A Conversation with the Co-Producers Kwakiutl Dreher, Michael Burton, and William G. Thomas III
How did you discover the true events of this story?
Will: The story was well known and reported at the time. Several historians have written about and referred to Anna's story, including Terri Snyder, Robert Gudmestad, Edward Baptist, and others, but historians did not know what happened to Anna. In 2015 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., we were researching the case files of enslaved people who petitioned for their freedom, and we stumbled on the records of Anna's lawsuit. We put the case online at earlywashingtondc.org. A fellow scholar, Candace Carter, an art historian at Stanford, was researching Anna's story, and contacted us about the case. Carter, Kaci Nash, and the rest of our team began putting the pieces of her story together. Together in conversation, we concluded that Anna, the enslaved woman, and Ann Williams, the plaintiff in the freedom suit, were the same person. No one knew that she had sued for her freedom. The National Archives also held in its special vault the records of the Congressional inquiry about Anna's case. Francis Scott Key, Anna's attorney, testified before the committee, as did the doctors that treated her. When we put all of this new evidence together, we had a much different story to tell about Anna than had previously been told.
What part of Anna's story most resonated with you?
Kwakiutl: The very fact that she had the spirit to tell her story. There is a power in storytelling, and we see that with Anna. There is a risk to telling stories. This woman had just jumped, she could have died, and she was bought for $5. Instead of keeping quiet, she tells her story. It fiercely complements the actions she took.
Will: The resilience of the human spirit. Anna's story gives us an unflinching look at slavery even as it shows us how enslaved people made a way out of no way. This was the beginning of the interstate slave trade in the U.S., a chapter in our history many Americans have forgotten. Over a million men, women, and children were sold from Maryland and Virginia. Families were broken up and people transported to the cotton and sugar fields in the Deep South. We need to face this history.
What kind of research did you do?
Kwakiutl: We thought a lot about skill and a legacy that might have been passed down from Anna's mother and also from Africa. Enslaved people weren't stripped of everything. They brought a lot of what they knew with them and carried it out. Benin weavers had upright looms, and were highly skilled. We wanted to show that deep history, and what her past, her craftsmanship, might have meant.
Will: We looked not only at the court records but also the testimony of ex-slaves from Maryland, particularly from Prince George's County. These narratives clearly show us that every aspect of slavery was present in Maryland—whipping, terror, deception, and cruelty. We should have no illusions that slavery in Maryland was somehow less severe than elsewhere. A number of the scenes in Anna were drawn directly from the evidence in these records.
Mike: We worked hard to ensure that the details of the animation were as historically accurate as possible. We compiled a database of images and contextual information for each scene containing references and examples of local buildings, structures, tools, utensils, clothing, and hairstyles. We actually built a counterbalance prop loom so that the actors could act in a genuine way at the loom—we wanted their body mechanics to be as true to the period as we could make them.
Why did you choose animation to tell this particular story?
Kwakiutl: We wanted to tell Anna's story from her perspective and from the perspective of an enslaved person, avoiding common tropes and bringing the viewer into her everyday life. Animation allowed us to imagine Anna's world as she saw it and maybe how she experienced it.
Mike: As an example, our second scene is a crane shot that shows a medium-sized plantation from above. As the camera drops down, we enter the living quarters of the enslaved and quickly truck into a loom house where a young Anna is learning to weave from her mother. We felt this approach would make Anna and her husband Edward more familiar and ultimately more human.
What was the animation process like?
Mike: Anna is a rotoscoped animation, meaning that we first filmed actors in costume, then traced over every other frame of the footage with acrylic or digital paint, then overlaid each of the animated characters onto a background painting. Nine animators worked over the course of a year and a half to animate each scene. I acted as lead animator, director, and producer. As lead animator, I wanted to create a distinct style that drew on early nineteenth-century etching techniques to create a kind of lifelike version reminiscent of that earlier style.