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Explaining Sensitive Subjects with Your Animation

Sensitive issues, by their very nature, make people uncomfortable and are hard to talk about, let alone illustrate.


As we’re all aware, the emotional impact that a simple visual can unleash shouldn’t be taken lightly. Just compare the reaction you instinctively have to reading the words “child slavery” versus seeing a picture of an emaciated child wearing tattered clothes chained to a wall wearing a price tag around her neck. This power to elicit a passionate response, and hopefully a desired action, is why animated explainer videos are such a useful tool for non-profits and other causes. But heeding Uncle Ben Parker’s admonition about power, we found ourselves wrestling with two main concerns when tackling explainer videos for sensitive subjects:

1. Will this trivialize the topic?

Of course you want to be respectful of the gravity of the subject, but some, in the west particularly, view graphic representation as merely cartoons and therefore a child’s medium, not worthy of more serious subject matter. We recently experienced that reaction to an explainer video we created about Post 9/11 Veterans for the George W. Bush Institute.

 

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The 2nd commenter obviously resonated with the message but seemed a bit skeptical about the medium.

2. Will this offend anyone?

Sensitive issues, by their very nature, make people uncomfortable and are hard to talk about, let alone illustrate. So choosing to take on that task means you’re walking into a minefield of potentially misinterpreted symbolism and unintentionally offensive metaphors.

So how do you navigate this tricky terrain without tripping any land mines? Well for us, we’ve found it useful to take a cue from the Master of Suspense.

Ask “What would Hitchcock do?”

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Since we know how potent pictures can be, there’s a temptation to want to be overly descriptive with our depictions, when sometimes implications could be more effective. The master storyteller was well-known for his restraint in what he chose to show on the screen. Yet no-one would deny that the reactions to his shower scene or shadowy murders were any less visceral than if we saw every stab wound. Some might argue that they were even more powerful because of what we didn’t see. Having the viewer fill in the insinuated gaps can lead to a more effective emotional experience.

This idea of leaving something to the viewers’ imagination came into play when we were tasked with the challenge of depicting the practice of child prostitution. Considering the revulsion that it evokes, we had to approach it in a way that the audience’s disdain was focused on the reality that this is happening daily, not on how we chose to illustrate it. Being explicit, of course was not an option, but going too subtle could run the risk of having no emotional impact at all. So the challenge was finding that middle ground where the implication of a grotesque action is obvious without being grotesque itself.

Early sketches for the child prostitution scene ranged in overtness.

Early sketches for the child prostitution scene ranged in overtness.

We explored various ways of symbolizing sexual commerce and our choice in this case was suggestive ladies’ legs seductively dangling behind window shades. We felt that the juxtaposition of those icons of sexuality with our innocent child character created the right amount of tension without being too overt. Then, to further hint at the menace facing the child, we had a hand slowly lowering the shade of her window.

Our 1st stab at the storyboard for this scene tried to add an e-commerce aspect

Our 1st stab at the storyboard for this scene tried to add an e-commerce aspect

We then settled on a more simple scene with the price tag hanging around our characters neck connoting the commerce aspect.

We then settled on a more simple scene with the price tag hanging around our characters neck connoting the commerce aspect.

Soldiers returning from war is another potentially tricky subject we had to tackle recently. For the Post 9/11 Veterans video mentioned earlier we had to show the alienation some soldiers feel as they return to a public that doesn’t understand them. Our 1st stab at this involved the use of icons representing different spheres of civilian life (e.g. church, school, work etc.) and showed dots, representing people in those contexts, literally moving away from the soldier icon whenever it approached.

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This approach at the sequence literally showed the isolation of the returning veteran.[

This approach at the sequence literally showed the isolation of the returning veteran.[

This overt approach evolved into a more subtle scenario of a parade for a lone soldier. The adoring, waving hands and confetti eventually fade away leaving the soldier alone as his head slowly lowers, he gets smaller and the background closes in on him.

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The revised storyboards chose a more subtle depiction while also humanizing the returning soldier

The revised storyboards chose a more subtle depiction while also humanizing the returning soldier

In earlier drafts of storyboards for this same animation, we depicted the idea of the physical injuries of war as bullets tearing across the screen as if they were tearing flesh. Later this was revised to a less gruesome but more heroic depiction of soldiers carrying a wounded brother off the battlefield.

Before

Before

After

After

Restraint also came in handy on an explainer video we did for UNICEF, where child sexual abuse was again the topic. In early sketches we explored several different ways to illustrate a particularly unsettling scene; the most extreme of which involved showing the back of a man motioning as if he was unzipping his pants in front of a cowering girl. In the end we again borrowed from Hitchcock, deploying shadows as a device to suggest malice and used a creepy, menacing figure revealed as a shadow through a crack in the door.

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Sketches for the child sexual abuse scene

Final frame for the child sexual abuse scene

Final frame for the child sexual abuse scene

It’s called graphic for a reason, right?

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We know that the point of using motion graphics as an explanatory tool is to be as communicative as possible and in most cases that means being as symbolic as possible to get the message across quickly. However, as we learned in dealing with explaining some thorny issues, using motion graphics to insinuate rather than overtly depict can be just as efficient. It’s a tough job animating sensitive subjects but when it counts sometimes less is really more.

The full explainer videos I used in this post are below:

Worldvision: No Child for Sale
UNICEF: Adolescent Health
The Bush Institue: Post 9/11 Veterans

Andrew Davies

Drew's degrees in Illustration, 2D animation and Broadcast Design, and his volleyball skillz mean he can get your design done and play well with others at the same time. He’s the Creative Director at Paragon and will call you out if you start hanging out with shady-looking fonts and messing around with whacked-out color palettes.

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