‘Animation Therapy’ workshop and ‘Animation on Prescription’ screening at Encounters Festival 2016

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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.

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.