2012 Talk to Animation Workshop, Viborg, Denmark November


Animation for Development.

Visual Literacy (Understanding the beginnings.)

When we create a picture or make a film it’s generally accepted as visual art… yet as with a book… there are many genres of visual art. Often when we create a picture or a film for a development purpose it can be viewed negatively as propaganda …whether it contains a health or education message, it can be wrongly connected to a political idea or an ideology. Yet ‘Art’ has always been manufactured for a useful purpose… as much as it has ever inspired or entertained us; advertised or simply impressed us with craftsmanship.

Take, for example, the first cave paintings. If these images are looked at today they are accompanied by many theories as to their purpose. Books and films have been made to describe why that buffalo and a small stick figure throwing a spear, was made. In fact descriptions of why that painting was made and what it is supposed to say to us are more frequent than actual viewings of the images. Here is a piece of visual art, where there is an industry of interpretation surrounding it. It is a situation that mirrors today’s whole visual art scene, where the industry determines its value. There are critics who condemn or praise manipulating a public that are enchanted or disgusted. Almost everything that is displayed as Art promotes this conflict between what it good and what is bad for us in art. This conflict, which stimulates one of the most interesting, lucrative and discussed industries in the world, provides us with numerous theories about the value of visual art, but it ignores one important point. What does the image do for us, when we view it? (With our multi-cultural backgrounds and levels of education.)

Cast your thoughts back to that cave… and imagine a tribe discovering it by chance… a tribe of ancient humans who used stone axes to hunt buffalo. Imagine this group walking into the cave for the first time and seeing that image sketched onto a wall, what did they think? (Maybe one member suggested, ‘we could do that to our caves to make them look nice and bright’… maybe another said, ‘I don’t like this at all, it would give me nightmares to sleep in a place like this.) A hunting tribe might however be very curious… and it’s possible that one of them looked at the drawing and saw something new and important to their lifestyle. They might see for the first time a man throwing a spear, where they had been throwing hand axes. (Bare with me on this.)

If at this point in time, one group had been throwing stone or axes at buffalo trying to kill them… they could have had a ‘communication’ moment or experience that changed their life on seeing that image. They might well have taken some time to figure out what was going on in the picture… but in the end one of them might have said, I’m going to try that. I’m going to make a spear and see if that helps me kill a buffalo. That single man/or woman would leave the cave with more knowledge than when they entered. A new idea passed on and learned from looking at a visual image. It is this small branch of visual art featured in this talk. I’ve called it ‘Illustration for Development.’ (And of course later ‘Animation for Development.)

It is this particular genre of art… the value of images to inspire and pass on useful information what it’s all about. Throughout this presentation you will see examples of images and animation that have done just that… passed on useful and new at the time ideas, helpful to a mother in protecting her child, helpful to a farmer to increase his crop, helpful for a community to solve common problems and helpful to a government to explain the laws and rights of its citizens.

Lets move on in history a little from the cave man to the world of books… and the power of the written word… ie literacy.

The fist novel-style book was called ‘Epic of Gilamesh’ which was a Sumerian poem written in Cuniform in the 7th Century BC (Or so Wikipedia says). It is amazing in some ways to think that way back then, a few people could read… and some could not. And that it’s much the same today, only the percentage of people who can and cannot read has changed. However the evolution of stories in written form is quite well documented (as you might expect.) and in Europe it is proposed that there was a time during the 11th century when a single person was the last to have read everything. Possibly this person was a man… a monk perhaps who (according to Martin Aims in ‘The Information’) who would have had the capacity at that time to have read every book ever written in Latin. After this man’s death books became so plentiful that it quickly became physically impossible for one person to keep up with all the books produced. (Clearly no one today has this capacity to read every book that’s ever been written. It’s quite a ridiculous thought. Information for centuries has been contained and spread selectively… depending on how much and what you read.)

Yet we are at a stage in history when it possible for someone my age to have watched every animated feature film ever produced. The history of animation is only a little over 100 years old and in that time there has been an ever-increasing number of films made. (From less than five feature films per year in the 60’s to almost one hundred in 2011. ) And although it would be a major task… if I had devoted my life to keeping up with watching all animated films… it was physically possible.

BUT time is now running out. For a new generation it will be physically impossible for any one to watch all animation films being produced, as the rate of production increases exponentially. We have already out produced our capacity to watch TV animation and in a few years time there will be more films out there than you have years left to live… to watch.

What this means if you are a student of animation or a producer… is there is enough out there already to occupy an individuals entire life, so you will have to compete with this quantity of historic productions as well as competitors/producers your own age… to capture any individual’s attention.

Having highlighted the obvious here (which is not always obvious to a new generation) I am now going to elaborate on visual literacy. I’m going to show you examples of drawings and illustrations that were used in East Africa and Nepal to convey health messages to people. (I have compiled some 3,000 of these illustrations from my time with UNICEF… available as a CD or online for those interested.) These are Illustrations that changed people thinking… most often because it was drawings of the people themselves that they were looking at, and there was no competition from advertisers for attention. There was an immediate recognition of similarity and therefore a more intimate personal exchange between the viewer and the illustration. In some case these were the first illustrations that people ever viewed. And for people who might think that this is a problem of the past… they are wrong. There are more non-literate women today in real numbers… than there were when I began to work for UNICEF in 1975. This is not a historic challenge of perception… this is a geographic challenge. I can take you today to many places in the world where there is no electricity and rural populations are still isolated from basic information that could be of value to them. There is a higher percentage of the world wired and informed than ever before … but the actual numbers of those not is still huge. (Considering the world had less than 2 and a half billion people in it when I was born… and now we are approaching 8 billion.)

(Show Power-point of illustrations from Somalia, Northern Kenya plus Nepal video of ‘Changing visions.’ 15 minutes.)

Each one of you here as animators will be able to relate to this part of the talk better than many others I have presented it to. As animators you will know what Illustrations can do… Animation can do better. With the addition of movement and personality and expression into the clarity of an idea, almost every viewer is captivated and interested. I’m still talking here of people who live in urban poverty or in remote rural areas; people who are fascinated by animation in a way that multi cultural, non-literate audiences in the USA were in the 1920’s in the USA. This is a medium that every culture can relate to… animals and insects that act like villains and heroes. Larger than life characters that talk in funny voices. From the work of a few talented artists the entire animation industry was built on this type of entertainment. But along with entertainment… studios such as Disney pioneered educational animation. It was created and used to teach farmers in Latin America about farming techniques and in India to show the dangers of Malaria. As the animation industry grew from its popular ‘entertainment’ success so too did the use of animation for education. In those early days of film, it was time consuming to do animation, so efforts were made to create films that had a long life span. Disney’s classics all covered timeless entertainment stories and their educational films were mostly made to teach things that would never change or go out of fashion. (ie numbers in Maths education, the ABC of language; and the washing of hands for hygiene. ) At the advent of TV, programmes such as Sesame street researched what children needed to learn and could learn from animation. In 1969 they produced a set of animation spots. (The bouncing letter A or the innovation letter B played to the Beatles ‘Let it Be.’) These spots are still used today in Sesame Street programmes although the presenters and sets have change. This is testament to the long levity of animation… if the message and subject do not change.

But today technology allows us to have a faster turnaround of possibilities for animation. It allows us to bring in subjects to animate that can quickly go out of date. (A political speech lampooned or a specific approaching natural disaster animated to explain the risks)

Today we can find as many genres of animation as there are genres of books.

‘Animation for Development’ is very small in comparison to the rest of what is manufactured but it is a genre none the less. It became established by UNICEF, at two International Summit meetings organised in Prague in 1990 and in Disneyworld, Florida in 1994. An industry that is fiercely competitive came together on a scale not previously witnessed, to help UNICEF identify both the type of issues that could be tackled by animation and to collectively help in production. This is a short film of the history of these two meetings and the outcomes.

Show DVD ‘History of Animation for Development.’ 15 minutes. (From an idea in the field… to the topic for an International Summit.)

The future

As era’s pass on and industries evolve it is good to recognise what opportunities now exist for improvement. We have come from a world that produced most of its visual art to be viewed on walls… then on TVs and for a community to view together, at the same time. We have moved on now to an era where visual information on any subject imaginable is increasingly available at any time we want it. Now visual information of high quality can be made available on demand on hand held notepad and phones. The quality of a product required to fill a cinema screen… is now different from the quality needed for an app on an Iphone. Animation has a new challenge and it is useful to look back at earlier interpersonal visual exchanges to keep the animation industry fresh and creative. There are thousands of issues out there in communities ready to be harvesting as suitable for explanation as ‘animation for development’ displays. There are issues that don’t need to wait for people to be educated in reading to understand. There are thousands of issues affecting the health and welfare of our children than might be ‘news’ to parent and don’t have to wait for journalists or researchers to discover but already exist as practical ways of doing things or healing things… yet they need to be explained better in local languages and in the context of the local culture.

In conclusion I would like you to consider all the elements that make Animation for Development a worthy cause. If you can find time, produce something that fits this category (at least once in your career). If you recall my illustrations from Northern Kenya where people stood around and discussed artworks being done of them. Remember the intimacy of someone explaining something with the help of visuals and how a visual explanation provides you with a very personal reward. (Unlike share media experiences in large groups watching the same film or video.) Consider the power of visual information, when you need it. Whether it is how to remove a dried pea from being stuck up a child’s nose or how to stop a child from dying of dehydration. The answer should not only be kept in mind, it should be available to call down from a reliable source and animated to help explain it.

Thank you for you attention.

George McBean

Viborg November 2012

George McBean 2012