Texas Tech University

Animation Isn't All Fun and Games - It Might Just Change Your Life

Glenys Young

October 18, 2021


Two School of Art faculty members have a novel way to help vulnerable populations.

In observance of National Addiction Treatment Week (Oct. 18-24), we want to share an innovative approach Texas Tech University researchers are taking to address the needs of those in addiction recovery and other vulnerable populations.

To many people, animation means entertainment, and it's pretty clear why. For more than a century, that's been animation's main purpose. From the Looney Toons and Disney to Pixar and DreamWorks, billion-dollar enterprises have been built entirely upon animation as a source of fun.

HomeRun storyboard

But to a growing number of researchers at Texas Tech University, animation has the potential to be so much more. And with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), they're putting that belief to the test.

They believe it can help young people trying to get out of the criminal justice system, elderly people battling mental decay, children in underprivileged neighborhoods, young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and individuals recovering from addiction.

“This project is not animation as entertainment but animation in service of the population,” said Francisco Ortega-Grimaldo, an associate professor in the School of Art.

“We are focusing on specific target groups: those in rehabilitation, people with trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people with a disability,” added Jorgelina Orfila, also an associate professor in the School of Art. “But we also are trying to call attention to those who serve disadvantaged populations, because this can help them to cope.”

Leading the charge

Although the U.S. has long been at the forefront in the production of animated features, animation studies are not as well developed in the U.S. as they are in Europe. In 2014, Orfila and Ortega teamed up as the transdisciplinary collective “animationduo” to make Texas Tech a national leader. Along with Stacey Jocoy in the School of Music and Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston in the School of Theatre & Dance, they launched a multidisciplinary undergraduate certificate in animation studies. With these two initiatives, animationduo address their interests in two very different approaches: animation studies and animation for social engagement.

They also reached beyond the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA). In 2019, they hosted the first international conference of the United Kingdom-based Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) to take place in the U.S. They brought in dozens of researchers, students and health professionals from 11 different countries to consider new approaches to, and uses for, animation. That same year, they also started an animation studies chapter at the annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference under the name Animation Research Gang. Here they coordinate a forum for scholars, students and practitioners of animation to discuss their research on the subject

One idea that emerged from their dialog with their British colleagues was the creation of Animation-Making Workshops (AMW), in which groups of participants would learn to create their own stop-motion animation. But instead of focusing on entertainment value, these videos could become a tool to help the participants work through issues in their own lives. Thus, the needs of the participants themselves would shape the workshop's goals.

“Contemporary knowledge is not about applying a discipline to a problem,” Orfila said. “Professionals from different disciplines concentrate on a specific problem in search of an answer. In our case, we offer our method, which is the process of animation-making. In talking with a professional in the targeted group, we learn from them. We need the knowledge of those who work with the population. We don't pretend to be able to deal with autism and the justice system, etc. What we learn from each experience – that is, each workshop – advances our goal of polishing a method, a program, for the use of animation as a therapeutical and didactic tool.”

So, for the past two years, Ortega and Orfila have worked with specialists in addiction recovery, criminal justice and other areas to design workshops that could address the unique needs of those populations. After the COVID-19 pandemic halted their work with the Burkhart Center for Autism Education & Research and the intended collaboration with the Garrison Institute on Aging, they expanded their partnerships with the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities and the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, both within the College of Human Sciences.

“Each group's specialists tell us what they need to develop and how their practice and scholarship recommends beginning,” Orfila said. “For example, with trauma, we focus on the traumatic memories; for addiction, we focus on the journey toward recovery.

“Through animation-making, we are aiming to teach people resilience, how to cope, how to have patience and endurance, and how to make small animation – all those things within 12 weeks.”

A learning process

During the first four sessions, Ortega and Orfila teach the participants how to create stop-motion animation. They use different materials, like clay, felt and paper, to create the subjects and settings for their stories. Using an iPad Mini, they photograph the materials using the Stop Motion Studio app, shifting the various pieces very slightly between each photo, creating the illusion of movement when the sequence in played back. Along the way, participants learn to incorporate sounds, making the characters' mouths move with their words (lip-synching) and correlating vocalizations with background music.


“After that, we start teaching them how to develop their own story and work with them to create their material,” Ortega said. “Eventually, they start producing their own short animation. The reason we selected stop-motion animation is because anyone can get into it.”

Participants are asked to tell a personal story, but the theme isn't specified, so the story they share can focus on whatever they'd like.

“In the process, we start analyzing how they work with the content, what they say when they're working with the content – it's very observational,” Ortega said. “We pay attention to the selection of the theme, the materials, the whole process. The final piece is between 30 seconds and one minute, and while that sounds feasible, in reality, it's a long production process.”

The pair say the process itself is key to the benefits for participants.

“They need to write it, then make a storyboard with simple drawings, then they need to create the material, then they need to digitalize it, then they need to edit it to tell a coherent story,” Ortega said. “In that whole repetition process, there is something happening, emotionally and mentally.”

Trauma-informed care

The explanation lies deep inside the human brain, Orfila explains.

“Every time you remember something, you bring it to the present and recontextualize it into your present experience,” she said. “If the experience was too traumatic, you perhaps don't want to remember and so it's obstructing you, because it's not in the context of your personal narration.

“But if you just try to remember the smell or try to recall the colors, this allows you to contextualize it as something you accept, something that is with you. Putting it in context is a way to cope. We cannot change the past, but if you integrate your past into your present, it doesn't have to bother you.”

One of their first campus collaborators was Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo, the C.R. Hutcheson Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences, a provost faculty fellow and a specialist in the effects of trauma among minorities and vulnerable youth.

“From the psychological perspective, the disclosure process is very intimate and very unique to the person,” Trejos-Castillo said. “In a clinical setting, we encourage the person to start listing information, little by little. Having the person identify, label and name emotions and memories is a big part of the disclosure process. It may take years for somebody to finally say out loud, ‘I experienced this,' and put it into words, because trauma is internalized as an experience, not as a single behavior, emotion, word, smell or color.

"But when you repeat and repeat your story, you allow more to come out. You also feel more comfortable with your own story and are able to elaborate on it. And the more you elaborate on the story, the more emotions are being released from your body and your brain. Over time, you're able to tell your story without getting as emotional as you originally felt, because now you feel more comfortable with your own experiences. The emotions are not gone completely, but it's like looking at a photo album rather than experiencing it firsthand.”

When Ortega approached Trejos-Castillo to apply AMW for young people involved in the criminal justice system, she loved the idea.

“It's an amazing opportunity, providing people a different avenue to express themselves,” Trejos-Castillo said. “It's so challenging to work with populations who have had hardship in their lives. In psychology or social work or even trauma-informed care, we usually resort to traditional ways of data collection – like surveys and interviews – and have them describe a little bit of their stories, but when you allow them to recreate it, telling their own story, using different elements and being able to incorporate or develop new skills, we can support their well-being. This is a wonderful way to express what they're feeling in a very different way.”

That said, all the collaborators must be careful to avoid calling the workshops' effects “therapeutic.”

“Unless you are licensed and accredited or have other official credentials, you cannot label it that way,” Trejos-Castillo explained. “Now, we can think about it in the terms of non-clinical practice and being able to build resilience, being able to allow the people working with these tools to tell a story. And that is very powerful – this is not something you have to fully disclose to somebody else; it's your interpretation of how you felt, and it's put it in a material and artistic way that you can show others without having to tell your story again and again. The power of being able to disclose, to be able to release information, to even deal with some emotions while you're creating, is very important and can support their healing.”

The program falls within the parameters of art therapy, a discipline the state of Texas does not yet recognize.

“We work within the realms of animation as art therapy, but there are no measurements for this, so one of the reasons we wanted to collaborate with Elizabeth is because we need to find that measurement,” Ortega said. “Once we have that, and we start applying it with all these different groups, we can start finding those levels of improvement and answer, is this method really helping? Can we apply it the same way to different groups? What is the participant getting from it?

“We see what it does, but that's our intuition. And we know when it's not working at the same time, but we need numbers rather than just our perspective.”

Ortega and Orfila are now in the middle of a pilot session in collaboration with Trejos-Castillo and Gene Valentini, director of the Lubbock Office of Dispute Resolution. It's an alternative diversion program for youth and young adults in legal trouble for relatively minor offenses. This pilot study is being supported by a grant collaboration among Orfila, Ortega-Grimaldo and Trejos-Castillo awarded by TCVPA's Faculty Research and Creative Activity Awards.

Although the initial interest has been high, several factors have limited participation more than Valentini anticipated – COVID-19 is certainly among them. It's been a disappointing turn of events, he said, but he's hoping future sessions will see a greater turnout.

“You've heard the horror stories about young people charged with public intoxication, possession of alcohol and all that stuff,” Valentini said. “Sometimes, the whole question is, ‘What's going on in the brain to get you to that level?' And that's what I was hoping this program might help with.

“The diversion program is still going on, but right now, we're not able to use it at the level I thought we would be able to.”

For her part, Trejos-Castillo remains confident the data gained from the pilot session –through recorded observations, interviews and the videos produced by workshop participants – will be rich and position them well for future sessions.

Addiction recovery

Animationduo's collaboration with the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities has progressed a little further. This fall, individuals in Texas Tech's addiction recovery program are participating in a second AMW to examine their own addiction recovery journeys.

“The story they tell is very much up to the participant,” said Grant McDaniel, an undergraduate research assistant working with Orfila and Ortega on the project. “It could be symbolic; it could be very descriptive. The difficulty is trying to put your whole story into a one- to two-minute animation. So, there are ideas given, but we really want the participants to come up with it on their own and be creative.

“The story should be true, but I think everyone understands that. Just being in the program of recovery comes with that integrity and honesty of telling your true story.”

McDaniel, a senior biology major, was a participant in the pilot session last spring. Now, he's both helping with the next group and gathering evidence of the changes they undergo. Although they're only about halfway through the 12-week series, he says he's already seen some promising results.

“We have an individual who was very hard on himself in the first couple sessions – he was obsessed with being perfect,” McDaniel said. “I've noticed now he's allowing himself to have a margin of error and being OK with that – being comfortable with it not having to be exactly the way he believes it should look. That's one of the really cool things I've noticed in the short period of time we've been doing this.”

The evidence isn't purely observational, however. Nikki Hune, a graduate research assistant in Community, Family & Addiction Sciences, analyzed the experiences of participants in the pilot cohort – all first-year students in the addiction recovery program who arrived during COVID-19. She found two main themes.

The first, which was portrayed both symbolically and metaphorically through the videos, she titled “Transforming from dark to light.” The second, “Reflecting on the process.”

“That was probably the most impactful finding: it was a process,” Hune said. “Being a new student in recovery in their first semester back to school was a little anxiety provoking. It was different and uncomfortable, and the collegiate recovery program helped them, but they felt a little anxious in the collegiate recovery program, too, just because it was also new, and they didn't know people.

“Therefore, we found the animation workshops helped them to bond with each other, made them feel more comfortable in the collegiate recovery program and helped to relax them in their academics.”

It's a finding McDaniel reported firsthand.

“I think it allows participants to get out of their comfort zone – I know that was the case for me,” he said. “It was a new experience for me, and it was something new to learn. In my recovery, it's important for me to try new things.

“I came in with an attitude that I had no creativity or artistic skills, and throughout the process I learned that I do have some creativity, I do have some artistic skills; I've just never tapped into those. I've never allowed myself to sit down and focus and try to create something that would be considered art, so, it was like a mental escape. It was therapeutic for me to be able to not think about school, not think about work and just focus on what I'm doing for the next hour and a half.”

Hune said many participants don't consider themselves artistic when they enter the program – and that's OK

“I believe all forms of art and creative expression can serve as a tool to help reach populations in different ways,” she said. “When we're talking to students about this, we emphasize that you don't have to know how to make a video, you don't know have to know how to draw, you don't have to consider yourself artistic and creative. Really, it's a learning process.

“The arts can illuminate people's experiences in different ways than words. It gets at emotions and experiences through symbolism and metaphors, and in the end, they come out in a completely different way that's cathartic to the population.”

Potential and power

That's the whole idea, Ortega and Orfila said.

“Working with real, tangible material, there is something very powerful there,” Orfila said. “There is something about that moment when they have the mental image, then they see the representation in the photographs and later, through the animation, they see that story moving on its own – no longer moved by them. The things animation allows you to do, it's like magic.”

Of course, it can be difficult to explain “magic” to others in academia.

“We come in from a very creative approach that is scary for people sometimes,” Trejos-Castillo noted. “They think, how are you going to put all these things together, how are you going to be able to do this? We put it under the umbrella of participatory action research – trying to involve participants in research, but at the same time, trying to give something back to them: this idea of allowing for them to build resilience, allowing them to explore some creative skills. Maybe in the process, somebody discovers they would like to pursue some sort of art career in the future. Maybe they discover they like to draw, and drawing, itself, could be a good tool for them to deal with stress in the future.”

The hardest part, Orfila said, is getting people to tell their own story.

“No one considers that their life has any narration that is of value,” she explained. “Many of them want to be Thor or a princess, or tell a horror story. They all love those.

“It's important to work with your story because you deserve to have a memory, and your memory doesn't have to be Spider-Man. You have your own set of powers.”

The Animation-Making Workshops gratefully acknowledge the support of the Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts through a Research & Creative Activity Award, as well as the Texas Tech NEA Research Lab – a federally sponsored cooperative agreement between Texas Tech University and the National Endowment for the Arts (Award #1855516-38-C-19).