Art meets facts. Animation in documentary films
Date : Sunday 31 July, 2016
There’s a term I’ve always liked: cross-genre, and I’ve often used it to describe my own work. Just as I avoid pigeonhole-ing things in life, I’m attracted to works that escape genre classifications and narrow paths. I find that it’s at these intersections of styles and forms that true magic can be born. Once-upon-a-time a complete theatre-addict, these days you won’t find me sitting through a “play” with a set design consisting of two chairs on stage. But when it’s a site-specific performance with choreography and aerial, I’ll be the first to grab a ticket.
So I’m happy to see that a film form generally considered very traditional and serious – a documentary – is beginning to adopt new storytelling techniques, animation being one of them. This new exciting direction can really widen the range of ways to express ideas, though not everyone might be inclined to try. Beige Adams writes in his article for The International Documentary Association that “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.” And I’m all for the latter.
“(…) Two years ago, when I heard doc I thought, I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t pollute the Gulf of Mexico. I didn’t make genocide in Europe. I’m not a secret closet maniac. Those are all what documentaries are about”, says Wayne White, artist and hero of Beauty is Embarrassing documentary in an interview with Michelle Higa Fox for Motiongrapher. For its director, Neil Berkeley, the film was a big leap from motion graphics background into a feature-length debut. But he was the perfect man to tell Wayne’s story and, since animation is a huge part of Wayne’s art practice, it was only natural that it should be incorporated into the storytelling. Combined efforts from BRKLY, Neils studio, Lifelong Friendship Society and Gentleman Scholar, and Wayne himself who art-directed the end credits, resulted in a film that is very intimate, sensitive, as well as lively, fun and very inspiring. The saddest moment in the film, a scene depicting a car crash Wayne experienced with his parents and sister in his childhood, is told through a very beautiful hand-drawn animation created by Gentleman Scholar.
Car accident sequence from “Beauty is Embarrassing”, animated by Gentleman Scholar (above) and end titles, created by Wayne White (below)
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen, which I saw recently, is another example of a documentary that not only paints a very detailed portrait of an artist, and almost manages to x-ray the thought process behind his work, but also touches the viewer on a very deep level. An absolutely superb use of animated graphics and photography takes it far above the “matter-of-fact” documentaries based solely on footage. The documentary is unusual in the sense that it focuses more on presenting the wide spectrum of Kurt’s talents besides his music passion. It also shows some material which nobody close to the musician knew existed, and that includes a story Cobain taped in 1988, discovered by Morgen in a box marked “cassettes” in a storage space the director was granted permission to access. Cobain’s recorded tale, Montage of heck, which inspired the documentary’s title, is a semi-fictitious account of his adolescent life. Morgen was very keen to include the story in his film but struggled to find the right way of presenting it, until he came across the work of Dutch artist/filmmaker Hisko Hulsing. As he describes in an interview for Business Insider, “I felt that he had a similar dystopian view of the world that Kurt had, but a much better craftsman than Kurt (…) But the view and the tone had a lot of similarities, a lot of darkness and twisted reality.” So Hulsing was invited to join the project, and animated both the Montage of Heck story and another audio recording where Cobain was describing his daily life in the 80s. “From his small studio in Amsterdam, Hulsing compiled a team of 27 people (18 of them animators) and for four months they worked on not only the Cobain audio story, but also on the other portion of the film Hulsing was responsible for. For the 85 shots that were Hulsing’s responsibility, they produced 6,000 animations and 60 oil paintings on canvas. Some of those canvas paintings were as large as six feet”, we read in Jason Guerrasio’s article.
Still from Hisko Hulsing’s animated sequence in “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (above) and Hulsing talking about the animation process (below)
Apart from Hulsing’s animated sequences, there are several scenes showing Cobain’s journals being scribbled, doodles and written in, created for the film by artist Stefan Nadelman. These sequences are also very skilfully done and make his notes and drawings literally come to life. I’ve rewatched them several times, each time in awe of the creativity, skill and an exceptional sensitivity to the music – the image/sound synchronisation is absolutely superb.
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (animated sequences by Stefan Nadelman) from Bent Image Lab
Compared to both Beauty is Embarrassing and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale, uses relatively little motion graphics and animation. But when it does, it is done very well indeed, bringing life to facts and ideas, and creating an emotional connection with them. Purist and some critics, for example Cynthia Fuchs from Pop Matters, seem reluctant (“Such tricks are distracting more than illuminating in this film, which is otherwise focused on the artist’s craft and talent”, she said in her review), but I would strongly disagree. If nothing else, these animated sequences make the documentary far more memorable, and, given how obscure Cazale has become, it can only be a good thing.
Animated sequence from “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale”
Another very interesting example of what a documentary can be is Chris Landreth‘s short film about the life of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, who rose to fame with his psychedelic Oscar-nominated short Walking (1968) but ended up being homeless, near-forgotten, and with drug and alcohol addictions before Landreth’s documentary brought him to the attention of critics and audience again. The film, which is a computer-animated interpretation of an interview of Larkin by Landreth, was made over the course of several years following a chance meeting between the two in 2000. It was their conversation, not a storyboard (which came later) that gave the film its structure and narrative. The result is an interview-style cinéma vérité documentary with a very particular visual style and atmosphere, which is very powerful and moving. The animation was created at the Animation Arts Centre of Seneca College in Toronto, and there’s an interesting “documentary on documentary”, called Alter Egos directed by Laurence Green, which examines the process of developing the Oscar-winning animated short.
“Ryan”, Chris Landreth‘s short film about the life of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin
Finally, I will quote Robbins featured in Beige Adams’s article, who says “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.” I do too. When done right, animation is one of the most effective and versatile forms of communicating ideas, because it breathes life into inanimate objects and speaks to people’s emotions through visual metaphors and associations. Why not use it then in documentaries if it can really enhance the narration?