Life Realities vs Visual Magic? Research Dissertation

Life Realities vs Visual Magic?
creative animation of community voices
for global audiences


This visual research project aimed to make first steps on a much longer-term learning trajectory to develop animation skills. complementing. My ‘unique selling point’ is my professional consultancy reputation with international development agencies and understanding of development concepts and global experience in many different contexts. There is a growing demand for on-line visual materials linked to my consultancy – significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic – to reach large numbers of people more rapidly and sustainably and reduce budgetary and environmental costs of travel. On a personal level health issues now limiting my travel mean I need to diversify the types of work I can do from UK.

Although there are a growing number of professional animation studios in many countries, most development agency animations are done by technical people in urban areas in international languages with written text with limited connections at community levels. They do not have the depth of development experience needed to design animations for my work. The research aimed to help me to develop skills to communicate concepts and narratives visually without text and identify potential RSI-friendly workflows as an independent animator or handover drafts to overseas studios.

I focus on four sets of community visuals in different media and styles from Uganda, DRCongo, India and Pakistan. I started with limited animation experience, intending to focus on ‘simple’ stick animation of line drawings in Adobe Animate. But as I increased my understanding of basic animation principles, my bricolage research on global contemporary animation pointed to possibilities of other moving image and documentary animation approaches. Enabling me to incorporate a wider range of community source material in developing my own contemporary creative style and more effectively combine ‘visual magic’ by the animator with ‘realities of life’ from community voices.

Development of my own ‘creative translation’ animation voice continues to be a very steep learning curve. Producing final combined professional animations is outside the timeframe of this research, and also my current skill level. I focus on developing a framework of ‘creative translation’ prompts and an experimental portfolio of alternative stylistic vignettes before arriving at draft animations for future community and client feedback post-COVID. Clarifying also what community inputs I might need to ask from colleagues on the ground in future, what further animation skills and research I myself might need and/or in what form I could hand over draft concept/narrative visuals for final development by other animators.

Guiding Question

Which contemporary animation approaches can be useful for diversifying my animation practice as ‘creative visual translator’ of community voices on empowerment for a wider global audience?


What can I learn from women and men in different communities and cultures about visual and narrative strategies to communicate empowerment and gender inequality? What needs translating? for whom?

What can I learn from contemporary animators about animation and moving image visual and narrative strategies for balancing ‘magic’ and ‘reality’ to be accessible to a global audience without using text ?

What are the implications for my own creative translation and animation practice in terms of time, budget and health and safety (specifically RSI).


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 empowerment and change. The outputs of these participatory pictorial processes have proved extremely powerful in terms of transforming attitudes and behaviours between women and men in communities and those of development agencies and governments.

For more details of the GAMEchange empowerment methodologies and implementation in different parts of the world see my professional blog:

GAMEchange Network

!! Animated infographic 1: Why animation? challenges of participatory visual communication.

However the material resources available and the prioritisation of empowerment outcomes for participants mean that the visual outputs are not always clear for people who were not present at their production.

It is an underlying motivation for this research that textless digital animation – clarifying narratives and giving the visuals more authority – can make the original voices clearer and more powerful for global audiences in both other communities without formal education and highly educated people in powerful institutions.

Visual Storytelling involves the use of graphics, images, pictures and videos to engage with viewers in an effort to drive emotions and interaction. It’s about determining the right way to represent the information to ensure that it is compelling and relevant for the right audience. When the visual aspect is at its most powerful, the impact and performance of the content is magnified.

What is Visual Storytelling? The Growing Trend in Multimedia Design Jess Scherman  05/30/2016
1.2 ‘Creative translation’: theoretical and ethical issues

This process of digitisation of community voices requires the animator to take the role of ‘creative translator advocate’ between women and men from those communities and powerful institutions. It involves linking concerns of translation theory, semiotics, visual communication theory and creativity theory (See Infographic 2) and thereby questions at a number of levels (See Box 1).

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?!?)
Box 1: Creative translation: a framework of questioning

!! To simplify and transfer much of the text to the diagram below.

What visual communication strategies do women and men in different communities use to represent empowerment? semiotic 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 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?

How far do the drawings speak for themselves? What needs translating, why and for whom? 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?How are the visuals and messages likely to be received by those in other communities? By those in powerful institutions? Is it always possible to create pictorial symbols to communicate complex concepts and deep meanings, without needing text? what are the limitations, if any?

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?

Cognitive Map: Participatory VisCom revisited
Infographic 1: Zemni Creative Translation Framework
!! To clarify and revise this diagram with clear questions
1.3 What are community voices saying? visual and semiotic analysis

My first question was therefore: What can I learn from women and men in different communities and cultures about visual and narrative strategies to communicate empowerment and gender inequality? What needs translating? for whom?

I started my research with analysis of community voices to enable me to focus my questions around ‘creative translations’. From my thousands of photographs of community drawings and participatory processes, I selected four primary datasets on which I had enough visual material and contextual information:

  1. Uganda: drawings, photos and song videos from gender workshops with women and men coffee farmers
  2. DRCongo: gender workshop role play photos from women and men coffee farmers
  3. India: drawings, photographs and song video from a livelihood grant planning workshop with tribal women
  4. Pakistan: drawings and photographs with women and men from micro-finance programmes

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 participatory group drawing. This variation was less in Africa, but there were still big variations depending on education and 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, kissing lips 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.

Gallery 1: Community Voices

Voices 1: Uganda

workshop drawings, photos and video of gender inequality in coffee households

Voices 2: DRCongo

photos of role play on men’s waste of coffee money

Voices 3: India

workshop drawings, photos and video of poverty challenges in livestock keeping

Voices 4: Pakistan

workshop drawings, photos and found video on domestic violence.

1.4 Animation for development: research context

In parallel to this work on community voices, I also started to look at existing animations around development issues and common cultural design and animation styles to see if there were any examples of powerful textless animation that I could learn from to contextualise my own experimentation.

Although very obviously professional, most visuals from international development agencies and also graphic artists in Asia and Africa available from web searches tended to be rather formulaic following a global digital style. The most significant shortcomings from a community development perspective is the widespread reliance on a lot of written text or voice over narrative in English or main national language.

International development animation is a rapidly evolving global creative industry particularly in response to COVID-19. Gallery 3 gives the most striking examples I found. Some Indian, and African animations are visually interesting in local cultural styles, using sound effects and colour and composition for dramatic effect. There are powerful simple textless animations on gender inequality from Europe where the great diversity of languages make translation an issue. There are also increasingly diverse approaches like Hamida Khatri’s stop motion animation and the multiple media work of Ng’endo Mukii from Kenya.


Nevertheless it rapidly became clear that if I really wanted to produce powerful textless animations accessible to global audiences at different levels, and a workflow that could accommodate my budgetary and RSI constraints, I would need to look wider than only development agency animation examples.

Gallery 2: Animation for development agencies

!! To be updated – a rapidly moving field

Cosmic Xo from Ghana. Very short really funny satire on the education system. Very simple direct animation style that is very dynamic, expressive and effective with just outline and shapes with sound effects, but still relies on dialogue.
This is a typical example of a visually attractive animation using symbols on gender equality. But it relies very heavily on the English narrative.
Hamida Khatri ‘Red Ribbon’, Pakistan Stop Motion
Amusing short animation for Social Europe about the inequalities in recognition of skills between women and men. It has one short textless message for a multilingual audience.
Ng’endo Mukii, Kenya This Migrant Business

2: Realities of Life
vs Visual Magic?
contemporary animation strategies

!! this section I need to look again through all my research on animators, narrow it down and transfer material I do not use here to my Moving Image blog. I also need to read again my main literature sources – maybe with annotated bibliography?? – and synthesis things with more analysis of visual communications tension between ‘real’ and ‘magic’. In parallel to my further work on the animations themselves. Making things link more clearly – now I am clearer where my practical interest and focus is.

2.1 Realities of Life vs Visual Magic? contemporary animation approaches

I took an eclectic Bricolage approach to this divergent stage of the research, but focusing on my second question: What can I learn from contemporary animators about animation and moving image visual and narrative strategies for balancing ‘magic’ and ‘reality’ to be accessible to a global audience without using text ? Continuing to focus on my own learning needs in relation to my own animation experiments with creative translation of the selected community examples (see below).

I started by looing at Russian, Eastern European and contemporary Western animators had worked without dialogue. As the community drawings were line drawings, I was initially interested in combining:

In the process I was also struck by the beauty of Russian and Eastern European stencil/puppet stop motion by animators like Yuri Norstein and the charcoal animations of William Kentridge that worked on a visceral level without the need for words.

On the other hand I started to think that, even if well-done, ‘professionally crafted’ animation inevitably looks externally created, rather than clearly rooted in community voices. This led me in a different direction to look at approaches that could integrate photographs and video: stop motion collage by animators like Terry Gilliam , motion graphics and rotoscoping.

Finally this brought me to combined moving image and animation approaches used by documentary animators like N’gendo Mukii and Yoni Goodman.

Gallery 3:
Key inspirational animations

Styles and techniques
Andreas Hykade: Nuggets. Very simple line animation, in black, white and yellow makes a powerful textless animation about addiction.
Peter Millard: Since the Better uses a very simple drawn face moving slowly across the screen contrasting with the music to create a poignant textless animation about powerlessness.
Jonathon Hodgson Dogs. Mix of drawn and rotoscoped ‘boiling’ lines and shapes creates a very dynamic animation of relationships between dogs and humans.
Terry Gilliam’s satirical collage stop motion animations, using only sound effects, are both really funny and serious at the same time.
Narrative combinations
Gottfried Mentor’s powerful tale of identity and conflict using only music and sound effects. Although this is CGI, the dramatic mix of comedy and tragic allegory of human behaviour is extremely powerful.
Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Tango and other animations use cycles and sequences of collaged video to create powerful narratives about life.
N’gendo Mukii: The Migrant Business uses multiple drawing, photo and video masking techniques. Text is used but similar approaches could be adapted for use without text.
Review of Waltz with Bashir animated by Yoni Goodman. The real power – apart from the story itself – is the mix of sections that are obviously animated and dreamlike with rotoscoped limited palette interviews, then the switch to real video at the end.
2.2 ‘Realities of Life’ vs ‘Visual Magic’? Cross-cutting strategies

Diversifying and combining narrative and visual approaches not only enables a balance between:

  • magic and illusion of life created by the distancing from reality in constructed narratives (!!insert Disney refs)
  • grounding within a ‘real’ context

This provides ways of matching the media and style more closely to original meaning.

At the same time there cross-cutting visual communication principles and strategies that are generally necessary to guide creative experimentation and unify animations as a whole.

!! I need to put some of the box on the left as text. And develop an infographic based on the sketchbook diagram below. Following this through more systematically in my practical work.

Box 2: Visual story-telling: cross-cutting animation strategies

“What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame” Norman McLaren, Computer Animation

Visual storytelling

  • Dynamic design/ eye trace or ‘Grammar of the Shot’ : storyboarding to clarify and simplify the key narrative moments/scenes/keyframes, maximise viewer attention to each frame and guide the eye through movement between ‘key frames’.
  • Cycles, loops and layers in non-linear narrative to emphasise specific ‘nuggets of communication’ as well as reduce animation work.
  • Juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy to increase the unexpected and keep the audience’s attention.

‘Illusion of Life’: drawings on the boil

  • Expressive line and shape
  • Different types of ‘boil’ or flicker to draw the viewer’s attention to key moments and types of movement
  • Disney animation principles for drawing the frames: squash and stretch,
  • Timing and frame rate – jerky versus smooth
  • Build, erasure and transformation

Documentary Magic’: integrating multiple media

  • Photographs and/or video used at key points in the narrative. Juxtaposition of the ‘real’ and ‘created’ makes each more powerful in communicating the narrative.
  • Audio: use of sound effects and music to create reality, mood and atmosphere and punctuate/anticipate certain key moments of the visual narrative. Dialogue and songs can be expressive without words being understood.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is principlesoverviewdiag2-scaled.jpg
Infographic 2 Animation Approaches: ‘Reality’ versus ‘visual magic’?

3: Zemni animation voice:
first experiments to future practice

Gallery 4: Zemni animation: Experimental portfolio
drafts Jan 2021

1: Mary’s Story,

‘Herstory’ Mary’s endless cycle of disempowerment, overwork and lack of property rights and unhappiness in a polygamous marriage. Animation from community drawings and sketches from role play, contextual photos and song. Draft Animatic January 2021.

2: ‘Tupa Tupa’

‘Tupa Tupa’ (the drunkard) an inevitable reality play’: how men’s actions and behaviour, coupled with corruption, lead to wastage of coffee income. Animation from photographs of role plays by women and men farmers in a Fair Trade cooperative. Stop Motion puppet animation of photographs, collage integrating community drawings with song.

3: Pig Tales,

‘Poverty is no picnic’:  contrasts the outsider’s romantic ideal of tribal Santhal life, with the realities of looking after livestock in poverty. Rotoscoping watercolour sketches and contextual video, integrating community photos and video.

4: The Airplane,

Disintegration of Dreams: contrastsss between the dreams women and men have – particularly when they get married – compared with the reality of what happens statistically to very many women. And also to men’s dreams. Build-up, erase and transformation techniques integrating physical and digital media.
3.1 First animation experiments:
distinctive features and key questions

In my creative animation work I am not aiming to replicate or compete with the professional animation studios. People have often become very used to digital animations with direct messaging. My creative animations to translate of community voices for a global audience aim to balance:

  • enough retention of ‘reality’ to be believable as a communication of development issues.
  • enough ‘magic’ for people to start and continue to watch and think about the issues.

My visual work portfolio explored and developed skills inspired by other animators in a very diverse range of animation approaches as can be seen in Gallery 4 above. The evolution of my animation approaches are discussed in detail in my visual portfolio submission:

Zemni Animation: Experimental Portfolio

The different vignettes I produced used different community inputs, varying degrees of fidelity to these original sources and different types of contextual information. Pointing to a range of possibilities for documentary animation mixed media approaches from which communities and clients could give feedback and decide which to take forward:


  1. Rotoscoping to use video
  2. Stop motion: puppet and cut-out of photographs
  3. Moving image: film and video manipulation and effects
  4. Real audio – songs and expressive voices that do not need translation


  1. 2D frame by frame animation in physical media eg charcoal using build-up erasure and transformation approaches
  2. 2D digital frame by frame and tween animation
  3. Stop motion: puppet and cut-out of drawings and paintings
  4. Audio sound effects created or from on-line libraries

It is possible to focus on only one approach in any single animation. If they are combined then there needs to be a clear linking style or thread. But these choices need to be decided on the basis of audience feedback.

!! Before assessment I am planning to spend all of July and August to go back to sketchbook and systematically go through the creative prompts in my sketchbook, improve the vignettes and animation, then get feedback from INGO colleagues and animation networks (community will still not be possible).

Box 3: Zemni animation: distinctive features and key questions

Distinctive features

  • Grounded in development theories, concepts and narratives
  • Link to participatory community-level visuals and context information rather than external orthodoxies
  • Provoking viewer questions and thinking rather than direct messaging
  • Incorporating nuance and humour to highlight and emphasise the serious points and hold viewer interest
  • Non-linear as well as linear story-telling
  • Balance of ‘real’ and ‘magic’ – mixed or single animation media.

Key questions

  • How to balance simplicity vs complexity? So that narratives can be understood but also raise questions
  • How to decide on what should be ‘real’ and what should be ‘magic’? who decides? how to get community input?
  • Different animation styles have different connotations and meanings. Are the meanings of different media the same across global contexts?
  • What guidelines are needed and manageable for the community level process by colleagues/community members? drawings, songs/audio, photographs, video (mobile phone quality).
  • What is required from contextual research on-line and reports?
  • What are the best mechanisms and technology for feedback from different audiences?
3.2 Zemni independent animation:
conclusions for future practice

What are the implications for my own creative translation and animation practice in terms of time, budget and health and safety (specifically RSI).

Development of my own ‘creative translation’ animation voice continues to be a very steep learning curve. This OCA visual research project provided a good initial base – opening up and clarifying possibilities, conceptual and practical questions and developing a portfolio of animation styles and approaches. Importantly it has enabled me to develop skills to diversify my animation practice in ways that reduce the limitations of RSI.

A key conclusion is that taking a diverse approach, integrating physical media, digital animation and moving image video techniques can enable me to develop over time my own distinctive ‘voice’. I started using Procreate and other pixel-based software on the iPad and Adobe Animate vector animation. Then on advice from independent animator Howard Wimshurst, I switched to TVPaint because of its better drawing and time-line management. 2D digital animation combining work in these software will remain a key element in my practice. But if animations longer than 1 minute are needed or very complex 2D animation I would need to provide storyboard and keyframe drawings for another animator to finish.

The potential for me to work with Stop Motion techniques and physical media is an area I intend to work with much more. I also plan to learn coding in Adobe Animate and After Effects to reduce the need for repetitive digital drawing.

!! I will have done experimented with charcoal and physical media stop motion for the Pakistan animation over the summer, linked to Assignment 4 ‘build erase, transform for Moving Image.

!! Need a strong concluding paragraph when I have done more work on the animations and had feedback from different people.

Infographic 3: Zemni creative animation workflows

!! to be done as non-linear process infographic with questions where I might need to/could delegate

Animation Approaches

  1. 2D digital frame by frame and tween animation
  2. Rotoscoping
  3. Stop motion: puppet and cut-out
  4. Moving image: film and video
  5. Documentary animation mixed media approaches

Media and workflow mixes

  • Use of photography and video reference eg as ‘narrative context envelope’
  • 2D frame by frame drawing in natural and/or digital media
  • Rotoscoping of own and/or found video – eg mobile phone footage
  • Stop Motion manipulation of photos and/or collage.
  • Community level process by colleagues/community members: drawings, songs/audio, photographs, video (mobile phone quality)
  • Contextual research on-line and reports
  • Decide on what should be ‘real’ and what should be ‘magic’ in which media and produce graphics – physical media, photo processing, digital files eg Procreate/Fresco or Corel Painter
  • Narrative storyboard development – creative prompts. Use Sketchbook, iPad or Premiere.
  • What audio is available? Experiment with simplification of movement and narrative in Toontastic to add play and comedy out of control?
  • Sketchbook and/or iPad: For each narrative possibility explore an appropriate and different style. Don’t just take the first one.
  • Combine in Adobe Animate or TV Paint with sound and do the animations
  • Compose and finish with any video clips and effects in Premiere and/or After Effects

Appendix 1:
Creative Translation Prompts

!! I have found these VCAP creative prompts very useful. Taking me multiple times from my original idea, to very different ideas and back in a process of more systematic – and fruitful – experimentation. I now want to apply them to narrative storyboards and stylistic decisions in animation when I work on these further over the summer.

I will also work more systematically through the translation prompts from Bryan Ecclestone’s work, discussing these in my portfolio posts as part of the visual submission.

Visual Communications Advanced Practice Creative Prompts

Exercise 1.3 Creatively exploring your process

Use the following prompts to start developing visual ideas in your sketchbook. Each prompt
might represent 5–10 minutes of creative activity. Select three to get you going, before
returning to add more stages in your process. Aim to fail and learn through the process
rather than trying to create something you know you can achieve.
• Define it
• Make it bold
• Let’s look at the real thing
• Introduce time, motion and sound
• What is the key moment?
• Create a variation
• Connect play, fantasies and daydreams
• Combine seemingly arbitrary content
• Erase the distinctions between original and copy
• Consider again your motivation
• Make it obvious
• Make it ambiguous
• Remind yourself
• Bounce around at speed
• ‘We’ve got a problem, Houston’


Appendix 2:
Contemporary Animation Inspiration

15 key contemporary animators

  • Catherine Anyango Grunewald evocative physical media on social and political issues. UK.
  • Terry Gilliam political/satirical collage stop motion with some dialogue, but mostly comic sound effects. UK.
  • Yoni Goodman Israeli documentary animation combining digital 2D, rotoscoping and video. Israel.
  • Jonathon Hodgson US animator using digital FbF drawn animation and rotoscoping, some without words.
  • Andreas Hykade evocative minimalist vector animation. Germany.
  • William Kentridge charcoal stop motion animation on political issues. South Africa.
  • Ryan Larkin hand drawn animation, generally in watercolour, including social issues like homelessness. Canada.
  • David Lynch minimalist line animation on satirical political issues. Sometimes with dialogue, but also with sound effects. US.
  • Gottfried Mentor focus on narrative and tragi-comedy. 3D CGI without dialogue, using animal allegories to tell social stories. Germany.
  • Peter Millard hand drawn animation, sometimes minimalist, sometimes bright colour. UK.
  • Ng’endo Mukii political animation in multiple media: drawing, paionting, rotoscoping, video. Kenya.
  • Yuri Norstein evocative puppet stop motion. Russian.
  • Zbigniew Rybczynski video using different narrative approaches. Polish.
  • Genndy Tartakovsky Digital 2D animation with very bold action narratives and use of colour, shape and action animation. US/Russian.
  • Gianluigi Toccafondo Handdrawn rotoscoping using oil and smeary effects, also incorporating collage. Suggestied rather than clear narrative. Italy.

Appendix 3:
Technical research: Animation Approaches and Software

!! Insert pdf or just insert link to blog pages??



!! References still to be done – I have to revisit all my references to ident6ify which are really central and which should just go in the bibliography. as my EndNote database disappeared in a pc and disk update.

Bibliography of sources consulted

!! Final bibliography for this review still to be done – I have to re-type all my references as my EndNote database disappeared in a pc and disk update.

Other Resources Used

As my early work progressed it rapidly became evident that if I was to be serious about animation then I would have to pro-actively get technical skills and insights from a wider range of sources. This VisCom4Dev blog makes reference to insights from relevant personal development (non-degree) courses for: