‘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.

‘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 Meth Project’ animations by Studio AKA

The Meth Project is a U.S.A. based anti-drugs campaign created in response to the ‘growing Meth epidemic’. It makes use of online and broadcast media in order to dissuade teenagers from ever trying methamphetamine. The highly addictive illicit drug is associated with depression, suicide, serious heart disease, amphetamine psychosis, and violent behaviour. Prolonged abuse of the substance is often indicated by physical deterioration such as loss of teeth and emaciation.

Four animation directors from the London based Studio AKA were commissioned by the advertising agency Organic, Inc. to create short narrative animations for The Meth Project. The harrowing and frank films are based on firsthand stories of young addicts. During each sequence the narrator states their age and when they started using meth. Collectively the six films indicate the horrors of this chemically and culturally poisonous substance.

Kristian Andrews directs three of the stories:


Bernadette – Directed by Kristian Andrews

Bernadette’s account addresses the guilt she feels over a friend’s suicide. Kristian Andrews uses tone to symbolise naivety and consequence. We are initially introduced to two friends who are constructed out of delicate, transparent line drawings in a bleached-out room.  However, harsh under lit shadows appear in the bedroom as drug use ensues. Finally abstract blotches blacken the screen when Bernadette reflects on her guilt. The unexpected cut directly to an image of the gun in the friend’s mouth effectively represents the crushingly arbitrary nature of the young girl’s decision to end her life.

Oriah – Directed by Kristian Andrews

Oriah recounts the shame he feels about the violence he directed towards his family. A visual contrast is created between recollections of being high and the sober interview. When depicting the moments of intoxication sources of light are over exposed and smeared, the virtual handheld camera is either up high or near the ground at an oblique angle. The characterisation of Oriah when he is high is rapid moving and rhythmically awkward. This is contrasted by the relatively static talking-head shots where Oriah discusses his shame.


Kara – Directed by Kristian Andrews

Kara’s story refers to a near death experience in which her heart stopped briefly. The narrator’s greatest shock comes from the realisation that her drug addled friends did very little to help. Following a red and black scene showing Kara’s palpitating heart, Andrews reintroduces the viewer to the stark black and white external world. The camera rotates around her body as supporting characters slide in and out from the darkness in sync with her narration. This extraordinary scene keeps pace with rapid leaps in narrative while maintaining a strong feeling of cohesion.

Grant Orchard directs two of the personal stories:


Rochelle – Directed by Grant Orchard

Rochelle’s story addresses drug-induced hallucinations.  Orchard was charged with the difficult task of indicating the horror of visual disturbances, without glorifying or underplaying the experience. He depicts simultaneous images jostling for space on screen. Individually such symbols would not induce much stress, but in the context of the dense composition they are exposed for a period of time that is too short for them to be fully processed. In a further attempt to evoke disgust Orchard incorporates metamorphosis; faces spawn out of one another like cancerous cells dividing out of control. Rochelle’s account also indicates a twisted rationalisation associated with addiction. “And even when I was loosing everything and everything was going to go, I knew I still wanted to get high. That’s the one thing I knew.”


Hailey – Directed by Grant Orchard

Hailey’s story addresses the visible signs of bodily deterioration that are associated with prolonged meth use. Orchard sets a virtual camera descending through a stark black and white environment speckled with floating blotches. In this space the narration is expanded upon when figurative elements spread out from a point. To further unsettle the viewer gravity is inverted so that dribbling black marks stream upwards. The quality of line and overall aesthetic seems to suggest etching prints.

One of the films is a collaboration between Steve Small, director, and Dave Prosser, designer.


Ashley – Directed by Steve Small – Design by Dave Prosser

Ashley’s narrative starts by referring to a particular hallucination that led her to cut open her arm to look inside.  From a jostling point-of-view camera the animated arm quivers, this is matched by the scrappy mark making.  A crisp edged, gently growing, crimson pool of blood starkly contrasts the loosely painted and drawn grey-scale arm. The second scene, in which disfiguring acne is described, suggests the use of a hand held camera. This creates a sense of intimacy with the character, as we feel noticeably present in the bathroom with Ashley.

Studio AKA was also commissioned to create a series of stand-alone illustrations. These echo the reoccurring starting-age theme found in the six animated films.

A colleague suggested animation might have been chosen for this campaign as the medium is traditionally associated with young people. Teenagers are the campaign’s target audience so many of the conventions of children’s animation have been circumnavigated, instead these sequences do hold much of the angst, gloom and tension connected to the first stumbling years of adulthood. Adolescent recklessness collides with life altering consequences, often indicating personal growth and the taking of responsibility. Perhaps these films chime with their audiences by updating the visual language instilled by cartoons in childhood.

This set of challenging animated documentaries make up the ‘Personal Stories’ subsection of the Meth Project’s YouTube Channel, each video has received between ten to twenty thousand views.