Jenny Mascia says hand-painted animation is the “perfect way to depict emotions”

In a series of shorts for the American National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s BeThe1To campaign, she sensitively visualises stories of those in crisis, educating viewers on the warning signs of suicide and how to save a life.

12 November 2021

When director and artist Jenny Mascia was approached to create a series of short PSA films for the American National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, she knew she wanted to push the boundaries of what those normally look like. The charity’s previous PSAs were “almost exclusively talking heads style,” she tells It’s Nice That, so the challenge was to experiment with the medium while remaining informative, relatable and considerate of the seriousness of the topic. The resulting three films, made for the charity’s Bethe1To campaign, incorporate mixed media and 3D animation with live action, but all use hand-painted animation as the overarching element, because Jenny says it “seemed to be the perfect way to depict emotions. The fact that everything changes, even if ever so slightly, from frame to frame, its inherent imperfections, felt like a direct parallel to how our emotions shift, and with it our perception of the world. Aside from directly speaking to the subject of the videos, this approach added a layer of humanity and feeling to the imagery.” Another benefit of using animation for the films meant that characters are anonymous, so anyone can recognise themselves in those depicted.

Each film has its own unique feel, a tactic to reach as many different audiences as possible. The first, narrated by actor Nick Offerman, is an explainer-style video, following the narrator’s voice through five steps to save a life. Here, Jenny says she wanted to create “a visual story that almost felt like a poem,” fluctuating between each world that embodied the current emotional state of a person in crisis. It’s painted in watercolour, which the director says makes it “unpredictable, expressive and ever-changing,” the colours overlapping to create different tones in between. This film is intentionally minimal, Jenny adds, so that “the intense pace of the narration and visuals would be balanced, leaving the focus on the elements that mattered”.

Stylistically, Jenny wanted to play with two contrasting colours, blue and bright yellow, “depicting depression and calm”. In the scene where the character is kneeling and opening their hands, they are “sharing the struggles they've been facing and their suicidal intent,” the director explains, so “the transition carries us inside their dismal version of the world. The colours are intense and the architecture of the space feels oppressive”. Afterwards the animation transitions out of this “threatening” world, and into scenes where the character is being helped to put their suicidal intent behind them. “This action creates a reaction in the world around them, slowly transforming it into a new space. A more neutral one,” Jenny describes. “Each transition in the short defines a shift in the character's state of mind, and visually depicts the effect the steps are having on them.”

In addition to the watercolour the first film uses micron pens, as the roughness of the multiple strokes added another layer of texture to the depiction of the character’s emotional state. “As they find more inner stability, you will see the line starting to soften and becoming cleaner,” Jenny says. Sound design was by Andrea Martignoni, whose “sonic interpretation of the story truly completed the piece,” she adds.

In the second short, mixed media animation fuses with live action, which Jenny says allowed the film to move between the present moment and the characters’ mental perceptions. “We slip between these two, revealing the healing power of being present. Hand-painting over live-action footage seemed to encapsulate the idea of reinterpreting reality.”

Meanwhile in the third film, 3D and 2D animation mix with hand-painted sections, combining elements from the previous two. There’s more realistic characters and environments, alongside visual metaphors, a blend of mediums such as watercolour and acrylic paints. “In this short, more than the other two, the texture is very visible, which suited the intensity of emotions in teenage years.”

As it was a small production, Jenny was not only director but writer, art director, producer and animator, as part of each film’s small team. Overall she says each short is the “fruit of the team’s dedication, talent and trust. Ultimately we were all driven by a cause that felt much bigger than us.”

Jenny Mascia: Bethe1To campaign (Copyright © Jenny Mascia, 2021)

Jenny Mascia: Bethe1To campaign (Copyright © Jenny Mascia, 2021)

GalleryJenny Mascia: Bethe1To campaign (Copyright © Jenny Mascia, 2021)

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Jenny Mascia: Bethe1To campaign (Copyright © Jenny Mascia, 2021)

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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