Keep It Real: Video and Animation

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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.

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:

Marshall Curry photo by Dan Koehler Photo by: Marshall Curry 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

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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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