What’s Up With Everyone? New Aardman Films to Support Young People’s Mental Health

What’s Up With Everyone? is a new AHRC-funded project and campaign that has produced five new Aardman films to support young people’s mental health. Led by Professor Paul Crawford at the University of Nottingham, this project is in partnership with Academy-award winning Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, Chicken Run etc.), Loughborough University, London School of Economics, Mental Health Foundation, Happy Space, and many other advisers and influencers, not least Dr Alex George, the Ambassador for Mental Health for the UK Government and British basketball legend and social media star, Ovie Soko. In this post, Professor Crawford shares his experience of leading on this campaign and project.

What’s Up With Everyone?, launched in February 2021, is a series of five new, universal and timely animated stories created with and for young people about dealing with life’s challenges upstream before these impact on their mental health. The project includes additional supportive information on the platform and signposts how young people can self-help in the first instance or gain formal support if needed. The films are aimed at 17-24 year olds who are in preparation for and transition through college or university, training or the workplace, and should also appeal to younger and even older people.

Aardman characters Merve, Charlie, Tai, Ashley and Alex

The films address the challenges of loneliness and isolation, perfectionism, competitiveness, independence and social media.  Voiced by young people supporting the project, the quirky anthropomorphic characters – Merve, Charlie, Tai, Ashley and Alex – are classic Aardman. Aardman Director and Designer, Dan Binns, who worked on the Shaun the Sheep film Farmageddon, and other animations, brought these characters to life, as supported by a fabulous production family of Heather Wright, Hannah Richmond, Lorna Probert, Sami Goddard, and Neil Pymer.

This project is very much in keeping with my leading role in the development of the global field of health humanities—which seeks inclusive, applied and novel routes for enhancing the physical and mental health of populations through the arts and humanities. I describe this work as ‘creative public health’ and we will be reporting on the findings of the project with Aardman, and its research portfolio, throughout 2021.

Visiting the Aardman Animation office

The project began in 2018, with preliminary discussions with Aardman and then priming monies from the AHRC to build the team, apply for and secure a commissioned award of circa £1m. Right from the start, we knew that this particular ‘creative public health’ mission would be standout. On visiting the main offices of Aardman in Bristol, it is impossible not to become animated and enthusiastic. The energy around the place is as contagious as Covid-19, with supersize sculptures of their ground-breaking and iconic characters everywhere and a multitude of industry awards, including Oscars, decorating the walls and shelves! As a fan of Aardman, it was great to meet the founders of the company and creators of Morph, Peter Lord CBE and David Sproxton CBE. As a new collaborative health humanities venture with creative industry, their warmth and backing was vital to the project. Over many months, a diverse set of teams and partnerships developed animated stories relevant to mental health literacy and informed by young people from the start.

The challenge in leading this project between Aardman, young people, participant universities, charities and advisers, was one of scale and complexity. This required diligent leadership, tracking and delivery from start to finish, with executive AHRC support by AHRC colleagues (Edward Harcourt, Andrew Thompson, Margaret Charleroy, Paul Meller, Leo Springate) and administrative back up (Angie Bagley, Fiona Harris). The management of such complexity became more challenging given that the main body of the project fell within the Covid-19 pandemic. With Covid-19, all kinds of adjustments had to be made to work digitally with our young people, support team members, and ensure that all phases of the research supporting the production and evaluation of the films could be in place, never mind the foundational and interlaced evaluative research phases.

The research team

Although Covid-19 brought very real challenges, the various teams within the project were highly committed and ‘Aardman struck’, so we managed through! The research teams at Loughborough University (Professor Mike Wilson, Dr Antonia Liguori, Dr Mel Warwick), University of Nottingham (Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos, Dr Sachiyo Ito-Jaeger, Velvet Spors), London School of Economics (Dr Tom Curran) have begun investigating mental health literacy through a suite of mixed methods and this cycle of work will be completed by the end of 2021. In addition, a family of PhD students (Lucy McLaughlin, Sarah Gordon, Ngozi Oparah and Joe Stevens) have joined us to build a legacy bridge to future knowledge relevant to ‘creative public health’.

Digital stories from young people fed into the production work and will feature in evaluative studies of audience response to the films; an experimental phase established the impact of the films on young people; and further evaluation is ongoing to determine young people’s perceptions and trust in the information in the films and companion website of mental health guidance. In addition, social media metrics and internet scraping will seek to capture impacts and audience data. Finally, all findings will be synthesised in a digital showcase hosted with Mental Health Foundation and linked to the films and web-based platform. The digital showcase will report on the mechanics of the project, its findings and methodological learning from this new kind of health humanities collaboration with creative industry. All evidence-based mental health information was reviewed by our clinical and mental health advisers (Dr David Crepaz-Keay, Marwah El-Murad, Dr Dominique Thompson, Nader Dehdashti) and the project’s Advisory Board. Preliminary findings, for publication later in the year, suggest that the animated films are a formidable medium for advancing mental health literacy among young people.

One of the main challenges with this project was closing the door! Nearly everyone wanted to get in the room with this prestigious partnership! The research behind, within and about this project was fundamental to its success as surely as the genius of Aardman. With Covid-19, there will be no red carpet and flashing lights but there is a deep pride that our young people and all those involved in this project know they have been part of something needed at this awful time, a positive creative vaccine, a bit of magic amidst the gloom.

Anyone who has worked with Aardman or seen their work will know that their reach to audience is profound, so the impact trajectory should not disappoint! I remember well the day I enquired about Aardman’s previous work and their network of influencers or backers. I was sitting in their Bristol offices, surrounded by Academy awards and BAFTAs, sipping tea from a chipped Aardman mug! Well, the list started with Bill Gates and Prince William and ended with the recently knighted Sir Lewis Hamilton! It became clear very early on that leading the campaign and project What’s Up With Everyone? would be the kind of thing that academics dream of, only this time it came true!’

Professor Crawford at the Aardman Animations offices

Paul Crawford is Professor of Health Humanities at the School of Health Sciences, Director of the Centre for Social Futures at the Institute of Mental Health. His latest books include The Routledge Companion to Health Humanities (2020), Florence Nightingale at Home (2020) and Cabin Fever: Surviving Lockdown in the Coronavirus Pandemic (2021). As the founding father of the new, global and rapidly developing field of health humanities, Professor Crawford leads various research in applying the arts and humanities to inform and transform healthcare, health and wellbeing.

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