DAB animations bring Australia’s Indigenous history to life
Six animations, a series of iconic Australian stories, and three UTS Visual Communication designers. This is how the videos for ABC series Living with the Locals came about.
John Maynard: This is the story of Narcisse Pelletier, a young French cabin boy who gained the indigenous name Anco. He was on a ship that founded off New Guinea, and then they had to survive a 600 mile longboat trip back across the Coral Sea, and then touched down on an island off Northern Australia.
John Maynard: Pelletier was gonna die. The men on the ship drank the only bit of water that was available. They told him to rest there, the water would refill. And he stayed there and rested and the left him there, marooned him on the island. He was distraught that he was gonna die, but he was found by two aboriginal women. And they went and got a couple of aboriginal men to come to his aid. And the only thing he had was a little, small tin cup, which he proffered to the aboriginal men.
John Maynard: And this protocol of giving and an exchange was a great way to make that connection with these aboriginal people, who gave him water, gave him food and took him into their community, and he spent 17 years with this family and with this community.
John Maynard: He eventually was not rescued, but kidnapped, by a British pearling ship, which picked him up and took him at gunpoint away from his family and community. He was transported back to France and reunited with his family. But he never, ever fitted back in, and his heart was certainly somewhere else on a far, distant shore.
Based on a book by John Maynard and Victoria Haskins, these animated videos are the product of an industry collaboration between the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building and the ABC. They tell the first contact stories of European settlers who lived in Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities between the 1790s and 1870s.
The video series was commissioned for Speaking Out Speaking Out, an ABC Radio show hosted by Larissa Behrendt. Producer Lorena Allam (now the Editor for Indigenous Affairs at The Guardian) commissioned UTS Visual Communication lecturer Gabriel Clark, tutor Finlay Downes and then-third-year student Elizabeth Smith to develop the work.
When I first commissioned the project, I was hoping to find someone who could do some simple digital animation, and it didn’t take long to find out the quality of work being produced across the road at UTS
“When I first commissioned the project, I was hoping to find someone who could do some simple digital animation, and it didn’t take long to find out the quality of work being produced across the road at UTS,” Allam says.
The team was given a series of paintings and sketches from the Living with the Locals book, but otherwise had creative freedom in developing their initial design concept. For Smith, the six 60-second videos required for the project comprised the biggest piece of work she’d ever been involved with.
“We had to develop an entire visual brand and visual style for the videos,” she says.
“It was a process of going to the client, presenting them our very preliminary work, getting feedback on that and then going from there.”
John Maynard: He was at the Moreton Bay penal settlement and ran away into the bush, and spent some 14 years living with Aboriginal people in northern Queensland. 500 convicts of 2,200 who were held at Moreton Bay ran away into the bush and escaped. Davis, or Duramboi, was one of the ones who stayed, and he was adopted into an Aboriginal clan, taken in by an Aboriginal senior man, Pamby-Pamby, who adopted him as his son. That connection is emphasized again by the Petrie expedition, who actually came and took James Davis back out and back into civilization. The father sang a lamenting song for his now departing son. The Aboriginal people were crying along the riverbank as the longboat pulled away, and Aboriginal people stepped from the shadows and from behind the trees. Davis, on the longboat, was seen to be trembling in the boat, and then burst into song. And it was all about recognizing that his survival had depended on the way that he was looked after by these people.
Led by Clark, the designers undertook extensive research into the era, gathering additional imagery from the State Library, adding leaves and other found materials from nature, and using charcoal to create a sense of texture. Key to the creative process was the need to recognise the Aboriginal cultures that shaped the Living with the Locals stories.
“They developed a subtle, clever visual language for the series that was culturally very appropriate,” Allam says.
“In many ways, their solutions are so clever and carry emotional depth – using gum leaves, shells, the night sky, shooting stars – all these lovely images.”
The videos were screened on the ABC website, shared on social media and picked up by ABC regional affiliates as well. The response was hugely positive: each video averaged between 3000-4000 views, Allam says – far higher than expected – and received hundreds of positive comments on social media.
Industry engagement is really a key part of this degree. I’ve had the chance to work with real industry studios as part of my course, and to be mentored by studios that do really good work.
For Smith, while the outcome was the cherry on top – “the work speaks for itself – I think it was a beautiful set of videos that we ended up producing,” she says – it was the process of putting her skills to the test and gaining experience in a real industry setting that mattered most.
“Industry engagement is really a key part of this degree,” she says.
“I’ve had the chance to work with real industry studios as part of my course, and to be mentored by studios that do really good work. One connection I’ve built up I see leading to a job at the end of honours, which is amazing.
“Even the third-year grad show and the honours show really give you a great opportunity to put yourself out there amongst industry.”