The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Alex Widdowson
Documentary Director and Researcher
Alex Widdowson is a London based multi-award-winning animated documentary director and researcher specializing in the representation of neurodivergence and psychology. In addition to freelancing and his work as festival producer for Factual Animation Film Festival, he lectures on animation at the University of Hertfordshire and is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching animated documentary ethics.
What are the unique challenges and opportunities that come with telling a nonfiction story through an animated lens?
The unique challenges and opportunities for me revolve around representation and ethics. With animated documentary, well, with all documentary, you have a responsibility to your participant…a duty of care. You have a responsibility to your audiences, which are around issues of truthfulness in film, and then you’ve got your own responsibility as a creative practitioner to be true to yourself.
Animated documentary really expands all of those responsibilities. You can totally control how your participant looks and what they do and where they are. And it’s enormous power. And with that, it undermines the truth, the reliability of the image. You might support that with interviews, but maybe you don’t.
What’s good about animation is that it’s a modular process. Maybe you start with an interview, you then reflect on how you want to interpret that interview through animation as a meta commentary on what was said in that moment. But then you can also go back to your participant and say, “these are some ideas of how it might look,” and you can work together on that. I’ve had this interesting innovation, in this new film Drawing on Autism, I then record those collaborative discussions, and fold them back into the narrative of the film. When it comes to talking about structure, a lot of it is changed and doesn’t so much rely on conventional short story structure.
How are you taking a good story and making it great?
It feels a bit like distillation, you know, the way you’re just constantly refining. You take a few seconds off here, a few seconds off there…you have to be really decisive. When I’m editing, I work in layered channels. And if I know something is brilliant, I’ll put it on the top layer. If I’m not sure about something, I might knock it down a layer. Sometimes I delete the bottom two rows and then start again. It is very rare I delete something, and I miss it. Which is a surprise, you think, “oh, but maybe that could be used in another way,” it’s not true. You don’t need everything; you don’t need to hold onto those things and be precious in that way. You just can’t when you’re working in the short format.
It’s quite different now that I’m grappling with longer form material, but I’m still using the same technique where you just chip away. I think it might have been Michelangelo that talked about “there’s a sculpture in the granite block somewhere.” And he just has to find it. It feels like that sometimes. You listen to it a thousand times when you’re making the film, it just feels like it was always there, and it wasn’t, it is something you’ve basically crafted. Yes, it’s based on a conversation, but it’s very much constructed in a way that felt right to you. There is a high degree of artificiality and constructiveness in all documentary practice, and you can tell a story in different ways, but there’s something sort of fateful about it at the end, where you feel like it was always there, and you just had to find it.
Why does storytelling matter and why is it powerful?
We are a storytelling species. We think that science is the thing that guides us in this modern age. I don’t think it’s true. There are very few people who actually have the expertise to really grapple with the science and understand just how messy everything is. What we get as a public is massively simplified and tied into some sort of narrative of how we should all behave.
When we go to therapy or have a deep discussion with a friend to try and understand the mess of our personal lives or our inner thoughts, we have to tell each other stories for it to be digestible. It’s just how our brains work.
Doing a PhD, you start to realize how slippery everything is and, especially a humanities PhD, starts to show you just how fluid language is and all knowledge…there’s a certain lifespan to everything we think we know is a fact. At some point it will be changed or the ideological system that views it will think of it very differently.
What questions do you ask yourself before starting to tell a story?
I used to rely on my personal angle, like, “I can relate to this topic. That’s something I’m passionate about. This is a person who knows a lot about it. Maybe we’ll have a chat about it.” And I’d be careful not to promise too much. There’s a low cost of sitting down with someone and having a chat for an hour or two. There’s a huge cost of spending six months making an animated film about it. But I think ethics is a much more important issue. Are you the right person to tell this story?
I started off with [telling] my own story, but in terms of ethics, I built up my confidence telling the stories of people I knew. And then I thought, “it’s time to really use all these skills to tackle a topic I don’t have significant prior knowledge of.”
And what does that mean, ethically, to enter a community and say, “well, I can help you tell your story,” Or “we can tell a story that you think that needs to be told, but I don’t have that primary experience myself.” And it does cause problems and you do make mistakes and you are just not up to speed with how people like to describe themselves.
I didn’t start my PhD in autism representation and animated documentary ethics knowing the difference between a person with autism and autistic person. It wasn’t intuitive to me. But speaking for or entering a community…that’s a big problem. And so, I’ve been spending years trying to work out how to reduce all those risks and develop methods that are intensely collaborative, and reflexive and positional. I started to learn from the autistic advocates about the neurodiversity paradigm and how relevant it was to me, and I developed a new comfort with my own diagnosis and realized I was in a very comparable position, and I should be talking about the fact I’m schizoaffective more often.
I started my career by making films about those experiences of psychosis. I still experience some form of neurodivergence that marks me as different from other people, but I wouldn’t give it up. It’s who I am. There’s probably an enormous number of people with quite scary labels to others, that just don’t talk about it. I’m glad to advocate for the schizoaffective community.
How are you measuring the impact of the films you make?
I’m not industrialized enough to be able to collect that data and know for sure. I get people writing me messages to say how much [my films] mean to them. Certainly, that happened a lot when [Music & Clowns] was released by the New York Times.
I think as an artist, it’s very hard to know if you’ve done well. I mean, sometimes it isn’t hard at all. I finished Music & Clowns and I was like, “yeah, I can die now.” I finally made an artwork I’m totally proud of. I know it’s great, and that’s an incredibly rare experience as an artist. I didn’t have the same feeling with other projects. I’ve never had that simple, “yeah, this is brilliant. I’m very happy with this.” In many ways, Music & Clowns was the easiest film I’ve ever made, because there was 30 years of research that went into it.