Using animation to protect sources while telling true stories of gay life in China

The tremendous anti-gay stigma in mainland China has made it difficult for stories about homosexuality to emerge in the Chinese media outlets, even though pockets of tolerance are beginning to emerge.

It’s within this climate that Jieqian Zhang, a graphics editor at The Wall Street Journal; Fan Fei, a digital graphic producer at Modern Healthcare; and Tailai Zhou, a journalist at Caixin Media Company in China, came together to tell the stories of gay, HIV-positive men in China. In order to protect the identities of those they interviewed, they used animations to make them anonymous. The product is titled ‘Caught in Quicksand’: Gay and HIV-Positive in China, and it was published on ChinaFile , an online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society based on New York City.

Storybench spoke to Zhang about telling stories in ways that protect sources. The interview was conducted in Chinese and translated into English.

Why did you decide to shine a light on Chinese gay men and HIV?

By the end of 2015, China Daily and China Youth Daily, both popular official daily newspapers, reported that the ratio of college students who were known as HIV carriers is on the rise in China. We decided to tell stories about LGBT communities in China as part of a project on college graduates.

Roughly one in 12 gay men in China is HIV positive.

After doing some research, we found out that HIV has contaminated both the young and the elderly population in China. We saw teenagers, who infected with HIV after having sex with adults. We also interviewed middle-aged men, who had got married and infected their wives with HIV. These are not single examples among Chinese LGBT communities. So we decided to expand our objects and draw a whole picture for Chinese gay men and HIV issue.

We tried to publish the story on an English platform as many of these stories are unlikely to be published in Chinese media outlets. What’s more, many of our sources refused to be on camera or even just talk to me for fear of the story being published in Chinese media. But foreign media would be fine with them because their relatives and acquaintances could not read English.

What is the working process?

In China, some anti-HIV non-profit organizations or LGBT help & support groups are mainly run by gays as staffs of the CDC have trouble on knowing HIV patients. We contacted some NGOs in Shanghai, Chengdu, Qingdao, and Nanchang, which are first-tier or second-tier cities, before we came back to China in January 2016. The NGOs helped us to find a few patients who had built strong relationships with them and were willing to tell their stories.

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The three of us worked as a team. Zhou mainly worked as the director, Fei the post-production editor, and I worked as the journalist and editor. We went to the four cities together to conduct the interviews.

We recorded what they said during the interviews, transcribed the conversations into text and translated them into English. We thought about using the original voice of the interviewees in the animations but we promised our interviewees to do some sound editing before publishing their stories. We also noticed that Americans are not used to reading titles when watching videos. As a result, we decided to ask a few native speakers to dub the quotes of our heroes.

What are the main concerns of using animations to tell stories?

Only one of the interviewees from four cities gave us the permission to record a video interview. We needed a way keep our other sources anonymous and tell their stories in an innovative way. We wanted the story to be visually engaging and thought creative animations was a good way to make that happen.

We picked two stories which are the most typical and complete to make animations. We verified the details about the scenes with the interviewees, like what did the medical instruments look like when they were conducting examinations, how did the corridors and office room look. We asked them about all the details we could think of.

I also recreated a conversation a gay man had in an online chat room confessing his sexuality and sex experiences to add more layers to the story.

Why did you use this retro black and beige color on the street interviews?

We posted the whole package onto a website. The video of street interviews seems more cohesive in this color with the background of the website and the animations. Also, the chromatic video just does not get along with this piece. It’s an aesthetic choice.

What software / equipment did you use to create the animation? How long did it take to work on this story?

Fei drew the pictures with pen and paper, scanned the pictures into a computer, used Illustrator to edit those pictures, and imported the pictures to After Effect to create the animations.

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We invited three friends to dub each animation … Zhou, Fei and I would sit down and listen to the audio again and again to decide which one could remind us of the hero. Then we edited the audio into two or three minutes in length and import those files into Premiere to make animations.

We even invited musicians to compose the background music. The music made the story much heavier than it had already been. After listening to the mix, we decided that it was too much. We did not want this story to be too emotional or dramatic.

It took us four months to put everything together. We did the interviews in January 2016, processed the interviews in February. On March, we wrote scripts and ask our friends to dub for the animations. We created a website for presentation on April and May.

What is your advice for journalism students who want to use animations to tell stories?

I would think about what scenes are going to be included in the animation during or before the interview and make sure to check out all the details with the interviewees. Before we make final decisions about the scripts, the illustrator could set out to draw certain indispensable scenes – like the patient room in our story.

When creating an animation, I would make sure that the scripts are the final version and no changes are allowed after I start making the story visual because even a subtle revision of the scripts can lead to major changes in the images.

Make sure to plan out enough time for animations because the process can be extremely time-consuming and exhausting.

Yan Wu

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