If you haven’t heard already, Dennis Tupicoff has written a book about his films and his approach to animated documentaries. The book accompanies 9 of his films, curated and freely available on a Youtube channel.
A little about the book: “Dennis Tupicoff, world-renowned animator, writer, and producer, is an expert on the narrative application of death in animation. Take a journey with Tupicoff as he goes in-depth into the many themes, associations, and practices found in film and especially animation. Life in Death: My Animated Films 1976–2020 explores death as it relates to experience, storytelling, theory, and narrative. The examples in the very readable text are organized into three broad categories: cartoon, documentary, and hybrids of various types.”
Every year, London International Animation Festival shows a programme of global documentaries in a specially dedicated screening. In last year’s festival, the selection included a wide range of films, from personal, autobiographical independent short films, to branded content and museum commissions. Many of these films are now available online, so here is a short overview of the programme.
Save Ralph (Spencer Susser, 2021) is a darkly comic mockumentary following a rabbit who “works” in the cosmetics testing industry. With a star-studded cast of voice actors and very high production values, the film has much to admire technically and creatively, and a message that cuts through the humour to leave the viewer feeling very uncomfortable indeed. The film ends with a message from The Humane Society encouraging action to help ban animal testing.
Timeline (Osbert Parker, 2020) is a poetic film commissioned by The Migration Museum. The film weaves together single frames with diverse imagery. From this visual cacophony, the fluctuating image of a single line emerges. This takes us through an abstracted history of migration, from 1620-2020, and beyond, hinting at a possible future of human migration to space. Patterns develop and evolve, punctuated by interjections of stop-motion and mixed media animation. It’s a dynamic piece that stands repeated viewings, as it is easy to miss details on a first watch.
Heart of the Nation (Tribambuka, 2020) is another film commissioned by the migration museum. This is a more explicit narrative focusing on the contribution that migration has made, and continues to make, on the staffing of the British NHS. It focuses on communicating a clear message informatively, attractively, and persuasively, and achieves its aims in this.
The Train Driver (Zuniel Kim, Christian Wittmoser, 2021) examines the psychological impact on a train driver of the six suicides of strangers that he has been caught up in through his job. Simple blue and yellow tinted sequences develop against a black background, offering an elegant counterpoint to the narrator’s words and allowing the audience to focus on the sensitive story he is telling.
In Nature (Marcel Barelli, 2021) takes us to the other end of the spectrum. Using vivid and varied colours alongside a cartoony aesthetic, this film playfully demonstrates diverse manifestations of homosexuality in nature. The film is funny and well-paced, full of excellent visual gags, and does a great job of educating without ever feeling preachy or lecturing.
In the Shadow of the Pines (Anne Koizumi, 2020) is a meditative piece in which a woman reflects on her memories of her Japanese father, and the shame he felt as a child at his culture, character and his job as a school janitor. In the second part of the film, we hear her father’s voice explaining his actions, and how his behaviour was a response to his own traumatic childhood. Finally, we are told that this conversation never really happened; her father died before they could make sense of the past, and of their relationship, together. The film is affecting. Some of the details in the memories are so raw and real that they cut to the bone, and there is a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout.
Only a Child (Simone Giampaolo, 2020) is a well-executed mixed media animation illustrating a speech made by twelve-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki at a UN summit. She speaks powerfully on the dangers of climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. At the end of the film, we discover that the words were spoken in 1992, a chilling reminder that the urgent call to action they contained was not heeded, and our environmental crisis has deteriorated in the years that have passed since the speech was made. The film is beautifully animated, with a production process that engaged more than 20 animation directors working on separate sections, and it moves gracefully between styles and techniques.
The Chimney Swift (Frédéric Schuld, 2020) is a brooding film, with a script drawn from accounts of ‘Master’ chimney sweepers, who sent small children up chimneys in the Victorian era and who had themselves been sent up chimneys as children. A sketchy and stylised, artistic design approach combined with a flowing animation style creates an immersive viewing experience, while the savagery of the experiences described are still disturbing to hear almost two centuries after they were written down – partly due to the final frame, which reminds us that child labour practices still continue around the world.
Darwin’s Notebook (Georges Schwizgebel, 2020) delves into Charles Darwin’s notebook from 1833. He was aboard the Beagle as the ship travelled to return three kidnapped indigenous Alakaluf people of Tierra del Fuego to their home country. The film flows beautifully from one image to the next, with a painterly style combined with impressive, cinematic camera moves. The film follows the kidnapped people, from their previous life in their homeland through their violent abduction and attempts to replace their own culture with contemporaneous European ideals. When they are returned to their home they are adorned with the clothes and materials of the ‘civilised’ world, but these are soon abandoned. The film ends with a title card stating that the Alakaluf people were ultimately destroyed by western disease, persecution, and the deprivation of their natural resources.
The Torture Letters (Jocie Juritz/Laurence Ralph, 2020) is a New York Times Op-Doc about racism and police violence in Chicago. The voiceover describes the narrator witnessing two young people being stopped-and-searched, an incident which triggers painful memories of his own. The narrator then discusses his research into wider police violence in the city, and tells the stories of Dominique “Damo” Franklin, who was killed at 23 by police taser, and of Andrew Wilson, who in 1989 filed a civil suit which brought down a police commander who had encouraged a culture of torture in custody. The film ends with a broader reflection on discrimination and violence in the US. The film is dense with information, which means it offers more with each viewing, suggesting avenues for further research. The monochrome visuals, moving between literal illustration, symbolic interpretation, and abstract shapes, lead the viewer through the multiple stories.
All Those Sensations in my Belly (Marko Djeska, 2020) tells the story of a young trans woman, her developing identity through childhood and adolescence, and her struggle to find a loving and lasting relationship. The film progresses through a range of visual and animation styles as the lead character moves through stages of life, from the darkest places, to transcendent moments of self-discovery. The sound design adds a strong layer of emotion to the story, ratcheting up the tension at points and at others creating a deep empathy, without resorting to sentimentality. The result is a moving film portraying a complex, vulnerable, resilient, sympathetic and highly relatable character.
One of the striking things about this programme of shorts is how many of the films have strong social and political messages, often accompanied by explicit calls to action. The social issues presented here span discrimination, identity, racism, abuse, migration, climate, mental health, and animal welfare. The creative approaches taken are as broad as the subjects covered, but every film in the selection points clearly to a desire to tell stories that can help us to move toward a better, fairer, and kinder world.
London International Animation Festival (LIAF) is an annual event taking place in November and December across multiple London venues. Full listings for the 2021 festival can be found on the website.
Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi as he grapples with a painful secret he has kept hidden for 20 years, one that threatens to derail the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband. Winning many awards and accolades including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, this film has garnered much critical acclaim since its release in 2021.
Told to director Jonas Poher Rasmussen under an alias, we witness the life-threatening, heartbreaking journey undertaken as a child refugee from Afghanistan. The animation is interspersed with archive footage from Afghanistan, punctuating the memories with indexical images; the sequences striking a resemblance to events currently unfolding in Ukraine. This is further heightened by the plight of the refugees trying to find a way through systems to safe places, which in this story took many years. Alongside this is the sub storyline of Amin’s sexual identity and his coming of age as a displaced refugee.
This is an Animated Documentary and wrap around campaign to raise awareness and talk about some of the mental health wellbeing difficulties parents may face during pregnancy, birth and after. The aim is to emotionally support parents and enable them to find support. First hand testimonies along with animated characters and storylines open up conversations and experiences that are often difficult to start or hear. This film is directed by Emma Lazenby through ForMed Films, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company.
While still in production, there was a lot of talk among art lovers about the 2017 animated documentary Loving Vincent. ‘It is completely hand-painted’, ‘an army of artists has been employed for its production’, ‘it will look like a moving painting’ (see Frizzell, 2017; Mottram, 2017; Vollenbroek, 2017)… I was in suspense for its release and fascinated by all the hype surrounding it. When I finally got to watch the film, I could not help but feel a bit let down. Yet, I could not understand the reasons behind this disenchantment. The imagery imitated van Gogh’s style flawlessly, the storyline dealing with the circumstances of the artist’s death was interesting enough, and as far as I could tell, the acting was good. What was it then? Why was I feeling like I wanted to see more?
Part of me felt that my art education was to blame, an education that was perhaps wrongly distinguishing and discriminating between art and craft. I could not see the point behind this repetitive exercise of recreating an art style whose value lay in being different, in being original and unique. The recreation seemed like a copy, an imitation and therefore to me, of less value. It seemed no further away from art than a printed reproduction of the original painting. It seemed almost futile, unnecessary, a bit kitschy. The story could hold its weight without the hand-painted stylization, and the stylization might have had a stronger effect without a storyline. However, I remembered how art students and apprentices used to study images –and still do to some extent– by copying the masters. This film employed over one hundred artists who worked painstakingly to recreate the footage in Van Gogh’s style. Keeping in mind this tradition of learning art, it seems like Loving Vincent acted as an apprenticeship for them. An homage to the technique of this master of modernism. To me, it is a performance that pays tribute to this great artist, not so much in its completed form, the final film, as by the painstaking process of its production. And that change in perspective elevates a rather good film to a masterpiece.
Loving Vincent. Dir. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman.
In her short film I’m OK, Elizabeth Hobbs (2018), took a completely different approach in depicting the life and work of the Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. Despite some loose references to his work here and there, Hobbs did not try to emulate Kokoschka’s style, nor did she have a script and employ actors and rotoscoping. Using expressive, playful lines and bright colours on paper, the animator highlights aspects of Kokoschka’s life. She specifically focuses on the time when the artist volunteered for service during WWI, after being rejected by a lover. Although Hobbs communicates well the message of heartbreak, war and pain, unless a viewer is already familiar with the life and work of Kokoschka, it is unlikely that they would gain an education of the artist merely by watching the film. This, however, does not seem to be the priority of the short. Instead, it acts as a loose interpretation of the life of an artist.
I’m OKDir. Elizabeth Hobbs (U.K. and Canada)
These two examples are very different approaches to document the life of an artist through animation. Both films take advantage of the medium to simulate an aspect of creation that van Gogh and Kokoschka were using. Loving Vincent partially employs rotoscoping in the form of hand-painted live action footage but remains confined within the indexical qualities of the recording. It takes advantage of van Gogh’s painterly aesthetics and simultaneously maintains a strong relation to ‘reality’. I’m OK, on the other hand, does not involve the tracing over live-footage and without this strong and recorded initial connection to the world, it recreates Hobbs’ own version of it from scratch. I’m OK applies an expressive approach with emotive brushstrokes, music, use of colour and symbolism to tell a story while highlighting the animator’s unique perspective and is without any pretence of presenting ‘the real’. Hobbs refers to Kokoschka’s style not by directly emulating his art, but by adopting a similarly expressive aesthetic while maintaining her artistic voice. Hobbs’s film is not only an homage to an artist. It is much more than that, as it is, at least in my humble opinion, a work of art in its own right.
The Deptford Animadocs symposium took place on a warm July day in Deptford Cinema, London. A converted shop edging the bustle of Deptford Market, the venue, which is run entirely by volunteers, is plastered with cult film imagery and local information, combining the laser focus of film obsessives with the inclusivity of a community space. The event attracted an audience including animated documentary die-hards as well as newcomers to the form and there was a buzz throughout the day as filmmakers, academics and audience members compared thoughts and ideas.
The day included three programmes of short films. Each had a theme. The first, ‘Borders’, was a harrowing collection of stories of migration, protest, and imprisonment. From the near-invisible modern-day slavery of some domestic workers in Leeds Animation Workshop’s They Call Us Maids to the brutal detention of migrants in Lukas Schrank’s Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island, the films told urgent stories with a strong social message.
Nowhere Lines: Broken Dreams from Manus Island Dir. Lukas Schrank (UK/ Australia)
The second programme, themed as ‘Memories’, was a more upbeat and varied screening, lifted by the humour of Dustin Grella’s Animation Hotline and the lateral charm of Carina and Ines Christine Geisser’s Durrenwaid 8. The programme also featured dark moments, notably Susan Young’s visceral The Betrayal, a film in which she explores a traumatic period from her past in which she was put in the care of a manipulative and destructive mental health professional.
Following this was a screening of the feature animated documentary Another Planet (dir. Amir Yatziv). The film follows the creators of various virtual simulations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. These worlds have been created by very different people, each with very different motivations: police forensics, game development, museum exhibit modelling. In the film we see the creators of each simulated camp as avatars exploring their own virtual Auschwitz.
This was one of those films that is very difficult to describe or explain, or even to make sense of your feelings about during or after watching it. It’s strange, chilling, depressing, reflective, and at times blackly funny. It asks smart questions not only about its subject but also about the documentary form, leaving the audience unsettled and unmoored, unsure of whose voice we have been listening to.
The final short film programme of the day, ‘Body and Mind’, saw filmmakers looking inwards and making films that dealt with physical and mental illness, and emotional highs and lows. Kate Ranmey’s Lingua Absentia was a powerful story about a young woman with schizophrenia and cancer, told through the eyes of her mother, while Lizzy Hobbs’s BAFTA-nominated I’m OK was a wonderfully fluid, rich and satisfying way to wrap up the screening.
I’m OK Dir. Elizabeth Hobbs (UK)
The day concluded with a roundtable discussion, with: myself; Susan Young; Terry Wragg and Jo Dunn from the Leeds Animation Workshop; Dr Victoria Grace Walden, who had organised and programmed the bulk of the day; and Dr Bella Honess Roe, who has written widely on animated documentary and who helped programme the event. It was a lively, discursive panel with a very active audience. Earlier in the day both Honess Roe and Walden had made presentations and led discussions, laying strong groundwork for more in-depth debate at the end of the day. It was particularly interesting to hear Young talk about her process of making The Betrayal, which she produced following a period of poor mental health, building a script from fragments of her real medical and legal records:
I had gone through this experience of being someone who had a voice, an animation director, et cetera, and then ending up with a mental health label and suddenly becoming voiceless. And that was totally shocking. So I wanted to explore that, to actually explore what it meant to me, how it felt to be voiceless. Which is why I used the medical records, to subvert them and take control of that narrative.
Most of the words in the film are seen as flashes of typed text, shot so close-up that the texture of paper and ink is visible, illuminated by sudden flashes of light. The doctor’s words are embodied in a disturbing voiceover, voiced by Young herself in audio that was then processed heavily to create a dark simulation of a man’s voice. This literal using of her own voice exemplifies Young’s intention:
it was really, really important to find my own voice again through playing with the voice of this individual who I’d created through his medical records he wrote about me, and also legal records.
It was also good to hear Wragg and Dunn talk about their work with Leeds Animation Workshop and how it has changed over the years. Particularly interesting was Wragg’s opinion that it is harder now to find ways to get a film seen in a good environment with the opportunity for discussion than it used to be. She explains that:
a lot of our films are quite dense and intensively researched and designed to provoke specific questions. They really work best if they’re in a group where people are around to talk about things, and sometimes that’s not as easy as it used to be.
More positively, the panel discussed animated documentary as a space where alternative and diverse stories and storytellers can flourish. Walden commented on how encouraged she was not only by the quantity and quality of submissions that Deptford Animadocs received, but also the diversity of the filmmakers and the stories represented.
Walden also talked about the way that the documentary value of animated documentary is problematised by the subjectivity of the form, the intent that is inherent in animation. While all filmmaking involves construction and decision-making on the part of the filmmaker, there remains a sense that animation is more constructed and therefore less trustworthy than live action. Walden and Honess Roe discussed the fact that while animated documentary is generally considered to be good at representing subjective, internal experiences, these representations are usually mediated by the animator or director, rather than emerging purely from the subject (Samantha Moore’s work within the collaborative frame is an example of a filmmaker addressing this limitation).
This Animadocs festival, or symposium, or ‘sympestival’ as Walden calls it, was a rich day for fans of animated and alternative documentary. The programme of films was very strong, favouring high-intensity work packing an emotional gut-punch over information-heavy or highly illustrative films. This made the viewing demanding as well as rewarding, but the frequent breaks, presentations and discussions that peppered the day provided relief and variety, as well as seeds of thought and collaboration that will no doubt grow beyond the event itself.
To keep up to date with the future work of Deptford Animadocs, join their facebook group here.
Mary Martins is a London based filmmaker making animated documentaries and experimental films. Her short film The Divide won the Mother Art Prize in 2017 as well as the Best New Voice award at the Factual Animation Film Fuss in 2016.
The Divide from Mary Martins on Vimeo.
In 2018 Martins was commissioned by the BFI and BBC4 to make the short film Childhood Memories, based on her memories of a holiday in Lagos as a young girl. The film combines archive footage with stop-motion and 2D animation to build a rich and evocative picture of a time and place remembered. The narrative for the film emerged from a poem that Martins wrote, which also led the visual development.
Discussing her process, Martins tells me “I turned my memory into a poem to create the rhythm, and that led the animation, so the animation flowed from the rhythm of the poem”. Her decision to use a mixed media method was driven by both tonal and storytelling needs. “The reason why I chose the puppets was because I wanted to create that feeling that it was a real person going back in time” she explains. “I think you can capture that well with puppets, you can really bring them to life. And then there were bits that I couldn’t quite get from the footage no matter how much I edited it, and that’s where the hand-drawn came into it. To kind of fill in the missing gaps, between the visuals, the footage and the actual memory itself – the narrative”.
Childhood Memories (2018)
Martins is set to study for a Masters at the Royal College of Art from September, as part of their animated documentary pathway, and sees it as an opportunity to develop her own distinctive voice. “My work is always going to be very experimental” she predicts, “I still don’t know if I have my own style yet, I hope going to the RCA will help me get closer to that… I see my work as a personal journey and really want to work on discovering myself through my work”.
Directed by Anja Kofmel and screened during Cannes International Critics Week in 2018, this feature length documentary ,which fuses a mix of live action, archive and animation, is a remarkable investigation into the death of war journalist Chris, Kofmel’s late cousin.
This personal story, rich with emotion explains how the death of Kofmel’s cousin has impacted her entire life. Chris travelled to the Croatian War of Independence in the 90’s, and much of the film is set in and around Zagreb. Kofmel appears herself in the film both as a child in animated form and as an adult in live action. We see her visit the places Chris had been, such as hotels and battle grounds and talk to the people he met, such as fellow journalists and ‘soldiers’, in an attempt to discover why and how he died. I thought the inclusion of the animation production process as part of the film was a nice touch, the storyboarding and concept sketches forming part of her search.
The animation is spellbinding, black and white 2D and created in TV Paint, there is the feeling of movement and texture in the drawings as the ink bleeds into the ‘paper’ whilst images are formed and animated. The depiction of Chris and other characters is very clear, the characterisation of them and Kofmel’s direction holding up well against any photos or live action of those people. In particular the key characters, not alive today to give testimony, the animation is adding and ‘filling in’ for the missing live action that we require in order to tell Chris’s story. But the animation is not merely a device for the live action. It brings a new level of understanding to the documentary in the way in which it morphs, transcends time and geographical boundaries. There are symbolic themes in the animation, such as that of the animated lines that denote the lines in Chris scarf, or the black painterly marks that follow Chris, which instantly make me think of death. These devices guide us through the narrative, and act as signifiers of important events. The animation explores memory, loss and emotion and through it’s movement is evocative of all these states.
A wonderful film, truly deserving of its critical acclaim. In my opinion, this is a fine addition to the animated documentary genre.
An important Animated Doc featuring the voices of Asylum Seekers detained on Manus Island, whilst en route to Australia. This animated doc is available on 99.media, a free platform broadcasting documentaries in 6 different languages.
“In July 2013, the Australian Government introduced a controversial immigration policy, transferring asylum seekers arriving by boat to remote offshore detention centres on foreign Pacific islands.
Seven months later, the Manus Island centre erupted in violence when police and guards put down protests with sticks, machetes and guns, and 23 year-old asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed.
We spoke to Behrouz and Omar, who are currently detained on Manus Island.