For his eight-part BBC and Netflix series “Black Earth Rising,” executive producer, director and writer Hugo Blick tackles the fraught history of Rwandan genocide through his protagonist Kate (Michaela Coel), who is a survivor. As Kate gets involved in a legal case about the African militia, childhood memories from her own painful past flood her, depicted through multiple hand-drawn animated sequences by Studio AKA. The black-and-white animation starts with the beauty of Rwanda, showing crops flourishing and children playing, but very quickly turn tragic as the geography is taken over by machete-wielding invaders.
Executive producer, director, writer
“With a traumatic event like this, you can’t risk a numbness with the audience. To evoke it accurately we could have used documentary footage, but I felt in a piece in which the storytelling and world was unfamiliar to a lot of people’s experience, the animation would give them an idea, but allow them to get into it in a different way. We really, at the script stage, kept a lid on it so we didn’t overuse it. I wanted it to have a little bit of an impressionistic feel, and I was looking for that kind of black-and-white, monochrome feel. And then I wrote quite detailed instructions in the script about what I expected to see in the frames.”
Studio AKA director
“There were references to a colorful event, whether it be the green of the foliage, but it seemed to be that it was very ready for a much more sparse approach. So right from the get-go I said to myself, ‘I think this is about stripping back as much as you can.’ The black-and-white thing wasn’t asked for, but I set that right from the beginning, and then it was just about trying to create images that were respectful enough of the event, while still giving them a little bit of a pull about themselves to engage you and draw you in. The violence is a tricky one because there’s no getting around the stories we’re telling — we are portraying a time that happened with such tremendous impact on a people. In that way you don’t want to create startling images. I played away from that where possible and tried to infer it, but there were the odd moments where it had to be there on-screen.”
“The sound came quite late on. There were a few sequences where we had voiceover as a guide, but really, for us, it was spacing it out in order to let the images breathe and tell the story without too much guidance. We didn’t actually hear any music into much later on. Quite a lot of it was very powerful in the silence. When we were watching it, everything was so gripping you kind of immerse yourself in the pace of it. We didn’t have to over-animate or edit anything too much because the story was being told in the pictures already.”
“Hugo was very clear that he didn’t want me to appropriate African music. The point of the score is that it should have its own voice and it should score the emotion of the characters and not the time or place. I did record a gospel choir, so we did have some voices on there — about 15 voices — and beyond that it was solo instruments and quite a lot of otherworldly sounds to conjure up that feeling of sadness about what happened to these people. The moment where the tension rises just before they burn the church down, we mark that, but really the heart is after that, when she’s rising out. I’m scoring the tragedy of the moment there, really throughout the whole sequence, not the jeopardy or the danger of that sequence.”