LIAF 2015 – animated documentary programme review

London International Animation Festival’s Animated Documentary screening returned to the Barbican in London in December 2015, showcasing a diverse selection of animated docs from around the world.

Many films of the selected films did not include any live action elements, and featured voiceovers which were obviously scripted and acted – raising questions about what makes a film a documentary at all. All these films were both presented and received as documentaries, but in many their claim to real world truth rested on trust – there was no ‘evidence’ presented in the film that what we were witnessing was real.

This is an interesting quality of the animated documentary – one which sets it apart from most live action work and which can, when successful, elevate it. This programme of films offered a rich variety of perspectives; not only on the world but on the documentary form itself.

The screening kicked off with Everyone is Waiting for Something to Happen, a mixed-media piece by UK-based animator Emma Calder. Calder’s film used the social media posts of one of her acquaintances to create a portrait of him over the course of a critical time in his life – his cancer diagnosis and treatment. The film offers a light-hearted look at the images we project of ourselves on social media, and the audiences we do not always know we have, who observe these.

Everyone is waiting for something to happen (Official Trailer) from Emma Calder/Pearly Oyster on Vimeo.

The Beast Inside by US filmmaker Drew Christie is a portrait of a homeless young person, determined to live a compassionate, creative and optimistic life in spite of his circumstances. The film is upbeat, with a lively, musical pace, but has moments of deep pathos that make an impact, such as when the protagonist is refused a job at a fast food joint because – he is told – he looks as if he would steal money or scare the customers. The young man’s hurt at the apparent indifference that the general public has towards the fate of those on the street, also provides a moving and memorable perspective.

The Beast Inside from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Drew Christie’s second film in the programme is Psychedelic Blues, an animated interview with ‘freak folk band’ Holy Modal Rounders which explores their formation and early days. This is a non-stop, acid- and amphetamine-fuelled celebratory rollercoaster of music and absurdity. The characters move fluidly between their old and young selves, caught up in moments that they’d never forget, if only they could remember. The gonzo glory of the memories is tempered by a twinge of sadness, evoked by the fragility in the voice of the ageing, drug-saturated narrator, allowing an openness in terms of how the film can be received.

Psychedelic Blues from Drew Christie on Vimeo.

Baba is a colourful and entertaining short by New Zealand filmmaker Joel Kefali, in which his grandfather describes his experience of arriving in the country as a Turkish immigrant many years before. The film successfully captures the experience and character of an exuberant man, baffled by certain cultural oddities but ultimately filled with humour and joy of life; able to take the world on and adapt to his strange new environment.

BABA from joel kefali on Vimeo.

A Portrait by Greek filmmaker Aristotelis Maragkos is another film about a grandfather, but this one has a very different tone. In this piece, the film-maker’s grandfather is seen from the outside through the memories of his grandson. It is a sensitive portrayal of a complex relationship. The film touches on ugly and violent elements the man’s mysterious past, of which the film-maker only knows fragments – which lead him to fear what potential for darkness may lie inside his own genetic material. This sense of violence is undercut however by the clear love that the narrator has for his grandfather, and the tension between these two perspectives is elegantly brought out in the very short film, making it a moving and memorable work which brought depth to the programme.

Food, by US/China based Siqi Song, is a bizairre and compelling take on the talking heads interview format – in which the talking heads are in fact foodstuffs, discussing their own food choices. A plucked chicken describes its decision to go vegetarian, while a loud-mouthed burger extols the virtues of meat-eating. “I think maybe healthy is overrated” he says, his bun flapping open to reveal a tongue-like slab of meat and cheese as he speaks. The film is comically grotesque and, while the interviews themselves do not tell us anything very new, the delivery certainly makes for compelling viewing which adds a new dimension to the issues discussed.

FOOD from SIQI SONG on Vimeo.

The theme of food was returned to later in the programme with the visceral Canadian production Table D’hote, which combines an attractive illustrative style with repulsive and disturbing imagery, reflecting on the industrial savagery of meat production.

Me and My Moulton is an NFB-supported film by Torill Kove. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Norway and coming to terms with her unconventional parents and her place in the world. The film takes an unhurried approach to storytelling and paints an engaging picture of this girl’s life and the everyday issues she deals with. It balances humour with nostalgia, conjuring a picture of a childhood world that is, while not untroubled, ultimately safe and filled with love.

Me and My Moulton (Trailer) from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.

Ode to Joy by UK-based filmmaker Martin Pickles is a tribute to hugely influential but near-forgotten animator Joy Batchelor, affirming her rightful place in the canon of British Animation.

Ode To Joy (2014) from Martin Pickles on Vimeo.

Elsewhere in the programme another film by Pickles, What is Animation?, is an insightful meditation on the nature of animation wrapped up in a portrait of British Animation legend Bob Godfrey. You can read more about this piece here.

In Last Words by Yuwen Xue, the filmmaker interviews hospice residents at the end of their lives, creating imaginative visual representations to capture these characters, and broadening the scope of the film beyond the individual sounds captured to wider thoughts and feelings. The visuals play experimentally with live action and animation, conjuring a fantastical space between life and somewhere else. Fascinating insights into the artist’s process can be found on Yuwen Xue’s production blog.

Words are again the focus in Arlene, by UK filmmaker Farouq Suleiman. This film is a portrait of a woman who suffers from Aphasia, a brain condition affecting language. Her difficulty with words is expressed with strong visuals including the memorable image of letters of the alphabet falling from a tree like autumn leaves.

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Still from Arlene

Hora, by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Brill, is a longer piece exploring same-sex love in Tel Aviv through reflections on public hand-holding. Interviewees discuss the practice of hand-holding, what it means to them and how the meaning changes when it is observed. There are some truthful and tender insights here, delivered with slick and engaging visuals; making for a film that carries you through smiling.

Still Born, by Swedish filmmaker Asa Sandzen, was the most hard-hitting film in the programme, in which a pregnant woman describes the experience of discovering that her 18-week old foetus has serious heart defect, and making the devastating decision to end the pregnancy. The film does not shelter from the painful process of this, taking the audience through the whole physical and emotional journey of late abortion and delivery. The film is made to feel very real by the small but affecting details that are recalled about the medicalised termination process and the disturbed thought process that takes place in parallel. Ultimately this is a raw and truthful film about the pain of loss, that is as disarming as it is memorable.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

‘What is Animation?’ by Martin Pickles

Martin Pickles is the director of an animated interview with Bob Godfrey titled What is Animation? This was one of two films by Pickles that were screened as part of London International Animation Festival’s animated documentary programme. Martin is well known through his role as the organiser of the London Animation Club, a monthly screening event in Fitzrovia.

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In What is Animation? Pickles animates a snippet of wisdom from Bob Godfrey (1921 – 2013), the British animation hero responsible for creating Roobarb and Henry’s Cat.

When thinking of this film in the context of animated documentary, I was struck by how relevant Godfrey’s words are to one of the larger tensions within the genre: how does a filmmaker faithfully document their subject matter without simply replicating it? Godfrey encourages animators to be whimsical and to forget the limitations of physics or representation.

The key phrase he uses, one which I have heard many times before, is “…if this thing can be done with a live action camera then for God’s sake do it with a live action camera.”

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While Godfrey wants animators to confront the “absolute freedom” of their medium, animated documentary makers maintain an adjacent balancing act. Our challenge, perhaps, is to find a subject that requires a Godfrey-esque whimsy in order for the story to be documented usefully.

Without wanting to sound pretentious, it’s all very ‘meta’. Not only is this an animation about how animators should animate, this short documentary is also structured around an almost visible feedback loop.

Firstly there is Martin Pickles the director, interviewing his hero Bob Godfrey, who effectively imparts wisdom and instruction to the audience. Then, much deeper in the mechanisms of this film, we can feel Martin tangibly being inspired by Bob’s words and legacy – Martin even credits meeting Godfrey as the stimulus that pushed him to study animation at the Royal College of Art. The next revolution of the feedback loop begins with me, the viewer, inspired enough by Bob’s words and Martin’s film that I chose to write about it. It’s fair to predict that this whole process might inform my own or someone else’s next animation; and so the wheel spins.

Ignoring my theoretical posturing, the true joy of this film can be found in its back-story. Martin Pickles and Bob Godfrey met in Croatia at the Animafest Zagreb festival in 2004. A fan since childhood, Martin sought every opportunity to foster a friendship with Bob. Officially, he found himself in the role of odd-job-man – when they met there was always a light bulb or whatever that needed replacing. Over time, his visits to Godfrey’s ACME studio in Deptford became much more social in nature.

Martin spoke about Bob’s aptitude for story telling and teaching with great affection. One day, as Martin sat opposite his hero, sipping tea, he felt that it didn’t seem right that he was the only one experiencing this. He was struck by the realisation that no one had made the effort to record these pearly nuggets of wisdom. With a real sense of urgency he got his hands an old tape recorder, and with Bob very much enjoying the spotlight, they recorded over two hours of rambling fun from one of the British animation scene’s more charismatic icons.

The two animators started to hatch grand schemes for what to do with the material. Collaboration seemed on the cards until Bob’s health began to suffer. By this point Godfrey was in his late eighties, and with great sadness Martin witnessed his gradual decline. Out of respect the project was put on hold indefinitely. A while after Bob’s passing in 2013, his family and the Bradford Animation Festival released an open call for archival content relating to Bob’s life and work. Following that the rest of the pieces fell into place.

You can read a full transcript of the interview here.

DRAWING FROM MEMORY – ANIMATED OBSERVATIONS screening at Open City Documentary Festival, London, June 2015

OPen City Docs LSFF Drawing from Memory
Darn it, news of this event in June passed us by – but what a line up of fascinating nuggets it is, programmed by London Short Film Festival and Animate Projects

And all films are available to watch online, which makes this a screen-at-home programme you can enjoy yourself!

Films can be found in the Animate Collection here:
animateprojects.org/films
apart from Ellie Land‘s Centrefold which you can watch here:
vimeo.com/46035152

http://opencitylondon.com/workshops/london-short-film-festival-drawing-memory-animated-observations

Perfect for a rainy Sunday…

Society for Animation Studies annual conference, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK 2015

Wow. What a brilliant few days! Here are a few of the drawings I made during some of the excellent presentations and keynotes. Many apologies to those represented – accuracy has never been one of my strong points!!

It was my first SAS conference, and also the first time I’ve delivered a paper. I met some lovely people and got some really useful feedback. Thank you all. Next year is Singapore….

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‘Children of the Holocaust’ by Fettle Animation

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We are pleased to be sharing the latest news from Fettle Animation about their animated documentary series ‘Children of the Holocaust’ created for broadcast with BBC Learning  and the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association.

The series is based on interviews with World War 2 Holocaust Survivors, and will form a resource on the BBC Learning Zone for 13 and 14 year school children learning about the Holocaust as part of their studies in History, Citizenship and Religious Education.

Ruth Rogoff 01 c Fettle Animation

The series has already been broadcast and has had further broadcast dates planned – the latest will be on the 15th October at 4am on BBC2. It is being screened as part of the BBC’s teachers TV service in the morning and will be on BBC I Player all week.

The trailer does a great job of showing how animation can be used to discuss a serious and possibly scary subject for a young audience. We will feature a more in depth review of the series in the future on this blog.

For now though you can see the trailer for the series here:

https://vimeo.com/89223502

 

 

Review of ‘Kiss the Water’ by Eric Steel with animation by Em Cooper

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Last weekend I was lucky enough to go to the splendid Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, to watch the documentary film ‘Kiss the Water’ by Eric Steel.The screening started at 11 am and I didn’t expect many people to be there at such an early time on a Sunday morning. However the auditorium was at least three quarters full. Following the screening was a lively Q&A session with animator Em Cooper and passionate audience members.

The film features animated segments by Cooper who has previously featured on animateddocumentary.com with her films 30% and Emergence. ‘Kiss the Water’ is not strictly an animated documentary, but the treatment of the animation is closely aligned to principles of animated documentary and therefore should be part of the discussion of the genre.

This is a slow film, suitable for a Sunday morning screening. The film is about the life of Megan Boyd, a Scottish woman who devoted her life to making flies for salmon fishing. She designed every fly she made and sourced the finest materials from all over the world. Her flies were famous amongst salmon fishers, and Megan received orders from all over the world. Megan died in 2003 and it was on reading her obituary that American Eric Steel felt the need to make a film about her.

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Megan spent her life living alone. She is described as ‘manly’ looking and every day she wore a tie and shirt with her tweed skirt. She drove a motor car and rode a motor bike and was remembered for her fast driving. Her home and adjoining fly-making shed, which is featured in the live action segments of film, is still standing, although it is now a ruin.

The treatment of the live action enables the animation to weave throughout it by various means. The interviews with people who knew Megan are set against a black backdrop, likewise the winding of the flies. The colours have been desaturated and there are some interesting edit decisions where the live action intercuts with the animation.

The animation is created using Cooper’s signature style of oil paint on glass. Cooper describes her self as a ‘live action film maker and animator’, as she often uses the filmed image as her source for the first frame of animation – a technique called Rotoscoping. In Cooper’s animated world, the camera is forever moving, searching through layers of oil paint, for glimpses of the figure of Megan. Thematic elements from the live action scenes and interviews are often revisited in the animation and metamorphosis features heavily to convey meaning, combining abstract elements. For example one of my favourite bits is Megan dressing herself, tying her infamous red tie, which turns into the same action used for the tying of the flies. These statements are significant in subtly addressing some of  the interesting aspects of Megan’s life – in this case the question over her sexuality.

I leave you with a segment from Megan’s obituary, from the New York Times in 2003

“Whose fabled expertise at tying enchantingly delicate fishing flies put her works in museums and the hands of collectors around the world and prompted Queen Elizabeth II to award her the British Empire Medal … From tiny strands of hair she made magic: the classic Scottish flies like the Jock Scott, Silver Doctor and Durham Ranger … and the fly named after her, the Megan Boyd, a nifty blue and black number famous for attracting salmon at the height of summer, when the water is low, hot, and dead.”

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‘Kiss the Water’ is available to buy as a DVD at the film’s website: http://buy.kiss-the-water.com/ and here is the trailer for the film: http://kiss-the-water.com/trailer/