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Black Earth Rising - Using Animation Where Words Fail

Hugo Blick & Steven Small

Writer/Director & Animator

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Black Earth Rising is a new BBC Two drama about the prosecution of international war crimes and the West’s relationship with contemporary Africa written, directed and produced by Bafta-winner Hugo Blick. It tells the story of Kate Ashby (Michaela Coel) who was rescued as a child from the horrific aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and brought to the UK. However she finds the tragic shadow of her past impossible to escape. 

We spoke to Hugo Blick and the animator Steve Small about the use of animation at key points in the drama.

Hugo - When and why did you choose to include animated sequences in Black Earth Rising?

(Hugo Blick) I took that decision very early in the process of developing the story and the scripts. As a background I was endeavouring to present a very complex story about the West’s relationship with Africa and the reach of law and justice. The frame for that was by utilising and exploring themes invoked by the Rwandan genocide. There have previously been a number of filmed enterprises relating the story of the genocide including Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs and I was concerned that there might be a sense of fatigue from the viewer and that the audience might, in a horrible sense, feel that they were familiar with these ideas and scenes and therefore not engage with them. I also, most importantly, wanted to pay due respect to the story, because when you research and visit Rwanda the magnitude of what happened there is overwhelming. I thought it wasn’t possible or desirable to attempt any form of recreation of those events. That all led to animation as I felt that gave it a judicious step away, a reflective step away.

I had loved Waltz with Bashir and found it very striking and wanted a similar technique to present itself and to engage the audience in a similar manner.

I wanted to remove any prurience and not to evoke violence as titillation. I also wanted to make the representations of violence as spare and monochromatic as possible. I was keen that by making these elements very spare and still I wasn’t trying to impress a viewpoint on the audience.

Hugo Blick in Black Earth Rising

Hugo - How did you decide which elements of the script needed animation? What ties them together?

(Hugo Blick) Each animated sequence is there because of the representation of trauma within that individual character’s experience. For example, in Episode 3 as Juliana Kabanga relates her experience in the massacre in the church there were two layers. Firstly the use of sign language, as Juliana hasn’t spoken since the trauma, and then the move into animation in which via visuals alone offer the viewpoint of her life.

At the end of this sequence she asks Michael (played by John Goodman) “Why ask me when I cannot speak?” and he replies “Because words would fail”. Words fail at this level of trauma.

Later in the series animation is used alongside narration – for example in Episode 7 where a voiceover of a character is explaining how and why this particular story needs to be told and what it’s about. It’s a long sequence which carries our understanding of the purpose of the story from beginning to end and in the middle it includes this incredible animation which feels almost like a different movement in a symphony. It prevents the narration from feeling linear and singular but instead makes it alive and different.

Watch the animated sequence 'Juliana's Story' from Episode 3 of Black Earth Rising. Animation by Steve Small.

Hugo - How did you decide that Steve Small and Studio AKA would be the right partners for the project?

(Hugo Blick) I had written descriptive instructions in the script for the section where I wanted to used animation and then when we came to looking for partners for the animation – well Studio AKA are a well known company in the field with a desk bending under the weight of Baftas! - so they were invited to pitch as part of an open callout process. We had very varied types of responses from that process some of which felt very aggressive, which was what I was trying to avoid. Steve just intuited what I wanted from the script and in his pitch document he had exactly the right sense of the project. I responded to the beauty, elegance and simplicity of it. From then it was a simple job of saying “there’s the script and these are the timings”. I couldn’t be more grateful for the result. I always try and watch as things go out live and watching the broadcast of Episode 3 last night the animations felt like such a strength.

(Read the animated sequences in the script for Episode 1 & Episode 3)

Steve - When did you become aware of the project and how did you get involved?

(Steve Small) The first time was when our managing director Sue (Goffe) came back saying that there were some scripts in which were looking for animation. Could we take a look and respond with our take. We received one or two scripts or long excerpts and a number of us here at the studio read them and took a pass at how we could respond.

Reading the scripts it was immediately apparent that everything was in place. Sometimes scripts are still exploratory but this was clearly very different, although with a lot of restraint. Certain key words were indicated in bold alongside actions. From these basic instructions it’s up to the animator’s interpretation to create the feel and tone.

Almost through its brevity and clarity the script gave rise to a certain style, moments and comments that were very particular and that alongside the nature of the content being described gave me an image in my mind of things we wanted to see and things that we didn’t. You got a sense of events happening to people where their daily context has been completely removed – that things that were normal to them have been entirely taken away. Because in animation you make the images first and then think about how to make them move afterwards it seemed clear to me to make images that were wrested from any context and to focus on what we could take away to leave the minimum necessary. Whilst it was a naturalistic look it was more about gaps and absence.

(Hugo Blick) For example when the mother turns her head and a segment has gone you know exactly what that means but it isn’t graphic it’s just a strange geometrical absence which is more emotionally empowered.

A number of people who went through the genocide have commented very positively about the representation of their experiences through the animations.

Watch the animated sequence from Episode 1 of Black Earth Rising telling how Kate was rescued from the genocide. Animation by Steve Small.

Steve – Had you worked on any projects like this before?

(Steve Small) This was new ground for me in terms of animation. I rarely like to bring a known approach to new material as the material should dictate what it wants. It’s always good to look for new techniques.

I used to hand draw animation and have experimented with working with charcoal, in Africa in fact. I had just discovered a series of brushes with some new software and on this project I felt like it was the first time I wasn’t fighting against software to achieve what I wanted. My initial images were nudging at things saying “maybe we could do this”.

Also what was key was the use of source live action to inform the animation. We had one day in a studio where the film crew made themselves available to film whatever I requested.

(Hugo Blick) Yes at the time that seemed very odd as we didn’t know what these shots were for. What we filmed felt totally contrary to what you would normally ask for on a live action set.

(Steve Small) That day was invaluable as an immediate trial and error of what would and wouldn’t work in the animations. We had people of the wrong sizes and but I just needed the shots to achieve a naturalistic feel. I never wanted to used ‘caricature’ that felt like poor representations of real people. There were some things we used as closely as possible but with others we couldn’t. We just gathered as much information as possible – you cannot have too much information before you start – for example about the shape of hands and how they differ etc. We were bringing together all that information - footage, photographic and video references.

Steve - Are there any particular moments that you feel represent well what you were trying to achieve?

(Steve Small) There’s a particular shot of a murderer turning around in the animation in Episode 3. The original intention was for him to be shrouded in darkness. We had some reference footage of people turning. In the end what we used is almost completely white. I asked Hugo if he was happy with this, “Do we need anything more?” and his response was “We don’t need anything more”.

Hugo – Do you think you would use animation again in a drama?

(Hugo Blick) I’m always trying to see how I can tell story differently and approach long form drama in a way that breaks the mould – just to offset the audience into an idea of what TV drama can be. Everyone says that this is a golden age of TV drama and I think that’s probably true, but it also means pushing the medium a bit further and pressing the boundaries.

I never want to do exactly the same thing again. But I would love to work with Steve again.

Read the scripts for the animated sequences in Episode 1 and Episode 3

Find out more about what inspired Hugo Blick to create Black Earth Rising

Watch now on BBC iPlayer

Meet the Cast and Characters in Black Earth Rising

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