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Reflections on the History of Animated Documentary

The Sinking of the Lusitania, dir. Winsor McCay, USA (1918), image courtesy Milestone Film & Video and John Canemaker.

The recent Oscar nominations for Ryan (2004), I Met the Walrus (2007), and Persepolis (2007) raise an intriguing series of questions about the nature of the animated documentary. Some consider this genre a newly developed hybrid but the animated documentary can be traced back to the beginnings of cinema, arguably to Arthur Melbourne Cooper’s Matches: An Appeal (1899). It was the first stop-action film, and one of the first actualité propaganda films designed to support the British soldiers in the Boer War. The more contemporary godfather of this so-called “new” movement is Norman McLaren’s stop-motion “pixilated” film Neighbours (1952), which won the Oscar for best documentary short in 1953.

A quick survey of the two forms points to the fact that not only do animation and documentary have a long, entangled history, but the emergence of the animated doc precedes the supposed arrival of documentary itself. This might surprise some, as documentaries center on representing the real world while animation generally deals with the fantastical, dream-like, and surreal. Indeed, one could see the differences between animation and documentary along the same lines as those between the actualités of the Lumière brothers and the trick films of Georges Méliès. But just as the differences between these French pioneers are not as cut and dried as one initially might think, hybridity between animation and documentary is not new.

Matches: An Appeal aside, the animated documentary comes into its own with Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), a piece of agitprop made after a German submarine torpedoed the cruise ship Lusitania during World War I, but before the Americans entered the War. McCay, famous for his Little Nemo in Slumberland strips in the New York Herald and the Hearst papers and his early animated cartoons such as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), decided to make a document of the sinking of the ship as there were no newsreel accounts of the event. Unlike his earlier films, McCay used cel animation (which would become the standard mode in which cartoons were made in Hollywood) lending a realistic fluidity to the waves, leading to a far greater degree of verisimilitude. The importance of this film in terms of the development of animation is well-known; however, its role as an early documentary has never been addressed in any detail, if at all.

Here, in a film made four years before Robert Flaherty produced Nanook of the North (1922) and six before John Grierson famously coined the term “docu- mentary” and described it as “the creative treatment of actuality,” McCay engaged in exactly that process to re-create, with as great a level of authenticity as possible, an undocumented event in the form of a proto-documentary. In the brief live-action frame that opens the film, an intertitle informs the viewer that McCay is allowing the audience to go where no live action camera could. The Sinking of the Lusitania is incredibly advanced for its time, both as an animated film and as a proto-documentary. The film is a testament to McCay’s creativity and anticipates what would follow.

As the assembly line system of producing Hollywood animation developed through the 1920s, funny animals dominated cartoon production. One company, however, stood out: Fleischer Studios. Best known for Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, brothers Dave and Max Fleischer saw the potential for realism in animation throughout their careers, which concluded in the early 1940s with their series of hyper-realistic, Academy award-winning Superman cartoons. As early as 1923, the Fleischers made two films on topics that seem, on the face of it, antithetical to animation: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Both educational films combined live action with animation in order to explain highly complex concepts. The Darwin film is especially audacious as the Fleischers released it two years before the famed Scopes monkey trial in 1925, which ruled on whether state funding could go to schools that taught evolution.

From the documentary’s beginnings, its history has walked hand in hand with propaganda, education, and social action. The same can be said for the animated documentary. If part of McCay’s goal was to push for intervention in the First World War, this propagandistic tradition continued in the animated documentary as it developed during World War II. There were many reasons for this—some ideological, others economic. As Michael Barrier argues in Hollywood Cartoons (Oxford University Press, 1999), the impact of the financial failure of Fantasia (1940) and the animators’ strike of 1941 necessitated that Disney maintain a constant cash flow. While military contracts didn’t greatly improve Disney’s profits, they did aid him in maintaining his payroll. In many ways, then, World War II saved the Disney Studios, bringing a small influx of much-needed capital. Many of Disney’s productions between 1941 and 1945 were war-related, whether animated shorts such as the Donald Duck vehicle Der Fuerhrer’s Face (1943), Latin American interventionist films such as Saludos Amigos (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1944), or animated documentaries like Education for Death (1943), a harrowing film about the induction of German children into Nazi ideology. The film Disney invested the most of his own energy and finances in was Victory Through Air Power (1943), based on Russian expat Alexander P. de Seversky’s popular and controversial book of the previous year. The Disney film extolled the benefits of long-range bombing as the means by which to win the War. It includes an animated history of flight, live action accounts of Seversky’s theories with animated diagrams, and hyper-realistic demonstrations of planes on bombing missions.

Ryan, dir. Chris Landreth,Canada (2004)

Eastern European animation, not tied to the assembly line studio system of Hollywood, produced a far more artisanal body of work. One of the most famous Czech animators, Jírí Trnka, used puppet animation to make documentaries. With The Czech Year (1947), Trnka documents his nation’s traditions through the seasons, offering an allegorical account of Czech culture. East European filmmakers also made more explicitly political animated documentaries. One of the most harrowing Holocaust films was an animated documentary called Roll-Call (1971) by Polish filmmaker Ryszard Czekala. The film is a black and white, depersonalizing testimony to living and dying in the camps. Post-Cold War, Czech animator Jan Svankmajer made The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (1990), a surrealist account of Czechoslovakia from the rise of the Iron Curtain to the Velvet Revolution. Svankmajer’s film begins with a bust of Stalin breaking open, and out of his head pours the history of the country in a ten-minute tour de force. The political animated documentary was also on the rise in Western Europe. West German Helmut Herbst’s Black-White-Red (1966) is a startling cut-out film that attacks the right-wing paper Bild Zeitung and compares its editor to the Kaiser and Hitler. Aesthetically, Black-White-Red looks like an amal- gamation of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animation and the photomontages of John Heartfield.

While many animated documentaries have functioned as propaganda for war, McLaren’s Neighbours proselytizes for peace. If McCay’s film is a prophetic forbearer to the animated documentary, Neighbours is the film that officially united animation with the documentary in the eyes of the non-fiction mainstream. An allegory about the Korean War, McLaren’s tale about two rival neighbours is nevertheless a documentary about the ways in which violence quickly escalates to the point where the reason for the original battle is both lost and destroyed in the process. McLaren’s film demonstrates that the fusion of animation and allegory is as efficacious a means to explore contemporary politics as the Griersonian mode of “Voice-of-God” realism.

While McLaren’s Neighbours is probably the most celebrated animated documentary to come out of the National Film Board of Canada prior to Landreth’s Ryan, the Board developed a large body of work that deployed animation within the documentary form. Indeed, many of the Board’s documentary filmmakers also worked, at different times, in the animation department. Films such as Colin Low’s character-animation documentary The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1953), Grant Munro’s pixilated anti-war film Toys (1966), Eva Szasz’s animated exploration of the macro and micro worlds, Cosmic Zoom (1968), and perhaps most famously, Roman Kroitor and Colin Low’s Universe (1960), are all examples of this fusion.

Self-reflexivity has also played a role in the animated documentary. For instance, in Creature Comforts (1989), Nick Park interviewed local people in English old people’s homes and housing developments about their living conditions. In many ways, it is similar to Edgar Anstley and Arthur Elton’s British realist documentary Housing Problems (1935). Yet Park puts the words from these interviews into the mouths of animals imprisoned at the local zoo. This juxtaposition recasts the earnest voice of the people to shed new light on the plight of animals in zoos through an ingenious use of anthropomorphism.

Realism and its limits aren’t the only concerns of the animated documentary. In recent years, the form has also played a key role in the development of experimental film and the personal documentary. Stephen Andrews’ The Quick and the Dead (2004) takes video images of American soldiers in Iraq and animates the footage through the use of pastel and crayon drawings. He develops an experimental rotoscoping effect that forces the viewer to consider the nature of these images from the “War on Terror” that are often looked upon as so much background noise in the continuing plethora of violent images turned into entertainment by CNN, Fox News, and the like.

In another vein, Helen Hill’s Mouseholes (1999), an experimental personal documentary, uses animation and cut-outs to examine the death of her grandfather. Here, the animation lends the feeling of childhood curiosity to her examination of her grandfather’s later years, combin- ing poetry, voice-over narration, and interviews between Hill and her grandfather. A touching and whimsical film, Mouseholes ably demonstrates how the animated docu- mentary lends itself incredibly well to the genre of per- sonal documentary. Similarly, Joyce Borenstein’s The Colours of My Father (1991) is an animated documentary that brings to life the paintings of her father Sam. The film interposes her father’s personal history with his work, showing how the two are profoundly interconnect- ed. A similar series of issues about the inter-generational family relations is the theme of Paul Fielinger’s Drawn from Memory (1995), an autobiographical animated docu- mentary about the artist’s political awakening in post- War Prague and his break from his Soviet father.

Neighbours dir. Norman McLaren, Canada (1952)

Animation has also become “nested” into more traditional documentary films. Perhaps most infamously, Michael Moore included an animated “A Brief History of the United States” short in Bowling for Columbine (2002), which explains that the whole culture of the United States, from the Pilgrims onward, is based on fear. In The Five Obstructions (2003), director Lars von Trier challenges his filmmaking mentor and co-director Jørgen Leth to re-make his “perfect” documentary film The Perfect Human (1967) five times, limiting how Leth can make the film on each occasion with a series of obstructions. The fourth set of obstructions is simple: re-make the film in animation. Leth states that he “hates cartoons,” a sentiment to which von Trier concurs. Nevertheless, Leth succeeds at the challenge, using animation artist Bob Sabiston—who animated Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001)—to digitally rotoscope scenes from Leth’s original film (and the three previously made “obstructed” versions) to great effect, and in the process questioning whether the differences between documentary and animation are really differences at all.

If any film has re-invigorated the interest in animated documentaries, it is most certainly Ryan. Landreth’s animated documentary about pan-handling Canadian animator Ryan Larkin led many to re-think the ways in which animation could be mobilized in documentary film. Using computer animation to tell the story of Larkin certainly made thematic sense, as Larkin was an Oscar nominee for his animated documentary Walking in 1969. Similar in form to Creature Comforts (an interview with Larkin is animated by Landreth, and both are animated characters), Landreth’s film raises salient questions about the creative process and the effects of substance abuse on the artist. The brilliance of the film is in the way it foregrounds one of the key possi- bilities of the animated documentary: to document internal states with the same level of fidelity that the more traditional doc performs when recording the external world.

Following on from Ryan has been a slew of animated documentaries, all nominated for various Academy awards, including the feature-length Persepolis by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi and John Raskin’s I Met the Walrus (2007). Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis tells the autobiographical story of Satrapi living between two cultures: the secular life of her parents in post-revolutionary Iran and her times at boarding schools in Vienna. Like Creature Comforts and Ryan, I Met the Walrus juxtaposes audio interview material with animated documentary images. Raskin takes six minutes out of an interview which 14-year-old Jerry Levitan conducted with the famous Beatle while he was in Toronto in 1969. The film itself animates Lennon’s words in a surrealistic manner that echoes both the animated Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine (1968) and, to an even greater extent, Lennon’s own drawings published in the books In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965). Slight yet sweet, the overall feeling of the film is nostalgic. There’s a sad sense in all these works that not much has changed in the political culture.

Even more recently, the animated documentary has migrated to the virtual world with films like Fair Use (2008), a machinima documentary on copyright and appropriation, and the hilarious and subversive A History of Evil (2008).

The animated documentary, then, should not be thought of as a strange hybrid at the margins of both documentary and film history, but one of the central forms of documentary film since its inception. This re-evaluation not only raises questions about what has been left out of documentary history but also forces us to reconsider the nature of the documentary film itself.

Scott MacKenzie is cross-appointed to the CinemaStudies Institute and the Department of French at the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of Cinema and Nation and Purity and Provocation: Dogme ’95, author of Screening Québec and is currently writing a short monograph on the films of Guy Debord and co-editing an anthology on John Greyson.

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