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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

 

Embodying Voice workshop with Matt Abbiss

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

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

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

embodying_voice_01    embodying_voice_02

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

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

Embodying Voice Animatic: (password avalible on request)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feedback from the group critique:

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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

What’s Up Doc? Pitt Rivers Museum Documentary

Personal experience of the Museum: Aware of Britain’s inglorious history of imperial plundering, I arrived at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, expecting to hear little of the collection’s colonial back story. However, such issues seemed to be the primary concern of the educational officer, Katherine Rose. She described a number of case studies which demonstrated the cultural and historical sensitivity of the recent museum administration. I became fascinated with how compelled the staff were to highlight the good in the collection. Speaking to them I could sense an affinity towards the spirit of adventure which helped cultivate such a collection. However, this enthusiasm seemed to be fettered by their keenness to emphasize moments in the museum’s history where ethical considerations were implemented or updated. Post-colonial guilt hangs heavy in the climate controlled air, but it’s clear the Pitt Rivers team feel compelled to address the collection’s difficult past, even if it can only happen one case-study at a time.

2 Minute Documentary: Our primary objective on the day was to gather footage for a short film. I was struck by how reflective the space was, quite literally, each exhibit was placed behind protective glass. I captured layered imagery, in-camera, using the reflections of direct light sources and adjacent displays. While interviewing two staff members I could feel my fascination pick up each time Maori artifacts were mentioned. My mother grew up in New Zealand and for some reason I associate the native culture with my childhood.

(If I gain clearance for this film and the support of Pitt Rivers museum it will be made available online)

Manifesto: We were tasked with writing 5 rules one could follow while making a documentary:

  • What does your subject care about? What excites you? Stride towards the centre of that Venn-diagram.
  • Imperfection is interesting. Don’t rehearse, re-shoot, prompt or repeat. Work with what you have.
  • Finnish the film and make another. Perfectionism is a disorder. Do more and get better each time.
  • If it’s being said, don’t show it. If it’s being shown don’t let it be said.
  • There is only so much space on the surface of the film. Place you key messages and images here, but leave gaps for the audience to see below into the subtext. Down there you can build a cavern and fill it with nuance.

Feedback and notes from group crit:

  • Add breathing space in the story.
  • Think about what you want the audience to fee at each moment in the film.
  • Why am I, the film maker, so hidden from the final film? Is there room to show my subjectivity and personal interest in Maori culture.
  • Explore motion stabilization on After Effects to see if it has a positive effect on the footage.
  • Refine the film and present it to Pitt Rivers for clearance.

Ethnographic Documentary Making

Anthropology is defined to be an academic discipline, the study of human cultures and the material of those cultures. Ethnography, on the other hand, is considered a methodology for producing anthropological knowledge.

In the 19th century Europeans became more interested in the cultures of the people they’d colonized. This new field of study was problematic from the beginning as there was often a disparity between those who were in the field; missionaries, explorers, soldiers; and those who published papers from the safety of their universities.

Later, field research and academic writing merged. Bronisław Malinowski, a well known anthropological writer, traveled the world immersing himself in various indigenous societies. His papers permeated both academia and the popular culture of his day. However, the cool observational style of his published work greatly contrasted his private diaries, put into print several decades later.  They indicated the difficulty he had relating to the people he was studying and illustrated a critical outlook which some readers perceived as racist. Are either of these documents were more valid as sources? Put simply, the action of referencing and contextualizing both documents would be the appropriate contemporary method. The anthropologist’s subjectivity and the manner in which they project themselves onto their field of study became an increasingly important area of ethnographic research in the second half of the 20th Century.

Imperialism and the other ideologies that permitted colonialism have endured as problematic themes in anthropology. While such issues were partially addressed in many western societies during the 20th century. Post-colonialism and insidious forms of racism must be considered in contemporary ethnographic ethics.

As communication technology developed academic ethnography research and practice maintained a bias towards the written word. Footage was created as supplementary material but the writing was maintained as the focus. The films were created to document aesthetic activities like dance. An interesting consequence was that the resulting film archives over emphasize dance in indigenous cultures and fuel reductive cliches.

Workers Leaving the Factory (d. Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895) was one of the first films ever created. The factory, in which this revolutionary technology was being developed also became the subject of the fledgling filmic gaze. The Lumière brothers set up a static shot of the building’s exit, a bottle neck where every employee passes at the end of the shift. The footage captured a procession of men and women flooding out. Some appeared to be performing for the camera, others quickly passed by with ambivalence.

On first appearance one is struck by how differently people dressed in the late 19th century. What was not immediately obvious, however, was that the Lumière brothers had given advanced warning to their factory staff informing them of the camera experiment. Consequently many of the employees followed the day’s convention to dress in their finest, as if they were posing for a photographic portrait. In what way does this effects one’s reading of the film and the ethnographic significance of the footage?  The context of how the people’s image was captured has proven to be just as much a part of the ethnographic data as the recording it’s self.

Nanook of the North (d. Robert Flaherty, 1922) is considered the first feature documentary. This film was enormously successful and is credited as the birth of the genre. Flaherty adapts the language of narrative cinema to tell the story of an Inuit patriarch, Nanook, and his community.

However, when subject to closer scrutiny this feature was clearly problematic. From first glance it is obvious that many of the scenes were staged. Some times Flaherty was simply using the language of Hollywood cinema to represent a linear narrative; shooting a sled being pushed over a hill, for instance, requires the camera to move, re-shoot from another angle and be edited together to make it appear seamless. Non-the-less his method would have been truly disruptive to an authentic sled journey.

There are also scenes which feel utterly contrived and are more easily red as a projection of how Flaherty, a white visitor, perceived the native people. Flaherty demonstrates a gramophone recording device to Nanook, who repeatedly misunderstands the mechanism and insists on biting the record plate several times. Moments like this seem directed, and may have been constructed to please the expectations of western audiences.

It was eventually revealed that Flaherty staged most of the scenes in the film. He encouraged the Inuits to abandon their rifles and modern cloths in favor of traditional garments. Moreover, the main character was not called Nanook, nor was he married to the woman we were told was his wife. There seemed to be some ambiguity around the circumstances in which Flaherty’s original documentary footage from an earlier expedition was destroyed. This second batch of footage, which makes up Nanook of the North, seems to be an attempt at recreating and augmenting what he had previously scene.

The Documentary Modes, established in Bill Nichols’ book, Introduction to Documentary (2001), are a vital framework through which we can dissect the genres. Flaherty uses the expository mode, normally associated with an authoritative voice-over telling use what to think and where to look. For instance, David Attenborough’s entire career. This God’s eye view is manifest in Nanook of the North via the inter titles. The technology to synchronize sound with film had not been developed.

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These modes are a set of tools that have developed in the past century. Despite the shifts in emphasis over the decades, there is no right or wrong technique and it is counter productive of be puritanical about what documentary should be.

Margaret Mead’s film Trance and Dance in Bali (1952) was created as a supplement to her written work as an anthropologist. This film also adopts the expository mode; her authoritative voice precisely describes well researched interpretations of the dance rituals. There is great attention paid to how the camera is used; towards the end of the film, when a state of trance is achieved by the dancers, the live action photography shifts into slow-motion in an attempt to mirror the dancers psychic state.

Between 198 and 1989 the nomadic African tribe, the Wodaabe, was the subject of two ethnographic documentary productions. Disappearing Worlds (1970- 1993) was a series produced in the UK by Granada television International. For their episode on the Wodaabe the producers employed an anthropologist to work with the crew while interviewing and filming the tribe. The second production was an independent film directed by Werner Herzog.

Unfortunately there are no online clips of Disappearing World: The Wodaabe (d. Leslie Woodhead, 1988, s.1/1 e.36/49). In the observational mode, the film gradually introduces us to the customs of this tribe, allowing the people to speak for themselves. In line with the reflexive mode, the director included footage tribes-people reflecting white film crew’s presence and their impressions of the West. The film climaxes with a ritual dance, the meaning of which is explained as a community wide courtship display, culminating in the young women of the tribe selecting a young man as a sexual partner.

This cultural sensitivity and self-consciousness is hugely contrasted by Herzog’s film, Wodaabe: Herdsmen of the Sun (1989) which mostly utilized the poetic mode. The highly strange looking ritual dance is featured in the first moments of the documentary. It is not explained nor given any context. We are simply confronted with it’s oddity. I feel Herzog was exploring his own uncanny sensations rather than attempting to understand the dance or communicate it’s significance. These introspective in-sensitivities are further exasperated by Herzog juxtaposing the dance with European music.

In typical fashion, the German auteur (who’s films I am a great fan of), narrates his documentary with an implausible poetic exposition, placing his interpretation and feelings center stage.

The penultimate and most impressive film of the evening  was Alain Resnais and Rhris Marker’s essay documentary – Les Statues Maurent Aussie (Statues Also Die, 1953). This astonishing french language documentary lures the viewer in with conventional museum edutainment imagery and framing. Shot after shot of African mask are cut starkly into a static procession, all the while a frenetic french narrator delivers the director’s cutting thesis at break-neck-speed. Gradually the analysis deviated further away from polite, white, dinner party topics. We are eventually plunged into a troubling world of appropriation, exploitation and racism. It’s particularly bold that this film was made in an era when France still held sovereignty over some African colonies. Truly extraordinary; I only wish I could read subtitles as fast as the French at-ta-at-tack, machine gun delivery.

Irish Folk Furniture (2012), is a short pixilation film directed by Tony Donoghue. It is an example of contemporary documentary animation which was being taken seriously by anthropologists and by “grown-up” documentary festivals; proving once and for all that the documentary animation bubble is not such a cul-de-sac.

 

Credits:

Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 6th October 2016. Bringas co-produced an ethnographic film, There is Nothing Wrong With My Uncle (2011), with director, Dul Johnson .

 

Representing the the Voice in Documentary Animation

The recorded voice is often thought of as a pillar of authenticity in animated documentary. First hand testimony is relied upon to counter the artificiality of drawn images on screen. Expository narration in the documentary form is equally important for instilling a sense of authority and structure in story telling. However, in relation to recorded testimony, there is an ethical responsibility to the subject regarding how their words interact with animation. A director has the task of recording, editing and interpreting testimony. They should attempt to understand the wider context but ultimately construct a subjective and creative treatment of the material.

Rather than starting with Winsor McCay’s Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), widely considered as the first documentary animation, I would like to draw attention to London in the 1990’s. At this point the UK animation scene was dominated by one person, Clare Kitson, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Animation from 1989-1999. She bankrolled a generation of independent animators and fostered a unique editorial and financial freedom which led Channel 4 to gaining a reputation as ‘…the most adventurous and innovative animation broadcaster, not just in Britain but internationally.’ (Brooke). Along side two Oscar winning productions; Creature Comforts (d. Nick Park, 1989) and Bob’s Birthday (d. Alison Snowden/David Fine, 1993), Kitson commissioned at least two films which were directed by current RCA Animation tutors; A is for Autism (d. Tim Webb, 1992) and Silence (co-d. Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998).

In 1995 Kitson commission Abductees, directed by Paul Vester.

The audience hears several interviewer voices; first hand accounts of alien abduction, each story rendered in one or more animation style. It’s fair to presume that most audiences would at least doubt the objective truth of these testimonies, this may be true for the director too. However, it was argued that this film seems to be less of a documentary about aliens, and more of a study of the people who believe they have been abducted. That said, it is important to note that neither the context of these abductions, nor the back-stories of the individual abductees are explored in any depth. Each interviewee is cut together along side the choice moments of their fellow speakers. This montage approach to dialog and animation creates a patchwork quilt type narrative. Each testimony seemingly verifying the other through it’s similarity. Perhaps Vester was interested in conjuring the sensation the of belief in his audience.

There are a few instances where our doubts are appeased slightly. One hypnosis subject questions her experiences: “How am I supposed to know what is coming out in hypnosis, were they dreams or was it real?” Similarly, another speaker states in an academic tone:

“The screen memory in the classical psychological sense means that the person sees a traumatically frightening event and then softens it by then inventing some other story…”

This sentence functions like an access point for skeptical audiences. However this counter point is immediately undermined with a point that seemingly supports the validity of the alien abductions:

“…but this is not that (screen memory). This is not something that the person makes up… This seems to be an image that is externally imposed in that person’s memory by the aliens themselves.”

I feel these fleeting moments of balance help present the narrative to the audience as documentary material, even though they seem gestural. That said, it wasn’t Vester’s mission to present a balanced exploration of weather or not abductions really take place. I can personally empathize with his interest in presenting stories without too much concern for their “truth”.

In 2010, well before I knew how to animate, I became fascinated by story tellers who utterly believed the fantastical tales they shared. I took audio from David Icke’s 1999 interview with Credo Mutwa, a South African shaman.

It is difficult to pick apart Paul Vester’s ethical rigor with regards to Abductees.  Is it exploitative to select interview footage of subject for it’s spectacular properties; at one point a participant was clearly distressed? At another point a participant talks about the aliens moving in a coordinated manor.  Vester cuts to stock footage or a musical act singing and dancing.

abductees1

abductees2

With regards to my film, Credo Mutwa, it’s hard to know if my crudely animated film mocked it’s subject. I certainly intended to represent the story in a dry manor to avoid such accusations. I remember feeling an enormous affection for Mutwa while creating the film. After it’s publication on Youtube I was contacted online by people who had similar experiences. I think it is fair to say my professional ethics were undeveloped 2010; I did not ask David Icke for permission to use his interview, however I think a second year fine art undergraduate can afforded one or two indiscretions.

I Consdier Ryan (d. Chris Landreth, 2004) as an example of what-not-to-do in terms the ethics of representation. Besides the grotesque 3D animation and jarring mixture of muddy and psychedelic colour pallets, I would argue Chris Landreth’s presence in the film is problematic. Landreth was attempting to use what he called ‘psycho-realism’ to represent Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. However, Chris places himself center-stage, firstly by explaining the premise of his film and secondly by taking a very active role while conducting the interview.

Chris Landreth doesn’t seem to appreciate just how much power he has over Ryan. Landreth is essentially a representative of the N.F.B., the institution that symbolizes Larkin’s fall from grace. In an early scene Ryan is dazzled when Chris presents a frame from the N.F.B. archive that Ryan had drawn 30 years earlier. Later Chris slips into the role of social worker by bluntly suggesting Ryan starts animating again and pushes him to talk on tape his addiction problems. It feels like these men really don’t know each other.

I personally feel uncomfortable that Landreth demonstrates awareness of the unethical aspects of his interview without correcting it. Instead of omitting such moments he focuses on them. For instance, the intervention with Ryan about his alcoholism is positioned as the climax of the film. Landreth appeals to the viewer by adding self deprecating details to indicate that he knew his words were patronizing and intrusive. As Chris strides towards the confrontation, a florescent bulb in the shape of a halo, assembles above his head, to indicate that the director is aware of his own self-righteousness.

After Ryan explodes in rage, Chris reflects “what ever possessed me to ask such a question”. This doesn’t come across as a convincing contemplation of ethics. Instead I believe he is looking for an opportunity to discuss his own feelings. Following Ryan’s outburst the viewer slides into an abstract tunnel which represents Landreth’s self reflection. Here we see his unresolved feelings towards his mother’s alcoholism mentioned briefly. The film is also dedicated to her memory.

Ryan is a film about Chris Landreth. Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004), the live-action making-of Ryan, while also created in the bosom of the N.F.B., offers better incite into the ambiguous ethics of Chris Landreth’s Oscar winning animated documentary.

Christoph Stiger’s pencil on paper documentary about funeral directors, Mother (2006), was a graduation film from the RCA animation MA.

This film indicates an intimacy in the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Towards the end of the film the ‘Mother’ character addresses Christoph by name. She was trying to emphasise a specific point, but still the tone of this demonstrated a bond between them. The way in which the cadavers are prepared is sensual and clearly indicates a careful process of observation. One gets a sense that Christoph had spend a long time in that funeral home trying to get a feel for their profession. I would argue that this film as an example of best practice.

Silence (co-d. Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998) is an 11 minute Channel 4 animation commission was based on a spoken word performance by Tana Ross, a Jewish exile displaced during the Second World War. (This film cannot be embedded so please click here to watch the film).

silence-07

The tone of this film differs greatly from the previously mentioned animated documentaries. The voice-over is overtly scripted, however it becomes clear that it is Tana Ross narrating a version of her own script, that was based on personal experiences. There is something authenticating about the presence of Ross’ voice.

While the interview based films, to an extent, focus on the recorded moments of exchange between film maker and subject, Silence, is very much set in the past. The audiences experience are grounded in the narrator’s recollection.

‘[A]nimated documentaries such as… Silence (d. Bringas & Yadin, 1998)… show us how animation can function as an alternative way to recall the past. In fact, I think that animation is a representational strategy that is particularly suited to documentaries that explore fragmented pasts of forgotten, perplexing, yet often formative memories. The use of animation can emphasise that history and, importantly, memory, are ephemeral and can be a means to counter official and written histories.’ (Honess Roe, 2013)

Credits:

Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 29th September 2016.

Bibliography:

Brooke, M., How Britain’s fourth channel became an animation powerhouse, (no date), from: British Film Institute: Screen Oline, Online soruces: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1282041/

Honess Roe, B. (2013) Animated Memories, Animation Studies 2.0, Weblog, URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=145

Icke, D., (1999) The Reptilian Agenda, Credo Mutwa interviewed by David Icke, Bridge of Love Productions, online video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsPaxFvrD8c

 

Alex Widdowson: Documentary Animation MA Y1. New Student Presentation

Alex Widdowson

Contact:

  • alexander.widdowson@network.rca.ac.uk

Social Media: Facebook,  TwitterVimeo & Tumblr

Bio and animation practice:

In 2008 I dropped out of a Fine Art BA at Goldsmith’s College. Soon afterwards my 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 this during my BA in Fine Art at Loughborough University . Here is a short clip from a montage I made called Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

In the 8 years since this happened I have abstained from illicit drugs and developed strong insights into my mental health. I am personally committed to talking openly about my experiences. If you have any questions or ever need a sympathetic ear please feel free to approach me.

My artistic practice has developed as a form of self administered therapy. Below is an example of an illustration I created last year while experiencing difficult relationship problems. My contorted figurative style was influenced by what Chris Landreth referrers to as ‘psycho-realism’, a term he developed to describe his methodology in his animated documentary Ryan (2004)

art-is-therapy

I have been a contributing writer for the blog AnimatedDocumentary.com since 2013; publishing over 40 articles, attending animation festivals and working closely with my co-authors and copy editors Alys Scott-Hawkins, Ellie Land, Carla MacKinnon and Linnéa Haviland.

My practice was further developed at the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, where I attended the AniDox:Lab. This is an Animated Documentary professional development course where I learnt how to develop and pitch a project. While my film, PIGS, did not get funded the process of developing and animating the pitch trailer was invaluable.

In March 2016 I teamed up with Nick Mercer a psychotherapist and drugs addiction counsellor from the Philadelphia Association to make a film about addiction.

(Please email me if you would like to view or screen this film)

I’d like to close with a rather somber documentary I created after returning from a trip to Africa; Hours and Hours of Footage of Two Giraffes… (2014)