To New York HQ

After the Summit to New York and beyond

By 1996, several parallel animation projects were ongoing in UNICEF. (Note that by this time many more people worked in this field. Some people who joined UNICEF after this time might not know anything about this background story.) The National Committees for example became more interested and involved after Orlando. There was a lot of interest in presenting UNICEF awards at the various animation film festivals such as Annecy and also Prix-Juenesse. The International Day of Children’s Broadcasting, was another creative contribution from Bill Hetzer and his team. The subject of children’s rights began to dominate the agenda of these events. There was also an idea in HQ to offer a little seed money to support any innovative projects that were submitted to HQ from the field. I was invited to move to New York HQ after my time expired in the Caribbean, to run this creative global communication fund. The first project that was supported with these funds was an international meeting in Indonesia organized by Maggie Murray Lee to expand the idea of using Animation for Development to include Puppets. The workshop was called ‘Puppets with a Purpose.’

Another project that crossed my desk in New York for attention turned out to be a most interesting co-production with DC Comics for a Superman comic that would help children learn about and avoid the dangers of landmines. I have included below a short account of this story that I gave recently to young animators at a workshop in Bishkek… animators who faced the challenge of using local characters among enormous competition from overseas animation.

Was Superman was too alien for Kosovo?

(An inside perspective)

Geneva 1997. The Kosovo war is coming to an end, thousands of refugees are poised to return to their homes and villages as part of the cease-fire agreement. They are currently housed in camps in Albania and eager to return. During the conflict over seven million landmines have been planted across the countryside within Kosovo, many positioned as booby traps inside schools and houses by the retreating Serbs. In addition to the landmines thousands of unexploded ordinance is scattered across the countryside left by NATO air strikes and troop movements during the war. The United Nations, the Red Cross and several concerned NGO’s meet in Geneva to discuss how to handle the communication challenge of informing the returning Kosovans on the dangers they will face, especially those posed by UXOs (unexploded ordinance) and landmines. On the agenda of the meeting is a discussion on the usefulness of a Superman comic, created by DC Comics with assistance from UNICEF and the World Food Programme. The comic has been specially produced to highlight the dangers of landmines and UXOs to Kosovo’s children.

In the meeting hall there is tension in the air, since this group represents the main cooperative talents of those responsible for the safe return and rehabilitation of Kosovans.

The European delegates are aggressively against the use of Superman comics, believing it to be ‘culturally inappropriate’ to Kosovo. The language used to condemn the comic is emotive and not based on any research. UNICEF on the other hand have researched this comics with focus groups in the refugee camps and UNICEF is confident that the comic will help stimulate awareness among children. These messages are so clear they are likely to be circulated even to young children by the older children. There has been no problem with the acceptance of Superman among the children and only very few parents objected, with most seeing Superman (and NATO in this case) as a positive intervention.

(Side note: The whole idea of using Superman to spread awareness on landmines was given to DC comics Jeannette Khan by Judy Collins the singer and long-time supporter of UNICEF. DC Comics then adapted and translated the Superman Deadly Legacy strip against landmines issue for Bosnia, Angola and Latin America. These first attempts were artistically honest to the characters but failed to include enough valuable information to make their messages lasting and useful. The Latin America attempt utilised more research, making for example Wonder Woman’s skirt longer and more appropriate for Latin American sensitivities. The Bosnian comic was criticised, mainly because US soldiers had distributed it. (Hence this request to UNICEF for more refined testing before the Kosovo comic was used.)

Back to the present: There are a lot of mumblings across the meeting hall, on one side Superman is seen as a symbol of American imperialist propaganda. On the other side it’s viewed as a comic with potential to confirm the dangers of landmines and UXOs to children; help children identify them and most important, help them learn what they should do if they find one. There were three goals of the UNICEF research, 1. To show is was understood in the Albanian language. 2. To make sure the visuals accurately represented the landmines and dangerous ordinance for children to identify. 3. To make sure they knew what to do and who to report any sightings of such danger too. UNICEF predicts it could well help to save lives and that it is certainly worth distributing in these circumstances. The International Red Cross champion the European view against the comic, while UNICEF/DC comics stand by their efforts and the camp pre-tests of the comic.


Would you choose to distribute a foreign made comic, using a foreign hero in your community in such circumstances?


I repeat here what I suggested earlier with the use of Disney characters... ‘in the end one approach will help and support the other as long at the information is reliable, useful and not contradictory.’

We are not facing a challenge to local culture here we are facing immediate and real dangers to children. In such an emergency situation would you refuse a drug or food or a tent or a blanket because it is made in another country? Why then refuse an informative comic? Of course try and produce as much locally created information as possible and use that as well… use everything that’s at hand to save these children and their family’s from this horrific danger.

National TV stations are broadcasting pictures from Kosovo of some of the atrocities including the victims of booby traps. Time is of the essence here and the comics are already printed and sitting on palates in a UNICEF warehouse in Kosovo. Tensions are high. It is like a town hall meeting in Metropolis where the authorities are faced with a crisis, and there is constant bickering. Can Superman help or not?

The European contingent begin to suggest that the children in Kosovo might well look on this character Superman as real and endanger themselves by trying to jump off high buildings and fly… (yes they did say this) They insisted that the Superman comic should not be distributed in mass to children but rather be given out in a few selected schools and that only with supervised instruction should it be introduced! (Nothing in UNICEF’s pre-test research in the camps suggested that children would imitate the man of steel and try to fly! )

Superman in the end was not distributed in nearly the mass numbers it had been prepared for. It served a useful purpose in schools after the return of refugees through the backing of the World Food Programme, UNICEF and some NGO’s. Later the Europeans put some effort into supporting the production of local comic books using a Kosovan folk hero to get over landmine awareness. (A folk hero by the way that was famous mostly for slaughtering Serbs… so what sort of problems that would cause later on for children I’m not sure.)

Meanwhile is it not still the case that the more people who speak out on the horrors of landmines the better, even if they are imaginary figures?

Cartoons for Children’s Rights

One of the best ideas to come out of the Orlando Summit was a suggestion from C.J. Kettler who was President of Sunbow Entertainment at the time. She suggested an idea to produce a series of Cartoons for Children’s Rights, where studios and individual animators could contribute short non-verbal animated spots to help UNICEF popularize The Convention on the Rights of the Child. More than 80 studios from 25 countries immediately signed up to help.

Bill Heltzer’s section in New York were tasked with initiating this project and Debbie Reber started communication with all the participating studios. Much has been written on this initiative and there are links to UNICEF’s website to see some of the results. Suffice to say that for four years, among other projects I worked closely with Bill Hetzer to coordinate the creation of over 120 short animated spots… each one conveying a non-verbal message relating to an article in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In some cases I developed individual storyboards for these spots. (As you will read in the “wisdom of hindsight” piece next…just because these spots were gifted free…doesn’t mean they were all good!) A selection of the best spots were distributed globally but many more were also screened locally by their makers when deemed appropriate.

At the peak of this Cartoons for Children Rights project… UNICEF distributed over 90 of these spots to every government TV station around the world (along with and including a number of private channels and cable networks). It was able to be used instantly (because it was non-verbal) during children’s television programming and the spots were screened regularly for free as Public Service Announcements. In some case the most popular spots were repeated (too often for my liking) for over a year.

When we estimated how much it would have cost UNICEF to screen this set of spots at commercial rates around the world, we calculated that the broadcasters were giving UNICEF the equivalent of over US$30 million per month in free advertising. Not only was UNICEF’s logo and name attached to these spots but they were helping to popularize a convention and set of laws that each country had ratified but that the public knew very little about. (In some countries there was not even a word in the local languages for ‘rights’.)

In addition to these estimated broadcasting costs was the contribution from the animators and animation studios that also amounted to millions of dollars in free materials and time. In kind this has to be one of the most creative and lucrative single contributions ever made to UNICEF.

The wisdom of hindsight

As the number of efforts in animation increased, we also had to face a few failures. Most failures were related, not to creativity or value but failures in finding funding. For example an ambitious global children’s animation series was designed and piloted by A film in Denmark. The series entitled Digit and Download featured a young alien child from a distant planet who managed to gain access to all the earth’s digital TV images and programmes. Being slightly concerned as to the content available for the earth’s children, the alien boy surfs into the homes of the earth’s children through TV screens and has adventures and discussions with them in a variety of cultural settings. A pilot advert for the series was made and great effort was made by both UNICEF and A film to find funding for its creation. Although the interest was high from National Committees of UNICEF the funding never fully materialized and the project cancelled.

People from within the Australian and UK Children’s Television community organized more international ‘Summits’ for Children’s TV and media. UNICEF participated in two of these events in the UK and in Greece, with Executive Director Carol Bellamy taking part in both and stressing the role that all children’s TV had in both adhering to the spirit of Convention of the Rights of the Child CRC in their making of productions as well as spreading awareness about the CRC through children’s TV. Patricia Edgar and Anne Holms were leading figures in both these summits.

One other animation collaboration was an idea to support an important UN meeting with an animated spot that would highlight the plight of children. At this new meeting scheduled to take place in New York in September 2001, more world leaders and heads of state than ever were due to attend at the UN to discuss progress made on the goals set at the original World Summit for Children 1990. (note here the dates proximity to the 9/11 attacks.)

A dozen of our regular partners were approached with the idea of a creating an animation Jam. (A technique where one studio is given a subject to interpret without seeing what the other contributors have been given and each studio does their own thing. These contributions are then joined to make up a story told in different styles. We called the film “Spreading the Jam” and gave each studio a short period in a child’s life to illustrate from birth to eighteen The issues most important to this set of years was also give to the animators. In the end we got a unique and wonderful production… again all made fee without using any of UNICEF’s resources (except my time.) Spreading the Jam, was scheduled to be screened for and presented to every Head of State attending the summit. These leaders were to be approached in the same way a non-literate villager was approached… with a piece of entertaining visual animation that would help describe visually the priorities of the meeting they were about to attend. It was of course backed up with reams of research documents and studies… but the fact that Heads of State would see this at the same time it was to be broadcast on local TV stations made it something of a first for the animation industry.

Unfortunately the 9/11 attacks and the destruction of the twin towers and fears that the UN building could be a target for terrorism meant the Summit was postponed. It was held at a later date, but not nearly the same number of Heads of State attended. Spread The Jam was broadcast internationally and its likely mre people saw the Jam than read the final report of the meeting, but really in the aftermath of the attacks its message, like so many other positive efforts were lost in a barrage of news events. Seen out of context now Spread the Jam seems like a entertaining professional piece… but just imagine it screened backed then in 2001 in a General Assembly filled to the brim with world leaders. It would have been like having a famous singer sing a song to them, not just to entertain them but sing about what their priorities are! Despite everything that went wrong it was another step forward in displaying the power of animation to highlight priority social issues.

George McBean 2012