‘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.



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


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.



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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

‘Silent Signal’ by Animate Projects

“Silent Signal is an ambitious project that brings together six artists working with animation together with six leading biomedical scientists to create experimental animated artworks exploring new ways of thinking about the human body”

Image copyright Samantha Moore ‘Loop’ 2015

Image copyright Ellie Land ‘Sleepless’ 2015

The six animations are currently on a year long tour, with the latest exhibition at Wellcome Genome Campus, Cambridge until September 2016.

You can watch all of the films online on the silent signal website, alongside artist interviews and a useful science guide. Check out the every expanding events section to find out about screenings, public talks and workshops that support the tour.


‘Rocks in my Pockets’ by Signe Baumane – trailer

Check out the trailer for Signe Baumane’s first feature expiring mental illness through the stories of five women in her family – ‘a funny film about depression’.

Upcoming screenings around the world in Sept & Oct 2014 listed here:

And a series of ‘making of’ shorts here: http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/Process.html

Signe’s portfolio site here: http://www.signebaumane.com

‘Tussilago’ By Jonas Odell


What a treat to see the latest animated documentary from Jonas Odell.

“West German terrorist Norbert Kröcher was arrested on March 31, 1977. He was leading a group planning to kidnap politician Anna-Greta Leijon. A number of suspects were arrested in the days following. One of them was Kröcher’s ex-girlfriend, “A”. This is her story.”

In this film Odell has moved away from his usual method of weaving a story from multiple interviews and instead features the story of one woman ‘A’.  The pace of storytelling is fast and this keeps up a level of dramatic intrigue, supported by cut out visuals involving some complex camera moves and transitions.

We recommend watching Odell’s past films ‘Lies’ and ‘Never Like the first time’ which have both featured on animateddocumentary.com.

This film was kindly brought to our attention by Ian Fenton – thanks Ian


‘In Jennifer’s Room’ by Ryan Gabrielson & Carrie Ching

A whistle-blowing story, which lends itself to the animated documentary genre, mostly because of the ethical considerations in protecting peoples’ identity. The following synopsis is taken from the films entry on YouTube:

“In August 2006, caregivers at the Sonoma Developmental Center found dark blue bruises shaped like handprints covering the breasts of a patient named Jennifer. She accused a staff member of molestation, court records show. Jennifer’s injuries appeared to be evidence of sexual abuse, indicating that someone had violently grabbed her.

The Office of Protective Services opened an investigation. But detectives took no action because the case relied heavily on the word of a woman with severe intellectual disabilities. A few months later, court records show, officials at the center had indisputable evidence that a crime had occurred.

‘In Jennifer’s Room’ is part of a reporting package that recently won a George Polk and an IRE award, and was named a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize’s Public Service category.”

Review of ‘Caldera’, by Evan Viera

It is not often one comes across a CGI film with such a consistently rich sense of artistry. With his film ‘Caldera’, Evan Viera and a substantial team of supporting artists demonstrate a brilliant sense of composition, lighting design and mastery of the 3D medium.


This animated short attempts to represent a series of visual hallucinations that take place during a psychotic episode experienced by the female protagonist. Viera is not interpreting his own experiences, but those of his father, a long-term sufferer of schizoaffective disorder. The title refers to the self-destructive process of collapse when a volcanic crater is formed after a major eruption.

As there is no attempt by the film-maker to claim this to be a documentary it may be unfair to criticise this short on the grounds of accuracy when depicting an unstable mental state. The psychological phenomenon is by its very nature subjective, however the lack of discord present in the character’s demeanour was striking. The protagonist spends most of ‘Caldera’ looking calm and concentrated in the context of the fantastical happenings she experiences. When depicting a gross thought disorder such as this it might be be fair to suggest that the subject would likely be considerably less composed during such events.


Evan Viera writes that his father has “danced on the rings of Saturn, spoken with angels, and fled from his demons”. The traces of these delusions are quite literally interpreted in ‘Caldera’ yet the feeling is very much second hand in tone. Watching this glistening film gives one the impression of a challenging CGI exercise more than that of a depiction of pathological imbalance.

When viewing this film on Vimeo we are confronted in the blurb by Viera’s statement about his father. The film-maker wants us to be aware of the direct link between the protagonist’s vision and his father’s experiences of mental illness.  For that reason I propose this is a documentary of sorts. Although it is based on second-hand observations, the film makes an effort to interpret a subjective experience that most of us could never fathom. Viera repackages it as a digestible image sequence granting the audience insight into a fascinating and difficult topic.

However, the story telling is carried on the back of the film’s aesthetic. The synopsis, for instance, is minimal. In essence a sad-looking woman decides to not comply with her medication (an enormously contentious point in its own right which is not really addressed), leaves the city and goes for a swim. Within the ensuing visualisations good and evil are represented through the colours blue and red, as well as by an animal sprit guide and a telekinetic daemon. Such simplistic symbols are surprisingly successful as narrative features and indicators of tonal change. The absence of dialogue inhibits our expectation of further explanation leaving the imagery to speak for itself. (Spoiler Alert) A lack of resolution is apparent at the end of the film; the screen fades to white during an unjustified moment of mortality. This sequence is treated with such casual romantic vagueness one can only hope, for the protagonist’s sake, that drowning is an extension of her delusion; if not then we are left with a quizzically cynical finale.

‘Caldera’ left me nourished visually but a little under-fed intellectually. A sumptuous film with an elegant air of visual poetry which sadly was not complimented by the reductive narrative.