How to use animation to tell difficult stories

As one of the most engaging digital mediums used to tell stories, animations are king of content.

When stories are complex and delicate, the nature of a more traditional, true to life video, can introduce factors that can distract from the story’s core message.

As an example, when a video relies on the performance of actors, it may not effectively communicate the authentic emotions and feelings of the story. Or sometimes, people watching a video may not be able to engage with the characters, which may turn them off listening to the message.

Through using animated characters or symbols to relay a message or story, the storyteller has complete control, and the content can be more easily digested by the viewer, who feels less confronted by the real-life nature of the subject. The finest details of an animated message can also be fine-tuned to ensure the message is clear and carries the point across in the most effective way.

At Arete, we often recommend the use of animated films to our clients who need to tell more complex narratives.

Complete control

Immersive storytelling

Compared to other mediums, animation gives the creator complete control over what is depicted; a skilled animator can hone in on the key aspects of each element of the story, blocking out anything that may be irrelevant or distracting. This allows for a truly immersive experience for the viewer, which in turn means that the key messages are being delivered in the most powerful way.

Communicate emotion effectively

Humans all display emotion in different and nuanced ways; through using animation, one can remove any ambiguity around what the protagonist of the story is feeling. The emotions of animated characters can be carefully controlled and, where necessary, exaggerated, ensuring that the narrative of the story unfurls in a structured and strategic way. This close control over the communication of emotion can be utilised very effectively to engage and influence an audience.

Create a connection

Research has proven that some people also find it easier to relate to, and therefore, empathise with animated characters.

As James Isgrove, Arete’s lead animator, explains, “Animated characters can be made as simplified or complex as you like. In some cases, the simpler they are, the better. This provides the viewer with enough of a blank canvas to project themselves on to the character, and therefore, imagine what the character might be feeling. This can catalyse a deep and meaningful connection with both the character and the story.”

Unbound creativity

Animation is limited only by the extent of creativity; it allows for a story to be told in almost any way. Animation offers greater flexibility to communicate through symbolism, which means complex subjects and delicate stories can be expressed in a more palatable way, creating a more engaging experience.

The most effective storytelling can utilise symbolism to communicate the emotion of the characters on-screen without using any words. UNICEF South Sudan commissioned Arete to create five short animations that would reflect the dreams of child soldiers. In this video, in which the young girl narrates her story, she doesn’t need to say that she felt scared, small, and insignificant.

By shrinking the character representing the girl and making the character that represents the soldier monstrously large, each of these emotions is symbolically communicated effectively and efficiently without need for further explanation.

Approach topics tactfully

The creative use of symbolism can also ensure difficult topics are expressed tactfully but with enough weight to indicate significance. Through the use of abstract visuals, complex and upsetting situations can be simplified so that they are easier for the viewer to watch and interpret.

In another of these videos, a young boy narrates a story that is recurring in his nightmares.

In this story, the young boy depicts how he was forced to watch soldiers slit his father’s throat. It was difficult to work out how best to portray that,” lead animator James Isgrove describes. “With upsetting and delicate scenes, such as this one, sometimes it is better to leave some of the details to the viewer’s imagination. The idea is to lead the story down a path and let the viewer’s mind fill in the blanks”.

Utilising sound

The power of the imagination can also be realised through the use of descriptive sound. One’s imagination is the most compelling storytelling tool, and with the right stimulus, it can be utilised to communicate a story more powerfully than any visual depiction.

For example, in this animation, this ex-child soldier describes how she was beaten with heavy chains. By employing the sound of chains rattling and thumping, we were able to descriptively, yet delicately, depict this horrific chapter in her story without the need to animate a distressing scene.

Educational videos made easy — Aga Khan University — How the news becomes the news

Animation can also be effectively employed to explain complex situations and processes in a simplified and easy-to-understand manner, granting storytellers the ability to create simple on-screen scenarios, which can effectively communicate a process — such as how the news becomes the news.

In this animation, commissioned by the Aga Khan School of Media and Communication in Kenya, the goal was to educate the audience on how a news story’s facts and content are gathered and checked before it is published.

To conclude, animation is a versatile medium that offers comprehensive creative control and the ability to engage with all audiences. When utilised correctly, animations can be used to tell both delicate and informative stories effectively.

Do you have a complex story that could be told using animation? Here is how to reach out to our animation team.

Arete is the expert storytelling and training agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations

Our award-winning journalists and content specialists are eager to help you make a difference. Contact us to find out how we can tailor our expertise to meet your needs.

From the photographers: Climate change

Photo: Kate Holt

“Climate Change is a phenomenon that can not be ignored. Raising awareness of the issue, and showing how the effects of a changing climate impact people’s lives, is essential to changing public opinion about the topic and forcing governments to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

A warming planet is currently having a much greater impact in poorer countries, very often those that are not responsible for generating high emissions. As well as the science needed to explain what is happening, photos are essential in shaping opinion and driving change.

I have been working as a photographer for over 20 years in many of the countries most acutely impacted by extreme weather patterns as a result of global warming. Every year, more and more countries are having to deal with these events and the resilience of poorer families decreases annually.

In Somalia, for example, with every year that goes by with no rain, people’s herds of sheep and goats are reduced by adverse weather conditions, until they have nothing left. This forces them into makeshift camps where they become dependent on food aid. In Madagascar, rising sea levels are causing flooding in coastal communities resulting in increasing water-borne diseases because freshwater supplies get contaminated.

People often feel helpless when confronted by such huge issues. It is essential to also tell the positive stories which demonstrate how people are fighting back; and the impact that individual actions can have.

Tree and mangrove nurseries have sprung up in Madagascar and Somalia that allow communities to purchase to replant depleted mangrove swamps and forest, with previously stopped coastal sea levels rising. Mangroves also provide carbon sinks and are havens for a wide variety of different plants and animals. These initiatives prove that when people come together to find a solution, it is possible to reduce the impact of global warming.” — Kate Holt, Director of Arete Stories.

Photo: Kate Holt/ WaterAid UK / Arete. A young boy stands on a bridge in the evening light in the city of Morondavo in Madagascar. Despite being surrounded by water, and regular rainfall, 48 %of the population of Madagascar do not have access to clean water and 88% lack basic sanitation. Extensive flooding occurs annually in Morandavo due to depleted mangrove swamps, but communities are fighting back by replanting.

We asked several of our talented Arete Photographers to share photographs from their countries, highlighting the issues a changing climate is bringing to their communities. Some show the problem, others the solution.

Aaron Palabyab — Philippines


Aaron is a Philippines based filmmaker and photographer specialising in travel-oriented content and time-lapse photography. He started working with Arete last year.

These photos are from the aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009, which caused never-before-seen flooding and damage in the Philippine capital region of Metro Manila. Several subdivisions were flooded and subsequently buried in mud, causing widespread destruction in the capital. Yet this level of flooding was nearly repeated last year during Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco), showing that the unprecedented is threatening to become the norm due to climate change”.

Gregory Escande — Mozambique


Gregory Escande is a French-language teacher and photographer based in Maputo, Mozambique who has recently completed his first assignment for Arete.

Sometimes, you can see men walking and carrying a lot of 5 litre plastic bottles. They collect these bottles all around the city and neighbourhoods, and they then resell them in bulk to people who reuse them to make cubes of ice. The man in the photo has approximately 70 bottles, and he sells each for 5 meticais ($0.06)”.

In this photo, you can see Amelia, 60 years old, and she supports her entire family (children and grandchildren) by collecting cans or plastic for recycling. On her head, she has approximately $5 worth of recycling that she has collected”.

Massoud Hossaini — Afghanistan


Massoud is a photographer based in Kabul, Afghanistan and 2012 Pulitzer prize winner.

“I was born in the wrong place, Afghanistan; grow up in the wrong place, Iran; living and working in the wrong place, Kabul; let’s see what will happen”.

There are two shots of a window view of Kabul. One in the sunny morning around 11 AM. And the second in the afternoon, about 4 PM, which is when people start to use their coal or wood heaters. These, unfortunately, produce a lot of pollution”.

Kate Holt — USA & UK


Kate is a US-based photographer who has worked extensively across Africa and Asia. Kate is the director of Arete and trustee of RE:ACT disaster response and the Royal Humane Society.

“Mongias ten year old daughter Sandra drinks water from the stream in Bekalalao Village, Madagascar. Mongia says “We collect water from the small lake. It’s not suitable for us but what can we do? We get belly ache a lot, so we have to go to the doctor. But then we come back again and drink the dirty water and the cycle is repeated. But what can we do? We always have belly ache and diarrhoea. We keep getting sick.”

Bekalalo is a very poor community and there is no clean water; the community is forced to collect water for both drinking and washing from stagnant ponds in the community where livestock also drink from”.

Karel Pinsloo — Kenya


Karel Prinsloo is an award-winning African photographer. He works for many NGO’s and news organisations throughout Africa and is one of Arete’s main photographers.

I recently visited Turkana, Kenya, where UNICEF is providing safe water and energy through the construction of boreholes and solar panels. This provides much-needed water and renewable energy to a community where water has become increasingly scarce”.

Saiyna Bashir — Pakistan


Saiyna is a photojournalist based in Pakistan, and a frequent contributor to the NY Times, Reuters, the Telegraph and others.

Forester, Adalat, holds a tree sapling in the field where out-of-work labourers due to the pandemic have now been hired by the government as ‘jungle workers’ in a reforestation initiative to plant 10-billion trees to deal with climate change threats on the outskirts of Peshawar”.

Below, Abu, who is out of school due to the pandemic, also works as a ‘jungle worker’ in the new tree planting initiative”.

Oluwaseun Oluwamuyiwa — Nigeria


Oluwaseun is a Nigerian born photojournalist and has been working with Arete for two years, with NGOs such as the World Food Programme.

“Climate change is staring us right in the face. With the consistent rise of human activities such as burning fossil fuels and wastes, we will need to do a better job in educating people about the hazard caused to the environment by engaging in such activities, especially in rural communities. This is a site in Adamawa State where waste is burned daily”.

Angelo Mendoza — Phillipines


Angelo is a professional photographer based in Metro Manila, Philippines. His work mainly revolves around travel, lifestyle, and adventure but also extends to documentary filmmaking and time-lapse photography.

I took this image last February, 2020, in Mangatarem, Pangasinan where I witnessed fire spreading across the mountain range. I’m uncertain how it started, but due to the heat and lack of trees, the dry grasslands allowed the fire to spread at an alarming rate. In the centre of the photograph, a tiny silhouette of an eagle can be seen flying over the burning land. In the Phillipines, as the severity of climate change increases caused by deforestation and other environmental problems, more and more animals lose their homes and struggle to thrive in the wild”.

Isak Amin — Somalia


Isak is a Somali photographer who specialises in landscapes, nature, and travel photography. Isak has been working with Arete for many years for a range of UN agencies across East Africa.

I took this photo in 2016 during a severe drought which affected all areas of Somaliland, forcing rural dwellers to flee their homes on-mass and seek assistance in the cities; they had nothing to eat and no water, their livestock had gone”.

How great content and stories can help raise awareness about the effects of climate change and help people make informed decisions.

Photo: Saiyna Bashir/ World Food Programme / Arete

Natural disasters are an increasing result of climate change, and the nature of our work means we often document the important work NGOs do to help those adversely affected. A recent example is a project we undertook for the World Food Programme in Pakistan with photographer Saiyna Bashir.

The Sindh Government announced a state of emergency on 25th of August, 2020, with 20 districts declared calamity-affected by an epidemic of flooding and landslides. The number of people impacted was estimated to be over 1 million, with 300,000 people in need of food assistance.

Photo: Saiyna Bashir/ WFP/ Arete

In an attempt to raise awareness of the issue and the need for local and international support, we were tasked with documenting how the WFP is supporting people in rural Sindh with life-saving supplies

Photo: Saiyna Bashir/ WFP/ Arete

The result was broad coverage in the local and international press, including The Telegraph, Dawn, the Independent, and Next Blue; this led to many people donating money to support those they had read about and seen in the photos.

To talk to us about telling your climate change stories and how best to disseminate them to your digital audience, you can contact us here.

We source and manage local experts in photography, video, digital and written content from around the world to help you tell stories that make a difference. We can work with you in your office or in the field.

From the photographers: Climate change was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.