Short Film: A young caregiver’s letter to her father with Alzheimer’s

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This short animated film about A Young Caregiver's Letter to Her Father with Alzheimer's is exactly what it means when design complements meaning and purpose. It is animated by Khoo Siew May on the personal experience of Melissa's from Project We Forgot and Our Better World's initiative to push for this project, to create awareness.

This very personal film was created as a campaign to commemorate World Alzheimer's Month, back in September. We caught up with Siew May on how all this started and how she managed to animate the emotions Melissa felt. Also with Grace Baey, a Producer previously at Our Better World, on why she was drawn to Melissa's story.

Tell us a bit about how this all started, and what it's about?

Grace Baey (G): When Our Better World first connected with Melissa from Project We Forgot, we were immediately drawn to Melissa's story and what PWF does. Most people tend to think of dementia as a condition that primarily affects older people, and much less is known about issues of early onset and how it impacts family members, especially younger ones who take on a caregiving role. We wanted to tell Melissa's story to highlight issues that young caregivers face, as well as provide more visibility as to what PWF does for the community. As a digital storytelling platform, we seek to tell stories about inspiring causes around Asia, with the aim of encouraging social engagement and positive action.

Telling Melissa's story in a heartfelt and authentic manner (imagine having only 3-4 mins!) was a big responsibility we felt we had. After bouncing ideas amongst each other, we proposed for Melissa to write a letter to her Dad in her own time, as we felt that a sit-down interview session wouldn't do the story justice. A lot of what Melissa shared about her experience were deep-seated emotions, and we had to find a way to retain and bring that out in the story. Hence we also wanted to animate her story in a specific way that wasn't overtly literal or overpowering, but that helped retain the rawness of Melissa's emotions, like how she read the letter to her Dad. As a producer, I wanted to find an animator - and specifically a young person too - who could identify with Melissa's experience and emotions, and translate that through his/her voice in the animation. Hence I did some stalking on Vimeo, and found Siew May. And the rest they say is history.

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What made Melissa want to tell her story?

Melissa (M): My journey with my dad was one I kept very safe and hidden in a box. Most of my friends never knew this was something that had happened in my family. My work with Project We Forgot is in inspiring caregivers globally to step up to own their journey, for them to be willing to speak out when they need help and for their stories to inspire the other caregivers out there who may feel alone in the journey of caring. Having gone through the journey myself, I understood how tough it is to be open about it, but I knew that if I wanted to inspire caregivers, I had to start by sharing my story. 

Our Better World has been a great supporter and friend of Project We Forgot and they have followed our journey from day one. In conjunction with World Alzheimer’s Month last year (2017) in September, we decided to collaborate to raise awareness of the struggles that young caregivers might be facing by sharing my story and the work of Project We Forgot on their platform. 

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What was Siew May's creative process in telling this story?

Siew May (SM): My creative process of this story is quite different from my usual approach as it is possibly one of the most emotionally intense projects that I have done thus far. As it is such a delicate and personal story, it was important to be careful not to make the visuals look cheesy by making it a direct translation of the script, which it can easily fall into if I don’t put more thoughts into planning during the storyboarding stage.

During the storyboarding stage, I didn’t think too much about how the final visuals will look like. I was more concerned with how to represent certain lines visually as they have such a deep and complex emotions to them. For example, “no one taught us how to feel when we watched you slowly slip away, or how to react when your memories started fading and you stopped remembering who we were” - how do I represent this line visually such that it is impactful, embodies the meaning behind those words, be interesting and connect to the previous scene at the same time? Heeding an advice I got from my friend a long time ago, in order to avoid being cheesy, you have to be indirect when the words are direct, or direct when the words are indirect. Visual metaphor was the way to go to approach this story. I looked into the keyword “fading” and started to think what could Melissa be doing after she parted with her classmate. Oh, she could be taking the bus home! Then I asked myself what could be something that is on the bus that is delicate and ephemeral? The condensation on the bus windows. 

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When I moved to style frame designs, for such a personal story, I made sure not to have any superficiality felt in the video. After hearing the voice over that was so raw and emotional, I was more concerned with being able to bring out that same sincerity in my visuals rather than focusing too much on the aesthetics. To remove any superficiality and have a lot of heart to the story, meant the design has to be expressive and does not feel "cold" by using a lot of generic icons as visual representations. 

Initially, I used Illustrator because it has been my go-to software for all After Effects project. After creating the first style frame, it felt wrong. The nature of illustrator always results in something that is perfect, clean and rigid. Very icon-like. Even if I used the turbulent distortion or roughen effect in After Effects, it still felt very rigid and it wasn’t as expressive as I wanted it to be. I switched to Photoshop immediately and drew out all the style frames, using Illustrator only as and when I see that is efficient. Not only was I able to get the look I want faster, drawing instead of using pen tool helped me to achieve the expressive look better. Melissa's childhood wasn't perfect and it only seemed right that my visuals and animation shouldn't look perfect as well.

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I was also aware that not many people have such an experience in their childhood or have encountered relatives with dementia, so the utilization of visual metaphors was important to help bridge in that experience to the viewers so that it is less alien to them and they could relate to what Melissa was feeling.

To ensure I was in the same headspace as Melissa in the script, during the entirety of the process, it helped that Our Better World provided me with some details about her as a person. Researching on the disease and time traveling back to the experience I had with my own relatives who have or had dementia (because one of them passed on as well) also helped me in creating the appropriate visuals that represent the emotions correctly for each scene. Recalling my own experience to help myself feel what she could be feeling at that time and researching the disease, in a way was sort of like method acting, that could help me relate to Melissa and her dad better and so produce an animation that felt as if it's my own story when it's not. This creative process was really interesting and nerve-wrecking at the same time because it is not the usual commercial type of project I used to do. I am very glad to get the chance to do a story that requires a lot of heart to make the visually storytelling effective.

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Is there a particular reason why the eyes were not drawn?

SM: I actually dived straight into the storyboard right from the beginning without adding eyes.  I just felt that there was no need for them to be drawn in as they don’t  serve any purposes to the storytelling.  I was more focused on supporting the emotions felt in Melissa’s voice over and to give a context to her lines visually than to capturing the physical appearance of the characters by completing it with a pair of eyes. The environment of her childhood, the things she was going through on the inside, were the most important message of the animation about the life of a young girl who lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease. The nose and mouth were there only for practical reasons - to show the direction the face is looking at and the mouth to show emotions.

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What were the difficulties in designing the animation for this story?

SM: Oh great question! I have a lot to say about this. I definitely encountered some difficulties. Besides the difficulty in trying to come up with impactful visuals to a lot of lines that were packed with complex emotions, the other difficulty I had was the self-doubt and inner pressure I gave to myself during the entire process of making the short film. The project came to me not long after I left my job. Currently, I’m a full-time independent illustrator and animator. Before I had been working in motion graphics studios and we deal with a lot of commercial type of projects, like most motion graphics studios here in Singapore. Commercial, in the sense that it can be very superficial because it is all about coming up with beautiful style frames, sleek motion, dynamic camera movement and less of storytelling, particularly emotional ones. That was quite a bit of getting used to as a result, and I had to move away from my usual saturated and colourful palette and sleek graphics to muted ones with imperfect drawings.

I’d say, most commercial projects have a very upbeat tone to it and Melissa’s story was nothing like that. Throughout the process, I was worried that I might carry that “commercial”  or even cheesy influence into such a delicate and personal story that it won’t do her justice.

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When OBW sent me the voice over, it was nothing like that calm, confident and soothing voice recording I normally hear from the projects I got in my previous jobs. Melissa was completely raw and open in expressing her emotions, so much so that I felt she should be the one creating the animation instead of me because it was so personal that I felt only she could express herself and the story accurately.  Upon hearing the voice over, the first thing that came to my head was: How am I going to design and animate this? I’ve not done anything like this before. For that same reason, I was full on game on anyway. It was exciting, new and scary altogether.

Prior to venturing out on my own, I had been working mostly in teams. There wasn’t much of a chance to have a solo project or have a project where you have full control in the direction. I wasn’t quite sure where I really stood in the creative industry because of that, as most credits go to the team instead of one person. Everybody had a part to play if it is successful. In a company, if you do one bad project, not many people know that you are responsible for that eyesore. Either it did not make it into the company’s portfolio or that there are so many people listed in the credit that no one knows who was responsible for doing that particularly bad scene of the video. On the contrary, as a freelancer, if you do one bad quality work, the entire blame will be on you, everyone will know who did that crappy work, particularly if it’s a solo project that will have your name on it and publicized to a great number of audience. I knew that my name was going to appear on the video and OBW had such a great number of followers. And so, the pressure I had for myself was that the quality of the first project I receive as an independent artist, cannot be lame. You can say, it is like me leaving a band and debuting for the first time as a solo musician. I wasn’t sure how well my work will be received honestly. I wasn’t thinking of getting recognition at all. My goal was simple. I just wanted it to not look like crap work and to create it with as much sincerity as possible. I wasn’t expecting the short would be a well-received one and I am forever grateful to have the chance to work on this meaningful and special project. Thank you Grace, for stalking me!

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What’s a message you would like to leave with the readers? 

SM: I’d say this shouldn’t apply to just artists, but to any professions out there - always make time for passion projects no matter how small your role is because if that is the project that makes you feel alive and happy, you have to make time for it. Who knows what opportunities would come your way and you get more requests to do more of such project. 

I got the chance to receive this dementia project because I was helping my close friend with a passion project called “My Brother”, which is about migrant workers. I didn’t have a lot of time to help out because I was a full-time employee of a studio but I was very happy to be of some help anyway. Because I made time for it, I was in the credits. Grace found me because she happened to have seen that animated short and so the story goes. 


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Special thanks to Khoo Siew May, Melissa from Project We Forgot, Grace and Our Better World for allowing us to share this story!

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