written by Lilian Fu 2013

**This article is originated from parts of my MA degree graduation dissertation.

doc animation

A general exploration of documentary theories

In recent years, the border between documentary and fiction films has been growing more difficult to be distinguished. Suggested by Linda Williams, the new definition of documentary films is no longer focused on the ‘truth’ of the subject, but rather a process or ‘a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths.’(4) Based on this filmic context, truth in documentary film is becoming more about creating meanings than exposing facts. Bill Nichols states that traditional documentary is gradually transformed to a new style which ‘has come to suggest incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression, images of personal worlds and their subjective construction.’(1) Even though it sounds problematic, this trend opens up another opportunity to mirror new perspectives of truth, which is something a camera cannot shoot. Therefore animation, a device of absolute imagination and fantasy, is reasonable to portray fact ‘not as an essence of truth’ (4) but as a strategy to fill in the incompleteness of conventional documentary since photographic images can also be manipulated digitally in present-day’s technology.

Regarding how photographs and video footage can be disguised, there are several occasions when photography is impossible or inappropriate; so animation can reproduce this moment to complete the hole. It is easier to manipulate an image by arranging events, use of re-enactment and post-production effects which can deceive audience eyes. Or in other cases that artists exploit found-footage from its original context in new content. Since the camera can lie, there is an increasing distrust of the photographic image in filmic conjunction urge an alternative way to re-think the documentary truth. Hence Documentary truth, according to Randolph Jordan, ‘… thus be seen as the truth of meaning making process, not simply as the ‘actuality’ of an image.’

If we understand that truth can never be transparent through mediated devices, and the concept of reality in a filmic context that documentary making, especially in post-modern film making process, is to construct meaning through exploiting footage. In fact animation could be a perfect manoeuvre to represent anything, particularly subjective facts. In my definition of the term subjective facts, it refers to personal experience, emotion and memories which are difficult to portray through the camera lens and at the same time, this side of facts are always neglected in conventional documentary. The theme of the personal history of anindividual is more often seen in animated documentaries like Waltz with Bashir (2008) or Silence (2001) even though the background is based on a bigger historical context; many of them refer to interviewees’ private memories which I find fascinating to watch, though the past they refer to is always fragmented and inaccessible. Yet we cannot eliminate the impact of this new fictionalized strategy which can bring us to a deeper emotional attachment to the past. Animation distances audience from rational realities but emotionally pulls the audience towards characters and historical events.

 green wave  waltzwithbashir

Moreover, this subjectivity is a very unique characteristic of animation to contribute to documentary since it can document almost everything even with the absence of the subjects or film-makers on the shooting sites. Many live-action documentaries use re-enactment as a strategy to communicate through dictated image and sounds. It has a similar effect to animation, only animation is more powerful since it pushes the ‘fake’ images to an extreme level so that nobody can focus on whether they are true or not. My main focus is to find out what the unique characteristics of animation can bring to documentaries, what it can achieve where photographic images cannot, thus giving stronger reasons as to why we should consider animation as one of the trusted resources.

In the academic field, there are some theories raised to categorize documentary. According to Bill Nichols, documentary can be mainly categorised into six modes.(2) Among all, I think animation documentary can be labelled as poetic, reflective, participative and performative. On the other hand, Paul Well’s categorization of animation documentary is more simple, it includes the ‘imitative’ which is trying to mimic the convention of live-action documentary; ‘subjective’ which reflects subjective personal thoughts on individuals; ‘Fantastic’ is to re-define reality through surreal or unfamiliar ways; ‘Postmodern’ mode always challenges the film itself in portraying the ‘truth’.(3) Understanding these modes thus gives me some basis of framework to analyse the examples in the next chapter. However, I do believe that with the practical use of  animation in documentary, things are always more integrated and not clearly identifiable.

To better explain the uniqueness of applying animation techniques in documentary, I want to pursue the comparison of various animation documentary shorts as they have very different approaches to dealing with the subject matters. By using case studies and striking examples I believe I can illustrate the reasons for animated documentary’s existence and how they work as a re-construction of reality and are still able to deliver a sense of truth. In fact, in all these films, the manipulation of footage especially in voices and sound are widely used as a referent or representation of the subjects. I will especially emphasis the techniques and visual aesthetic that animation artists used and what effects did they bring to represent truth.

Based on my findings and research I will also proceed to a practical work. The content would be related to my grandmother who died two years ago which I have to create footage in animation as there is not much material about her. From this practical work I will be able to explain the process of how I chose from a limited archive of material to construct a representation of my grandmother. (…to be continued…)



1. Nichols, Bill. “Getting to Know You.” Chapter 10 in Theorizing documentary, edited by M. Renov. New York: Routledge, 1993: 174.

2. __________. types of Documentary are there?”; Chapter 6, Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2001:99.

3. Wells, Paul. “The Beautiful Village and the True Village: A Consideration of Animation and the Documentary Aesthetic.” Profile no.53 of Art & Design magazine, 1997:40-45.

4. Williams, Linda. “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and the New Documentary.” Film Quarterly Vol. 46, No. 3, spring 1993: 14.