This site is rated as one of the "Top 50 Freelance Writing Blogs" by the Journalism Journeyman.
Paige's Story: Animating a troubled life, and death
By Claude Adams
Early in the production of our story about the life and death of Paige Gauchier, I knew we had a problem.
We had no visuals, no personal videos, no home movies; nothing but a handful of grainy photographs of the aboriginal girl at various ages of her life, along with street scenes of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where she was found dead in 2013.
How do we tell the story of Paige’s last few months of life in an honest yet compelling way, and do so without violating her personal dignity?
At 16×9, we sometimes solve this problem with dramatizations—amateur actors recreating critical scenes for which we don’t have real-life visuals. But I didn’t want to do this with Paige. It just didn’t seem right.
Then I remembered something I’d seen on YouTube. It was called The Box—a story about a young man condemned to solitary confinement in the United States. It was a story told entirely in animation—edgy, white-on-black drawings of life in “a jail within a jail.” A solitary cell.
It was brilliantly done. Why not use the same style of storytelling for key episodes in the life of Paige Gauchier—events described in star detail in a report by the BC government’s child advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond?
I spent a day on the phone, and I found Ren Budd, a 21-year-old artist living in Coquitlam, B.C. Ren (short for Lauren) had just graduated from Emily Carr University of Art + Design. She came highly recommended.
I sent Ren the link to The Box, some photos of Paige and her mother, and the advocate’s report—it runs 75 pages, and is painful to read– and we discussed some ideas. How to portray the indignities Paige had suffered in a way that wasn’t maudlin or sensationalistic?
“Every drawing and choice in this piece,” Ren would tell me later, “was created with the decision to not portray any images that might damage Paige’s dignity.”
“Working on this project has been an amazing opportunity. Being fresh out of school I am so glad that the first major project that I worked on is one that is bringing awareness to a situation such as Paige’s story.”
While living on the street, Paige had adopted the nickname “Nemo G” after the fish from the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Nemo was a fish trying to find his way home.
“In the animation,” Ren said, “Paige is portrayed as a girl who’s been . . . displaced in both an emotional and a physical sense. I decided to give Paige and her mother the colour orange in the animation as a tribute to Paige’s nickname.”
Thus, in the first animated sequence in the story, we see Paige and her mother– both portrayed in bright orange–walking down a rough alleyway in Vancouver. That took Ren more than a week to complete. “I was still work-shopping the style,” she says. “It’s also my favourite scene.”
21-year-old Ren Budd.
Then, over the course of six weeks, working with me and editor Jon Wong, Ren completed eight different scenes drawn from the lives of Paige and her mother Shundah.
The most powerful sequence, to my mind, is the scene in room 223 of a squalid drug-infested Vancouver hotel that Paige and her mom occupied for several weeks.16X9 cameraman Elias Campbell and I had made a clandestine visit to the hotel, where we videotaped an addict’s room. Those pictures helped Ren reconstruct a key episode in Paige’s life.
Here’s Ren explaining how she works:
“The animated sequences were created using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. I first drew all the components in Photoshop making sure each moving piece was separated onto its own layer. Once all the assets were completed in Photoshop I took them over to After Effects to compile the scene, animate, add effects and camera movements.”
“The style that was applied took inspiration from scratch board art and used limited colours to emphasize meaningful aspects within each scene.”
Paige’s story ends tragically. In April, 2013, just days before her 20th birthday, she was found dead of a drug overdose in a communal bathroom in a Downtown Eastside women’s shelter.
I asked Ren how she planned to portray the last moments of Paige’s life. She was adamant. Nothing sensational. Nothing mawkish. I left it entirely to her.
You can see what she came up with in the closing seconds of our story “A Life Discarded.”