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by Paula Bernstein
November 29, 2013 9:30 AM
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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." 


  • Speak2Truth | December 3, 2013 6:38 PMReply

    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 | December 2, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    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 | December 2, 2013 10:18 AMReply

    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 | November 29, 2013 10:31 AMReply

    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':

  • Christopher Campbell | November 29, 2013 10:32 AM

    Sorry, that should have had a link: