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UNICEF Draws on Talent to Advance Children's Rights

Deborah Reber provides a look on how almost 80 studios around the world joined forces to form UNICEF's International Animation Consortium for Child Rights.

Excerpt from Nickelodeon and Pixar's PSA, Look Away.

Since its inception, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has worked on behalf of children on the basis of need, regardless of race, nationality, status or political belief. As the twentieth century draws to a close, a key part of UNICEF's role has become to raise the world's awareness and mobilize its resources in favor of children.

Although UNICEF has been using animation as a tool for education and change for several years now, its most recent animation initiative has mobilized the global animation industry on an unprecedented scale. UNICEF's International Animation Consortium for Child Rights has brought together nearly 80 top animation studios, animators and distributors to produce 30-second television spots to increase awareness of children's rights.

The Idea

It all started when C.J. Kettler, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sunbow Entertainment, approached UNICEF with the idea of having studios produce animated shorts illustrating key articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This UN document, drafted in 1989, outlines rights that every child should have, including the right to a name and nationality, freedom of expression and opinion, and protection from sexual exploitation and child labor. The shorts would be televised worldwide as public service announcements (PSAs). UNICEF immediately saw the potential of such a campaign.

Protection of Privacy PSA by Polish Television.

In the fall of 1995, UNICEF began approaching animation studios about the Consortium, and found the industry was extremely receptive. Among the first 30 Consortium members to sign up were Hanna-Barbera Cartoons, HBO Animation, MTV Animation, Nickelodeon USA, Warner Bros. Feature Animation and Walt Disney Feature Animation. Since then, more than 40 companies from around the world have come on board, from Future Art in Korea to Hahn Films in Germany. In order to join the Consortium, a studio agrees to donate staff time and services to fully produce a 30-second PSA, using new characters and original animation created especially for the campaign.

The studios work closely with UNICEF to ensure that their animated interpretation of the Convention article is culturally sensitive and globally applicable. However, the creative vision of the individual producers is of paramount important to the success of the project. By working with animators from around the world, diversity of style and content will be ensured, and the campaign will truly be a global one. The spots in production to date represent a variety of animation techniques, including cutout, CGI, stop-motion, sand animation, and traditional cel.

From Nickelodeon to . . .

Nickelodeon USA was among the first companies to produce their spot, which came out of a unique collaboration between Nickelodeon, Pixar, and Higashi Glaser Design. The three companies had been looking for an opportunity to work together, and the UNICEF project seemed ideal. The group chose to animated a child's right to freedom of expression, a topic which fit well into Nickelodeon's "kids are powerful" philosophy. "Whether you are someone that is really loud and sings, or you dance, or you write poetry, it's all valid and it doesn't have to look a certain way to be acceptable," said Nickelodeon's Karen Fowler, describing why they chose the topic. After months of storyboard development, character designs, and coast-to-coast conference calls, the end result was Look Away, animated in Pixar's now famous computer animation, which tells the story of a child expressing himself in front of a disapproving parent. In the end, the parent becomes inspired by the child's ability to express, and begins to do the same. Nickelodeon producer Amy Friedman hopes the PSA can have a far-reaching impact. "Most of the time moving images are used either to get ratings or to sell products. It would be really wonderful if this spot could play a role in making freedom of expression part of our value system," said Friedman.

Cedar Brook Middle School to . . .

Although the Consortium is mostly made up of animation studios, an animation club at Cedar Brook Middle School near Philadelphia has joined the big dogs of animation to express themselves. "I read about the Animation Consortium in the ASIFA newsletter and thought it sounded like a great project to work on with kids. I think it's very important to give kids an idea of how their voice is important and an opportunity to have their voices heard, because that is almost never the case," said independent animation and teacher John Serpentelli, who runs the after school club. Last summer, Serpentelli found a local company to sponsor the cost of the animation project, and set about producing a spot on a child's right to have access to appropriate information. Serpentelli is now working with a new group of youngsters to produce yet another spot for the campaign, this one dealing with a child's right to a safe and clean environment. The class is using cut-outs, based largely on the style of artist Henri Matisse, to tell their story. Club members have embraced this opportunity to speak their mind and have a chance to make a difference. Said member Amanda Leigh, "I feel that the environment is very important. By ruining it, we are ruining our own lives. Our public service announcement will help people to realize our problem. Not only will it touch children, but also adults." In doing this project, the kids have also come to learn first-hand why animation is such a great tool for getting across messages on social change. "There's a limited amount of words and feelings that you can use to describe how you feel, but with animation you just do whatever you want and really express your feelings or emotions in anyway you want to," said young animator Julie Herman.

Independent Animators in Developing Countries

In addition to large animation studios and John Serpentelli's middle school club, independent animators in developing countries will be participating in the Cartoons for Children's Rights campaign as well. Betty Cohen, President of the Cartoon Network, one of the largest cable networks in the world, was determined to include this population of artists in the Consortium. To encourage their participation, the Cartoon Network donated $75,000--$3,000 for each participating artist from a developing country to cover production costs. These grants are intended to fund the work of an additional 20 animators from countries including Bolivia, Brazil and Ghana, and Indonesia. With production of the campaign securely underway, UNICEF is now beginning to solicit the support of broadcasters worldwide and ensure that the PSAs get on the air. At the suggestion of ABC/Disney Cable Networks President Geraldine Laybourne, UNICEF is approaching broadcasters to join the Consortium as "Charter Members." Charter Members agree to include the Cartoons for Children's Rights spots in their regular programming schedules. Several North American and European broadcasters have already pledged their support.

UNICEF Animation mascot.

The cartoons will be distributed through UNICEF's field offices and National Committees, in part through UNICEF's major broadcast initiative, the International Children's Day of Broadcasting. UNICEF plans to distribute the nearly 100 spots in 6-month increments, with one-third of the PSAs being distributed for broadcast at a time. "We hope that our distribution plan makes the campaign more manageable to broadcasters, while giving animation studios plenty of time to work the creation of their spot into their production schedules," said William Hetzer, Chief, UNICEF's Broadcast and Electronic Communication Section.

One of the strengths of animation is its longevity--audiences still love cartoons that are decades old--and its potential for other multimedia uses. UNICEF hopes that the colorful, international animation campaign will be kept alive through a number of related initiatives long after its broadcast debut. "We have some of the most talented animators in the business creating animation for UNICEF," said honorary Consortium Executive Producer Buzz Potamkin, a former executive producer at Hanna-Barbera who now works independently. "When the Consortium is over, we'll have nearly 100 great spots to work with in the form of TV specials, books and possibly even merchandising_all promoting the rights of children." The spots may also be distributed to schools as part of an educational program.

And indeed, UNICEF has already begun working on a coffee table book about children's rights, as interpreted through the Animation Consortium members. The book will profile the animators' personal journeys in developing their contributions, while highlighting the experiences of real kids around the world who are facing these serious issues everyday. UNICEF hopes to release the book in conjunction with the broadcast premiere of the campaign at the end of 1997.

While administered by UNICEF, the International Animation Consortium for Child Rights is overseen by a 15-member Steering Committee, made up of studio heads and corporate managers from the largest animation studios worldwide. Roy Disney, Vice Chairman of the Board, The Walt Disney Company, is the Honorary Chairman of the Steering Committee.

Deborah Reber (dreber@unicef.org) has been an Animation Development Consultant with UNICEF for the past two years, and currently oversees the Cartoons for Children's Rights campaign, as well as other animation advocacy activities.

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