written by Lilian Fu 2013

** this version is slightly amended for internet publication.

Various reasons and methodologies in animation documentary

CASE STUDIES

Silence (1998/Sylvie Bringas and Orly Yadin)
Silence has an alternative approach as a documentary which narrates a damaged orphan’s childhood against the background of the Holocaust during Second World War. It proposes comprehensive strategies in animated documentary to deal with the absence of footage; everything is constructed based only on memories and representation. One of the directors, Orly Yadin stated that ‘It contains no archival images of the Holocaust, no interviews with survivors, experts or eyewitnesses, no shots of the locations where these events took place, and yet it is a documentary and a true story’ (1) And because everything is re-represented it requires the animators’ honest response and intervention in producing images and meanings of the reality.

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To me, this piece is a very successful portrayal of a personal history from an ethnographic point of view. The film makers exploited photographic images but they removed them from their original context and gave them new meaning. Yadin said that ’Animation can take the viewer to locations unreachable through conventional photography…’  (Yadin,2003) which suggests photographs can be appropriated for specific purposes. These archival images filled in the gap of ‘un-filmed past’ so that the audience can identify with the central character and understand the emotion of her experience. One of their strategies is to alter the original footage, like colouring on top of the footage or decaying the edge so that the material would not establish a ‘historical authoritative’ voice’ of its own’. Besides, animated characters somehow can be more ‘natural’ than a photographic image as they avoid any unnatural performance by the subject. Moreover, the audio is narrated from the first person point of view by a Jewish decedent and survivor Tana Ross, through the first-person narrative we re-process those silent descendent memories from her perspective and first-hand information.

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Silence is a film full of symbolic meanings and metaphors and through animation it intrigues the audience and allows them to understand meanings far beyond what the visual portrayed. Examples of this are when the sweeping ants transform into children, a railway porter turns into a Nazi solider, also the changing visual style from the black and white images of Tana’s evasive, shifting, shadowy tragedy to a colourful Swedish landscape which celebrates the freedom, etc. All these semiotic codes hide a deeper layer of the message’s subtlety. The morphing technique suggested a very different sense of transition and the sensation of the environment changing than a sharp cut edit would to extract a visual definition that includes emotional responses.

Even though it is on the same subject of the holocaust, unlike the nine hour documentary Shoah (1985/ Claude Lanzmann) which include loads of interviews and footage, Silence only shows one person’s memories, in 11minutes. Yet it still creates a powerful sense of reality that it does not need to fill in every gap in the information. The truth exists between fragmented moments of an individual past which fit in a total historical narration of the holocaust truth.

Six weeks in June (1996/Stuart Hilton)

Six weeks in June is a very innovative experimental documentary which documents a band touring in the USA, it is made by Stuart Hilton. Unlike the two examples I discussed above which are distant reminiscences of the past, this film has a very strong sense of the present. This ‘road movie’ as described by Hilton, perfectly captures the feeling of being a passenger on a long road trip.

This time without a change of drawing style, the images are black and white line doodle drawings by the author which were drawn on A6 papers on the journey. The flickering of the images (the visual is transformed every 1 or 2 frames) is unrecognizable and is condensed into extreme fragmentation which illustrates ‘an animated example of the subjective, autobiographical strain in experimental documentary’ (Lily Husbands, 2011) (2) Hilton abandons the conventional modes of perception and narrative. The film is not about specific locations or events but a complex, rapidly changing series of sound and images to create a subjective sensual impression. The audio sounds sources are difficult to pick up; there are some ambient noises in different areas, or some audience voices and location sound, which are not even synchronized. The images are only some everyday objects and landscape that you can’t really identify. The representation of reality is very abstract and problematic if compared to a conventional documentary, yet the loose association of reality and the represented brings an interesting relationship between perceivers and the authors.

The experience of watching this documentary is a unique one for me because I cannot interpret the film straight-forwardly, there are many ambiguities and multiple layers of information that mixing audio visual elements together without a clear logic. Sometimes I can recognise a few sayings or objects but then they either fade away or are transformed into something else. However, this spontaneous flow of the images and audio is actually documenting the true feeling of how we remember places that we visited, and even though it is not capturing the total realistic landscape, it records different particular moments of the journey which is as powerful and truthful as a real photograph. It shows another perspective of the temporal spatial changes with its own pace and rhythm, in which the aesthetic follows the author’s internal logic.
Even though it is an overstimulated, highly personal, subjective manipulation of the documentation, it suggested an alternative way of treating experiences and archiving. It leads us to an openness of interpretation and complex experiences, not giving every detail but a glimpse of everything, thus creating a poetic mood for audiences to imagine. This condensed six minute animation is one of the avant-garde pieces of work which re-define what is possible in documentary, through animation.

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In concluding this chapter, I want to point out several common characteristics of animated documentary; one is from the above examples, they all have juxtaposing styles and media to help delineate the contents in diverse visual versions, thus deposing the unitary and singular understanding of the represented reality. At the same time, animators impose their thoughts and feeling in the act of drawing. They choose the camera angles, the design of the characters, the movement of the characters, how the shot starts and ends, etc., everything is manipulated and carefully designed by animators. Animators hold more responsibility for content in an extreme way. Therefore the relationship between the documented subjects and animators are much closer than live-action documentary directors, as the past is being reactivated through re-drawing and re-imagining the oral narrative by animators who are able to give a stronger personal intimacy to a notion of truth.

footage:

1. Clare Kitson, ‘British animation: The Channel 4 factor’, Parliament Hill Publishing. 2008, p.153.2. Husbands, Lilly. (King’s College London)“The Kaleidoscopic Windscreen: Stuart Hilton’s Experimental Animated Documentary Six Weeks In June” presentation in Animated Realities Conference 2011.