‘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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Animated documentary events at Encounters Festival 2016, Bristol, UK

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AnimatedDocumentary.com is getting ready to cover the Encounters Short film and Animation Festival. The festival runs from the 20th to 25th September across a number of Bristol’s cultural venues. Friday 23rd September looks to be an exciting day for Documentary Animation fans:

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At 12 noon the 5th Animation programme, A Look Inside, will be screened at the Watershed, focusing on the aspects of medicine, emotional and psychological conditions. The programme explores topics like memory, ageing and perception. It features recent films from Samantha Moore and George Sander-Jackson, familiar names in UK the UK ahi-doc scene.

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On the same day Animation Therapy will also be running a workshop from 10am-4pm under the ‘Animation on Prescription’ banner. The workshop is focused on the theme of compassion and is aimed at health professionals, dentists and vets. Documentary animation directors, Tim Webb and Em Cooper, will be teaching along side the occupational therapist and director of Animation Therapy, Helen Mason.

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Later that day at 4.30pm there will be an Animation on Prescription screening and networking event featuring examples of films created in a therapeutic context. Great Ormond Street Hospital, Aardman Animations and TPO Uganda are just some of the institutions featured.

Alex Widdowson from the blog team here at AnimatedDocumentary.com will be attending the entire festival looking for other ani-doc snippets. Click on the event links for details about booking tickets.

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.

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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.

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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.

‘Camouflage’ by Jonathan Hodgson

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

‘Silence’ by Orly Yadin & Sylvie Bringas

After fifty years a Holocaust survivor recalls her time as a child in the camps, and afterwards with relatives in Sweden; based on the experiences of Tana Ross.

http://archive.org/details/OrlyYadinSylvieBringasSilence

Awards:
Best Animation, Melbourne International Film Festival, Australia 1999
Grand Prix, Odense Film Festival, Denmark 1999
Gold Hugo Animated Short, Chicago International Film Festival, USA 1998
Best Short Film, Oslo Animation Festival, Norway 1998
Fist Prize: Shorts, Cinanima International Animation Festival, Portugal 1998

‘A is for Autism’ by Tim Webb

If you don’t know this film, then you should! I certainly consider it one of the films which inspired me in what animation could do.

Director Tim Webb worked with autistic children and adults whose artwork informed the visual style of the film, as well as describing their experiences in the soundtrack.

The DVD is available here.