Embodying Voice workshop with Matt Abbiss

This lip-sync-and-beyond workshop reinforced a lot of the fundamentals of animation for me. Some of the class did not come from an animation background and so we spent a lot of time picking apart several key points in Richard William’s The Animators Survival Kit (2001).

We were given the choice of several recorded clips from the British Library Sound Archive. There was also the option to use our own recording to avoid any copyright problems. Several months ago while editing the dialogue for an animated documentary, Escapology: the Art of Addiction (2016), I took a break mid edit. Wile in the shower the words of Nick Mercer, the films subject, floated around my head and focused on some of the key phrases. Over the next twenty minutes I invented a female character who’s primary concern was her son’s alcoholism. I saw a dark humour in my subsequent recording, but every time I showed a friend they could only comment on how sad it was. I wanted to use animation to better articulate this tragic comedy.

From the beginning I was a little concerned by my choice of character. The accent I’d used was a hybrid between something from North of England (Nick is from Liverpool) and something that is vaguely Caribbean. I think this was partly informed by some consulting I did around the same time. It was for a short documentary by Kyra Hanson in which she interviews her elderly Jamaican grandmother. I began developing the character design while deliberately trying not be too self-conscious about my white-male-middle-class appropriation.

embodying_voice_01    embodying_voice_02


However, this lead me to a representation that I was ultimately was not comfortable with. As I was essentially recording myself pretending to be a different race, using animation to then depict a caricature seemed too much like a digital equivalent of black face.

At the animatic stage I decided to wipe all distinguishing features from the characters and put these issues aside.  Instead I focus on the body language of the mother and son.

Embodying Voice Animatic: (password avalible on request)

The feedback I got in the first crit was that either I should worry less about being politically correct, or have some one else record the voice. There was a week left to complete the project and so rather than re-doing the dialogue and starting from scratch (the timing woudl have been completely different.) I chose to simplify the character designs to make them racially unidentifiable.


In hind sight I’m still not convince my appeasing the situation was the best rout. I should have re-recorded the dialogue with an actress. Now the animation is complete and I am reflecting on my work I can see something which is much more concerning than my original worries about caricaturing someone from an Afro-Caribbean background. Looking now I can see some resemblance between my character design and the Golliwog children’s toy, a relics from Britain’s Imperial past.  I really feel like I’m out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It’s often said that animators are hired as actors. I’ve seen Hollywood being criticised for casting white actors to represent non-white roles. Specifically Last Week Tonight’s feature ‘How is this still a thing‘ (p. John Oliver, HBO, 2015).

Am I doing the same thing? It seems extreme to propose that it is unethical for me, a white man, to represent a black person in animation. However maybe there is a stronger argument against me impersonating a Jamaican accent. I can’t imagine do anything comparable in my future practice.

When Mike Read sang an anti-immigration song at a UKIP Gala in the style of the Calypso music genre his white appropriation of Afro-Caribbean culture was done with intent of communicating xenophobic sentiments. Inversely, I feel I can defend my film on the ground that it is about addiction, a topic a I care deeply about. Any representation of race is incidental and completely lacks hatred, nor does it focus on stereotypes.

Putting my white privilege aside for a moment, I’d like to bring attention back to the fact that this workshop was designed to focus us on our animation technique. Matt Abbiss‘ enthusiasm for the principles of animation really inspired me to loosen up my own 2D work. I had previously come across the tumblr account, Animation Smears. In the past I had experimented with this method but my usage was always mimetic and fleeting.

I concluded after the first crit that exaggerated, blurry smears would be the perfect way to represent the son’s alcoholism.



Very Angry: rev.12a (password available on request)

Here is a second version in which the background is the same orange as the the line drawing. This had an interesting affect of dissolving the characters silhouette. While I was intrigued by this effect I feel it is too destructive to the drawings.

Very Angry: rev.12b (password available on request)

Feedback from the group critique:

The Mother seemed under developed both in character design and in behavior. I didn’t offer her any moments of attention where her personality shone through. She could have had a modest set of distinctive mannerisms. Instead the character came across as flat. I was complacent as I believed her personality was delivered in the voice but it seemed I needed to translate this to her behaviors too.

The key poses of the drunk son were too strong. If I wanted him to maintain consistent fluidity then the key frames should have been adjusted to demonstrate this. Instead I snapped into position too sharply. These were very static key frames which were created before the idea of swaying and smears were used.

The major problem with this film is that it is not a documentary, nor does it indicate it’s status as a mocumentary. How can I analyse in-depth the ethical implications of representation in this film when nearly all of it is an invention of my own.


It is not worth developing this film further. I should concentrate on incorporating what I have learnt into future documentary projects. It has been very useful to address issues of race and the representation of minorities  in this film. I have learnt that I shouldn’t avoid such topics because of my white, strait, male, bourgeois bias, but what is essential is I should try and engage rigorously with the ethics of representation from the very beginning. Side stepping and avoiding the issue has only lead me to dig a deeper hole.

Ultimately, if I had interviewed a mother who was concerned about her son then, firstly, matters of race would have been truly incidental and, secondly, the film could have been much more powerful.e

Author: Alex Widdowson

Animated Documentary Director and Researcher

One thought on “Embodying Voice workshop with Matt Abbiss”

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