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CalArts Alumni Create Animated Sequences for Live Action Documentary "He Named Me Malala"

CalArts Alumni Create Animated Sequences for Live Action Documentary "He Named Me Malala"
Still from animated sequence of Fox Searchlight documentary "He Named Me Malala". Animation created by CalArts alumni for director Davis Guggenheim. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Animation Blends with Live-Action in He Named Me Malala, a New Documentary from Academy Award Winning Director Davis Guggenheim

A team of CalArts’ Experimental Animation Program alumni created lyrical, painterly scenes to contrast with live-action sequences.

Trending: contemporary animation becomes a powerful element of documentary filmmaking.

September 17, Valencia, CA—Animation’s power to portray fiction and fantasy are well known.  Today, filmmakers, in all genres, are turning to this versatile art to enhance their stories and messages. The upcoming documentary from Fox Searchlight, He Named Me Malala, shows the latest stage of this evolution. 

The film blends animation with live-action filmmaking to tell the story of Malala Yousafzai—the Pakistani teenager targeted by the Taliban for speaking out on behalf of girls’ education. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) worked with a team of students and alumni of California Institute of the Arts’ (CalArts) Experimental Animation Program to create lyrical animated scenes evoking the history and landscape of Malala’s Swat Valley homeland, and to depict her memories and those of her parents. “Animation means time and money,” said Guggenheim. “But I had the instinct that it could help tell Malala’s story in a very profound and touching way.” The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 2nd and in theaters nationwide on October 9th.

To create the animated sequences of the film, Animation Supervisor and CalArts alumnus, Jason Carpenter worked with a team of 12 Experimental Animation Program alumni, and two students. Animation Producer Irene Kotlarz is a former faculty member of the program.

Carpenter designed the animated sequences with the goal of “developing a visual style that conveyed the emotion and atmosphere of Malala’s story—while remaining compatible with live-action.” He created a unique visual universe—painterly, evocative, open to viewers’ interpretation, and inspired by a wealth of influences ranging from the paintings of Henri Matisse and David Hockney to South Asian textiles. 

“So often, when we a see a report about Pakistan, it’s something harsh or scary,” said Guggenheim. “But when Malala and her father tell the story of their past, it’s something wonderful. The memories sounded like a storybook to me. So, the style is simple, very nostalgic, very lush and colorful—but most of all, it seemed to come directly from the way they told their own story.”

“It’s a hard-hitting story,” noted Carpenter, “and animation helps it to be taken in and understood by a wide range of viewers.” In 2012, 15-year-old Malala, in her region of Pakistan, was shot in the head by a Taliban militiaman, sparking international outrage. Now 18-years-old, she has emerged as a leading campaigner for the rights of children worldwide and is the youngest-ever Nobel laureate. “She’s a modern heroine who was named after the heroine of the battle of Maiwand in 1880,” said Carpenter. “We created an impressionistic vision of the battle to introduce the legend and history of the region. The goal throughout the film was to animate scenes that could not be captured by traditional documentary filmmaking.” These sequences include scenes of Malala’s home village, her parents’ childhoods and the dangers of life under the Taliban.

He Named Me Malala shows how animation can contribute to documentary filmmaking. An early example, Windsor McKay’s depiction of the sinking of the Lusitania from 1918, is regarded as the first animated documentary. Director Ari Folman’s 2008 film Waltz with Bashir has been cited as the first feature-length animated documentary. More recently, Amazon Gold—which includes animation directed by CalArts alumnus Will Kim, was screened on PBS, and at a 2014 gathering for climate change talks hosted by the United Nations. In recent years, animated graphic and visual effects illustrate complex concepts and information such as in Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth.

It’s no surprise that a team of CalArts alumni and students are exploring the future of animated documentary. Since its inception, the Institute has been at the vanguard of contemporary animation. According to Fast Company, “Graduates from Los Angeles-area animation powerhouse CalArts have collectively directed $32 billion worth of blockbusters, picked up a 2015 Oscar for Big Hero 6, migrated north with staggering regularity to produce hits for Pixar, created TV game changer SpongeBob Square Pants and co-directed Disney's Frozen, the top-grossing animation feature in history.” Prominent alumni of the Experimental Animation Program include Jorge Gutierrez (Book of Life) Stephen Hillenburg (SpongeBob Square Pants) and Henry Selick (Coraline).

About CalArts Experimental Animation Program

More information about He Named Me Malala:

About the film:
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Produced by:  Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald under their long-term production partnership with Image Nation Abu Dhabi and co-financed by Participant Media
Featuring: Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai (father), Toorpekai Yousafzai (mother), Khushal and Atal Yousafzai (brothers) 

He Named Me Malala opens in select theaters on Friday, October 2nd 2015Running Time: 88 min / Rated: PG-13