Malala – An Interview with Jason Carpenter

After the Taliban tries to kill her for speaking out on behalf of girls’ education, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai emerges as a leading advocate for children’s rights and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

Jason Carpenter led a team of artists in the creation of eleven animated sequences used to portray Malala and her family’s past. I spoke with Jason about the unique opportunity he had to create animation sequences to compliment a live-action documentary feature.

Daniel: This is a unique project for an animator. How did you get involved?

Jason: I made a film in 2011 called, “The Renter,” which did the festival circuit and all that, and I was contacted by Davis Guggenheim’s office around October of 2013. They left me a message and said they were interested in talking about the animation. I was familiar with David’s films, and I’ve always been a fan. So I went in to meet with David about a week after that. They were entertaining a lot of different parties and companies to do the animation. They were trying find the type of animation they wanted, and figure out how the whole process worked. How did this fit into a feature documentary of this size? Those kind of questions… The creative nuts and bolts.

The interview lasted a few hours, and I think we ended up sharing an aesthetic sensibility about what this world could look like. From there I did an animation test, and put an animation team together, and essentially pitched to David, “What if it looked like this?” That’s really how it began. We were lucky enough to get the green light after a couple months.

Daniel: Can you tell us a bit about the production of the animated sequences? What tools did you use? What was production schedule like? How many artists were involved?

Jason: In terms of a team, it started out pretty small. I worked as the animation lead and designer from the beginning. I also had a concept artist, an animator, and a background artist. We started with a team of three to four people during pre-production. We tried to figure out what it could look like. It’s different creating animation that needs to fit with live-action. It had to be a style that worked with the rest of the film.

In the summer of 2014, we really ramped up production, and had about fifteen people from coordinators to artists and leads. It was all done in house in our studio in Venice, which was great because we could get a hold of the director quickly if we needed to make an important decision. It was really economical as far as time goes. As we progressed through more sequences, the team got smaller again, and by the end of production we were down to where we started with three or four people.

In terms of tools, it was all created digitally. All the development work, the boards and backgrounds, were done with Photoshop. All the animation was done in Flash, probably because everyone already knew Flash. It was a big time saver. Everyone could just jump right into it. During this process we ended up skipping a few parts. We really didn’t have a proper layout pipeline. We would paint frame by frame in photoshop, and then all of that would get composited with the backgrounds in After Effects. That’s where a lot of the light came in; the luminous quality. It was really three pieces of software, all Wacom Cintiqs and iMac’s.

How closely did you work with the Davis Guggenheim? What was it like collaborating with a live-action director?

Jason: It was great! I worked really closely with Davis. I got to see him almost every day. It was his film, so he would ask, “What if the sequence was like this?” And I would take his guidance and visualize it and say, “What if we did this?” It was a collaborative process, and one that I think grew as we went on. As we made stuff, he lived close by, just a couple doors down, he would come by, and we could change things pretty quickly. I think we ended up finding a lot of things by making animation that we wouldn’t have otherwise. I also think that us all being under one roof made it much easier.

Part of starting the process with David’s team was talking about how animation works. What’s typical? What normally happens in an animated film? How we would build it, and all the things that go into that to make it work? How is that different when it’s for a live-action documentary? I learned a great deal from him, and it was a really special project is many ways. Being part of a film that I feel so passionately about, having the powerful message it does.

A still from one of the film's animated sequences.

A still from one of the film’s animated sequences.

Daniel: How involved was Malala and her family in the giving feedback on the animated sequences?

Jason: We did a lot of research. We’re showing real people, and real places. It was really important to show them as authentically as we could. I don’t mean that we got all the lamp posts in the right place, but that you get an impression of the place that feels authentic enough. Malala and her family did give notes. We would show them the film as we progressed. There was a sequence with Malala’s mom, where she went to school for a little while before selling her books. We had the children sitting at desks in this village classroom high up in the mountains in Pakistan. She gave us a note that they didn’t sit at desks, they sat on the floor. So it’s things like that, you want it to feel true and real for them. We tried to be as respectful of their history as we could.

Daniel: I noticed in the animated sequences there are no faces on the characters. Was this a stylistic choice?

Yes it was. You might see subtle faces in some shots, but it absolutely was a stylistic choice. The reason was because there was so much live-action, and the two had to play well together. We tried showing Malala’s animated face next to a shot of Malala talking in live-action, and there was this gap, this break. It kind of bumped you out of the film for a split second. There’s a lot of animated sequences, especially towards the end of the film, so that’s a lot of bumps. So we were really consciously trying to give an impression of Malala, of a girl from Pakistan, as opposed to showing all the minute details that go along with it.

Daniel: What did you learn from this experience that you’ll take with you to future projects?

Jason: There were a few things. One was how satisfying it was to work on something that has such a powerful message behind it. I think it’s rare as an animator to get a chance to work on a project like this. So that felt special. A lot of what I learned was about the process of finding a way to work.We worked in a very different way on this project than you would on a typical animated show or feature. There’s something exciting about that. I think we’re at a point with animation now where a lot of different ways of working are opening up. The medium can be used in so many different ways, and hopefully audiences are becoming more receptive to all those different ways. To me, this was a way of proving one of those examples out. It took us a while to find our process, a way of working that worked for this project. I feel like next time around I’ll have a much better idea of where to start, and how to figure out where I want to go more quickly.