True Tales from the ER. An Animated Documentary

Julia Griffey, MFA ’05


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Name: Julia Griffey

Graduation: 2005

Program: MFA

True Tales from the ER is an animated documentary, which is an animation set to real audio. This genre of animation has gotten much attention recently due, in part, to the popularity of Robert Smigel’s animated shorts, “Fun with Real Audio” on Saturday Night Live. In his shorts, Smigel uses audio from sources such as TV interviews with celebrities and then animates to the audio with a liberal artistic license.

Smigel’s films are funny because the audio was made without the intention of it ever becoming a soundtrack to an animation. It is the juxtaposition of the reality of the audio and the fantasy of the visuals that make this genre of animation interesting and often very humorous.

Another brilliant example of animated documentary is the Oscar winning animated short “Creature Comforts” by Nick Park. Park collected audio by asking children to talk about what life is like for an animal in the zoo and interviewing elderly people about life in a nursing home. He then applied this audio to his animated zoo animals. The voices of the subjects are matched cleverly with the different animals. For example, audio sampled from a dramatic, elderly Brazilian man is spoken by a lion and a young girl’s timid voice comes out of a colorful little bird.

In my film, “True Tales from the ER,” the audio source comes from an interview with emergency medicine doctor, Michelle Finkel. Dr. Finkel works in the Emergency Room at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her workplace stories are unbelievable, and hilarious on their own. Adding animation could only make them funnier.

Recording Michelle telling the stories and editing them down to the bare essentials was challenging. I recorded her in two sessions, but I ended up using none of the second session. After I recorded the first session and tried editing it, I thought that I needed some filler material in order to give the piece context. So in the second recording session, I told Michelle what I needed her to say. Inevitably, it sounded forced and stilted and completely lacking in the spontaneity of the first session. This proved that the best audio for animated documentaries must be generated with out the intent being known.

My solution to the context problem was to provide it visually. Instead of having Michelle introduce herself and explain what the stories were about, I animated an ambulance speeding down the road in the opening scene to clue the viewer in to the subject matter.

It was difficult deciding what stories to keep and how to sequence them. I kept stories that had the most interesting visual potential and weren’t too obscene. Also, I didn’t want to open with the most shocking and stomach-churning tale so I ordered the stories in an attempt to “warm the viewer up.” The resulting track was about 3-and-a-half minutes long.

I had an interest in creating an animated documentary since I made “The Great Escape,” when I had initially tried to chase my nephew around with an audio recorder and get him to talk about Little Joe. When I expressed interest in trying again, my animation teacher, Steve asked me, “Well, who do you know that can tell a good story?” The first person I thought of was a friend, Michelle Finkel, who works as an emergency medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her stories are legendary.

“Maybe the pretty doctor will let you spank her after the intubation.” woman to her husband in the Emergency Room at Massachusetts General Hospital

Deciding how to animate was also difficult. Depicting every story literally was not an option. For one, the material is a bit crude and sexual. And secondly, animation is more interesting when it is not a literal interpretation of the narrative. So, I added an element of fantasy to the story telling. For example, when Michelle is given a compliment that she has “brains and beauty,” I chose to convey her imagination. At that point in the film, Michelle turns into a slimmer, sexier bikini clad version of herself. I found that some of the non-literal interpretations of the content I came up with simply didn’t work. But, by creating an animatic before animating, I was able to eliminate unsuccessful sequences.

This short film was the most labor intensive I have made to date, but I am pleased with the results. Compared to my earlier films, movement passages look more organic and the drawing appears loose. In this piece, I am taking advantage of the plasticity of the medium. It feels more imaginative and free from a literal representation of the narrative then my earlier work.

Keywords: ER, animation, documentary, narrative