Fantastic journeys in animation

A thread on an academic media blog about the use of animation in documentaries questions the existential possibility for a fully animated documentary to exist. The author wonders, if a film is completely animated, without using any archival footage, how can it still be considered 'documentary?' Respondents to the blog argue that animated docs lack 'actuality' and question the ethics of passing an animated work off as non-fiction.
September 1, 2008

A thread on an academic media blog about the use of animation in documentaries questions the existential possibility for a fully animated documentary to exist. The author wonders, if a film is completely animated, without using any archival footage, how can it still be considered ‘documentary?’ Respondents to the blog argue that animated docs lack ‘actuality’ and question the ethics of passing an animated work off as non-fiction.

Luckily we aren’t a bunch of film nerds (well, perhaps some of us are) who analyze what theoretically constitutes a documentary through message boards, but these reactions aren’t far from what some creative documentary-makers hear from the industry when they try to use animation in docs.

‘Generally speaking, people were like, ‘It’s weird, my audience won’t understand,” says Les Films D’Ici’s Charlotte Uzu about the initial reaction commissioning editors had to Ari Folman’s fully animated doc Waltz with Bashir. ‘To us, it sounded really obvious because animation is very well adapted to the story itself; it’s the best way to tell it.’

Uzu worked in international development on Waltz and found that, when trying to find partners and funding in the beginning stages of production, it was hard to get a bite because commissioning editors were confused by the mixing of genres. The trouble, she says, is documentary slots at many channels are so specialized – nature, arts, science – that commissioners don’t know what to do with a film that doesn’t fit cleanly into a slot. Sinai Abt, head of Channel 8 Noga Communications in Israel and coproducing partner on the film, agrees that one of the main problems when it comes to selling Waltz is people don’t know how to categorize it.

The film is the story of director Folman’s quest to remember the anguish of the first Lebanon war in the early 1980s. Though he was present as a member of the Israeli army, he has no memory of that time in his life. Through interviews with old friends and former colleagues, Folman uncovers haunting memories, and as a filmmaker he uses animation to take the audience inside the minds of his interviewees to witness these memories, flaws and all.

When the team behind Waltz brought the project to Hot Docs’ Toronto Documentary Forum in 2005 the responses they received were full of encouragement but, as Abt puts it, there weren’t many people who were willing to say ‘Okay, I’m in.’ Since it was fully animated, some commissioners wondered if it belonged in children’s slots, though the subjectmatter would suggest otherwise. While Abt says Channel 8 was willing to get onboard right away because of Folman’s track record, there were also some obstacles to get over before they got fully involved on their end. Because Channel 8 is a public broadcaster with a clear mandate of showing documentaries, the staff must report to a committee of state regulators to make sure all of the programs associated with the channel fit that mandate. Explaining to regulators that it is possible to have a documentary that is fully animated was hard to do, says Abt. ‘It might sound like a contradiction in the beginning, but I think the film itself is proof that it can work very well together and expand the possibilities.’

David Verrall, executive producer of animation at the NFB, worked on Chris Landreth’s Academy Award-winning doc Ryan. His feeling up front with Ryan was he didn’t have any expectation of financing the film through traditional broadcasters. ‘Convincing conventional television that this was important and they should be a major partner, was not on our horizon because we didn’t think we would be successful,’ he says. ‘We’re, for better or worse, somewhat dependent on trying to make a splash in prestige festival locations and draw attention to the work we do as a result of that.’

This turned out to be the best approach for Waltz as well. After the TDF pitch ARTE came onboard along with other broadcasters and funders such as ITVS and YLE. But after it was selected by the Cannes International Film Festival, everything got easier. ‘Before it was complicated to explain, but once it was selected for the festival, once it was treated like a theatrical film, it became easier to talk about the film and convince more partners,’ says Uzu. ‘The money you can raise once the film has been selected in a big festival is so huge compared to what you can get from commissioning editors who have documentary slots on television.’

Marc Faye, managing director of Novanima, a French production company specializing in animated and documentary films, knows what it’s like to go after funds for a creative documentary. His current project is O’Galop, the story of an artist who was overshadowed by his famous creation, the Michelin Man. The film is told through footage, photographs and the drawings of artist Marius Rossillon, which come to life and interact with animated images of the time. The budget for the film is €250,000, with the animated scenes using up approximately €45,000. ‘When you make an application for funders they don’t know how to read this kind of budget because this is something more complicated than a normal documentary,’ says Faye. With the growing use of CGI in documentaries, that may not be true in most cases, but when it comes to unconventional uses of animation, funders sometimes think it’s easier to scrap it than make sense of its purpose.

When Brett Morgen was working on Chicago 10, his film about the 1968 riot outside the Democratic National Convention, he was generally met with acceptance and understanding of his use of animation in a portion of the film, mostly to depict the subsequent court case. But in the funding stage he met the odd person who didn’t get it. ‘There was one guy I pitched the film to who said he would give me $2 million to make the movie any way I wanted,’ says Morgen. ‘I said ‘I won’t be able to afford the animation then,’ and he said, ‘Then cut out the animation.’ I said, ‘If you cut out the animation, you have no film.”

The strategy behind Morgen’s use of animation in both Chicago 10 and his prior doc, The Kid Stays in the Picture, is to create stories that play out in the present tense, without talking heads reflecting on the past, and without re-enactments. ‘Animation just seemed like a better tool than using re-enactments. I thought if I used actors I would have to cast people who were going to look like the characters in the archival elements and that was going to be very limiting in terms of cast.’ Instead he figured that if he were to animate it, the characters could look like they do in the archival footage and it would also serve as a commentary on the circus-like nature of the court proceedings.

In Jessica Yu’s 2004 doc In the Realms of the Unreal, she animates the artwork of reclusive artist Henry Darger to tell the story of his secretive life. Since so much about Darger is hidden – his 15,000-page novel and accompanying artwork wasn’t seen by anyone except him until shortly before his death – Yu uses a combination of his autobiography (which he luckily wrote and left behind with his giant novel), interviews with his neighbors and the epic tale he wrote to tell his story. As Yu says in the special features on Realm‘s DVD, documentary is still storytelling and sometimes a director needs to be creative and innovative to get at the real truths underneath.

The advantage of using animation in a documentary is at least twofold, says Ryan‘s Verrall. It can compress time to deliver the meaning of an action in a shorter time frame than archival footage or live action would, and it should be able to take the film beyond reality, using caricature for more pointed storytelling, as in the courtroom scenes in Chicago 10 and the entirety of Ryan. While the main characters of Ryan (the filmmaker, Chris Landreth, and the subject, Ryan Larkin) are talking, their bodies start to break, reflecting their state of mind. ‘What Chris Landreth wanted to do, and I think successfully achieved, was to leapfrog over synthetic reality and demonstrate the psychology of the characters through physical manifestations on the screen,’ says Verrall.

Though commissioning editors, funders and academic bloggers don’t fully seem to have a grasp on the ability (and in some cases, necessity) to use animation to tell documentary stories, Verrall is convinced that audiences don’t have a problem with it. ‘My feeling is that the long-time stigma attached to animation, that it was essentially cartoon and children’s light entertainment-oriented content, is rapidly disappearing,’ he says. ‘The mixture of genres is something that audiences are now increasingly familiar with and quite happy to accept.’

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