Thanks to “Persepolis,” “Waltz with Bashir” and “Chicago 10,” the blending of animation with documentaries has become a successful sub-genre. This year, it’s pushed further both thematically and stylistically with great impact.
In “Life, Animated,” the autistic Owen Suskind learned to communicate by watching classic Disney animation; in “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life,” Disney’s first African-American animator gets long overdue recognition; and in “Tower,” the use of rotoscope animation helps recreate a 50-year-old mass shooting at the University of Texas Tower.
“Owen was able to have a communication breakthrough when he was a child as a result of watching Disney classics…he used them as a guide to decipher life and to connect to other people,” director Roger Ross Williams told IndieWire. He’s the first African-American director to win an Oscar for the documentary short, “Music by Prudence.”
“Life, Animated” picks up where the book by Owen’s father (Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind) leaves off: Owen graduates from college and deals with falling in love and breaking up with his girlfriend.
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Through the use of animation by the French-based MacGuff (which splintered off from the rest of the studio purchased by Universal/Illumination, makers of “Sing” and “The Secret Life of Pets”), the doc weaves in several layers.
“Owen says the Disney characters all play in his head and talk to him at the same time,” Williams said. “And with sounds and visuals I wanted to bring the audience into the intensity of that. That’s the layer of the Disney animation. But then there’s another layer of original animation, which is our ‘Land of the Lost Sidekicks’ [a standalone short as well], in which they intermingle. And then we have the line drawing backstory of how he got there with the sketchpad.
He added, “Because of these films, Owen is a very hopeful, positive person. He doesn’t have a filter, he doesn’t have any negativity. He doesn’t have a wall that divides people from one another — he expresses how he’s feeling and that creates empathy for him as well.”
An even greater Disney connection is made in the doc about the 81-year-old Norman, who worked on “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Sword in the Stone” and “The Jungle Book,” as well as “Scooby-Doo” and “Fat Albert” post-Disney.
“Floyd looks at the world in a humorous way and likes passing on that history,” director Michael Fiore told IndieWire. “On the flip side, as much as he shares his love of animation, he’s equally as resistant to share experiences that are a little bit more private.”
“And that was a big challenge making the movie,” he continued. “You can see that when it comes to his divorce or his forced retirement at Disney, it was so hard to get him to give anything other than the political answer, and so other people opened up about it. Floyd admitted that he used art as a coping mechanism at different points in his life and in his career.”
As part of that coping mechanism, Norman would draw biting caricatures of his colleagues, which even caught the appreciative gaze of Walt, who eventually promoted him to a writer on “The Jungle Book.”
“Floyd has the incredible value of doing it the old-school way, and I’m sure he cherishes how beautiful [the current] movies are for the amount of time and talent it took to make those,” added director Erik Sharkey.
“Tower” serves as its own coping mechanism about the mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin by sniper Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966, which resulted in 16 dead and three dozen wounded.
However, director Keith Maitland, who attended the University of Texas, chose to focus on the survivors. “How do you live your life carrying this around with you? We used that as the basis of the film: the victims, heroes and survivors,” Maitland told IndieWire.
And the director used rotoscoping for both practical and aesthetic reasons. He couldn’t film on campus, so that posed a logistical problem. At the same time, though, the dream-like quality of the animation (inspired by Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life”) provided a fuzzy quality about the nature of memory.
“I wanted to show that perception shifts, and the goal all along was to give the audience a chance to empathize,” Maitland said.
Meanwhile, since the making of the film, the university has changed its institutional denial about the mass shooting by enacting a large memorial on campus. “It means that this history won’t be lost and that’s an incredible shift,” Maitland said.