communities.

Approximately a minute in length, the film has a vibrant aesthetic. The shaking lines echo the sound of the carnival bass, the mix of hand-drawn animation and pixilation footage gives a collage feel, further emphasizing the filmmaker’s personal relationship to the subject.

Watch ‘Hold Tight’:

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Celebrating Black History Month: ‘Childhood Memories’ by Mary Martins

Still from ‘Childhood Memories’

‘Our earliest childhood memories, often episodic, are one of our most intimate experiences’ – Mary Martins (via)

Mary Martins is a London-based animator and filmmaker. She is experimental in her practice, attempting to push boundaries of animated documentary and explore innovative new ways to portray reality. Martins was the 2017 winner of the Procreate Project Mother Art Prize and her films have been screened at multiple festivals around the world.

Commissioned by BFI and BBC4, ‘Childhood Memories’ by Mary Martins is a multi-layered film which utilises stop-motion and 2D digital animation, as well as 16mm colour film footage from 1970s Lagos, Nigeria. This autobiographical short explores childhood memories and cultural backgrounds.

Still from ‘Childhood Memories’

Martin’s reflected upon the starting point for the film, linking it to her earliest child hood memory: “… when I accompanied my mother to Lagos, Nigeria in 1987. I was 4 years old. I was too young to remain in London with my Father and my two older sisters.” (via)

Watch ‘Childhood Memories’ here. (Available only in the UK)

Launching a new podcast…

Here at AnimatedDocumentary.com we are trying out a new podcast format as part of our mission to offer information, promotion, and critical discussion around the animated documentary form. We’re planning to release an occasional podcast featuring discussion on animated documentary with filmmakers, academics, programmers, commissioners, and commentators.

In this first episode, team members Alys Scott-Hawkins, Carla MacKinnon and Alex Widdowson discuss Chris Landreth’s seminal short animated documentary Ryan (2004), as well as Laurence Green’s film Alter Egos, a live-action making-of documentary released the same year, which tracks Landreth’s filmmaking process and exposes problematic elements in his approach.

Ryan and Alter Egos AnimatedDocumentary

Animators Alys Scott-Hawkins, Carla MacKinnon, and Alex Widdowson discuss their thoughts on Chris Landreth's seminal short animated documentary Ryan (2004) and Laurence Green's film Alter Egos, a live-action making-of documentary released the same year, which tracks Landreth's filmmaking process and exposes problematic elements in his approach.  Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.

Both Ryan and Alter Egos are free to watch online at the links below.

Ryan: https://www.nfb.ca/film/ryan/

Alter Egos: https://www.nfb.ca/film/alter_egos

Celebrating Black History Month: ‘Life on the Move’ by Osbert Parker

Still from ‘Life On The Move’

Osbert Parker‘s short animated film ‘Life On The Move’ is a collaborative production which explores the complexities of immigration by using real life experiences and research. The stop-motion animation plays alongside a script created by two researchers who conducted interviews with migrants, refugees and returnees in Somaliland.

‘Life On The Move’ is innovative in the way that it explores how artists and researchers can collaborate to generate knowledge that can reach wider audiences about complex issues such as immigration. The film makes this information and these testimonials more accessible to public audiences, and the team worked with the aim of inspiring more researchers to collaborate with artists.

“It illustrates how complex research findings can be disseminated in a clear and accessible style suitable for many public audiences. Visualising internal and external migration routes, it disrupts mainstream media coverage of migration as a problem, presenting a more holistic narrative.” – (via)

Still from ‘Life On The Move’

The figures used in the stop-motion sequence are all based on 3D scans of real actors from a variety of backgrounds to reflect differing cultures, focusing especially on unique facial features. Over 1800 individual images were used in the film to create the smooth animation. The film was a collaborative project which also involved PositiveNegatives, the Migration Leadership Team, artist Karrie Fransman and, of course, animator Osbert Parker. Research and field work was funded by the International Organisation For Migration.

The film was the winner of the ‘best social media short’ at AHRC Film Awards in 2019.

The film can be viewed on Vimeo via this link.

Celebrating Black History Month

Still from ‘Childhood Memories’ by Mary Martins

Here at animateddocumentary.com, we want to celebrate Black History Month by highlighting some excellent animated documentaries by Black filmmakers and animators. Some of these films have been posted on the blog before, and some are brand new!

Each Monday this October we will share an animated documentary by a different Black filmmaker, four from here in the UK and one from the USA. We’d also love to hear about any of your favourite films by Black creators so feel free to share in the comments below.

The United Kingdom’s Black History Month was founded more than 30 years ago, in 1987, to recognise the contributions made by people of African and Caribbean backgrounds in the UK. Today, however, the remit of the project has expanded to include the history of Black people from all backgrounds. You can read more about Black History Month on bbc.co.uk.

Be sure to check out the official website for Black History Month in the UK, here.

Still from ‘Hold Tight’ by Jessica Ashman

‘Cambia Tutto’ by Ana Mouyis

Ana Mouyis is an animator, illustrator, filmmaker and educator based in Louisiana, US. In 2020, animateddocumentary.com’s Alys Scott Hawkins interviewed Ana about her film ‘Cambia Tutto’ which takes the viewer through the small Italian village of Canieza and emphasises how the town has changed over time. ‘Cambia Tutto’ was screened at multiple film festivals in Europe, the US and Brazil, and won Fisheye Film Festival’s 2021 Audience Award for best short documentary, and The Americas Film Festivals 2020 award for best experimental short.

Read Alys’s interview with Ana Mouyis:

How did the film come about?

The film was created as part of a residency opportunity in Canieza, Italy – musician Fox Schwach and I applied as a collaborative. The residency asked for work that connected to the location; a small village in Northern Italy. In our proposal we pitched the idea of creating a short film that would act as a portrait of the town, I would direct the animation and Fox would create a score. When we arrived we were so struck by the scenery of it all and wanted to make a contemplative piece that would highlight the beauty in the details of this small town. 

Can you tell us about the motivation for / meaning of the film?

A lot of it had to do with the circumstances – we wanted to make a film about this small village but we had never been there so part of the process was getting there and immersing ourselves in the environment. For this reason we decided to work with replacement animation and hyperlapse as that would require us to explore and spend hours walking around photographing the surrounding area. One thing that became clear to us conceptually as we worked on this piece was that we were interested in building a portrait of this town through small/often-overlooked details. Photography (rather than video footage) allowed us to zero in on all these tiny details. For example, taking hundreds of pictures of different flowers from all over the village, we can put them together into a longer mesmerizing sequence, which would be different than just filming some flowers swaying in the breeze. In a general sense, both Fox and I, in our work, are interested in the sort of life and vibrancy that come from imperfections of hand-made/manual processes. Embracing some of the shaky/jittery processes of this kind of animation appealed to us for this project, so the viewer could get a feel for the human element that went into making it.  

One aspect that really helped to inform the shape of the final film was the interview with Wilma Andrighetto, the mother of Paola De Martin, who is one of the residency organizers (and owners of the house we stayed in). Wilma has lived in that town her whole life. Her view on how the town has evolved over the years became a central conceptual element to how we put the film together. It was important to us to have some local perspective to keep it from just being a kind of travelogue

Where will it be screened or distributed?

We initially released it on Vimeo because of the pandemic, especially with how badly it was affecting Italy. With everyone in lockdown we felt it was a good time to put it online and share it freely, rather than only showing it at film festivals or galleries as we had originally planned. It’s been gratifying to share it with our friends and family and broader networks and hear that it’s helped people’s cabin fever in some small way. More recently it has screened at a number of film festivals and online showcases in Europe and the US.

What are you working on next?

This summer I will be returning to Cyprus, where I grew up and will be an artist in residence at Animafest Cyprus animation film festival. During the residency I will work on the production of an experimental documentary animation about the culture of Cyprus. By highlighting the commonalities between the customs and traditions of its divided peoples I hope to foster a greater understanding and empathy between the segregated communities in the North and South of the island. Fox and I will collaborate again on this project with him assisting me with audio recordings and sound design as well as composing an original score. 

Watch the full film below:

#polish_women_resistance by students from the Lodz Film School

Still from #polish_women_resistance film

This animated documentary by students from the Lodz Film School in Poland is a protest film which protests the Polish government’s implementation of a stricter abortion law in October 2020. This film was brought to our attention by Thomas Martinelli, who interviewed two of the students and published an article over at Global Il Manifesto. We wanted to highlight here at animateddocumentary.com in light of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States only last month.

#polish_women_resistance is a powerful piece which is made up of a multitude of voices. Many male and female students from Lodz Film School contributed to the 8-minute short film, and you can definitely see the distinct styles through the piece. Despite the variety of animated segments, the film is very cohesive. The black and red colours throughout are bold and striking, and the music by Pim Lekler gives a sense of urgency.

Martinelli’s article goes into further detail about the motivations and impact of the film, and explores how animation can be impactful when used to as a tool in social issues.

Read the full article by Thomas Martinelli here.

Watch the film below:

‘Quit Smoking’ by Nicola Destefanis

‘Quit Smoking’ by Nicola Destefanis

Nicola Destefanis‘ 33 second short ‘Quit Smoking’ is a personal project. Having had his final cigarette, Destefanis turned to animation to help distract from the cravings and symptoms that came along with quitting smoking. A loop of animation was made every week for nine weeks to help express how he was feeling. The result is a beautiful short which is expressive and vibrant.

The limited colour palette is bright and contrasting, and each reel is striking. Along with upbeat music, the film gives a sense of hope and triumph, despite the negative symptoms and emotions it conveys.

Watch the full film below, and see more of the behind-the-scenes process here.

‘Tower’ by Keith Maitland (trailer)

Image via filmmakermagazine.com

‘Tower’ tells the story of the university of Texas tower shooting which took place on August 1st, 1966. At the time, it was the worst mass-shooting in US history, with 14 people killed and 31 others injured. ‘Tower’ uses archival footage, interviews and animated recreations of the day’s events to tell the stories of the victims. Maitland describes his decision to create an animated documentary of the event as ‘want[ing] to create a visceral experience for audiences that would transport them right into that moment and force them to live through this horrific, long and hot experience that the characters of the story lived through.’

The use of rotoscope animation gives further realism, expanding the archival footage to better tell the story of that tragic day. Several survivors were interviewed, their words re-enacted by actors to give a sense of these characters living through the moment rather than reflecting on the past. With only 14 minutes of archival footage to use, Maitland and his team used animation to fill in the gaps and give a cinematic feel to the story which draws the viewer in and has them experience the tragedy along with the people who were there at the time. The animation was also done in black and white, to blend in with the archival footage and create a more cohesive story.

The trailer gives us a peek into the compelling and cinematic film, with dramatic music, jarring sounds of gunshots, and emotional testimonials of the victims.

Watch the trailer below:

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.