Animator Daniela Sherer On The Power Of Visual Storytelling
This month I caught up with one of my favourite animators - the phenomenally talented Daniela Sherer. Since graduating from London's Royal College of Art in 2013 with a Masters in Animation, Tel Aviv-based Daniela has been picking up awards and developing a growing reputation for her smart, distinctive, hand-drawn animations, which bring lightness to otherwise weighty subjects such as Insomnia, Dark Matter, Autism, Forgiveness and Neuroscience. Her style and skills have made her a favourite with clients such as Alain de Botton's The School of Life and Harvard University.
Daniela was kind enough to take some time out of her day to chat with me about her work, and to give me her top tips on how to produce a successful animation - essential reading for anybody thinking of commissioning their own animated short!
Some of your animations explore quite heavy, abstract scientific and philosophical ideas. What first attracted you to get involved with these projects?
My relationship with this kind of work started with a chance encounter at a film festival where I met some neuroscientists and they commissioned me to work on a documentary one of them was making. Later that developed into other collaborations and one thing led to another. And I think once you start doing one kind of commission more of that comes along because people start to see that and that becomes part of what you do.
What do you enjoy about these collaborations?
It’s a great thing if you can make a film and learn something in the process and have contact with professionals in that particular field. For Massive we did a project about Dark Matter and I had access to the thoughts of this physicist, Janna Levin, which was very cool.
It’s funny because people might say, ‘’It’s a science video’’ but I don't just see it like that. Making a film or an explanatory video about something scientific is not so different to making a film about anything else. It is about a particular topic but I approach it simply as a script about something that I can access through my style and maybe it’s not so different as speaking about something fictional. You know, everything connects. Everything can be entertaining and fun and dramatic.
What is it about animation that people find so engaging?
I think animation has this universal quality to it. It’s easy to relate to. Everybody’s watched animation as a kid, so perhaps it taps into something inside us, the child within us, so when we’re watching as adults it feels somehow familiar.
But it also has a universal appeal as drawings always do - maybe more than live action sometimes.
When you approach a complex topic like Dark Matter, what’s your approach? Do you feel like you have to really get to grips with the subject matter before you can bring it to life?
Yeah, absolutely, I do a lot of Googling at first to get a sense of the subject. Then I usually work with a producer who’s very knowledgeable, so I can approach her and ask her, ‘’Can you give me some more information about a particular thing?’’ ‘’Is there something I need to know to make this video make sense?’’. So I do research up to the limits of my understanding as a non-scientist.
And then I try to find the best way into it, to access the subject. So I ask myself, "What’s the leading metaphor, or plot line that’s going to define this film and make it accessible to a non-scientific audience?’’
It depends also who audience is. If it’s for undergraduate students who already have a basic understanding and only need their knowledge fine-tuned then you can make it more complex, if it’s for children it requires a different approach. If it’s for a general audience maybe you can find a way that’s a good metaphor for it without overcomplicating things.
It’s interesting you mention plot, as people communicating academic subjects often don’t think of it as storytelling but that’s what they should be doing isn’t it?
Yes, we’re always telling stories. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of facts. Science and scientists are always asking questions and telling some kind of story. And that comes very naturally when you’re making a film about something scientific.
You’re presenting this line of thought, or this theory, or bunch of findings but to make a successful animation you need to bundle these together; you need to find some way to bind them together and stories are the most engaging way of doing that.
Your visual storytelling is so inventive and playful. How do you come up with your ideas, especially when handed a subject like Dark Matter, which doesn't have any easy visual references?
It’s funny you should mention Dark Matter because that was super challenging. I was really excited about this project because I thought it was so magical and it blew my mind but then I started to do my research and realised how complex it is. And I listened to the audio [of physicist Janna Levin] and at some point I realised that the video isn’t really about dark matter it’s about not knowing what dark matter is.
So then I started thinking, "What’s a nice metaphor or way to visually show that we don’t know what something is but we know it’s there?" And I had a bunch of different ideas about how to do that and the one I chose was this black balloon that floats around and sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t see it and it describes this general thought about dark matter and how we don’t know much about it.
There was another one I made for the School of Life about Insomnia. And there was this clear idea that insomnia is derivative of some sort of sense of unease or some undercurrent of discontent, so I made this visual separation of a girl and her brain and they’re having this strange relationship. It’s kind of a creepy brain! He’s her friend but he’s also not her friend, he’s her conscience I suppose. So that was a fun project to do.
It feels like animation is going through a golden age at the moment? Why do you think it’s become so popular?
Yeah, animation appreciation comes in these waves of interest and now is a time when we’re watching videos on a daily basis. It’s everywhere. Animation lends itself well to short form content and we’re consuming lots of short media at the moment, so it’s definitely a very good time for animation.
There’s also the fact that technological advances have had a very democratising effect on video production at the moment, including animation. It’s open to everyone now. All you need is a computer, some knowledge and passion for it and you can create films of your own.
And because we're exposed to such a large quantity of animations now, much more than ten years ago, audiences are developing their own tastes and seeking out quality animations more and more.
What would your top tips be for people who are thinking of producing an animation?
1) First thing is make sure you have time and the funds to do it. Having the right amount of time is super-crucial. If you have enough time to think about it, to flesh it out with the storyboard, it’s so important. It give the project this room for thought, which is essential.
Sometimes employers who don’t know much about animation call up and say, "Hey, we want something in two weeks"
It’s physically impossible, unless you’re working with a studio in Japan or something. So, time and the money to invest in that time are really important.
2) The second thing is to work with the right people. When I say that I mean a team of people that gets what you’re trying to do. It’s very important. For the musician to have the right vibe of the project, to write the right kind of music; for the producer to figure out what everyone needs; for the scientist to be open to ideas.
Finding the right blend of people is really critical, and this kind of teamwork leads to the best results.
3) The final thing is to find the right metaphor, the right story, and not be afraid of experimenting. Sometimes things have been shown in a certain way many times - so to break away from that is a good idea.
You also shouldn’t be afraid of being ‘artsy’. Audiences are more willing to take in experimental films than people sometimes think. Because there is so much media out there at the moment animations that are challenging will stand out and capture people’s imagination.
All of Daniela's work can be found on her website: www.danielasherer.com
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in helping research groups from science, the social sciences and the humanities to bring their research alive and engage with the public.