London Animation Club – Documentary Animation Discourse

Part 1: Representing oneself in animated documentaries:

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

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

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

 

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

WARNING – NOT SUITABLE FOR THOSE WITH PHOTO SENSITIVE EPILEPSY

Ultraviolent Jungleist (2013)

Part 2: Representing identifiable subjects in animated documentaries:

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

Ryan (2004) Chris Landreth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sad (2015)

sad-2

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

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

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

Larking states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

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

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

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

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

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

 

escapology

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

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

nick_mercer

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

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

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

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

Part 3: Representing anonymous subjects in animated documentaries:

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

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

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

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

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

Very Angry (2016)

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

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

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

zorse_ramsey_husain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creature Comforts (1989) Nick Park

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

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

Part 4: Animated Documentary and Education

Royal College of Art: Documentary Animation MA

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

Performance (2016)

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

Foam hand test 01 (2017)

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

ecstatic_truth_portraits_panel_1

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

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

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

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

Pigs: Pitch Trailer (2015)

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

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

Egg: teaser (2015) Martina Scarpelli

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

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Author: Alex Widdowson

Artist / Animator / Documentary Maker

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