London Animation Club – Documentary Animation Discourse

Part 1: Representing oneself in animated documentaries:

In 2008 I left a Art Practice BA at Goldsmith’s College in disgrace. Soon afterwards my shaky mental health deteriorated and I was sectioned for drug induced psychosis brought on by cannabis abuse.

This was profoundly traumatic because I was experiencing delusions and hallucinations, while being confined for a month in a psychiatric ward whose staff practiced forceful restraint and sedation when necessary.

From 2009 to 2012 I made many animated documentaries about these experiences during my BA in Fine Art at Loughborough University. Animation seemed to be the most useful tool for processing my difficult experiences. I thought of my BA as intensive art therapy, finding that each time I crafted a narrative based on what happened I forged a more navigable path through my memory.

 

In addition to psychosis I experienced hypomania, a mild form of mania, marked by elation and hyperactivity. This symptom, despite not being particularly destructive or traumatic, had a strong influence on one work in particular, Ultraviolent Junglist. While not being a documentary does capture the frenetic momentum of hypomania.

WARNING – NOT SUITABLE FOR THOSE WITH PHOTO SENSITIVE EPILEPSY

Ultraviolent Jungleist (2013)

Part 2: Representing identifiable subjects in animated documentaries:

Chris Landreth was awarded an Oscar in 2004 for his documentary animation. This was characterised by Landreth as a psycho-realistic portrait of Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada.

Ryan (2004) Chris Landreth

I’m interested in notions of caricature and its relevance to contemporary documentary animation practice. This mode of representation is traditionally regarded as derisive, yet it is still a reasonable description of how identifiable subjects in animated documentaries are represented.

Is it fair to see Chris Landreth’s approach to representing Ryan Larkin as a caricature?

Portrait: a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

Caricature: a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.

If it is not the artist intention to be comic or grotesque is an image no longer a caricature? I would argue an audience has just as much right to make this judgement.

I found Ryan inspiring as an undergraduate. It essentially introduced me to animated documentary as a practice. Moreover I was drawn to the idea of ‘psycho-realism’. Since my teenage years I’d been expressing my own mixed feelings through illustrations, which contorted the male nude. I was struck with how Landreth was able to find such a convincing  practical use for this type of imagery.

Sad (2015)

sad-2

However, I-did-this-to-myself. Images, such as the one above, were all self-portraits, self-mutilations. Yes they were self-indulgent, but I was contorting my own image and not the face of someone I’d met, certainly not a vulnerable adult.

In contrast to the animated documentary, Ryan, the live action representation of Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreth in Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004) offers a more equal footing for the pair. Larkin is given a chance to respond to the animated film in this ‘making-of’ documentary.

Alter Ego (2004) d. Laurence Green (Start watching at 0:45:21)

Larking states:

  • “I’m not very fond of my skeleton image”
  • “It’s always easy to represent grotesque versions of reality”
  • “I wish I could change that script”
  • “I’m very nervous about being scrutinised so tightly. I just want out of this picture”

Landreth’s vision, no matter how honourable, failed to produce something that Larkin was comfortable with upon completion.

What Chris Landreth calls “psycho-realism” is also a useful term to describe Francis Bacon’s search for a raw truth in his portraiture practice. The key difference between Bacon and Landreth is that the painter acknowledges, to a degree, the inherent violence in the process of disfiguring his subject.

Francis Bacon – Fragments of a Portrait (1966) d. Michael Gill (Start watching at 0:02:29)

A significant issue with Ryan, made evident in Alter Egos, is that Landreth and Larkin seem to barely know each other. We get a sense that they’d only met a handful of times. If Ryan Larkin was offered more involvement in the film’s creation would he have felt more comfortable with how he was represented? Would Chris Landreth’s vision for the film been compromised or augmented by allowing Ryan to influence the way he was depicted?

Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I was recently informed by Shelly Page, Head of International Outreach at Dreamworks and a friend to Landreth, that Chris was still proud of film. Ryan after his initial reluctance grew to appreciate the film. It drew attention to him as an artist and reinvigorated his animation career before his death in 2007.

Christoph Steger has an incredible track record for forming trusting and collaborative relationships with the subjects of his animated documentaries. In Jeffery and the Dinosaurs, the negotiation is clear, Jeffery Marzi is offering Steger access for his low budget documentary in order to gain exposure for his screen plays.

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

Marzi shares his story in a relaxed and candid manner, occasionally punctuated by Steger’s modest questioning. We are given the impression of a relationship built on sensitivity and mutual respect.

Marzi’s spoken biography reveals a universal story of concern for the future, however the strange inversion of the conventional narrative of frustration and aspiration is revealing. While most of us might dream of Hollywood success, Marzi engages with that goal as part of the daily grind. Meanwhile his limitations led him to covert the reliable role of mechanic and postal worker.

I was interested in Steger’s choice to include a scene where Marzi expresses a clear misconception; the idea that J. K. Rowling’s literary success lifted her out of homelessness. Steger did not correct Jeffrey or omit the moment from the film. A director has a moral obligation to represent this subject without turning the documentary into a freak show or social pornography. Although the fear of homelessness is the driving force behind Marzi’s work, and therefore crucial to the narrative, he might have had other footage that captured this anxiety without exposing or exploiting Marzi’s naïveté.

It is possible that Steger saw the moment as crucial to the film. It feels like an honest expression of anxiety and an important moment to help audiences understand Marzi’s perspective and vulnerability. Steger may have felt it dishonest to shy away from moments like this. Would it have been patronising to omit the scene for fear of embarrassing him?

When Steger discusses the project you get a strong sense of the collaborative relationship: “I like life, and animation is almost the opposite, it’s all about fantasy. So I felt a relief to be able to have Jeffery take care of all that. He does all the imaginary work of the visuals and it’s down to me to bring them to life…. The real film for me and the artistic challenge is in the structure of the poetry, and trying to bring out those poetic moments of a story like Jeffery’s.”

 

escapology

I worked with Nick Mercer, an addiction therapist and former addict, in Escapology: The Art of Addiction (2016).

Despite the promise of anonymity while producing the film, Nick was proud of what we produce together and insisted on being listed in the credits.

nick_mercer

I believe our smooth working relationship is connected to the fact that Nick and I had grown to trust one another well in advance of me making this film. In 2013 Mercer was my psychotherapist. It was a strange inversion asking him to expose his personal experiences. That therapeutic relationship lay the foundation for a trusting filmmaker/subject relationship. He’d seen my previous films and fully believed the idea of using animation to expand on his wise words.

I essentially reduced Nick down to a caricature, although the desired effect was neither comic or grotesque. I drew him many times without using photographic reference to distill my image down to a few lines.  Here are some early character designs:

While I send Nick early animatics he had no desire to suggest changes. He saw my allegorical interpretations of his words as part of a 50/50 partnership to the film’s content.

My own experiences struggling with cannabis addiction as a teenager both motivated me to make this film and helped me empathise with Nick’s experience.

Part 3: Representing anonymous subjects in animated documentaries:

Lawrence Thomas Martinelli (2015) identified six motivations for creating contemporary animated documentaries: 

  • To integrate meta-material to visualise what is known but cannot be shown
  • To manifest subjectivity
  • To impress a particular point of view
  • To convey emotion beyond the facts documented
  • To give aesthetic stylistic expressive print to the work.
  • To hide or camouflage part of the authentic footage

Camouflaging part of the authentic footage often manifests as characterd design to protect the identity of the subject providing testimony.

I became interested in how notions of caricature could relate to animated documentaries in which the subjects were not identifiable in any way other than through their membership of a minority group.

My interest in this topic arose during the creation of Very Angry (2016), a fiction short about alcohol addiction produced at the Royal College of Art for the embodying voice workshop.

Very Angry (2016)

In essence I created a West-Indian character but as a middle class, white, strait, male I struggled with notions of authenticity when a representing a race that was not my own. You can read more about my moral floundering here. This experience inspired me to examine other animated documentary films in my critical work, where representations of race or nationality were central to the content.

I felt very differently  about the four examples I chose and admittedly this was partly to do with my subjective enjoyment of each animated documentary. However, I was convinced that part of my suspicious interpretations of these four examples had its roots in the tension created by the strategies employed by the teams of privileged white artist controlling the representation of another race for an equally privileged western audience.

I met with Ramsey Hassan, the comic artist and writer, who wrote Zorse (2015) – a semi-biographical story of a young asylum seeker moving to London and joining a predominantly middle class white school.

zorse_ramsey_husain

We first discussed our interpretations of the following two films, both of which use character designs to anonymise the subject of the film but allow the audience to identify their race:

Please Don’t Let Go (2012) Andy Glynn/Mummu Studios

Slaves: an Animated Documentary (2003) David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn

In summary we concluded that Slaves seemed to be the most ethically robust film for the following reasons:

  • The film acknowledges it’s own reflexivity, i.e. the makers and the mechanisms used to create this film are thematically part of the film’s content. This demonstrates an understanding of the circular relationship in which the filmmakers and their subjects actions and differing perspectives may affect one another.
  • There was a deliberate attempt to avoid mimetic colour pallet. As a result the characters skin colour didn’t fit into a conventional visual language.
  • The character designs indicate that the aesthetic traditions of sub Saharan sculpture and mask making seemed to inform the design of the black characters. While these influence don’t directly like to a Sudanese aesthetic traditions, this gesture pushes the contextual frame work of the film in the direction of self representation.
  • The three Sudanese characters look distinct from one an other.
In contrast we saw Please Don’t Let Go as more problematic:
  • Please Don’t Let Go features testimony from a courageous girl who jumped from a moving lorry into the arms of her mother, who she’d been separated from. The character design and After Effects puppetry make the girl seem a flimsy and weak.
  • The girl’s mouth doesn’t ever close during the film. This unusual feature strongly contrasts the dignity present in her testimony.
  • Ramsey identified the bulging eye as problematic…. Between us we concluded that, while the character design in Slaves were rooted in an Sub-Saharan aesthetic tradition, the character designs in Seeking Refuge: Please Don’t Let Go, had a stronger connection to historic representations of black people created by white people.
  • While we acknowledge that it was the intention of the film makers to be entirely supportive and earnest, we suspected they may have been unconsciously informed by unfavorable cultural and historical discourses when creating their character designs.

Ramsey and I then discussed two animated documentaries in which anthropomorphism was used. To varying degree, both the subject’s identity and race were anonymised.

It’s Like That (2003) Southern Ladies Animation Group (S.L.A.G.)

https://vimeo.com/89827782 (Please follow the link)

Creature Comforts (1989) Nick Park

Ramsey and I spent a long time debating It’s Like That and Creature Comforts. We concluded:

  • The Southern Ladies Animation Group chose to navigate around the complex ethical issues of representation and identity by anthropomorphising the child refugees.  Unlike most films about asylum seekers, their race and nationality were not shared. Presumably to ensure that the audience connect to their narratives on a purely humanist level.
  • Ramsey suggested the symbolism of a ‘caged bird’, was a little shallow because it related to the broader context of the detained refugees and was  not specific to the individual characters.
  • In Creature Comforts each anthropomorphised character and the context in which they were presented are treated separately. They are carefully designed to build links to the human voices they are embodying.
  • In some instances there are tangible links between the nationality of the speaker and the species of animal they were assigned. For instance: the Brazilian man is represented as a big cat (possibly a panther), native to his homeland. Beyond his nationality, the nature of the character design also reflects the man’s interest in meat and his frustration with living standards int he UK.
  • The three children in It’s like That are all birds and it is easy to perceive their characters interchangeable, despite attempts to differentiate through scale and colour coding. This is made more difficult as there are a number of animation directors working in different media.
  • Ramsey argued by never revealing the race or nationality of the subjects in this film you are taking away part of their identity. He compared it to the well meaning privileged liberal left slogan ‘I don’t see race’. He argued that by trying to ignore a cultural context as important as race or nationality you are limiting your own ability to better understand someone and stripping them of their culture.

Part 4: Animated Documentary and Education

Royal College of Art: Documentary Animation MA

Last year the  Royal College of Art launched a new MA pathway in Documentary Animation. I am on the inaugural year of the course. This is a project I created at the RCA in the first semester.

Performance (2016)

Currently I am developing my first year film for a brief created in partnership with the Wellcome library. I am working closely with the Philadelphia Association, for whom I am artist-in-residence, to create a documentary about their history and the PA Community Houses, places of refuge for those in mental distress. They aim to offer the true meaning of asylum. The following is a very early animation test:

Foam hand test 01 (2017)

To celebrate the launch of the new pathway in the summer of 2016 the RCA hosted the Ecstatic Truth symposium.

ecstatic_truth_portraits_panel_1

Birgitta Hosea, the animation MA programme leader, has recently announced a call for papers for the second Ecstatic Truth conference.

The ANIDOX:LAB at the Animation Workshop, Viborg, Denmark

Denmark’s Animation Workshop also offers a documentary specific animation course called The AniDox:Lab, which I completed in 2015. We were taught by Uri and Michelle Karnot, in addition to a host of guest lecturers such as recent LAC speaker Paul Bush.

Pigs is a story about two teenage witnesses who describe the day they saw three officers of the law perform an unexplained act of surreal depravity in broad daylight. Fred and Dom, the narrators, are ambitious young comic artists who seek out real adventure as inspiration for their practice.

Pigs: Pitch Trailer (2015)

This film was a disaster, never work with teenagers. These two fantastic liars convinced at least half a room full of adults that their story was true. I hoped to work collaboratively with them but  having never confronted them directly we were forced to communicate as if their story was completely factual. Eventually they must have got sic of the deception and stopped replying to my emails long before I was able to get to know them well enough to encourage a confession.

Martina Scarpelli was also in my year group and went on to win the AniDox:Residency. A year long funded programme at the Animation Workshop in Viborg. Her project addressed personal experiences when struggling with Anorexia. The film is in production now and I’m very excited to see the final result.

Egg: teaser (2015) Martina Scarpelli

To close I would like to end with a film I made in 2014 after visiting Malawi. It’s called Hours and Hours of Footage of Two Giraffes…

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The Philadelphia Association Community Houses: is it possible to offer asylum from Psychiatry?

In 1984, ‘M’ was living in the Philadelphia Association Community House on Shirland Road in Maida Vale. Having moved to London, partly to follow in the foot steps of her hero, the famous counterculturist and radical psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, M was drawn to the Philadelphia Association to seek therapy. When she fell acutely mentally ill she was invited to stay in a PA Community House.

First set up in 1965, these houses operated in a way that deliberately blurred the boundaries between doctor and patient.  These places of refuge were formulated on the principles developed by Laing and the Anti-Psychiatrist, David Cooper. While working as a psychiatrist in the 50’s, R. D. Laing was thrust into a jungle of traditional psychiatric remedies – drugs, electroshock., and insulin coma therapy – Laing began to question the wisdom of these so-called ‘treatments’ – treatment he believes is how one treats another person – and rather spent his time listening to and talking with his patients, thus commencing his thinking that real treatment (real therapy) is an interpersonal phenomenon.’ (Ticktin, S. & Laing, A., 1997)

pa_laing

Laing’s ‘hope was that the community would furnish evidence for his growing thesis that madness is not necessarily a breakdown, but may represent, potentially, a breakthrough into a more authentic way of being (i.e.- that it is a natural healing process with a beginning, middle, and end) re: the normal state of alienation to which the majority of us have succumbed.’ (Ticktin, S. & Laing, A., 1997)

M, subscribed to Laing’s beliefs and so persisted with her community therapy treatment in the absence of psychiatric drugs. Unfortunately her psychosis deepened to the point where she was a danger to herself. Assisted by her brother, M voluntarily went to the nearest psychiatric hospital where she was immediately sectioned and medicated.

pa_therapy

I am interested in examining the historical collisions between the early ideals of the Philadelphia Association when confronting the cultural/medical establishment’s perspective of mental illness and treatment. Now that psycho-pharmacology has a far more precise set of tools since 1965 when the PA was first set up, is there still a significant reasons to doubt dominant system of diagnosis and medication?

The PA has changed significantly in the past 52 years. Laing eventually became a disruptive figure and was forced to resign. Currently the association neither defines itself as either Laingian or as part of an anti-psychiatry movement.  Instead they are simply committed to reducing human suffering while not adhering to dogmatic theories or the disease model. I believe an exploration of the PA’s historical resistance to the pharmacological/diagnostic model will illuminate the wider debate regarding concerns about over diagnosis and over prescription in contemporary psychiatry.

It is my intention to continue my work interviewing people who have lived in the PA Houses. As the artist in residence at the Philadelphia Association I have access is a wealth of resources to help me get started. I’ve developed strong personal ties with several PA members and therapists some of whom currently work at the houses. They have also pointed me to several crucial texts; a collection of testimonies from past residence and in-depth examinations of the rocky history of the houses.

It is also important to balance sentiments of what used to be called “anti-psychiatry”, with research and testimony from those who believe in the medication based psychiatric system. The Wellcome Library will provide a strong foundation for investigating the medical establishments contemporary and historical approach towards treatment.

Feedback

On Monday 9th January I presented the Wellcome project to my documentary animation class along with Birgitta Hosea – program leader, Sylvie Bringas and Daniel Saul – visiting lecturers, and Hanna – a Movement Director, on placement from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Much of the criticism I received in this session was focused on the absence of aesthetic development and the limited reach connections to the Wellcome Library collection. Both of these issues were in large caused by the short amount of time I had to prepare.

A day earlier my proposal was about an entirely different topic. Despite good intentions my ideas became irrevocably entangled in serious ethical concerns. During this crisis I met with a trusted adviser, Sara Thorsen Fredborg – RCA Curation MA student,  to discuss the issue. During that discussion we concluded that I must start from scratch and together weight up potential options. Quickly the PA Houses emerged as a strong prospect, building on my recent discussions with M and the excitement of recording her story.  While M had made it very clear she wished to not be involved, her testimony demonstrated that among the former PA Community House residence there was enormous potential for discovering meaningful narratives, which could illuminate a winder debate between the Philadelphia Association and the psychiatric establishment.

The initial feedback from Birgitta focused on the absence of tangible links to the Wellcome Library collection. Even though the bibliography I provided demonstrated strong a contextual foundation, I did not have the chance to search within the Wellcome Library for specific connections what would spark the interest of the Wellcome team. I am confident there will be a wealth of resources in the Wellcome library to support my subject matter. I am particularly confident as my chosen topic is relevant to the brief them of ‘Place’ and falls within the remit of the Wellcome Collections mission statement to ‘encourage new ways of thinking about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art’.

feet

Birgitta also noted a distinct lack of visual reference in my presentation, ‘the people you are pitching to need an indication of what it might look like’. It occurred to me that I had not had a chance to even think about the aesthetic of the documentary. However, during the process of explaining my project I realised how determined I was to continue with my experiments with replacement stop motion. Over the Christmas break I had completed the following animation test:

I was initially inspired by the work of Mikey Please’s use of foam in an advertisement he directed for Dragonframe animation software.

Sylvie Bringas also pointed me toward the Polish animator Piotr Kamler who had experimented with replacement stop motion in the 90’s.

During the same tutorial with Daniel Saul and Sylvie, in which we discussed Please and Kalmer, I develop the idea of constructing a series of these loops that loosely represent some of the dualities and tonal shifts in the film. Some of these shots may be abstract, others figurative, but none would literally illustrate or even sync directly with dialogue.

The following is a quick test which amalgamates abstract and figurative animation tests, created without the testimony in mind. The voice you hear is Will Self speaking two years ago at the Philadelphia Association’s 50th Anniversary.

In the interviews I plan to record with former and current PA House residence I anticipate the following types of dualities appearing; doctor vs. patient, psychotherapy vs. medication, the Philadelphia Association vs. mainstream psychiatry etc. In this test I have attempted to demonstrate how I could use figurative imagery, both to represent an individual emotive state and the wider discourses. I find it intriguing that the word figurative is defined as both ‘that which is symbolic’, as well as as ‘where reference is made the human body’.

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library
Generated by IJG JPEG Library

It is clear at this early stage that I will need to make some distinctions between the two sides of the dualities I reference. While I would like to avoid colour coding, I expect to create contrast using shape and movement. The studio I used to occupy in Brentford as next to the Glaxo Smith Kline headquarters. I was always struck GSK’s the cold glassy architecture and how it’s looming presence seemed to embody the power and ambivalence of “big pharma”. The headquarters of Eli Lilly, the manufacturers of Prozac, equality embody the aesthetic of corporate indifference. It is my aim to borrow some of these architectural tropes when designing the abstract forms that may represent connected themes in my film.

I was asked to consider why this project should be an animation. This is a powerful challenge to my proposal. It is very common for an animator to question weather or not their ideas could be more effectively created in live action. In my heavily interview based practice, I find myself constantly having to justify why I’m not creating a podcast. While there is some illustrative value to the sequence above, I feel it is not quite proof of concept. I have, therefore, not yet been able to answer the question ‘why bother animating this’? I am, however, excited about the prospect of developing a visual and verbal aesthetic language in tandem. If I start animating during the process of conducting interviews I anticipate the two aesthetics will inform and feed into one an other as the project takes shape. Such an approach may hold me back from being too illustrative, as I have been in with my previous work.

Appendix 1

Hungry has the highest suicide rate in the world, this is partly due to the genetic prevalence of Bipolar Disorder which makes an individual 18% more likely to take their own life. This phenomenon correlates with a diminished cultural taboo regarding suicide.  There is a common understanding in Hungary that the kind of medication taken to treat bipolar disorder changes one’s personality to such an extent that there may be more honour in taking one’s own life compared to becoming a stranger. (Dubner & Levitt, 2011)

Appendix 2

In 1950 Chlorpromazine the first antipsychotic was synthesised. Nicknamed the ‘chemical lobotomy’, Chlorpromazine (marketed as Thorazine) had the effect of emptying the asylums. While this panacea was akin in scale to the development of antibiotics, it was an incredibly blunt tool.*

*needs citation – see BA dissertation

Bibliography

Books:

Gordon, P., (2010) An Uneasy Dwelling: The Story of the Philadelphia Association Community Houses. PCCS Books.

Scott, B. (2104) Testimony of Experience: Docta Ignorantia and the Philadelphia Association Communities, PCCS Books.

Films:

Luke Fowler, (2011) All Divided Selves. LUX

Online Videos: 

Clatworthy, T., (2015), The Philadelphia Association’s 50th Anniversary. Avalible online at: https://vimeo.com/145327256

Unknown director, (2014) Psychiatrists and the pharma industry are to blame for the current ‘epidemic’ of mental disorders. Intelligence Squared. Avalible online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlFbuqunb1I Description: Will Self (writer) and Darian Leader (psychotherapist) debating over-diagnosing/over prescription in psychiatry with the Professor Sir Simon Wessely (President of the Royal College of Psychiatrist) and Dr. Declan Doogan (former Head of Worldwide Development at Pfizer)

Radio/Podcast: 

Dubner, S. & Levitt, S. (2011) The Suicide Paradox, from Freakenomics Radio, Dubner productions for WBEZ. Avalible at: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-suicide-paradox/

Self, W., (2013) The Prozac Economy. Falling Tree Productions for Radio 4. Online At: https://wn.com/the_prozac_economy_by_will_self

Webpages:

Ticktin, S., (1997) Biography of R.D.Laing, adapted from a review of R.D. Laing: A Biography,  A. Laing.  Online at: http://www.laingsociety.org/biograph.htm

‘Performance’: 20 minute single shot illustrated film & an 8 minute edited sequence

8 minute edited film:

20 minute unedited single shot version:

The focus of my semester’s output, from the elective ‘What’s Up Doc?’, was a 20 minute film called ‘Performance‘. This film focuses on moments of sexual dysfunction and what those fractures reveal about our performed gender roles.

Performance consists of three separate interviews conducted over a period of 2 months in late 2016.  Lakis is a cis male therapist with the Philadelphia Association, a Psychotherapy organisation. Tessa is a cis female documentary film maker who identifies as a lesbian, and Dot is a transgender woman and former radio presenter, who sometimes occupies both a masculine and feminine gender roles. I am a heterosexual cis male, documentary animator who has in the past struggled with sexual dysfunction. I made this film to help me hear a variety of perspectives on erectile dysfunction and come to terms with my own anxiety induced sexual crisis.

studio-space

Production:

From the 7th – 12th December I booked the large stop-motion studio at the RCA. I filled the space with a channel of drawings which were mimetic, symbolic and at times abstract. These images create a time line which matches a 20 minute audio edit. Using a Sony A7 camera with a 50mm lens, I filmed the illustrations in a single tracking shot, in-time with the audio. By the end of the week had time to create 4 takes.

I was drawn to the word ‘Performance‘ because of how many of it’s meanings proved relevant to the content and construction of the film. The content was very much about sexual performance and how our gender roles are to an extent constructed and displayed. I also liked the performative aspect of creating an ambitious instillation and 20 minute film in a week. Finally the manor in which the footage I captured, a single shot brimming with imperfections as well as moments of artful execution, was in it’s self the most tangible aspect of performance.

Unfortunately the most consistent negative feedback from my class and tutors was that Performance was too long. In addition to this the timing of a live camera performance could never match a carefully edited sequence. I cut the film down to 8.38 minutes, while this erodes at least one of the conceptual layers of the film, the final outcome is stronger.

Contextual Research:

I’ve recently realised that, in addition to the workshop with Bunny Schendler, the method I’ve developed for this film strongly references Paul Bush‘s scratch films. I’ve been following Bush’s career since 2006 when we first met. It was my great privilege to be taught by him on the AniDox:Lab in Copenhagen in 2015.  To my surprise, when he presented at the London Animation Club in October 2016, he screened what he described as his “break out film”, a short that I’d never heard of.

His Comedy, (1994), 8 mins, 35mm, colour, Dolby Stereo.

Bush used a celluloid film camera to pan across the detailed illustrations in Gustav Dore’s etchings of Dante’s The Devin Comedy. This footage was then scratched into directly by Bush cell by cell, producing a jostling line-boil which brings these inanimate illustrations to life.

‘The poet Dante is taken by Virgil through the gates of the city of desolation and into the centre of hell. What he sees is not simply an apocalyptic vision of the punishment that awaits sinners after death but also the very real horrors committed by human hands on earth.’ (PaulBushFilms.com)

inferno14
‘Inferno’, Gustav Dore’s etchings of Dante’s ‘The Devin Comedy’

Paul Bush’s film demonstrates that we share a fascination with intricate narrative compositions, common in Flemish renaissance painting.

noahs_ark_on_mount_ararat_by_simon_de_myle
Simon de Myle’s Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat

I have noticed dense compositions have become more popular in contemporary illustration. I believe this traces back to Keith Harring’s influence via the mainstream fine art world and the legacy of the New York Street Art scene. I am particularly interested in interlocking imagery with inconsistent perspective fields. Harring’s work focuses heavily on silhouetted design and bold mark making. While I have a tendency to shift into three dimensional space I hope to adopt a similar sense of cohesion in my drawings.

kwongchi_pop3
© Keith Haring Foundation Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi | © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

The Paper Cinema have been a huge influence on my decision to animate static drawings using camera moment. While they use a complex set up of static cameras capturing moving 2D drawigs, their adaption of the Odyssey inspired me to break out of the 3 minute animation format. By being less precious about my method I was able to produce 20 minutes of footage in an afternoon after one week of drawing and 2 months of development.

paper_cinema_kit_01

Nic Rawling, artistic director of The Paper Cinema, came to visit the RCA and offered creative consultation on my film. We replicated Bunny Schendler and Sylvie Bringas’ drawing workshop (described in more detail here), knocking out spontaneous illustrations in time with the pre-edited interview soundtrack.  Nic created a fantastic illustration of a lit match and a it’s shrivelled, post-combustion state. This seemed like a poignant metaphor for male potency, how one moment a man can feel virile and powerful and the next, pending the loss of an erection, they could feel useless.

nic_match_01

Colour Palette:

In the past year I have developed an inverted colour technique using Pentel Sign pens. I initially started this work as part of a proposal for the 2016 AniDox Residency. The idea was based on Irene Liverani‘s PhD research into the Genova G8 political violence in 2001.

I then produced a music video for Autoheart using the same method in animation, this time working without photographic reference.

For Performance I attempted to colour code each character to help differentiate their presence in the shifting interviews. In order to plan this I had to use an inverted spectrum key.

colour_skeme

I am particularly drawn to this method because it can breathe life into quite flat drawings. The vibrancy of this sudo-neon pallet is highly appealing to me.

performance_inverstion_before_after_01

Conclusions and future outcomes:

From the feedback I’ve heard so far, a common criticism is that this work would make a strong podcast but a weak film. It is difficult to engage an audience for 20 minutes with a single screen. The first solution is to scrap the visuals, polish the audio and submit the edit to a podcast production company such as WBEZ, the producers of This American Life, or Falling Tree productions, an award winning British radio production company.

I will create a gallery instilation in Febuary 2017.  The ‘Performance‘ drawings will be hung and light with black lamp in the Courtyard 1 Gallery at the Royal College of Art. I hope to have a one off projected screening during the private view, but for the rest of the week I will set up separate screens around the gallery. These will be synced to the 20 minute audio loop, each screen showing one of the 4 takes I recorded with the Sony A7 camera. While the individual screens won’t match exactly, the timing of each will correlate to the soundtrack. Performance lends itself to a more transient audience who can pass through the space, drifting in and out of the prescriptive screen narratives and the jumbled wall mounted drawings.

There is potential to make a concise edit of the current footage I’ve captured. From the four takes I should have decent shots of each section, some of which will be lost for good. The Matador and trampoline scenes stood out as featuring noticeably successful metaphorical content. I hope to slice up the sequences and pull together the best components with the hope that I’m not loosing anything by choosing to edit what was meant to be a single shot performance.

Finally, I must decide weather or not any of the content gathered in this project so far deserves to be pulled forward into my next animated short. The 2016-18 Documentary Animation MA class will be working with the Wellcome Collection Library to create a film that takes influence from the institution’s collection to encourage audiences to ‘think about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art’. In many ways sexual dysfunction is an ideal subject for this brief, however if I keep the project so focused on my personal experiences I might make a film that doesn’t fully take advantage of what the Wellcome Library has to offer.

Interview with Alexandra Hohner

On 2nd November 2016 I gave a lecture for the animation students at the University of Western England, Bristol (The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation). Following my visit Alexandra Hohner contacted regarding her third year writing task, which takes the form of a journal article. The topic was how animated documentaries represent invisible illnesses. She wrote, ‘Your talk was very informative but I’ve tried to put together some more specific questions about Patients’ (2012).

1. What made you decide to use a realistic design of Patients instead of creating a more “psycho-realistic”, caricature design?

I wanted the realism in Patients (2012) to work as a counterpoint to some of the more hallucinatory scenes. I initially believed that it would help the traumatic moments feel real, however I’ve made more successful interpretations of those moments, such as the scene in Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

2. Do you think if the main character wasn’t based on you and your experiences, but on someone else’s- you would have shown things differently? how so?

Well that’s a hard question because I’d have to basically design a new film. I’ve made animations about other people and I generally try to capture their essence in a reduced and simple line drawing. For instance, Nick Mercer, the speaker in Escapology: The Art of Addiction (2016):

I believe these drawings are different because I made them 3 years later and by then my style had changed.

Patients is a bad example as I don’t distort the character much however I have made many contorted self portraits which I consider a form of psycho-realism.

However, I find it hard to push my self to be as derisive and disfiguring when trying to use the same methodology in portraits of other people.

3. I understand that for a documentary maker, the best-known subject can be themselves, but what do you think: why should other people should be interested in your personal story?

I was just lucky that something incredibly interesting happened to me. I think this is not a common story and that’s why it’s fascinating. Despite this it became clear that the people who connect to Patients the most were those who have friends or family who have suffered from acute mental illness.

4. A bit more provocative question: I understand that for a documentary maker, the best-known subject can be themselves, but what do you think: why should other people should be interested in your personal story?

I like to make films which confront issues that people don’t like to talk about, i.e. mental illness, addiction or sexual dysfunction. What I’ve found is that if you find the right topic you’ll discover a quarter of you audience can relate to it directly and the rest are likely to know someone who’s been affected by it.

I like to use a similar tactic to stand up comedians. I’ll explore the darker or even mundane side of my own existence to find something that people can connect to. Observational comedy may have been developed in response to the reflexive documentary discourse.

5. What do you think you’ve learnt about how to treat your future subjects and their stories, from being your own subject first?

The most important lesson I learnt was the fact that I know I could do a good job. I’ve shown the subjects of my films previous work and we more or less start the project with them trusting that I’ll make, at the very least, an interesting film. This confidence is really important and provides them with a lot of reassurance.

6. In your animation, the main character does look like you. Are the other characters based on the people who you met?

In Patients, all the characters are based on people I came across fleetingly in the hospital or people I know very well. The doctor, for instance, is still my psychiatrist. My parents really look like that although I decided to do their voices. In fact I did all the voices in Patients. I quite liked the idea of embodying each character as if it was all a dream and everyone was you. There was a pleasing madness to it.

7. What about the dialogues? Did you write them based on “real events” or have some of these words been actually said to you? How much freedom did you give to yourself during writing the script: were you a writer or just an editor?

All of the dialogue is invented. It is very hard to remember back two or more years to provide a perfect quote. I did my best to capture the spirit of each character I represented but this is definitely problematic. My brain was in such a mess around the time I was restrained and injected that I had no clear idea of the events leading up to it. I’ve been told by a health professional since completing the film that no nurse would ever say “What are you doing, get back to bed”. I just did my best to gauge the tone of what I meant to express. I am afforded a lot of trust by and audience who can sense that the film was based on personal experience. Even if that’s not clear the film gives the impression of being well informed. That’s the crucial.

8. Did you use actors to record them?

No. It’s all me. I can do some pretty mean accents and enjoy the process. Although I have since become increasingly sensitive to the racial insensitivity of such a practice. I’m not sure if I would ever do it again.

9. In case someone else would be your subject, how much of a role would you give him in editing or writing the script? Would it be a collaboration or would you only look for confirmation?

I’ve only ever used interview testimony in films I’ve made about other people. The crucial negotiation centers around the release form. Until that is signed I am nervous about the power an interviewee has over the film production. At any point they can withdraw their verbal consent and ruin your film. I think of this as a sort of yes or no question right at the beginning. ‘Do you want to be in the film, if so this has to be signed before we start’. I’ve recently felt more comfortable with this process because I realised that it’s almost impossible to put into writing the complex negotiation about how to represent some one fairly. That is build on a relationship of trust between you and your subjects. I try to make it clear that I would never want to make a film featuring someone who hates the outcome. A lot of this trust comes from showing previous work but mostly its from the relationship you build. I’ve had subjects release all control because they trust my artistic intentions, and I’ve had others who essentially want to authorize each piece of audio before It’s considered for the film. While I use the term subjects here, in fact I think it’s most healthy to think of them as collaborators.

10. When you were creating the representation of the main characters, what qualities and emotions were most important?
Do you think you were harder on yourself than you would have been in a case where someone else is the main character?

Visually I need to show how gaunt the I was at the time of the psychosis. I felt this was such an unusual phenomena with a symbolic power that I knew it had to be focused on in the film. I was being eaten away by the illness so my body suffered just as much as my mind. Emotionally I feel much of the film is very neutral. I made little attempt to convey emotions until the final scene where the patient finally recognises that they are unwell. This was another key point for me, the idea that someone who is mentally ill may be the last to know about it. You loose track of how you appear as you internal perspective becomes warped though the fog of chemical imbalance.

I don’t think I was particularly hard on myself but there was a definitely intimacy I could afford. I remember including my penis in the drawings when I’m naked in the bathroom. I liked the way it make the character look vulnerable. I’m not sure if I would have done that if it was another person’s testimony.

Appendix:

Patient script – Revision 5 (2012)

memory

Doctor

You will be detained here under section 2 of the Mental Health Act.

 

Cut to a dark room where the patent on bed.

Listening to the shipping forecast.

Nurse

Nock Nock

Come on, time for your medication

When he turns off the shipping forecast the narration beings

The patient joins the end of the queue.

The cleaner swept round the corner emitting a high frequency drone. A flickering florescent strip light broke the patients conventional perceptions. The patient had often experienced such phenomenon. His most vivid encounter had taken place on the first night of his detainment.

Cut to common room

As day had turned to night the shadows revealed a flickering ghost like aura around the other patients. Beastly projections of their inner beings postured before one-another, strutting for dominance. The patient wondered how he might appear to the others.

Upon examining his hands he noticed tiny shoots emerging from his fingertips.

They coiled round the arm of his chair and spread across the vial floor from his feet.

Nurse

Just take the pill and show me your mouth.

He gulped down the sugary lump, stretched open his mouth and left.

In the bathroom the patient disrobes and examines his naked flesh. He pulls at his rubbery skin.

As the bath fills with pristine crystal fluid he submerges himself.

The patient towels down his skeletal frame. A dull pain in his arse reveled a pinprick on the cheek. A bitter taste filled his mouth as broken recollections fell into place.

Cut to the corridor at night

Nurse

Hey. What are you doing up? Get back to bed!

The patent turned to face the approaching tribesmen. As the hunters surrounded him, they grabbed his arms and pushed him to the ground. A knee pressed against the back of his head crushed his cheekbone into the floor. Fumbling hands pulled down his trousers exposing his bare buttocks. The howls of his torment echoed though the empty corridors, peeking as a needle prick pierced his behind. Gradually his distress petered to a drooling moan.

Fade to black

Nock Nock Nock

The patent opens his eyes with a shock as he is woken from sleep.

Nurse

Come on, its time for your appointment.

Upon entering the doctor’s office the patient was offered a seat. The soft leather wrapped around his boney bum as he lowered down. Opposite him the doctor bounced his knee as he skimmed over the contents of a paper folder.

Doctor

I think it’s about time we talk about your recent experience.

You’ve had what is called a psychotic episode.

Psychosis is caused by a chemical imbalance and can result in strange beliefs, paranoia and visual or auditory hallucinations.

So you may have seen or heard things that weren’t really there.

The anti-psychotics you are taking will gradually stop such occurrences but before our next appointment I want you to think back and try to establish what was real and what may have been caused by the illness.

The Doctor stood up with the patient to shake his hand.

Back in his room where the patient lay staring at the ceiling.

For the first time the he considered the authenticity of his astonishing visions. Could such apparitions be in his head? He even questioned the voice that chronicled his every moment….

The voice…

It was a disembodied voice in his head…

The patient sat….

 The Patient

Arrr… Shut up!!

silence

Nock Nock

Mother

Is it ok to come in?

His parents enter.

Father

Hello son.

You’re looking better

Mother

We brought you some fruit and more cloths.

I hate to think how long have you been wearing those hospital gowns?

Patient

I don’t think I’m very well.

Patient bursts into tears

Parents comfort him

‘Performance’: What is revealed about our gender when examining the fractures caused by sexual dysfunction

Performance is the working title for an ongoing project aimed at exploring notions of gender in the context of sexual intimacy. It is my believe that the fracturing of sexual performance offers a gimps into the foundations of individuals culturally enforces and biological shaped gender role.

On 7th November 2016, in a Critical Historical Studies workshop at the Royal College of Art, I presented some of the early material developed for Performance. During this session I asked who, out of the 14 attendance, had experienced erectile dysfunction themselves or been in an intimate moment with a sexual partner who was experiencing it. I also made it clear it was not obligatory to take part. Never-the-less roughly 50% of the class raised their hands. My intention for the project Performance provide my audience with the impetus to start their own discussions about sexual performance with hope that they attempt to understand the emotional implications and societal taboos surrounding the contention.

Automatic drawings

I drew for almost the entire coach journey when returning to London from the 2016 Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. Touching pen to paper without any preconceived direction, I let the marks I cast on the page shape the ones that followed. The aggregated composition feels to me like a pertinent glimpse into my interests and anxieties. Following the surrealist tradition, I have identified a rich semiotic network of icons, each with a identifiable index linking them to specific concerns. Collectively they act as a reasonable portrait of my mindset at on that day. Some of my interpretations revealed themselves during the drawing process, other’s were spotted over a month later.

Automatic Drawing, is a script for a short vignette featuring a thinly veiled protagonist speaking to his therapist. The ‘service user’ explores his interpretations of his drawing which bares a remarkable resemblance to the one I created.

School of Communication Basement-20161106162613

Therapist: Why don’t you describe what you see in your drawing?

Service User: The big angular frog man is me. And I’m sitting on a bed with closed body language. All my limbs are protected and my hands are covering my crotch. I’m sitting on the bed with a woman. This woman is right on the edge of the bed so maybe that means I was worried about whether or not she was comfortable. Behind her is this huge, weird looking donkey which is eating worms. He’s surrounded by a sinister black halo. Behind me there is an open cosmos with floating pyramids each with an eye. It’s funny, it’s sort of chaotic behind the woman and peaceful behind me. I think it means I still have a lot of anxiety around sex, and there was no separating that from women, but I remember feeling like I was just starting to get over it. Starting to get my confidence back.

Therapist: There are lots of eyes in the drawing.

Service User: Yeah, what I didn’t realise is that they eyes are not looking at my character in the drawing, they were looking at me as I drew. I don’t think they are judging but I certainly feel a little watched. Exposed.

Therapist: Would you say there was any significance behind the horse chewing the worms and pulling them taut?

Service User: Obviously they represent floppy dicks. To me it looks like the feeling of when you’re trying to will your penis hard and it just isn’t happening. I’ve found myself in pulling on it in the past, as if that might make a difference… Now that you mention it, those pyramids actually look a little bit like Viagra pills. They’re blue and look sort of diamond shaped. 

Performance interview 1: Tessa

The week I spend at Encounters, writing for AnimatedDocumentary.com, afforded me the opportunity to meet a number of interesting festival staff and filmmakers. At the closing party I spoke to Tesssa, an artist documentary maker who’s candour matched my own. In now time at all gender politics and personal experience came into focus.

Tessa, a cis-woman, mentioned her ex-girlfriend who was transgender. I was struck by the difference between experiences she had with her ex-boyfriends and her transgender lover when negotiating moments of erectile dysfunction. She spoke as if the emotional rolacoaster men often experience when they weren’t able to performer seem to bee less to do with physical equipment and more connected to the ego and fragility associated with the male gender role.

A month later, while visiting Bristol I arranged an interview with Tessa. The two hour discussion proved incredibly fruitful although I was starting to see that my perception of sexual politics had been heavily blinkered by my position of privilege as a strait, white, middle-class male.

Seminar with Bunny Schendler and Sheena Joughin:

On Thursday 10th November Bunny Schendler and Sheena Joughin hosted a seminar at the RCA. They discussed the conception, funding and production of their animated documentary collaboration Men Talk About Mother (2016)

The recorded interviews with men talking about their mothers was initially conceived by Joughin as research for a novel. It became clear that there was so much lost in the transcription of these interviews that Joughin recruited Bunny Schendler to collaborate on an animated documentary. A consequence of these informal beginnings was that release forms were not signed by the participants until a late stage in the production. It could be argued that this was unprofessional as participants were afforded the power to blockade the film at any point, another way of emphasizing this is that the film makers were motivated to act ethically and ensure that the subjects were represented in a way that made them feel comfortable.

Andy Glynn, the founder of Mosaic Films, said on a panel discussion in 2015 at Factual Animation Film Fuss, that he prefers to separate himself from the process of getting release forms signed by sending round a kind-spirited production assistant to do the job before a shoot starts. Personally I have struggled with the forceful and emphatic language used in such forms. My dread surrounding this topic was partly to blame for the failure of the project PIGS, which I developed at the AniDox:Lab in 2015.

Before interviewing Tessa we spoke on the phone about my intentions for the interview. I explained that I saw the release-form as an opt in or opt out decision that needs to happen at the very start. This yes or no moment is separate from the nuanced relationship and level of trust between documentary maker and subject.  I wouldn’t want to make a film that she was unhappy with nor would I want to give away so much power that she could put an end to the project. There is a delicate position of advantage a director needs to reach in order to securely make a film without risk of it collapsing. I feel these rights will only be handed over once the subject has understood your motivations and learnt to trust you.

What’s Up Doc? Workshop with Bunny Schendler

Bunny Schendler co hosted a Whats Up Doc? elective workshop with Sylvie Bringas the day after the Men Talk About Mother seminar. We watched an extract from John Smith’s Blight and discussed how voice recordings can be edited to produce evocative or even abstract outcomes. Smith arranges a small collection of phrases recorded by former tenants of a housing estate which was being demolished. Their brief verbal flurries are arranged rhythmically to match fast cut footage of the estate being dismantled by workmen.

Smith’s technique reminded me of the musician Pogo, who gleans fragments of dialogue from popular culture to construct beautiful music with a powerful sense of nostalgia.

During the workshop we were challenged to create a 1 minute edit from a 5 minute spoken word recording. I opted to use my own recording of Tessa and I. After the rough cut was complete we moved to the drawing studio. Each of our audio tracks loop one-by-one as we interpreted them through drawing. Our intention was to create an animatic in a day. Rather than filling the timeline full of static images I chose to film each drawing with my phone, drifting in and out of the compositions.

I was very pleased with the outcome of this film, as was Tessa. What I realised later was that at no time during the interview did she mention the penis being erect. I unwittingly twisted the dream into a hyper sexualised version which almost missed the point.  For her the penis was a horrible fleshy thing that just seem to be in the way. I think the question I asked about weather or not it made her feel powerful was a telling. It revealed our disparate perspectives on the symbolic meaning of the male sex organ.

Performance interview 2: Dot

I was discussing this project on a trian with Sandra Sordini, a colleague from the ‘What’s Up Doc?’ RCA elective. At one point I paused during the synopsis of Tessa’s narative to question weather or not “transgender” was the right term. Without hesitation a the person in the next see lent forward and added ‘Yes, that’s the right term’. After completing the story Sandra and I turned to to ask what our neighbor thought.  After introducing herself, Dot said that she had plenty to say on this topic and would love to be involved in the documentary. I tried to explain that the focus of my film was on sexual dysfunction but also then proved to be a topic she was interested in discussing. Tessa and Sandra were both interested in the prospect of filming an interview with Dot at what she affectionately referred to as the ‘Tranny House’. The four of us met on the 15th Novemeber 2016 to record what looked like panel discussion on two adjacent sofas in front of an enormous rainbow mural.

dot-tess-alex-sandra-dawing

I eventually steered the discussion towards the topic of sexual dysfunction and immediately Dot fetched a prop. She returned with a generic brand packet of Sildenafil tablets, the chemical name for Viagra. Our discussion was extensive and very personal. Key to the issue was how much did Dot’s ambiguities about her gender relate to a sense of disconnection during penetrative sex.

Performance interview 3 and 4:

I intend of recording at least two more interviews. I am hoping to record a session with a therapist as I am interested in pushing myself to explore my personal interest in sexual disinfection. I am currently in negotiation with the Philadelphia Association, The Psychotherapy organisation, trying to find a suitable professional.

The 4th interview is a little more trick. I’m hoping to find a middle class, middle aged, white, strait male who would be willing to discuss his own experiences of erectile dysfunction.

Long form illustrated documentary film and drawing instillation: 

Rather than stripping down my extensive interviews to fit a 5 minute animation, I am hoping to make a much longer film, potentially up half an hour. I plan to record a single video take on using a Sony A7 camera with a 50mm lens which will produce an incredibly shallow depth of field. This will be timed to a pre-edited audio interview soundtrack. The visuals will consist of me moving the camera through a carefully lit studio, filled with chronologically ordered drawing and dioramas. One by one each image will be explored in a choreographed way to match the sound track. An added bonus to this method is that as I develop the film I will, by necessity, be creating an instillation which could be recreated to accompany the screening of the film in a gallery context.
 kentridge_single_shot_02
The careful planning needed to create this film has prompted me to seek advice. I emailed Nicholas Rawling, the artistic director of Paper Cinema. 
The Odyssey, performed at Battersea Arts Centre in 2015, was an inspiring experience and has lasted as an influence. Despite touring China, Nic was swift in his reply, suggesting I take a look at the Prologue to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (created by The Mill for d. Burr Steers, 2016).
He also added that I should be open minded about adjusting the audio after the filming takes place. He anticipated that sticking to the exact timing will be hard so I must remain flexible with the audio if I am to insist that the video is a single take.
Finally, this gif from an unknowns source popped up on my Facebook feed. I think its satirical humor and simplicity is admirable. If a few seconds it illustrates the absurdity and pervasiveness our hyper-sexualised culture. I feel it’s also important to note that if the image wasn’t funny I don’t think it would have caught me attention.

 

 

The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation

The Fallacy of Objectivity:

Animated documentary has existed as a mode since 1918. Winsor McCay was commissioned by the US government to create an animated reconstruction of the sinking of the Lusitania, a commercial ship carrying American citizens that was sunk by a German U-Boat during the First World War. The film was used to help sway popular opinion regarding America joining the European conflict.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) d. Windsor McCay (Start watching at 0:08:28)

In the absence of footage Animation seemed like the only appropriate medium to represent the horrific events. Crucially, the persuasive nature of the medium was understood by its commissioners. What McCay made was essentially propaganda.

Documentary as a discipline would not be popularised for another 4 years when Robert J. Flaherty created the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). It captured the imaginations of the cinema going public and forged a genre.

Nanook of the North (1922) d. Robert J. Flaherty (Start watching at 0:31:21)

The common language of narrative cinema is evident in this film. There is a continuity of storytelling which, to Flaherty, is more important than the accurate recording of events. Many of the scenes were artfully edited or even staged to create a clear story. Years after this film was released it was revealed that the star of the documentary was not called Nanook, nor was that his family portrayed in the film. Nonetheless a genre and a new set of ethical considerations were born.

Mark Cousins characterised the genre of documentary film making as a practice in which one must ‘co-direct with reality’ (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, 2011, Channel 4, Ep. 2 The Hollywood Dream). This shared control is crucial for understanding the paradoxical position of documentary director. They are both afforded the role of ‘agent of truth’ and ‘master manipulator’ attracting similar criticisms as journalists. They are accused of twisting words or taking them out of context, while simultaneously audiences offer little thought about the trust they place in the medium as a record of immutable facts.

Sheila Sofian wrote an extraordinarily concise article on this topic in relation to animated documentary: The Camera and “Structuring Reality” (2013). Forgive me for quoting almost the entire piece, but who am I to paraphrase such eloquence:

…Michael Cieply, [while] discussing documentary filmmaking as compared to traditional journalism… made the following statement: “The camera is a tool to structure reality, not report a reality.”

I remember giving a lecture in which a student in the audience claimed that live action photography presented a “real” depiction of events, and animation could not replicate reality in a convincing manner. I agree that animation cannot replicate the effect of live action photography. What bothers me is this misconception of live action presenting a “truth”, or… a “window to reality.” (Annabelle Honess Roe)

…[D]ocumentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and carefully select the few minutes they choose to include in their film. All documentary filmmakers understand that you can manipulate footage, editing, relationships of picture to audio, and a myriad of other cinematic techniques to match the point of view you hope to present. And yet, audiences often forget how manipulated they are when absorbing the information presented to them in a seamless fashion. There is still a pervasive idea that live action documentary is “real” and therefore animation cannot be an accurate depiction of reality. My argument has always been that live action cinema can be manipulative and often misconstrues what it claims is “reality”, whereas in animation it is actually more clear in that what is presented on the screen is constructed by the filmmaker… Live action documentary can create a false construction of events that the audience assumes is true.

I met the producers of “Spellbound”… The film follows several contestants preparing for a spelling bee competition… I found it interesting that they admitted they did not originally shoot any footage of the spelling bee winner preparing for the competition, so they went back and shot additional material, which ultimately appeared to portray the contestant training for the spelling bee.

This is only one example of how live action documentary can misdirect the audience. Of course, both live action [and] animated documentaries can be misleading. In my Documentary Animation Production class at USC I stress how important it is to present the content in the manner in which the subject intended. We discuss the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how easy it is to manipulate material. It is ultimately up to the integrity of the filmmaker when it comes to honouring the subjects’ intent.

Erik Gandini, director of The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and Videocracy (2009), said in a lecture that any director who believes they can make an objective documentary is deluded. Every film is subjective so you may as well embrace it. After all, mocumentaries have demonstrated that the fly-on-the-wall, observational mode of documentary making is just another aesthetic.

The Ethics of Representation:

Sheila Sofian’s notion that a director has a responsibility to honour their subject’s intentions is worth considering with regards to the Oscar winning animated documentary Ryan (2004). The short illustrates an interview that took place between the film’s director, Chris Landreth, and Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. Landreth adopts an aesthetic methodology which he calls ‘psycho-realism’, a mode of pictorially expressing the psychological state of those represented.

Ryan (2004) d. Chris Landreth

I found Ryan inspiring as an undergraduate. It essentially introduced me to animated documentary as a practice. Moreover I was drawn to the idea of psycho-realism. Since my teenage years I’d been expressing my own mixed feelings through illustrations, which contorted the male nude. I was struck with how Landreth was able to find such a convincing  practical use for this type of imagery. Personally I doubted that my psycho-realistic work was self-indulgent.

art-is-therapy

However, I-did-this-to-myself. Images, such as the one above, were all self-portraits, self-mutilations. Yes they were self-indulgent, but I was contorting my own image and not the face of someone I’d met, certainly not a vulnerable adult.

In contrast to the animated documentary, Ryan, the live action representation of Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreth in Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004) offers a more equal footing for the pair. Larkin is given a chance to respond to the animated film in this ‘making-of’ documentary.

Alter Ego (2004) d. Laurence Green (Start watching at 0:45:21)

Larking states:

  • “I’m not very fond of my skeleton image”
  • “It’s always easy to represent grotesque versions of reality”
  • “I wish I could change that script”
  • “I’m very nervous about being scrutinised so tightly. I just want out of this picture”

Landreth’s vision, no matter how honourable, failed to produce something that Larkin was comfortable with upon completion.  However, Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I’m not aware if Ryan grew to love the film or if Chris grew to hate it. It’s been 12 years so both outcomes are possible.

What Chris Landreth calls “psycho-realism” is also a useful term to describe Francis Bacon’s search for a raw truth in his portraiture practice. The key difference between Bacon and Landreth is that the painter acknowledges, to a degree, the inherent violence in the process of disfiguring his subject.

Francis Bacon – Fragments of a Portrait (1966) d. Michael Gill (Start watching at 0:02:29)

Participatory Film making:

A significant issue with Ryan, made evident in Alter Egos, is that Landreth and Larkin seem to barely know each other. We get a sense that they’d only met a handful of times. If Ryan Larkin was offered more involvement in the film’s creation would he have felt more comfortable with how he was represented? Would Chris Landreth’s vision for the film been compromised or augmented by allowing Ryan to influence the way he was depicted?

Christoph Steger has an incredible track record for forming trusting and collaborative relationships with the subjects of his animated documentaries. In Jeffery and the Dinosaurs, the negotiation is clear, Jeffery Marzi is offering Steger access for his low budget documentary in order to gain exposure for his screen plays.

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

Marzi shares his story in a relaxed and candid manner, occasionally punctuated by Steger’s modest questioning. We are given the impression of a relationship built on sensitivity and mutual respect.

Marzi’s spoken biography reveals a universal story of concern for the future, however the strange inversion of the conventional narrative of frustration and aspiration is revealing. While most of us might dream of Hollywood success, Marzi engages with that goal as part of the daily grind. Meanwhile his limitations led him to covert the reliable blue-collar role of mechanic and postal worker.

I was interested in Steger’s choice to include a scene where Marzi expresses a clear misconception; the idea that J. K. Rowling’s literary success lifted her out of homelessness. Steger did not correct Jeffrey or omit the moment from the film. A director has a moral obligation to represent this subject without turning the documentary into a freak show or social pornography. Although the fear of homelessness is the driving force behind Marzi’s work, and therefore crucial to the narrative, he might have had other footage that captured this anxiety without exposing Marzi’s naïveté.

It is possible that Steger saw the moment as crucial to the film. It feels like an honest expression of anxiety and an important moment to help audiences understand Marzi’s perspective and vulnerability. Steger may have felt it dishonest to shy away from moments like this. Would it have been patronising to omit the scene for fear of embarrassing him?

When Steger discusses the project you get a strong sense of the collaborative relationship: “I like life, and animation is almost the opposite, it’s all about fantasy. So I felt a relief to be able to have Jeffery take care of all that. He does all the imaginary work of the visuals and it’s down to me to bring them to life…. The real film for me and the artistic challenge is in the structure of the poetry, and trying to bring out those poetic moments of a story like Jeffery’s.”

Collaborative Documentary Animation:

Samantha Moore’s PhD research focused on the use of animation to record and communicate neurological phenomena such as phantom limb syndrome or, in the case of Eye Full of Sound (2008), audio-visual synesthesia. She developed a methodology for film that involved close consultation with the subjects of the film. Each participant listened to a audio score, designed by Adam Goddard, and then described in detail the visual sensations it induced. Crucially, Moore provided a process of review after each animation test. The subsequent process of small adjustments improved the accuracy and authority of the film as a representation of extreme experiences of subjectivity.

Eye full of Sound (2008) d. Samantha Moore

Experimental Documentary forms:

There is a strong thematic connection between Eye Full of Sound and Jonathan Hodgson’s incredible experimental documentary Feeling My Way (1997). Hodgson superimposes the conscious activity of his mind’s-eye over point-of-view video footage of his walk to work.

Feeling My Way (1997) d. Jonathan Hodgson

As with an Eye Full of Sound, Feeling My Way is a record of a extreme form of subjectivity. This film demonstrates the value of animation as a tool to express and understand ones own perspective of the world. The audience is struck by both the similarities and differences in the way our brains work compared to Hodgson’s.

The first animated documentary films I made were explicitly about my own traumatic experiences struggling with mental illness. This process was invaluable for me to understand how it felt to be represented and exposed on screen. This week I returned from the Au Contraire Mental Health Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. While there I met Katie Frances Orr, a talented film maker and choreographer, who was screening what she referred to as an ‘experimental documentary’. Her film demonstrates perfectly just how open the borders are in the shifting discourse of documentary.

Coward (2015) Katie Frances Orr

Animation is too time consuming, labor intensive and expensive to justify making a film that could be just as effective using live action. Animation needs to be essential for it to exist. Animated documentary has persisted as a method to fill the gaps in mainstream documentary practice:

  • maintaining a subjects anonymity
  • substituting missing footage
  • creating images which don’t exist outside of the subject’s consciousness

However this is only the starting point. Animation is truly a limitless medium, capable of extraordinary feats of innovation, insightful expression and precise visual communication. A documentary director cannot merely trust that the camera will provide truth, this must be crafted. The authenticity of an animated documentary must come from the integrity and sensitivity of the artist. The increased agency afforded to a documentary animator means they are simultaneously more transparent about how they manipulate an audience and more accountable for their chosen methods of representation. Co-directing animation with reality is a nuanced but rewarding process.

Notes:

This post was developed for a lecture that will be given at the University of Western England in Bristol on the 2nd November 2016.

Links:

Sheila Sofian (2013) The Camera and “Structuring Reality”, Animation Studies 2.0, weblog URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=159

Christoph Steger discussing Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007), Animate Projects, URL website and video link: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/jeff_dino

 

Cinéma-Vérité

A shift in the conventions of documentary making took place in the 1960’s. In terms of technology, the televisual image has become ubiquitous, cameras were now portable and could easily sync picture/sound. With regards to western culture, the golden years of consumerism and mass media following the Second World War, prove to be a fertile bed for huge social shifts which would take hold in the 60’s; the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, the counter culture movement, the cold war and anti-Vietnam war protests, to name a few. This plethora of perspectives demanded a mode of representation which disregarded the singular, authoritative, expository voice. There was a gap in the market for a mode of non-fiction film that wasn’t interchangeable with the advertising or propaganda of the day.

bill_nichols_documentary_modes

It is reductive to think of the modes, which Bill Nichols identified, developing in a completely linear fashion (2001). A period of innovation in the UK took place under the guidance of John Grierson, who coined the term ‘documentary’ in a review of Monna by Robert Flaherty. Grierson, who was put in charge of, the state funded, Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, was awarded remarkable levels of editorial freedom. Flaherty was hired by Greirson in the 1931 to create Industrial Britain, a filmic survey of the industrial power of the United Kingdom. It’s quite amazing to see how abstract and poetic the aesthetic becomes at points.

Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton, 1935) Is a very early example of the observational mode of documentary making. Tenants in the UK housing slums were interviewed in their crumbling dwellings. Unusually for it’s time the director provided the opportunity for the subjects of the film to speak their mind on camera. While these interviews are book-ended by the expository voice of authority, it was non-the-less rare to hear anything other than received English in the media at that time.

The film strikes at the conscience of the British viewing public. An interesting footnote to this innovation is that the film was commissioned by a commercial organisation which built alternative housing and would directly benefit from the slums being demolished. Is the moral mission behind this film compromised when it is understood to also be propaganda, shrewdly designed to shift public opinion and aid political lobbying for commercial gain? In my view, yes. I would argue in order to understand the ethical components in the film one must consider who will benefit and how such intensives influence a director’s editorial freedom. The film is not completely undermined, but this information certainly tarnishes the moral clarity of Arthur Elton’s film.

Lonely Boy (1962), is a National Film Board ‘candid cinema’ documentary about the former teen sensation and Canadian Elvis rival, Paul Anka. The unusual thing about this film is the emotional distance the film makers demonstrate from their subject of study. Rather than Anka, the documentary examines his fanatical fans. I was left with the feeling that the directors, Kroitor and Koenig, demonstrated little empathy for the screaming teenagers, instead they looking on through a cool ethnographic lens.

Lonely Boy (1962), Co-d. Roman Kroitor & Wolf Koenig (Start watching at 00:19:04)

Cinéma vérité… combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality.

It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator’s voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera’s presence: operating within what Bill Nichols… calls the “observational mode”, a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth.

Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker’s intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described.

(Wikipedia article, 2016, multiple authors)

The director of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann (1985), devised a barber scene with Abraham Bomba, the subject. Bomba hadn’t cut hair in years but understood and agreed to the context of the interview because, presumably, he believed in Lanzmann’s mission to document the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Shoah (1985) d. Claude Lanzmann

The crucial and defining moment in this interview takes place from 00:12:40 onward. Lanzmann pushes Bomba to talk about his friends and neighbors whose hair he cut while fully aware of their impending mass execution. We see Bomaba start to choke up but Lanzmann persists. This forcefulness is some how permissible in a scenario where the subject of the film has previously helped construct the scene. Prearrange consent afforded the director enormous freedom to challenge his subject. He does this in a way which would be inappropriate were the artifice less collaborative. The tangible presence of the camera and director transforms the interview into a interrogation.

Louis Theroux’s My Scientology (d. John Dower, 2016) is, at it’s heart, a exercise in Cinéma-Vérité. Because Theroux had such difficulty accessing the active Scientology community he could only rely on the testimony of former members who had renounced the religion as a dangerous cult. Much of the film focused on insights provided by Mark “Marty” Rathbun, who held one of the highest ecclesiastical positions whit in the church and was close to the center of Scientology’s inner circle. With Marty’s help Louis re-stages some of the most incriminating moments of abuse alleged against David Miscavige, the current leader of the Church of Scientology (official title: The Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center and Ecclesiastical Leader of the Scientology Religion).

Theroux was heavily criticized by Mark Kermode (BBC radio 5 live, 2016) for not adding to the preexisting body of knowledge established in Alex Gibney’s film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), which was characterized by Kermode as forensic in it’s approach. While Kermode does address the similarities between My Scientology and The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer), another contemporary Cinéma-Vérité excercise, he gives little credence to the value of the staged performances.

I believe Louis Theroux, being aware of Gibney’s approach, did not attemp create a comprehensive exposé of accusations railed against the church. Instead his well practiced and distinctively unassuming interview style afforded extraordinary access to former members of the church. Marty Rathburn, by participating in the casting actors, leading their training and by directing the final reenactment, revealed far more than would have emerged in a conventional interview. The focus of the film seems to shift in the third towards Marty’s lack of remorse for the abuses that he was directly involved in. We see, during the violent reenactment of Miscavige’s alleged abuse, Marty appearing switched on and excited. The audience is haunted by the idea that  Theroux’s collaborator, behind all his suffering at the hand of the Church, is genuinely a ‘nasty piece of work’. We are left wondering, had he not fallen out of favor with Miscavige, would Rathburn have continued to this day enforcing the harsh laws of the religion while administering corporal punishment and psychological abuse?

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, (2016), BBC Five Live, Published by BBC BBC Five Live on Youtube.com, 7th October 2016, Video URL:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkjNoqrOEbQ

Bill Nichols, (2001), Introduction to Documentary.