Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary

By Jonathan Rozenkrantz.

Every film is a documentary. (Bill Nichols 2001)

There is no such thing as documentary […]. (Trinh T. Minh-ha 1993)

Why bother? When a concept is conceived of in ways so opposed that one scholar will define it in absolute terms and another will deny its existence, is there really any point in pursuing any kind of consensus definition? This article takes a critical look at attempts to theorize animated documentary and it would seem that in starting to think about such a contradictory concept we should understand what the contradiction might be in the first place. To do so, a definition of what documentary film usually is would be the logical starting point, but unfortunately, as the introductory quotes indicate, documentary itself can – and has been – conceived of in ways so different that any argument about what documentary film is, is likely to face a well thought-out counter-argument somewhere else.

Taken out of their contexts, Bill Nichols’ and Trinh T. Minh-ha’s juxtaposed statements seem somewhat careless, almost absurd, diametrically opposed as they are. In reality they constitute introductions to elaborate discussions in which Nichols argues from the standpoint that ‘[e]ven the most whimsical of fictions gives evidence of the culture that produced it’, (Nichols 2001: 1) while Minh-ha’s claim is that ‘[t]ruth, even when “caught on the run”, does not yield itself either in names or in (filmic) frames’ (Minh-ha 1993: 92). The two statements seem irreconcilable; they do not even seem to refer to the same problem: Nichols is discussing the relation between documentary and fiction, while Minh-ha’s argument is about the impossibility of catching ’truth’ with a camera. However, in all their polarity they point in the same direction. If all film is documentary, it is because it documents – and, in effect, ‘gives evidence of’ – the culture that produced it and the people within that culture. If, on the other hand, the documentary cannot be, it is exactly because this documentation is impossible, truth being beyond the reach of cinematic technology. Whether we consider it possible or not, then, ‘documentary’ seems to connote film’s relation to the concrete and conceptual categories of ‘evidence’ and ‘truth’.

How ‘true’, then, is animation? Here, too, scholars seem to differ. Paul Wells, a central point of reference in the discourse of animated documentary claims that ‘the very subjectivity involved in producing animation […] means that any aspiration towards suggesting reality in animation becomes difficult to execute. For example, the intention to create “documentary” in animation is inhibited by the fact that the medium cannot be objective.’ At its best, animation can show a documentary tendency, by mimicking the conventions of live-action documentary film and engaging with social reality (Wells 1998: 27-28).

Wells thus rejects animation’s documentary potential on the grounds of its lacking objectivity, but the more ‘defensive’ discourse questions the idea(l) of objectivity itself. Journalist Beige Luciano-Adams, for instance, triumphantly proclaims that ‘the myth of objectivity has long been shattered. […] Witnessing is a complex act, and the cults of vérité and direct cinema often overestimate anchors of their own lasting, authoritative prowess’ (Luciano-Adams 2009: 22). Perhaps he is right as far as general documentary theory is concerned, but with Wells remaining an authority in animation studies, this ‘myth’ might not yet constitute a closed chapter in the book of animated documentary.

If we are to believe Bill Nichols, documentary objectivity can be understood in at least three ways: firstly, it signifies a sort of commonsensical and omniscient third-person perspective; secondly it can be understood as a view free from personal bias, one that conveys disinterestedness; thirdly, an objective documentary would be one that simply presents the facts and leaves the audience to make up its own mind (Nichols 1991: 196). Wells seems to cling on to a causal chain combining all three. Being drawn, the animated film is always necessarily subjective; a manifestation of the animator’s specific point-of-view. This, in turn, implies a bias that inevitably leads the audience away from that objective truth that constitutes what Wells considers to be documentary’s primary intention. While he suggests that animation does enable a more persuasive display of subjective reality, the conclusion is that ‘sometimes the credibility of the first-person address may be viewed as a questionable credential in the pursuit of documentary truth’ (Wells 1998: 27).

What Wells fails to see is that documentary objectivity is a mirage and the third-person view equally as questionable as the first-person address, since it merely masks what is necessarily true to any truth claim: that a claim requires a ‘claimer’. There is, of course, a difference between placing a camera before an event and constructing the event completely, but the fact remains that the camera was placed there by someone, for some reason. Of course there is such a thing as ‘accidental’ footage; however, no footage is included in a documentary film accidentally. If the idea(l) of objectivity is somehow embedded in the automatism of photographic technology, we could perhaps conclude that surveillance cameras produce the most objective kind of footage there is. Once the camera is installed, it more or less handles itself, waiting to catch any irregularity that happens to occur in front of it. This, however, is exactly where the issue is: the surveillance camera hardly just happens to be there, it carries a strong intentionality within its existence: its very raison d’être is to catch irregularities.

This is not to say that striving towards objectivity is intrinsically manipulative or malicious. The point is that objectivity remains beyond reach even in a live-action context and that Wells’ criterion, for that reason, becomes counter-productive. If objectivity constitutes the basic requirement of documentary, Minh-ha is right: there is no such thing. But documentary and animated documentary do exist, as far as cinematic categories can ever exist: as concepts and objects just waiting to be scrutinized. To deny their existence is to halt the discussion and to render their scrutiny obsolete. It is therefore more constructive, granted that there are films out there that claim to be animated documentaries, not to ask whether there can be such a thing but rather: how does the thing relate to the already established – if not by all accepted – category of ‘normal’ documentary?

Typological Tendencies

It is no coincidence, Paul Ward argues, that A is for Autism (Tim Webb, 1992) includes drawings of actual sufferers from autism, considering that a significant number of animated documentaries are ‘interactive’ in the sense that they constitute collaborations between the filmmaker and his or her subjects (Ward 2005: 94-95). With this statement, Ward is making a reference to the typology of documentary modes developed by Bill Nichols, in which one of the distinctive characteristics of the ‘interactive’ one is that ‘[t]extual authority shifts toward the social actors recruited: their comments and responses provide a central part of the film’s argument’ (Nichols 1991: 44). In fact, one finds quite a tendency to invoke Nichols’ typology in the discourse of animated documentary. It has been argued, for instance, that ‘[a]nimation can also potentially compensate where other, similarly disaffected media can fall short, by introducing a certain transparency and self-consciousness to the mix’ (Luciano-Adams 2009: 26). The term ‘transparency’, usually signifying an effacing of the medium (in classical Hollywood narrative, for instance), here means the opposite: a sort of visibility into the core of representation; ‘[a]nimation can be helpful because no one thinks it’s real’ (Richard Robbins cited in Luciano-Adams 2009: 26). The argument implicitly evokes the ‘reflexive’ mode of documentary: ‘[i]nstead of seeing through documentaries to the world beyond them, reflexive documentaries ask us to see documentary for what it is: a construct or representation’ (Nichols 2001: 125). This parallel is drawn even more explicitly by Sybil DelGaudio, who argues that animation ‘acts as a form of “metacommentary” within a documentary’, inviting the audience to reflect on the adequacy of cinematic representation, but also on the relativity of so called facts (DelGaudio 1997: 192-93).

Gunnar Strøm (2003: 52) prefers to place a number of animated documentaries within the ‘performative’ mode, since he perceives them to be more concerned with form than with content. This is unfortunately a somewhat careless reading of Nichols; the key to a performative documentary is that it ‘does not draw our attention to the formal qualities or political context of the film directly so much as deflect our attention from the referential quality of documentary altogether’ (Nichols: 1994: 93). If there is a certain investment in aesthetics, it is not an end in itself, but a means to convey something about the plurality of reality; the subjectivity of ‘truth’. Strøm’s mistake is easy to make considering that animation has a unique aesthetic dimension to it and it is therefore important to remember that animated documentaries cannot be considered performative solely by virtue of this quality.

Paul Wells makes an effort to develop a more specific typology that applies directly to animated documentaries. The fact that he calls his first category ‘imitative’ indicates that his mission isn’t so much to validate animated films as documentaries, as to find a language to discuss the ways in which they differ from what he considers to be the ‘real’ ones. Curiously though, constant parallels to Nichols’ modes are drawn, at times so carelessly that it seems that the main reason they are mentioned is to give credibility to Wells’ project. Wells’ ‘imitative’ mode, for instance, seeks to mimic the expository documentary, since it “self-consciously foregrounds its construction […]. Nicholls [sic] has argued that this type of film is an expository mode of documentary because it ultimately foregrounds its didacticism” (Wells 1997: 42). But, as Ward (2008) has noted in direct response, ‘[t]he fact is that Nichols makes very clear that the expository mode, while leaning heavily on didacticism, does not really foreground it.’

As far as Wells’ ‘subjective’ mode is concerned, it mixes Nichols’ ‘observational’ mode with the ‘interactive’, ‘defining the role of the animator as observer, re-creating what has happened from the stimulus of aural sources’ (Wells 1997: 44). The ‘reflexive’ mode returns in Wells’ ‘fantastic’ mode, including films that seek to ‘de-familiarise the documentary object […]. This is documentary not as “film of record” but as “film of recognition”, revealing the underlying value systems and relationships beneath rationalised, supposedly civilised, naturalised cultures’ (Wells 1997: 44). Wells’ fourth and final mode is the ‘post-modern’, in which the documentary image is rendered ‘merely ‘an image’ and not an authentic representation’ (Wells 1997: 45). The parallel here is Nichols’ performative documentary with its destabilized referent.

Evidently, the invocation of Nichols’ typology is frequent in the discourse of animated documentary, with close to every mode covered to define particular films or the form as such. Insofar as the motive is to enable a more elaborate discussion of an object whose theoretical language is at a somewhat rudimentary stage, there is definitely a point. However, there seems to be a tendency to ‘squeeze’ this object into a frame of reference in order to validate it, that is to say that if we manage to fit an animated film into one of Nichols’ categories we have, so to speak, proven that it is a documentary. The problem, if such is the case, is that Nichols’ typology rests on the premise that documentary is made with photographic live-action film – to such degree that he explicitly excludes digital live-action film from his earlier discussions (Nichols 1991: 268).

This doesn’t mean that his typology can’t shed light on certain aspects of animated documentary, but rather that it fails to take a crucial one into consideration, namely that animation differs significantly from live-action film in a way that has consequences for its documentary claim. Consequently, Michael Renov’s (1993: 29) take on documentary proves to be more illuminating, since he notes that the most elemental of documentary functions is to record, reveal or preserve. That said, we must ask ourselves how and what an animated image preserves,  ‘[f]or, of course, one crucial parameter of persuasion in documentary could not occur were it not for the veridical stamp of documentary’s indexical sign-status, itself a condition of the record/preserve mode understood as the first documentary function.’

Medium Matters

Wells questions animation’s documentary potential because of its lacking objectivity, while I claim that objectivity is an unattainable ideal, without, for that matter, denying that animation does provide certain difficulties of representation that separates it from live-action film. Others, however, take on such a defensive stance for animation that they end up arguing quite differently. Sybil DelGaudio’s starting point is that the very questioning of photography’s credential opens up for considering animation as a suitable documentary device; in other words it is by way of photography’s non-credibility that animation becomes credible (DelGaudio 1997: 190). David Bordwell (2009) argues in a somewhat similar manner: a documentary, he says, can consist of wholly staged footage, presenting ‘facts’ that might or might not be accurate. What makes the film a documentary is that it’s claiming them to be true and ‘[o]nce we see documentary films as tacitly asserting a state of affairs to be factual, we can see that no particular sort of images guarantees a film to be a doc.’ Paul Ward likewise states that ‘[a]lthough animation can be said to foreground the manipulation involved in a representation, this manipulation actually goes on with all texts […]. [T]here is no reason why an animated documentary should be considered less valid (or ‘less real’) than a live action one’ (Ward 2008).

All three theorists would probably agree that a key to documentary is that it uses reality as its referent. The conclusion they seem to draw, however, is that the inevitable manipulation inherent in any process of signification renders one signifier as good as the other. This is not the sort of semi-nihilist stance that denies documentary entirely (or worse: reality itself), but at its most extreme – and I admit that I am pushing the implication of their argument to its limit – it seems to profess that the medium doesn’t matter. This is a highly problematic stance because it fails to acknowledge that the difference between animation and live-action is not a mere matter of conventions. There is a divide that is also existential. In Roland Barthes’ (2000: 80) haunting and beautiful meditation on photography Camera Lucida, that special existential bond that connects a photograph to its object is investigated:

‘It is often said that it was the painters who invented Photography […]. I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme ”That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent.’ (Barthes 2000: 80)

Roland Barthes

The noeme of photography, then, is that what we see in a particular photograph has, at some moment, actually existed. The photographic referent, as Barthes points out, is not the ‘optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph’ (Barthes 2000: 76). The truth about the photograph is thus twofold: it requires a referent, but, consequently, it also gives evidence of that same referent’s existence. This becomes the essential difference between a photograph and a painting, since the latter ‘can feign reality without having seen it’ (Barthes 2000: 76). Barthes’ observation pinpoints the problem of using animation as a documentary device, insofar as we consider animation to be a succession of drawings. The painting’s existence isn’t dependent on an object outside of itself; the painting is an object in itself. This is its freedom, but also, ultimately, its limitation: since the painting doesn’t require a ‘pro-painterly’ object – an actual referent in the physical world – it can’t really serve as evidence of such an object either, not even where there happens to be one.

A documentary is the sum of the documents that constitute it; the film’s truth claim may be supported by evidence such as verbal testimonies, written documents and so on. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that the photographic technology on which the documentary film rests produces a category of evidence that is existentially different, and this difference lies in that, ultimately, a document can never prove anything else than its own and its producer’s (former) existence. A written confession on a sheet of paper only proves that someone, at some point, wrote what is written. What is written, however, doesn’t necessarily have to correspond with anything else. The same goes for the painting: as far as evidentiality is concerned, it only proves that it was painted, while what it represents can be completely self-referential. Another way of saying this is that texts and paintings don’t require ‘real’ referents; real producers are perfectly sufficient, and this is where photography ultimately stands out: here the producer is, in part, the referent; without the object there would be no photograph.

Barthes’ fascination with photography makes him commit semiologic sacrilege: he denies the distinction between sign and referent. With a witty, yet highly problematic reference to Magritte’s famous painting, he claims that by nature ‘the Photograph […] has something tautological about it: a pipe, here, is always and intractably a pipe’ (Barthes 2000: 5), and he goes one to state that the photograph ‘belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both’ (Barthes 2000: 6). We must be cautious not be carried away by his compelling metaphor. The photograph certainly emanates from the referent, but the referent exists regardless of its being photographed or not. The causal chain is one-way: no object – no photograph; the object may ‘destroy’ the photograph (by its non-existence) but the photograph can only ‘destroy’ the object abstractly (by social influence). ‘When watching the most “verité” of films, we should recall, with Magritte, that this too is not a pipe’, Renov (1993: 26) writes, and he is perfectly right. Pace Barthes, the photochemical pipe is no more smokable than Magritte’s. However, Magritte’s pipe – which is painted – is not a non-pipe of the same order as the vérité one. While the painted non-pipe may have an actual, physical pipe as its referent, it might as well be conceived from a purely conceptual pipe: a pipe in general. This can never be said about the photographic non-pipe, whose referent – whose very source of emanation – will always be a pipe in particular.

The semiotic system of Charles Sanders Peirce sheds further light on the distinction. The index is one of three basic categories of signs, the others being the icon and the symbol. A sign, here, can also be understood as a signifying relation; the way an image, for instance, relates to its referent. While no image is ‘purely’ indexical or iconic, one category will dominate and in the case of photography it is, according to Peirce, the index. D. N. Rodowick (2007: 115) writes that ‘the index is determined by causal relations, or, in Peirce’s terminology, “real connections.”’ It is first and foremost a sign of existence; it confirms that something has been. The icon, on the other hand, is the sign that signifies by resemblance. If the object in Magritte’s painting is recognizable as a pipe (even if it isn’t one), it is because it stands in an iconic relation to its referent. Photographic signification, of course, also has an iconic level – in some sense a superior one since the similarity between the photograph and its object is particularly strong. Nevertheless, since this is the causal effect of an indexical imprint, it is of minor significance to Peirce, who argues that the photograph resembles its referent because it is physically (indexically) forced to do so (Peirce cited in Nichols 1991: 149).

Similarly, we could say that a drawing is indexical insofar as we refer to the material trace of a brush on a canvas. The relation between the drawing and the object it represents, however, is predominantly iconic and consequently animation is first and foremost iconic too. At first sight, Rodowick seems to differ, arguing that cel animations have a strong indexical quality since each photographed frame records and documents a past process that took place in the physical world (Rodowick 2007: 121). A close look at his argument, however, shows that he is shifting focus from the signifying relation between a) the drawing and its object to b) the photograph and the drawing. In other words: he is making the drawing itself the object, that is to say the referent.

André Bazin

André Bazin (1967: 166) finds another ways to distinguish photography from painting. It is only the painting, he argues, that actually has a frame, and by ‘frame’ he means an edge that emphasizes the existential divide between the microcosm of the painting (a world) and the macrocosm of the natural world outside of it (the world). Film, on the other hand, simply masks a portion of reality. There is a screen but no frame, because we know that beyond its edge, the world continues into infinity. Borrowing Bazin’s argument we find that in spite of being cinematic (i.e. conveying movement), animation belongs to the painted realm. In animation there is no world beyond. The screen is a frame. As Folman[i] ascends from the sea onto the burning shores of Beirut, we might wonder whether the water is colder than the air; we forget that his feet never touch the water. There is no Folman below the surface; there is no fire beyond the frame. What we see is all there is. We never see human beings being shot in Waltz with Bashir. We merely see likenesses of such events. The visual evidence of an animated documentary is consequently of a completely different order than the one live-action footage provides and this is where Rodowick’s argument about animation’s indexicality becomes a non-issue. Semiotically speaking: if indices are signs of existence, the only existence that an animated image can ever attest to is that of the drawings that constitute it. Any indication towards the world outside of the film would have to be understood as iconic.

Indexicality is no new concept in the discussion of animated documentary. It seems, however, that the significance of Peirce’s signs is largely underestimated and in some cases even misunderstood. Ward, who otherwise shows a great sensibility in all of his discussions, seems to misread indexicality as a mere resemblance between the sign and its referent, thinking that it relates to the mimetic qualities of the photographic image (Ward 2005: 84). The problem is that the index doesn’t resemble its referent. Or, more specifically: ‘indexicality’ doesn’t refer to the resemblance between an image and its object; that relation would be called ‘iconic’. Ward seems to be confusing the two categories, perhaps because he misses that Peirce’s point isn’t that the index corresponds, but that the index physically forces the photograph to correspond (i.e., to be iconic). If indexicality was a mere question of mimesis – of convention or of style – I would have to agree that the distinction between index and icon is a banality. But, as I hope to have shown, indexicality is a ‘sign of existence’ and, so to speak, an existentially significant sign. There is a causality to the indexical image that the iconic one lacks; hence, the argument that every documentary is a construct and therefore animation is no less documentary is a non sequitur.

After almost 90 minutes of animation Waltz with Bashir suddenly shifts to actual news footage, showing the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. We see and hear the despairing women as they bewail their murdered families and we are shown the mutilated corpses of the people they are bewailing. ‘That decision was always meant to be’, Folman has commented, ‘it was always there since the very beginning. It’s not an artistic decision; it’s an ideological decision. I think it puts the whole film in proportion because you see in the end that real people were massacred’ (Folman cited in McClanahan 2009).

There is a striking parallel in The Sinking of the Lusitania (Winsor McCay, 1918), an animated documentary that predates Waltz with Bashir by 90 years, which also uses photographic material to verify its claims. Considered to be the first animated documentary, it functions as a reconstruction of the 1915 war tragedy when a German U-boat torpedoed the ocean liner Lusitania, killing approximately 1,200 passengers (among them several prominent Americans, including playwright Charles Klein and author Elbert Hubbard). Roughly halfway into the film, the animation is interrupted by a series of photographic portraits showing a number of prominent people who died in the attack on the ocean liner. Not only are we confronted with faces, but with names and even titles. The effect is quite different from Folman’s; rather than to shock, the still images of motionless men instead ask us to contemplate the serious loss that the sinking of the Lusitania signified. Nevertheless, the purpose is the same. The fact that two animated documentaries from completely different epochs utilize what I term photographic verifiers is no coincidence: it is as if the indexical trace makes itself wanted in one way or another. By that, the claim that the medium doesn’t matter proves to be little more than the desire of a discourse that seems so anxious to validate its object that it refuses to acknowledge its weaknesses.

This is not to say that the truth provided by a photograph or a live-action shot is fixed. On the contrary: it changes as soon as it is contextualized. Granted that an image seldom appears ‘by itself’, it is practically always burdened with some degree of meaning that is, so to speak, ‘attached’. This doesn’t make ‘What-has-been’ irrelevant or false; the noeme remains, although covered in additional layers of meaning. Consequently, the photographic verifier certainly verifies something, but that this something is the same as the thing that the filmmaker wants to verify with it isn’t quite as certain.

Waltz with Bashir

Of course, not all animated documentaries include photographic material. It seems, however, that the indexical bond to a pro-filmic reality remains, if not a requirement, then at least an expectation, and when this bond isn’t to be found in the images it moves elsewhere. Waltz with Bashir has been called an illustrated radio documentary (Hedenström 2009), a definition that puts sound in the primary position of the film’s documentary devices. This is not without good reason: hearing the memories told by the people who actually lived them undoubtedly adds to the credibility of the film. Sound, we could say, fills the gap that the non-indexical image has left. Here, however, we must remember that it isn’t so much what is being said that constitutes the indexical evidence but merely the fact that it is being said (by what we believe to be the real, living agent that the image iconically represents). If the ‘reality’ of the photograph lies in its continuous relation to its object – whereby the photograph becomes a message without a code (Barthes 1990: 17) – the same could be said about recorded sound. But this is only true as long as we only hear it as sound and not as language. As soon as we start listening to what is being said we are dealing with a system – that is to say a code. This is the paradox and persuasive potential of acoustic indexicality: if we are careless enough, the necessary ‘reality’ of sound is confused with the relative ‘truth’ of language. A message without a code becomes coded transparently.

Ward points out that animated documentaries catch viewers in ‘a paradoxical position – simultaneously knowing that what they are seeing is a complete fabrication, while what they are hearing is a record of a real interaction’ (Ward 2006: 123). This is true as far as this interaction is understood as ‘pure’ sound, but sound as language is always already a fabrication. Thus, as much as acoustic indexicality may function as an authenticator of iconic images, it nevertheless brings us back to the problem of non-indexical signification: what does a sound recording prove? The story being told or a story being told? Not to mention the somewhat synaesthetic counter-effect that is easy to forget: that drawings colour sound.

Digital Documents

A digital camera records an event and that event is later watched as a moving image. Perceptually speaking, there is little difference between, for instance, a talking-head interview recorded digitally or on 35mm film. There may be visual deviations; a tone and texture that make the footage identifiable as either/or, but overall we perceive both in the same way: as technical recordings of past events. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference that is perhaps best explained semiologically. Barthes (1990: 17) argues that the movement from object to photograph doesn’t require a transformation, ‘it is in no way necessary to divide up this reality into units and to constitute these units as signs, […] there is no necessity to set up a relay, that is to say a code, between object and its image.’ The photograph signifies without a code, something which can’t be said about the description of that same photograph, since a necessary transformation takes place as the index is transformed into that symbolic sign-system we call language. Indeed, language is that primary ’other’ with which Barthes’ photographic signification is contrasted, but the way he describes what photography isn’t – the division into units that are constituted as signs – he could just as well be talking about digital technology.

Waltz with Bashir

Just like in the transformation from image to text, digital photography transforms its referent into a symbolic code, although not a lingual but a numerical one. The difference is that the code is then reconstituted, not into words, but into an image that actually resembles the original object. From object to image there are thus two transformations, meaning that ‘a “digital image” is always marked by a fundamental discontinuity as if riven by, yet encompassing, two separate dimensions’ (Rodowick 2007: 113-14). If it is the continuity between sign and referent that grants photography its unique evidential force, something happens when the referent is divided into discrete units: the indexical link is broken, a possibility to reassemble the units arises and with that, an unprecedented possibility to fiddle with ‘What-has-been’. Mathematically speaking: ‘digital acquisition quantifies the world as a manipulable series of numbers’ (Rodowick 2007: 116). More concretely: digital technology allows images to alter recorded reality. Objects that look real can even turn out to be computer generated, that is to say digitally ‘drawn’. This, of course, becomes quite a problem for documentary film, since its primary proof – the photographic image – no longer seems to prove anything.

The digital document seems to bring photography and painting closer together. Suddenly we have a ”photograph” in which a physical referent is no longer necessary, and when there is one, it is digitally deconstructed into a symbolic code and reconstituted into an iconic likeness. Indexicality, insofar as we understand it as the causal bond between image and object, prevails merely as a possibility. Symptomatically, Rodowick (2007: 105-6) sees digital cinema as a return of a certain ‘graphism’; ‘[t]he image becomes not only more painterly but also more imaginative. Its powers of documentation are diminished or decentered in relation to the presentation of counterfactually conditional worlds.’ Does this mean that we are finally facing the moment when the medium ceases to matter: no more difference between pixel and paint; photograph and painting; animated documentary and live-action one? In due time, perhaps. But we shouldn’t forget that we are facing a process rather than a proper revolution. For cultural as well as technological reasons we haven’t reached the point where the index and the noeme can be completely overlooked, or when the painting and the photograph finally become indistinguishable. In present reality, digital cameras continue being used to record events and we have yet to be fooled by computer generated ‘actors’. For the time being I dare to conclude that the veracity of digital film may be doubted, but in animation there is no doubt that what is seen isn’t a recording of an actual referent, but an iconic representation of a possible one.


The contradictory concept of animated documentary raises a number of relevant questions regarding the problem of representing reality. If the potency of a documentary’s truth claim is relative to the documents that constitute it, the animated documentary is significantly weakened by its lack of the fundamental evidential ingredient that is traditionally associated with documentary film: the photographic raw material. This is a problem that the ‘defensive’ discourse of animated documentary fails to acknowledge, arguing instead that every documentary is a construct and that, consequently, animated documentaries are just as ‘real’ as live-action ones. The ultimate fallacy of such argument is that it doesn’t take into consideration that two constructs are never the same and that each one is limited by its material. A wooden house will stand the wind but a brick house will resist fire and equally: a documentary film that lacks that causal, indexical link to pro-filmic reality that the live-action film has, will have more difficulty standing the huffing and puffing of a spectator who equates documentary film with visual proof.

The problem isn’t that animation cannot be objective. No film can. At its best, objectivity is a noble ideal to strive towards; at its worst, it is a manipulative claim. The real issue is the existential difference between the photograph and the drawing, where the former requires and gives evidence of its referent while the latter doesn’t. This doesn’t mean that the potential of animated documentary should be denied. It merely means that drawings document differently. My aim has not been to discredit animated documentary but to point out that such films do provide a problem, that this problem differs from the ones of live-action and that any discussion about the veracity of animated documentary that doesn’t take this into consideration is starting out wrong.

Jonathan Rozenkrantz is about to complete his MA studies at the Department of Cinema Studies at Stockholm University, where he has also guest lectured. His writings have appeared in Tidningen Kulturen and in the publications of several Swedish film festivals.


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Ward, Paul (2005), Documentary- the Margins of RealityLondon: Wallflower Press.

—— (2006), “Animated Interactions: Animation Aesthetics and the World of the ‘Interactive’ Documentary”, in Suzanne Buchan (ed), Animated ‘Worlds’Estleigh: John Libbey.

—— (2008), “‘Animated Realities’: the animated film, documentary, realism”, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, 8: 2. Accessed 24 August 2010.

Wells, Paul (1997), “The Beautiful Village and the True Village: A Consideration of Animation and the Documentary Aesthetic”, in his (ed), Art and AnimationLondon: Academy Group / John Wiley, pp. 40-45.

—— (1998), Understanding AnimationLondon: Routledge.

[i] Character Ari Folman, the animated avatar of the eponymous writer/director of Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir, 2008) – an Israeli animated documentary dealing with the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 and the memory repression that then-soldier Folman suffered as its consequence.

15 Comments for “Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary”

  1. […] http://filmint.nu/?p=1809 Share this:FacebookTumblrTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. April 29, 2012 by Alys Categories: Writing | Tags: 2011, Ari Folman, article, Bill Nicols, Jonathan Rosenkrantz, Paul Ward, Paul Wells, Roland Barthes, sweden, Sybil DelGaudio, Waltz with Bashir | Leave a comment […]

  2. […] Rozenkrantz, J. 2011 ‘Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary’ Film International online journal accessed 6th March 2013 <http://filmint.nu/?p=1809&gt; […]

  3. […] of what they (and others, including myself) have said, in Jonathan Rosenkrantz’s article Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary. At one point, Rosenkrantz […]

  4. I seldom comment on these articles, but I thought this on deserved a well done you

  5. Jonathan Rozenkrantz

    Dear Michael,

    I haven’t checked the comments here for a long time (given that the article was published back in 2011), and I’m very happy to hear that it is still being read and appreciated. Thank you for your comment!


    Jonathan Rozenkrantz

  6. Within the top 10 of the favourite content pieces, thanks!

  7. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Hey, great stuff! Thanks, Andrew, for commenting and thus bringing this piece to the top, so to speak – so much stuff on FI it’s easy to get lost – great piece, lots to think about here – thanks Jonathan!

  8. Jonathan Rozenkrantz

    Wow, thanks both of you! I never imagined, back when I wrote this, that it would receive this kind of appreciation. I’ve been working on other topics these last years (I’m currently writing my PhD thesis on intermedial constellations of video and film), but I’ve been wanting to return to the notion of animated documentary for an expanded discussion. Now that I read your comments, I feel I definitely should.

  9. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    This is indeed a brilliant article and an overlooked topic. The notion of an animated documentary realism effect is problematic and needs more attention.

    Your article immediately made me think of the limited animated versions of “reconstructed” news events, such as “the death of Bin Laden,” which seemingly ran on repeat mode for a time on the news here in the USA. The animation is very limited and awkward, but because it ran so frequently and repeatedly, I suspect it began to take on the effect of a seemingly compensatory “reality,” for many spectators, which is disturbing. No doubt you have given this some thought.

    I hope you do return to this topic, Jonathan. It is indeed fascinating and relevant.

  10. […] Jonathan Rosenkrantz’s article Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary. At one point, Rosenkrantz […]

  11. Jonathan Rozenkrantz

    Thank you, Gwendolyn! You’re absolutely right in that it is an overlooked research topic, but this might luckligy be changing (although it might also only be a matter of a temporary wave in the wake of Waltz with Bashir). A monograph titled Animated Documentary was published last year, written by Annabelle Honess Roe – the first one of its kind, as far as I know. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure it’s interesting. There is also an increasing number of articles and theses written on the topic.

    As I’m not from the USA and haven’t been there since I was a kid, I haven’t seen the reconstructions you mention, so thank you for that as well. They sound as a crucial aspect to explore. The Baudrilllardian notion of simulacra immediately comes to mind, not least in this form of repetition that you describe, in which the “real” referent is eventually lost in the series of animated images which ultimately seem to refer more to themselves that to what actually happened. Not that I’m a devote Baudrillardian (few seem to be these days, although I must say that I find his ideas highly suggestive for certain situations).

  12. Interesting that you don’t see the “reconstructions” abroad. Torture methods are also animated and run repeatedly on the news and chat shows here. The clunky animation and repetition of these images indeed turns them into simulacra, shorn from meaning and empathy. Animated images are used to normalize sadism, cruelty, and vile practices that supposedly keep us safe and protect us from the “evil Other.”

    On top of that, we are subject to an ongoing “debate” about the use of torture to “obtain information,” despite ample evidence that proves otherwise. The use of limited animation is significant here, because the simulacra of torture is shorn of any semblance of reality in terms of SOUND – we hear no cries of pain, we do not hear sounds of death blows, etc. — instead we hear patriotic speeches and empathy deficient rhetoric with a side order of platitudes about our great nation.

    The limited animation, along with other propaganda techniques works well to seemingly normalize inhumane acts. Several Tv shows have sprung up that use a specious sense of faux feminism to domesticate torture. Homeland, Madame Secretary, and State of Affairs all feature women who preside over and endorse torture. I suspect that widespread acceptance of domesticated cruelty and sadism would not be possible without the use of limited animation that “norms” behavior that is unconscionable under any circumstances, so I really do hope more work is done in the area of animated documents and documentation.

  13. Jonathan Rozenkrantz

    Very interesting issues you address. The question of how images actually affect us is certainly a difficult one to give any final answer to. But I agree that a close analysis of aesthetics might at least give us a hint. Your comment regarding the abstracted nature of the images reminds me of the surprisingly emotionless military training simulators seen in Harun Farocki’s Serious Games (as opposed to the affective intensity of commercial war games intended for entertainment). Different purposes, different aesthetics. As to the actual effects, one can perhaps only speculate. But the difference is certainly suggestive.

  14. […] Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary http://filmint.nu/?p=1809 […]

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