The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Spotlight on the 2016 Children’s Media Yearbook: Animating the Holocaust 

In the first of a series of articles offering a glimpse inside the Children's Media Yearbook, this is Kath Shackleton's account of creating an animation for the BBC, focused on children's survival of the Holocaust.

The Yearbook is a comprehensive review of the trends, issues and news surrounding children's media over the last year, with contributions from leading academic researchers, content creators and distributors. Read the full Yearbook today by downloading a PDF copy for £7.95 or purchasing a paperback copy for £10.

The Holocaust. Genocide. Child refugees. Not the easiest of topics for animation and for a new studio as our first series. 

Fettle Animation is a 2D animation production company in Pennine Yorkshire. We were given the task of making the Holocaust relevant to today’s young people, and we relished taking on the challenge.

'Children of the Holocaust' is an animated series based on real-life stories. We animated six elderly holocaust survivors’ memories of their dramatic escape as children from Nazi occupied Europe and the process of rebuilding their lives in the UK.

We worked with BBC Learning to produce the series. It was initially intended to be a learning resource aimed at 14 year-olds studying the Holocaust as part of the National Curriculum in schools, but it soon grew into something far bigger than we could have ever imagined. Clips are permanently online at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zx5g7/clips.

Animation is a great way of putting complex subjects across on screen. It can show abstract thoughts and emotions, tell stories for which there are no images, portray hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations and memories. It’s a really condensed form of communication and can put across a lot of information in a short amount of time, telling difficult stories with wit and sensitivity.

We created 'Children of the Holocaust' with Leeds-based charity, The Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association, who are involved in widespread educational work. We recorded several hours of really moving interviews with six of their members and edited them into short clips.

A still from Children of the Holocaust

Fettle Animation’s director, Zane Whittingham, designed simple digital cut-out characters to tell these stories, carefully researched from period photographs. We then worked to find age-appropriate ways to convey some of the brutality of the Nazis to our young audience without directly showing  the full horror of what they did. We found powerful imagery in the political propaganda of World War Two: giant, brutish soldier figures picking up helpless, tiny people; animals symbolizing human behaviours; wartime insignia used as tools and weaponry. Zane referenced German Expressionist artists such as George Grosz, graphic novels such as Art Speigelman’s Maus, and 1940s political cartoonists. This gave the project richness and a subtle humour and brought a fresh approach to a subject that people have encountered many times before.

We worked with Creative Skillset and their wonderful Trainee Finder programme, which gave us subsidised, bright young graduates to work on our production. They worked on animation, backgrounds and as production assistants. Our trainees were excellent and the Skillset support came at a perfect time for our company, helping us to scale up to the challenges of our first series. We all worked tirelessly and learned such a lot from one another during the process of production. Particularly successful were animator Ryan Jones, who now works permanently at Fettle Animation, and Oana Nechifor and Laura Tattersfield, who are now successful freelancers. Executive producer Helen Brunsdon helped us to plan out our animation production pipeline. Music was composed by The Composer Work’s Paul Honey, who did an excellent job conveying the light and shade of the stories through music and gave added drama to our animations. Sound was by the Digital Audio Company’s Dave Aston with online editing from Phil Bedwell at The Other Planet.

We also worked with executive producer Liz Molyneux and self-shooting director Tim Baxter to make short live-action interviews with the survivors reflecting on their lives today and why it is still important to talk about the Holocaust.

We got a great response from our first screenings of this work and realised how much interest there is around the world in the subject. We went on to create a TV documentary, combining the animated shorts and live-action interviews. This was broadcast on primetime BBC Four on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2015 and has been subsequently broadcast in ten countries worldwide including Australia, South Korea, China and Israel, thanks to our agent Sydney Neter from SND Films in Amsterdam.

We’ve had to all get new passports, as 'Children of the Holocaust' has also appeared at ten festivals around the world – a full run from Chicago to Annecy. We’ve had lots of travel adventures! We’ve also had to buy ourselves a trophy cabinet: we’ve won a Japan Prize, the first ever Sandford St Martin’s Children’s Award and two Royal Television Society Yorkshire Awards. We were also nominated for a Children’s BAFTA, a British Animation Award and a BUFVC Learning Onscreen Award. We have really appreciated this recognition and the increased profile has been really helpful in building our company.

We were also one of the first companies to claim a UK animation tax break on this project. Thanks to the BFI and HMRC and all those involved in campaigning for this – it has made a huge difference to us as a small company and has given us the resources we needed to get our work out there.

We are now publishing a book, 'Survivors of the Holocaust', with Hachette Children’s Books, a graphic novel based on the artwork from the films. It’s so exciting to see our work in a different medium, and for our survivors to tell their stories to another new audience.

However, it’s making a difference that matters most to us. We feel we’ve helped our survivors tell their stories to the wider world with power and dignity and to draw parallels between their experiences and the experiences of child refugees today. Young people can learn so much by watching the films, not just about a difficult period of history but also about why diversity and tolerance are so important today.

Here are the stories:

  • Ruth: Aged five, she escapes over the mountains from East Germany into Czechoslovakia. She is saved by the courage of her mother who travels perilously across Europe, arriving in England at the very last moment before war is declared.
  • Martin: Aged eight, he is marched brutally from Germany to Poland in the middle of the night by the Nazis in the so called “Polkenation”. Escapes to England on the Kindertransport, only to experience the worst of the Blitz in Coventry.
  • Trude: Aged nine, she witnesses Nazi tanks occupying her hometown of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. She is taken by her aunt to England but is lonely and struggles to settle there without her mother and father. As an adult, she is still searching for the truth about what happened to her parents in the concentration camps.
  • Heinz:  Aged 13, his schooling and social life in Germany is affected by the rise of anti-Jewish laws. He gets caught up in the horrific events of Kristallnacht, a violent pogrom. He escapes to England, only to be interned by the UK government as an “enemy alien”.
  • Arek: Aged 14, he survives the squalid conditions, hunger and cruelty of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but 81 members of his family and most of the Jewish population of his hometown in Poland are murdered. Forgiving the Nazis is impossible for him.
  • Suzanne: Aged six when the Nazis enter her parents flat. A neighbour rescues her and hides her under her kitchen table. Her idyllic Parisian childhood is snatched away from her and she is taken to live in hiding and work on an isolated rural farm. Neglected and forgotten, she is not rescued by the Red Cross until two years after the war.

The survivors in these films are incredible people who all have risen above their adversity. They have gone on to have families of their own and to achieve great academic success, stellar careers and positive involvement in their communities. They are all still active and healthy well into their 90s. They are warm, funny and have very distinctive personalities. They are generous with their time and all have enjoyed working with us on this project. They are our constant Inspiration. We’d like to thank everyone who has been involved in this project – there are far too many to list. They have shown dedication above and beyond the usual call of duty. We’d like to pay particular tribute to our commissioner on this project, the BBC’s Katy Jones, who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015. Her energy and faith drove us forward on this project. She is very much missed. We are so proud of the impact that this project continues to have. Thank you again to everyone who has been part of our incredible journey! What an awesome year!

The 2017 Yearbook is looking for sponsorship partners, who will support its design, compilation and production - and will receive the benefit of a new plan to distribute 1200 copies free of charge to delegates at the Children’s Media Conference in July 2017.  

To become a Yearbook sponsor and take advantage of this unique opportunity for “front and centre” visibility in the hands of every CMC delegate - please contact Greg Childs at director@thechildrensmediafoundation.org.

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