Annabelle Honess Roe recently released the cover image of her new book, ‘Animated Documentary’ (published by Palgrave), on her ‘Animating Documentary’ blog. The image features a still from the film ‘Feeling My Way’ by Jonathan Hodgson. Honness Roe indicates the personal significance of this film when she writes that it ‘…first got me thinking about how animation can function in documentary.’
Commissioned by Channel 4’s Animate Projects and Arts Council England in 1997, the director, Jonathan Hodgson, combines live action point-of-view shots filmed in 35mm and Digibeta, overlaid with hand painted and drawn animation.
Hodgson has been able to observe and deconstruct the thought processes which occur passively when one is engaging with one’s surroundings. This is a phenomenon which takes place when no deliberate attempt is made to think clearly about a particular topic. Personally, I am impressed by the lucidity and universal sense of subjectivity this film evokes. Simina Pitur comments on the film’s Vimeo page ‘At last, I have found a piece of art that accurately translates what I feel 24/7.’
Rather than beginning by storyboarding, I wonder whether Hodgson first filmed his journey then tried to deconstruct why his eye was drawn in a certain way, or for what reason he was not actively observing anything. I am fascinated by how he was able to capture what is often an abstract cognitive experience in a believable sequence.
While I often expect I am viewing my surroundings with the crisp objectivity of a video image in fact it is more likely my attention is shifting between weighted content, be it appealing or repulsive. I sometimes observe in hindsight that while on auto-pilot my mind had been taken completely from my surroundings. This film tangibly depicts subjectivity with rare effectiveness. Such a feeling of recognition of one’s self in another person’s work is more commonly restricted to less subtle field of observational stand-up comedy!
‘Feeling My Way’ is strangely reminiscent of a scene in James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’. In an introductory scene the audience is granted the point of view of the murderous robot in which a combination of audio-visual information is processed by recognition software and cross-referenced with a database. These relatively crude visualisations help the artificially intelligent machine to navigate and decode its surroundings. Google have recently produced ‘Glass’ a voice-command operated headset with a transparent eyeglass frame-mounted screen. This allows you to observe the world augmented by smart device abilities such as satellite navigation and Google search. As this sort of technology develops and becomes more prevalent our technological experiences might become tangibly close to some of the scenes depicted in ‘Feeling My Way’.
This animated documentary, directed by Jonathan Hodgson, opens with the statement, ‘Most people’s mums are mad. Mine’s got schizophrenia’. This text crafts the perspective of a child by adopting adolescent rhetoric. The tone of such a statement is carried through an extraordinary series of parallel narratives in which adults recount their experiences in childhood dealing with parents suffering from paranoid delusions. A varied set of richly textured and naïve illustrative styles assist the visualisation of a number of accounts where children doubt the natural authority granted to a parent.
A particularly fascinating aspect of the subject matter is revealed when the interviewees recall their beliefs that a parents delusions may have been real. When we are developing it is very easy to take anything a guardian tells us literally. It must be a slow process of realisation for a child to learn not to trust their first teacher in this world. A kid would start to decipher for themselves that their parent’s fantastical notions may be being generated by the distortions of mental illness; splitting reality into tangled delusions which are disengaged from rational analysis, but rather supported by a complex web of symbolic meaning and tenuous evidence. One would hope that such a disruption to natural authority does not have a long lasting affect on an individual’s development.
Siri Mechior and Tim Webb’s contribution to the animated portion of the film is invaluable. Something engaging is sparked when distinctively two-dimensional drawings skid into three-dimensions. Lines shift, scattering our understanding of space as the viewpoint rotates around the modernist imagery, causing the destruction of the flat plane. Occasionally these moving pictures are digitally encrusted to great effect in undulating binary distortions. At other points one can feel the materiality of physical mark making, the rippling paper jostles to create surface boil. In addition Hodgson’s sound design is gripping. The disembodied eyes that swing to the sound of creaking wood conjures surrealist notions of juxtaposition.
The live action scenes do not maintain the standard of excellence I attribute to the animated sequences. Certainly the over dubbing of the actors voices was a formal choice, one designed to unnerve and disrupt the default expectation of an audience. However such disharmony is so corrupting that the gathering in the garden scene feels like something out of a continental soap opera.
As a whole the film is fascinating both visually and in terms of subject. The Arts Council of England and Channel 4 funded this Sherbet film back in 2001. Currently the short has just under a thousand plays on Vimeo. Lets hope it’s audience continues to expand online.