From the Cold War to the bombing of Hiroshima, our children learn about important but traumatic moments in history while they’re at school. But although most of us are aware of the atrocities of the Holocaust, can anyone truly understand what it felt like to be a child in the concentration camps? It’s an emotionally complex scenario for anyone to comprehend. But a Marsden-based company, Fettle Animation, are leading the way with engaging and educative animated films for children. We spoke to their founder and Producer Kath Shackleton to find out more about this great company and their award-winning films.
Fettle Animation was created by Kath (a former Art Development Officer) and her partner Zane Whittingham, who has over 25 years of experience working in animation. After the birth of their daughter, they decided to leave London and move back to Kath’s native Yorkshire, to set up in Marsden. ‘We set the company up hoping to get some work-life balance, but I think we’ve exploited ourselves far harder than any employer would in the end,’ Kath jokes, ‘But it’s definitely worth it.’
Surrounded by rolling hills and the idyllic countryside, Kath and Zane have an enviable lifestyle. But boy have they worked hard. In the five years since they set up their company, which specialises in the production of animated films from freehand drawings, they’ve flown all over the world appearing at prestigious film festivals and collecting awards. Alongside the Children’s BAFTA, and two Royal Television Society awards, they have countless other international commendations. They’re so popular that two awards that they’ve been nominated for recently, the Japan Prize in Tokoyo and the Prix Europa in Berlin, are being presented on the same night. What to do?
But awards aren’t the be-all and end-all for the duo. In fact they’re more interested in ‘making connections’ and ‘being part of a community of people who want to tell great stories’, than adding to their silverware.
So what is about animation that inspires Kath and Zane and has captivated their audiences?
‘It’s not just cartoons, silly jokes, Family Guy and The Simpsons,’ she says, with complete sincerity, ‘There’s so much more to animation. I always describe it as a rich stock pot – lots of people throw in their ideas and then you reduce it down until it becomes the most concentrated essence possible, like a stock cube. When the audience see it, their imaginations rehydrate it and turn it into something rich and tasty.’
Fettle Animation grew out of the work that the couple did leading animation workshops in schools, and children are still at the heart of their productions. Their most successful project to date is a six-part documentary series: The Children of the Holocaust. Capturing the lives of six people who were persecuted as children during the Nazi regime – either placed in concentration camps, separated from their parents, sent abroad or witnessing brutality during Kristallnacht – the series offers an intimate look at the long-term effects of the Holocaust.
In quite a coup for the Yorkshire animation company, The Children of the Holocaust was produced in conjunction with BBC Learning. As well as offering their skills and prestige to the project, the BBC now offer clips on their website, broadcast full episodes on late-night TV (so that teachers can record them for use in classes) and have made them available to download from iPlayer.
It’s been phenomenally successful – The Children of the Holocaust is now the first and only BBC Learning programme to have ever been aired on primetime television. It was shown on Holocaust Memorial Day in January. ‘The Prime Minster was our warm-up act,’ Kath laughs.
It might not be your first thought, but Kath believes animation is the ideal way to teach children about traumatic moments in history.
‘For our Holocaust animation we spoke to people in their 80s and 90s,’ she explains, ‘If it had been done in live action then young people would have seen an older person on the screen and thought, ‘Oh that’s nothing to do with me’. Now, because we’re showing them as children, they can imagine themselves in that situation and understand how their experiences transcend across history. It brings together fact and abstract emotion in ways that can really help people to understand difficult subjects. It has a broad appeal across age ranges and you can fly around history in outrageous ways.’
Thanks to Fettle Animation, their careful research and their emotive films, we now have an extremely powerful tool for teaching children about the Holocaust and it’s traumatic effects. Surely that can only be a good thing? Accessible, engaging and inventive, we implore people of all ages to watch them now. They’re certain to leave you wanting more – but don’t worry, Fettle have joined forces with BBC Learning again and there’ll be more films hitting our screens in 2016.