Inside the Imaginary Friend Society, a Gold Winner in Lions Health

RPA and Roof Studio discuss the animated education series for sick kids

There were a few books written by former patients, and a couple of medical-type videos like you might see in school. But when RPA was researching what other kinds of resources were available to sick children in hospital, they found ... well, nothing. 

"Seeing these kids, it just broke your heart. And it was kind of a shock that there wasn't anything that really explained [their situation] in a way that a kid might want to engage with, or get anything out of," says Jason Sperling, chief of creative development at RPA. 

The Los Angeles ad agency soon filled that gap in the most charming and colorful way possible, with the help of animation companies worldwide—in a campaign for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation that just won a Gold Lion in the Health Lions contest at Cannes. 

The campaign was called the Imaginary Friend Society. RPA reached out to animators to commission videos that would soothe kids' fears and explain what was happening with their illness. Each video addressed a different topic or question—"Being Scared," "Chemotherapy," "Feeling Angry," "Losing Your Hair," "Why Am I Tired All the Time?"—in a charming way, with characters that introduced themselves as imaginary friends of the patient. 

There were 22 videos in all. Below is the introductory spot, with animation by Gentleman Scholar, music by Jeremy Turner and sound design by Owen O'Neill. 

"Welcome to the I.F.S."

Animation: Gentleman Scholar
Music: Jeremy Turner
Sound Design: Jeremy Turner 

RPA's Honda client, who had done her own work with the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, connected the agency with the organization. Initially, RPA agreed to help with a manifesto and some web copy. But in the end, the agency felt like it wanted to do more. 

The Imaginary Friend idea was born, and many animation companies jumped at the chance to contribute—especially considering the creative freedom they were given. RPA supplied a topic and a script, and occasionally the rough sketches of a character. The rest was left to the animators. 

"We said, it's up to you what world you want to create, and what sort of palette you want to use," says Sperling. "We actually went and talked with the kids and realized they all have imaginary friends in hospital as a coping mechanism. So we took a few of theirs and actually brought them into a couple of the videos." 

Roof Studio created the video for "What Is an MRI?" that turned out to be one of the more impressive animations. 

"What's an MRI?"

Animation: Roof Studio
Music and Sound Design: Butter

"We got to see several different scripts, and we were automatically in," says Crystal Campbell, executive producer and co-founder Roof Studio, of why they joined the project. "The scripts were so good. We were about to cry, reading each one, because it had the right balance of everything. It was dealing with this really, really serious topic but also had this humor, and you could visualize it so easily. For us, it was a no-brainer to get involved." 

Roof's visual style fit the project perfectly. 

"The style we do—a photo-real style, very colorful, very whimsical—to be able to ingrain those kinds of characteristics into these characters, it created endless possibilities," says Campbell. "Guto [Terni], the director, really jumped into it. It became a passion project for him. He was passionate about the cause as well." 

RPA wasn't sure how big the project would be, or how many companies would say yes. But the combination of creative freedom and a good cause was irresistible to many of them. 

"It didn't start out as this many films—probably half that," Sperling says. "We'd send one script to three or four animation companies, hoping one might say yes. And they would all come back and say, 'We'd love to do this,' either because they wanted to do the creative or they felt passionate about the cause. A bunch of them said, 'Hey, I know someone who's dealing with this.'" 

Beautifully calming, but also just flat-out fun, the videos were a hit with the children. But another goal was to appeal to parents, who are also dealing with fear, anxiety and confusion around their child's condition. 

"Even though this was for kids dealing with cancer, and really made for them, we wanted to make these almost Pixar-esque, where it wasn't lowest common denominator humor but could be smart so the parents might get into it," says Sperling. "The video Roof did—I mean, the level of animation is as good, if not better, than a Pixar film. It's incredible." 

Big animation companies like Psyop and The Mill also contributed. Notable directors included Anthony Farquhar-Smith of Not to Scale, who joined the project just after wrapping up work on Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs. RPA even convinced Smith & Foulkes—makers of several classic animated Honda ads, including "Grrr"—to create a film. 

See those below: 

"Help for Brothers and Sisters"

Animation: Psyop 
Music: Teenage Diplomat
Sound Design: Lime Studios

"Losing Your Hair"

Animation: The Mill
Music: Fidget NYC
Sound Design: Fidget NYC

"Feeling Angry"

Animation: Not to Scale
Sound Design: Lime Studios

"Memory Loss"

Animation: Nexus Studios
Music & Sound Design: Pivot

The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation spoke to children's hospitals about showing the films to their patients, and they are now in rotation at several hospitals. (Sperling himself pitched hospital administrators who were speaking in the health track at SXSW this year.) 

The website also has a section where visitors can draw their own imaginary friends and donate them to a patient. There is also an AR app that brings some of the characters from the films to life. 

"Having an imaginary friend as a kid—it's a magical thing that allows you to deal with certain things," says Campbell. "It was so inspiring to bring those imaginary friends to life like this." 

See the other films below. 

"Feeling Sad"

Animation: Hornet
Music: Ambrose Yu
Sound Design: Ambrose Yu

"Returning to School"

Animation: Strange Beast
Music: Handymartian
Sound Design: Handymartian

"Blood Transfusions"

Animation: Lobo
Music: Anvil FX Music & Sound Design
Sound Design: Anvil FX Music & Sound Design 

"Finding Out You Have Cancer"

Animation: Giant Ant
Music: Antfood
Sound Design: Antfood

"Why Am I Tired All the Time?"

Animation: Airplan 
Music: Squeak E Clean 
Sound Design: Squeak E Clean


Animation: Trunk
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Sound Design: Fonic

"Who Will Be Taking Care of Me?"

Animation: Flux Animation
Music & Sound Design: Digicake

"How to Handle Shots"

Animation: MPC 
Music: Storefront
Sound Design: Storefront


Animation: MPC
Music: Mophonics
Sound Design: Lime Studios


Animation: Starbeast
Music: Mike Newport
Sound Design: Radiate Sound 

"What Is Cancer?"

Animation: Studio Pigeon
Music: Black Iris
Sound Design: Lime Studios

"Long Hospital Stays"

Animation: Titmouse
Music: Travis + Maude
Sound Design: Lime Studios

"Being By Yourself"

Animation: Renegade Animations
Music: We Are Walker
Sound Design: Lime Studios

"Being Scared"

Animation: Laundry 
Music: Butter
Sound Design: Lime Studios

"Staying Friends with Your Friends"

Animation: Wolf & Crow
Music & Sound Design: Singing Serpent 

Title Sequence (for all films): Elastic
Title Sequence Music (for all films): Jeremy Turner

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