Six-minute animated short honors Charlottesville’s one-year anniversary by examining the complex issues surrounding ‘Do Black Lives Matter?’
In honor of the one-year anniversary of the events in Charlottesville, VA, creative design house the STUDIO has released a powerful animated short film, A Simple Question, based on a poem by spoken word duo Kinetic Affect, and commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. As posed by a young student to his teacher, the simple question, “Do black lives matter?” begs anything but a simple answer in today’s often bitterly divided America.
Nationally-renowned keynote speakers and spoken word artists, Kinetic Affect - Gabriel Giron, a survivor of cancer and former U.S. Army soldier, and Kirk Latimer, a survivor of his own destructive past, and former high school English teacher – initially approached the STUDIO looking for a fresh visual approach to translate their soul-searching poem entitled “A Simple Question.”
“The poem was essentially our creative brief,” noted the STUDIO founder and CCO Mary Nittolo. “Twelve through twenty-year-olds are our key target for this, and they’re generally not an easy audience to reach. We went with an aesthetic that blends a graphic novel-style with that of Latin American political art, which favors rough textures, vibrant colors, and closely resembles the immediacy of graffiti art.”
Giron added, “We knew we wanted it to be animated, and when we talked with the STUDIO we came away feeling that the company and its mission were aligned with ours. As artists, we know not to get in another artist’s way. Honestly, when they presented their initial concept, we got choked up.”
The six-minute short opens inside a brightly-lit classroom as a white teacher and his multicultural students begin their day. The voiceover acts as the teacher’s interior monologue as he describes how “when a student raised his hand in class, I expected him to ask one of those difficult questions I could answer by quoting someone else. What I wasn’t expecting was a question that made me look inside myself.”
“Do black lives matter?” is the “simple question” the student asks, but the teacher’s search for an honest answer is much more complex, like the film itself. The student also questions America’s treatment of its veterans – with both jarring and more nuanced imagery, the film visualizes the teacher’s thoughts on issues of slavery, the Black Lives Matter movement and the news media’s overall portrayal of blacks.
Ensuring the film’s visual style supported, rather than smothered or otherwise detracted from the dialogue fell to the STUDIO designer/director John Holmes. “The graphic novel-style was one approach that we thought would work well for this because it lent itself to the gritty feel the piece demanded,” Holmes explained. “We also used color as a hook – the saturated palette grabs the attention. We wanted to push the shadows and the backlighting to create these visually symbolic silhouettes.” Holmes, along with 3D lead animator Eric Kilanski, used Maya for the 3D animation, as well as Adobe’s Photoshop and After Effects.
For Latimer, structuring the narrative so that it was not saying outright, “this is wrong and here’s why,” but rather engaging in a back-and-forth conversation about these racial issues, was critically important. “We wanted to try and turn people’s immediate judgments and assumptions into something more like curiosity, which offers an opportunity to open the door to dialogue where it might not otherwise be open,” he said. “That’s why we set this in a classroom and put the question into the mouth of a child.”
A Simple Question continues the STUDIO’s ongoing commitment to socially conscious projects. The company has worked on a number of philanthropic efforts over the past few years, including a series of videos for amfAR for World AIDS Day; a 2-minute spot for MPOWERD, manufactures of LUCI, an inflatable solar-powered lantern for energy-impoverished areas; and the animated short Scarlett for the Scarlett Contra El Cancer Center, which has been viewed more than 20 million times.
In addition, they recently completed 30 minutes of animation for Emily Kassie’s documentary, A Girl Named C, about childhood sexual abuse. Other recent projects include work with World Refugee Day, CATW, ADCOLOR and Material for the ARTS.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.