The Animated Psyche – Part 1: Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

The content of this post was first presented as ‘The Animated Psyche: Representing neurodiversity and psychology through animated documentary’. This took place on 30th December in Zagreb at ANI DOK 2019, organised by ASIFA Croatia. Cover photo by Nina đurđević. 

Part 1 – Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

In order to identify the main functions of animated documentary, Annabelle Honess Roe (2011) investigated what animation was doing that couldn’t be achieved through the conventional live-action approach. The third function she identified, ‘evocation’, described animation that visualized the subjective perception of a documentary participant or filmmaker. The following article focuses on ethical considerations relating to the creation of evocative animated documentaries that intend to represent the psyche of someone other than the filmmaker.

The conventional approach to creating evocative animated documentaries about psychology is typified by Andy Glynn’s Animated Minds series. Glynn, a  trained clinical psychologist, recorded interviews with people whose experience exemplified specific mental illnesses. Each interview was edited to form a first person account. Working from these narrative structures the animated minds team interpreted the diagnosis into a visual form. Fish on a Hook (2009) addresses Mike’s experience of anxiety. 

The following list shows the stages one would go through when creating an evocative animated documentary about a hypothetical psychological or neurological form of difference (X). 

  1. I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability  X and want to make a documentary about it.
  2. An animated documentary is a good way to represent X because camera footage of people who live with X, wouldn’t show how they think or feel differently.  
  3. I haven’t experienced X myself so…
  4. I will find someone who suffers from X to be a participant in my film.
  5. In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other. 
  6. I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X, 
  7. Based on their words I will visualise (evoke) X through animation 
  8. Before starting the production I must ask my participant if they want their identity hidden or not
    1. My participant wants to be anonymous so I will use animation to mask their recognisable facial features, helping them to avoid the stigma of having X
    2. [or] my participant is happy to be identifiable but there’s no point in making the animation look realistic; I could have just filmed them. I will use artistic licence as I design their character. 

Step by step, I’d like to explore some of the ethical considerations that I feel should be addressed by animated documentary directors attempting to represent neurodivergence or psychology. 

  1. I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability  X and want to make a documentary about it

Before you make a film about X it’s worth researching related debates or controversy?  Does everyone agree X is an illness, a disorder or a disability? Do the people you think of as living with X consider themselves possessing something that needs curing?  Is it possible society has been structured without the flexibility to accommodate people who live with X. If this were true perhaps we should think of people who live with X as a minority community who are in a disadvantaged position as a result of how  society is organised. So disadvantaged that the rest of us find it easier to think of them as ill, disordered or disabled? Thinking of X through the lens of identity politics and organising for social change reflects the ethos of the neurodiversity movement. 

I’m not suggesting a moral superiority to any one perspective but I do advocate questioning “common sense” ideas relating to mental illness, disorders and disability. Antonio Gramsci argued that common sense ways of thinking are often indicative of hegemonic ideology internalised by the wider population (Schmidt 2018).

Consider “mental illness”. The dominant model for understanding and treating psychological distress in medicine is based on a philosophical  approach called logical positivism i.e. the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis (Fuchs, 2010, 269). The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, relies on standardized checklists of symptoms to help doctors reach diagnoses. Previously psychiatrist subjectively interpreted symptoms to form treatment plans based on theory and experience, while often conferring with peers. The standardized checklist reorganized psychiatry by  improving the reliability and objectivity of measuring personal distress. This helped improved the consistency with which diagnoses were given and restrained the unconscious bias that could affect a doctors value judgements when assessing a patient. 

However, checklists cannot measure many aspects of a patients rich and diverse experience of suffering, nor do they factor the history and social context in which such suffering develops. Without accounting for these dimensions in the theory of how to treat mental suffering the medical establishment is left with a very narrow perspective. For this reason clinical depression, which is considered to be an illness that can be treated with medication, is loosely defined in the UK as feeling sad, lacking interest in fun activities and lacking energy (MHFA England, 2016, 50). If you feel like this for more than two weeks, irrespective of the circumstances, you have an “illness”. 

The tradition of scrutinizing psychiatry first flourished in the 1960’s.  A diverse range of intellectuals and practising psychiatrist started a counterculture movement refereed to as Anti-psychiatry. They broadly argued that psychiatry in it’s contemporary form did more harm than good to individuals and society as a whole. 

R.D. Lang questioned how much madder his psychotic patients were than those who fit into what he considered to be a mad world: 

‘A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from ‘reality’ than many of the people on whom the label ‘psychotic’ is affixed…. Thus I would wish to emphasise that our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities.’ (1960:12)

The idea of mental illness was an innovation from the late 19th Century. It transformed how we thought about “lunatics”. If these phenomena were considered illnesses we could separate the symptoms from the identity of the people suffering. However, Thomas Szasz in his book The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), argued that mental illness was really a metaphor that came to be taken literally. These were not like other illnesses. At the time there was no physiological evidence of their existence. Szasz believed that, more often than not, doctors were observing distressing behaviours that were responses to social, political and interpersonal issues.  Psychiatrists were misreading this real suffering as illness. Treating the symptoms of these patients  simply pacified them and perpetuated the causal problems in their lives. 

It has been more than fifty years since the publication of these two books, and while their rhetoric sounds extreme, many of the arguments of anti-psychiatry have been quietly adopted by the medical mainstream, particularly in regards to patients rights. Simultaneously, modern psychiatric medications have advanced so much that it is difficult to argue that they have no value.  However, psychiatry is far from uncontroversial and anti-psychiatry lives on in new forms [see the Critical Psychiatry Network for example.]

  1. An animated documentary is a good way to represent X because camera footage of X people wouldn’t show how they’re feeling or thinking differently.  

Are you sure? Here are some pros and cons of animated documentary compared with the live action alternative. 

pros: 

  • You are unlimited in your creative capacity to represent a concept
  • You can create images that were never recorded or have never existed
  • You can mask the identity of your documentary subjects
  • You can evoke affect and the sensation of thought through stylization 
  • There is no such thing as objective filmmaking so why not use animation to be honest about the constructedness of documentary

Cons: 

  • Live action filmmaking is much quicker
  • Live action filming is normally cheaper
  • Truth claims about the relationship between what happened in the world and what is presented in the film are still complicated, but less distracting compared to animated documentary.
  • Without the mechanical indifference of a camera you are utterly responsible for the representation of your participant’s image. It’s a lot of responsibility.  
  • Animated documentaries often rely heavily on interviews to support their truth claims, are you sure a radio documentary wouldn’t be just as or more effective? 
  1. I haven’t experienced X myself so…

The fact that you have no prior experience of X does not mean your position is neutral.  Perceived neutrality suggests an allegiance with neurotypical hegemony. The concept of the Other can help explain this dynamic.

The “Other” is a phenomenological term that describes one’s conception of another living being. Simone De Beauvoir, in The Second Sex (1949), argued that the institutionalized oppression of women could be understood as a manifestation of women’s “Otherness” from the perspective of men. The practice of “Othering” is when a group or individual are treated like outsiders because they do not fit the norms of a more dominant social group. Singling someone out because you perceive them to be representative of an illness, disorder, or disability is a subtle form of Othering. This could be harmless but it is something to consider. 

Laura Mulvey introduced the idea of the “male gaze” to feminist theory (Autumn 1975). It is the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. As a director you must be critically aware of your own gaze. To start thinking about this ask yourself what your relationship is to the topic:

  1. If you have no connection to X and you think of people living with X as exotic or mysterious you are already on the way to Othering your participant.  You possess a neurotypical gaze and need to work hard to become familiar with people who live with X.
  2. If you suffer from X you will probably be looking through an auto-ethnographic lens. This gives you a big advantage over others, but ask yourself how you will address difficult, embarrassing or troubling aspects of X. Are you willing to share these with your audience? If not perhaps your work will feel less authentic. 
  3. Do you have some academic or clinical experience of X? If you adopt a medical gaze perhaps you will focus on selecting participants who help  clarify your existing understanding of the diagnostic category X, rather than allowing your participants to redefine X for you and your audience. 
  4. Have you cared for or share a close personal connection with someone who lives with X? Did that person cause you suffering or feel like a burden at times? What kind of ambivalence are you holding onto? Will this film help you process your guilt, resentment or even hostility? 

4.a.  I will find someone who suffers from X and…

How we position someone in relation to the concept of X is important. Labels matter and people disagree about them. Does someone suffer from X or are they an X type of person? 

The neurodiversity movement is in part based on the premise that there is no separating a person from their autism, dyslexia, ADHD etc. For example, asking an autistic person if they would like their autism to be cured, is like asking them to commit a hypothetical ego suicide and reform as a different human? From this perspective we could conclude it is respectful to describe someone as autistic and not a person with autism.  If we think of these labels as describing minority groups, the people in these groups are therefore different instead of disordered. It then becomes easier to place emphasis on unleashing their potential value in society because of, not in-spite of, their neurological difference. 

Conversely, most people prefer to conceptualize their mental suffering as an illness, keeping it separate from their identity. Someone with clinical depression might prefer to be thought of as suffering from depression, rather than being a depressive. These topics continue to be debated, so a simple rule of thumb would be to ask your participant what they prefer. 

4.b. I will find someone who suffers from X and…

In Zagreb I asked the group to take part in an exercise:

  1. Close your eyes and picture a tree
  2. Open your eyes and draw that tree
  3. Consider the difference between the tree you imagined and the tree you drew.
  4. Consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour drew.
  5. Finally, consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour imagined.

Step five demonstrates the scale of the task ahead of an animator attempting to represent how someone else perceives the world.

Phenomenology is a set of philosophical tools that help us consider the difference between our perceptions of reality and reality itself. Each of you have an image of a tree stored in your memory. This shares some relation to what are commonly considered to be trees, living organisms that exist in the world, but as a human, you don’t have direct access to the essence of a tree.  You must instead use your senses and corroborate that information with shared knowledge from your community.  From this you’ve created your own interpretation of what the concept of a tree is. Do the small differences between your version of a tree and that of your neighbour matter? It depends how important you think it is to represent X accurately . Samantha Moore’s PhD Thesis (2015) describes the collaborative feedback cycle she invented to help improve the authenticity of evocative animated documentary. An example of how to close the perceptual difference gap through participant feedback.

When we try to represent neurodivergent experiences, we are trying to describe the way someone perceives and makes sense of their unique phenomena. These include the feeling and information gathered through basic senses: light, sound, touch, taste etc.; as well as the conceptualisation of the world such as space and time. We must also consider someone’s experience of their body, their thoughts and the presence of others as phenomena.  Each of these phenomena could be radically different from your own (Bogdashina, 2016). We might never know If someone living with X perceives a tree differently from us. They may struggle to articulate the unique insights they have about the tree, either because that’s just how trees are to them or, possibly, because languages invented under nuerotipical hegemony are not well equipped to describe these unique readings. In some cases their attempt to turn the information they gather from a tree in to a symbol could be beyond your comprehension. See Amanda Baggs’ 2007 film, In My Language, for an example of a autho-ethnographic film about a private language that developed in the context of perceptual and sensory difference.

  1. In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other

In her book Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary (2013) Agnieszka Piotrowska argues that the relationship between the documentary maker and their primary participant is like that of the therapist and client. Piotrowska’s theoretical stance is largely based on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, specifically his conception of “transference”. For Lacan transference is an intimacy that is built in the context of a power imbalance. Building on Freud’s observations, Lacan noticed the transferencial dynamic both in psychoanalysis and other professions, such as teaching. While not necessarily erotic in nature, this affection can build in both the annalist and analysand. In psychoanalysis this is a safe phenomena if managed carefully, however, in the context of documentary, transference typically culminates in a form of betrayal at the end of production. The interviews end, the edit is locked and the intimate dialogue between the filmmaker and participant is exposed to an audience of strangers. Moreover the final outcome is typically reflective of the fantasies, desires and ambitions of the director rather than the participant. We should be aware of the intimacy of documentary as a joint endeavour and consider how that bond will be managed throughout the life of the film.

  1. I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X
diagram 1

Double Hermeneutics is a way of describing intersubjectivity, i.e. how two people interact with each other.  With diagram 1 in mind, lets position person A as the filmmaker and person B is the participant. B is the only one with direct access to their experiences. These are then processed as thoughts and contextualised among previous experiences. B must then translate these thoughts into spoken language in-order for A to be able to  perceive the concept. A must then convert B’s language into thoughts and contextualise these ideas among their existing knowledge. However, there are not enough words in existence for B to accurately represent their internal phenomena. What ever is transmitted through speech has inevitably been simplified and changed. The cyclical nature of this process makes it even more complicated. The presence of A and the things they communicate have an effect on B, changing  what and how they communicate. The perpetuation of this feedback cycle describes all dialogues. 

Observational documentary is modeled on the idea that a documentary crew can function like a “fly on the wall”, observing and recording events without disrupting how they happen. This is a fantasy. It takes an enormous amount of work during filming and editing to hide the disruptive influence a film crew has on the people and events they are filming. “Act natural” is an impossible request for a participant. A more honest version would be to say “pretend I’m not here”. At least the pretense has been acknowledged. 

Many animated documentaries, including my film Escapology (2017), make use of the masked interview. A interviews B, but A edits out everything A says.  The masked interview positions B as a first person narrator, hiding the influence A had on B’s half of the dialogue.

  1. Based on their words I will visualize (evoke) X as animation 
Diagram 2

If B is the narrator it is quite understandable that audiences assume the animated scenes are representative of B’s perspective on X. However, if A has no direct experience of X, when A creates an evocative animated documentary built around a masked interview with B, the animation represents A’s graphic interpretation of B’s interpretation of X. This type of animated documentary could be described as an unmediated representation of the director’s othering gaze masquerading as the gaze of the other. A’s gaze is unmediated due to the total absence of representation through photographic indexicality. Without an analogue or digital camera rendering an image of B, A must rely on their artistic impulses to organise the construction of images of B. What’s more, these images are supposed to be simultaneously representative of X. Perhaps when A thinks they are drawing X, by way of B, they are more likely to be drawing their own gaze.

8.b. My participant wants to be anonymous so I will use animation to mask their recognisable facial features, helping them to avoid the stigma of having X

To mask your participants identity you must first strip away their distinguishing features from a character design. However, this can be problematic if X has a visible component. Lets say A is making a film about X where X is immigration status and B is a different race to A.

The Southern Ladies Animation Group avoid the representation of nationality or race by depicting each participant, stranded asylum seekers, as caged birds in It’s Like That (2005).

However, avoiding the topic of race or nationality can strip the participant of their group identity and a historic context which might be inseparable  from the dilemmas addressed in a documentary.

Andy Glynne directed another series about asylum seekers called Seeking Refuge (2012). The character designs in Julianne’s Story allow her race to be visible but facial features are generalized to fit a stereotypical cartoon child i.e.  big eyes and head, and small body, nose and ears. This is common to many animated representations of children. The approach is problematic when representing black children because a stereotypical cartoon black child bares a strong resemblance to stereotypical racist colonial imagery. (Widdowson, 2017)

I believe a better approach was adopted by David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn the directors of Slaves: an Animated Documentary (2003)

Here the children’s characters seem to be stylized in inventive ways that masks their identity while leaving an impression of individuality.  They’re characters reflect more than a collision of generic symbols of ethnicity, age and gender.

8.2 My participant is happy to be identifiable but there’s no point in making the animation look realistic; I could have just filmed them. I will use my artistic licence when I design their character. 

Portraiture is the practice of rendering an artistic likeness of a human. Caricature falls within this domain but with additional emphasis. It is defined as ‘…a depiction of a person in which distinguishing characteristics are exaggerated for comic or grotesque effect’ (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2012). Grotesque or comedic aesthetic distortions of celebrities or politicians are typically mocking, antagonistic and disrespectful. I would argue that animated documentary directors, working with vulnerable participants, must consider if their stylized character designs are manifestations of a hostile, prejudicial or othering gaze. (Widdowson, 2017)

One of the most well known evocative animated documentaries, Ryan (2004, Chris Landreth) operates within the realm of grotesque caricature. Ryan Larkin was a once celebrated animator, whose career was destroyed by addiction. At the time he was begging for money on the streets of Montreal. Landreth uses, what he called “psycho-realism” to manifest vulnerabilities as bodily distortions, in the case of Larkin, depicting him as structurally unstable and contorted (Singer, 2004).

Ryan Larkin in Ryan (2004) Dir. Chris Landreth. National Film Board of Canada.

The making-of documentary (Alter Egos, 2004, Lawrence Green) shows the moment when Landreth screens the finished animation to Larkin, having not involved him in the film process since recording their interview. Larkin states his shock and discomfort, confronting Landreth about the grotesque nature of the portrait.

Ryan Larkin (left) and Chris Landreth (right) in Alter Egos (2004) Dir. Lawrence Green. National Film Board of Canada .

The structure of the film demonstrates that Landreth became aware of the hostility he was expressing towards Larkin during the interview. Landreth’s misplaced resentment for his alcoholic mother and personal fear of creative failure are proposed as the underlying causes of his ambivalence towards Larkin. This reflexive gesture positions Landreth in the film as someone owning up to their mistakes. However, after Landreth came to this realisation, instead of seeking atonement, he decided to commit further to his othering, prejudicial and hostile perspective of Larkin. He spent months transforming this unethical attitude into grotesque bodily distortions, then showed the finished film to his participant when it was too late to change or pullout. Chris Landreth’s reflexivity serves to justify and perpetuate the public humiliation of Ryan Larkin, a vulnerable adult.

Ryan is an accomplished and complex short film that can be much better understood in the context of it’s feature length making-of documentary. This film exaggerates how character designs function as a manifestation of how we feel about our participants. It was both honest and reckless for Landreth to make a film about his unethical behaviour. A clear lesson we can learn from this project is that consulting with our participant throughout the film-making process will illuminate for us what it feels like to be subject to our gaze. The earlier this process starts, the more time we have to identify and improve upon our unethical assumptions, impulses and practices.

Bibliography

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition.

Simone De Beauvoire (1949) The Second Sex.

Olga Bogdashina (2016) Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome; Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds. 2nd revised edition. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, revised 10th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p.212

Thomas Fuchs, (2010) ‘Subjectivity and intersubjectivity in psychiatric diagnosis’ in Psychopathology. Volume 43, Issue 4, 268-274

Annabella Honess Roe (2011). ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary’. Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 215-230.

R.D. Laing, (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Tavistock Books: London.

MHFA England (2016) Adult MHFA Manule.  Mental Health First Aid England Community Interest Company: London.

Samantha Moore, (2015) Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states [PhD Thesis] Loughborough University.

Laura Mulvey (Autumn 1975). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Screen. 16 (3): 6–18.

Agnieszka Piotrowska (2013) Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary. Film Routledge: London

Brian Schmidt https://doc-research.org/2018/08/hegemony-conceptual-theoretical-analysis/

Gregory Singer, ‘Landreth on ‘Ryan’’, VFXWorld Magazine (Los Angeles: Animation World Network,
2004) <http://www.awn.com/vfxworld/landreth-ryan&gt; [accessed 6 April 2017].

Thomas Szasz (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. Harper & Row: New York

Alex Widdowson (2017) Identifying Caricatures Among the Character Designs of Animated Documentaries which Feature Both Anonymous and Identifiable Interview Subjects. [Masters dissertation] Royal Collage of Art: London.

 

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:

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

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

8 minute edited film:

20 minute unedited single shot version:

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

Performance consists of three separate interviews conducted over a period of 2 months in late 2016.  Lakis is a cis male therapist with the Philadelphia Association, a Psychotherapy organisation. Tessa is a cis female documentary film maker who identifies as a lesbian, and Dot is a transgender woman and former radio presenter, who sometimes occupies both a masculine and feminine gender roles. I am a heterosexual cis male.

studio-space

Production:

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

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

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

Contextual Research:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

paper_cinema_kit_01

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

nic_match_01

Colour Palette:

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

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

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

colour_skeme

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

performance_inverstion_before_after_01

Conclusions and future outcomes:

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

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

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

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

Interview with Alexandra Hohner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Did you use actors to record them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appendix:

Patient script – Revision 5 (2012)

memory

Doctor

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

 

Cut to a dark room where the patent on bed.

Listening to the shipping forecast.

Nurse

Nock Nock

Come on, time for your medication

When he turns off the shipping forecast the narration beings

The patient joins the end of the queue.

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

Cut to common room

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

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

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

Nurse

Just take the pill and show me your mouth.

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

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

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

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

Cut to the corridor at night

Nurse

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

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

Fade to black

Nock Nock Nock

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

Nurse

Come on, its time for your appointment.

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

Doctor

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

You’ve had what is called a psychotic episode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The voice…

It was a disembodied voice in his head…

The patient sat….

 The Patient

Arrr… Shut up!!

silence

Nock Nock

Mother

Is it ok to come in?

His parents enter.

Father

Hello son.

You’re looking better

Mother

We brought you some fruit and more cloths.

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

Patient

I don’t think I’m very well.

Patient bursts into tears

Parents comfort him

Changing Landscapes

Week 3 of the What’s Up Doc? elective was run by Katerina Athanasopoulou, visiting lecturer in animation at the Royal College of Art. She tasked us with making a psycho-geographic video portrait of the landscape. This was then presented as unedited rushes in a group crit later that day.

The morning began with Phil Ilson, the co-founder of the London Short Film Festival, leading a tour of Shacklewell Lane in Dalston. The festival’s offices had been based in the area for a number of years. Although Ilson didn’t live locally, his passion for British cinema and natural curiosity about the local history was eye opening. He drew our attention to tangible records of life, culture and politics that were etched in to the surrounding streets and architecture.

© Google 2016
© Google 2016

During our group discussions my attention was repeatedly drawn to what felt like a local anxiety regarding gentrification. On the same street where I saw an Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, which looked like it had been there for decades, there was also a sleek yoga centre, which was founded in 2012.

 

 

© Naomi Annand & Yoga On The Lane 2012 - 2016
© Naomi Annand & Yoga On The Lane 2012 – 2016

I was interested in the nuanced perspectives of both long term and more recently arrived Hackney residents. There seems to be a clear line which connects Margret Thatcher facilitating the private purchase of council houses in the 80’s, up to present day Dalston where property prices are starting to push out small businesses and long term residents. In the past decade many artist and creative professionals have moved to Dalston, attracted partly by the former industrial spaces being converted into low rent studios. Meanwhile an independent cafe and bars scene developed, fueled by their patronage. The aggregate effect was that Hackney rapidly transformed into an fashionable place to live and work. It has started to attract Londoners who have more disposable income that both the long-term residence and those in the creative industries.

I picture gentrification as a set of concentric rings, each layer representing an era and the community that settled during that time. The population of each ring looks inwards at the preexisting smaller rings with affection and curiosity.  This encircling effect issn’t immediately see as threatening from the point of view of the bigger ring. However this ring community simultaneously looks out at the newer larger rings. They see their greater wealth and influence encircle them, leading to a sense of suspicion and claustrophobia.

Looking up at the two tower blocks that were being assembled in front of us in Dalston, the group speculated about who would move into these fancy new flats.

crane_cloud_01

My dad, a retired civil engineer, used to say that you could measure the health of the British economy by counting the number of cranes across London’s skyline. From below, however, these monoliths loom over the existing inhabitants of Hackney; a immutable sign of change. Cranes are simultaneously an index to the potency and destructive force of London, one of the worlds largest neo-liberal experiments.

I initially wanted to call the film Peckham, but changed my mind because of concern I was over-stating the point. Crane is an the closest and least pretentious I could get to the film being “Untitled”. In my experience, another area of London which seems to at a simlar stage of gentrification is Peckham Rye. The artist have been there for a while, the hipster cafes and bars followed. It is now recognised across London as somewhere that is “cool”. However I haven’t yet observed large property developments in Peckham. Brixton, on the other hand, seems to be slightly ahead of Dalston in that the rents have already gone up.  Large chains have moved in and the old businesses are on their way out.

crane_glow_02

While filming, the camera’s digital screen couldn’t represent the fidelity of the image being recorded. I saw a stark black and white silhouette. After staring for a long time my eyes created an Esher like optical illusion. My three dimensional interpretation of the 2D black and white image jumped from looking up to looking down from a 45° angle. While I did like the conceptual value of this shifting view point I was keen not to tamper with the raw footage. For the same reason I decided not to remove the natural glitches produced in camera.

crane_cloud_02

The small camera screen also lead to a nice surprise in the edit suit when I noticed the crane had the ‘Dalston E8’ written on the side. This reveal becomes an essential piece of evidence supporting the psycho-geographic frame of the film. If this wasn’t visible I would have used something similar for the film’s title.

Links:

http://underthecranes.blogspot.co.uk/

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/datablog/2016/jan/14/how-has-brixton-really-changed-the-data-behind-the-story

Interview by Animartists Culture and Psychology Journal

Earlier this year I was approached by Panagiota Karagianni about doing an interviewed for Animartists, a Geek online magazine about psychology and culture. You can read the English language post here. Below is a transcript from the interview:

 

Alex Widdowson is a very talented artist and an Animator living in London. Alex had been preparing a beautiful animated documentary for four years, in which he covered fundamental issues on mental illness and the treatment that people from around the world get in clinics. The title of this documentary is “Patients” and is a tough but a really realistic approach of the lifestyle of the people that are mentally ill. Lately, he prepared a new video based on the previous version, a stronger representation of the topics covered in the “Patients” and you can watch it here:

How and when did you realize that all you want to do as a job is to be an Animator?

Animation seemed the most useful medium to process and communicate my confusing and traumatic experiences of mental illness.  I initially started a fine art degree at the relatively prestigious college Goldsmiths, London in 2007. However I became quite unwell for the first time and quickly dropped out after causing a whole host of chaos. My subsequent hospitalisation and recover were truly devastating so by the time I restarted a fine art degree at Loughborough University I had something to prove. I felt it was my duty to push myself, taking on challenges that were truly daunting. For a while I experimented with immersive performance, this involved founding a cult based on agnosticism.  The goal was to lose track of whether or not I was joking and that the cult was indeed fictional. It was so evocative of my first experiences of mania and psychosis that I effectively induced these states and that summer I was in hospital again. Broken and medicated I picked up animation as a way of directly processing some of the trauma of my treatment and illness. I was haunted by having injections forced upon me by a team of nurses when I was running around wild on the hospital ward. Animation was a means to an end at the start but it also fitted well within my desire to push myself. I like to think of the medium as a multi-dimensional canvas. If you can picture it you can animate it. The only limitations are time and energy.

How would you say that you feel when you do art, when you express yourself through art? 

The whole process is utterly stimulating; animation challenges me as a writer, journalist, director, draftsman, actor and mechanic.  But often animation is very methodical. After the initial planning you are more or less locked into an intricate process for rendering. I find this sort of intense and rhythmic process soothing.  It reminds me of a math class at school where you are taught a complicated formula, you repeat the exercise and then move onto the next similar problem. There is also an extraordinary feeling with hand drawn animation when you piece it all together towards the end of the day and see the scene in motion for the first time. I’ve never found this suspense and release in any other medium.  It makes me very happy.

Do you often like to undertake a social range of issues in your art as you did with the Patients documentary?

I’ve become increasingly interested in animation as a tool for exploring real-world topics where often live-action might fall short. While researching and writing for the blog animateddocumentary.com I was constantly amazed by the new ways artists use animation to explore factual content. These stories deserve so much more than a talking-head interview or reenactment. Initially I didn’t see my work as serving a critical social function. Patients, for instance, was primarily indulging my own need for catharsis. As the project developed I ultimately saw its value as a tool to help people understand what madness felt like. Now that I’m making films about other people, from the start of the process I have to be much more aware of the socio-political framework that encompasses their stories.

And talking about Art and Social issues, Patients and your latest reworking of that project, actually are a great presentation of a very big issue of our society: mental illness. What did inspire you to occupy with an edgy and so alive issue like this?

It’s nice that not everyone assumes that these films are biographical. They most definitely are, but still, it’s comforting that sometimes people assume they’re no more than an artistic and journalistic endeavour.  The truth is that they are painfully close to my heart. Part of the value of these films is that when I look back at my most difficult experiences, those traumatic images have now been substituted by my drawings. This pain has been so heavily processed I often perceive the scenes I’ve made in my films rather than a direct memory. I feel very blessed that I can use art in this way. Mental illness is a very tangible and pervasive phantom in all our lives. If you have never been affected directly you may at least know someone who has, yet until recently in Britain there was a strong convention not to talk openly about this topic. Charities like Mind and Time To Change had genuinely shaped the landscape when it comes to stigma. I hope my films made a modest contribution. 

William Shakespeare used to say that the purpose of Art is to give life shape.  Do you feel that art can really reflects the real life without senses of exaggerations?

I don’t worry that exaggeration is a problem. The films I make have carefully translated, condensed and articulated experiences as honestly as possible. Their value comes from the accuracy of these processes.

What do you manage to bring off through your animated documentary in which you cover that kind of issues? (Feelings or beliefs)

The premise behind Patients was to create the clearest and most accurate depiction of psychosis I could muster. Madness is often perceived as horrifyingly nonsensical, but for the most part it feels like a muddle of your existing persona and experiences mixed with a bit of fantasy and fear. I wanted to do my best to smooth over some of these ambiguities and depict a simple sequence of events that lead the protagonist to realise they might be unwell. With Patients I hope to make psychosis less scary, where as my retrospective film, Animated attempts at documenting mental illness, made use of the rough and more expressive animation tests I’d made to capture the frenzied sensations of psychosis. While these did nothing to make psychosis seem less intimidating, it was a more honest representation.

Do you believe that a diagnosis of mental illness can put the personality of the ill person aside and degrade him as a human being?

From what I see this is certainly becoming a more popular perspective in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Doctors identified two episodes of psychosis in my life. This is indisputable. However I’ve never been given a diagnosis of an underlying condition that causes this. My doctor’s exact words were that I have ‘Alex Widdowson’s disease’.  He said that as I didn’t neatly fit any of the diagnostic models there was no use in labelling me. Yet I have older colleagues from Sage Community Arts, a mental health charity where I was artist in residence, who were been given a different set of diagnosis every ten years, never quite fitting any of them. If the label helps you, your loved ones or medical professionals more easily understand what is happening then I think that shouldn’t be suppressed. But I’m also much happier with the newer, more open-minded model adopted by parts of the British psychiatric services. However I need to remind myself that mine is a story of successful treatment. I feel like I was treated incredibly well and was able to recover quit effectively. I’m aware that some people had a terrible time and perceive the psy-professions with great suspicion.  

FEAR is the number one reason why people treat mentally ill people the wrong way and why ill people live under the “stigma” of illness. What place do you believe that FEAR occupies in our lives and how would you advise someone to control it?

I’m sure it was tougher in the past but personally I feel like I’ve encountered very little discrimination in my life. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive and sympathetic friends who I can be open with. They project little judgment or unnecessary concern. However my circumstances dictate how open I am about my history of mental illness. When I started working in a more strait-laced job, as a graphic designer, it just didn’t feel appropriate to expose myself that way. Even though I am a little secretive I believe that if I ever became ill I would maintain the respect I’ve earned, be given time recover and be invited back to work. Essentially, I feel safe. What really worries me is the potential doubt in people’s minds that I am not aware of. I cannot calculate or predict this. For all I know it doesn’t exist. So sometimes I find it easier in a professional situation to restrict it to a need to know basis. I would say this is an important skill I have learnt. I was so open about my issues at the beginning, not because I felt safe or wanted to address stigma but because I was so uncertain about my experiences I compulsively put details out there to see how people reacted. If they dealt with it badly I knew not to trust them and vice versa. It wasn’t until I found some inner peace that I was able to choose when to talk about it.

Do you think that the common opinion assists the regulatory function of the psychiatric professions and why do we need to be normal to live?

The idea of being normal is ridiculous. It sounds to me like a synonym for being boring or scared. For instance, I don’t really trust anyone who enjoyed being a teenager.  These people confuse me. It’s my guess that these are also the ones who strive to be normal. I believe one should nurture their eccentricities.

I often work with the Philadelphia Association in London, set up by R.D. Laing in the 60s. He was a very well known counterculturalist who helped spark the anti-psychiatry movement. He questioned our rigid perceptions of sanity and madness asking whether it is indeed our society that is sick. Laing asks: ‘Who is more dangerous? The psychotic who mistakenly believes he carries a hydrogen bomb in his stomach or the perfectly adjusted B-52 bomber pilot who will drop very real hydrogen bombs when ordered to do so?’ These sentiments seem entirely relevant in the past 15 years of British foreign politics and the financial crisis. Our government waged two seemingly pointless wars in order to keep our American friends happy.  Five years later the financial sector started to realise they had conceptualised the practices of lending and debt so far beyond its rational definition that the entire system imploded. Yet rather than Tony Blair being condemned as a war criminal he was made peace envoy to the Middle East; rather than prosecuting bankers for corruption the state propped up the banks. These absurdities exist at all levels, in all parts of society and in the individual. I believe those happy healthy “normal” people are just as scared and conflicted as the psychotic if you dig down a little.

How do you think mental ill people should be treated and what should change on the function of the psychiatric wards so ill people can have a better and more balanced and comradely way of life?

From what I remember I went through some pretty extreme experiences on those psychiatric wards, but in no way do I disapprove of how I was treated. When I was lucid I was offered extraordinary levels of respect and patients, and when I was at my worst I believe they restrained and sedated me for my own protection. I don’t think there is much of an issue about how patients are currently dealt with in the UK other than the funding cuts. Austerity measures imposed by the Conservative government have had a massive impact on resources for the treatment of mental illness. The inpatient clinic where I was last hospitalised has been shut down.  For me this is the real battleground.

And coming to an end, i would like to know if you are preparing something this season? 

I’m currently working on a short animated documentary about addiction but it’s a little early to really go into any detail.

A wish for Animartists

I was really struck by an Oscar Wilde quote brought to my attention by the experimental animator, Paul Bush: ‘The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’