Private Project

Familiar Shapes

The early modern witch's familiar and today’s social bot are both uncanny, shape-shifting entities under the direction of hidden and malevolent forces — yet it’s the information technologies of these eras that shape our fears and beliefs. In this short documentary, animations weave together interviews with historians and technologists to reveal how individuals create and shape disinformation with the newest infotech of the day.

  • Heather D. Freeman
    Pennipotens, Artemis, Quinn's New Video Game
  • Ronald Hutton
    Key Cast
    "Head of the School of Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Bristol and author of Triumph of the Moon and The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present."
  • Marion Gibson
    Key Cast
    "Associate Dean for Education in the College of Humanities, and Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at the University of Exeter, and author of Early Modern Witches: Witchcraft Cases in Contemporary Writing, Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches, and Rediscovering Renaissance Witchcraft"
  • John Callow
    Key Cast
    "Visiting lecturer at the University of Suffolk specializing in 17th century politics and popular culture. Author of Embracing the Darkness: A Cultural History of Witchcraft."
  • Samuel Woolley
    Key Cast
    "Research Director at the Oxford Internet Institute's Computational Propaganda Project and Director of the Digital Intelligence (DigIntel) Lab at the Institute for the Future."
  • Srijan Kumar
    Key Cast
    "Postdoctoral researcher in data science, machine learning, and cybersafety in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University"
  • Sean McCloud
    Key Cast
    "Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, and Communication Studies Faculty Affiliate at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte"
  • Victoria Carr
    Key Cast
    "Independent scholar researching witchcraft beliefs of Early Modern England and Scotland, demonic beliefs, the North Berwick witch hunt, magic, print culture, and the animal familiar in Early Modern England."
  • Susan Etlinger
    Key Cast
    "Industry analyst focusing on the business and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence and related technologies at the Altimeter Group"
  • David Rand
    Key Cast
    "Associate Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, an affiliate of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, and the director of the Human Cooperation Laboratory and the Applied Cooperation Team"
  • Tim Weninger
    Key Cast
    "Assistant Professor in the College of Engineering with appointments in the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications (iCeNSA) and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering"
  • Samira Shaikh
    Key Cast
    "Assistant Professor in the Computer Science Department in the College of Computing and Informatics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte"
  • Paolo Parigi
    Key Cast
    "Lead Trust Scientist for AirBnB, Associate Director for Computational Social Science, IRiSS at Stanford University and adjunct professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering."
  • Owen Davies
    Key Cast
    "Reader in Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, and America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem."
  • Hamilton Young Ward
    Director of Photographer - Co-Producer
    Summer Headstones, Murder at the Redlight
  • Project Type:
    Animation, Documentary, Experimental, Short
  • Genres:
    Interview, Mixed, Animation, animated documentary, journalism
  • Runtime:
    20 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    March 25, 2021
  • Production Budget:
    15,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United Kingdom, United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Heather D. Freeman

Heather D. Freeman (b. 1974) is Professor of Art (Digital Media) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she has taught digital media, including animation, since 2006. She is also Director of D+ARTS, the College of Arts + Architecture’s Digital Arts Center. Freeman investigates the language and symbolic forms of myth and where these intersect with the iconographies of myth, science, and popular culture.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

As the U.S. elections and UK ‘Brexit’ referendum approached in late 2016, I happened to be reading about both the early modern witch trials and disinformation on social media. I was struck by a poetic parallel: the witch’s familiar and the malicious social bot shared a lot of common features.
This set me on a research path that involved interviews with dozens of experts in history, sociology, information technology, computer science, ethics, and more. This project was largely self-funded and made possible thanks to access to A/V equipment from my university, UNC Charlotte. In-kind support also come from various sources, including Yale University’s Human Nature Lab and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall.
While my original plan was to create a feature film, the pandemic forced a quick pivot at a critical juncture in production. I turned an earlier edit into the serial podcast ‘Familiar Shapes’ also served as a pandemic diary. Many amazing UNC Charlotte interns worked on the film before (and during) the first days of the pandemic, and so it was important to me to complete the film, even as a short, to include their amazing animations and design work. UNC Charlotte student interns were either paid through a faculty research grant, out of my pocket when funds were frozen due to the pandemic, or they received college credit. I was also determined to include the work of Photography Advisor Hamilton Young Ward, a former student and now an accomplished filmmaker in his own right. Despite being locked down in quarantine with a high-risk family member, Hamilton still managed to shoot amazing footage and advised on the stock footage needed to complete this short.
Please visit the film’s blog at to learn more about the interview subjects, interns, and the journey to create this film.