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Interview with Emma Lazenby (ForMed Films)

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Bristol-based animation director and owner of ForMed Films Emma Lazenby has worked in the industry on multiple projects, notably with ArthurCox including the recent Disney Channel series Nina Needs To Go and her BAFTA-winning short film Mother of Many, based on her mother’s work as midwife. Emma has since set up ForMed, a studio that creates medical films to help explain and discuss various medical procedures and ailments. We joined Emma on the eve of her first venture into the crowdfunding world as she sets about raising funds for her next ambitious short film Perinatal Positivity that aims to encourage and deliver support for new and expecting parents who may be experiencing a range of mental health concerns.

Can you tell us a little about your past and what led you to creating ForMed Films?

I’ve been an animator for nearly twenty years. I started working in Scotland in a tiny animation company in the Highlands. I worked in London on Charlie and Lola and then at Nexus for music videos and other projects. Then I decided to travel the world and stopped animating, after I came back and decided I’d make one last film before leaving animation altogether. I got a job at ArthurCox, and loved it – I got a Channel 4 commission to make Mother of Many which was my film about my mum and childbirth – which went on to win a BAFTA so then I didn’t give up animation! I was actually going to open up a pie shop, but I came to Bristol where there are already too many pie shops.
Mother of Many really made me realise what good I could do, so I started right away making a film about radiotherapy called One of a Kind with the hospital in Bristol. It was a really powerful and moving film to make so it just kind of grew into this – making medical films. Aardman took me on as an Animation Director and I was directing for ArthurCox as well, where I art-directed the TATE Movie Project which was brilliant. Then I art-directed a Disney series with ArthurCox – which was Nina Needs to Go. But since Mother of Many and One of a Kind I’d kept thinking this is what I want to do, make a medical film company, so I managed to do it in the end.

What was it that drew you toward making medical films?

The reason why I was thinking about giving up animating was because animation can be so stressful. When I’m working on medical films they’re stressful too – more so, even – in keeping it true to the people you’re talking to and about, you’re trying to tell a story in the best way. But the medical films I just love, I wanted to be a midwife or something medical and sometimes think about re-training. My sister, my mum and my grandma, all the women in my life have all been quite medical. Even my first film was medical; it was about Alzheimer’s because my grandma had Alzheimer’s. They don’t have to be medical, I guess I just want to make films that help people and do some good, rather than just making money for myself.

With some of your films like One of a Kind and Deep Sleep which is about anaesthetic, what are the challenges with explaining quite scientific things to a young or more general audience while still keeping those important facts?

It’s always like a puzzle, never straightforward, I’ll go backwards and forwards. I love doing it but compared to films I’ve done in the past like The History of an Orange or Dog Shaped – the films that were just fun to make, where there’s no pressure for them to be perfect – with medical films you’re trying to make them very specific about what you’re trying to do or say. I talk to doctors and the people involved, like when I was doing Deep Sleep I watched someone who was getting a leg brace, go under anaesthetic and lots of people having endoscopy. So I get to see something very impressive and exciting, with the lack of being able to actually do anything medical it feels like I get to explore and look at it really deeply, which is hugely satisfying, but to get it to talk to children I guess I’m trying to always be non-patronising. With both of those films I interviewed children about their experience and the whole film was based of their experience so it was them talking to other children about their experience rather than a doctor saying “Well, this is what will happen next”.

How have you found the response both from children and their parents – as well as animators and festivals – to your films?

Emma Lazenby (Image via BAFTA)

I’m not super popular with film festivals. I get invited to a lot of health festivals and Encounters, and there was the BAFTA, but I’ve never got into Annecy or anything. I find festivals confusing, as I don’t know why some films get in and others don’t. But I think really I make films for people, so it’s nice when it gets into festivals. I’ve been on the jury at various things and I love watching other people’s work but I’m making films for another reason these days.

It must be rewarding to know your films are being shown to people going into surgery and knowing it’s helping them?

It is, it feels like you can make such a massive difference and help people in explaining something really complex or difficult. Recently I made a film about children who are carers for parents who have mental health issues called My Mum’s Got a Dodgy Brain. That film was about talking to children who are going through that and understand how other children have to go though it and get the help that they need, as often they don’t get the help. It’s also public engagement to talk to teachers, schools and other children who perhaps don’t know what these kids are going through and pick on them. The reason that we made this film was that the doctor we were working with noticed other doctors weren’t looking at the children, they were dealing with the parents and helping parents with mental health issues, not thinking that they have three children at home that need help too. So it’s helping to make doctors aware that they need to help them too. It is doing well for them.

It was commissioned by Devon Partnership, NHS Trust and Jo Black who is an incredible woman and doctor and she knows how to find money for really good projects. She’s made a twenty-minute film about postnatal depression and had a music concert were all the proceeds went to a postnatal depression charity. She’s a postnatal mental health expert.

So you’re crowdfunding a new film, can you tell us why you’ve decided to do this now?

I’ve decided to do it now as I’ve been trying to find funding for this project for a long time and when I was making My Mum’s Got a Dodgy Brain I approached a few people about making this film about early pregnancy that would hopefully stop people going into such a dark place. The whole idea came from a discussion I had with an obstetrician about how it would be great to make a film that would help people build their resilience, promote positivity and help people not get into that place in the first place. So it’s a film about perinatal mental health, such as pre- and post-natal depression, anxiety, OCD and postpartum psychosis. Everyone always thinks it’s just one thing but it’s not, there are a lot of things that could happen as it’s such a turbulent time having this massive change in your life where you were just a person and now you’re a parent; you’ve got all these hormones that go crazy, your whole perspective changes that you’re so responsible for another living thing. I think it’s not always possible to prevent, but if people know things are in place, groups and people you can talk to, they can find a well-being plan before things go wrong. So before birth you’re building your resilience to those things.

You can see more of Emma’s work at
Follow Emma on her twitter account and support her powerful upcoming film Perinatal Positivity here.

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