In 2007, IDFA organised a programme to focus attention on a unique yet controversial category: the animated documentary. How can animation be documentary? Does such a thing as the animated documentary even exist? Film journalist and animation enthusiast Kees Driessen thinks so.
When you think of documentaries, you think of realism, reality, of going outside and capturing what’s going on in the world. Animation pre-eminently falls under the domain of fantasy, of imagination, of staying inside and painstakingly inventing a world, frame by frame. But just as there are different forms of documentaries, animation is more than just talking mice. Just as the boundary between documentary and feature film is not always so clear-cut, there is also an overlap between documentary and animation.
The question as to what an animated documentary is and whether it really exists, or should be able to exist, cannot be answered without knowing what a documentary is – an issue that leads to many discussions at IDFA each year. This year, the films in the animation programme will only serve to intensify those discussions.
The simplest, least controversial form of the animated documentary is the so-called illustrated radio documentary. Here, the documentary element lurks in the soundtrack, usually consisting of an interview. The interview is illustrated with animated images, which often consist of archive footage and even manipulated photos.
A nice example of such a documentary is Lip Synch: Going Equipped (1989) by Peter Lord. This animated film was made by Aardman Animations, renowned for Wallace and Gromit. In Lip Synch: Going Equipped, we hear an interview with a criminal who has spent a good deal of his days behind bars, but what we see is clay animation. This clay animation is subtle and convincing, and does not distract from his spoken words.
Is this a documentary? If there hadn’t been any picture at all, the answer would’ve been an easy yes. Only then we’d refer to it as a radio documentary. If the interviewee hadn’t wanted to appear on-screen and the filmmakers had used digital means to conceal his identity, everyone would still have called it a documentary. But in that case, the picture wouldn’t have offered the slightest bit of supplementary information about reality. If the director had used archive material, such as footage of prisons and people on the street, we still wouldn’t have any trouble labelling the film a documentary. The question is if Lip Synch: Going Equipped is endowed with less documentary value in its present form than these alternatives. I don’t think so.
Another valid question is if the animation distracts from the soundtrack – or if it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. I don’t think that this is the case, either.
In some illustrated radio documentaries, the picture offers extra information about reality. In Abductees (1995) by Paul Vester, people are interviewed who claim to have been abducted by aliens. Their stories are illustrated with animations that are based on their own drawings. The animations seem to be an acceptable manner to portray their experiences – it’s not as if their abductions were captured on film.
The impressive Ryan (2004) by Chris Landreth is also an animated interview in which the subjects have been recreated so they’re still recognizable. That might seem time- consuming, but sometimes you just don’t have any film footage. What’s more, the subjects’ heads are filled with holes, out of which sprout colourful forms that function as abstract depictions of their memories and feelings. The interviewee Ryan Larkin was a washed-up animation filmmaker, which gave this treatment a power and logic all its own.
The visually stunning and excellently animated Drawn from Memory (1995) by Paul Fierlinger goes a step further. In this work, the soundtrack is a voice-over. That might sound less documentary than excerpts from an interview, as a voice-over is usually a carefully thought-out text that is written beforehand and read aloud. Yet normally speaking, we accept voice-overs in documentaries without any problem. Certainly for a life-story documentary, and Drawn from Memory is precisely that. Fierlinger was born in Japan to Czechoslovakian diplomats just before World War II. His family fled to the United States, and he and his father returned to Czechoslovakia after the war. Fierlinger didn’t only record the voice-over himself, he also drew all the animations. If we accept his spoken memories as documentary, shouldn’t we do the same with the ones he drew? What’s the essential difference?
Films in which film recordings are reworked into animation come even closer to visual reality. Rotoscoping is a technique in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame, for use in animated films. Examples of these are Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly by Richard Linklater. In these films, everything gets rotoscoped, but the actors are still perfectly recognizable as Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder – even though they are now shrouded in a layer of animation.
The question with this sort of films is of course how much the animation resembles the original. An average colour film loses the three-dimensional effect of reality. A black-and-white film goes a step further and leaves colour out. A rotoscoped animation film goes even a few steps further, and technique determines how far.
For the series Naked, in which young people talk about sex, Mischa Kamp also used rotoscoping. In contrast to the stars of A Scanner Darkly, the kids in this film are hardly recognizable – you’d pass right by them on the street. But the movements have retained their realistic power.
We can expand our repertoire of animated documentaries if we also decide to place propaganda films, educational films, and nature films in the category. In that case, you can consider The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) by Winsor McCay as the first prominent animated documentary. The Sinking of the Lusitania is an animated reconstruction of the submarine attack on an American ocean liner off the coast of Ireland during World War I. The text is propagandistic, but this had become irrelevant by the time the film was finally released after the war. Director Winsor McCay was by far the best animator of his time – the suppleness of movement and his eye for detail would remain unparalleled for decades to come. All of the drawings were entirely done by hand, which made the sinking ship realistic and convincing.
Can we accept this film as a documentary? Back then, it was still common practice to illustrate newspaper articles with drawings instead of photographs. We still widely accept courtroom drawings, a remnant of this tradition, as part and parcel of the record. Why wouldn’t we treat McCay’s animations in the same manner?
With the fake animated documentary, we’re quite naturally pushing the boundaries of the genre. The Dutch animator Floris Kaayk made an animated fake nature film, Order Electrus (2005), which is about animals built from electronics. All the footage was really shot – with the typically agile, zooming camera work of the nature documentary – but the animals are all computer-animated.
The animated letter goes even further, such as Jute: Letter for Carter (1979) by Gerrit van Dijk, or the poetic Soviet propaganda film Plus Electrification by Ivan Aksenchuk. In the unique film Learned by Heart (2007) by Marjut Rimminen and Päivi Takala, animation is used both in addition to as well as in photos and film footage to reconstruct a girl’s childhood in post-war Finland. A very unusual new phenomenon is a documentary that takes place in an animated world, rendering the animation reality. My Second Life (2008) by Douglas Gayeton tells the story of Molotov Alva, who lives in the online virtual world of Second Life. There, the documentary, or rather the fake documentary, unfolds.
Much like the documentary itself, the animated documentary phenomenon also has its fringes, but it really does exist. It’s often the form of choice when there’s no normal film footage available, or perhaps because documentary subjects want to remain anonymous. In the case of the latter, it’s usually about delicate subjects such as sex, crime or war. At other times, the filmmaker uses his animations in the same way as he might use a voice-over, an element that we all consider normal for a documentary. And in the process, he moves along the borders of the genre, borders that get drawn and shifted – borders that will ultimately be determined not by the filmmaker, but by the viewer.
The IDFA animation program of around fifty titles was curated by the Holland Animation Film Festival (HAFF).