How Our Most Intimate Stories Become Animated Shorts

For the past couple of years, a team of artists has taken StoryCorps interviews and made them into documentary cartoons.

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PBS

Ten years ago, Dave Isay founded StoryCorps with the idea that we can learn something amazing from almost anyone, if we just take the time to listen. Over Thanksgiving weekend, StoryCorps celebrated its anniversary with its very first TV special, "Listening Is An Act of Love," an animated documentary featuring stories culled from a decade of gathering and recording intimate tales from across the country.

The special starts with an interview between Isay and his nine-year-old nephew, Benji, and includes animated versions of stories collected from StoryCorps booths in Chicago, New York, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, plus two favorites from San Francisco and Bradenton, Florida. To date, the Peabody Award-winning oral history project has recorded more than 50,000 conversations in 1,700 U.S. cities and towns. Millions have listened to the program on NPR's "Morning Edition." For the past few years, the Rauch Brothers have animated and directed a series of short films for PBS using the original StoryCorps radio pieces.

A scene from "Marking the Distance," courtesy PBS.

New for the 10th anniversary special is "Marking the Distance," a conversation between Gweneviere Mann, a San Francisco native living in New York, and her boyfriend, Yasir Salem. They talk about running the New York Marathon after Mann lost her short-term memory following surgery to remove a brain tumor. There's also the returning favorite "No More Questions!", which introduces us to feisty 87 year-old Kay Wang, who was dragged into a StoryCorps booth by her son and granddaughter. After some gentle prodding, she told colorful tales of rejecting suitors as a young woman in China and of her job as a Bloomingdale’s store detective. Several weeks after the interview, she passed away.

A scene from "No More Questions," courtesy PBS.

What’s it like to create visual characters for these distinctive voices, all in the name of documentary work? I talked with animators Tim and Mike Rauch about how they brought these personal recorded stories to the small screen.

Tim, you originally said there was "no way" to do animated film versions of the StoryCorps shorts. You do all the drawing. What were the biggest obstacles that you saw from the get-go? Every story is so different: the arc, the voice, the feeling of each tale. I imagine that alone was pretty daunting.

TR: I felt that they were so personal, and when I'd thought about doing animated documentaries before, it seemed more of a back and forth, a conversation, but these stories are so dense for broadcast. They’re really tiny little diamonds, really sharp. That was what intimidated me.

Mike, why did you think that this would be not only doable, but something that would add substantively to the experience of these stories? Since the original audio experience has no visual component, it must be kind of exciting (and also terrifying!) to take the imaginative flight that you do with the sound.

MR: Because we work with the original edited radio broadcast, some of them are so perfectly right for radio that if we were to turn them into animation, it would actually make them weaker. But some we feel we actually can build on. We look for a story where there are some gaps we can fill in -- if there’s additional information or background that doesn't come through just in the broadcast itself.

TR: The second short we did, "Q&A," is a conversation between a mother and son, and the son has Asperger's. In the piece, there's not a lot of direct story. No event, no specifics being recalled. The conversation is really about the relationship between the mother and her son. What I was hoping we could do with animation was to show what that relationship looks like physically. As a listener, you have what they sound like; after we actually met them, we found what the physical was. You can start to explore that on-screen and add another layer of humor and personality to that interaction. For instance, we can show Joshua digging in the dirt with a stick, or that he doesn’t make as much eye contact when he’s talking to you. It all adds personality to the voice.

MR: It gives us an opportunity to enhance the mood or the emotions being expressed. In this case, they recorded the story in a booth, and Joshua had written all these questions for his mother. But in the animation, we jump out of that booth to show them walking in the woods. Here's this 12-year-old, he’s starting to become more aware of himself and the world around him, it's fall, a season of changes, and setting it all in the fall connects a bit with that, on a subconscious level. They’re from Connecticut, and we found out later on that they actually did go on walks like that. It’s true to who they are, on an emotional level.

What have you learned from the first few experiences that you’ve incorporated newly into your approach?

MR: Now, before the production of every short, we meet the participants, we collect family photos, we ask more questions, we go to locations, so we can add in all those kinds of details. What helps us is when we get a track with a great voice and a strong character, like Miss Devine: a larger than life character that we have an opportunity to bring to full life on-screen. We can see the audience reaction when they laugh at something that’s not apparent in the audio, but something we show onscreen.

TR: Most people experience these pieces by hearing them once on the radio, or listening to it on a podcast. You notice many things when you listen to it, but many you don’t notice as closely. When we prepare to do this in animation, we really listen to the voices: the expressive quality when they breathe, or when they don’t breathe, so that the cartoon feels more and more like a real person.

Was it difficult to decide on a style of animation, or a look that fit the characters? How would you describe it?

TR: The early films were drier, more observational, but now I try to push the drawings to be as wild and expressive as possible. It’s partially because I enjoy drawing that way, but I think there are very practical reasons to support why it works. It's easier to have a mode of characters -- I think of the film, "She Was the One," that we did for [StoryCorps' September 11 shorts]. The story starts out with Richie falling in love with Karen, we have him walking on the sidewalk with her and holding her hand, and he gets goggly-eyed and floats up. By the end of the thing, you have a shot of the burning towers, and a shot of Richie trying to put the cap back on his water bottle with his hands shaking. You can see her reflected in his giant eyes -- classic American cartoon drawing has the capacity for this kind of range of emotion in it. It’s thought of something traditionally used for humor, and it is, nine times out of ten, but it also has the capacity for this. And it's accessible.

MR: The more we pushed into classic cartoon style, we found that it’s something that is broadly appealing and something people are familiar with, rather than something like, "that’s not for me." Over time, we pushed the proportions more, to create more memorable characters, to do more acting with them.

So many of us don’t take the time to share the stories of our lives, even with the people who are closest to us. What have you learned from StoryCorps, after listening so carefully for so many hours to the way people talk to each other? What do you want people to take away from the viewing experience?

TR: I hope people find some aspect to relate to in some part of the story or character. My favorite example of this is the story of Eddie Lanier -- it’s one of the new stories. Eddie was the son of the mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from a very prominent family. He destroyed his promising career through alcoholism. Eventually, he ended up homeless, living on the side of the highway. Eventually, he had to decide to give it up and commit to sobriety, after trying and failing so many times. And it changed his life. I hope people watching that can have more compassion for people they know who are dealing with addictions -- alcohol, gambling, drugs -- or if they are struggling with it themselves. It tells you that you don’t always know why the homeless are in the position they’re in. You need to take in their humanity and not just dismiss them because of what you perceive that you’re seeing.

MR: We often feel that we’re making these films for one or two people: the storytellers. For them, we want the feeling that they have when they’re watching to be that we’ve represented their story well in an authentic and accurate way. That we got the essence of how they feel about this memory and their family. That matters most. Back to Eddie: he’s in hospice now. After watching this, David, who takes care of him, told us that Eddie felt there’s some honor in having that story told, and that getting this out gives purpose for him, having lived through that. That’s what we hope. For the wider audience, I always hope that it somehow transforms people’s thoughts or feelings about the world around them, in whatever way a given story might do. “Here’s one story that’s not my story, but I can relate to it” -- even when we’re as different as we are.

Through December 29, POV is streaming "Listening Is an Act of Love: A StoryCorps Special" on its website. Also out this fall is Dave Isay’s new book, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps.

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