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Animation in Documentary: A Beautiful Paradox

Last month, my 25YL/Film Obsessive colleague Christian Hartshorn posted a smart assessment of the 2016 film Tower, Keith Maitland’s brilliant animated documentary detailing the experience of several victims and witnesses of the 1966 Clock Tower shootings at the University of Texas-Austin. His work on that film—and our focus this month on animation more generally—has prompted me to think a bit more deeply about the relationship between animation and documentary.

On the surface, to juxtapose those two modes of filmmaking may seem paradoxical, almost  oxymoronic. One creates images through drawing or software; the other more typically assembles existing images. One traditionally deals in fiction, the other fact. One is seen as a creative medium, with many films aimed at youth audience; the other, more journalistic, its audience usually sober-minded adults. These are of course, blunt generalizations, full of exceptions, yet intended to provoke thought: the intersection of animation and documentary has a long history, makes for purposeful storytelling, and is rife with cinematic potential for the future.

A Case Study: Tower‘s Reenacted Animation

Tower makes for an excellent case study with which to begin. Little archival footage of the 1966 shooting exists. At the time, unlike today, no one carried with them a portable video camera. News reporters had to keep a safe distance from the scene. Only a few minutes’ worth of eyewitness accounts had been recorded. Yet the story of its brave victims needed to be told, especially in an era when mass shootings in America had become a commonplace occurrence. (And as it would happen, another gunman was firing away, killing innocents, as I wrote these lines.)

One solution to this dilemma for Tower might have been to rely more on direct-address interviews. But the result would be nearly an hour and a half of middle-aged “talking heads” and the film would lack any visual, visceral appeal. So Maitland instead hired a corps of professional actors, cast them in roles of the shooting victims and witnesses, wrote dialogue and blocked their action, and shot live-action reenactments of the event. And then, using the rotoscoping for which the film is known and applauded, animated the documentary. The result is a gripping, heart-rending, pulse-pounding first-persons account of the shooting, one with a distinctive visual style.

Had Maitland not taken that last step—that of rotoscoping and animating the professional actors playing the roles of real people—and instead made a film in which audiences viewed those same professional actors performing their roles, Tower would probably not be a documentary at all. Rather, most would likely call it a docudrama, a film that creatively re-enacted actual events: more along the lines, say, of The Onion Field, Apollo 13, Nixon, United 93, or 127 Hours. All of those films cast professional actors in the roles of actual humans in specific historical situations with scripts composed to approximate, if not replicate, those events.

As Christian noted, Tower‘s unique visual style gives the film its purpose and its panache. In this instance, the animation is paradoxically what makes the film documentary. Maitland’s purposes in animating the film are clear. First, doing so allows him some artistic liberty in the rotoscoped versions of the cast being less recognizable as professional actors. Second, it allows for some creative license in the uses of color and black and white to create the film’s moods, from joyous to ominous to life-threatening. Third, it allows him to recreate, or rather re-enact, most of the events of the day. And fourth and finally, the rotoscoped animation gives the film its distinct visual style, one typically unseen in documentary filmmaking, and probably most often associated with Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, and Apollo 10-1/2.

Image from Tower: An animated image of a pregnant young woman and man smiling and walking in front of the UT-Austin clock tower.
Tower. Kino Lorber.

As accomplished as Tower may be, Maitland’s film is certainly not the first, and by no means will it be the last, documentary film to rely on animation techniques. Documentary filmmakers have relied upon animation for decades, if rarely for the entirely of full-length features, but commonly in shorts and occasionally in some truly remarkable films at present. One may not normally expect animation in documentary—it’s an approach that feels paradoxical—but it’s one cinematic means of storytelling that allows filmmakers to accomplish a wide variety of goals.

Origins of Animation in Documentary

Historically speaking, Winsor McCay probably created the first animated documentary more than a century ago, in 1918 with The Sinking of the Lusitania, his twelve-minute animation of the 1915 event. With no footage recorded of the event, McCay turned his skill to depicting the boat’s being torpedoed by a German U-boat. No one at the time would have called the resultant film either “animated” or “documentary,” as neither term had yet entered the public parlance; rather, it was billed as “an amazing moving pen picture … a historical record of the film that shocked humanity.” The film, presented below, begins with a live-action precis showing the cartoonist at his drawing table demonstrating his art before the animation itself.

The ability to re-create or re-enact an event or principle through animation became, in fairly quick order, a commonplace of educational films, from Max and Dave Fleischer’s films The Einstein Theory of Relativity and Evolution in the 1920s to Disney’s How to Catch a Cold (a Kleenex informercial of sorts) and Our Friend the Atom in the 1950s. This was, throughout most of the 20th century, the primary purpose for which animation would be used in documentary filmmaking: to educate or inform by animating content which could not typically be viewed first-hand.

One example often included in educational curricula is Charles and Ray Eames’ The Powers of Ten, an adaptation of the book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke. First produced in 1968 by IBM and re-worked and re-released in 1977, the film (now a part of the National Film Registry), The Powers of Ten expands out from a Chicago lakefront picnic by literal “powers of ten” each ten seconds to the entirety of the known universe and then back again, down to a single atom. It’s a memorable, clever, and educational depiction of a scientific principle that could not otherwise be observed—and a perfect example of how animation could be used to illustrate unseen events for documentary filmmaking.

Animations were central to propaganda filmmaking—another, related type of nonfiction filmmaking where the purpose is to persuade for ideological means—throughout the 20th century as well. The U.S. Office of War Information relied on Frank Capra’s talents for the Why We Fight Series, among the most successful and widely-viewed propaganda films ever made, to persuade servicemen, and then the American public more widely, of the evils of fascism. Alongside his repurposing imagery from Triumph of the Will, Capra used animation from Disney Studios to illustrate the struggle for global primacy with the juxtaposition of two globes—a white earth (the Allies) and a black (the Axis), reducing complex world politics to a dramatic point with simplistic concepts. Walt Disney too was a master propagandist with films like the animated Victory through Air Power, which began with typical Disneyesque charm yet segued into a powerful treatise on triumph through technology.

Modern Short-Form Animated Documentaries

Through much of the 20th century, the use of animation in nonfiction filmmaking was limited to these kinds of examples—primarily educational, sometimes propagandistic. In recent decades, animation’s use in documentary filmmaking, especially as it has expanded to include more personal and essayistic forms, has truly flourished. Some of the most evocative examples I know of can be seen in short-form documentary.

Filmmakers continue to use animation for educational filmmaking, especially in the New York Times Op-Docs series “Animated Life,” which celebrates pioneers in science and pivotal moments of discovery using a two-dimensional paper-puppets technique. Produced in collaboration with Howard Hughes Medical Institutes’s BioInteractive. the “Animated Life” series brings to life that which cannot be directly observed, such as the coelocanth, the 400-million-year-old fossil-like fish time left behind.

An example of a similar paper-figure technique can be seen in Laurie Hill’s brilliant short film Photograph of Jesus. Yes, you read that title right—the film is about a request for a literal “Photograph of Jesus” and other similarly absurd requests made of the staff of Getty Archives. This cheeky, comic, re-creation literalizing that request and others, brings to life, through the paper-figure stop-motion technique, the still photos dormant in the archives, using a sprightly pace and deadpan narration. In doing so, it blurs the lines between still life and animation, documentary and fiction.

Animation can allow a documentary to re-create or re-enact events that weren’t recorded, as is the case in all of the above. But it can also be used, even when an event is recorded by cameras, such as a professional sports competition, to present a unique or surreal perspective on those same events. Such is the case in Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, a short film that recounts a first-person perspective on what should have been impossible. On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis dropped lysergic acid diethylamide, otherwise known as acid, not realizing he was scheduled to pitch that day, and somehow threw the first and only no-hitter of his career. This short film uses crude yet clever animation alongside Ellis’ voice-over to characterize what no one but the subject could experience: throwing a “no-no” on LSD.

The MLB broadcast of Ellis’ no-hitter tells just a part of the story—the facts of the game—but not the subject’s experience. Similarly, Dennis Tupicoff’s brilliant His Mother’s Voice begins with a recording, in this case audio of an Australian Broadcasting Interview of Kathy Easdale, whose son Matthew was shot and killed just weeks before. Using a mix of hand-drawn and rotoscoped animations, Tupicoff recreates the events leading up to the earth-shattering event, using Mrs. Easdale’s interview as voice-over. And then, when the episode is concluded, the audio and narrative begin again, this second time in a starkly different visual style, suggesting that what we see in any documentary is always the creative choice of the director.

There are also situations in documentary filmmaking where a subject’s identity must be occluded for one reason or another. In a non-animated film, a documentarian might use a talking-heads shot with the voice altered or face hidden in shadow. But animation allows for another approach: creating an avatar of sorts for the subject, allowing the film free reign to show subjects addressing the camera and engaged fully in the activity the film studies. Blue, Karma, Tiger tells the story of three young female graffiti artists in Sweden whose identities—for obvious reasons—cannot be made fully public. But their stories deserved to be told, so co-directors Mia Hulterstam and Cecilia Actis use claymation, a stop-motion animation technique, allowing each of the three artists to discuss their work and have it literally spring to life using elements of fantasy.

Another New York Times Op-Doc, My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, animates its content from the flotsam of household ephemera, a secret cache of content hidden from others—in this case the filmmaker’s father’s VHS porno tapes, hidden in the air ducts of his basement. The content, surprising though it is, serves as an occasion for an uncomfortable eulogy in this, Charlie Tyrell’s 2018 film. The stop-motion animation allows for some artistic distance from the difficult subject, and as a filmmaker, Tyrell uses his art to ruminate on his grief when his father passes away from cancer. Even a hidden porno tape can become a small talisman of memory.

Perhaps one of my very favorite short-form animated documentaries uses a similar stop-motion technique, in this case combined with the paper-cutout approach seen in several of the above films. Here too, no one with a camera was present to record the composition of Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but that doesn’t prevent Drew Christie and Bill Flanagan from re-enacting and re-creating those events. Episode Two of the first season of Drawn & Recorded, a Spotify and Audience Network animated music feature series, this short film and the other episodes are narrated by T-Bone Burnett using hand-drawn animation. It may have been the scent of a woman that inspired Cobain to compose his anthem for the ages, and the unique animations offer a unique perspective on those unrecorded events.

Animation in Long-Form Documentary

The above set of short-form animated documentaries is not intended to be exhaustive in any way, but simply to illustrate something of the range of purposes for which animation might be used in documentary filmmaking. Note that most of these films tend to be more subjective, more personal, and more poetic than traditionally expository or objective documentary. These films can use animation to re-enact the unseen, to re-create the unrecorded, to present a unique perspective, or to hide or change a subject’s identity. They can also—and all of the above do!—use animation to create a special, distinct visual style that often gives the film its particular panache.

Long-form documentaries that employ animation as their primary visual form are still unusual—unusual enough to be distinctive—but they are not unheard of. Aside from the excellent Tower, other recent feature-length animated documentaries include last year’s brilliant Flee, the story of a man  who shares his hidden past of fleeing his country for the first time. Earning Academy Award nominations for Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Animated Feature, Flee was the first film ever to be nominated in all three major categories simultaneously.

Amir (Amir Nawabi) ruminates on his past and his future in a new york hotel room
Flee. Vice Studios.

Before Flee, there were others. Penny Lane’s Nuts! loosely adapted John Romulus Brinkley’s authorized biography rotoscope, traditional 2D, and collage. Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated adapted Ron Suskind’s book about a young autistic man finding expression in animated Disney films. Jessica Yu’s In the Realms of the Unreal animated Chicago janitor Henry Darger’s sketches, jorunrals, and comics into a surrealist autobiography.

More notably, two well-known autobiographical animated films—Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—use animation to convey the filmmakers’ own lived experiences. Waltz with Bashir was drawn from Folman’s struggles to recall memories of his experience as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. Co-directed with Vincent Parranoud (aka Winshluss), Persepolis was adapted from Satrapi’s comic strip chronicling her life as a young girl coming of age during the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Though the term documentary does little to characterize either film (the broader appellation nonfiction is less restrictive but probably more accurate), both are based directly on the lived experiences of the filmmakers and use animation to re-enact events; both are distinct and evocative in their unique visual styles.

Even more traditional documentaries—those we don’t think of as animated—often rely on different forms of animation. The Kid Stays in the Picture, for instance, Brett Morgen and Nanette Burnstein’s documentary adapted from former Paramount Studios executive Robert Evans’ autobiography, used the recordings from Evans’ audiobook as narration, then animated still photographs using Adobe AfterEffects into a dizzying swirl in several enthralling montage sequences. Their technique, an expansion of the famous “Ken Burns” pan-and-zoom technique, became a standard industry practice. Other filmmakers, such as James Redford, used animations to illustrate psychological and physical stressors suffered in the course of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in the otherwise traditionally expository documentary Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope. Dozens of true-crime documentaries use animations to re-enact crime scenes and/or diagram maps, timelines, and other information.

Animated image of a young child frightened by traffic
Resilience. KPJR Films.

Though the two terms would seem on the surface oppositional, almost even mutually exclusive, animation and documentary are two modes of filmmaking that have begun to interact with greater frequency than ever before. At first, the use of animation in documentary was limited to educational, scientific, and propagandistic filmmaking. Those uses have never really disappeared, but in recent decades many filmmakers have turned to animation when documenting past events, specifically first-hand accounts of lived experience. In doing so, in films like Tower, Flee, Nuts!, and dozens of other documentaries, short and long, those filmmakers have proved just how vital and visual animation can be to the art of nonfiction narrative.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and owner of Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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