IN a village in the Malawian scrub, a girl is being hoisted through a window. Outside, six teenagers laugh as they hold her up in the boiling afternoon heat and she appears, headfirst, through the window frame. Inside, her legs disappear as the camera rolls.
It’s development – but not as you know it.
International children’s charity Plan International does not have a large media department, but what it lacks in size is amply made up for in imagination. Nonetheless, when the charity’s video team came up with the idea of producing an animated, stop motion film to promote its new campaign, Because I am a Girl, Plan’s management team took convincing.
“They thought we were mad!” says Stuart Coles, head of media for Plan and part of the film’s development and in-country production team. “The CEO thought it would be too light-hearted or emotionally detached. That was the challenge. To get the tone, it was all about getting the balance right – the important thing was that it should be told in the first person by the girl herself, so what Mary and Raj, the writers, tried to do was imagine they were that girl.”
Stop-motion animation (or stop-action) is the painstaking process of photographing a model, moving it a miniscule amount, then photographing it again. Finally, you string the photographs together and the tiny movements appear to be action. Of course, the additional challenge for Plan was that the models were actually flesh and blood human beings - not plasticine.
Thus the final stop motion film made by Plan, using a Canon 5d mark ii and Dragonframe software, consists of over 2000 pictures played at 12 frames per second.
Co-Director Mary Matheson was determined to ‘push the boundaries’ of development films, she says, using the new technique to engage viewers. Furthermore, animation could allow the team to delve into the realms of fantasy; for example, the main character could jump impossibly while skipping, or have an extraordinary hairstyle or ‘drive’ a desk down the road.
Matheson explains: “Stop-motion is a well-known and well-used technique, but it’s unusual to see it in NGO or charity films. We wanted to make something different that would stand out from other development organisations’ videos, and we wanted to create something unexpected, to make the viewer sit up and take notice and therefore listen to the message.”
When developing the tone of the script, the directors imagined how teenage girls talk to each other – chatty, open, almost diary-like language, explains Coles. The important thing was to bring playfulness and humour to the film, while allowing the darker moments to unsettle and move its audience.
“It was really important that the girl had a strong voice and that she shouldn’t be disempowered,” he adds. “We didn’t want a message of pity or ‘poor me’ - rather that when, say, the older man wants to marry her, he reaction is that it’s creepy and wrong.”
The Plan team travelled to Malawi in June, with just seven days notice, where they teamed up with local youth media group Timveni. Timveni was originally set up as part of one of Plan’s programmes, but now stands on its own feet as an independent TV and radio station.
“When we arrived, we showed the Timveni guys the animated storyboard with animatic narration and you could see they thought we were bonkers!” says Matheson. “But they were also excited to see something completely different and were up for trying something new.”
The team then had to find their actors. Timveni and Plan Malawi decided on two communities which had been involved with Plan previously - Njewa and Muzu. They spent the first two days doing castings for the characters in the film and eventually picked Brendar, a 12 year-old orphan girl who had never acted before, but who showed bundles of natural talent.
“In a dusty, deskless classroom, 20 kids aged 12 to 14 stood before us making exaggerated faces – sad, happy, frightened, repulsed,” laughs Matheson. “We were looking for someone who could really convey emotions through their facial expressions. Next we got them to do screen tests, and as the time went on, it was easy to spot the good actors.
“From the beginning Brendar stood out for us. She was able to show real emotions on her face, as well as listen and follow directions. An orphan, with no acting experience, we could tell when we chose Brendar, nothing like this had ever happened to her. She began the week a very timid, quiet, almost meek character off-screen, but on screen she became full of life. She also had the patience of a saint and the strength of an ox as we asked her to make the same expression or hold the same pose for sometimes hours on end.”
The process of filming in camera stop-motion is painstaking. The crew broke down their new cast’s movements into short increments between individually photographed frames.
The fact that they used actors who had seen little television before, let alone animation, could have been a disaster, but the community embraced the filming and had fun. Every night, they would be treated to a show of the shots taken that day – and were shocked at how long it had taken to shoot to produce a few seconds of film.
The intrigued villagers became the stars; the headmaster of Muzu school played an older husband marrying an under-age bride; local mothers helped create the birthing scene and one family gave up their house for the team during filming.
For Brendar, the experience was entirely new – and transforming.
She says: “I liked the scene in which I was giving birth. I didn’t know that children come out that way so it was a real eye opener for me! I felt that it was good because when I was dressed up in different costumes, I felt I really could be a nurse, a doctor or an engineer. The most difficult part during the filming was the scene carrying the bunch of wood.”
There were some memorable moments. As co-directors Shona Hamilton and Raj Yagnik measured out the length between shots during the ‘desk driving’ scene, they had a group of 20 kids counting out loud along with them.
“Shooting one ten second sequence could take a whole afternoon, so when we filmed the scene where Brendar’s dream is blown away by the fan, we had to erase and redraw the fan in a different position between each shot, using a fan stencil. We shot on average 10 seconds of stop motion per day,” explains Hamilton. “The desk driving scene took the whole day to shoot, because we had to move desks and a whole lot of girls between each shot, and to realign Brendar in the centre of the frame each time.”
She continues: “The dream sequence was really fun to shoot and was a real highlight for Brendar, dressing up in different outfits. But it got a bit embarrassing when we needed her and a boy to look as if they were kissing – they just couldn’t do this together, so we filmed it separately and then photo-shopped the scene afterwards!
“We were amazed by Brendar's patience, from holding an uncomfortable crawling position on the ground for ages to being held through a window frame and upside down for a long time, she never complained, she thought it was fun!”
But perhaps the best moment was filming Brendar and other girls as they appeared to be blown out of a classroom window, symbolising the millions of girls forced out of school.
“It was hilarious,” says Matheson. “As we moved the girls towards the windows all seemed fine. But as they started to go out of the window we needed people on the other side holding them up as we took shots of them in three or four positions being sucked out!”
Working against time, fading light, overwhelming heat and on a tiny budget, the film team pulled off the production in just over a week.
Back in London, the shots were colour-graded and photo-shopped, and a Hollywood composer produced a bespoke piece of music to accompany the film, at a cut-down price. With an African-born UK teenage narrator giving the final narrative, the piece was ready for its audience.
Since then, the film has been translated into at least 12 different languages, and shown in 25 countries.
Says Coles: “It was a very successful experimental project, and in some ways I think we managed to make it both a press project and something further. By engaging the community so strongly with the production of the film, they were more involved in it. I know that for Brendar, it inspired her and left her with the belief that she could become a doctor if she puts her mind to it.”
• The stop-motion animation, "I'll take it from here" can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-ZZeE7C7uM&list=UUVLkqTvsRpm46RDmM4SYf6Q&index=5
• Three other shorts explaining the animation can be found at these links: