A view of Ecstatic Truth 2017

The 2017 Ecstatic Truth Symposium took place on May 27 and explored the field of animated documentary. Presentations by scholars and practitioners from around the world covered topics including memory, trauma, visual and verbal language, industry structure and new technologies.

The day kicked off with a keynote by Bella Honess Roe, who expanded on the idea of ‘absence and excess’ that she put forward in her monograph Animated Documentary. Using the examples of two short films – Abuelas and Irinka and Sandrinka – Honess Roe demonstrated that animation can be used both as metaphorical wish fulfilment and as an exploration of memory, both memories of events directly experienced and memories passed down through families and cultures. Honess Roe spoke about how animation studies academics strive to pin down animation in theoretical terms, but find that definitive conclusions are elusive. She suggested that this is due to the vastness of animation as a discipline: “Very few animated documentaries look alike”. Perhaps this resistance to reductive conclusions is one of animation’s strengths.

In her presentation “Traversing the terrain of space, time and form”, Rose Bond gave an insight into her research and production process when making large scale architectural animations. Her work interprets the histories of buildings into narratives and symbolic motifs that are then projected back onto the windows of the building itself. Her storyboarding process was particularly interesting to see, as she boarded the different narratives that played out across the different windows – a more lateral process than traditional storyboarding. She referred to this “multiscreen” boarding as “a different kind of editing, composing”. The process of storyboarding was the moment of ‘parataxis’, the juxtaposing of individual visual and narrative elements together to create new meaning for those elements. Bond explained that in her work it is important that the audience do not see all the material when they watch – they are required to chose which images to focus on throughout, so the experience is different with each viewing.

Broadsided! (Exeter, UK) from Rose Bond on Vimeo.

Next up I presented a paper about animated documentary and virtual reality, proposing that the absence and excess (Honess Roe, 2013) of animated documentary is complemented by the dual qualities of immersion and alienation present in VR. I supported my argument with the analysis of two recent animated VR documentaries – Nonny de la Peña’s Out of Exile and Michelle and Uri Kranot’s Nothing Happens.

Vincenzo Maselli’s presentation on “Deeper strata of meanings in stop-motion animation: the meta-diegetic performance of matter” explored ideas of performance and materiality of stop-motion, referencing the work of Marks, Sobchack and Barker in an analysis of the relationship between the human body and the texture of filmed material.

Sally Pearce’s paper entitled “Can I draw my own memory?” focused on her work tracking memory, and the problems presented by this. She showed a piece of work in which an animated horse wanders through bleak live action landscapes that represent her fractured memories from a time of serious illness. This record of illness is, she explains, “straight from the horse’s mouth”. She discussed her process of trying to capture and visualise memory, and the frustrations that come with this: “I try to use my pencil as a scalpel to extract a memory whole, but the memory will not be drawn out like a lump of tissue, instead it changes as soon as the pencil touches it. As my memory changes under the pencil, I am changed, I redraw myself.” Pearce particularly noted that her drawings can feel trapped in the language we commonly use about memory and illness and bound up in accepted metaphor, frustrated that “my drawing mind remains locked into the forms of the spoken and written word”.

Barnaby Dicker’s paper “A Quivering Terminus: Walerian Borowczyk’s Games of Angels, animated documentary and the social fantastic” analyses how Borowczyk uses ‘fantastic topography’ to play with tropes of both documentary and fiction, in order to a explore disturbing historical subject. Dicker’s analysis of Borowczyk’s disturbing and powerful short looked at how both imagery and structure worked to create meaning for the audience.

Games+of+Angels.jpg

He commented on the clues the filmmaker’s uses to guide the audience, such as the inclusion of a title card providing assurance that characters and events portrayed in the film are not intended to resemble characters living and dead. Dicker noted that the film is highly abstract and would not in any way invite an assumption that it was portraying real characters – so in fact the title card may be working inversely, to suggest to an audience that what they are watching does, in fact, reflect reality.

The afternoon sessions included a talk from Chinese artist Lei Lei who offered a lively tour of the process behind his compelling and visually stunning artwork. LeiLei uses found materials and processes of enhancing and degrading images to interrogate history, memory and culture.

Recycled from RAY on Vimeo.

Guli Silberstein’s presentation of his work “The Schizophrenic State Project“, gave an insight into the personal context which led him to appropriate and adapt media footage of violence to specifically explore conflict in Israel, Palestine and the region. The presentation offered an intimate view of an artist striving to find a voice to communicate his complex relationship with a disturbing subject matter which is both deeply personal and boldly political. In processing and re-presenting footage of war and protest Silberstein recontextualises it, challenging a viewer to watch and consider it in a new way.

Becky James’ paper “Expanding the Index in Animated Documentary” considered the subgenre of animation about mental states through a close reading of Betina Kuntzsch’s Spirit Away. James also offered insights into the culture around animated documentary production in comparison to the fine art industry where she previously worked, suggesting that there is an absence of critique and serious professional support for emerging filmmakers through canonical institutions in the field of experimental animation.

Susan Young’s presentation “Bearing Witness: Autoethnographic Animation and the Metabolism of Trauma” showcased her PhD research on psychological trauma, in which she reflects on her own experience. Young showed her visceral short film The Betrayal and discussed her process, sharing the ways in which she managed the risks associated with conducting any research on trauma.

The Betrayal (Trailer) from Susan Young on Vimeo.

The 2016 Ecstatic Truth symposium had concluded with a sense of agreement that the arguments around the legitimacy of animation as a documentary form which have dominated much of animated documentary scholarship have reached the limits of their usefulness, and that we can progress better if we start from a working assumption that animated documentary can exist as a valid form. The 2017 event followed on from this, taking a broad perspective on animated documentary that allowed for an open, discursive atmosphere in which diverse ideas could be raised, considered and challenged. There were no definitive answers but, as Honess Roe suggested at the beginning of the day, maybe animation’s ability to elude the finality of concrete definition is at the heart of its charm.

Ecstatic Truth II: ‘Lessons of Darkness and Light’ 27th May 2017 Symposium at the Royal College of Art

The second Ecstatic Truth symposium was held at the Royal College of Art, London, on the 27th May 2017. This postgraduate research event was organised by Animation Research Co-ordinator Dr Tereza Stehlikova, working closely with the Animation MA programme leader, Dr Birgitta Hosea. It takes place a year after the launch of the RCA’s MA Documentary Animation pathway. The event was introduced by Professor Teal TriggsAssociate Dean of the School of Communication.

This article is composed of summaries of the speakers and their papers, taken from the symposium programme, illustrated by Alex Widdowson.

Keynote

Bella Honess Roe is is a film scholar who specialises in documentary and animation. Her 2013 monograph Animated Documentary is the first text to investigate the convergence of these two media forms and was the recipient of the Society for Animation Studies’ 2015 McLaren-Lambart award for best book. She also publishes on animation and documentary more broadly and is currently editing a book on Aardman Animations (I.B. Tauris), co-editing a volume on the voice in documentary (Bloomsbury) and co-editing the Animation Studies Handbook (Bloomsbury). She is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director for Film Studies at the University of Surrey.

 

Traversing the terrain of space, time and form

Rose Bond “Broadsided”

Must documentary be confined to a single screen?  How does the siting of a screening influence its perception?  This screening/talk focuses on documentary strategies in Rose Bond’s multi-screen animated installation Broadsided! which was sited in the windows of the Exeter Castle.  A screened excerpt from Broadsided! documentation provides the basis for brief examination of documentary methods used to convey a point of view: research, reenactment, data visualization and parataxis.

Rose Bond creates monumental, content driven animated installations. Rear projected in multiple windows, her themes are often drawn from the site – existing as monuments to the unremembered. Her installations have illuminated urban spaces in Zagreb, Toronto, Exeter UK, New York City, Utrecht, Netherlands and Portland, Oregon.

Carla MacKinnon “Immersion and alienation: animated virtual realities”

This presentation will explore how animated documentaries are pioneering creativity in virtual reality (VR). I will propose that animated documentary is a good fit for VR technically and creatively, and that the distancing quality and ‘absence and excess’ (Honess Roe, 2013) of animated documentary complements the dual sensation of immersion and alienation evoked in the dreamlike experience of VR.

Carla MacKinnon is a filmmaker and practice-based PhD candidate at Arts University Bournemouth, whose moving image work has been exhibited widely. Carla has a Masters in Animation from Royal College of Art and has worked as a festival producer and manager of technology projects. She is also director of interdisciplinary events organisation Rich Pickings.

 

Deeper strata

Vincenzo Maselli: “Deeper strata of meanings in stop-motion animation: the meta-diegetic performance of matter”

Can puppets’ skin materials express deeper levels of signification in stop-motion animation cinema? The paper suggests the concept of autonomous performance of matter in stop-motion animation and aim to demonstrate that matter can express a sense of tactility and metaphorically act autonomously from the diegetic narrative, staging a second level of narrative (meta-diegetic).

Vincenzo Maselli is a PhD student in design at Sapienza University of Rome. His research aims to demonstrate how materials and puppets’ building techniques can communicate narrative meanings in stop motion animation cinema. In October 2016 he moved in London, where he is continuing his research at Middlesex University.

Sally Pearce “Can I draw my own memory?” A visual essay

I try to use my pencil as a scalpel to extract a memory whole, but the memory will not be drawn out like a lump of tissue, instead it changes as soon as the pencil touches it. As my memory changes under the pencil, I am changed, I redraw myself.

Sally Pearce studied philosophy at Cambridge, then became a nurse. She started making films while studying Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam, followed by an MA in Animation Direction at the NFTS. Her films have screened and been awarded at Festivals around the world. She hopes to start her PhD in October 2017.

Barnaby Dicker “A Quivering Terminus: Walerian Borowczyk’s Games of Angels, animated documentary and the social fantastic.”

This paper explores how Borowczyk’s Games of Angels (1964) utilises a fantastic topography to play with tropes of documentary and fiction in an effort to engage with painful social history in a direct, but far from literal way; its design and structure conveying, through a disturbing momentum, the experience of a quivering terminus.

Dr Barnaby Dicker teaches at Cardiff School of Art and Design. His research revolves around conceptual and material innovations in and through graphic technologies and arts.

Panel discussion chaired by Birgitta Hosea

 

Keynote

Lei Lei

Lei Lei always pay particular attention to collecting and collating historical texts and images during his experiment animated works and try to search for elements of the poetic and dramatic between reality and fiction. In Hand colored No.2, through the use of manual painting, Lei Lei and Thomas Sauvin try to connect black and white images of different people, attempting to construct a fictional character, narrating his personal history.

LeiLei 雷磊 Artist / Filmmaker 1985 Born in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, is an experimental animation artist with his hands on video arts, painting, installation, music and VJ performance also. In 2009 he got a master’s degree in animation from Tsinghua University. In 2010, his film < This is LOVE> was shown at Ottawa International Animation Festival and awarded The 2010 Best Narrative Short. In 2013 his film <Recycled> was selected by Annecy festival and was the Winner Grand Prix shorts – non-narrative at Holland International Animation Film Festival. In 2014 was on the Jury of Zagreb / Holland International Animation Film Festival and he was the winner of 2014 Asian cultural council grant.

 

Animation: Lessons of Darkness and Light

Guli Silberstein: ‘The Schizophrenic State Project’

The Schizophrenic State Project, which started in 2000, contains a series of videos that appropriate mass media footage of violence, war, and protest, in the context of Israel, Palestine and the region. The images are processed via digital means in diverse ways, creating poetic works that formulate news media critique.

Guli Silberstein is an Artist and video editor, based in London UK since 2010, born in Israel (1969). In 2000 he received his MA in Media Studies from The New School NYC, and since 2001, he creates work shown and winning awards in festivals and art venues in the UK and worldwide.

Becky James: “Expanding the Index in Animated Documentary”

Documentary animation examining mental state is a robust subgenre; often these works try to recreate an unusual psychological state to promote empathy and understanding. Using patient records and contemporaneous film strips, Betina Kuntzsch’s 2016 animation Spirit Away avoids speaking for, explaining, or diagnosing the female patients at the Heidelberg Psychiatric Clinic. Kuntzsch does not use the index to provide truth claim or to promote understanding, but instead the index acts as metaphor and distancing mechanism in this work about isolation.

Becky James explores the intersection of the individual and social through animation. She has exhibited in galleries throughout the US and at film festivals including SXSW, Jihlava Documentary Festival, Filmfest Oldenburg, and IFF Rotterdam. A native New Yorker, James graduated from Harvard and received her MFA from Bard. She currently teaches at Parsons School of Design.

Susan Young: Bearing Witness: Autoethnographic Animation and the Metabolism of Trauma”

This presentation and short film screening examines my use of autoethnographic animation methodologies (which include myself as an experimental case study), in order to excavate and bear witness to the memories and lived experience of psychological trauma, and to challenge their related, often stigmatising and ‘othering’, psychiatric diagnoses.

Susan Young is an animation director who has worked principally in advertising, commissioned films and music promos. Her current RCA research is based on personal experience of psychological trauma, and includes a series of short experimental films that explore how animation might ameliorate trauma sympt oms. www.susanyounganimation.com

Concluding panel discussion, chaired by Barnaby Dicker

This event is supported by the Society of Animation Studies, an international organisation dedicated to the study of animation history and theory since 1987. For more information: https://www.animationstudies.org

For more information about studying MA Animation: Documentary: http://www.rca.ac.uk/schools/school-of-communication/animation/documentary-animation-pathway. 

Video documentation of this event will be archived on our Vimeo channel at: https://vimeo.com/channels/documentaryanimation.

Jan Nåls writing on ‘A Kosovo Fairytale’ by Anna-Sofia Nylund, Samantha Nell, Mark Middlewick

A new online journal, the International Journal of Film and Media Arts, launched this year with a special issue dedicated to animated documentary. The articles in Vol 1 can be viewed online, and offer some valuable insights into the field. They include Drawing the Unspeakable – Understanding ‘the other’ through narrative empathy in animated documentary, by Jan Nåls.

Nåls uses A Kosovo Fairytale (2009), an educational film project for which he acted as a supervisor, as a case study to explore how the use of combined animation and live action can encourage empathy for a documentary’s subject. The film tells the story of a family who were forced to leave their youngest child in Kosovo, seeking safety as refugees in Finland.

A Kosovo Fairytale

A Kosovo Fairytale

In the article Nåls discusses documentary within the historically ethically problematic field of ethnography, noting that “documentary representation is fundamentally informed by the challenges of inter- and multi-cultural encounters since it always entails a dialogue between a film-maker and a subject that exists in the world outside of the narrative – a person, a community or a culture.” He views animated documentary as a valuable tool within contemporary ethnography, which can be used to bring breadth and depth to representation of ‘the other’.

A Kosovo Fairytale was made by five exchange students from Africa and Europe. It combines roughly-made animation with live action footage of a Skype call. The lo-fi look of both the animated and live action sections means that the film’s aesthetic is consistent throughout. Nåls notes that although animation is traditionally an expensive and time-consuming process, it is possible to produce a film such as A Kosovo Fairytale on a very low budget and in a very limited timescale (the film was made in less that three months), and for the film to still be successful and well received in some exhibition contexts. In a tradition familiar to animated documentary and famously used by Tim Webb in his groundbreaking A is for Autism (1992), the characters in A Kosovo Fairytale are presented as figures hand-drawn by the real life subjects, and this integration of the participatory self-portrait helps to justify the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic style.

A is for Autism

A is for Autism

Nåls believes that the combination of animation and live action footage can create a particular empathetic response in the viewer. The animation allows an audience to relate to what is being shown as a universal human story. Nåls believes that much of the specificity and complexity of the situation being portrayed is negated through the use of iconic, “naive and minimalistic” characters and backgrounds. In contrast, book-ending the film with stark live action footage reminds us that this is in fact a very specific story; it is not a fairytale, and it has no happy ending. Nåls relates this to the Brechtian concent of Verfremdung – alienation or distancing which disrupts audience immersion in a story, highlighting construction and challenging the viewer to question the action. He sees the combination of live action and animation in documentary as “a technique of alienation… also a technique of persuasion, a way of convincing the audience of the authenticity of the story.”

Nåls mentions the “unique quality of animated non-fiction as a medium to represent traumatic events”, which has also been written about in detail by scholars such as Annabelle Honess Roe. He believes that the juxtaposition of live action and animation can be particularly effective in evoking traumatic experience, a technique also used to great effect in the final scene of Waltz with Bashir.

While many of the concepts put forward in Nåls’ essay have been discussed in existing scholarship, his use of A Kosovo Fairytale as a case study provides a useful lens through which to explore the ideas in practical terms. His thoughtful exposure of the nuts and bolts of the production process behind the film adds an extra layer of meaning to the viewing of it.

A Kosovo Fairytale from Anna-Sofia Nylund on Vimeo.

Vol 1 No 1 of the International Journal of Film and Media Arts also includes work by Paul Ward, Annabelle Honess Roe, Filipe Costa Luz, Pedro Serrazina and M. Alexandra Abreu Lima.

‘Tea and Consent’ written by Rock-Star-Dinosaur-Pirate-Princess, produced by Blue Seat Studios

Tea and Consent is a public information animation which is used with permission by Thames Valley Police to address and clarify issues of sexual consent as part of the Consent is everything campaign. This simply rendered Flash animation draws a parallel between sexual consent and the intuitive etiquette associated with offering someone a cup of tea.

In essence you can offer someone tea but it’s not acceptable to pressure or force him or her to drink it. The elegant metaphor behind the short film originates from a blog post written by the feminist blogger Emmeline May, a.k.a. Rock-Star-Dinosaur-Pirate-Princess.

tea_and_consent_01b

When exploring this work in the context of animated documentary it is important to recognise that this film does not comfortably fit with Annabelle Honess Roe’s 2013 definition of the genre, which follows a few rules:

Firstly, is it animated? Yes.

Secondly, does the animation reflect an imagined world of an auteur or ‘the world’? This is not as clear. The film primarily addresses a hypothetical scenario, which raises an ethical sexual dilemma. This dilemma is explored explicitly through a metaphor. It is also a distillation of the controversial social and political ideologies of the feminist writer, Emmeline May.

However, I don’t believe these points suggest the film is about an imagined world. The issues addressed clearly reflect a very real problem, while the ideology that is represented considers a majority perspective of our Western society and is supported by the legal system. It is also fair to suggest that theoretical or allegorical devices are a key part of the animated documentary language and help shed light on reality rather than an imagined world.

Finally, was it the intention of the filmmakers to create a documentary? I believe not. I would argue that it was the intention of Blue Seat Studios and Emmeline May in making it, and of Thames Valley Police in their use of the film, to change behaviour rather than observe and capture it.

Tea and Consent sits more comfortably amongst the state sponsored animated propaganda of the mid 20th century than contemporary animated documentary discourse: ‘Animation has historically been used as a tool for illustration and clarification in factual films… [It’s advantage over live action] led to an ever greater uptake of the medium by the US government in the Second World War.’ (Honess Roe, 2013)

Nonetheless, animated educational and propaganda films were an essential evolutional stage in the development of contemporary animated documentary and clearly still have a useful role to play.

tea_and_consent_02b

While the issue of consent is often received as a grey area topic, Tea and Consent proposes that it is a simple one. The analogy is powerfully robust. This very strong foundation facilitated the exploration of ambiguous and horrifying sexual conduct with incredible clarity and humour. It has not however been disseminated across the Internet with universal praise.

Comments on the film’s Youtube page have now been suspended, but I can testify that I was startled by the sexual aggression and anti-‘political correctness’ sentiments expressed in some of the comments posted previously. Sadly Youtube has a reputation for providing a platform for the vitriol of anonymous misogynists.

The simplistic Flash animation lends itself to easily rendered parodies. The two I’ve seen awkwardly contort the tea/consent analogy either for ‘comedic value’ or as a counter argument. The first version pushes the concept to an absurd extreme, suggesting that it is never safe to drink tea without lawyers present. The second explores an ill-conceived comedic inversion in which a “slut” wants tea in all scenarios. Neither of these spoofs deserves viewer hits so forgive me for not sharing their links.

tea_and_consent_03b

My bias is clearly highlighted by the fact that I feel naturally suspicious of the people who are offended by this film. I wonder if those who are most threatened are also individuals who would benefit most from its message. I suspect this argument is a little reductive and extreme.

The Internet is a breeding ground for such conflict after all and I resign myself to this. I neither have the energy or the skill to engage and attempt to change the minds of those I mistrust, unlike the makers of Tea and Consent.

Notes:

Honess Roe, A. (2013) Animated Documentary, London: Palgrave Macmillan. p.5&9

Animation courtesy of Emmeline May at rockstardinosaurpirateprincess.com and Blue Seat Studios. Copyright © 2015 RockStarDinosaurPiratePrincess and Blue Seat Studios. Images are Copyright ©2015 Blue Seat Studios.

‘Animated Documentary’ – a book by Annabelle Honess Roe

photo (8)

The long awaited book on animated documentary by Bella Honess Roe is now available to buy!  We have our copies on order and will post a review in the future.

You can get a copy in the UK from this site http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=581517 and if you visit Bella’s blog you can get a code for a 50% discount!

http://bellahonessroe.wordpress.com/

‘Feeling My Way’ by Jonathan Hodgson

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.

fmy2

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.’

fmy3

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.

fmy4

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!

fmy5

‘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’.

‘Blogging the animated documentary’ – article on Society for Animation Studies blog

SAS article 29apr13

An article about this very blog, which I was invited to write for the the Society for Animation Studies blog. Blogging about blogging!

Well in this case it’s reviewing films we’ve looked at on the blog so far, in order to assess the animadoc landscape; as something of a follow-up to other articles on the site’s current theme of animated documentary.

If you haven’t checked them out already have a look at:

Bella Honess Roe on Animated Memories

Sheila Sofian on The Camera and “Structuring Reality”

Who said that? The dispensability of original sound in animated documentary, by Samantha Moore

Paul Ward’s “To document differently”: random thoughts on a taxonomy of animated documentary.

And do leave comments – there are some fascinating points and debates to be had…