Last summer, animation director Anna Ginsburg was in the thralls of working on a commercial “that left me exhausted,” she tells It’s Nice That. So exhausted, in fact, that Anna was contemplating early retirement from creative work, tempted to veer off course from the incredibly busy path she’s trodden since graduating from Edinburgh College of Art just a few short years ago. That was until she saw the work of Melissa Kitty Jarram.
Melissa, a London-based painter, caught Anna’s eye for countless reasons, she says, reeling off a list of details in the painter’s work that lit “this fire in my belly".
“I loved her surreal, beautiful landscapes filling with smoking eggs and rocks with devilish faces,” she points out, as well as her ability to paint characters which are “mysterious, intimidating and strong” and, of course, her use of “colour and texture got me excited too,” says Anna. “I feel an otherworldliness about her work which made me want to explore a theme that wasn’t my own if I was going to make her paintings move.”
It will be no news to Anna’s fans that the animation director finds “working with words or music as a starting point inspiring and helpful,” and following a few movement tests based on Melissa’s paintings, the possibilities of stories to tell was wide open. Initially – considering the length of time it takes to translate a painting into animation – the pair thought they’d put together a collection of GIFs for Instagram before their excitement grew and “we got whipped into an unexpected poetry frenzy.”
Neither “natural born poetry fanatics” Melissa and Anna gradually grew attached to the work of Warsan Shire, a British poet born to Somali parents in Kenya. Warsan’s work widens the reach of poetry in particular for its accessibility, “and the power of her writing made us hungry to visualise her words,” Anna tells us. One piece of Warsan’s, Ugly, evokes “the experience of being a refugee fleeing a war torn country and of carrying the trauma in your body, from a female perspective,” the animation director describes. “It is disturbing, direct and eventually uplifting. Although it evokes empathy for the experience of being a refugee, we found it to be moving on so many levels. Her words as comforting and relatable to any person whose been through something traumatic and is wearing that experience honestly, however heavy it may be.”
Fully falling for Warsan’s words, the pair’s next task was then to actually have the poet agree – no easy task considering the only other creative to do so is Beyoncé, who used Warsan’s words on Lemonade. Beginning by making “a stunningly beautiful PDF (so humble) outlining our vision for the film,” Anna and Melissa admit they “naively assumed that we’d be granted instant permission. This was not the case.” Initially unsure, Warsan and her agent were wary, which only made these two want to make the idea a reality even more: “We slid into her DMs on Instagram and relentlessly begged her to open our glorious attachment. We kept begging in every medium we could contact her on until eventually she agreed to look at our pitch. A few days later we were granted permission to turn Ugly into an animated film.”
Not just that, they were also given a voiceover by Warsan herself to work with, so the pair – in classic Anna Ginsburg style – embarked on “a bonkers production process”. Anna herself looked after the line animation, completing a never-ending transition with no cuts and no loops in its entirety. With an outline worked out, Anna’s team began to “recreate the texture and application” of Melissa’s paintings with six alternate Photoshop brushes. If that doesn’t already sound time-consuming enough, the more intricate frames could take up to an hour to colour – and there’s 12 frames in a second of film. That’s 12 hours to colour a single second. “Utterly ridiculous,” adds Anna, “but I was totally committed to keeping the aesthetic as close to the original paintings as possible.”
Premiering the film at an event in support of refugee arts charity Counterpoints, Anna and Melissa’s creation is now out in the world for all to enjoy in its painstakingly intricate glory. With a multi-layered message at its heart, Anna only hopes that people find the film aesthetically beautiful, “and that it makes them feel something”.
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