Music & Clowns – Outcomes

Music & Clowns (2018) 7.23 minutes

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary which functions as a rich portrait of my family, which includes Jamie, a person with Down syndrome. This film was conceived as a response to a polemic documentary by Sally Phillips the UK’s leading public advocate for the Down syndrome community. A World Without Down Syndrome (2016) addresses the UK’s introduction of Non-invasive Prenatal Testing and the likelihood that it will increase the abortion rate of Downs fetuses. It could be argued the significant drop in birth rates of people with Down syndrome fits Rob Nixon’s characterisation of ‘slow violence’ as gradual and often invisible. The medical establishment argues these tests simply provide pregnant women with more accurate information. However, a diagnosis cannot describe the life of someone with Down syndrome, like my brother Jamie. I am tackling the critical under-representation of the ordinary lives of people with Down syndrome by first directing a film that provides qualitative evidence of my parents experience of raising Jamie and speculating what life is like for him. Phillips was criticised for focusing too much on high functioning people with Downs and building an argument based on their ability to contribute to society. My film illuminates Jamie’s human worth irrespective of his profound limitations.

Ethics were my first concern. Luckily Jamie offered on tape what I inferred as consent. However I cannot assume he understands a film like this might be watched by thousands. Our parents consented to this on his behalf. While my family are all identifiable, the potential for my brother to be subject to unwanted attention is minimal as he has no engagement with social media. Jamie visibly liked elements of the film featuring clowns or music and was able to recognise family members, however the pacing was too fast for him. He is not the intended audience and if he were the film would be very different.

During interviews with my parents it became clear there were discrepancies between our speculations on Jamie’s inner life. I chose to manifest these perspectives symbolically through shifts in aesthetics. A baseline of 2D digital realism functions as the filmmaker’s perspective from which others deviate. These symbolic modes are the result of experimentation with printing, hand-drawn and animation techniques. I also traced Jamie’s drawings to build a scene from his perspective.

This multi perspective approach was extended by secondary interviews, in which I recorded participants responses to the animatic. The result was a critique of the perspectives of other participants as well as my own interpretations. These secondary layers of dialogue were then incorporated into the film, augmenting it with reflexive elements, most notably when my father disputes my mother’s inference that Jamie wishes to be a Clown.

Throughout the film I disrupt the temporal space of reenactments by suddenly appearing, shifting the scene into a lip synced interview. Similarly the contrived assembly of microphones stands draws attention to my role as documentary maker. These elements help distinguish Music & Clowns from the “personal story films” which appropriate subjects perspective in a total simulacra.

My film, Critical Living (2017), drew criticism regarding an imbalance between visual and verbal storytelling. Redressing the show and tell relationship has been a crucial point of development. In the past I avoided illustrating someone’s words through heavy handed application of a metaphor or steering the imagery into abstraction. For this project I have developed a more nuanced approach, sometimes delaying descriptive imagery till after the correlating testimony. It was argued that Critical Living could function without the visuals. However, Music & Clowns features entire scenes without dialogue and consistently emphasises character animation to illuminate family dynamics. I have also addressed other weaknesses including static compositions, avoidance of colour and impenetrably academic documentary subject matter.

The second significant development was the introduction of comedic elements. Shelley Page, Animation Talent Consultant, emphasised the value of humour in the animation industry and the filmmaker, Michael Moore, also argues that comedy is significantly under used in documentary. My family’s sense of humour proved ideal material to test my skills as a comedic film maker.

Music & Clowns was exhibited at the Royal College of Art’s School of Communication Degree Show, 2018. The film was played on a television in an installation built to resemble Jamie’s bedroom. Visitors were invited to sit on his bed to watch the film. When Jamie visited the exhibition he seemed to feel very much at home. As he sat on his spare bed sheets, surrounded by posters of ABBA and his old clown dolls, I think enjoyed the film much more so than the first viewing. I don’t know if he recognised that he was a minor celebrity in that room but he certainly enjoyed the attention.

Animating Documentary Modes: Navigating a theoretical model for animated documentary practice

First Published in the International Journal for Film and Media Arts,  Universidade Lusófona, Lisbon. 

Abstract:

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary that intimately portrays the subjectivity and relationships between my brother, our parents, and myself. This film will function as a case study to facilitate a reflective exploration and practice-informed analysis of some of the theoretical frameworks relevant to animated documentary discourse. Placing emphasis on Bill Nichols’ modes of documentary, I trace the influences, interactions, and specific application that this theoretical topology has had on Music & Clowns. Expanding upon Nichols’ framework by way of visual metaphors, I develop increasingly sophisticated models of the interactions between practice and theory, maintaining Nichols’ topology to integrate live-action and animated documentary traditions.

Key Words:

Bill Nichols, documentary modes, animated documentary, theory, practice

Introduction

Music & Clowns is an animated documentary containing a rich portrait of someone with Down syndrome. This film was conceived as a response to the polemic documentary, A World Without Down Syndrome (Richards, 2016), presented by Sally Phillips, which addresses the introduction of Non-invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) to the United Kingdom (UK), and the likelihood that it will decrease the birth rate of people with Down syndrome. In the UK, prior to the introduction of NIPT testing, 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome were aborted. In Iceland, after NIPT testing was introduced, the abortion rate rose to 100% (“Sally Phillips’s film on…”, 2016, para. 7-8).

It could be argued that the significant drop in the birth rate of people with Down syndrome fits Rob Nixon’s caracterisation of “slow violence”, a process or destruction that is gradual and often invisible (Carruth, 2013, p. 847). Jane Fisher, director of the support organisation, Antenatal Results and Choices, argues that these tests simply provide pregnant women with more accurate information. Phillips was criticised by Fischer for occupying an overtly pro-life position, attempting to directly influence the choices of pregnant women who are likely to give birth to a baby with Down syndrome (McVeigh, 2016, para. 5). It was also problematic that Phillips focused on the stories of people with Down syndrome who are high functioning. Fischer argued that Phillips’ thesis was informed by a relatively privileged experience of raising a high functioning child with Down syndrome. Despite Phillips’ son being representative of just a small fraction of the UK’s population of people with Down syndrome, she built an argument for the potential of the entire community to make societal contributions comparable to those without the diagnosis. In response to the dialogue between Phillips and Fisher I chose to create a film that placed emphasis away from the abortion debate, instead developing a film which tackles the under-representation of the ordinary lives of people with Down syndrome. This film provides qualitative evidence, which will hopefully demonstrate to audiences my brother Jamie’s human worth, irrespective of his profound limitations or capacity for proactive contributions to wider society.

Suzanne Buchan proposed that politically motivated animated documentaries can be characterised as an “encounter”, evoking for the viewer a sense of being “…“present” and/or involved in the subject matter and people depicted” (2014, p. 252). Music & Clowns has the potential to present viewers with an encounter with my family, positioning them in our home, immersed in our interpersonal dynamics. This film contains within it curated opportunities to observe Jamie’s unique personality, quality of life, and the influence his presence has had on my parents and I.

Despite Jamie’s extremely limited verbal communication, Music & Clowns attempts to demonstrate how funny, charming, and perceptive he is. The film is structured around a series of interviews I conducted with mine and Jamie’s mother (Anna) and father (David). Topics discussed, relevant to the political subtext, include how they both felt when first hearing of his diagnosis, as well as the impact of their decision to eventually move Jamie out of the family home into one run by carers. Anna, who was not provided with a prenatal diagnosis, does not express a position on the debate surrounding diagnosis informed abortions. In contrast, David alludes to his pro-life perspective. During the editing process his politicised opinions were selected based on their relevance to his informed perspective and rejected where it was possible to infer overt judgment regarding the choices made by others.

I also conducted interviews with Jamie. It felt necessary to grant him an active role in the documentary and offer him an opportunity to provide consent. The ethics of creating a film about someone who is not legally able to offer informed consent was a significant concern. In response to asking Jamie if he felt comfortable with me making a film about him, he laughed and kissed the microphone (figure 1). While it is tempting to infer consent from this act, I cannot assume he understands the difference between a private screening of the film and its wide distribution, and thus may not be able to forsee the potential impact of the film’s release on his life. In accordance with the Royal College of Art’s ethical procedures, David and Anna provided consent on Jamie’s behalf. In a later interview, without prompt, Jamie kissed the microphone once again. I interpreted this repetition as a signifier of his intuitive comprehension of the comedic value associated with unanticipated subversion. He was either making a joke in the former interview or observed my response, prompting a reenactment.

      Figure 1: Jamie kissing the microphone. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Upon completion, I observed Jamie’s response to the film. He engaged enthusiastically with elements of the work, particularly those featuring clowns or music, and was able to recognise family members. However, his attempts to articulate his recognition or approval were cut short, possibly because the fast editing and dynamic animation may have been difficult for him to process. I do not consider this a flaw in the project as he is not the intended audience. If he were, the final outcome would be significantly different.

Music & Clowns addresses several ethical ambiguities, arguing for the social value of the life of someone who can’t care for themself, referencing Jamie’s limited ability to explain whether or not he is offering consent, deciphering obscured mental processes based on observation, questioning the legitimacy of each family members interpretation of his cognition, and challenging viewers to trust documentary value of a non-indexical method of representation to illustrate informed qualitative observations. In order to encourage critical engagement with the form and subject matter, the film possesses numerous reflexive devices. However, the multiple strategies employed in this film prevent it from being categorized in Bill Nichols’ reflexive mode. My choice to animate the presence of microphones in some scenes replicates and contrives a trope of the participatory mode. Interspersed between conventionally structured participatory scenes, structured around indexical testimony, are sequences that exemplify Bill Nichols’ performative mode, in which the subjectivity of a participant is evoked. In addition to this, the use of observational archive footage and the playful experimentation with form imply additional affiliations with both the observational and poetic mode. This complex medley of modal interactions has prompted my reevaluation of the relationships between animated and live action documentary practice, and the theoretical discourses relating animation to Nichols’ topology of documentary.

Developing visual metaphors to plott Nichols’ theoretical framework of documentary

John Grierson’s pithy definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (1933, p. 8) has endured as the foundation of documentary theory. Annabelle Honess Roe argues this is partly due to a flexibility associated with epistemological “broadness” (2011, p. 216). Bill Nichols’ proposed modes of documentary create six subdivisions akin to sub-genres in his book, Introduction to Documentary (2001, p. 99, 1st ed.). His topology was composed of the “poetic mode”, which places emphasis on aesthetics rather than a subject; the “expository mode”, which presents a linear authoritative perspective; the “observational mode”, documenting a subject naturalistically; the “participatory mode”; focusing on the relationship between the filmmaker and subject; the “reflexive mode”, focusing on the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience; and the “performative mode”, attempting to represent subjective knowledge (2001, p. 125 & 138, 1st ed.). Collectively the modes appear, at first glance, to be a method for dividing the spectrum of documentary productions into distinct camps. This evoked for me an image of six pillars standing tall upon Grierson’s enduring foundation. Nichols’ rough chronology of the advent of each mode (2001, 138) could inform an extension of this metaphor indicating both the order and manner in which Nichols arranged the theoretical columns. The allegorical act of erecting individual columns could represent the linear progression implied by Nichols’ table of documentary modes (2001, 138).

Figure 2: Bill Nichols erecting the modes of documentary practice on top of John Grierson’s foundational definition, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Annabelle Honess Roe reviews early approaches to building a theoretical framework for animated documentary (2011, p. 223). These theoretical strategies anchored the discipline to individual modes of documentary practice proposed by Nichols. Contextualising animated documentary in this way further atomized his framework. The resultant discourse became preoccupied by conflicting opinions regarding which of the modes possessed animated documentary as a constituent. Sybil DelGaudio (1997, p. 192), while referencing an earlier publication by Nichols featuring just five modes (1991, p. 56), argued that animation was inherently reflexive in a documentary context because it functions as “metacommentary” by way of artistically interpreting conventional documentary sources. Gunnar Strøm undermines the idea that animated documentary is a subdivision of the reflexive mode by illuminating the culturally informed audience’s preconceived limitations on the practice. Non-fiction publications demonstrate that the written word, devoid of indexical mechanics, evidences the potential for animation to be capable of representing fiction and reality (2003, p. 52). This argument trivialises DelGaudio’s reflexive characterisation.

Strøm instead points to Nichols’ performative mode due to the emphasis it places on subject specific strategies of representation (2003, p. 53). Eric Patrick supports this categorisation, however, his argument shares similarities with both Strøm and DelGaudio by adding that “…the very nature of animation is to foreground its process and artifice” (as cited in Honess Roe, 2013, 18). Animation is therefore performative, evoking subjective of subject and animator, by way of a reflexive device.

Paul Ward, in contrast, considers the relationship between a documentarian animator and their subject demonstrates a participatory or “interactive” tendency within the discipline. Like Patrick, Ward focuses on the interpretation of testimony as animation, instead emphasizing the potential for dialogue between subject and filmmaker to facilitate representational authenticity through feedback (Ward, 2005 p 94-95).1

Honess Roe was critical of attempts to “shoehorn” animated documentary into Nichols’ modes, which were conceived with live action documentary in mind. Instead she establishes a framework specific to animation based on how the medium functions differently from live action in a documentary context (2011, p. 225). These included: “mimetic substitution”, in which live action documentary footage is imitated due to the absence of a camera or be impossibility of capturing events on film; “non-mimetic substitution”, where footage is replaced with illustrative or figurative imagery unbound by conventional documentary aesthetics; and “evocation”, which describes the use of animation to represent abstract and subjective concepts such as emotions, sensations, and mind-sets. (2011, pp. 225-227).

Nichols is also dismissive of attempts to segregate individual films into any one category, preferring a “mix and match” approach (2001, 34). He avoided categorising animated documentary into any particular mode. While not mentioned in the first edition of an Introduction to Documentary (2001), in the second edition (2010) he grounds various animated documentaries into two separate modes, while highlighting the overarching relevance of a third.

Characterised by the modernist tendency towards artistic interpretation, an emphasis on form and overthrowing conventions, Nichols references Silence (Bringas & Yadin, 1998) and Feeling My Way (Hodgson, 1997) as exemplars of the poetic mode in which the artist’s vision is foregrounded (2010, p.164). Nichols points to the stylized reenactments and metaphorical signifiers in Waltz With Bashir (Folman, 2008), Ryan (Landreth, 2004), and His Mother’s Voice (Tupicoff, 1997), attributing them to the performative mode (2010, 204). Furthermore, Nichols highlights the use of animation in documentaries as inherently reflexive. For at least some audience members animation prompts them to “question the assumption that a documentary must support its proposals or perspective with historically authentic footage” (2010, p. 33).

Despite his efforts to accommodate animated documentary in the second edition, Nichols has overlooked a significant portion of the discipline. The films he cited are certainly exemplars of the animated documentary cannon, however, Honess Roe, proposed a modal distinction between the films Nichols discussed and what she describes in her own topology as examples of mimetic substitution. The Sinking of the Lusitania (McCay, 2018) and the series Walking With Dinosaurs (BBC, 1999) use animation to replace absent or what would be impossible footage (2011, p.226). In the former, the intertitles represent the U.S. government’s propagandist motivations, and in the later a voice-over matches the contentions of natural history documentaries, linking both examples to the expository mode.

With Nichols’ “mix and match” approach in mind, my previously proposed architectural metaphor now appears to be superficial and inadequate. In its place I envisage a more complex gravitational system model, akin to a solar system, which may elucidate the interactions between the genre, modes of practice, and individual films.

Each mode, with its own gravitational field, orbits the documentary genre. In this model an individual film moves through the figurative solar system, initially guided by the directors intentions. The production’s progress is influenced by a number of gravitational fields in varying strengths, shaping the film’s trajectory. Some will arrange themselves like satellites, in tight orbits of a single mode, others will form a complex series of arcs as they travel between modes, through the system.

When extending the metaphor to account for the difference between animated and live action documentaries, one can observe that the two disciplines tend to be drawn to particular modes, and offer distinct qualities. Comparing the medium to a vehicle, allows us to account for animation’s time consuming nature, and thus these productions have a slower means of propulsion. Live action, which often involves larger crews for a shorter period of time, can be represented by larger, faster shuttles. Educational or industry training may be equivalent to a starting position or resting place. I imagine two distinct stations orbiting the documentary sun, one which services animation shuttles, the other larger live action ships.

The movement of the modes, in their orbit of the genre, may roughly characterise the shifts in trends throughout documentary history. Live action expository films, for instance, gradually rose and fell in prominence during the 20th Century. This tendency can be represented by the relative proximity of the two orbiting bodies at any given time. Tracking the 100 years would show the modes gradually rotating clockwise around the genera, before reaching their current position represented in figure 3.

Figure 3: Tracking modal influence and mediums used in Music & Clowns through a gravitational system model of the documentary genre, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Navigating documentary modes through animated documentary practice

Case study 1: Jamie’s aspiration to be a clown vs. his appreciation of clowns. Facilitating and visualising verbal metacommentary to further distinguish contrasting perspectives, manifested in the performative mode.

Music & Clowns is one of six films produced by the inaugural year group of animation masters students graduating, from the documentary pathway, at the Royal College of Art (RCA). Initially conceived by Joan Ashworth and Sylvie Bringas, following Ashworth’s departure as programme leader, Birgitta Hosea oversaw its launch in 2015. This coincided with the first Ecstatic Truth symposium, hosted by the RCA, and organised by Tereza Stehlikova and Hosea.

Figure 3, which tracks detectable influences from Bill Nichols modes of documentary in my graduate film, Music & Clowns, is a testament to how effective the master’s degree has been in familiarising me with documentary discourse. In addition to this training much of the success of this project is attributed to working with my family. It became clear early in development that 30 years of first hand experiences of my subjects facilitated unlimited access and provided an enormous advantage.

The performative qualities of animated documentary, argued by Strøm (2003) and Patrick (2004), and supported by Nichols’s reading of specific examples (2010, 111), are conceptually dominant in Music & Clowns. Nichols characterises performative documentary as, resisting the western philosophical tradition of knowledge as abstract and universal, instead promoting forms of knowledge that are subjective, constructed from lived experience and personal interpretation. Nichols emphasises that the performative mode promotes an interpretation of meaning as a “affect-laden phenomenon” (2001, 131). Jakub Traczyk, Agata Sobkow, and Tomasz Zaleskiewicz, faculty members from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Wroclaw, consolidate various definitions of affect-laden as follows:

People differ in the ease with which they create vivid mental images of various objects and situations. Consequently, affect-laden mental images should evoke emotions that differ in intensity in people who vary in mental imagery ability.

(2015, para. 35)

In the context of performative animated documentary, a directors role is to expand and articulate a subject’s affect-laden reading of a situation. The ambiguous nature of Jamie’s communication strategies provide numerous opportunities for this. The most tangible evidence for what Jamie is thinking at any time is his frequent reference to key interests. These include family members, favoured musicians, clowns, and the circus. More often than not these words or phrases are proclaimed spontaneously. The limitations on his ability to engage in dialogue makes it hard to contextualise his assertions and decipher his thought process. Despite not knowing what goes on in his head, the rest of the family are prone to speculation, often drawing different conclusions. For instance, while Anna thinks Jamie’s fascination with clowns must indicate that he has aspirations to be one, David disputes this, believing Jamie is drawn to clowns because their comedy is communicated almost entirely through body language and therefore more legible to him than other humour. Inspired by Samanta Moore’s “collaborative cycle” methodology (2014, pp. 105-125), I capture my parents differing perspectives by recording David’s feedback as he watched an early version of the film, featuring Anna’s speculations about Jamie’s aspirations. I then incorporated David’s verbal metacommentary into a later version of the film. This created space for David to narrate a shift in style between the two scenes, both of which are simulations of their respective affect-ladened interpretation of Jamie’s aspirations (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Jamie’s interest in clowns representing Anna’s and David’s perspectives. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Case study 2: Interpreting Jamie’s ambiguous behaviour. Demonstrating the complex inter-modal dynamics at play when shifting between the perspective of multiple documentary subjects

Some of the speculations about Jamie by the other subjects in Music & Clowns arguably reveal insight into the mindset and biases of that participant. When David recalls Jamie approaching him during a moment of stress, he compares his son’s touch to the effect of a “lightning conductor” (Widdowson, 2018), draining away the frustration. David is proud of Jamie’s sensitivity and perception. During an interview he proposed this anecdote as supportive evidence, however, I remember thinking that this story didn’t prove Jamie’s intentions. I’ve seen my brother approach my father this way a number of times but this instance stood out in David’s memory, possibly because of his vulnerability at that moment. Rather than demonstrating Jamie’s intention to comfort my father, I inferred from this memory that the anecdote was an indicator of confirmation bias. This term is used in behavioural science to describe people’s tendencies to overvalue information that supports an existing belief, while overlooking evidence that is unsupportive or contradictory (Heshmat, para. 2). During the editing process I reflected on how audiences might interpret the conflicting attitudes in this interview. I could see how David might be seen as a sentimentalist, where as I come across as more of a cynic. Resisting the impulse to introduce to the film as an argument for confirmation bias, I developed representational strategies to signify our conflicting interpretations and visualised the tension between them.

Figure 5: David’s colour Scanned frame from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

The scene was initially rendered in TVPaint2. These digitally drawn frames were then printed and, with the help of four assistants, manually coloured. The shots where David experienced stress were shaded with charcoal, signifying his melancholy (see figure 5). Jamie is coloured using pastels, a signifier for David’s emotional reading of Jamie’s healing potential. Triggered at the point of contact, a wave of pigment radiates across the frame, vanquishing gloom from the scene. The temporal space of this reenacted memory is fractured when I enter the frame to question my father about his proposition. This break with documentary convention hybridised the performative reenactment with a participatory interview, invoking reflexivity. I signify my detached, analytical perspective by transitioning the imagery from printed, hand-coloured frames to stark, flat, digital colours rendered in TVPaint (see figure 6).

Figure 6: The perspective of David, hand coloured in charcoal and pastels, and Alex Widdowson, manifest as digital colour. Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018 Screenshots from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018

Unlike the rest of the film, line-boil is absent from the digital character animation in this scene. This specialised term is used, in my experience as a practitioner, to refer to an animated line, the product of traced and sequential substitution, often looped, composed of a minimum of two drawings. The stillness of the fully digital sequence can be read as a further manifestation of the cynical nature of my critique. In contrast, the scanning process of the printed scenes was conducted with such haste that many frames are misaligned. When played in sequence, a tonal comparison with early black and white footage is noticeable. Where charcoal shading is dominant, the frame movement both invigorates the sequence and adds a turbulent quality. This was complimented in post-production with non-diegetic sound design featuring a recording of heavy rain. As pastels fill the frame the rain subsides, making way for bird song. The calming effect was further enhanced by my efforts to stabilise the josseling image sequence, correlation with the moment of transition. The cumulative result of these methods should invoke in the audience recognition of: firstly, an emotional shift in David, triggered by Jamie’s approach; followed by a change in tone, instigated by my intruding scepticism. The modal transition towards participation, and it’s reflexive connotation, rather than nullifying the performative qualities of the scene, illuminate the dynamics between active participants and their subjectivity. Jamie’s passivity, and lack of representation in the performative construct is informed by his absence during the source interview.

Case study 3: Approaching Jamie’s subjectivity. Demonstrating the complex ethical and inter-modal dynamics at play when representing the explicit perspective of an individual documentary subject.

Paul Wells, in an early attempt to innovate a topology specific to animated documentary in 1997, proposed four categories: the imitative, subjective, fantastic, and postmodern modes (Wells, 1997). Wells’ subjective mode recognised the attempt of documentary makers to use animation to represent the individual worldview of their subjects. This sub-category shares a close affinity with Nichols’ performative mode.

In two scenes I attempt to embody Jamie’s perspective. The first instance features abstract animation to emphasise the difficulty experienced, by both David and Anna, when imagining the manner in which Jamie thinks. This scene is unique in the film as the only sequence I chose not to animate myself. Emily Downe, a first year documentary animation student at the RCA, with an aptitude for abstractaction, had never met my brother. Her unfamiliarity with him liberated the scene from the potential signifiers which may have emerged if I were to have animated it. I anticipated that a lifetime of observing Jamie’s behaviour and appearance may have contaminated my attempts at abstraction (see figure 7).

Figure 7: An abstract representation of the impenetrability of Jamie’s consciousness. Screenshot from Music & Clowns, Alex Widdowson, 2018 (animated by Emily Downe).

The second attempt at representing Jamie’s subjectivity took Inspiration from A is for Autism, directed by Tim Webb (Arnall & Webb, 1992). In what Ward described as a “collaborative working method”, Webb encouraged the subjects of his film, who are on the autistic spectrum, to draw and discuss, on tape, their passions and concerns (p.94). In 2005, I was able to encourage Jamie to draw my portrait for an A-Level project about our relationship (see figure 8). Thirteen years later, he showed no interest in participating as an artist in Music & Clowns. I navigated around this by tracing, on my graphics tablet, drawings he created when he was younger. The resultant images, which were the basis for character designs of the entire family in this scene, do not constitute “Outsider Art”3. Roger Cardinal, coined the label Outsider Art to formulate an English language equivalent of Jean Dubuffet’s term, “Art Brut”. Their overlapping definitions encompass artwork created without traceable influence from contemporary art practice or history (Cardinal, 1972, p.21). The movement is associated with works produced by individuals who are either institutionally or mentally isolated from the art world. If Jamie’s drawings are identifiable as Outsider Art, my taking influence from his representational style could be interpreted as an inversion of the outsider convention due to my formal training, as well as my purposeful response to a recognised art movement. When considering my translations of his work, the indexical chain between Jamie’s drawings and the scene I’ve animated is significantly weak. With regards to the documentary process, the scene is better described as an imitation rather than a collaboration.

Figure 8: A portrait of Alex by Jamie. Jamie Widdowson, 2005, with permission from the artist’s parents.

My inability to solicit drawn contributions from Jamie prompted me to appropriate artwork he created in an educational context, approximately twenty five years ago. This process was further problematised by his inability to provide consent, in an informed manner, for me to use his artwork. Our shared parents, once again, took this decision on his behalf. While maintaining a strong degree of resemblance, the images I traced were significantly altered by adapting them into new mediums, and coloured, before being animated. The aforementioned conclusion, that my method was antithetical to Outsider Art, would not apply to A is for Autism, as the film is mitigated by the director’s significantly collaborative approach.

Mosaic Films, under the direction of Andy Glynn, have produced a number of animated documentaries which adopt performative devices comparable to the Music & Clowns, scene discussed in the previous two paragraphs. The Seeking Refuge series (2012), features first hand testimony from children who were forced to flee their homeland and chose to resettle in the United Kingdom. A comparison between two of the Seeking Refuge episodes reveals potential problems that arise from an imitative, as opposed to collaborative, performative animated documentary. There is a noticeable difference in the degree with which Glynn has executed artistic collaborations with the young refugees featured in each episode. This is demonstrated by Juliane’s Story (2012), animation direction by Karl Hammond at MUMMU Studio, and Ali’s Story (2012), animation direction by Salvador Maldonado, produced in house at Mosaic Films.

Ali’s Story is rendered without adherence to conventional perspective. The animation technique, commonly known as cut-out or 2 ½ D, makes use of flat puppets, consisting of individual bitmap images rigged together to make a character form. These are composited in a three dimensional digital space featuring parallaxing sets and backgrounds. Ali’s Story includes a mixture of digital imagery and scanned hand rendered artwork, much of which was created by the subject. His testimony emphasises a passion for drawing. A viewer has enough information to identify the influence Ali’s artwork had on the films art direction.

Juliane’s Story includes some animated references to what might be her own drawings. However, unlike Ali, she does not corroborate that these are her creations. The indexical link between Ali’s scanned drawings and those of Julianne’s are broken in this episode by the animators use of vector based tracing. The mechanical indifference of scanned original artwork, akin to the mechanisms of live action documentary, is entirely lost.

While this methodology is comparable to one used in Music & Clowns, audiences are left to infer a collaboration between Glynn, Hammond, and Juliane. Where as, this is explicitly evident in Ali’s Story. The increased creative dominance of the animators in Juliane’s Story makes the episode a relatively strong example of Nea Ehrlich’s characterisation of animation as “suspect and un-objective as a documentary language” (2011, para. 3).

Glynn described his interview methods during a panel discussion I attended at the animated documentary festival, Factual Animation Film Fuss (FAFF), in September 2015. Glynn, a trained clinical psychologist, recorded conversations with the pree-teen subjects of this series. From this he would extract the narration for the series by editing out his voice. Nichols referred to this process as the “masked interview”, utilised by observational documentaries in order to maintain the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic (2001, 113).

In contrast to the performative and participatory tone of the relevant scene in Music & Clowns, the Seeking Refuge series, directed by Glynn and supported by multiple animation directors, navigates a different path between modal influences, aligning very closely with performative conventions. This dominant mode contains within it a complex amalgam of other modes: a poetic animation, informed by an observational version of obscured participatory interviews.

Nichols describes a shift in prominence from the observational to participatory documentary modes. He partly attributes this trend to the limited scope of observational methodologies for exposing a director’s existing bias, as well as the disparity between a literal documentary crew and the figurative fly-on-the-wall (2001, 114). The strategies developed in the participatory mode were successful in mitigating these issues, providing further opportunities for filmmakers to reveal their existing prejudices by way of perceivable profilmic or audible interactions with subjects. Participatory documentaries also reveals some of the influence filmmakers have on events as they unfold (Nichols, 2001, 119). The weaknesses Nichols attributed to observational films, which prompted participatory innovations, helps further illuminate problems relating to ethics of authenticity when comparing Music & Clowns with Seeking Refuge.

Doctoring the interviews in the Seeking Refuge series obscures Glynn’s presence in order to remove potential distractions from the subjects’ testimony. However, whittling down the dialogue to produce a monologue nullifies the transparency and ethical benefits of the participatory act. The masked interview facilitates the construction of the performative strategy “We speak about ourselves to you”. This notion is essential to the performative mode and influenced by auto-ethnography (Nichols, 2001, 133-4). However, as mentioned previously the degree of influence the Seeking Refuge subjects had on the art direction of this series varied greatly.

Despite the visual auto-ethnographic and observational intentions of the seeking refuge series being either inconsistent or lost, animated documentary audiences are in an advantageous position, relative to viewers of a live action documentary. The indexicality of footage also helps to mask a filmmaker’s bias. Animation on the other hand provides continuous stream of fully constructed semiotic information, providing vast data set for a critical analysis of what prejudices may have informed the iconographic coding of each animated documentary. Ehrlich’s scepticism with regards to the limited documentary value of animation based on it’s “constructedness” (2011, parap. 3), is in these circumstances an advantage for a critical viewer.

There is also value to be found in reflecting on why these modal strategies were selected by the directors. In Music & Clowns I appropriated Jamie’s adolescent drawings out of necessity. He was out of practice and would not engage with a collaborative exercise. Where as, Ali’s accomplished drawings were, judging from his testimony, presented to the filmmakers with enthusiasm. Julianne on the other hand evidences no enthusiasm for drawing, possibly due to her level of ability and the self consciousness one could infer from this. Glynn may have masked his presence in the Seeking Refuge interviews because he probably considered his relationship with the participating children as irrelevant. In contrast, I chose to maintain a role in the scene with Jamie because our relationship is as much of a central theme as his ability to respond to questions and the performative interpretation of his subjectivity.

Other modal explorations in Music & Clowns

Music & Clowns features one observational scene composed of archive footage taken from a 1985 BBC Two documentary about my parents experience raising a child with Down syndrome (Chapple). This segment originally began with exposition from the programme narrator. The testimony then shifted to off camera masked interviews with my parents, participatory at the point of recording but observational in the context of the BBC Two documentary. The camera crew hid from sight, an explicitly observational filming technique, providing scope to record the dynamics between David and Anna, both in their thirties; Guy, my other brother, age two; and Jamie, age five. Within the context of Music & Clowns, careful editing of this footage allowed me to partially synchronise contemporary testimony from Anna and David with footage of them from over thirty years ago. The observational footage of my brother, visibly joyful and energetic, combined with the materiality of the damaged VHS recording may evoke a sensation of nostalgia. This is juxtaposed with contemporary participatory interviews I conducted with mine and Jamie’s parents. David describes Jamie’s decline after being moved out of the family home into one where he is assisted by carers. My brother, who was in his late 20s when this decision was made on his behalf, has since entered a gradual intellectual decline, probably caused in part by the relatively unstimulating and overly accommodating environment he lives in. Anna, responding to my questions about this decision describes her “no regrets” attitude, managing the associated guilt by explaining “you can only do what you think is best at the time” (Widdowson, 2018).

The affecting disorientation of combining conflictual visual and verbal narrative threads, complimented by a temporal displacement, places the scene closer to the performative mode. It may produce in a viewer a divided emotional state, something akin to cognitive dissonance, a term used in psychology to describe the discomfort of simultaneously experiencing conflicting thought processes (“Reference Terms Cognitive Dissonance”).

This pluralised subjectivity approach was inspired by Through the Hawthorn (2014). An animated documentary, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, to communicate problems related to the disparate interpretations of risk and attitude that can develop during psychiatric treatment. Three directors: Anna Benner, Pia Borg, and Gemma Burditt, were each granted equal space within the frame, adopting contrasting methods to simultaneously represent the perspective of each of the three protagonists: a psychiatrist, a psychiatric patient, and the patient’s mother. Not strictly a documentary, the script was written by D. R. Hood and inspired by the 2011 non-fiction book, Henry’s Demons; co-authored by Henry and Patrick Cockburn; and informed by observations of family therapy sessions in a Hospital in South London (Borg). Despite the several degrees of separation between the animated film and the real world experiences that inspired it, Through the Hawthorn clearly demonstrates performative methodologies, which are situated within the experimental and formal concerns of the poetic mode.

The poetic mode sacrifices the conventions of continuity editing and the sense of a very specific location in time and place that follows from it to explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions.

(Nichols, 2001, 102)

It could be argued that the prominence of formal devices, which help divide and structure my film, Music & Clowns, justify a poetic undertone. However, a performative and participatory reading of the film are more dominant. These devices could also be interpreted as having a reflexive connotation.

Unlike David, Anna and Jamie, I attempt to manifest my own subjectivity consistently throughout the film. Adopting the role of an inquisitive documentary filmmaker, the mimetic, untextured digital animation technique was intended to function as a baseline from which the aesthetics deviated throughout the film. Taking inspiration from Slaves: an Animated Documentary (Aronowitsch & Heilborn, 2003), and Ryan (Holborn, Smith, Page & Landreth, 2004), I signified both the participatory context of the audio recordings and emphasised my role as a documentarian by contriving the appearance of microphones in frame.

There is a conceptual difference between a utilitarian use of microphones and their symbolic inclusion an animated interview. Nick Broomfield’s confrontations with an unwilling documentary subject in Kurt & Courtney (1998), may not have become a film at all were he to ask for permission off camera. Thus, his wielding of a microphone is a necessity (Nicholson, 2001, 119). While microphones were present in my family home, similarly arranged to how they appear in Music & Clowns, this is not an example of Honess Roe’s mimetic-substitution category. I could have easily captured these scenes on camera as profilmic participatory interviews. This fact is evidenced to the audience when footage of me painting Jamie’s face appears alongside the end credits. By contriving participatory acts in animation I was able to both emphasise to audiences the dynamics between subject and filmmaker, while also promoting a reflexive metadiscourse, due to the purposefulness of this act. The reflexive potential of a contrived microphone adjustment is exemplified in the scene where Anna recalls her emotional state following Jamie’s birth and the subsequent diagnosis of Down syndrome. The animation features her in a hospital bed 40 years earlier holding Jamie in her arms. At the start of the scene, I adjust the microphone while I sit beside her, ten years before I was born. It is reasonable to predict some viewers may be momentarily distracted by this folding in of temporal space. Making use of Nichols’ comparison between the participatory and observational modes (2001,p. 125), the onscreen presence of an animated documentarian, microphone in hand, prompts the viewer to raise their awareness of the form, shifting focus momentarily from the relationship between me, the filmmaker and my subject, Anna, to the me, the filmmaker and them, my audience. I use this trope a number of times in the film, often with comedic effect.

While I would argue the act of navigating between multiple documentary modes is inherently reflexive, Music & Clowns, completes a full orbit of the performative mode in figure 3, indicating its dominance. However, Nichols warns of the strategic limitations of the mode to address objective truths, in addition to their “excessive” preoccupation with style (2001, 138). Ward also argues this point, highlighting the pertinence of these issues with regards to performative animated documentaries (2005, 86). This mirrors Ehrlich’s aforementioned concerns about the “constructedness” and “un-objective” constraints of animation in a documentary context (2011, parap. 3).

Rather than diminishing the authority of animation as a documentary medium, Okwui Enwezor, when addressing recent documentary innovations, argues such works “…raise new relations of ethics and aesthetics because instead of presenting the viewer with non-negotiable facts, they create a ‘truth process’” (Ehrlich, 2013, p. 252). This mirrors Werner Herzog’s attack on the preoccupation within the documentary tradition for seeking objective truths. Herzog mocks this concept comparing it to the “truth of accountants”. In its place he coined the term “ecstatic truth”, describing it as “…mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Walker Art Centre).

In attempting to strike a balance between the fluid concepts of documentary truth proposed by Herzog and Enwezor, and cautionary words regarding the performative mode and animated documentary put forward by Nichols, Ward, and Ehrlich, I devised a strategy for mitigating the risk of anecdotal subjectivity. Rather than developing a single performative strategy, as I did in my auto-ethnographic film Patients (2012), I developed distinct representational styles to separate the subjectivity of the four documentary participants in Music & Clowns. In addition to this, Anna, David, and Jamie presented or prompted distinct topics that required individual aesthetic treatment, further pluralising my representational pallet. The accumulative effect of this montage of techniques was intended to figuratively increase the sample size of my aesthetic readings of the participant’s subjectivities. Within the social sciences such an approach would in most circumstances be expected to improve the reliability of data collected. However, this research contains within it only a degree of correlation between the figurative data points. In addition to the general glowing assessment of Jamie’s character, there are many conflictual accounts and unsubstantiated assumptions about what life must be like for him from myself, David and Anna. Rather than undermining the usefulness of my results, it helped me create a rich portrait of Jamie’s life, contextualised by our family dynamics, the results illuminate the limits of our knowledge. The product of my research, Music & Clowns, suggests we can never truly know Jamie because of his limited expressive capabilities, and to a lesser degree each other, due to the limits of our own subjectivity. A key aim of this film was to evoke “truth”, in Herzog’s sense of the word, by way of a reflexive transparency regarding the capability of animation to supersede the “truth of accountants”, which still holds the attention of many live action documentarians.

Conclusion

My eight years of practice informed animated documentary research has been punctuated by exposure to two key text, An Introduction to Documentary (Nichols, 2001 & 2010) and Annabelle Honess Roe’s book, Animated Documentary (2013). Honess Roe establishes a bespoke theoretical framework for animated documentary, breaking from previous attempts to adapt Nichols mode system. Honess Roe went back to the drawing board and developed her own taxonomy, based on how animated documentaries function differently from live action: mimetic substitution, non-mimetic substitution, and evocation. Defined as categories rather than modes, they illuminate three distinct strategies employed by animated documentaries and, for the most part, they are inapplicable to live action documentary. Honess Roe’s framework was both insightful and inspiring, as well as a helpful framework to improve the efficiency with which I repeatedly explained what my discipline was.

However, when directly comparing the practical application of theoretical topologies contained within these two publications, the emphasis Honess Roe places on the difference between live action and animation potentially marginalises the practice of animated documentary. In a teaching context, if fledgling animator documentarians are encouraged primarily to pursue the topics that live action documentary is not capable of addressing, this might point them down a narrowing path.

Nichols, contrasts this approach in the second edition of his book, Introduction to Documentary (2010), by introducing animated documentaries into an existing theoretical framework. Despite only referencing examples of practice that exemplify particular modes, the flexibility of his modal system, characterised by the “mix and match” approach, prompts the reader to compare and contrast animated and live action documentaries that intersect two or more modes. The boundaryless approach to documentary discourse that Nichols promotes stimulates a dialogue with dominant live action forms, while illuminating numerous potential paths for creative exploration.

The detailed analysis, diagrams, metaphors and examples collected in this article should demonstrate both the aptitude of animation for navigation of Bill Nichols’s modes and the enduring and invaluable contribution he has made to animated documentary discourse. The complex, shifting and interactive relationships contained within Nichols’ documentary topology, should not be considered evidence for his weakness as a taxonomist, but rather, a testament to his strength as a theoretician, having developed a powerful set of tools to inform and reflect on animated documentary.

When attempting to articulate the influence Nichols’ modal system has had on the development and production of Music & Clowns, I found it necessary to invoke visual metaphors to clarify my insights. This process culminated in the development of a gravitational system model of Nichols documentary modes. It is a testament to the enduring brilliance of Nichols’ theoretical framework, that I was able to expand my initial solar system metaphor to not just indicate the relative position the modes in relation to each other and the genre, but also account for tenancies and trends associated with the two dominant mediums, live action and animation. The analytical potential of this figurative approach was then demonstrated by the ease with which I was able to plot the allegorical journey of my own production through the medley of influences specific to the documentary genre. While conscious of the risk of over extending the space exploration metaphor, I would like to propose one final annex to the figuration, borrowed from Adam Curtis’ 2015 essay documentary, Bitter Lake4 (Kelsall).

Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science fiction novel, Solaris, centres on an exploratory mission by cosmonauts to observe a strange planet. While orbiting Solaris, the crew experience vivid hallucinations, which are at times indistinguishable from reality. These mirages, seemingly evoked by the planet; and the subsequent delusions, are informed by past experiences and memories of loved ones. The application of Lem’s science-fiction to the metaphor of the gravitational system model of the Nichols topology for documentary, expands, all be it fantastically, the intangible mechanism by which each mode inspires and facilitates creativity at the point when filmmaker enters the range of a particular mode’s gravitational pull. My choice to conclude my practice informed theoretical analysis of the animated documentary, Music & Clowns, by leaving the realms of Newtonian physics, and entering the territory of science fiction, may indicate the limits of my own comprehension with regards to the precise mechanics of inspiration.

 

Bibliography

Arnell, D. (producer) & Webb, T. (Director), (1992) A is for Autism [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Fine Take.

Aronowitsch, D. (co-producer/director) & Heilborn,. H (co-producer/director), (2003). Slaves: an Animated Documentary [Motion Picture] Sweden: Story AB.

Benner, A. (co-director), Borg, A. (co-director), Burditt, G. (co-director) (2014) Through the Hawthorn [Motion Picture]. London: Wellcome Trust.

Borg, P. (2014) THROUGH THE HAWTHORN [website]. Retrieved from http://piaborg.com

Bringas, S. (co-producer/co-director) & Yadin, O., (co-producer/co-director), (1998) Silence [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Halo Productions.

Broomfield, N. (producer/director), (1998). Kurt & Courtney [Motion Picture]. Capitol Films

Callam, C. (producer); Richards, C. (director) (2016) World Without Down Syndrome [one off television special]. Dragonfly Film and Television.

Child Care and Parenthood 4 [Television segment]. (1985, may 20). In Chapple, J. (series producer), Daytime on Two. London: BBC 2.

Cardinal, R., (1972). Outsider Art. London: Studio Vista

Carruth, A. (2013). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon. [review], MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 59(4), 847-849. doi: 10.1353/mfs.2013.0055

Ehrlich, N. (2013) Animated Documentaries: aesthetics, politics and viewer engagement. In S. Buchan (Ed.), Pervasive Animation (pp. 248-272) London & New York: Routledge.

Ehrlich, N. (2011, December 22). Animated Documentary as Masking [peer-reviewed open access online journal], Animation Studies Online Journal, Regrieved from https://journal.animationstudies.org/nea-ehrlich-animated-documentaries-as-masking/

Glynn, A. (Producer/director), (2012, June). Ali’s Story [Television series episode]. In Seeking Refuge. London: BBC 2.

Glynn, A. (Producer/director), (2012, June). Julianne’s Story [Television series episode]. In Seeking Refuge. London: BBC 2.

Fouman, A. (producer/director), (2008). Waltz with Bashir. Israil:Bridgit Folman Film Gang; France: Les Films d’Ici; Germany: Razor Film Produktion.

Heshmat. S., (2015, April 23) What Is Confirmation Bias? Wishful thinking. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias

Hoban, S. (co-producer); Mark Smith (co-producer); Marcy Page (co-producer) & C. Landreth, (director), (2004). Ryan [Motion Picture]. Canada: National Film Board.

Hodgson. J. (producer/director), (1997) Feeling My Way [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Hodgson Films.

Honess Roe, A. (2011). Absence, Excess and Epistemologica Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary. Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 215-230, doi:10.1177/1746847711417854

Honess Roe, A. (2013). Animated Documentary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kelsall, L. (producer) & Curtis, A. (director), Bitter Lake [Motion Picture], United Kingdom: BBC productions.

MacCay, W. (producer/director), (1918) Sinking of the Lusitania [Motion Picture]. United States: Jewel Productions.

Moore, S., (2014) Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states [Doctoral thesis]. Retrieved at Loughborough University institutional repository (https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/2134/18020)

Nichols, B. (1991). Representing Reality, Bloomington: Indiana University Press,

Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary (1st ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, B. (2010). Introduction to Documentary (2nd ed.), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nixon, R. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Reference Terms Cognitive Dissonance, (no date). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com

Sally Phillips’s film on Down’s is ‘unhelpful’ for families, warns antenatal specialist. (2016 October 2) The Guardian Online. Retrieved from

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/01/downs-syndrome-screening-jane–fisher-expert-criticises-sally-phillips-bbc-documentary

Strøm, G. (2003). The Animated Documentary. Animation Journal, 11. pp. 47-63

Tim Haines (co-director) & Jasper James (co-director), (1999). Walking with Dinosaurs [television series] (1999 October 4). Bristol: BBC Natural History Unit.

Tupicoff, D. (producer/director) (1997) Mother’s Voice [Motion Picture]. Australia: Australian Film Commission.

Traczyk, J., Sobkow, A., & Zaleskiewicz, T. (2015). Affect-Laden Imagery and Risk Taking: The Mediating Role of Stress and Risk Perception. PLoS ONE, 10(3), e0122226. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0122226

Walker Art Centre, (2017 October 12), Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration . Minneapolis:Walker Art Center. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com

Ward, P. (2005). Documentary: The margins of reality. London: Wallflower.

Wason, P. (1960). On The Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12(3), 129-140. doi:10.1080/17470216008416717.

Widdowson, A. (2011) Art: Redundant Term or Useful Category? BA dissertation, Loughborough University.

Widdowson, A. (producer/director), (2018). Music & Clowns [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Royal College of Art.

Widdowson, A. (producer/director), (2012). Patients [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Loughborough University.

 

Notes

1 Nichols’ participatory mode was originally coined as “interactive” in Representing Reality (1991, p. 44).

2 2D bitmap animation software

3  I examined the potential redundancy of Outsider Art in terms of ontology, due to increasing reach of media and popular culture influences, as well as ethical implications of a movement which incentivises the exclusion of artist for fear of creative contamination 

4 In his 2015 essay film, Bitter Lake, Adam Curtis’ proposed the planet Solaris as a metaphor for Afghanistan, illuminating the ideological fractures experienced by invading forces throughout modern history.

‘Music and Clowns’, the launch of my graduate film from the Documentary Animation MA at the Royal College of Art

Music & Clowns (2018)

My brother, Jamie, has a profound learning disability. Despite being close to nonverbal he demonstrates charisma, a sharp sense of humour and incredible emotional sensitivity. I team up with my parents to discuss what it’s like caring for someone with Down syndrome. We piece together fragments of insight to gain a sense of his inner life but our differing perspectives reveal as much about our own subjectivity as they do Jamie’s.

The UK has a critical under representation of the ordinary and diverse lives of people with Down syndrome. As prenatal screening tests improve I feel an urgency to create rich and thoughtful portraits of the Down syndrome community, so people have more than a diagnosis to inform their decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.

If you wish to watch the film please feel free to email me to request a password protected vimeo link -alexander.widdowosn[at]network.rca.ac.uk

Music & Clowns trailer:

‘Escapology: the art of addiction’ directed by Alex Widdowson

Originally published on AnimatedDocumentary.com

ANIMATEDDOCUMENTARY.COM

Escapology: The art of addiction is a short animated documentary about addictive behaviour,  which attempts to be non-judgmental while avoiding gritty drug clichés. This film was recently released on Vice Media’s online platforms and received over half a million views in the first week. As a long term contributor to AnimatedDocumentary.com I thought this was a good opportunity to write about my own work, dissecting a project from the director’s perspective.

Having attended two Alcoholics Anonymous open meetings in 2013 when supporting a friend who was struggling, I was struck by how practical the advice was. Their stories and rhetoric helped me understand my own cannabis abuse as a teenager, but also put into perspective my less pronounced addictive behaviours. Part of the focus of those meetings involved encouraging new attendees to acknowledge that their relationship with alcohol was problematic.I connected with notion of ambiguity when defining addiction; if one…

View original post 705 more words

Manifestos in Action: Progression, Deviation and Lived Experience

Introduction:

This article has been developed to support a lecture/workshop hosted on 24th October 2017 at Concordia University, Department of Art History, for the class, Art and Its Changing Contexts: The Manifesto.

Despite the title only some of the examples mentioned in this essay are defined as manifestos. In order to make my argument I wish to also address methodologies and policies. Like a manifesto, they involve rules which are created with the intent of influencing behaviour in the future.

This article is split into three distinct sections. Firstly, the Hegelian Dialect will be unpacked to reveal how movements are connected despite their differences. Secondly, the disparity between the intent of an author and the real world application of a manifesto will be explored. As the poet Robert Burns wrote, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry.” Finally, attention shifts towards autoethnography, a useful method for documenting the application of a manifesto. I will mostly be using documentary examples to illustrate my points but this article also touches on politics, economics, fine art and fiction cinema.

PART 1 –  The Hegelian Dialectic

A dialectic describes a discourse between two or more people who hold different points of view about a subject while wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments. The Hegelian Dialect, although associated with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was first attributed to Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus.

How it works: The dialectic is composed of stages of development. A thesis is proposed, a conceptual starting position. This gives rise to a reaction which forms into an antithesis. This position will either contradict or negate the thesis. If the tension between the thesis and antithesis resolved to produce a new position this would be a synthesis.

Using Chinese political history to demonstrate the Hegelian Dialectic:

Capitalism emerged in China in a way that was interlinked with the legacy of feudalism. There was a strong class structure which built on both heritage and personal wealth (thesis).  Marxist ideology spread to China leading to the formation of the Communist Party in 1921. They promoted the ideal of a classless society and criticized capitalism as a corrupting force (antithesis). In 1949 Mao Zedong led a successful revolution, establishing China as a communist state taking charge of all property and businesses. However, in the late 20th Century the impracticality of strict communist rule led to some Chinese citizens creating black markets. This led to small pockets of prosperity. In 2003 the leaders of the Communist Party of China amended their constitution to permit a degree of private enterprise. The result was a hybrid form of communist style capitalism (Synthesis).

Tracking the Hegelian Dialect in the methodologies and manifestos of documentary practice

It could be argued that documentary filmmaking developed as an antithesis to fiction film. While Hollywood produced forms of escapism, documentaries addressed “reality”.

John Grierson coined the term documentary, defining it as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’. This definition helps us understand the agency of a director when crafting a documentary. Mark Cousins placed emphasis on the balance between creativity and actuality when he characterized documentary filmmakers as having to ‘co-direct with reality’.

The Dogme 95 manifesto is an example of how the tension between hollywood fiction (thesis) and the realism of documentary (antithesis) was resolved to form a synthesis. In 1995 Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote and co-signed ‘vows of chastity’. Their goal was to purify fiction filmmaking by placing specific and strict limits on directors. Such chastity prompted circumstances that mirrored some of the limitations of documentary production and promoted a form of realism in fiction film. The Dogma group specifically rejected expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technological gimmickry. Instead they wanted emphasis to be placed on story and the performance of actors.

The Dogma 95 Vows of Chastity

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Only movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut, or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur).
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

Within documentary practice the pendulum swing from thesis to antithesis is visible. Bill Nichols, the eminent documentary theorist, identified distinct modes of documentary practice, each of which developed as a result of a particular time and context but also in response to previous modes. The majority of these modes developed without the explicit creation of manifestos, however each adear to distinct principles, rules or boundaries.

The table below is an overview of the modes of documentary practice according to Nichols:

The expository mode of documentary making (thesis) was developed in the 20s and remains to this day one of the more dominant modes. Optimised by what Nichols refers to as the ‘voice-of-God’ exposition, these films are structured around an informative and authoritative narrator who delivers a carefully written script over footage.

In the West a climate of liberation was fostered in the 1960s. In the context of social, political and sexual counterculture movements, figures of authority were being questioned. The two documentary modes which emerged in this decade, observational and participatory, represented a loss of faith in the authority of the narrator. In its place an emphasis fell on capturing footage that could speak for itself (antitheses). Another reason this shift happened at this time is because technology permitted it. All of a sudden cameras were portable, more affordable and were quiet enough to record synchronized sound.  

The observational mode, also known as fly-on-the-wall documentary, took influence from ethnography.  This is a qualitative research method used by anthropologists usually involving a process of embedding with a community for extended periods of time. Researchers aim to gain the trust of the community in order to get access and insight into how the community operates. An ethnographer may conduct their research in secret but generally this is not possible when creating a documentary. Ethnographic subjects range from small tribe communities, to psychiatric institutions and criminal gangs. The aspiration of observational documentarians is for the filmmaker to blend into the background and quietly film as the events unfold around them.

Asylum, directed by Peter Robinson (1972) was filmed over a period of 7 weeks while he was living at one of the controversial P.A. community houses in London. Psychiatrists, disillusioned with the medical establishment, lived with liberated patients, many of whom were schizophrenic. Each housemate had a say in the running of the community while sharing responsibility for their own wellbeing and that of their housemates.

In this clip we see a father of one resident visiting the house and struggling to let go of his preconception about what a young man’s priorities should be.

The Participatory Mode, also known as Cinéma Vérité (truth cinema), was characterised by the visible participation of the filmmakers in devised interview scenarios. Like the observational mode, narration was rejected. However, this mode occupied an antithetical position against observational documentary by negating the fly-on-the-wall metaphor. Several crew members and a camera can be quite disruptive and are more likely to capture spectacle rather than natural behaviour. Cinéma Vérité prompts filmmakers to be reflexive and expose the artificiality of a filmed scenario. Interviews were devised carefully before filming, often being planned in partnership with the subject of the interview. Cinéma Vérité nullifies the pretense of observed reality in film, instead capturing  authentic testimony.

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) is an epic Cinéma Vérité documentary series in which survivors of the Holocaust are interviewed. Despite the fact Abraham Bomba had not worked as a barber for years he agreed to cut hair while describing his experience of shaving the heads of holocaust victims before they were gassed. This scenario powerfully links the subject and the audience to the topic being discussed. Bomba’s complicity in planning the interview permitted Lanzmann to press Bomba with difficult questions.

15 years after Shoah, Werner Herzog wrote his own antithetical manifesto, The Minnesota Declaration (1999) which explicitly debunked Cinéma Vérité.

This lyrical 12 point manifesto is at times hard to digest but I believe it’s essence emerges in points 1 and 5.

“1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.”

Here Herzog is arguing that the sort of testimony produce in a Cinéma Vérité style interview is akin to that of a courtroom. No matter how accurate the description, the nature of these interviews are unlikely to evoke in the viewer the sensation of the crime that instigated such a trial.

“5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

Herzog’s concept of ecstatic truth mirrors the notion that poets provided some of the most authentic documentation of the horrors of the First World War.

The synthesis of this particular Hegelian Dialectic is the emerging practice of animated documentary, my own discipline. For the past two years the Royal College of Art has hosted a symposium on animated documentary entitled Ecstatic Truth. Herzog’s liberal definition of how actuality can be imbued in documentary has helped animators to cover topics which live action footage could not reach, either literally or in terms of evocation.  

PART 2 – The Rule of Unintended Consequences

Returning to the example of communism, I would like to highlight how impossible it would have been for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to predict how the Communist Manifesto would have been put into practice and the contemporary outcome.

After a violent revolution the Soviet Union gained some stability as a functioning communist state under Lenin. However Stalinism seemed far from a Marxist utopia. During the despotic leader’s reign a famine struck Ukraine killing 7 million citizens. Some historians argue this was a deliberate genocide designed by Stalin to crush ethnic uprisings.  After decades of decline, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 leaving a handful of technocrats to pillage the remains of infrastructure resulting in today’s Russian Federation which is controlled by a elite class of fantastically rich oligarchs.

 

The rule of unintended consequence is a common theme in economic theory. Economics isn’t necessarily the study of wealth. It can be the empirical study of behaviour in the world through data sets. Please follow this link and listen to The Cobra Effect, an episode of Freakonomics Radio: (Listen from 00:05:00)

In summary, the cobra effect is named after an instance when the Imperial British government, which was ruling India, created a bounty for cobra heads to incentivise a cull, Local people breed cobras for the bounty. When the government figured out their mistake they canceled the bounty and the farmers released the cobras into the wild. The net result by the time the policy was rescinded was an increase in the cobra population.

Manifestos function in similar ways to well meaning government policies. Whether written by a political party or a practicing artist, a published manifesto intends to shape behaviour in the future. It is impossible to predict how a well meaning manifesto policy may be interpreted or executed.

Adam Curtis’ documentary The Trap: The Lonely Robot, (2007) addresses the unintended consequences of the policies introduced by the New Labour government in Britain in 1997. This party rose to power on a manifesto that stated specific targets as measures of success.

Watch from 00:36:36 to 00:43:00

Curtis argues the rigid target systems introduced by New Labour were reductive and distorting, serving to distract the institutions of state from their general remit. The incentives were high enough to make cheating the system a rational response.

An unintended consequence of the critical acclaim that befell the early Dogma 95 films was the appropriation of the manifesto by cash strapped studios and advertising agencies. As the Danish group came into vogue, producers around the world took notice of how much success was achieved on such small budgets. By the early 2000s the Dogma label was used to describe all mannerr of small budget productions. This could be viewed as a measure of success for the manifesto, however the cynical appropriation of the Dogma ethos and distinctive aesthetic led to proliferation, dilution of its meaning and ultimate decline.

These examples demonstrate that misappropriation and misinterpretation can result in outcomes which may horrify the authors of a manifesto. However, I would argue the rule of unintended consequences can be re-framed to describe these deviations as creative. The farmers in India, managers in the British civil service and low budget film producers are simply innovating in response to circumstances that were defined by a set of rules. The unpredictability of how manifestos will be executed may explain why they have endured as a motif in art and cinema.

Andre Breton, the author of The Surrealist Manifesto, was aware of the potential of unexpected outcomes. The text willfully insights transgressive and impulsive behaviour. Breton is daring readers to do something irresponsible and unpredictable:

“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.”

André Breton, (1924) Manifesto of Surrealism

Exquisite corpses is a surrealist drawing exercise designed to utilize the inconsistencies between interpretations. Two or more artists would fold a piece of paper, taking turns to draw on one section. The folded section would reveal nothing more than where to join the lines at the edge. This exercise stitches together a multitude of aesthetic approaches producing a single work that is both coherent and fractured.

Nude  (1927.)- Cadavre Exquis with Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise, Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky)

This method has been appropriated by the animation community many times. The most recent example I came across was a online promo for Rick and Morty. Each animator starts their segment using the last frame of the previous artist.

Rick and Morty Exquisite Corpse (2017) multiple directors

 

The musician and producer Brian Eno collaborated with the artist Peter Schmidt to develop a system that would prompt innovation by incorporating unpredictable elements into a creative exercise. Oblique Strategies consists of a deck of cards. Inscribed on each one is a phrase or cryptic remark. When a music he was producing felt stuck or inhibited he would randomly select a card and attempt to put into practice it’s suggestion. They functioned like micro manifestos, prompting the user to change their approach in a way that on their surface seems meaningless, but in practice was liberating in its unpredictability.

Examples of oblique strategies:

  • Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics
  • Take away the important parts
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Use an old idea
  • What is the reality of the situation?
  • Pay attention to distractions
  • Ask your body
  • Honour the error as a hidden intention
  • Work at a different speed

This tool functions  like a randomised manifesto, the blind selection of clauses plorifiates the variety of future outcomes and the vagueness of the content broadens its applicability and as well as potential for interpretation. The most famous application of Oblique Strategies was during the creation of David Bowie’s critically acclaimed albums known as the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, and Lodger), which Eno produced.

 

PART 3- Documenting a manifesto’s execution

Ethnographers, like the fly-on-the-wall documentarians, were confronted with the dilemma that their presence was most likely distorting the natural order of the communities they wanted to research. Reflexivity, the notion of contextualising observations with critical self-awareness, became an essential consideration when collecting reach. The greater their insight into how they were impacting a community, the better equipped they were to minimise that impact and and see beyond it.

Autoethnography emerged as an extension of the reflexive method of critique. It combined ethnographic research methods with autobiographical subject matter. The researcher attempts to collect and organise qualitative research about their own lived experience, in this way the researcher, and the circumstances they experience, are both primary subjects of the investigation. For instance, an autoethnographic investigation into alcoholism is likely to contain first hand records of struggling with addiction.

Keeping diaries and writing memoirs is nothing new. However by setting key research questions, formulating a method of collecting and processing qualitative data, and prompting self reflexive critical analysis autoethnography brings rigour to this common human instinct.

Susan Young is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. She had a very successful animation career that was severely disrupted by a hand injury as well as difficulties in her personal life. The Betrayal is a product of auto-ethnographic research into a period of her life where she was abusively controlled by a doctor who was responsible for her becoming addicted to medication. The images in the film include leftover pills, as well as medical and court documentary specific to her case.

The Betrayal – trailer (2015) Susan Young

Autoethnography can be a useful tool to record first hand experience of enacting a manifesto. The following passage is a brief given to students at Concordia as a class exercise:

PART 4 WORKSHOP – One-week manifesto exercise (for field notebooks)

You have 30 minutes to form groups and co-write a manifesto that will influence how you live or work in the following week. For example:

– You could write a manifesto on how to best exploit social media (or to not use social media!)

– Your manifesto may push you to work outside of your comfort zone in a particular way

– You could prompt significant changes in you social life

Your manifesto should involve:

– A theme or focus of intent agreed upon by the group

– Context for this decision

– A praxis or statement of action how to be agents in said context

– A list of undersigned

Breakdown:

This is a group activity so after deciding a theme you must debate and agree on your manifesto points as a group. Consensus may be difficult, and negotiation is part of the process.

Consider your manifesto ideas in context. What ideological, cultural or personal concepts inform your choices? Do they occupy a thesis, antithesis or synthesis dialectic position? If it is hard to reach a consensus on your manifesto points don’t forget each individual is free to interpret the manifesto through their own practices.

After you have agreed on your manifesto’s position and praxis, nominate one member of your group to read them out to the class.

For the next 6 days you must try to put your manifesto into action.

While doing so, use an auto-ethnographic methodology to document the experience. This must involve keeping a record of your experience in you field notebook, but feel free supplement your written notes with experimental, expressive, or innovative ways of recording experiences but you must insure remain reflexive. Documenting how a manifesto affects you (or not!) is part of this workshop.

You will have an opportunity discuss and share parts of your autoethnographic research in class.

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…

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