So an audio-purist and two animators walk into an office…
No, it’s not the beginning of a very tech-friendly joke, but actually the start of an unexpected chapter in StoryCorps history: StoryCorps Animated Shorts.
Mike and Tim Rauch (AKA The Rauch Bros.) are the faces behind these award-winning shorts. With their unique vision, Mike and Tim, have masterfully taken the audio interviews of our archive and carried the recordings into an entirely new realm of storytelling (animation). But how did all of this begin? Dave Isay, StoryCorps Founder and President, is also a devoted radio buff and lover of all things audio. As the producer of Ghetto Life: 101 and The Sunshine Hotel, agreeing to anything other than pure, unadulterated sound, didn’t seem likely. Nonetheless, 20 animations and countless accolades later, it’s hard to picture StoryCorps without these beautiful animations.
This month, with a brand new animated short, Marking the Distance, already released and the first-ever long form animation special Listening Is an Act of Love set to premiere on PBS on Thanksgiving, Mike, Tim and the rest of StoryCorps animation team have been hard at work. So we thought we’d throw one more thing onto their plate: an interview with We Are StoryCorps!
Both Mike and Tim were kind enough to help answer our questions.
Mike (L) and Tim (R) with Annie Perasa, of iconic StoryCorps short “Danny and Annie.”
What is it like working with your brother?
We’ve shared jobs since we were kids–a paper route, a job cleaning dishes in a restaurant, lifeguarding. Working with family is great because you know you can always trust and rely on each other. The challenge is learning to be co-workers and brothers at the same time because the two relationships are really very different.
How big is your animation team?
We scale up and down depending on how many projects we have. The core team is about 6 people, but that can go up to 12 or more when things are busier.
How did StoryCorps Animated Shorts begin?
Since we were kids, we’ve been interested in animating stories from real life. Mike joined StoryCorps as an intern in January of 2007, and realized that some of the recordings in the StoryCorps archive might be just the kind of story we wanted to work with. He was too nervous to ask Dave Isay about using the recordings, and asked Dave instead for advice in capturing compelling documentary recordings. Luckily, Dave agreed that we do exactly what we wanted and instead animate a StoryCorps recording.
Markup from animated short, “No More Questions!”
What is the selection process for the stories that you animate?
At the beginning of each production year, we sit down with StoryCorps and review a selection of stories that have aired on Morning Edition. Sometimes we need to meet special objectives StoryCorps has, for example, we animated 3 shorts to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Aside from that, we’re looking for great stories that will be enriched by what we can add in animation, stories that will resonate with a wide audience, and stories that give a good representation of the depth and breadth of the StoryCorps archives.
How long does animating one short take? How long did the upcoming half-hour special take?
It varies depending on the length and complexity of each short. For example, if there are several characters, that will require more time than if there are just a couple. But on average, a 2 minute StoryCorps short takes about 8-10 weeks. Production of the half-hour special lasted just over a year.
Where did the idea of a half-hour animation special come from?
When we originally proposed the idea of animating several stories back in 2009, we actually suggested that it be a half-hour special that would air in primetime on Thanksgiving Day. Thankfully, the idea was quickly changed in favor of animating individual shorts. That gave us the chance to refine our approach and learn a bit more about how to tackle these stories. The idea for a half-hour resurfaced last year when StoryCorps was thinking about how to reach audiences in ways that aren’t possible with a single short. The longer format allowed for a story with larger scope and new programming possibilities.
Preliminary sketches on a scene from the brand new animated short, “Marking the Distance.”
When did you first become interested in animation?
We were both big fans of Disney films when we were kids. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King… we were fortunate to be just the right age when some truly amazing animated films were being made. The films of Aaardman Animation were also very important to us – “Going Equipped” by Peter Lord in particular. In that film, a man tells his story of growing up in poverty, entering a life of crime, and his experience in prison. It was amazing to see real human drama told through a simple puppet, and it really changed our idea of what was possible with animation.
Mike (R) with James Ransom, on their research trip to Bradenton, Florida for the animated short, “Miss Devine.”
Your research for the animated shorts involve visiting the participants’ homes, what are some of the things you are hoping to learn on these trips?
When we visit, we are looking for several things. First, we want to know as much as possible about the story being told, any additional details that, even though they may not be directly referenced in the audio, we can pack in with the visuals. We also want to know more about the setting of the story – what is special or particular about the way they decorate their homes, the trees that grow in their city, the personality of their hometown? We also get to find out anything that may be particular to them about their physical traits – not just appearance, but their posture, their walk, their way of interacting physically.
What are you working on now?
We’ve really enjoyed working with StoryCorps, and are thrilled every year we’re able to continue working together. This next year, we’re working on 6 new StoryCorps shorts that we’re really excited about. We also work with a variety of clients to produce interstitials, education shorts, and commercial spots. In addition, we’re working to create some of our own fictional characters and stories that we hope we’ll be able to share soon.
What is your favorite part of the job?
It’s always amazing to us that the StoryCorps participants are willing to allow us to turn their very personal stories into animated films, and we take the responsibility very seriously. The fact that they have all been so pleased with the result is the greatest reward we could hope to receive. We are also happy to hear from people all over the world how much these stories mean to them – for example, “Q&A” was used in a clinic for families with autistic children in Argentina. You hope that people are entertained by the work, but to know it can have such specific benefits in the lives of others is definitely the best part of the job.
Preliminary sketch from, “Miss Devine.”
Be sure to catch the premiere of our half hour animation special, Listening Is an Act of Love, on PBS Thanksgiving night at 9/8c! In partnership with POV.