Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: animation Page 1 of 2

Picking Through the Pieces: A Father’s Legacy

Mystery Men

I wonder why some fathers appear to their adult children as mystery men. Is it just hard to see them for who they are, outside of the father child relationship? Is it that some fathers are uncomfortable expressing their feelings so they stay hidden, as the strong, silent type? Or when they pass too early, perhaps we’re unable to see them through adult eyes. And so, they become mystery men.

I know my father was a good man, but I’m not sure I got who he was, outside of being my dad. I only learned about some of the events that defined his early life after he passed. I’ve even thumbed through a diary, but its yielded few clues. So, how do you get to understand that mystery man?

Perhaps you’ve asked yourself that question. Growing up, maybe you rarely connected beyond the ritual moments of family life. A person can be so removed, perhaps you were left with no way in.

Charlie Tyrell Asks a Question

screen capture

That question, “Who was my father, really?” haunted Canadian filmmaker Charlie Tyrell. He felt estranged from his father, who died when Charlie was a young man. Wanting to understand the man and explore what made him tick, he decided to make a film.

Charlie Tyrell, from the Sundance site

 

Charlie: “This film was kind of made out of a feeling that I hadn’t completely settled my grief… I felt like I never got to know him as an adult and had to acknowledge that I would never be able to know him from that perspective. So this was me as a fully formed adult taking what I had left of him and what we all knew of him to try to build that to develop a better understanding of him.”

 

Charlie’s effort to understand his father launched him on an archeological dig of sorts as he poured through the wealth of  tools, tapes and detritus left behind after his dad passed away. Maybe the essence of the man lay buried somewhere in all that stuff. Charlie hoped animating all those objects would help animate his father. The result is a whimsical and poignant film Charlie calls, “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes.”

screen capture

I want to be clear, the film is not about porno, but about the things left behind and Charlie’s struggle to make them speak to him (and us) about his father’s legacy.

I’ll add that I have my own collection of things my mother and father left behind and I like to mull over them now and then. I guess that’s why it’s easy to identify with Charlie’s efforts to unravel the mysteries of his father. See what you think – his video is on the short list as a contender for an Academy Award. I apologize for the ad that precedes the video.

Charlie’s Award-Winning Video

Charlie’s Creative Approach

I found Charlie’s video very moving. It starts in one place, with the home movies and that crazy collection of things left behind, and gradually moves to a much deeper understanding of the family dynamics that shaped his father’s personality. It’s a great example of storytelling.

Having another voice narrate the video creates a quirky third person perspective that enhances the story. I like how he uses animation to remind us of all those inanimate tools and objects, and still photos to show who is speaking. The photos fit right into his animation style and give identity and immediacy to the comments.

screen capture

The animation and text on screen keep us locked on Charlie’s effort to decode the meaning of all those piles of stuff. And just when you feel there’s little to be revealed in those tools, videos and artifacts, the film takes a turn to explore the story of abuse meted out from one generation to the next. After starting with his father’s illness and death and carrying it back to his dad’s boyhood, Charlie looks to his dad’s mother and her childhood to find the key that helps unlock the mystery of the man.

photo by Jen Fairchild, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

 

 Charlie: “I spent a year getting to know my dad in an unusual way. I was learning about his life and the things he did not have time to tell me. I learned to have empathy for a complex man whom I was rather hard on when I was younger.”

Choice or Destiny?

What shapes us? We all make personal choices that define who we are and how we respond to the people close to us. And there’s a strong legacy of personality and behavior that’s handed down from one generation to the next.

My mother liked to say, “wait until you have children of your own, then you’ll understand,” as a way of explaining her decisions and actions. She’s right, it’s difficult to see your parents as they see themselves or understand the choices they make. While we may gain perspective as we mature, our early perceptions can limit our ability to discover a deeper sense of who they are.

photo by by Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

Charlie: “I thought talking about my dad and his life would be cathartic for me. We never expected it to be broadly received, but strangers are emailing me about the similarities, so it has gotten some traction and it’s a story that people relate to. My grandma came from the generation where you have this abuse/trauma you don’t talk about it. My dad had that as well, but it was at least acknowledged it, and it didn’t continue.”

Charlie’s video does a good job bridging that divide between seeing our parents as locked in orbit around us and understanding how their trajectories impact our own.

There’s a NYT commentary about the making of Charlie’s film you can see here.

If you like Charlie’s quirky filmmaking style, you can check out an earlier film on a completely different subject here.

So what do you think? Does the video work for you? How did you respond to Charlie’s approach to telling his father’s story? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Keep It Real: Video and Animation

Compelling Videos About a Complex Subject

We the Economy is a series of 20 web videos on the economy produced by Cinelan, covering everything from globalism to navigating supply and demand curves. The series is a pastiche of approaches transforming dry information into something at once witty, informative and fun – some pieces are excellent examples of how video can wrangle its subject matter to both entertain and educate.

vimeo2

Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

In a series of five posts, TheVisionThing will critique the most successful programs to show how filmmakers fashion work that is provocative, informative and stimulating. Last week we explored video with actors and this week we’ll look at using animation.

Marshall Curry’s Amazing Animated Film on the Deficit

“Amazing Animated Film on the Deficit” – WE THE ECONOMY SERIES – Ep 12 from Marshall Curry on Vimeo.

Marshall Curry:

Dan Koehler

Marshall Curry photo by Dan Koehler

I wanted to make a documentary, but knew that there was only one thing more boring to most people than the words ‘debt and deficit,’ and that was the word ‘documentary.’ And then my nine-year-old daughter said, ‘Maybe you should do it as a cartoon. Everything’s fun when it’s a cartoon!’

Marshall Curry is an award-winning documentary filmmaker – two of his feature length documentaries have been nominated for academy awards.

Marshall Curry:

Marshall Curry photo by Kaitlyn Winston

Marshall Curry photo by Kaitlyn Winston

I spent the next few weeks talking with economists of different political persuasions, asking them what they thought most people don’t understand about the debt and deficit. I did my best to boil down those conversations into a handful of ideas that wouldn’t answer every point or counterpoint about the issue, but would give a viewer a basic framework for thinking it through.

What Makes this Video Work?

Beginning with cute kittens, Marshall Curry launches this video with a smile and sets up the viewer to expect more. All through the animation we see little visual asides, riffs and buffooneries. So while the main character is trying to play it straight there are lots of funny bits that entertain as they educate, and also serve as a brief pause in the flow of ideas so we can absorb the information.

maxresdefault

Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

Marshall Curry covers a lot of ground with a light-hearted touch – to keep it simple and fun. The animated drawings portray the characters with tongue-in-cheek to help the piece convey complicated information with a light touch. The script works well, making this animated video a great example of how to write an informational piece with humor and snap.

The piece also enjoys a continuous track of sound effects – mixed in at a subdued level to support the action but not grab our attention. The sound effects help key in the humor and keep things moving, but never get in the way of the overall narration.

vimeo 4

Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

Using a quirky main character as the organizing thread for the video gives us a fun “host” to connect with. With animation he can walk us through charts, graphs and goofy visualizations with his cheerful raconteur style and keep our attention and the information flowing. The pacing, even with all the little asides and visual riffs, just moves along nicely. Kudos to Marshall Curry – with all the dense subject matter, this video is a great example of how to join animation with complex content and keep ’em smiling in the process.

toqmzhfwcvgyixrs

Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

The next video was also directed by a documentary filmmaker with many feature length programs to her credit. She uses animation just as effectively, but in an entirely different style.

Katy Chevigny and The Honor Code

The Honor Code is from an earlier Cinelan series exploring innovation and creativity.

The Honor Code | Katy Chevigny from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

The Honor Code animation is more abstracted and stylized, more sensual even, than the visualization in Marshall Curry’s piece – but it flows nicely in and out of the frame with Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talking on camera.

KATY_CHEVIGNY_HEADSHOT

Katy Chevigny photo from Sundance Institute

Katy Chevigny does a great job organizing the flow of Kwame Appiah’s ideas – each one building on the next. His direct, low-key delivery makes it easy to follow him from example to example as he talks about changing how we think about honor. Did you notice how each new thought is captured within a new visual scene? As each new idea is presented, the scene changes from text on the screen to Appiah on camera or a short animation package – all with visual transitions as well. This is an excellent way to subtly clue the viewer as each new idea or concept is presented.

Animation and Story Structure

The animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co. is simple, effective – even playful as words and images float in the air like little bubbles of thought. The simplicity draws you in and holds your interest. Often the animation starts with a detail, then moves wider to reveal the scene, teasing your eye as it stimulates your curiosity. You don’t know where you’re going until you get there.

The Honor Code

Frame grab from The Honor Code

Here’s how Ace & Son describe their work:

We wanted the animation to open the space of the screen… we employed a fluidity within the animation by substituting drawn transformations for hard cuts. In this manner the picture acts as an agent of the content.

The animated transitions flow with the rhythm of Kwame Appiah’s words, there are no abrupt cuts from scene-to-scene. The animation may launch in a frame featuring Appiah on camera, or end like a little wisp of smoke outlining his image – a delicate approach that helps unify the visuals and tie everything together. That’s what the animators mean by “open the space of the screen” as their visual treatment and the philosopher’s ideas join harmoniously together.

bkg

Frame grab from The Honor Code

Consider the setting for the interview.  Everything is shot in brown tones with the background textural but muted. The effect is Kwame Appiah talking to us within his own abstracted world, making the vibrant animation and ideas portrayed even more vivid. Conceptually and structurally, The Honor Code is powerful and well-executed.

Katy Chevigny

Katy Chevigny photo from the Tiburon Film Festival site

Katy Chevigny’s structure also shows us how to build a compelling argument as part of telling a story. The piece begins with Kwame Appiah on camera telling us:

Honor is very important in bringing about change in the world.

Then the scene shifts – as he defines honor we see it written in animation, which reinforces the concept and also gives us a sense of how the rest of the video will be structured. We’re grounded in the visual treatment as we’re also grounded in the content. A simple and effective way to begin.

51319-ace-son-tackles-horror-honor-killings

Frame grab from The Honor Code

If Katy Chevigny decided to begin her piece talking about honor killings, there really wouldn’t be anywhere to go other than to condemn them. Instead, she leads us step-by-step though Kwame Appiah’s reasoning until we’re able to embrace his innovative ideas that may well turn honor on its head. It’s really quite difficult to introduce, explain and advocate for a new concept in just a few minutes and do so in such a visually striking and entertaining form. Katy Chevigny’s video shows so elegantly how animation can be a powerful and creative force for storytelling.

still

Frame grab from The Honor Code

Animation offers so many styles and visual options. When it serves the story, it’s a highly effective way to create something wonderful out of thin air.

This is the second of five posts on how to use video to inform or educate. You can find the first post on using actors here. Next week we’ll look at two excellent examples of using a host to engage the viewer and drive the story. Please share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.

Flawed is a Gem of a Story

catalyst-dorfman13sr1

Andrea Dorfman from The Globe and Mail

Andrea Dorfman‘s Flawed is a gem of a story. It works on so many levels, but follows the most elemental rule about making something memorable, which is this – keep it simple. From the way she approaches her story you can see that animation allows her a creative freedom that wouldn’t be possible in a more traditional documentary format – and that she’s experimenting with the form itself.

1921943_300

Andrea by Andrea

“Experimentation is one of the joys of creating. I am happiest when I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I have always loved this about animation. No matter how vivid I imagine something before I create it, it’s always a surprise when it’s done. Filmmaking is pure magic.”

It is pure magic… all of the elements of Flawed work beautifully together. The story takes you quite a distance – from the recent past, as Andrea describes meeting a plastic surgeon who is reputed to be “the nicest guy in the world”- then back through some of her childhood experiences and finally to the present day. Her storytelling is sparse… she uses just enough words to convey her tale… all of which is driven by a haunting music score. Her images are a series of watercolor drawings – and with the help of perfectly edited time-lapse animation we watch the process of creation unfold before us.

flawed-560x315

A still from “Flawed”

For me, the real pleasure of the piece lies in how her stream-of-consciousness narrative so gracefully interweaves itself through her childlike illustrations. The effect is to invite you into her world and see it through her eyes. It’s a novel way to tell a tale, but as Andrea says:

“I guess at the end of the day, it’s about storytelling. if the story is strong, the audience will connect to it—however it’s told.”

Take a look:

Watch Flawed on PBS. See more from POV.

I love the way she explores the feeling of being flawed – which hooks in so deeply with our sense of who we really are. Am I surprised that from a young age she felt less than? Not really. I think most people have issues with their self-image. Some may not show it and others may obsess loudly about it, but all those self-help, diet and personal improvement books aren’t out there by accident.

More importantly, she first externalized the issue by accusing her plastic surgeon buddy of seeing others as flawed, then she went inward to explore her own story – revealing how she came to see herself as flawed at a very young age. After ruminating around in the past she brings her story back to the present, sharing how she came to turn the concept on its head. Now she’s an individual and her flaw just makes her a more interesting person.

I’d to say a word about how she paces the visuals. As we see her draw and paint each image, she speeds up the action until it locks in with her voice track. Once each watercolor is completed, she holds the frame just long enough for you to absorb it before she replaces it with the next sheet of paper. She illustrates the details of her life and the flaw that colors it piece-by-piece, as each insight is replaced by a new, deeper truth.

112-150x150

53-150x150

Back when I was thirteen, some distant relatives I’d never seen before appeared at my bar mitzvah. One of them came up to me with a big smile and said, “Don’t worry, your face will fill out.” I remember that moment so vividly because up until then I didn’t know that I possessed the same flaw that animated Andrea’s story. After that, every time I looked in the mirror all I saw was a nose with a face attached. It’s those connections with past painful moments that often launch a story.

Which brings me back to Andrea. I like the gentle way her story unfolds, how her voice takes you by the hand and carries you on a journey. Although her story is so personal, it resonates because we can see ourselves in it too. That’s what makes her work so powerful.

Flawed was nominated for an Emmy and one of her films has over 5 million hits on YouTube. In an interview Andrea comments:

“All of my films are strongly rooted in autobiography. If I had to look at my life as a series of really dramatic peaks – moments where, for whatever reason, I felt the most, lived in an extreme way – these are the things I’ve made films about.”

andrea-dorfman-02

from the PBS POV Shorts website

Are we all in some way flawed? What do you think?

More on the Art of Storytelling

The Honor Code

Still frame from Katy Chevigny’s video for Focus Forward

Recently I went back to the GE Focus Forward site to explore their short films on big ideas. It’s quite a challenge to tell a compelling story in three minutes, especially with a complex subject. You’re taking viewers on a journey that arcs across a very short timespan. So what do you put in, what do you leave out? How do you express the ideas and visualize your story?

duel4

from “The Honor Code”

As you keep your focus on the big picture you can’t ignore the human dimension. Big ideas that work well in print are often difficult to express in video, unless you personalize them. The more your viewers feel involved with the person telling the story, the more they’ll give themselves to the information. That’s one of the keys to good storytelling – create a bond with your viewer and they’ll stick around to discover what’s next.

I’d like to introduce you to The Honor Code by accomplished social documentary producer/director Katy Chevigny. She’s a co-founder of Big Mouth Productions and IMDb has her down for producing or exec producing ten feature documentaries.

Katy Chevigny

Katy Chevigny

For Focus/Forward she set quite a challenge for herself, as her piece explores an innovative approach to an old and troubling concept.

477px-Kwame_Anthony_Appiah_by_David_Shankbone

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah

Her video focuses on how we view and maintain honor, sending us on a journey of ideas with Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who wrote a book on the subject. He’s published widely on cultural and racial identity, political theory, and ethics and serves as the storyteller for the piece. I really like how Chevigny uses his thoughts to construct her video. But you may be wondering, how will she go beyond a talking head to make something visual about honor?

You’ll find an innovative answer in The Honor Code.

The Honor Code | Katy Chevigny from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I like the way the ideas build one upon the other to create a foundation for Appiah’s argument. His direct, low-key delivery makes it easy to follow him from example to example as he makes his case for changing how we think about honor. And each thought is packaged within a new visual scene. As the ideas build, so do the scenes, be they text on the screen, Appiah on camera, or the short animation packages – in all, an excellent way to create a conceptual piece.

The animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co. is simple, effective – even playful as words and images float in the air as little bubbles of thought. The simplicity draws you in and holds your interest. Often the animation starts with a detail, then moves wider to reveal the scene, teasing your eye as it stimulates your curiosity. You don’t know where you’re going until you get there.

Here’s how Ace & Son describe their work:

We wanted the animation to open the space of the screen… we employed a fluidity within the animation by substituting drawn transformations for hard cuts. In this manner the picture acts as an agent of the content.

The animated transitions flow with the rhythm of Appiah’s words, there are no abrupt cuts from scene-to-scene. The animation may launch in a frame featuring Appiah on camera, or end like a little wisp of smoke outlining his image – a delicate approach that helps unify the visuals and tie everything together. That’s what the animators mean by “open the space of the screen” as their visual treatment and Appiah’s ideas come harmoniously together.

bkg

from “The Honor Code”

Consider the setting for the interview.  Everything is shot in brown tones with the background textural but muted. The effect is Appiah talking to us within his own abstracted world, making the vibrant animation and the ideas portrayed even more appealing. Conceptually and structurally, The Honor Code is a powerful, well-executed piece.

Chevigny’s structure shows how to build a compelling argument as part of telling a story.  If she started her piece talking about honor killings, there really wouldn’t be anywhere to go other than to condemn them. Instead, she leads us step-by-step though Appiah’s reasoning until we’re able to embrace his innovative ideas that may well turn honor on its head.

still

from “The Honor Code”

Page 1 of 2