Back in April I released an animation I’ve been working on in my spare time for the past 2 years: Amazing Things Happen. I did it as a way to help the school my son was attending at the time, which organised an assembly to explain autism to the children. I thought it was such a great initiative I suggested to their SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) that I might put together an animation. She loved the idea, explaining that there was a lack of engaging visual material of this kind aimed at children, so she was eager to help make it happen.
Later, we thought maybe other schools might also be interested, so I made it available online for anyone to use. Now, 4 months since its release, the animation has been viewed over 40 million times, not including downloads, groups screenings, school assemblies, training sessions, events, etc.
The script was by far the hardest part. The autistic spectrum is so vast that trying to condense it to under 5 minutes was a hair-pulling experience. Eventually I managed it with the help of two wonderful advisers: Emma-Louise Burdett, the SENCO at my son’s school and Professor Tony Attwood, a world leading authority on Asperger’s Syndrome. I later found out, he was also involved in a beautiful stop-motion animation called ‘Max and Mary’ which deals with the subject of Asperger’s Syndrome.
After 6-9 months the script was finally signed off and I could finally start animating.
I had two main priorities while designing the characters: To portray diversity and a style easily rigged. I came up with a style that, with a few small tweaks to their features, allowed me to create endless variations of sizes, proportions, personality, ethnicity, etc. From early on I realised I was going to need at least 5 main characters to illustrate different behaviours, plus various background characters. That’s a lot of work for just one animator so I needed a rig that was easy to use. I ended up using a combination of Nicolas Dufrense’s DUIK Rigging Tools, Mike Overbeck’s Joystick ‘n Sliders and Ebberts & Zucker’s Rubberize It!. Plus some expressions to control blinking and mouth shapes.
For the backgrounds I drew inspiration from 1940s designs by United Productions of America (UPA), which to me are little works of art. It gives the viewer enough information to set the scene and allows the characters be the centre of attention. There’s only one scene where I departed from this simplicity and that’s the scene where we see from the point of view of an autistic child. I thought it useful to have a lot of information to convey the fact that a simple walk down the street can carry too much information for an autistic person.
Creating the backgrounds was great fun, I experimented with a great little app called Astropad, which turned my iPad Pro into a graphics tablet, it allowed me to use Photoshop with my favourite of Kyle Webster’s brushes. I had my doubts about this configuration but I must say it worked great. First of all there’s barely any lag as I drew and second the Apple pen is so much more like an actual pencil than my Wacom stylus. The downside of the Apple pencil is that it’s so thin it was hurting my fingers so I had to use a soft grip with a googly eye to remind me the right way to hold it.
For those interested in animation, other tools I used were: Element 3D, Optical Flares, Red Giant’s Particular, ReelSmart Motion Blur, Red Giant’s Looks, Red Giant’s Image Lounge (Real Shadows), VC reflect and Frischluft Lens Care. See if you can spot them!
Technicalities aside, this has easily been the most rewarding project I have ever worked on: The professionals involved were very supportive and generous with their time and skills; the animation has been well-received in the autistic community and beyond; the comments on social media have been very positive with thousands of shares and positive comments from parents, teachers, ASD professionals and even from individuals with no connection with autism; and hundreds of autism and educational organisations around the world have reached out to help spread the message.
The most tangible evidence of the project’s impact is the amount of offers to translate the animation to other languages, which highlights the fact that the need for material of this kind is a worldwide phenomenon. To date the original video has subtitles in 37 languages, has been dubbed into 17 different languages, and there are 19 additional translations in the works.
Several news and media outfits have also got in touch with offers to help spread the animation: BBC Persian TV Features; SBS Australia; Autistic News Feed, New Zealand; Kapisanan ng mga Brodkasters, Philippines; Mums Net; Abiliko, Israel; The Daily Record, Scotland; and The Huffington Post (UK, Canada and France).
If all that wasn’t enough, the animation has won several awards. When submitting it to festivals, I particularly focused on those themed around diversity, awareness, mental health and education.
It’s been one amazing event after the next, which has fuelled a desire to do more. Thanks to the internet, animation can now go far beyond entertainment, embellishing brands and selling goods. It can be a powerful tool to make positive impact in society and I want to take advantage of that. In fact I am already planning a crowdfunding campaign in order to produce a follow up animated series. Watch this space!