‘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.

‘Seeking Refuge’ series for television by Andy Glynne

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A series of animated shorts illustrating young people’s perspectives of living as refugees and asylum seekers. Part of the BBC Two Learning Zone, this series won a Children’s BAFTA in 2012.

Produced by Mosaic Films in London, UK.
Director: Andy Glynne
Animation Directors: Salvador Maldonado, Karl Hammond, Tom Senior and Jonathan Topf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00vdxrk

ANIDOX:LAB 2016

I recently returned from the second module of The Animation Workshop’s ANIDOX:LAB in Denmark. This development lab, supported by Creative Europe, brings together animators, documentarians, artists and producers from across Europe, all united by a common interest in exploring the form of animated documentary. Each participant enters the lab with a documentary idea which is then developed across three modules. At the end of the lab, the participant is expected to have a strong pitch package supported by a two-minute promo for their project. The team behind the programme then continue to support a selection of these projects, bringing them to European film markets where finance may be secured to take the project further.

Anidox is put together by filmmakers Uri and Michelle Kranot, and has emerged from their own practice and research in the field of animated documentary. The Kranots were originally animators, drawn to non-fiction through “a desire to make films politically”. Their work has gained international acclaim and continues to compel audiences with its combination of fluid, poetic imagery and strong political meaning.

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Still from ‘Black Tape’ by Uri and Michelle Kranot

Communities of Practice

ANIDOX launched in 2013, with the original aim of bringing documentarians and animators together to find out what differences there are in their practice, and what challenges this brings to the production of the animated documentary. Over time common challenges which have been identified include:

  • Communication issues stemming from differences in use of language and terminology between the animation and the documentary community;
  • A lack of understanding in the documentary community of the production processes, timelines and budgets necessary to produce animation;
  • A mutual lack of understanding of the very different editing and post-production processes in documentary and animation production; and
  • Other difficulties with effective communication between animators and documentary directors and producers.

In response to these and other challenges, ANIDOX aims to foster dialogue between documentarians and animators, while providing business opportunities and a rich environment for creative development, helping filmmakers to develop the essence of their project and visual approach.

As well as being an excellent opportunity for project development, ANIDOX offers a diverse programme of talks from and about filmmakers, commissioners and other players working across animation and factual film production.


Module 1

In the first Module of the programme, Uri and Michelle Kranot were joined by filmmaker Paul Bush to lead several days of workshops. Kicking off with an overview of animated documentary, Uri Kranot and Paul Bush discussed the history and current state of the field in broad terms. Bush voiced his opinion that while drama has always been influenced by documentary, animation is only now catching up as part of a “coming-of-age for the animation form”. Bush acknowledged that the ‘contract’ with an audience is different in an animated documentary from a live action one, since with animation the audience is clearly aware that what they are watching is not an indexical record of real events, but he claimed that this is a strength of the form. In his opinion the British documentary industry has given up on ethically trying to present any kind of objective reality, although audiences will still automatically believe live action documentary and assume it is ‘real’. In this way, he claimed, animated documentary is less ethically problematic than its live action sister – through it’s transparently constructed nature it is more honest in its complex truth claim.

While documentary often uses animation as a way to limit the damage of missing or poor quality live action footage, there are also many other approaches and opportunities for the form. Bush specifically mentioned the power of animation to show alternative viewpoints, stories told from perspectives other than the point-of-view of the traditionally empowered. This ability of animated non-fiction to challenge hegemonic power structures has been discussed by various scholars and the potential of the form to weave alternative histories to those recorded and presented by the mainstream is widely considered one of its key creative strengths.

In a presentation about the history of animated documentary, Uri Kranot showed a range of films spanning a century and discussed the merits of each, in the context of their time. Kranot believes that we are seeing a coming-of-age not just for animation but also for documentary – an age of creative docs which can question as well as represent reality.

This pit-stop tour of animated documentary took us from Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), through WW2 propaganda films to the more personal work of John and Faith Hubley and Aardman Animation, whose pre-Creature Comforts short films Conversation Pieces (1983) used the conventions of documentary alongside stop-motion to reenact mundane and amusing scenes and situations. Kranot showed how over time the animated documentary moved from telling big political stories to smaller personal stories, such as Chris Landreth’s Ryan (2004) and Jornal Adele’s Never Like the First Time (2007). With this came a plethora of ethical and creative considerations that continue to challenge contemporary filmmakers. The animated documentary form has shown itself to be a powerful medium for exploring these ideas, with films such as Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy  (2013) deconstructing itself even as it tells its story, raising questions of transparency and authorial voice.

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Still from ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?’

Kranot also touched on the importance of technological novelty in animation trends, showing how many of the most successful short animated documentaries have found their success in part through the innovative use of new creative technologies.

Presentations on the first ANIDOX module also included talks by alumni filmmakers including Martina Scarpelli, who presented her recently commissioned work-in-progress short EGG, a poetic documentary about an anorexic woman’s complex relationship with food.


Module 2

The second module of ANIDOX took place in Copenhagen with guest tutors including: Swedish-Italian documentary director Erik Gandini; animated documentary producer Andy Glynne (Mosaic Films); Katrine Kiilgaard, Head of Industry at CPH:DOX; Ane Mandrup, Head of Documentary and Shorts at the Danish Film Institute (DFI) and Cecilia Lidin, Documentary Film Consultant at DFI.

Gandini, who works predominantly with live action, screened his feature film The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and talked about his relationship to documentary. After growing up in Italy, saturated as it was with flashy, misogynistic, Berlusconi-controlled media, Gandini then moved to Sweden where he had the life changing-experience of stumbling upon Claude Lanzmann’s 9+ hour long Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) on television. He describes this encounter with documentary as a “reconquering of reality”. Gandini went on to study film and make many documentaries including Videocracy (2009), an indictment of the Italian media and its social context.

At film school Gandini leant the rules of documentary storytelling, which at the time favoured a journalistic approach: an invisible filmmaker interfering as little as possible in the action, no music and closeness to character identified as the most important element. Gandini believes that this approach is “gone now, thank god”, destroyed in part by the rise of reality TV.

Gandini’s own work moved towards an essay-film approach, focusing not on recording objective fact but rather building personal arguments: “Taking command of storytelling… not showing reality as it is, rather showing reality as I feel it”. His work uses manipulation of sound, image and situation to construct a representation of the filmmaker’s subjective perspective on a subject, and he believes that the concept of authenticity in film should include being true to your own thoughts and feelings as well as your objective observations. Despite this, he strongly identifies as a documentary filmmaker, believing that documentary contains an unpredictability which isn’t present in fiction or animation and that documentary storytelling should be open to including representations of fantasy and internal life as well as hard fact – an area in which animation can be a useful representational tool. It is this co-habitation with unpredictability that makes documentary magical for Gandini, and his challenge to animated documentary filmmakers is “to what level can we keep unpredictability a friend even when using animation?”

Producer Andy Glynne brought some good practical advice to his talks. At Mosaic Films approximately 30% of the documentary output is animated docs, usually with subject matter that deals with the internal and psychological world as well as subjects and situations that are inaccessible for various reasons, or that demand anonymity. Glynne spoke about Mosaic’s process for engaging contributors, through which they have placed safeguards to ensure the story they tell remains authentic and respectful to the contributor despite the mediation process of editing and animation. He also offered some valuable insights gleaned as a result of the development of Nothing to Envy, a feature length animated documentary about North Korea, currently in very early production. Originally conceived as a foreign language documentary, the film’s development process has seen it take on more fiction qualities as well as becoming an English language production – changes that were made partly in response to the requirements of the feature film industry.

Both Glynne and the representatives from DFI spoke at length on the issues that can arise when pitching animated documentary. A recurring challenge is the expectation in the documentary industry of having a promo to show of the film being pitched – relatively straightforward for a character based live action documentary but more complex for an animated documentary, where each second of footage incurs significant expense and visual development.

Representing the fast-growing documentary festival CPH:DOX, Katrine Kiilgaard spoke of the festival’s focus on hybrid and interdisciplinary work. With larger audiences than DOK Leipzig and Sheffield Docfest (though smaller than IDFA and Hotdocs) CPH:DOX is a force to be reckoned with on the documentary festival circuit. It is significant that it demonstrates a progressive attitude to form, with a programme that includes industry forums for art-documentary projects, some of which are intended for gallery exhibition rather than theatrical or broadcast. Despite this embrace of alternative forms, Kiilgaard noted that only a small percentage of work screened at the festival is animated – estimated at less than 5%. When asked why this was she responded that the animated documentaries they receive are often at odds with the larger programming direction of the festival. Hans Frederik Jacobsen, a programmer for CPH:DOX also present on the module added that animated documentaries “often don’t fit our understanding of what a film should do”, although he indicated that this was changing, partially due to the work of programmes such an ANIDOX, which help to develop innovative productions that exploit the potentials of both the documentary and animation form.

Through these and other talks, the ANIDOX programme offered its participants a rich insight into thought and industry process related to the animated documentary field. It also provided a fantastic forum for project development, in which ideas could be presented and worked on in a supportive environment with the help of tutors and participants with a great diversity of experience. Ultimately, as with most training programmes, it is this rich peer network which offers the strongest and most lasting benefit. Through this network, participants are able to draw on each other’s knowledge and experience across the spectrum of the industry, in order to develop and strengthen their own creative voices and professional acumen as filmmakers pushing the boundaries of the animated documentary.


More information about ANIDOX:LAB and other residencies the initiative offers can be found at anidox.com.

 

‘Nothing to Envy’ trailer from Mosiac Films

Check out the trailer and campaign film for this work-in-progress from Mosaic Films, the London production company behind the two ‘Animated Minds’ series. And what a great reason to use animation – revealing the secrets of a country where the cameras just couldn’t go.

http://nothingtoenvy.net

There’s just a week left to go to donate to the film’s Indiegogo campaign.