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Are Graphics and Animation Revolutionizing Documentaries?

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire November 29, 2013 at 9:30AM

Documentary filmmakers are experimenting with animation and graphics and using them not only to fill in gaps in the story and convey information, but also as an aesthetic choice.
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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." 

"Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?"

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. 

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"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 happening."

This article is related to: Documentary, Documentary Film, DOC NYC, Michel Gondry, Michel Gondry, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?