Making Lines Talk:
animating community voices for a global audience
Question Version 1: generic
What visual and narrative strategies used by independent animators are most useful for creative translation of community voices on empowerment for a global audience?
Question version 2: personal
As an independent animator aiming to creatively translate community voices for a global audience, what approaches and strategies used by global animation traditions can I bring together for an effective but RSI-friendly short textless animation workflow.
- 1.1 Communicating community voices: Why animation?
- 1.2 Creative visual translation: ethical and practical issues
- 1.3 What are community voices saying? visual and semiotic analysis
2: Global animation context: approaches and principles
3: Lines Talking: practical animation strategies
4: Independent animation workflows: conclusions for my work
Box 4: Independent animation workflows
Image and video galleries
Gallery 3 Disney and Japan
Gallery 4 Film and stop motion
Gallery 5 Contemporary innovation
- Creative translation checklist of questions
- Creative translation 1: Uganda
- Creative translation 2: India
- Creative translation 3: Pakistan
1: Community versus external voices?
issues in creative translation
1.1 Community versus external voices: why animation?
Much of my professional consultancy work has focused on development of a pictorial participatory methodologies for community-led change. The outputs of these participatory pictorial processes have proved extremely powerful in terms of changing attitudes and behaviours of and between participants from communities and development agencies and governments. For more details of the GAMEchange methodologies and implementation in different parts of the world see: GAMEchange Network
Focusing on visual communication potentially enables:
- clarification of complex ideas and concepts
- immediate and memorable communication
- more information conveyed in a much smaller space and time
- resources accessible to all and more equal communication across inequalities of literacy and power
- reduced need for translation across national and international language barriers
Moreover, the potential of visual communication is likely to increase:
- Rapidly growing numbers of men and women in rural as well as urban communities worldwide, particularly youth, now have smart phones and are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other national social networks.
- The rapid spread of technology and cheap on-line software and apps potentially enable people in communities as well as staff in development organisations to produce visual information for learning and advocacy.
But there are also challenges:
- ‘ the medium may not be the message’ : Many of the drawings and role plays are very immediate and expressive – including drawings by people who never held a pen before. But the drawing style and content may be by local availability of particular media (pencils/ biros/ markers, lined/blank/coloured paper, role play props). The participatory workshops are also very time-constrained where the aim is empowerment of participants, not ‘effective’ design. This means that the visual outputs may not do full justice to the messages and meanings they represent.
- ‘Just pretty pictures by illiterates’: Visual outputs are rarely in a form that is easily communicated to people who were not participating in the process. A lot of the impact of the community-level imagery is lost because lack of visual literacy by people with formal education – ie those in power – mean they often miss the deeper meanings and sophisticated analysis behind the drawings.
- Top down ‘professional design’: There is currently a profound gap in development agencies between those who participate in and implement participatory processes on the ground and those employed specifically to design ‘development messages’. Many visual materials produced for development agencies on empowerment and other topics are very standardised in appearance and simplistic in their messages. Their top-down (and often rather patronising) approach means that even important information risks being ignored. See Development Agency Concept Animations
- Increasing exclusion: The most ‘professional’ design relies on written diagrams – often in English or French! Large numbers of the most marginalised people – from minority ethnic groups, poorer backgrounds and many women – who cannot read and write and/or do not speak any of the major international languages. Many also do not speak the main national Asian or African languages.
One way of making the community drawings and visuals more accessible to a global literate and non-literate audience is through textless animation – clarifying narratives and giving the drawings more authority through digital translation.
This research project is a personal professional-focused project to develop my understanding and skills of visual strategies and techniques used by independent animators and animators working primarily in a visual rather than language-driven way, to enable me to ‘creatively translate’ outputs from communities I have worked with.
1.2 ‘Creative visual translation’ practical and ethical issues
The role of graphic artists aiming to contribute to empowerment and represent voices from disadvantaged and marginalised communities can usefully be seen as that of an intermediary ‘creative translator advocate’ between women and men from those communities and powerful institutions. This requires a detailed understanding of both what different people in communities are trying to communicate, and the ways in which this is likely to be received by those in power.
Translation theory is concerned with the processes of ‘carrying over’ meanings from one ‘text’ in one form or language to another ‘text’ in another form or language. (my definition). It borrows concepts and approaches from a range of disciplines including: comparative literature, computer science, history, linguistics, philology, philosophy, semiotics, and terminology.
A creative translator advocate must be very flexible to a multiplicity of possible ‘translations’ and translation media that ‘free, transform and multiply’ provoking those in power to listen and act, not sit back and passively consume messages they have heard many times before (see Translation Theory).
‘Foreignizing translation’ vs ‘abusive fidelity’? (Venuti ref)
How does one write about or represent another culture in one’s own language and terms without those very terms and conceptions altering that which is being represented? How do one’s conceptual notions color what one see and reports? (Niranjan ref)
The Western scholar/translator can partially access the subaltern condition, not through what is specifically said…but by reading that which is not said – reading the gaps, the silences, and the contradictions symptomatically…it is necessary to ‘unlearn’ in order to allow the mute [sic] to speak (Spivak Ref)Spivak (!!full ref)
A key resource here is the work of Bryan Eccleshall in developing questions and prompts for
Box 1: Creative Translation: key issues
- gender. How to draw neutral human figures. When to differentiate women and men. Androgeny/dimorphosm?. Man/woman, husband/wife.
- Animation can clarify, extend, question
- serious inequality/humour
- Narrative question, rather than ram down throat?
What visual communication strategies do women and men in different communities use to represent empowerment?
How far do the drawings speak for themselves? What needs translating, why and for whom?
What are the potential roles and/or limits for creativity of the translator?
Meanings also reside in visual dynamics:
- which images are chosen and what they stand for
- connotation of different types of line, shape, colour and texture
- where images are placed and the hierarchy of relationships between each of the signs. Placing something at the front or top of an image will create a different meaning from placing something at the back or bottom.
Key questions for this research include:
- how far is it possible to create pictorial symbols to communicate complex concepts and deep meanings, without needing text? what are the limitations, if any? can anyone do this?
- relationship between individual creation and use of symbols ‘parole’ and public symbol systems ‘langue’ and ‘codes’ – how widely are the former understood and when and how do they become ‘langue’.
- how far and in what ways might ‘hegemony’ by dominant groups restrict creativity of others to create their own symbols and meanings?
Texts may take many forms: spoken, written, visual, digital, musical and the ‘carrying over’ may be within or between these forms, or even ‘updating’ within the same form. Translation theory is concerned with issues such as:
- analysis of source texts and meanings eg is there only one or many meanings in a text? how can meaning be derived?
- analysis of target text and audience understandings of meaning eg how far does the purpose and audience require adaptation and change in the final form?
- the nature of ‘equivalence’ and role of the translator in transforming source texts into target texts eg are translators ‘faithful messengers’ or also creative authors of the target text?
Of particular relevance for empowerment and participatory approaches are linkages that have been made between translation theory and post-colonial and subaltern theory by authors such as Tejaswini Niranjan and Gayatri Spivak. They are concerned particularly with:
- power relations between translators, those producing the source texts and those consuming the target texts: which voices and texts are chosen for translation? can the translator (Western or post-colonial academics in the global South) really understand and translate the voices of ‘oppressed’ and ‘subaltern’ marginalised from dominant cultures? is the role of the translator to replace one ‘word’ in the source text with another ‘formally equivalent’ word in the target text as the risk of either ‘abusive fidelity’ or ‘exotic stereotypical foreignization’? or is the role to be creative in producing texts that ‘free, transform and multiply meaning’ (Quebec feminists ref?!?)
1.3 What are community voices saying?: semiotic and visual analysis
I started my research on community voices to enable me to focus my questions around ‘creative translations’. This meant looking through my thousands of images of community drawings, selecting series where I had enough background information and documentation of the drawings to ask and as far as possible to answer questions about:
Box 2: Questioning Community Voices
- How do women and men in communities communicate concepts and experiences in their drawings? How have they used line, shape and colour to communicate different messages? How have they simplified and abstracted of facial expressions and figures, differentiated women/men, ethnic groups, poverty/wealth?
- Are there common stylistic or symbolic features within and between cultures/contexts? How does this vary between individuals and/or within contexts depending on individual background and/or facilitation process?
- What are the challenges of interpretation and textless visual communication a translator needs to address? ? What common visual techniques and/or narrative strategies can be widely understood by different audiences? What lessons can I learn from community drawings about how challenges can be addressed?
Analysis guided my selection of images based on potential narratives. This guided my selection and focus in review of animation.
The community datasets were very variable, between facilitation processes and individuals rather than contexts as a whole. Particularly in Pakistan and India where most drawings were by people at one-off workshops there were big differences in education level, many different drawing styles can be found on one group drawing. This variation was less in Africa, but there were still big variations depending on education and also how long people had been using pictorial methodologies.
Some images, particularly from tribal women in India who had never held a pen before, were very stylistically expressive – reminiscent of Basquiat or Tracey Emin, though the exact meaning needed verbal explanation.
Some images, particularly from women Gumutindo coffee farmers in Uganda were mini-narratives that could be pretty much understood even by outsiders.
Some organisations had over time developed their own internal semiotic language, resulting in very complex systems for pictorial recording and analysis, innovating with the diagram guidelines provided by myself. Anyone used to working with the organisation would be able to read these diagrams with little additional explanation.
Gender, poverty level and emotional state were widely communicated through abstracted figures differentiated by use of clothing, hairstyle, facial expression etc., even where drawings were spontaneous and done with little guidance.
Signs like arrows, dream bubbles, skid marks, tears and so on were also widely used and understood.
Concepts like empowerment, gender-based violence and leadership could be visually disaggregated into component meanings and gradations of power, abuse etc. that could be understood once the topic of the exercise was known.
That said, some of the images were very formulaic, eg with ‘sad crying figures’ meaning anything from loneliness to lack of identity and freedom. Such limitations would need to be overcome through developing symbolic juxtaposition of elements as single-image or sequential narratives.
2: Global animation context: approaches and principles
2.1 Independent animation: practical and personal considerations
Bricolage approach. Do not want to limit myself.See Bricolage approach.
The bricolage approach means a very eclectic and contingent gathering of sources of inspiration:
Animation techniques used by animators working in simplified styles without text in different cultural contexts.
Different animation styles have different connotations and meanings – how do these vary between cultures?
- The Community styles and content
- Independent animation potential
2.2 Independent animation: development agencies and African and Asian animators
I started by looking at existing animations around development issues and common cultural design and animation styles. This was done through Google and You Tube searches and based on resources I have been looking out for in the course of my work before and since starting the course. See presentation and analysis of the data in the linked posts:
- Development agency concept illustrations and animation
- Pakistani animation styles
- Islamic calligraphy and Street Art from Book Design 1
- Indian women’s empowerment animation
- African graphic design and animation styles
In contrast to the community drawings the visuals from development agencies, and also graphic artists in Pakistan and Africa tended to be rather formulaic following a global digital style, with some variation in colour, features etc. The most significant shortcomings from a development perspective is the widespread reliance on a lot of written text or voice over narrative in English or main national language. Although these were obviously very professional, using comedy as well as serious messages, they were not appropriate animation models for my own work.
Some of the Indian animation was more ‘artistic’ with evocative black and white styles that were more relevant for my research, but still very reliant on English.
Gallery 2: Animation in development agencies and African and Asian animators
2.2 The big 2D animation traditions: Disney and Japan
Gallery 3: Disney and Japan
2.3 Grammar of the Shot: Inspiration from film and stop motion
Gallery 4: Film and Stop Motion
2.4 Contemporary innovation in Indie animation
Gallery 5: Contemporary innovation
3: Lines Talking:
practical animation strategies
3.1 Independent animation approaches and strategies
Box 3: Practical animation strategies
Disney animation principles
Timing and frame rate – jerky versus smooth
Cycles loops and layers
Eye trace and directing focus
‘Grammar of the Shot’
Creative Translation 1: Uganda
Creative Translations 2: India
Creative Translations 3: Pakistan
4: Independent animation workflows: conclusions for my work
Creative Translation Checklists
The third element of my data gathering was to investigate different types of iPad software, the range of techniques and styles which other animators have used them. In particular, which software techniques would be most useful to adapt the animation styles I want to use in my translations. And how they might be combined in workflows adapted to different animation requirements.
Key things to look for when choosing animation software:
- Drawing tools vector drawing tools for creating motion and scaling and/or pixel-based tools for more artistic effects.
- Symbols or re-usable elements
- Tweening or smoothing/interpolation of animation between drawn key-frames
- Onion-skinning: viewing of previous and following drawn frames to facilitate accurate drawing of current frames
- Layers to be able to create scenes. Including image import so that backgrounds and other features can be created from photographs, artwork or imported images from other drawing and painting aps.
- Timeline features: control over frame speed and duration, easy addition and deletion of frames.
- Audio features to import music, narration and sound effects
- Text features to add titles, captions and additional text overlays.
A potentially effective workflow I identified was:
- Toontastic as a playful lego-puppet story-telling ap with very simple colours and character animation to experiment with simplification of the narrative, character and scenes with built-in mood music and possibility to alter order and number of scenes. Whether it is possible to create comic child-like animations just using this remains to be seen.
- Procreate to create very artistic atmospheric drawn and/or painted short scenes, including photo and video import. Export to either:
- Flipaclip to create longer sequences with multiple layering and audio tracks. Flipaclip could also be used alone for the whole process where very artistic effects are not required.
- Rough animator to create longer sequences with complex loops and cycles with single audio track. Will export to After Effects.