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Work / World Mental Health Day

Anna Ginsburg on the mental impact of a gruelling creative process, and her mission to rebalance

Across the various mediums of creativity a person can get involved in, animation has always struck me as one that is seemingly magical yet the one I would fully avoid. In offering the rare opportunity to combine narrative, technical ability and illustrative skill – and move – it’s the creative jackpot. But, you can only reap these benefits if you’re willing to spend hour upon hour crafting your ability, staring at a screen and not talking to anyone. It’s a medium which forces you into your own head too, and as Anna Ginsburg puts it: “It’s a double-edged sword of pure satisfaction when it works,” but otherwise, “it’s just really sadistic.”

Over the past few years Anna’s personal work has demonstrated animated documentary’s capability to convey feelings and democratise subjects. These films are where Anna puts into motion her belief that “animated documentary is a very powerful genre for visualising the internal, emotional and intimate subjects”. And, after the work is finished, the medium makes no room for judgement in an audience, hiding subjects with “drawing as a protective mask,” she says. “With animation there’s an accessibility to it that documentary doesn’t have.”

Animation’s accessibility is what hooked Anna in, as a foundation student on the product and spatial design section of the course. Set on becoming an architect, and receiving unconditional offers from everywhere she wanted to go, a tutor offered her the opportunity to try the only thing she hadn’t: animation. “It was so unlike me because I was such a diligent boffin,” she recalls now, “he was essentially like ‘it doesn’t matter if you fail’, which was so liberating.”

Anna made a “really emo, mad crude, technically so shit, cut-out animation, with an awful tripod on iMovie”. The result, for the first time in her life, was a eureka moment as soon as she hit play. “A feeling of ‘this is 100% what I want to do’,” she says. “I’d always loved painting, I’d always loved sculpture, I’d always loved fine art stuff, but it didn’t feel accessible to general people. I felt like I could communicate something… I sacked off architecture.”

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Communicating subjects often attached to mental sensibilities began while Anna was studying at Edinburgh where she made Living with Depression, a short test of how to “use drawing to try and capture feeling”. Her next film of this ilk, Private Parts, came a few years later, off the back of a teenage Anna ecstatically telling her friends at school she’d achieved her first orgasm and “the reaction was one of disgust”. Following decades of commercial campaigns which communicated “a vulnerability to being feminine”, and conversations with friends “who you would never expect weren’t enjoying their sex lives,” the short film intertwined several opinions on the subject, confronting any embarrassment with both intelligence and a cheeky wink. Sensitivity appeared again with What is Beauty? an animated melting pot of women’s bodies in all representations, from 2000 BC to 2017. Again, its influence developed out of external circumstance; Anna’s younger sister had been hospitalised with anorexia for the third time and it was the worst it had ever been since the beginning of her illness when she was just 12. “What had she been exposed to that had made her starve herself?” Anna remembers asking at the time.

Although it appears to be a running theme within her personal work, Anna is keen to admit that honing in on personal subjects was “never an overarching intention… it’s just that those have been very personal issues at different moments”. The main thread between her work is a simple “desire to overcome feelings of shame,” she supposes. “Shame pervades so many issues of sexual pleasure or our relationships with our bodies and the main aim I think, with my personal work, is to shed that feeling.”

But working on sensitive topics is a draining process, all the more so when you’re using animation. “I don’t make things easy for myself,” says Anna with a big laugh as we chat over her process. “I don’t use shortcuts like everyone else, in a way that is actually stupid. It’s often because I don’t know the shortcuts, it’s not even like I’m trying to be really traditional, it’s often that my technical ability is quite shit to be honest.”

With her work being so time consuming to create (the animator’s most recent film Ugly took 12 hours to create one second’s worth of footage) Anna finds her mind in a cycle of love and hate with the medium. “It’s a really therapeutic process when it’s going well, it’s really meditative, and repetition is really calming,” she describes. “If you’re in the zone with it, you press playback and it works, it never really gets old. It’s not a joke how satisfying it is.” But on the opposite side of the spectrum is the sadistic element it takes to get to this point, one that she can only liken “to writing lines, and it’s fucking boring”.

Working in this way over several projects, over several years, has led Anna to realise how her approach is not the best for her mind and her body when she’s in the thralls of a project. During this period Anna’s friends have coined the phrase “proj life” when they wonder where she is, explaining how they’ve realised “there’s no point even trying” while she’s in the studio “eating column after column of digestives,” and working late hours for weeks or months at a time. Falling into this habit is one Anna honestly describes as being simply lost – one any creative could relate to. “It’s a feeling of not being very grounded and actually quite manic. It doesn’t make me feel good, and even though I get these moments of euphoric joy, it’s not conducive to sustaining relationships or being happy in the long term,” she continues. “Essentially, moving forward in my life (I just turned 30) I need to get a better balance of actually having a life when I’m on a job. I’ve definitely got a lot to learn so I can have a normal life. And go to the pub.”

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Reflecting on her career to date, the animator also pinpoints that while her chosen working processes aren’t the best, “as well as the practical, grim side of being on a laptop and drawing all day, working in a male dominated studio – which is often the case in London – can make you feel really isolated, unseen and silenced in a weird way,” she notes.

As a graduate, Anna recalls there barely being any role models for her to admire in the industry, besides Becky Sloan of Becky and Joe, “who is amazing”, and it left her feeling low in creative spaces. “I felt terrible, depressed, and I’m a seemingly loud and confident person," she continues. "If you do feel like that, know you’re not alone and it’s important that you prioritise finding spaces where you do feel comfortable. You should feel heard and not an outsider in a private school boys club repeating ‘awesome bro’ wearing cashmere beanies and making you feel uncomfortable. In terms of mental health, it’s about finding a space where there’s a better gender balance, otherwise it’s just repressive.”

Anyone who is already familiar with Anna’s work, or has been captivated by one of her talks, would never assume this to be the feeling of someone who can activate such creative joy. Kitty Turley, the executive producer of Anna’s agency Strange Beast, even once described her to me as “a human ecstasy tablet”. And while her circumstance is particular to her, Anna’s honesty in discussing this, both personally and through her sensitive works, demonstrates how necessary it is to think of the animator, headphones on, digestive biscuits in arms reach, creating work for us to enjoy.