Animating The Stories Of Our Lives: The Rauch Brothers [Interview]

on Tuesday, Oct. 4th

StoryCorps, the national oral history project in partnership with the Library of Congress and NPR, has been recording the stories of everyday people across America for nearly a decade.  Through its podcasts, books and weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition, the organization is on a mission to prove that there is no better way to honor our selves and our loved ones than by listening.  Unless, of course, you like to watch while you listen, too.  Mike and Tim Rauch are helping this American institution retell some of its most compelling stories through animation — and their work is catching on. The Rauch Brothers were recently nominated for a Emmy Award for their animated work and Turnstyle contributor Jeremy Helton interviewed the duo in September of 2011.

Turnstyle: How did you get in involved with StoryCorps?

Mike Rauch: I started there as an intern in 2007, which is when I first had the idea to translate their stories into animation. I was really nervous about asking StoryCorps founder Dave Isay if we could animate one of the stories. He was so passionate about the human voice and video wasn’t really on his radar, but he agreed to let us animate a StoryCorps story.

Tim Rauch: Mike pitched me the idea to animate one of the interviews. I didn’t think it would work, but he convinced me to try. We started with “Germans in the Woods” and after that we did “Q&A”. “Q&A” was the episode that really sold the idea for a series and helped us to see that there were several StoryCorps stories that would be great for animation.

Turnstyle: Who are your heroes in animation?

MR: We both share many of the same heroes: Chuck Jones, John Hubley, Ralph Bakshi, Art Lozzi, Ed Benedict, Jay Ward, Nick Park, John K, Bill Wray, and Stephen DeStefano to name a few. Animation takes so many different talents that you end up having quite a few influences, heroes, and inspirations because each person has very particular strengths that make them uniquely great.

Turnstyle: Do you have any inspirations or favorite projects in animation?

MR: Too many to name really. A particular inspiration for the StoryCorps series was Aardman Animation’s “Lip Synch Series”, which used animation to re-contextualize documentary audio recordings. With StoryCorps, instead of re-contextualizing things we’re specifically telling people’s real stories, but Aardman’s work helped us to see how interesting everyday life really is.

TR: In a similar vein, John Hubley’s use of improvised recordings of his children for shorts like “Moonbird” and his Marky Maypo commercials was another inspiration for the work we’re doing. “Moonbird” was a major reference for us when we were working on “Q&A”.

Turnstyle: What prompted each of you to get into animation?

TR: We’ve wanted to do this since we were in grade school. Walt Disney feature films were the first thing that instilled a passion in us to want to tell stories through animation.

MR: Our older brother Sam took us to see “Beauty and the Beast” at a dollar cinema. It was extraordinary to see that animation was capable of evoking such a wide range of moods and emotions. From that point forward, we studied animation throughout our childhood.

Turnstyle: Are you working on any projects outside of StoryCorps?

TR: StoryCorps takes most of our time, but we are working on new ideas for shorts, series, and feature films. The stories continue to use cartoon styling with a touch of humanity and center around the American experience. Some of the ideas include a story about Puerto Rican migrants in New York City during the 1950′s, a variety show inspired by old time radio, a feature film about gator wrestlers, and a collaboration with a theater group that involves American folklore.

MR: We’re also working to launch a project that will help independent animators, cartoonists, and other creatives to fund, create, and distribute their own work. We’ve been extraordinarily lucky to get the chance to follow our passion and we want to help other people do the same thing.

Turnstyle: Describe the creative process behind animating the StoryCorps clips.

MR: We begin with research. We meet the storytellers, collect old family photos, take photographs of key settings, and gather historical reference when necessary. Using that, we design the characters and create the storyboard. That initial stage is the key to everything that follows and is where we solve most of our problems. Once we have final character designs and a final storyboard, we begin background layout and animation.

TR: Although we have figured out much of the episode at the storyboard stage, we keep ourselves open to new ideas from all the artists throughout the production. Often times, somebody will think of a gag we can add, a way to reposition the camera that helps better tell the story, or a cut we should insert to improve the flow. We don’t limit the artists to one realm. For instance, a gag or story idea is just as likely to come from our background artist as from our storyboard artist.

Turnstyle: How does your collaboration with each other work? Who does what?

TR: I’m responsible for the character design and animation. I also work collaboratively with Mike as we gather our research and reference and decide how best to tell the story. In the past, I was the storyboard artist as well, but now Stephen DeStefano has taken that role and I help make the edits and changes to his work that we need.

MR: I oversee and direct our creative team, identifying talent that will complement our strengths and weaknesses and helping to craft the vision for their work. We have a small team, so I also help fill the cracks whenever there is something to do but no one else to do it— painting the finished character animation, retouching background art, or compositing the finished cartoon for example.

Turnstyle: What were some of the initial surprises and challenges of animating these stories?

MR: The biggest challenge has always been finding ways to complement and enhance the original audio track. StoryCorps’ production team does such an incredible job of editing the interviews into powerful stories, and a lot of times they are perfect pieces of audio that should remain as audio only. We are always careful to work only with stories that we think we can help add another dimension to.

TR: It’s a delicate process finding the balance between enhancing the audio with visuals, staying true to the story, and not overpowering or dulling the audio recording with what we do in animation. Each episode has it’s own unique challenges and it’s own unique solutions, but striking that balance is the core challenge we face every time at bat.

Turnstyle: To what degree do you consider your animations for StoryCorps “documentary work?”

MR: Anyone making documentary work, whether it’s photography, film, radio, or something else, has to interpret and edit. The key is to try and be as honest and true to the story as possible. We do the same thing. So for us, animation can absolutely be documentary.

Turnstyle: How do you navigate the concept of authenticity in these StoryCorps animations?

TR: Each episode is grounded in research and the intent to honor and be true to the people in the story. With that foundation, we have found that authenticity tends to naturally follow.

Turnstyle: Have there been instances in which StoryCorps participants have been ambivalent about having their story animated?

MR: We’ve gotten full support from everyone whose story we’ve animated. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t animate them. We take people’s trust very seriously, and consider it a real honor and a gift that they allow us to help tell their story. In a lot of ways I feel that we really make each episode for the storytellers more so than anybody else. The biggest complement possible is when we get their positive feedback on what we’ve done with their stories.

Turnstyle: How do the StoryCorps animations tell a different but equally authentic story as the audio clips heard on Morning Edition?

MR: The story is made visual, so it’s an entirely different experience from the radio component of StoryCorps. By adding visuals, we are able to accentuate or add jokes, heighten or emphasize emotions, and clarify or strengthen story points. In “John and Joe”, one brother becomes a firefighter, the other a police detective. In audio, it can be confusing which brother is which. In animation, we used color to help distinguish them. John, the firefighter, has blond hair and always wears red. Joe, the police detective, has brown hair and always wears blue. The red and blue are of course design choices that help tell the story, but the hair color is authentic and true to life.

TR: At the end of “John and Joe”, the two boys’ father delivers some particularly poignant lines remembering his deceased sons. It’s a powerful moment in audio alone and there is an added dimension in animation when he speaks directly to the viewer. His posture and facial expressions help underline the mood of the story at that point. The acting in the animation is true to his tone and the character design is a very direct reference to the actual man, so even though it is in cartoon form there is a lot of truth and authenticity in that moment.

Turnstyle: Aside from the fact that StoryCorps does not videotape their interviews with participants, can you talk about why animation might be a superior alternative to video when it comes to telling these stories visually?

MR: People can easily become self-conscious in front of a camera. Recording their story by talking into a microphone while sitting across from a friend or family member gives them license to talk about things that they might not otherwise. It puts them at ease in a way that wouldn’t be possible on camera.

TR: And in translating the story into animation we’re able to show events and parts of the story that would simply be impossible to capture on camera. For instance, we can show a couple on their first date 50 years ago as they recall the conversation they had. You could reenact that for a camera, but in animation we can actually have the people themselves delivering the lines. It also opens up the opportunity to use design, color, and the controlled performance of an animator to add new meaning and understanding for the audience.

Turnstyle: Have you been privy to any interesting or memorable reactions to the work by StoryCorps participants or others?  Can you tell me about one or two that stand out for you?

TR: It has been particularly moving to see the response to the September 11th shorts we released for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. So many people have said that they never understood the impact of that day or never felt any emotion about it until they saw the StoryCorps shorts.

MR: It’s incredibly gratifying to know that this work helps people connect, relate, and better understand each other. Helping people experience and understand both the joys and sorrows of life is exactly what we’ve wanted to do with animation since we were children.

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