Review: Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) 2019

Since emerging onto the Animation Studies scene five years ago, the Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) has been held annually in different locations across the UK. But for the first time in 2019, APES went international, hosted by Jorgelina Orfila and Francisco Ortega at Texas Tech University, Lubbock between September 19th-21st. Yet not only had APES travelled this year, but it had evidently grown too! The schedule of speakers and presenters spanned three days and attracted academics, researchers, students and health professionals from 11 different countries. With extensive discussions surrounding everything from the animation curriculum in higher education to public engagement with animation installations, this symposium really got the gears turning and encouraged audience members to consider new approaches to – and uses for – animation across a multitude of disciplines and subject areas. (Figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1 - Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) 2019.

Fig. 1 - Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) 2019.

Following the event’s opening keynote presentation from Bella Honess Roe (University of Surrey) on Day 1 that concerned the uses of animated documentary as public engagement, the first collection of speakers on Day 2 engaged with animation’s relationship to education, and the new ways in which the fantasy of the medium can help to evolve students’ thinking by encouraging them to receonceptualise their studies from a new perspective. This opening session continued some of the themes established in Honess Roe’s talk, particularly animation’s potential as a representational strategy (building on her book-length study on animated documentary), but also as a tool of inclusivity within certain spectatorial (and educational) contexts. With a focus placed heavily on real-world experience, Kara Oropallo and Monika Salter (University of Texas at Dallas) discussed the design of the Animation Lab programme at UT Dallas, Texas. The Animation Lab intends to give students as close to a studio environment role and experience as possible whilst still in education. Oropallo and Salter highlighted the challenges many students faced and overcame as the course progressed, highlighting teamwork, prioritisation of tasks and a working hierarchy amongst peers. Sean McComber and Eric Farrar (University of Texas at Dallas) followed with a screening of the animations produced by students of the Animation Lab over the past decade. As the Animation Lab evolved, a relationship with a local animation studio formed and provided an opportunity for students to take a summer class under the guidance of a staff member from the studio. The session then moved away from the Higher Education Curriculum with Abbigail Wilson’s (University of Louisiana at Lafayette) presentation of her interactive, animated installation. Wilson began her paper by asking what is art, what does the word art mean to you, and what is animation? She considered the relationship between artist and viewer/participant when animation becomes interactive and not simply for viewing, and concluded her paper by asking if this new approach to digital art-making can be more accessible for those who would not previously consider themselves artists. Burak Sahin (Maltepe University) closed the opening session with an entirely new take on animation in Higher Education, discussing his teaching of engineering students and how his background in animation has evolved his approach to thinking and delivery. Sahin placed emphasis on the drawing skills taught through animation as an important method of visual communication, highlighting life drawing as a key skill during his own period of learning. The ability to think in layers and via sequential planning became vital when teaching engineering students staircase construction and as a result, Sahin now embeds fundamentals of animation into his teaching of the fundamentals of engineering.

Fig. 2 - Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) 2019.

Fig. 2 - Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) 2019.

For the second session, Chunning (Maggie) Guo (Renmin University) joined the symposium from Beijing to deliver her paper on the use of Virtual Reality in reframing memory, particularly in relation to addressing trauma. Guo presented the case of Grenfell: Our Home (2018) (see below) in which families were interviewed within a fantastical VR reconstruction of their home lost in the fire. Guo highlighted the benefits of reframing memories for therapeutic benefits, and described this experience of sharing memory as “a force to rebuild a new home” allowing participants to move on from their loss through the fantasy of VR. Frank Gressner (Konrad Wolf Film University) next delivered a paper on the TESTeLAB & Guests project, an audiovisual installation that explores expanding animation documentary and experimentation using image and sound. The installation is an endless loop which challenges and expands a viewers’ experience with film. Visuals for the project were created with no artistic style adopted, therefore further expanding boundaries of cinematic practice. Inmaculada Concepcion Carpe Perez (The Center for Animation and Visualisation) continued the theme of reframing experience with film by presenting her paper on Neuroanimatics. Perez highlighted the opportunities for holistic approach to animation practice for healing purposes, the ability to reframe trauma and the use of animation to address memory loss for individuals with Alzheimer’s. Perez presents animation as a tool through which children with autism are able to communicate, and as a tool to be used with intercultural and intergenerational populations, reframing situations to form personal understandings.

Session 3 began with Tom Klein (Loyola Marymount) who discussed the new Core Learning Requirements at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles and how this influenced the design of the animation programme, “Animated Perspectives”. The programme now has an engaged learning focus with strong connections to the industry, providing real world experience at every opportunity. Klein described how students are encouraged to explore and address socially-relevant topics, forming their own opinions to explore through the animated lense. Laurence Arcadias (Maryland Institute College of Art) and Robin Corbet (NASA GSFC) next presented on the Astro-Animation class at University of Maryland, Baltimore, which evolved from their careers in animation (Arcadias) and astrophysics (Corbet). The Astro-Animation class, now in its sixth year, connects students of animation studies with NASA Researchers, forming new partnerships to visually communicate new research findings. Arcadias and Corbet explained that not only do students experience a tour of the NASA Research centre, the also work closely with the researcher throughout production to ensure all content is scientifically accurate, however abstract the presentation of the information may be. This collaboration encourages scientist and artists to interact and share knowledge, skills and research findings with a wider audience.

Grenfell: Our Home (2018)

Heidi Rae Cooley and Christine Veras (The University of Texas at Dallas) presented their similarly collaborative research project which lead to the development of an experimental, interactive animated piece. The Fish Project intends to build a community who together interact with the virtual fish, care for, and keep them alive. Cooley and Veras considered the ways in which individuals are drawn to interact and maintain prolonged or reoccurring interactions to form a bond with the virtual character, like that of the Tamagotchi digital pet popular in the 1990s. Julio Cesar Soto and Samuel Price (The University of Texas at Dallas) continued discussion of The Fish Project by providing an overview of the production stages and challenges taken to animate the fish and bring them to life. Price, working on modelling and rigging, produced an origami model enabling him to deconstruct the model numerous times to gain an in-depth understanding of shape, joints and folds. Soto followed by describing the challenges faced and the need to convey emotion through the movement to ensure audiences and participants connected emotionally with this character. The animated fish cycles were returned to Price for texture and lighting. The completed fish, now a popular feature of the campus also has a Twitter enabling you to interact with these fantasy fish from around the world!

Fig. 3 -  Khan Kluay ( Kompin Kemgumnird, 2006).

Fig. 3 - Khan Kluay (Kompin Kemgumnird, 2006).

Day 2’s final session opened with Scott Meador (University of Central Arkansas), who was hired for a projection mapping project by Little Rock High School in Arkansas to celebrate 90 years of the building, and 60 years since the crisis in commemoration of the Little Rock Nine. Meador provided a history of the school and purpose of the project from a community perspective. With access to iconic photos from the crisis, he produced a projection that features the building of the architecturally iconic school, its 90 years of academic history, and its political significance and evolution, in celebration of diversity and the future of the school within this community. Johannes Deyoung (Carnegie Mellon University) presented on another project using animation to celebrate the historic importance of an iconic building, in this case the Carnegie Public Library in Pittsburgh. A collaborative class between Animation students and Experimental Sound Synthesis students produced a mobile augmented reality art walk through of the building. Students considered the building floorplan, looking at space and specific collections to feature, to where interactive installations could be placed. Li Gang (Chongqing University) presented a paper on visual communication between cultures and cultural expression in anthropology, and the use of animation in the reproduction of cultural stories. Gang considered cultural interpretation and representation of visual symbols when using a visual form of communication across cultures and shares a case study of the Thai computer-animated film Khan Kluay (Kompin Kemgumnird, 2006) (Fig. 3). Finally, Ganiyu A, Jimoh (Rhodes University) travelled from South Africa to deliver his presentationdiscussing the evolution of Nigerian animation and the impact of cultural influences. Jimoh closely linked the popularity of animation in Nigeria to peak of political cartooning in 1990s, and its role in expanding channels of dissemination through photoplay/photonovels due to lack of television and electricity in many homes at the time. He described how animation has now moved into the creation of content centred around African traditions, traditions now seemingly lost through globalization. Productions now use local languages and feature female characters displaying women in power, addressing recent socio-cultural issues in Africa. The second keynote presentation of the symposium was delivered by Dan Torre (RMIT Melbourne). The paper titled “Thinking Through Animation” explored the way in which the brain processes image and movement separately, with Torre presenting the idea of our mind acting as an animation tool, drawing on fantasies and visual memories and using experiences of movement, either lived or viewed, to recreate a mental story. This visual recall is aided by repetition, and repeated cycles of animated sequences therefore have the ability to enhance cognitive retention. As we know, nothing in the real world is ever repeated. Each cycle will have differences depending on the number of variables. Torre thus presented the possibility for animation to be used in this context, allowing a tool for cycles to be repeated identically an unlimited number of times.

Fig. 4 - The StoryCorps project booth at New York City’s Grand Central Station.

Fig. 4 - The StoryCorps project booth at New York City’s Grand Central Station.

Day 3 kicked off with Stacy Elko and Melinda Corwin (Texas Tech University) who presented the VINI: Visual Interactive Narrative Intervention, designed and developed to enable those with Aphasia to understand their condition. They found participants were able to recognise animated visuals, and so created a one-touch interactive game that provided a method of communication with a population whose language centre is impaired. The next presenter was Jessica Rutherford (Loughborough University) who delivered an overview of her PhD research developing an animation-based learning programme for a specific, cognitively impaired population. She described the project’s ideation and aims, discussed the challenges faced in delivery of such project and provided an in-depth discussion of the current limitations faced by this population in an educational context, presenting ways in which animation production can address these challenges through a multidimensional, creative and holistic approach. Julie Zook and Terah Maher (College of Architecture, Texas Tech University) next presented  on hospital architecture to consider the healing properties of the designed space. Zook and Maher drew on Medieval history, and analysed the evolution of the open ward hospital design we are familiar with today with consideration of space, ventilation, light and proximity. Their research looks at the opportunities that animation allows in terms of analysing movement through a kind of fantasy space that has been, or is yet to be, built. The project intends to move into immersive animation to allow a more realistic sense of space when considering future designs. Jeffrey Baker and Masha Vasilkovsky (College of the Canyons) delivered a powerful presentation on the Genocide Remembrance Project, in which Holocaust survivors shared memories of their experiences with animation students, who then captured them in live-action footage and later animated memory scenes. These scenes were intended to carry history and lived experience of this period to future generations. Each film shared an individual story, expressing the emotion through their choice of production style. Following the theme of animating stories of lived experience, Christina Knopf (Suny, Cortland) presented StoryCorps, a project placed a sound booth in New York City’s Grand Central Station that encouraged Veterans to privately record stories of their experiences serving in the armed forces (Fig. 4). The project found the Veterans found it difficult (and sometimes traumatising) to relay their stories in a way that people understood their true emotion, and so the StoryCorps project captures and animates these stories by evoking emotion through the style and colours chosen by the artist. Becka Barker (Nova Scotia School of Art & Design) closed the panel with a presentation of her community art projects in her home of Nova Scotia. She facilitated a series of community workshops which lead to the production of animated installations, projects heavily focussed on social engagement. Barker went on to present her most recent project, an animation of the Halifax Explosion in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. With access to live action footage of the aftermath and visuals of the community attempt to salvage and rebuild their town, Barker encouraged members of the community to trace a frame of the footage, producing animated segments. The next panel of the symposium was made up of Michelle Stewart (University of Kwazulu-Nata), Pieter Stewart (University of Kwazulu-Nata) and Yane Bakreski (Independent Artist) who each presented a paper and discussion around the film Big Man, a political film created to convey the significant developments in South Africa’s political landscape. The film lead to the production of an installation which at the centre, featured a looped animation of the past leaders resignation speech. Pieter Stewart discussed the sound production of a piece with such experimental visuals but a strong narrative. Bakreski focussed on the installation element of the project. As a painter, traditional painting styles alongside new media were used to mimic patterns of behaviour when conveying stories collected locally within the community. The installation features 19 screens of story tellers with Zuma at the centre.

Fig. 5 -  Puella Magi Madoka Magica  (Atsuhiro Iwakai, 2011).

Fig. 5 - Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Atsuhiro Iwakai, 2011).

The final session of the symposium featured Stacey Jocoy, Heather Warren-Crow and Lauryn Salazar (all Texas Tech University), in a series of talks that came together under the banner of “Animating Music: Aurality and Global Intertextuality”. Jocoy began with her paper discussing the Japanese tradition and identity of the samurai, and its role in the representation of Japanese  masculinity. Jocoy described how the sounds used within such animations of samurai speaks to cultural anxieties, while placing traditional Japanese music in times of extreme danger or fatality. Jocoy related this discussion to the country’s cultural evolution through the rise of pop culture and the Western influence on what was previously traditionally Japanese entertainment, using the case study of Afro Samurai. Warren-Crow continued the theme of Japanese animation with a paper discussing the sound design and delivery of narrative in the popular Anime series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Atsuhiro Iwakami, 2011) (Fig. 5). Warren-Crow explained how voices are distorted and mouths are often unseen, making it challenging for the viewer to place speech with character, thereby ‘de-localising’ sound as a result. In addition to this, the characters can communicate telepathically so scenes have periods of voice over without anatomical visualisation.. The panel closed with Lauryn Salazar’s paper discussing Issues of musical representation in Pixar’s Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017). Salazar focused on the level of detail artists placed on the design of environments, costumes, props, musical instruments and traditional Mexican festivals to ensure accurate visual representation, whilst far less focus was placed on ensuring the same level of representation in the music. Salazar refers to Disney’s film The Three Caballeros (1944), which featured popular animated character Donald Duck with a Brazilian and a Mexican friend. The film visually and musically represented the cultures of the characters, yet the film was not considered successful in America. Coco was intended to appeal to Latin communities through visual representation, yet only featured two songs that Salazar states “watered down” the visual Mexican influence. However, Salazar concluded that although the musical representation in Pixar’s film is limited, the two songs became popular and Coco overall can be considered politically impactful, somewhat a “love letter to Mexico” that has been recognised and acclaimed on a global scale. 

What was striking about this year’s APES was the variety of overlapping themes connecting all the presentations. A standout theme - the use of animation as a tool within and for education - gave a new perspective on a medium so commonly thought of as being for entertainment. The role of fantasy (and its relationship to animation) was considered precisely through the lens of interactivity and public engagement, yet was also prevalent in the consideration of animation for viewing purposes (particularly when presenters focussed on the audiences of Japanese anime). However, fantasy became much more apparent when considering animation as a form of installation, as it is this new mode of digital art-making that produces a fantasy-like space into which the viewer/participant can become absorbed. Overall, APES 2019 ensured participants left with new perspectives of the use of animation and networking opportunities that could lead to a range of cross-disciplinary collaborations, partnerships where practitioners and researchers come to reflect on the role and application of animation as it plays out within their work.



Jessica Rutherford completed a BSc Computer Animation & Digital SFX at Northumbria University before going on to study MA Animation and Design at the University of Sunderland. She is now working towards her PhD at Loughborough University where her research focuses on the use of the animation film making process as an educational tool for children and young people with additional needs. Her interests in animation are very much surrounding the usefulness of the application for various purposes within neurodiverse populations.