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The Art of Documentary Animation - Book Review

Documentary animation speaks to us.

One of the great upsides of new technology is the ease with which we can introduce animation into a variety of filmmaking genres. Everyone has experienced the dramatic and breathtaking special effects that add pizzazz to current live action films. Another great combination is animation + documentary. It’s a terrific strategy for bringing together factual storytelling and dramatic visuals in a highly charged way.

One of the earliest documentary style animations that I recall is the John Hubley feature Of Stars and Men, produced in 1964. It recreates the 1959 story, of the same name, by Harlow Shapley which follows a child’s quest to find their place in the universe. Combining classic Hubley animation with a voice over recording by the author, this fascinating film won best documentary at the San Francisco Film Festival.

And then there’s Paul Fierlinger’s films which combine recorded audio reminiscences with figurative animation. Drawn from Memory is a beautifully animated one hour autobiography which follows his dramatic flight from Soviet controlled Czecheslovakia, and his challenging adjustment to life in the west.

Another documentary animation that comes immediately to mind is Joyce Borenstein’s The Colours of My Father: A Portrait of Sam Borenstein (1992). In this touching film, nominated for an academy award in the category of best documentary short, Borenstein integrates archival footage, skillful animation, and moving audio to create a poignant portrait of her father, the artist Sam Borenstein.

Waking Life, directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2001, is a philosophical work which follows a young man as he delves into the meaning of life, moving from a dream like state of semi-consciousness to moments of greater lucidity. The animation was created by rotoscoping live action footage, and the visual shifts and changes which parallel the story indicate the differing styles of the various artists who worked on the film.

The technique of rotoscoping live action footage was also used to great effect by filmmaker Ralph Bakshi (of Fritz the Cat fame). To meet the growing production costs of War Wizards (1976), Bakshi decided to rotoscope scenes from well known earlier films to create the battle scenes for his own film. (It’s interesting to note that at the time making colour prints from the 35mm footage would have cost a small fortune, but Bakshi approached IBM to create photocopies from their newly invented industrial sized photocopier and they were able to produce the prints at pennies a page.)

But back to animating interviews. Chris Landreth used the technique to create the highly successful Ryan (2004), winner of the Oscar for best animated short among many other awards too numerous to list. Created in a dramatic and highly original style of 3D animation, it showcases the story of Ryan Larkin, a Canadian animator (his film Walking was nominated for an Oscar) who fell on very hard times. The audio combines an interview with Larkin himself, recorded for the film, with additional commentary by several filmmakers who were closely associated with him. There is also an overlay of autobiographical elements relating to Chris Landreth himself.

Another deeply touching animated reflection is John Canemaker’s The Moon and The Son: An Imagined Conversation in which Canemaker recreates a heartfelt exchange with his father. Using traditional hand drawn techniques, Canemaker animates in a style that gives the film immediacy along with a direct and very personal feel. Winner of the 2006 Oscar for best animated short, the film illustrates the emotionally charged exchange between father and son with almost whimsical imagery that counteracts the difficult themes.

Waltz with Bashir (2008), created by Ari Folman, is a full length feature documation which combines rotoscoping of videotaped interviews with audio recorded in sync with the video. It tells the true story of the filmmaker’s search for factual details surrounding the 1992 Lebanese War (a war in which he was a participant.) Winning numerous awards including a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, the film brought documation very much to the forefront as a filmmaking style.

Animated Minds is a series of short documations, dating from 2003 to the present, directed by Andy Glyne for Channel 4 (UK). Glyne combines the recorded testimony of individuals who have experienced mental illness with dramatic and imaginative animation in an effort to help dispel misconceptions about mental illness. The films have been very well received, winning numerous awards worldwide including a BAFTA.

As a fitting conclusion to this article, I want to mention a newly released book that I just came across, “Animated Realism: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Animated Documentary Genre”. Written by Judith Kriger (Focal Press), this is the first book I know of on the subject.

Kirger focuses on the work of 7 animated filmmakers who have created works in the documation genre: John Canemaker (The Moon and the Son), Paul Fierlinger (Drawn from Memory), Yoni Goodman (art director on Waltz with Bashir), Chris Landreth (Ryan), Bob Sabiston of Flat Black Films , Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre of MJSTP Films, and Dennis Tupicoff (Chainsaw).

Kriger presents us with a short biography of each filmmaker, an overview of their oeuvre, brief interviews which uncover their source of inspiration, current (2012) projects, working processes, and funding and distribution strategies. The book is heavily illustrated with beautifully reproduced pre- and post-production stills, and successfully contributes to our deeper understanding of this burgeoning style of filmmaking. 

This book is highly recommended for the following areas of study: Animation, Documentary, and Film Studies at the high school, college, and university levels. And it’s a must buy for libraries that collect texts on these subjects.