I’ve really enjoyed storyboarding for this project, mostly because it’s basically like making comics which is what I used to do before starting this course. I decide to take a very low tech approach to my story board, drawing my individual panels and then cutting them out so I can try my story in different orders and combinations:
I started out making very rough sketches of whats happening, then making a slightly more detailed coloured version before moving on to the cut out panels.
Then I tried organising the panels in different orders:
Then I coloured all the panels in and added some shading for contrast and depth.
Finally I scanned all the panels and made them into an animatic on premiere pro. It got a bit fiddly at this point, and would have probably been easier if I’d drawn them on TV paint, however this process was much more enjoyable!
This is an essay I submitted last week about animated documentary and I thought I’d put it up here as it contains much of my recent thinking…
What makes documentary animation a particularly effective/affective medium for portraying trans stories?
At the premiere of his 2018 documentaryJason Barker posed a question: “What does it look like when trans people tell their own stories?” The film, A deal with the Universe, is his answer. It tells the story of Barker and his partner Tracy trying to have a baby: after discovering that Tracey couldn’t get pregnant, Jason stepped up, as, despite having transitioned many years before, he still had the technical apparatus for pregnancy. The film is a beautifully edited mish-mash of home videos shot, mostly in their Hackney flat, over the course of several years. It is a patchwork story, one whose structure follows the to and fro debates of its protagonists. The audience is given an intimate look at a queer couple in their late thirties living their lives: they are not glamourised or derided, they simply are. Despite a narrative structure based around multiple attempts to get pregnant, the filmdeliberately eschews the cliched trans narrative of a journey from A to B dwelling instead in the messy middle. When bodies and surgery scars are shown, it is without isolating or objectifying them; the audience never loses sight of the human beings they belong to. This kind of film feels rare in a world where trans narratives are simplified into parody, trans bodies are sensationalised and rising panic is triggered by any questioning of the gender binary.
In this essay I want to look at how trans stories are told and the ways in which animation can add or take away from such narratives. I will be focusing on Teagan, a short animated documentary by Igor Coric and Sheldon Lieberman, which tells the story of a woman’s transition from male to female, describing both her own journey of self-discovery and the reactions of the people around her. Firstly, I will examine the way animation allows for anonymity, providing both protection for the subject and, paradoxically, bringing the audience closer to her experience by creating opportunities for empathy and identification. Secondly, I will argue that the fluidity and metamorphic potential of animation makes it an ideal form for a story of transformation. Finally, I want to look at authorship in this piece, and how it impacts on the content and the animation itself.
In the first scene, Teagan is drawn as a single line, which twists itself into the shouting mouth of her abuser and then back into her face in profile. The style is cartoonish, an audience does not know whether it resembles Teagan herself or if she could be recognised from the illustration that represents her. As Teagan begins to speak about her experience of being assaulted on a train, we see her whole body, again a simple cartoonish outline in which her face is drawn without features: she is a blank slate for our imagination. Thus, though Teagan’s real voice talks intimately of her experience, she remains unseen, her body an abstract representation. Creating anonymity for documentary subjects in this way is complicated terrain. On the one hand, an audience relies on seeing a person, their body language and their expressions, as proof of their testimony. Bill Nichols argues:
“Like the legal system, documentary discourse insists that we must be presented with the body. Witness and testimony, deposition and refutation, accusation and denial — all depend on direct encounter and physical presence.”
However, we also gain from preserving anonymity: a subject is able to give a more honest testimony when they are not afraid of exposure and retributions. This is particularly relevant for trans people who face extreme consequences when they chose to out themselves. Jaqueline Rose writes:
“It is a paradox of the transexual bid for emancipation that the more visible trans people become, the more they seem to excite, as well as greater acceptance, a particularly murderous hatred.”
In order to survive you must be seen but, for a trans person, being seen can be fatal. So where does that leave animation? Can a person be “seen” if they are merely animated? By animating Teagan in a non-realist style, the film explicitly pulls focus away from her body, so often the locus of interest in trans stories. Instead, it takes on her point of view: we are shown the people on the train laughing while she is assaulted, we hear her voice tremble when she admits to never having told anyone about it. Thus the animation works to both distance an audience from Teagan as an individual, while simultaneously pulling them closer to her experience of the world.
Annabelle Honess Roe describes how animation: “invites us to imagine, to put something of ourselves into what we see on screen, to make connections between non-realist images and reality.” and how documentary can use “non figurative, non specific and non realist animation in an attempt to evoke empathy for unfamiliar states of being.” This idea of making connections with the unfamiliar in order to create empathy is a part of any kind of storytelling, but is perhaps particularly relevant when documenting social issues. By focusing away from the “actual” body, the film abstracts the idea of bodies in general, it shows us an eye, a mouth, a line — as if to say that a human being is made from more than these. Disappointingly, the film does still insist on the trans cliche of “the reveal” where we see Teagan at the “end” of her transition standing naked in front of a full length mirror. And yet, even in this moment of exposure, the animation provides her with her privacy — her real body is hidden.
Teagan is animated by three artists: Igor Ćorić, Sam Hahn and Declan Burn (all cis men, more on that later) and the film moves seamlessly between their different drawing styles. While the limited colour pallet ties the film together, the different styles create a sense of fluidity: of existing in several different worlds at the same time. Thus the film evokes Teagan’s transformation as she describes it. This evocative fluidity is a huge strength for animation in telling trans stories: the ability to shift from one thing into another mirrors the reality of bodies evolving and changing. At one point we see Teagan’s body melt into a puddle on the floor after a man attacks her at a party. This is in part a literal illustration of her fear and embarrassment; simultaneously it demonstrates the result of people’s refusal to acknowledge one’s existence. As Judith Butler argues:
“If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life and will it be recognisable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?”
Teagan is not seen: the attacker repeatedly insists she is a man and her body melts away into nothingness leaving only a pile of clothes behind. The clothes are the focus of the man’s outrage, and by leaving them behind, the animation exposes his inability to see the human behind them.
This ability of animation to morph from one thing to another is not only metaphorical, it can futher be construed as a call to action: encouraging a radical questioning of the status quo. In Meta Morphing Vivian Sobchack argues that morphing, i.e. the smooth changing of one thing into another is:
“a historically novel representational practice whose specific material means radically interrogate certain traditional notions of coherence and self identity in space and time, of narrative and character, of evolution and devolution.”
Witnessing the morphing of trans bodies, a viewer is forced to question otherwise unexamined assumptions about the fixity of bodies and identity — prompting not only empathy but identification. Jane Gaines argues that this is a form of “political mimesis […] a relationship between bodies in two locations — on the screen and in the audience — and is the starting point for the consideration of what the one body makes the other do.” Seeing and hearing Teagan transform on screen makes an audience more aware of their own gender fluidity and their own potential for transformation.
However, the radical potential of this film is limited by its authorship: entirely directed and animated by cis men. How far can an audience trust a sense of empathy or identification shaped by people who do not share the experience being described? This is highlighted, when the animation in Teagan is at odds with the story being told. For example, when Teagan describes taking testosterone blockers, the animation shows her holding a raging bull at bay, and when she starts taking oestrogen, she is shown picking a flower and smelling it. These representations of gender are not only highly cliched, but reinforce the idea of a gender binary that the Teagan’s very existence challenges. These stereotypes seem particularly lazy but they are perfectly in tune with the traditional language of gender in animation, which is basic to say the least. From Mickey and Minnie Mouse, to Mr and Mrs Potato Head, animators have tended to separate the world into those that wear bows in their hair and those that do not. Although, as Sean Griffin argues,this performance of gender can be seen as queer in itself:
“the importance of motion in the creation of identity [in] recent animation theory, ties directly into current social constructionist arguments about sexual identity, that all genders and sexualities (not just homosexuality) are learned and performed.”
In conclusion, animation has the potential to be an ideal medium for telling powerful trans stories particularly through its creation of anonymity while maintaining intimacy and ability to morph fluidly between states of being and feeling. However the animation in Teagan falls short of this potential, instead it collapses into lazy cliches around binaries and linear journeys, that trans stories have too often been victim to. The hope is that as more and more trans people, like Jason Barker, step up to tell their own stories, animation will be a medium ripe for use.
Bell, E., Haas, L. and Sells, L. (1995) From mouse to mermaid : the politics of film, gender and culture, edited by Elizabeth Bell, and others. Bloomington : Indiana University Press
Butler, J. (2004), Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge
Gaines, J.M. (1999) ‘Political Mimesis’, in Jane M Gaines and Michael Renov (ed.) Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press
Griffin, S. (2004) ‘Queer Animation’ in Benshoff H. and Griffin S. (ed.) Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge
Halberstam, J. (2011), Queer Art of Failure. Durham, [N.C.] ; Duke University Press
Hall, S. (ed.) (1997), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage in association with Open University.
Honess Roe, A. (2013), Animated Documentary, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality:Issues and Concepts in documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Prosser, J. (1998), Second Skins: the body narratives of transexuality.New York: Columbia University Press
Because I was doing my animation in charcoal I realised I’d have to work on my technique, so I’ve started taking charcoal to life drawing and realised that I LOVE it. It’s such a more forgiving medium than a pencil and it gives my drawings that nice chunky look that I love. I was particularly into my drawings tonight, so thought I’d put a few of them on here. I particularly like the look of using the thick edge of the charcoal to make my initial marks: the line of action, and the main shapes and angles and then to use the sharp end to sketch out the shadows and outlines, I think this gives the drawings both more volume and character.
Today I pitched my film idea to the Children’s society. I initially struggled with my audio as it contains very little narrative and is almost entirely the young person saying thank you to the children’s society. I was a little disappointed as I felt this did not give me much by way of inspiration. However, what it did give me was a lot of freedom. The lines that jumped out at me from the audio were
“I can see how far things have come”
“We’re able to change things for ourselves rather than the adults trying to change things you don’t know about.”
These two lines brought to mind a story about a young boy meeting his older self, who lets him know that however dark the present seems, things will get better. My log line was “An older Jordan meets his younger self and shows him a future is possible.”
And the visuals for the story would go as follows:
A young boy walks down a city street – swamped by clothes that are much too big for him. In a shop window reflection he sees someone familiar. The reflection reaches his hand out to the young boy and they take off and fly over the city roofs, finally landing on top of a tower block, where they sit, dangling their feet off the edge and laughing. The reflection puts his arm around the young boy, who leans against him and eventually they melt into one person.
Back on the same street, a young man sees a young boy reflected in the same shop window, they wave at each other. Older Jordan carries on along the street and disappears.
I decided I would do the animation in charcoal even though, I have never really tried this before, because I want to learn a new technique and I like the idea of not spending the next month in front of a computer. I also liked the idea that in a story about past and present merging the animation would leave a shadowy path of where it had been before.
I tried out a few charcoal tests over the holidays as I think this is the medium I want to use for my children’s society film. My friend Isabel Greenberg who is currently making her graduation film on the RCA animation course, invited me round to her studio to see her set up. It was really fun and she helped me make this:
Then back at the CSM studio I tried some close ups:
and long shots:
I really like the effect but I realised I may need to use softer charcoal and more textured paper to better be able to rub out the lines. I will try watercolour paper and a putty rubber next time.