Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to launch this series of conversations, here are Mike and Tim Rauch, co-directors of StoryCorps Animated Shorts Eyes on the Stars, Facundo the Great, and Sundays at Rocco's.
Eyes on the Stars: Carl McNair tells the story of his brother Ronald, an African-American kid in the 1950s who set his sights on the stars.
Facundo the Great: Ramòn "Chunky" Sanchez recounts how the new kid at school became a hero when his name stumped their teachers.
Sundays at Rocco's: Nicholas Petron remembers family dinners at his grandfather's place and how everything changed when the city made new plans for their neighborhood.
IDA: How did you get started working with StoryCorps?
Mike Rauch: I was originally an intern at StoryCorps, which is actually when my brother Tim and I started the very first StoryCorps short, Germans in the Woods.
Tim Rauch: While Mike was interning, he told me he had talked to StoryCorps about animating some of their radio broadcasts. At first I didn’t think it would work, but as I listened to more StoryCorps recordings, I saw that animation could really add a new dimension to these stories. We initially planned to do just one short, but when we finished Germans in the Woods we realized that we had something compelling and we wanted to work on more stories.
IDA: What inspires you most about directing these shorts for StoryCorps?
TR: The most inspiring people I’ve known in my life have been the subjects of these StoryCorps shorts. Eyes On The Stars is a perfect example. Ron McNair, an African American, grew up poor in segregated, rural South Carolina, but through his perseverance and intelligence made an extraordinary impact on American life. He became an MIT physicist and the second African American astronaut to fly into space. Ultimately he lost his life in the Challenger disaster. A local library that turned young Ron away because of the color of his skin is now a museum in his honor and sits on a boulevard bearing his name.
MR: Working with these stories is a constant reminder of how extraordinary the lives of everyday people are. It's been great discovering just how much we all share in common and how truly amazing life can be.
IDA: It sounds like average Americans come in to record their stories, and you work with the recorded piece to develop an animation. Can you describe your process in a little more detail?
MR: StoryCorps records the stories of everyday Americans all across the country. When we receive the edited audio recording from StoryCorps, which airs first as a broadcast on NPR, we begin by doing intensive research. We visit the storytellers whenever possible, gather family photos, take snapshots of relevant landmarks, and collect whatever other research is needed. That research comes back into the studio and is used to help design the characters and create a storyboard.
When the character design and storyboard are finalized, things start coming to life through animation and background layouts for the various environments. It's always really exciting to see it come together when we add color to the characters and backgrounds at the very end. When everything is finished, all the pieces of the film get composited in AfterEffects and we have the final video.
TR: Because these are cartoons, there is some imagining we have to do along the way, but building everything on that foundation of research at the beginning helps keep things authentic and true to the real story.
IDA: What are some of the challenges you encounter when you are storyboarding the animations to go along with these recordings? How do you overcome those challenges?
TR: Because these shorts are both documentary and cartoon, it's always a balancing act of letting the animation be both naturalistic and more cartoony. We try to use both ends of the spectrum—in design and in the acting—to help tell the story in the best way possible. Our guide for that balance is always character and story. If a subtler feature animation approach works best in a given scene, we go for that. If a more humorous TV cartoon sensibility serves the next scene better, we're not shy about using that either.
IDA: Who are some other individuals working in the animation documentary field who have inspired you in your work?
MR: The 1980's series Lip Synch by UK studio Aardman Animations was an early influence that got us interested in telling real-life stories through animation. But some of our biggest inspirations probably come from Saturday morning cartoons. The design of the StoryCorps shorts owes a lot to classic American TV shows like The Flintstones, Rocky & Bullwinkle, or even Ren & Stimpy. Those cartoons were built around characters first and foremost, and the StoryCorps shorts are also very character-driven. We've learned a lot about creating memorable characters on screen by looking at cartoon classics.
TR: We're also drawing a lot of inspiration from animation of the 1940's and 1950's in general, and in specific the UPA studio. One particular director from UPA, John Hubley, was an early inspiration for the StoryCorps animation. He directed the 1959 Academy Award-winning Moonbird, which was built around actual recordings of his children playing. He did an amazing job of taking advantage of animation to really push the story and character development beyond the audio itself. We always look for ways to do that with StoryCorps, and John Hubley gives us a high bar to reach for.
IDA: What do you hope to get out of the inclusion of these three films in DocuWeeks?
MR: We're looking forward to watching these films with a theater audience. They're mainly seen on TV as part of POV, the PBS documentary program, or online. We really love connecting with audiences in those forums, but it's rare that we get to watch the StoryCorps shorts with a live audience. There's always something to learn from the immediate response in a theater, and it's great to have such a direct connection with the people watching.
TR: We're also thrilled to have these shorts included along with so many other great films that explore the human condition. We hope all three StoryCorps shorts will add a new dimension to the complex narrative about our modern world, as depicted in all the films playing together at DocuWeeks.
StoryCorps Animated Shorts will be screening August 3 through 9 at the IFC Center in New York City.
To purchase tickets for Eyes on the Stars, Facundo the Great, Sundays at Roccos, and the rest of the films in the DocuWeeks New York Shorts Program for Week 1, click here.