Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Gee’s Bend – The Ties That Bind

Searching for the next subject for The Vision Thing, I watched a documentary about the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and their bold and beautiful quilts. I like how that documentary unfolds as it transports you into their lives and helps you see the world as they do. But as I researched the history of the area and the women, I saw it becoming a more complicated story.

The Post Office issued stamps honoring Gee’s Bend quilts  in 2006.

Ultimately, I got stuck and had to let things simmer for a while. Finally, I think the piece is ready to share, so I’d like to start with Maris Curran’s documentary about Gee’s Bend, “While I Yet Live.

Filmmaker Maris Curran

Maris Curran from the Nantucket Film Festival site

Maris Curran brings a lively curiosity to her projects. In “While I Yet Live,” she stitches together a visual tapestry about Gee’s Bend and the women who fashion quilts there.

Maris: “I had known about the Gee’s Bend Quilters because their work had been exhibited at several museums, including at the Whitney Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I had always been struck by their work, but when researching more about the work, found that the women’s voices were absent.”

photo from the SuzyQuilts site

Maris: “Most people here grew up watching their mothers, aunts or grandmothers quilt. The quilts of Gee’s Bend reflect a collective history and deep sense of place. And they register the bold individual voices of the women who made them.”

“While I Yet Live”

Take a look at her documentary.

If the video doesn’t play, you can find it here.

I like how her documentary threads together the close community of women quilters, their ties to the past and their appreciation for the land that supports them. You can see that she came to Gee’s Bend with an open mind, ready to record what she found there.

Maris Curran, from the Philadelphia Enquirer site

Maris: “I came to listen. To hear what it has meant to raise children, care for parents, work full time, farm and take the time to dedicate to making something beautiful for themselves, their families and their community. When I spoke with the women in the film, they articulated the joys of their lives as well as the struggles.”

Maris’ Approach to Storytelling

As Maris unfolds her story in a relaxed pace, she gives you time to reflect. She uses natural sound, simple images and thoughtful editing to ease you into the slower pace of life in Gee’s Bend. You get a sense of stillness, of those quiet moments that foster creativity. Shot by shot, she stitches together images of the sky, river and land to suggest how they might inspire the women and shape the quilts.

Maris: “I was interested in putting the film together almost like a quilt. You look at the quilts and then you look at the surroundings and you see this dialogue happening between place, between architecture and the landscape, and the work that these women are making.”

I like how the video honors the women and their shared experience, hymns and faith.

Maris: “I went in thinking that the film is about making art in everyday life, inspiration and kinship, but ultimately, I think the film is all about love — love of family, love of God and also love of self.”

At first, I thought this would be a good place to end this post, with that quote from Maris about love. But I had some questions. I wanted to know more about Gee’s Bend and the quilters, so I started to explore. Here’s what I found.

A Quick History of Gee’s Bend

Gee’s Bend, located in Wilcox County, Alabama is a remote and somewhat isolated community of families descended from slaves. After the Civil War, many stayed on the former plantation as sharecroppers, picking cotton and living on subsistence from the food they could grow. During the Great Depression, racism and economic hardship devastated the community. In 1937, the Farm Security Administration sent photographer Arthur Rothstein to Gee’s Bend to document how the people there were hanging on. Here are a few of his images:

A typical home in Gee’s Bend. Photos by Arthur Rothstein, 1937.

The homes had no electricity, plumbing, or heat.

Gee’s Bend sharecroppers grew cotton, peanuts, okra, corn, peas and potatoes.

Drawing water from the well.

Newspapers were used as crude insulation from the cold.

To help relieve their desperate situation, the Roosevelt administration bought the land, formed a cooperative, built homes and sold parcels of farm land to the families. Since slavery times, the women of Gee’s Bend had a tradition of making quilts to keep their families warm.

Lucy Mooney making a quilt with her granddaughters. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

There’s only one road in to Gee’s Bend. Just a few hundred people live there now, on a peninsula of land that juts into the Alabama River. Camden is the closest town, 7 miles by water ferry or 40 miles by land.

The Civil Rights Struggle Comes to Gee’s Bend

Until 1965, not a single resident of Gee’s Bend was able to register to vote. They faced white-supremacist officials running Wilcox county, poll taxes, literacy tests and the KKK, all to keep them from registering. The Rev. Martin Luther King came there to speak and encourage people to fight for their right to vote.

Inspired by Rev. King, people from Gee’s Bend took the ferry to Camden and tried to register to vote.

The ferry between Gee’s Bend and Camden. FSA photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1939.

In response, Wilcox county officials shut down the ferry.

“We didn’t close the ferry because they were black,” Sheriff Lummie Jenkins reportedly said at the time. “We closed it because they forgot they were black.”   Smithsonian Magazine

But the residents of Gee’s Bend were undeterred. A resident explained, “We kept right on marching. Only difference was we had to load up in trucks and drive all the way around.”  theoutline.com

County officials kept the ferry closed for 40 years.

Selling Quilts, Raising Money

A year after Dr. King organized the voting drive, a visiting Episcopal priest and civil rights worker came to Gee’s Bend. When he saw their quilts, he helped the women set up a cooperative, the Freedom Quilting Bee, as a way to empower the community. He helped them sell their quilts in New York City.

Freedom Quilting Bee Quilts on Display, 1966 photo

From the New York Times:

The first check from New York, $2,065 for more than 70 quilts, went to necessities like washing machines, indoor plumbing and, in at least one instance, college tuition for the great-granddaughter of a slave.

It was the first black-owned business in Wilcox County and for a brief time, offered the quilt makers a way to promote and sell their work. It didn’t last.

William Arnett Visits Gee’s Bend

Thirty years later, intrigued by a photograph showing one of the quilts, William Arnett visited the area and started to buy and collect Gee’s Bend quilts.

William Arnett, 2017 photo from the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Arnett had money and a passion for Southern African- American folk art. He’d spent years as a dealer in Chinese and African art. From the New Yorker:

Arnett devoted the second half of his career to the art of African-American Southerners, funded by the sale of his earlier collections and, occasionally, by loans from friends. He had spent millions of dollars supporting black artists, and had self-published books that explained his views.

“This art wasn’t created to entertain people or to sell to rich people,” Arnett went on. “It was created to commemorate the culture itself, so that it could last, so that grandmama could tell grandson, ‘This is what we’re about, child.’ ”

Lucy Mingo Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

The Quilts Become Folk Art

Arnett promoted his quilt collection as folk art and in 2002, arranged with the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and the Whitney to mount a traveling exhibition of his quilts. They received glowing reviews as the exhibition traveled the country from museum to museum.

From the New York Times:

The 70 quilts in the exhibition, over half by living artists, are among roughly 530 Gee’s Bend quilts amassed over the last five years by William Arnett, a controversial Atlanta collector and passionate documentarian of vernacular African-American folk art, whose relationship with some artists he has championed has led in the past to accusations of exploitation.

”I paid them three or four times the going rate,” he [Arnett] said. ”But these quilts may be worth a hundred times that one day.”

Arnett had the background and connections to promote his collection.  The women who made the quilts were invited to the exhibits and some were interviewed by the media, but it was the William S. Arnett Collection that was featured in the museums.

Loretta Pettway Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

As a collector and promoter, Arnett has drawn praise and condemnation. In 2000, Jane Fonda gave his book company $1 million to publish art books on Southern African-American folk artists, including two books about the quilts and quilters of Gee’s Bend.

William Arnett and the Quilters of Gee’s Bend

In 2003, he helped the quilters set up the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective to market their quilts. It started with about 50 members and now has about 15 women actively making quilts. Arnett was sued by three Gee’s Bend women who claimed they weren’t properly compensated for their art. Other quilters say they were treated fairly.

Gee’s Bend Cooperative, 2011, from the University of Alabama site

In 2010,  Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is “dedicated to documenting, preserving, and promoting the contributions of African American artists from the South.” So far, over 350 of the Foundation’s 1,100 works (including quilts) from the William S. Arnett Collection are now in the permanent collections of leading American and international art museums.

Mary Lee Bendolph Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

Value, Art and Money

A subtext of this story is the intersection of value, art and money. Before Arnett, people valued the quilts as quilts. After Arnett built his collection, promoted the quilts as folk art and helped get them into major museums, they were valued and sold as art. Arnett owned the intellectual property rights to his quilts and licensed their images for display on everyday items.

Most of the financial benefit did not find its way back to Gee’s Bend. It remains the poorest community in Alabama, with a median income of less than $15,000. Now, most of Gee’s Bend quilters are elderly and few people remain to carry on the tradition.

Were the women fairly acknowledged and compensated? Without Arnett’s promotion and financial resources, the quilters of Gee’s Bend would likely not have their work featured in major museums. Nor would they likely have received national recognition for their creations. Still, their hands and creative expression transformed cloth and thread into beautiful and dramatic works of art. It seems to me that their poverty and race kept them outside the frame of established art circles, and without that entre, others reaped the benefit of their creations. That’s my take on it, what do you think?

National Heritage Award

A few years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts gave a special honor to three of the women.

2015 NEA National Heritage Award Recipients. L to R Loretta Pettway, Lucy Mingo, and             Mary Lee Bendolph. Photo by Tom Pich

From the NEA site:

By piecing together scraps of fabric and clothing, they were creating abstract designs that had never before been expressed on quilts. Artists, educators, and memory keepers, these women ensure their art form will continue to be celebrated by future generations.

Necessity Births Creativity

For generations, Gee’s Bend quilts were born from necessity, flowing from the hands of the women who came together to share, sing and sew. Their quilts were beautiful because they were made with love, to keep their people warm and cozy during the cold, windy nights.

And they were beautiful because the women quilted themselves into their work. They’re a part of the story locked inside of each quilt.

From the NYT:

”We’d get together and make the quilts just like we’re praying together,” recalled Mary Lee Bendolph.

Mary Lee Bendolph, from the SoulsGrownDeep site

”We had no TV, no radio, no nothing. That’s the way we learned — sitting watching our mamas piecing the quilt. When the sun came down you be in the house together, laughing and talking. We were more blessed then.”

Mary Lee Bendolph Quilt, photo from SoulsGrownDeep Foundation

“Shapes From My Southern Culture”

Amy Sherald, the artist who created Michelle Obama’s iconic portrait, visited Gee’s Bend in 2018.

Members of the Collective pose with Amy Sherald (holding a quilt). Photo by Alex Ronan, The Outline 2018

Alex Ronan writes:

Sherald told me, “When I was working with Michelle’s [Obama] stylist, we were discussing different options, and when I saw that [Milly] dress I instantly thought of Gee’s Bend,” she said.

Portrait of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald

“For me, it was a way to connect that painting to black history. Those shapes have that meaning for me. I don’t connect them to European art or anything like that… those shapes come from my Southern culture, quilt making, underground railroad maps, those kinds of things.”   Alex Ronan, the outline.com

Stitched into the quilts of Gee’s Bend is a blend of Southern culture, history, creativity, community, the natural world, local artifacts, faith, love and family. The quilts emerged from poverty but offer a rich reminder that art can be created in any circumstance.

You can find out more about the quilts of Gee’s Bend here,  here , here and here.

As  always, your comments are much appreciated.

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.”

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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.

 

Master Craftsman:Teacher:Sage – Wisdom of the Ox

How do we discover the right path to make our way in the world? What touchstones guide us? We have to find our own answers, but I’d like to share Eric Hollenbeck’s story and how he became a master craftsman, teacher and sage.

At first, Eric drifted as a youth. School was a miserable experience. As Eric tells it:

Because I had a hard time with spelling and reading, I was constantly made to feel stupid by the system. So, I started working in the woods at sixteen.

His auto shop teacher shepherded Eric through high school by arranging for him to spend three hours a day in auto shop and one hour in English class, where Eric wrote poetry.

I got the same grade on every poem I wrote: an A over an F. An ‘A’ for content and creative thought and an ‘F’ for spelling and grammar…which averages out to a C! It was this way that the auto shop teacher got me to graduate.

Eric found refuge in the woods near his northern California home. After serving in Vietnam he developed PTSD. He came back to the forests, pooled his money, and with two friends, $300 and a ramshackle truck, he started a logging business.

Hollenbecks

Eric and Viviana Hollenbeck

Eric started salvaging antique wood forming equipment and began constructing his own Victorian era mill: Blue Ox Millworks in Eureka, California, which he runs with his wife Viviana. He was fascinated with the craft and became a master woodworker, specializing in recreating 19th century decorative objects to restore historic dwellings.

Levistrauss site

photo from the Levi Strauss website

His Blue Ox Millworks became a successful business and he added blacksmithing, ceramics, letterpress printing and other trades of the Victorian era, recreating a time when every town had local craftsmen that made what people needed to build homes, transport goods and enhance their lives.

Eureka Times-Standard

photo from the Eureka Times-Standard site

Hand work was the key to Eric’s success and rehabilitation and he thought it could help others, too. When a teacher asked if he could help castoff kids from the county schools, Eric and his wife created the Blue Ox Millworks Historical School of Traditional Arts, serving about 25 students each year. The students supplement classroom studies by working alongside Eric and his mill crew two to three days a week.

0erichollenbeck

photo from the 0erichollenbeck site

From the Modern Day Pioneers site:

He’s … giving students a place to learn hands-on skills that can be transferred to many trades. He says they learn critical job skills along the way too, like the importance of quality, problem solving and critical thinking, as well as how to take direction from a boss and collaborate with co-workers.

solidsmack.com

photo from the solidsmack site

Eric continues:

The thing that worked so well is that little, one-room schoolhouse concept, where you’ve got youngsters of different ages and skill levels mentoring each other. It’s that unit feeling. They become a family, a unit together.

project-based-learning-schools-eureka

photo from the Blue Ox Millworks site

The two things these kids have got: low self-esteem, and they don’t sit. I didn’t say ADD. I said, ‘They don’t sit.’ I put their fingers an inch away from an electric bandsaw and tell them they mess up and next thing they know their finger will be on the floor. Suddenly they’re paying attention just fine. Maybe the regular classroom was never giving them nothing to pay attention to.

blue-ox-community-school

photo from the Blue Ox Millworks site

We live in a world of so many distractions. Perhaps that’s one of the great strengths of hand work – it requires focus, concentration and patience. Plus there’s the excitement of learning and honing a new skill. At the end of the day it’s a great gift to hold that work in your hand and say “I made this.”

breakwater studios site

photo from the breakwater studios site

Canadian Ben Proudfoot was also attracted to handwork, first as a magician and later as a filmmaker. Proudfoot won international awards as a magician – before he turned 18. He took up filmmaking at USC and his student work was nominated for an academy award. He set up Breakwater Studios with backing from SONY to pursue a documentary series on the intersection of craftsmanship and life journey.

His second film brought him to Eureka to spend three days with Eric Hollenbeck and the Blue Ox.

Ben describes Eric, from the Eureka Times-Standard:

He is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. He’s down-to-earth, but philosophically brilliant. I think creating alone so much has given him time to ponder about life, and express himself in many different ways — from woodwork to poetry.

Here’s Ben’s excellent film, The Ox:

The Ox from Breakwater Studios Ltd. on Vimeo.

Eric Hollenbeck sees his life unfolding in many directions at once – he values how woodworking rescued him from PTSD and the emotional caldron of the Vietnam War, he’s mastered a worthy but dying craft, he celebrates the maker movement and the importance of craftsmanship, and he rescues kids at risk – like he was once himself – and uses his skills to teach them self-worth and the value of hard work.

I found Ben Proudfoot’s film joyful and inspiring. You can sense his enthusiasm for Eric Hollenbeck’s wisdom and what he and Viviana have accomplished.

Ben, from a facebook interview

Lifesworkfilms

photo from the Lifesworkfilms site

You never know why you feel a tug to tell a story. It’s sort of like falling in love—it just happens without explanation and with overwhelming power—and the only way to get over it is to make the movie. So you never know why. But, after having released the film and getting emails and letters from people who were touched by Eric’s story, it’s clear his experience is something that hits home with a greater audience and reminds people that they are not alone.

You can view Eric as a symbol of the working man, of a period in our nation when “Made in America” stood for a work of high quality and craftsmanship. You can call Eric a homespun philosopher, a self-taught sage who found wisdom through work. I see all that and something else too. Eric found an inner strength – he refused to give up when faced with challenges, he followed his own vision, worked at it, had the drive to keep going and the wisdom to see that progress is made one step at a time.

A writer friend from the old days used to sign his letters “keep going.” Good advice for all of us.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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