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.

 

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

The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation

The Fallacy of Objectivity:

Animated documentary has existed as a mode since 1918. Winsor McCay was commissioned by the US government to create an animated reconstruction of the sinking of the Lusitania, a commercial ship carrying American citizens that was sunk by a German U-Boat during the First World War. The film was used to help sway popular opinion regarding America joining the European conflict.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) d. Windsor McCay (Start watching at 0:08:28)

In the absence of footage Animation seemed like the only appropriate medium to represent the horrific events. Crucially, the persuasive nature of the medium was understood by its commissioners. What McCay made was essentially propaganda.

Documentary as a discipline would not be popularised for another 4 years when Robert J. Flaherty created the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). It captured the imaginations of the cinema going public and forged a genre.

Nanook of the North (1922) d. Robert J. Flaherty (Start watching at 0:31:21)

The common language of narrative cinema is evident in this film. There is a continuity of storytelling which, to Flaherty, is more important than the accurate recording of events. Many of the scenes were artfully edited or even staged to create a clear story. Years after this film was released it was revealed that the star of the documentary was not called Nanook, nor was that his family portrayed in the film. Nonetheless a genre and a new set of ethical considerations were born.

Mark Cousins characterised the genre of documentary film making as a practice in which one must ‘co-direct with reality’ (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, 2011, Channel 4, Ep. 2 The Hollywood Dream). This shared control is crucial for understanding the paradoxical position of documentary director. They are both afforded the role of ‘agent of truth’ and ‘master manipulator’ attracting similar criticisms as journalists. They are accused of twisting words or taking them out of context, while simultaneously audiences offer little thought about the trust they place in the medium as a record of immutable facts.

Sheila Sofian wrote an extraordinarily concise article on this topic in relation to animated documentary: The Camera and “Structuring Reality” (2013). Forgive me for quoting almost the entire piece, but who am I to paraphrase such eloquence:

…Michael Cieply, [while] discussing documentary filmmaking as compared to traditional journalism… made the following statement: “The camera is a tool to structure reality, not report a reality.”

I remember giving a lecture in which a student in the audience claimed that live action photography presented a “real” depiction of events, and animation could not replicate reality in a convincing manner. I agree that animation cannot replicate the effect of live action photography. What bothers me is this misconception of live action presenting a “truth”, or… a “window to reality.” (Annabelle Honess Roe)

…[D]ocumentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and carefully select the few minutes they choose to include in their film. All documentary filmmakers understand that you can manipulate footage, editing, relationships of picture to audio, and a myriad of other cinematic techniques to match the point of view you hope to present. And yet, audiences often forget how manipulated they are when absorbing the information presented to them in a seamless fashion. There is still a pervasive idea that live action documentary is “real” and therefore animation cannot be an accurate depiction of reality. My argument has always been that live action cinema can be manipulative and often misconstrues what it claims is “reality”, whereas in animation it is actually more clear in that what is presented on the screen is constructed by the filmmaker… Live action documentary can create a false construction of events that the audience assumes is true.

I met the producers of “Spellbound”… The film follows several contestants preparing for a spelling bee competition… I found it interesting that they admitted they did not originally shoot any footage of the spelling bee winner preparing for the competition, so they went back and shot additional material, which ultimately appeared to portray the contestant training for the spelling bee.

This is only one example of how live action documentary can misdirect the audience. Of course, both live action [and] animated documentaries can be misleading. In my Documentary Animation Production class at USC I stress how important it is to present the content in the manner in which the subject intended. We discuss the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how easy it is to manipulate material. It is ultimately up to the integrity of the filmmaker when it comes to honouring the subjects’ intent.

Erik Gandini, director of The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and Videocracy (2009), said in a lecture that any director who believes they can make an objective documentary is deluded. Every film is subjective so you may as well embrace it. After all, mocumentaries have demonstrated that the fly-on-the-wall, observational mode of documentary making is just another aesthetic.

The Ethics of Representation:

Sheila Sofian’s notion that a director has a responsibility to honour their subject’s intentions is worth considering with regards to the Oscar winning animated documentary Ryan (2004). The short illustrates an interview that took place between the film’s director, Chris Landreth, and Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. Landreth adopts an aesthetic methodology which he calls ‘psycho-realism’, a mode of pictorially expressing the psychological state of those represented.

Ryan (2004) d. Chris Landreth

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. Personally I doubted that my psycho-realistic work was self-indulgent.

art-is-therapy

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.  However, Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I’m not aware if Ryan grew to love the film or if Chris grew to hate it. It’s been 12 years so both outcomes are possible.

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)

Participatory Film making:

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?

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 blue-collar 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 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.”

Collaborative Documentary Animation:

Samantha Moore’s PhD research focused on the use of animation to record and communicate neurological phenomena such as phantom limb syndrome or, in the case of Eye Full of Sound (2008), audio-visual synesthesia. She developed a methodology for film that involved close consultation with the subjects of the film. Each participant listened to a audio score, designed by Adam Goddard, and then described in detail the visual sensations it induced. Crucially, Moore provided a process of review after each animation test. The subsequent process of small adjustments improved the accuracy and authority of the film as a representation of extreme experiences of subjectivity.

Eye full of Sound (2008) d. Samantha Moore

Experimental Documentary forms:

There is a strong thematic connection between Eye Full of Sound and Jonathan Hodgson’s incredible experimental documentary Feeling My Way (1997). Hodgson superimposes the conscious activity of his mind’s-eye over point-of-view video footage of his walk to work.

Feeling My Way (1997) d. Jonathan Hodgson

As with an Eye Full of Sound, Feeling My Way is a record of a extreme form of subjectivity. This film demonstrates the value of animation as a tool to express and understand ones own perspective of the world. The audience is struck by both the similarities and differences in the way our brains work compared to Hodgson’s.

The first animated documentary films I made were explicitly about my own traumatic experiences struggling with mental illness. This process was invaluable for me to understand how it felt to be represented and exposed on screen. This week I returned from the Au Contraire Mental Health Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. While there I met Katie Frances Orr, a talented film maker and choreographer, who was screening what she referred to as an ‘experimental documentary’. Her film demonstrates perfectly just how open the borders are in the shifting discourse of documentary.

Coward (2015) Katie Frances Orr

Animation is too time consuming, labor intensive and expensive to justify making a film that could be just as effective using live action. Animation needs to be essential for it to exist. Animated documentary has persisted as a method to fill the gaps in mainstream documentary practice:

  • maintaining a subjects anonymity
  • substituting missing footage
  • creating images which don’t exist outside of the subject’s consciousness

However this is only the starting point. Animation is truly a limitless medium, capable of extraordinary feats of innovation, insightful expression and precise visual communication. A documentary director cannot merely trust that the camera will provide truth, this must be crafted. The authenticity of an animated documentary must come from the integrity and sensitivity of the artist. The increased agency afforded to a documentary animator means they are simultaneously more transparent about how they manipulate an audience and more accountable for their chosen methods of representation. Co-directing animation with reality is a nuanced but rewarding process.

Notes:

This post was developed for a lecture that will be given at the University of Western England in Bristol on the 2nd November 2016.

Links:

Sheila Sofian (2013) The Camera and “Structuring Reality”, Animation Studies 2.0, weblog URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=159

Christoph Steger discussing Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007), Animate Projects, URL website and video link: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/jeff_dino

 

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)