Documentary: The Birth Attendants

My roles in the production of The Birth Attendants included: Direction, Animation, Modeling, Texturing, Lighting, Rendering, Editing, and Compositing.
Additional Editing, 2D Animation, and Book-building were by Jennifer Ritsema.

Handmade photo album designed and constructed by Jennifer Ritsema.

The Birth Attendants is a 37-minute animated documentary named after the Olympia, Washington-based volunteer organization that provides support for mothers and pregnant women in prison.  The film primarily features interviews with incarcerated women at various stages of pregnancy and motherhood while serving their sentences at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.  These interviews are supplemented with additional discussions among the Birth Attendants volunteer doulas.

Title cards were shot in stop motion using a handmade photo album, with hand-drawn 2D animated lettering and filigree composited and motion tracked into place. 3D CG animated scenes were also motion tracked into place as photos within the album.

The Birth Attendants is beautifully designed, blending elaborate animation and illustrations. Presenting the recorded conversations through animation provides the featured women with a degree of privacy, while still clearly communicating their personalities, ethnicities, and general age range.

Why present a documentary in animated form? Utilizing animation to present nonfiction provides many benefits over more typical live-action documentary filmmaking. The aesthetic appeal can attract viewers who might otherwise prefer to avoid watching a live-action film that deals with the saddening and disturbing aspects of the intersecting issues of incarceration, motherhood, and childbirth.

People tend to identify with non-photorealistic representations of other people more readily than photographs or highly detailed, realistic representations — thus, viewers could potentially empathize with the women and mothers depicted in The Birth Attendants rather than offhandedly dismissing them as merely stereotypical criminals to be disregarded. And animation can express various types of subtle visual poetry while remaining true to the nonfiction source material.

The film was made over the course of 40 weeks, with the first 10 weeks involving the authoring of project proposals to all involved parties and meeting with Department of Corrections officials to pitch the idea and receive permissions.

The interviews were shot on video during three consecutive Fridays at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. The audio is used in the film, but the video footage was intended to simply be a reference for animating the representations of the people being interviewed. As such, it was not framed or lit cinematically. This allowed for a quick setup and breakdown time, as well as a somewhat more informal feeling, although the prison environment ultimately dictated the format of the interviews and, subsequently, the presentation style of the animation.

Once the interviews were completed, they were transcribed. The interviews were edited on paper, broken down into topic categories and matched to the project outline. Jennifer Ritsema led the editing process, whittling down over eight hours of raw footage into a 37-minute film — first by editing on paper, writing outlines, drawing charts and using index cards to easily see multiple arrangements of scenes. The charts were color-coded so we could decide on different types of scenes, illustrations, title cards and so forth, and visually check their pacing to see that things weren’t going to be monotonous.

Based on the paper edit, we put together a video edit using the reference footage. In a way, this film was made twice… the first time being the video edit, and the final version being the animated film.

Concurrently with all this editing, I was trying to handle all of the modeling, texturing, and rigging of the representations of people and places that would appear in the film. In all, there are 21 people and four locations shown in the film throughout 48 scenes.

View The Birth Attendants below:

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