KEARNEY — Michael Burton and his team of animators wanted to bring the story of Ann Williams to life — along with giving a face to the image of the slave who jumped from a third-floor window rather than be sold into slavery.
“There are only two images of Ann Williams that exist and they are both etchings,” said Burton, assistant professor of practice in textiles, merchandising and fashion design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We wanted to make a living and more realistic live version of those drawings.”
Instead of using those images, Burton supervised the creation of a 12-minute animated film, titled “Anna,” that incorporated the images but added depth and texture that would enhance the message of the film.
“Images from the 17th and 18th century tend to be flattened and monochromatic,” he said. “We didn’t want to reconstruct those images like you might see on TV or in films. We wanted to get somewhere in between so you’re looking at an image from the past.”
To display the emotional depth of Williams’ story, Burton used live actors and enhanced the images by using rotoscoping, a animation technique that enhances the images, often creating outlines that later are filled with textures. The technique results in painterly images that look and feel more artistic than traditional filmmaking or animation.
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Burton will talk about the film, show production images and screen the film during an artist talk at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Museum of Nebraska Art. His talk is in conjunction with the exhibit, “Nebraska Now: Michael Burton, Animation.” The display opens on Saturday and continues through March 29 at the museum.
Admission to the talk and the museum is free.
Burton based the film on actual events.
The story centers on Ann Williams, an enslaved woman who lived in Maryland in 1815. Her owners named her Anna and sold the woman to slave traders who decided to take her away from her family and move her to Georgia. While waiting in a locked tavern, Williams jumped from a third-floor window to escape.
Two years later in 1817, author Jesse Torrey published a book, “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States,” that featured an illustration by Alexander Rider depicting Ann’s leap from the tavern.
Writer Kwakiutl L. Dreher served as screenwriter, co-producer, co-director and actor. William G. Thomas III also contributed to the film as co-producer and historian.
“We’ve been working together for about four years,” he said of Dreher and Thomas. “It’s really been the best work of our lives. To be able to work with people who really know their stuff is just awesome. We’ve really created a nice bond and a great relationship.”
Burton plans to expand the idea into a feature-length film.
“This is a proof-of-concept,” he said of the 11-minute production. “We got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a highly selective media grant. We were one of 12 production companies in the U.S. that got a pretty big amount, $200,000. We’ve got to cobble more money together. Most of that goes into salaries.”
Burton sees the production of “Anna” as part of his work as a faculty member at UNL.
“Any kind of revenue we’ve generated just goes back into salaries for actors and the production team,” he said. “We have yet to make any money on this.”
Burton and his team won an award for best animation at the New Media Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2018 along with six additional awards at other festivals.