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Are Graphics and Animation Revolutionizing Documentaries?

Are Graphics and Animation Revolutionizing Documentaries?

How do you make an entertaining documentary about the linguist, philosopher, author and leftist icon Noam Chomsky without interviewing anyone except Chomsky and without featuring archival footage? If you’re director Michel Gondry, the answer is obvious: use animation, specifically simplistic hand-drawn animation to literally animate the film “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?”

“Once I had an idea, I just had to carry it out — but sometimes, I was
not sure where it was going. What I would do — not all the time but
most of the time — was I would play a line of his dialogue, pick a
segment and play it in a loop to influence the drawings some of the
animations,” Gondry recently told Indiewire’s Eric Kohn. “Because they were abstract, it allowed me to illustrate what
I was saying. I would not portray that by trying to explain it in a
illustrative manner because it was too narrative. The abstraction helped
me not to betray what I was saying or what he was saying, because I
think I could get it wrong and that would be bad.”

Gondry is part of the new wave of documentary filmmakers who are boldly experimenting with graphics and using animation to help tell nonfiction stories in innovative new ways, including, in recent years, Ari Folman (“Waltz with Bashir”) and Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine.”)

While they were once seen as anomalous to documentaries, animation, graphics and other visual effects are now considered to be standard devices to help illustrate difficult concepts or simplify complicated information in documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “IOUSA.”

Visual effects artist Brian Oakes (“Inequality for All,” “Freakonomics”) and filmmaker/animator Alexander Meillier (“Alias Ruby Blade,” “Obscene”) recently discussed the role of animation and graphics in documentaries on a panel devoted to the topic at DOC NYC.

While working on “Inequality for All” about the disparity of wealth in America, Oakes explained, “graphics became a character.” 

The question for Oakes was: “How do you take pie charts and bar graphs and make them interesting so that people will pay $13 to want to go see these movies?” The answer is with lots of bold graphics that make numbers and statistics informative as well as engaging.

Of course, animation can help set the tone and inject a point of view or a new perspective into a film, but it can also be a practical solution to a problem such as lack of archival footage.

In the case of “Chicago 10” (1997), the director Brett Morgen turned to animation as a way to represent the trail of the “Chicago 7” since, although he had a plethora of archival material, cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom.

With a lot of biographical documentaries, there may only be audio, but no visuals. Oakes said that was the case with the American Masters “LENNONYC” about John Lennon’s time in New York City, which is why Oakes created animation to accompany the audio.

In some cases, even if an animation element isn’t utilized, the director may still rely on graphics for the title sequence. 

“Now there’s a higher expectation —  especially in documentaries — that your film has a high production value,” said Meillier. For “Alias Ruby Blade,” Meillier said “The title sequence establishes the graphic idea… as the film progresses, it references these ideas….It’s all done in that same style. It’s a way that information is conveyed later in the film.”

In addition to using animation and graphic elements to clarify complex material or to convey a tone, animation can simply be used as an aesthetic choice. While in the past, documentary purists would have argued that animation had no place in depicting reality, it’s now largely understood that even the most verite documentary relies on some degree of manipulation.

Animation can liberate documentarians from relying on archival footage or other traditional devices to tell a story, and, along the way, confound the outdated notion that documentaries are simply a straight retelling of the truth — surely, in this age, we accept that all filmmaking — based on actual events or not — involves a certain amount of artifice.

To Oakes, “The Kid Stays in the Picture” was the groundbreaking film that made animation permissible in documentaries (although there have actually been documentaries which use animation since “The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918).

“Some filmmakers don’t like to do this stuff (animation) because it’s not representative of what they feel documentaries are or should be,” said Oakes. “But
the culture that we are now living in and how easy it is to get your hands on
the tools to do this stuff has become so accessible, it now comes into play.
When you watch a documentary film in the theater, it’s amazing to see that there’s almost always some element of graphic device, whereas, 10 years ago, that wasn’t

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Documentary is just that – documenting events. A problem with the artifice of animation is that it can become more than just an honest recreation of events (such as a recreation of the sinking of the Lusitania) and become more of a tool of persuasion, impression, storytelling (falsification), iconization of meaning, etc. It is to be handled with great care when producing documentaries.

The documentary producer's job is to honestly convey a factual account to the viewers with as little supposition, implication or fabrication as possible. Too many movies called 'documentary', even winning an Oscar as a 'documentary', are not.

Dune Lover

Stephen Scarlata's JODOROWSKY'S DUNE is another great doc where the animation brought the subject matter to life. They did a great job at animating Alejandro Jodorowsky's storyboards for what would have been his psychedelic version of "DUNE".

Michael Caplan

The language of documentary cinema is old. People sitting in their living rooms, or their workplace, perhaps a studio. And they talk. And talk. And when the talking heads are not on the screen, there are photos, documents, and archival film or video that is usually a direct illustration of the audio segment, the dreaded “B-roll.” The very term used tells the audience that it is of less significance than the talking head. The B-roll was the film that was shot by the less important B camera—it is used to “fill in” the gaps in the interview, so the audience doesn’t get bored just watching the talking heads. The whole concept should be abolished. Documentary filmmakers need to pull their head out of the past and look at the world of the 21st century.

Christopher Campbell

Animation can often depict a kind of "truth" that live action can't, my favorite recent example being when we meet Allen Ginsberg in 'Chicago 10' and he's floating.

It was also historically perfect for propaganda, instructional and educational documentaries, which is more of the influence on the docs that aren't fully animated that have animated segments or montages. Walt Disney's animated docs are some of my guiltiest pleasures.

As for the idea of using animation to show something that film cameras couldn't or didn't capture, the first credited example is Winsor McCay's 95-year-old 'Sinking of the Lusitania':

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