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When Documentaries Get Graphic: Animation Meets Actuality

By Beige Adams

An animated man with half a face looking at a drawing while holding a cigarette. A still from Chris Landreth's 'Ryan'. Courtesy of Chris Landreth.

A growing sub-genre of documentary film, the animated documentary poses a network of challenging, existential questions for the form. And while purists might cling to traditional, sanctioned mores, a healthy re-evaluation of our inventory is inspiring filmmakers to experiment and push the boundaries.

The use of animation and other abstract and connotative forms in documentary is not new; some even cite Winsor McCay's Lusitania (1918) as the first animated documentary, while the Hubleys' (John and Faith, and later daughter Emily) pioneering work and shorts like Chris Landreth's Oscar-winning Ryan (2004) form part of an alternate canon. Chris Marker's films, although often considered more essay than documentary, laid the groundwork for future generations to question foundational rules and relationships; his "animation" of stills and idiosyncratic exploration of memory and time are arguably both reference points for an increasingly mainstream experimentation.

Now, as contemporary filmmakers receive more attention and acclaim for their use of animation in documentary, the issue is dropped on the doorstep of the industry like an abandoned, magical child that refuses to be ignored.

The old dialectic lit once again, we revisit that false ultimatum: either artistic or didactic, either aesthetic or political.

But the myth of objectivity has long been shattered. Archival footage plus talking heads does not always equal historical truth. Witnessing is a complex act, and the cults of vérité and direct cinema often overestimate anchors of their own lasting, authoritative prowess. As technology transforms our orientation to the experience of nonfiction cinema, filmmakers are finding creative means of approaching subjects--and subjectivity. In-between states, the realms of the subconscious and dreams, the bog of memory, the color of emotion: these are all fair game for innovative and unconventional treatment.

In the meantime, we can't ignore the fact that the terms of spectatorship have changed. In a digitally altered age of instant communication and graphic over-stimulation, when film is no longer a material, ceremonial event that we structure our days around, some things may no longer be as representable in conventional terms. With animation, some filmmakers have begun to engage the terms of their subjects and audience in more a flexible, symbiotic relationship. The results can be mediocre; occasionally, they are spectacular.

Just as important, for many filmmakers, animation comes as a practical answer. Faced with a deficit of materials with which to reconstruct an event or illustrate the written word, the trend among documentarists has been to animate a short sequence within a feature. The impossibility of real-time filming, or the prohibitive costs and general distaste for reconstruction have also led directors to opt for a variety of animation techniques, from hand-drawn stills to puppetry and 3-D techniques like Second Life and motion capture.

For Brett Morgen, whose feature-length film Chicago 10 (2007) employs motion-capture animation to recreate the trial of the "Chicago 7" (Abbie Hoffman and other Youth International Party ["Yippie"] members indicted in the wake of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots), animation was a device that gave him more control over how this seminal historical event was represented.

"One of the reasons I chose the subject was the wealth of archival material that was available," says Morgen, adding that nearly everything leading up to and surrounding the riots was shot on 16mm film. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, however, leaving Morgen with an important choice to make about how he would represent the primary event. "Because the trial was the framing device for the film, animation seemed serviceable," says Morgen. "On a practical level, I didn't want the audience to constantly juxtapose the actors with their archival counterparts."

With this in mind, the animated sequences were also meant to connect the textual mosaic. "We tried to augment whatever archives we were missing, so the stories would unfold with the dramatic force of a narrative," says Morgen, who claims that his choice of motion capture was "very much in the spirit of Yippie--the trial as sort of a farce, a three-ring circus."

Morgen had acute control over the animated sequences, directing camera angles and the character movements with a body suit, but admits that the final rendering of the animation was "too Sims-like," and not exactly what he had aimed for. "Some animated films can have poetic, expressionist feel," says Morgen, acknowledging by contrast that the animation in Chicago 10 does not, but is, rather, dialogue-driven and expressly focused on recreating the historical content.

But for others, animation is as much about aesthetic value as it is a sensible means of storytelling. For directors like Ari Folman, whose Waltz with Bashir (2008) is touted as the first feature-length animated documentary and has earned worldwide acclaim, form is content. That is, the perennial tussle between artistic license or mise en scène (overtly associated with the realm of fiction) and the austerity of the nonfiction mandate is seamlessly resolved in a compelling work of art that begs, just as powerfully, for the requisite connection with the external world of shared, historical truth.

Likewise, the award-winning short Slaves, from Swedish filmmakers Hanna Heilborn and David Aronowitsch, uses computer animation to create a stark, saturated visual language that moves beautifully through trauma, testimonial, dreams and memory. The pared-down visual style steps back to let the rich recordings speak, while maintaining an abstract, photographic gravity with realistic depth of field and lighting. Drawn from an interview with two children, both former slaves in Sudan and both witnesses to the brutal murder of their families, the abstract drawings are palpably digital, but expressive, alive, empathetic. Small details of the recording are left in (a sound check, one tiny subject's coughs and sneezes), and the violence that makes the narrative so pressing is not shown, but, rather, reflected in the subjects' eyes through painterly re-creations. The film is a sublimely sensitive example of what animation can accomplish in nonfiction.

The look, texture and symbolism of artwork in a documentary (whether hand-drawn, computer-generated or a combination of the two) are hardly consequential; as any other filmic style or technique, these images will determine how we experience the journey.

Lest we forget, cartoons can also be funny. Many working in the current wave have been influenced by Michael Moore's caustic humor in Bowling for Columbine (2002). Anat Baron is one of those filmmakers. Her upcoming film Beer Wars (spring 2009) takes an insider look at the corporate culture of the beer industry (a kind of thematic David and Goliath, according to the director). She had considered an animated sequence on the history of beer in America, modeled on Moore's animated sequence, "A Brief History of the USA" in Columbine, but ultimately she decided it would be more interesting to tell that story using motion graphics. 

Animation came, rather, at an unexpected juncture, when Baron ran into a problem with the back story. "I'm a character in the film and I lead people through the film," says Baron, adding that, whenever she'd seen this device before, the back story had usually been done with stills, Super-8 or old home video. "I didn't really have any archival materials and I was bored with the way it's always been done. I've seen it so many times--and bigger, stronger, faster."

Mindful of the unspoken philosophical rules, Baron declares, "I wasn't taking any creative license because I was telling my story." The result, she says, was "an opportunity to make this part of the film, to open it up, but also to make it a lot more fun to watch. Animation allows you to jump through time, and that's what it did."

The rich visual legacy of comic books has also recently influenced directors, including Folman, who says he was inspired by graphic novels coming out of post-war Bosnia when making Waltz with Bashir. In their film The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (2007), Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein used an illustration style compared to the tradition of graphic novelist Frank Miller to fill in where they found archival footage "too impersonal." Picking up the thread of a narrative they stumbled upon while filming the direct cinema-style Gunner Palace (2004), in Prisoner they tell the story of Younis, an Iraqi journalist accused of plotting to kill former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. Epperlein created 150 hand-drawn images with pen and ink, adding color on the computer. The illustrations, according to the filmmakers, are meant to draw on comic traditions that treat the hero's journey in a language of good and evil, light and dark, while circumventing the pornography of Abu Ghraib.

In the Oscar-nominated Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (2007), director Richard Robbins also taps the graphic novel to build a lone animated sequence, "Men in Black." Woven through with two grand themes--the democratization of voice and the act of witnessing-Operation also uses interviews, narration, reenactment and archival footage to bring US soldiers' journals and letters to life.

The voice of the common soldier is given its due, as is the importance of writing. "There is something to be said for remembering--and not healing," says a subject, while another admits,  "The fear of death pushed my writing."

But at the same time, the film draws our attention to the incapacity of words to convey the experience; for example, of being "almost dead"--an issue carried over to the realm of visual representation.

Captivated by a piece of writing from Colby Buzzel, Robbins says he knew he couldn't turn to re-creation or archival footage to visualize it. "If you meet Colby," says Robbins, "he's just got this kind of punk rock, bad ass persona, and it felt like it lent itself to that style. He writes that way, but even more so in person. He'd read lots of graphic novels."

Robbins says that he'd "seen some various bits of experimental documentaries, and technology used in other places," but didn't find exactly what he was looking for. "On a more aesthetic level, there's a way in which more literal representations of certain things are less powerful than abstract ones because we've become so immune. If you start showing real footage of real violence, people in pain, then people stop listening. It impinges on your ability to listen to the story. I was always very conscious of trying to create visuals for the sound of the person's voice to come through and not compete."

"Men in Black" is a play-by-play account of Buzzell's memory of an ambush--a few short minutes filled with the longer emotions that plague soldiers. "The attention given to ‘Men in Black, despite its dark subject, gives us some indication that the new audiences are excited by these approaches," writes co-producer Adam Hyman. "The next step is expanding their minds to more documentaries, and seeing how these subjects connect with their own lives."

Not all audiences are new, and not all insiders share this sentiment. Morgen recounts guidelines for judging documentary films he recently received from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for which he serves on the Documentary Branch. Interestingly, the instructions included language approving the use of animation and reenactments, but directed committee members to "feel free to downgrade in the event of excessive use of these devices."  "They make you list how many minutes are animated and reenacted, and explain each usage," says Morgen. "It's ridiculous."

The inclusion of animation in documentary will inevitably make things more complicated for categorizing, but Morgen contends this should only affect programming and awards--and not inhibit the artistic evolution of the form. "These new emerging technologies are really expanding the vocabulary of what nonfiction is and can be, and it's pretty exciting," he says.

Some methods take more liberty than others. For filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, Second Life technology allowed her to expand on issues treated in her prior documentary, Unconstitutional (2004). With USC Interactive Media adjunct professor Peggy Weil, de la Peña created a virtual Guantánamo Bay Prison, called Gone Gitmo. Here, users can experience first-hand-through their personal avatar--what it might feel like to don the orange jumpsuit and have your rights indefinitely suspended. Using writings and testimonials of actual detainees to shape the virtual world, the project aims at new means of connecting viewers to the issues.

Animation can also potentially compensate where other, similarly disaffected media can fall short, by introducing a certain transparency and self-consciousness to the mix. "Animation can be helpful because no one thinks it's real," says Robbins, who compares the medium to still photos and "flat-out" re-creation used in other segments. "That confuses people. They ask, ‘How did you get those pictures?' Then they get upset. With animation, the audience immediately knows it's not real, but seems to accept that."

This dynamic is at work in Waltz with Bashir, which the director says was meant for animation. "The cartoons were always drawn," says Folman. "If you look at this film, with lost memory, dreams, war--which is pretty surreal--there is no other way to tell this story and there was no other way in my mind." And there is no contemporary equivalent to Folman's exquisite, commanding film: entirely animated, consummately affective and yet still politically viable and transparent.

With regard to the philosophical query that seems to plague the convergence of the two forms, Folman poses this challenge: "Let's say I would have done this with a video camera. In the end what you would see is a pixelized picture consisting of dots and lines. The more pixels you have, the higher the quality. But me and the other guys there on the screen, literally, it was just a way of transforming the image. So what is more real--a pixelized image or a drawn image that someone worked on for a long time?"

These are the kinds of questions we should be asking of the new generation of animated documentaries. We should also ask, as Folman does, "Who decides what's more real and what's more of a documentary essence?" Folman is sure that, "definitely it's not the case that the video is not more real than the paintings. It's the documentary establishment that is sometimes so narrow-minded." Folman had trouble funding Bashir because it was pitched as an animated documentary.

It's worth mentioning that when Robbins took Operation Homecoming on an extensive international tour, the only place he got into these kinds of arguments, he says, was in Europe. "No American audience wanted to debate definitions of documentary."

"Some people love the animation, some people hate it," says Baron. "It's such a subjective medium. The whole nature of documentary has changed."

For Robbins, the documentary form is evolving. "As it should," he says. "I think it shows a kind of vibrancy and flowering of the form that is interesting and exciting. None of us wants to be stuck in a documentary world where we can't break rules. In general, I'm pleased to be working in a form where the rules are getting broken; I take that as a good sign."

Beige Luciano-Adams is a Los-Angeles-based journalist and former associate editor of Egypt Today and Business Today Egypt magazines in Cairo, Egypt. She is co-founder and managing editor of