Mike and Tim Rauch on Animating StoryCorps

The real-life story of a 27-year romance is the inspiration for Danny and Annie, an animated short made by brothers Tim and Mike Rauch as part of the StoryCorps project for NPR, PBS and the Library of Congress.

We caught up with them to chat about the project and their animated contributions to the unique event.

Q: How did the project come about?

A: Ever since seeing Aardman’s Lip Synch series as kids we have wanted to use the voices and stories of everyday people in animation. Mike started working at StoryCorps as an intern and later helped record interviews for their archive at the Library of Congress and their NPR broadcasts. The stories he heard were incredibly powerful and poetic, and he quickly realized that they would work beautifully in animation. We decided to animate two of them as an independent project. We took them to StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, who was skeptical about the idea at first, but when he saw the animation he was sold.

Q: How does StoryCorps find their story subjects ‘ and which ones end up being animated?

A: StoryCorps is open to everyone. You come with a friend, a family member, or anybody who is important to you. You talk together for 40 minutes, and then, with your permission, StoryCorps will archive the conversation at The Library of Congress where they’ve collected over 25,000 interviews. Every Friday, StoryCorps broadcasts a two- or three-minute story they’ve edited for NPR’s Morning Edition.

The StoryCorps animated series uses some of the best-loved stories that have been broadcast on radio. We look for stories where there is something that can be added visually to tell the story in a new, meaningful way. Ultimately, we need to tell a story the audio track can’t tell on its own.

Danny & Annie from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

Q: Where is the animation done? What technologies do you use?

A: We produce all the animation here in Brooklyn, N.Y. Tim does almost all the animation himself, with some assistance on in-betweens, tracebacks, etc. Three of the episodes (‘Germans in the Woods,’ ‘Q&A’ and ‘The Human Voice’) were animated traditionally on paper. We’ve now moved to hand drawing everything in Flash on a Cintiq. The background paintings by Bill Wray are a combination of digital and traditional painting. We combine everything using AfterEffects as a compositing tool.

Q: How long did it take to produce and how much did it cost (ballpark?)

A: We received a $325,000 grant from the (Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and will have the last short completed by March 2011. Five of the shorts are air airing now on the 23rd season of PBS’s documentary program POV.

Q: How did you assemble your animation team?

A: We’re using the virtual studio model. Our animation assistant works on-site with us, our background design and painting is done in California, and compositing is done here in New York. All our artists work from home and deliver their work to us via Dropbox. We really like working this way because it gave us the flexibility to work with whoever we thought was best for the project. It also allows us to make the best possible use of our budget, so that every dollar possible ends up on screen.

Q: What was the biggest challenge for you?

A: The biggest challenge was figuring out the workflow with everyone working remotely. It was the first time we had taken on a project of this scale and used that production model. But we worked out a lot of those kinks quickly and are finding that this model has plenty of advantages, too.

Q: Why do you think the story has been such an effective one? How have people reacted to it?

A: The stories recorded by StoryCorps are authentic, honest and universal. They capture the power and poetry in the lives of everyday people. Audiences respond very positively to that, and it’s something they don’t often get to see. We’ve been blown away by the great response to these cartoons from people of all different walks of life.

Q: What do you love best about these projects?

A: The opportunity to tell the amazing stories of everyday Americans, and then see those stories connect on so many different levels with the audience. These stories show so much about what we all share in common.

Q: What is your take on the big animation scene in 2010 and the opportunities that new media have provided for indie animators out there?

A: As a result of the powerful tools that are now so easily available, we’re confident that there will be more and more high quality professional work coming from indies and small studios. The web, social media, new publishing technologies, and technologies not yet invented are creating new demand for animation. Shorts seem especially well suited to the new media environment. The studios and indie animators who take advantage of the production tools at their disposal, and are savvy about how to use new media, will find great success. Of course, we all have to remember that great characters and storytelling are the real key.

Q: Can you tell us what you are working on next?

A: We have lots of great ideas that have been on the back burner while working on StoryCorps. One project we’re particularly interested in is animating a series of recordings made with Puerto Rican migrants in New York City during the 1950s. It’s a time period that isn’t particularly well documented, but is very interesting. It’s called The Great Migration, and was the largest wave of Puerto Rican migration to New York, caused in part by the emergence of air travel. We’re also working on ideas for some original characters and stories. People can see what we’re up to by checking in with us at rauchbrothers.com.