Mr. Magoo Meets Journalism: What It’s Like to be Interviewed for Animated News

By Barnard Law Collier

Neil Collier: Animating news for the New York Times.

I’m captivated by the potential of “animated news,” a still experimental facet of journalism that was, until a few weeks ago, news to me.

Animated news is the use of audio/visual interviews that, instead of showing the actual speaker’s photographic image, employs a graphic artist to turn their vocalizations into a clip of portraits, symbols, colors, moods, and actions. I’d seen little of it, and the idea tickled my storytelling antennae.  I thought: “News marries art.”

I’m told by editors and executives from media companies that are experimenting with animated news that the work is often memorable.  But for the time being “it’s still way too expensive” to employ on a daily schedule, even in Asia, where the first tests were made and the scaling up and pricing down of animated news is ongoing.

Academic studies indicate that there’s not much difference in the comprehension or retention levels of the animated and photographed presentations of the same “news.” However the “enjoyment” level of the animations is often higher. The way to experience some of the better animated news productions is to visit and play some of the pieces.

For the New York Times, there may be a small fortune in the increasing experiments with animated news because the Times owns a mammoth morgue of interviews.  To curate that trove may turn a serious profit.

These news animations may also feature living people, in which case a classic “news” interview becomes a crew effort among interviewee, producer, videographer, editor, and the artists.

A week or so ago, I was emailed by a man I did not know and is not a known relative, Neil Collier, a New York Times video editor and filmmaker who wished to produce an animated news story as part of a mini-production series called “I Was There.”

He asked to set a date to meet and he would record my recollections of being at Woodstock as the only reporter on the scene for the first 24 hours. I told him I could not refuse a fellow Collier.

Neil arrived at my office with sound editor Michael Cordero. He positioned his big, black Canon video camera so that it peered into my face from a foot away.

“Why the video for an animation?” I asked

“For the artist to get expressions right,” he explained.

Neil asked me to introduce the animation by saying: “I’m Barney Collier and I was at Woodstock.”

Rarely am I tongue-tied in front of a camera, but when Neil began asking questions it dawned upon me that for animated productions what is said must be as free as possible from generalities and light on empty superlatives. It should be a series of specific true-to-life images, not vague characterizations, like the ones I could hear myself mouthing. I realized that the artist in this collaboration was only going to be truthfully imaginative if provided actual images to work with.

Neil is a professional interviewer. He’s from Northern England and has a degree in Arabic languages and literature from a university in Damascus. Before coming to the Times he worked for the BBC and Al Jazeera English as a war reporter.

His questions steer one’s mind into images rather than reactions, and as the interview moved along, it got easier to describe the strangeness, the fun, and sensual beauty of Woodstock in a way that an artist might riff on.

For his part, Neil kept track when I said something juicy, but had not said well.  He asked me to address that question again, and after a while I got the drift.

I have no idea how Neil will edit the two hours of talk, and even less about how animation artists might see and portray what I said. I do know is that it’s a bit daunting to have to take both personal and artistic responsibility for your words.
Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Maybe an extended interview of Roy Cohn can be animated. :). Anyhow, Barney, please post your animated animation interview, if possible, when the drawing is done.


    Dear Richard,

    There is a deadly accurate Vanity Fair article by David Marcus about his cousin Roy Cohn. I’m trying to discover what’s up with that interview (and what form it’s in) as I agree that it might make a most enlightening trip through the mind of Donald Trump’s closest and dearest mentor. Here’s the link. It is well worth reading and I mentioned to Neil Collier that it’s ripe for animation.


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