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This year, IDFA is organising a special 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.

More than just talking mice

In documentary cinema, animation sometimes offers extra information


about reality.

When you think of documentaries, you think of realism, reality, of going outside and
capturing whats 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 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 hadnt been any picture at all, the answer wouldve
been an easy yes. Only then wed refer to it as a radio documentary. If the interviewee
hadnt wanted to appear onscreen 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 wouldnt 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 wouldnt 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 dont think so.
Another valid question is if the animation distracts from the soundtrack or if it
becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. I dont think that this is the case,
either.

In some illustrated radio documentaries, the picture offers extra information about
reality. In Abductees 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 its not as if their abductions were captured on film.
The impressive Ryan by Chris Landreth is also an animated interview in which the
subjects have been recreated so theyre still recognizable. That might seem time-
consuming, but sometimes you just dont have any film footage. Whats 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 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 didnt only record the voice-over himself, he also drew all the animations.
If we accept his spoken memories as documentary, shouldnt we do the same with the
ones he drew? Whats 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 Bloot, 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 youd 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 wouldnt we treat McCays animations in the same manner?

With the fake animated documentary, were quite naturally pushing the boundaries of
the genre. The Dutch animator Floris Kaayk made an animated fake nature film,
Order Electrus, 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 by Gerrit van
Dijk, or the poetic Soviet propaganda film Plus Electrification by Ivan Aksenchuk. In
the unique film Learned by Heart by Marjut Rimminen and Pivi Takala, animation
is used both in addition to as well as in photos and film footage to reconstruct a girls
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 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. Its often the form of choice when theres no normal
film footage available, or perhaps because documentary subjects want to remain
anonymous. In the case of the latter, its 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.

-- by Kees Driessen, IDFA magazine (2007)