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Kong Studio’s ‘Man Up or Open Up?’ Explores Issues Around Male Mental Health

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Man Up or Open Up? was commissioned by The Open University Broadcast & Partnerships team, to create a learning journey from the OU and BBC co-production ‘James Arthur: Out of Our Minds’ for BBC Three. The program is a deeply personal film featuring singer-songwriter James Arthur, focusing on male mental health. The Broadcast & Partnerships team, inspired by James Arthur’s candid reflections on his own experiences of poor mental health, wanted to explore why men struggle to seek help when in crisis.

Academic contributor Dr Martin Robb, the Open University academic who consulted on the animation, says on the subject “Stereotypes on masculinity often prevent men and boys from seeking help. Despite recent changes in ideas about gender roles and relationships, many young men still feel a pressure to act tough, choosing to bottle things up rather than seek support.”

Produced by Kong Studio and designed and directed by Hannah O’Brien, the animated short film highlights the shocking statistics behind the issue in a tactile and informative way. It also showcases the fantastic work being done by organizations like ‘Alright Mate?’ and brings Dr. Martin Robb’s OU research into the area to life.

Chris Belson, Broadcast Platforms and Public Engagement Manager at The Open University said “Myself and Dr Martin Robb, the academic consulting on the James Arthur documentary, were passionate about creating additional online content that explored that wider question – of why many men find it hard to talk about their mental health. It was also a great opportunity to learn from, and champion, some of the people and organizations on a mission to change that. This is always going to be a very sensitive, and often complicated, subject to talk about – so we felt that animation would be an ideal medium to explore it empathetically and accessibly.“

Kong had previously developed an exciting working relationship with The Open University Broadcast and Partnership team for the BBC co-productions ‘Secrets of the Museum’ and ‘Aids: The Unheard Tapes’. Kong Studio is committed to making entertaining content with a strong ethical and social purpose – and the OU’s projects align perfectly with that mission.

Kong co-founder Bill Elliott on their working relationship with the OU, “We love producing films for The Open University. The subject matter is always interesting, and immaculately researched and they allow us a huge amount of creative freedom. This frees us up to experiment with different visual styles and connect with exciting new talent. It’s the perfect win-win for us.”

Chris Belson adds “Our track record with Kong has shown us how beautifully they use visual storytelling to bring topics like this to life. From the moment we first broached the concept with them it was clear that they connected with what we were trying to do. Animator Hannah O’Brien immediately understood how to creatively, and conscientiously, bring our words and research to life in a compelling, visual way. Equally, the Kong Studio team were always flexible and embraced any feedback from our experts – appreciating the care needed when trying to visualize particularly nuanced and delicate concepts.”

Man Up or Open Up? was directed by Hannah O’Brien. Emma Burch, executive producer at Kong Studio said, “We are always looking out for new animators as we aim to support younger talent into the industry. Bill came across Hannah’s Instagram recently, so she was already on our radar. When we were considering animators for this project, we knew her hand-drawn and painted visual style would lend a human tone to a difficult topic. The production schedule for the animation was relatively tight at five weeks. Still, Hannah was able to draw on her experience from previous projects, that dealt with similar sensitive subjects, to streamline her processes. Hannah has created a beautiful film within a compressed schedule.”

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Chris Belson and Dr Martin Robb handed the Kong team a brief and script for Hannah to bring to life. On the production process, Hannah said, “The OU team’ were amazing to work with. They gave feedback throughout the storyboard and animatic stage, offering suggestions on how someone struggling with their mental health was represented. I visualized an uneasy feeling starting in your mind and then gradually taking over your whole body. This is where the swirly lines inside his head developed, illustrating the physical feelings mental health problems can cause. The use of color was also important to me. The animation starts off very blue and gray and gradually becomes more colourful, representing the man feeling more himself as he recovers.”

On the final film, Dr Martin Robb said: ‘It can be really difficult to convey complex and sensitive ideas about men, masculinity and mental health in an attractive and accessible manner, but this animation succeeds beautifully in doing so.’

Chris Belson, Broadcast Platforms and Public Engagement Manager at The Open University, adds, “The result is an engaging and insightful animation that we think will be a powerful onward journey from James Arthur’s story and brilliantly support our faculty teaching and curriculum. Not to mention, something that will hopefully inspire even more men, to open up, rather than man up.“

‘Man Up or Open Up?’ is available to watch now on The Open University’s Broadcast and Partnership page.

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