26th September 2022
How Our Troop of Animators Made ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’ Shorts for The Open University
‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’ introduction was designed and animated by Joe Blaxland.
In June we proudly shared our collaboration with The Open University’s Broadcast & Partnership team. This series of online animated shorts are a companion piece for The OU and BBC TV series, ‘AIDS: The Unheard Tapes’, a documentary that focuses on recorded interviews discussing personal experiences of living with HIV over the last 30 years.
To get a set of animations out the door in a relatively short time, we commissioned three animators to work on the project. Having been on our radar for a while, we thought Emily Scaife and her abstract approach would be an excellent fit. To add to the team, we called upon previous Kong collaborators, character extraordinaire Natasha Pollack and graphic whizz Joe Blaxland.
In this blog post, we chat with Emily and Natasha about the inspiration behind their animations and discuss how they executed their visuals and series of animated shorts.
Animator Natasha Pollack worked with Kong Studio last year on an explainer video for Waltham Forest Council and impressed the team with her hand-drawn style and wit. Natasha set to work on designing and animating Andrew and Elise’s interviews. Lisa and Ash’s episodes were designed and animated by Emily Scaife, known for her abstract and experimental style. Having recently become a mother for the first time, Emily had the extra challenge of developing the animations while also caring for her one-year-old.
Kong Studio: What was the brief and how did you work together to respond to it?
Natasha: Emily and I received the original scripts and we chose between us who would do which story. The visual brief was quite broad, so we could basically do what we wanted. Mine and Emily’s styles are quite different, so we had to figure out a way to tie them together. Emily’s work is about shapes and feelings whereas I’m more figurative. Emily had already made a start on designing her two shorts. I loved the colour palette she was using, so we went with that to tie everything together.
Emily: The Open University team were flexible and gave us a lot of creative freedom. They did specify they wanted something quite abstract as some of the scripts are fairly explicit. Abstract animation can also be more economical as some sections and assets can be reused, but in this case, I ended up designing and animating everything from scratch.
Emily Scaife’s work-in-progress designs for ‘Ash‘.
Kong Studio: How did you develop your visuals to get around the graphic content of the scripts?
Natasha: My own work tends to be glib and cartoony so working on The AIDS Tapes animations has by far been the most sensitive animation I have worked on. I had to approach animating from a fresh point of view while still using my signature style of humour. Andrew’s story is not a bleak one, but where he is living with his diagnosis. I liked the idea of using silly metaphors, such as ‘put on a hat’ became a symbol for using a condom. I was concerned that the level of humour may be too much. I didn’t want them to appear flippant or insincere. I didn’t need to worry though as The OU were pleased and said ‘Yes, do that!’.
Natasha Pollack’s storyboards for ‘Andrew‘.
Emily: Ash’s animation is in my more abstract style. The interview was recorded in the early 2000s so that instantly took me to the era of VHS tapes. I wanted the look to be speckly to give texture, but everything was done digitally. I designed various test frames, and it was amazing to have The OU give me the freedom to not have to create and stick to a storyboard. These early designs helped to formalise the colour pallet for all the animations in the series.
Lisa’s short is more illustrative and figurative. Throughout, I was thinking about the mood at each point and the feeling I was trying to invoke, and how that also impacts the structure of the film overall. It felt like I was balancing the feeling of anxiety over an HIV diagnosis versus the joy of being pregnant. I have recently had my first baby, so I drew upon my own experiences of the fear of birth and the feeling of elation once the baby was born. I did make a storyboard for this film but found it was more helpful to concentrate on linking motifs to certain moments in the script, and then go straight into animating the two shorts. I wouldn’t normally do this, but as The OU were open to experimentation, I didn’t feel we needed to pin everything down first in an animatic.
Emily Scaife’s design works in progress for ‘Lisa’.
Kong Studio: Can you share with us how you animate and develop your signature style?
Natasha: I mainly use Photoshop as that was the programme that was readily available to me when I started animating. I really like the paint brushes as they create textures that give a hand-drawn style. Photoshop’s limitations for animating forces you to work in a particular way. I also try to colour in every frame by hand, which can take longer than the actual animating. There are ways to do this part faster, but that would be telling.
Emily: For Lisa’s story, I wanted the shapes to be softer and more feminine. One night, after a long night with my baby son, I hit upon using his nightlight. I cut out my motifs from different coloured gels and filmed the projections rotating on my bedroom wall. The footage was then composited into the final short to create a ‘dreamy’ space for one of the more joyful moments. I really enjoyed using a mix of live filming and digital animation and using what you have to create something that looks beautiful while being genuine and real.
Kong Studio: Anything else you think we should know about the animations?
Natasha: You may wonder who voiced my two shorts but wonder no more. It was myself and Kong overlord Tom Baker. We both voiced the rough voice-overs to get the timing right for the animations. When they went back to The Open University for their feedback, they said they loved the sound of my voice, and that other one that sounded a bit like Scott Mills, so much that they wanted to keep them.
Emily: Having recently become a mother for the first time, I hadn’t imagined I’d be able to take on a commission whilst caring for a 14-month-old full-time. I was really pleased when Emma at Kong approached me to work on the project and the dream of having three months to finish the two shorts. I worked while my son napped and at weekends when my partner was not working. It has been so exciting to have a project that allows me to create stuff that is non-conventional and challenges me to innovate. I have loved working on this project. More please!