Eternal Spring, Jason Loftus’s feature-length largely animated documentary about the 2002 hijacking of a state TV signal in China by members of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, is currently playing at Bertha Dochouse in London and at other cinemas across the world. The film chronicles a small group of Falun Gong practitioners, whose aim through the hijack was to counter the government’s narrative about their practice at a time when Falun Gong faced growing pressure and persecution.
The film uses the surviving hijackers’ memories as material through which scenarios are visualised by artist Daxiong, also a Falun Gong practitioner, who was forced to leave China as a result of the government crackdown following the hijacking. The design includes elaborate architectures and environments, through which the camera travels revealing characters and scenarios. As the action progresses we are introduced to a group of characters who come together as a community of activists, and are subsequently torn apart by the repercussions of their activism.
Eternal Spring does not completely get away from some of the problematic elements of animated reconstruction (and indeed of any reconstruction or reenactment), whereby richly detailed scenes are presented without the audience having full access to the knowledge of which details of the action and environment come from rigorous research, memory or record, and which come from the imagination of the filmmakers and designers.
However the film does constantly work to legitimise its representations, by adopting the reflexive technique of showing the research and development process through the eyes of Daxiong. The artist reflects on his own life and memories at the same time as talking to surviving hijackers and reconstructing theirs.
This process of making what Daxiong describes as ‘art based on a shared memory’ forms the spine of the film, with reconstructions emerging from live action interview scenes in which Daxiong is sketching as interviewees are describing their memories. At other times we see interviewees looking at designs and work-in-progress animated scenes, and responding to them, before we are plunged into the fully rendered glossy scene itself.
The visual design of the animated scenes gives the action, including scenes of physical abuse, a comic book / gangster heist quality. Gangster film tropes are also referenced in the cinematography, down to freeze-frame character introductions and even a dolly zoom in a diner, à la Goodfellas. This use of cinematic language can add drama in certain moments – the hijack itself gets quite tense – but gives it also gives the film a genre sheen that can be distancing at times.
The film also breaks with this design at moments, including a beautifully fluid expressionistic sequence at an emotional climax, in which a character’s psychology is represented through more abstracted images and action, leaning into symbolic imagery and evocative sounds, in an inky black-and-white aesthetic. Moments such as this elevate the film, heightening emotion and exploiting animation’s ability to do more than merely reenact.
Eternal Spring focuses its action almost exclusively around the run-up to and the fallout from the 2002 hijack. The absence of a wider contemporary context for Falun Gong has led some reviewers to view the film with notes of suspicion. The absence of any reference to the movement’s links to far right US media, for example, raises eyebrows in otherwise positive reviews in Indiewire and The Guardian. But this is a film that is honestly and unashamedly one-sided. It tells the story from the point of view of the hijackers – their experience of persecution, and of the sometimes exhilarating, ultimately tragic, events that changed the course of their lives. It’s an absorbing watch, a polished production, and essential viewing for anyone with an interest in the animated documentary form.
I recently conducted a study of short UK-produced animated documentaries programmed in film festivals between 2015 and 2020. Of 146 films, almost a third were student productions. In many cases these films emerged from art universities, and they were often directed, researched, produced, designed, and animated by a single filmmaker. It got me thinking about animated documentary, and creativity, and art school. Animated documentary production involves so many skills – animation, design, storytelling, research, legals, ethics, communication… what kind of a degree programme can best support a student to make these kinds of films?
My own creative practice is, in large part, a product of my undergraduate education at Sheffield Hallam University, a former polytechnic that proudly counted Nick Park among its alumni. In the art campus, then situated away from the main university and blessed with a sense of being entirely forgotten by the outside world, I tinkered with 16mm film cameras, Steenbeck edit machines and rostrum film cameras, nestled amongst modern digital equipment. My attempts at animation and filmmaking owed much to the work shown to us our irrepressibly enthusiastic tutor Paul Haywood: Jan Švankmajer, Stan Brakhage, Len Lye, Carolee Schneemann, Kenneth Anger, Andrew Kötting, Sadie Benning, George Kuchar, and more. These were the films that sparked my imagination and wove themselves into my own creative DNA.
I graduated in 2004, and even then the campus and course felt like outliers, soon to be swept up in a tidal wave of digitisation and change. The website The Lost Continent includes an article about the impact that art school education had on the British independent animation scene of the 80s and 90s. Referencing Andrew Darley, it links this both to the political context of the time and to the cultural history and theory prevalent in the curriculum. Darley’s commentary, written in 1997, goes on to criticise a growing focus in art school animation education on conformity and commerciality, at the expense of experimentation and critical enquiry.
In the UK, a conflict between priorities of technical training and those of creative experimentation in art education existed long before the 1990s. Lisa Tickner’s book Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution (2008) presents a detailed account of the Hornsey College of Art’s 1968 occupation by students, in a protest over funds that escalated into a broader protest about art education. In the Epigraph, a student letter is presented which calls for ‘a curriculum in which individual needs are no longer subordinated a predetermined system of training requiring a degree of specialisation which precludes the broad development of the students’ artistic and intellectual capacities’.
Animated documentary is a practice that bridges multiple industries and multiple communities. Through the fuzziness of its genre associations and its complex relationship with representation, it carries enormous scope for creative innovation. Over the course of my PhD research I’ve interviewed and read accounts from many influential animated documentary makers who talk about their art school education in terms of the creative mindset it left them with, above the technical skills it taught.
Among the animators whose work was emerging in the 80s and 90s, Liverpool College of Art is an establishment that comes up frequently. Animation was taught as an option on a wider graphics course and the college’s alumni include a number of filmmakers who went on to make boundary pushing work that used animation to depict reality. Sarah Cox, Stuart Hilton, Susan Young, Bunny Schendler, and Jonathan Hodgson all passed through the institution, as well as Chris Shepherd, who studied Foundation there before continuing his education at Farnham UCA, another institution which has been highly influential in the development of British animated documentary. When I interviewed Shepherd in 2019, he partially credited his art school education with the attitude that allowed him to create innovative work that combined dark social realism with technically experimental animation. comparing this with his experience of the 21st century feature film industry, he observes that in the film industry, gatekeepers ‘want [the work] to be like everything else. But I went to art college, and I was always told to do something that’s different’.
Bunny Schendler’s introduction to animation practice came as a result of working in proximity to animators while studying sculpture at Liverpool College of Art. When I interviewed her in 2019 she remembered seeing the work of students that had come before her, including Sarah Cox and Stuart Hilton. Schendler reflects that these films had an impact on her, as ‘unlike most highly finished commercial cartoons, it was unpolished, you could see that it was moving drawings which allowed me to connect my own practice-experience of drawing with what I was seeing.’ Schendler went on to teach herself how to make her own drawings move, initially bringing situations from her own lived experience to life, and leading to a successful career in commercial animation as well as directing observational, fiction and documentary animated shorts.
Susan Young had also studied at the college, graduating ahead of Schendler. Speaking at the 2019 Deptford Animadoc event, Young remembers drawing inspiration from their lecturer Ray Fields, who ‘encouraged us to do non-narrative documentary, so to go out and observe things in the street or equally observe your own internal state or your internal response to something that was happening, and everything was equally valid so we would create these kind of observational documentary films that gave equal weight to what we were observing objectively but also what we were thinking subjectively’. Jonathan Hodgson also acknowledges the impact of Fields’ teaching on his practice. Speaking BFI Southbank as part of Edge of Frame weekend 2018, Hodgson remembers that sketchbook keeping was the cornerstone of the teaching, and students ‘were taught to draw very minimally […] finding a shorthand to create images quickly. But then it had to be meaningful, it had to be about something we observed.’ Echoes of Fields’ approach can be seen in much of the prominent British animated documentary and observational films of the 80s and 90s, and in subsequent work that has been influenced by these films.
Fields’ teaching style can be glimpsed through the documentation of his 1988 Stuttgart Animation Festival workshop which is accessible online through the Animator Mag archive. In this workshop, he contrasts the method of storyboarding in film development with the method of keeping notebooks, using these as symbols for broader approaches of ‘collective communication’ versus ‘self-communication’. Fields proposes that ‘the production of commercial work can be an incomplete experience. There is always a need to extend oneself through experiment’. However he also notes that ‘It is difficult to make the bridge between sketchbook, self actualisation, and what other people require for profit.’
The push and pull of different priorities in art education, and specifically animation education in art university environments, remains a source of concern for students and educators. The responsibility to produce employable entry-level practitioners can sometimes be seen as a trade-off against the responsibility to nurture a critical and experimental practice, or to cultivate an environment that embraces political dissent and creative resistance. In our current education environments, these debates are scaffolded by complex and changing financial and structural systems in higher education, political pressures, and shifting landscapes in the creative industries.
These considerations play on my mind as an educator in art school environments. For me, one the most exciting parts of my job is seeing students develop their own unique creative practices and languages. For many, these will stay with them throughout their lives, as they continue to learn and develop. Even for those who do not choose creative careers, the ability to process and communicate experience through creativity will be a place to which they can return whenever they wish. Learning to read can take you to new disciplines, new ideas, new perspectives, new approaches. Learning to think creatively and to make creatively has similar lifelong benefits in both personal and professional spheres.
I don’t think there is any single right answer to the question of how to weigh a course in terms of creative and critical experimentation versus the development of technical skill and standardised professional process. Perhaps each institution needs to think carefully about where they sit on this spectrum, and students entering art education should take responsibility for selecting a course that meets their needs and expectations. But maybe this attitude is too binary, excluding career-focused students from the benefits of the more experimental approach while limiting the commercial studio employability of students who want to explore artistically. The ideal may be a more holistic approach, in which students can fulsomely access both paths of learning over the course of their university education.
Is this possible without compromise? Are there institutions that are doing this particularly well, in the UK or elsewhere? I would love to hear thoughts from educators, students, employers and audiences on these questions.
Hot off the Press! Cristina Formenti’s new book is the first book to provide an historical insight into the animated documentary.
The publishing wesbite goes on to say: ” Drawing on archival research and textual analysis, it shows how this form, usually believed to be strictly contemporaneous, instead took shape in the 1940s. Cristina Formenti integrates a theoretical and a historical approach in order to shed new light on the animated documentary as a form as well as on the work of renowned studios such as The Walt Disney Studios, Halas & Batchelor, National Film Board of Canada and never before addressed ones, such as Corona Cinematografica. She also highlights the differences and the similarities existing among the animated documentaries created between the 1940s and the mid-1980s and those produced today so as to demonstrate how the latter do not represent a complete otherness in respect to the former, but rather an evolution.”
and the ebook version of The Classical Animated Documentary and Its Contemporary Evolution (Bloomsbury 2022) has now been included in Bloomsbury Collections. So if your library has access to Bloomsbury Collections, you can find it there as well!
AnimatedDocumentary.com are looking forward to getting our hands on a copy!
The latest book about factual animation comes from Dr Nea Ehrlich, and a quick glance at the contents page shows notably distinct areas of animated documentary that have seen less coverage, for example an entire section of the book is dedicated to other forms of animated documentary within games and VR, whilst other chapters explore in depth the definition of mixed realities. We cannot wait to get reading, the book is available to buy at Edinburgh University Press or you can access the book via ‘open access’ via this link:
About the book: Confronting shifts in the status and aesthetics of the real, *Animating Truth *analyses how contemporary technoculture has transformed the relationship of animation to documentary by mapping out two parallel trends: the increased use of animation within documentary or non-fiction contexts, and the increasingly pervasive use of non-photorealistic animation within digital media. As the virtual becomes another aspect of our contemporary mixed reality (physical and virtual), the book aims to understand how this visual paradigm shift influences viewers, both ethically and politically, and questions the wider ramifications of this transformation in non-fiction aesthetics.
Coming up from the 10th – 21st October is the London BFI Film Festival, featuring a brilliant selection of feature films, amongst which you can see two films of note; ‘DOOZY’ by Richard Squires and ‘Irene’s Ghost’ by Iain Cunningham. We will feature a review of the festival on animateddocumentary.com
DOOZY (UK, 2018), the debut feature from UK artist-filmmaker Richard Squires, is a creative documentary that employs ‘Clovis’, an animated antihero, as a means to explore the particular “voice” casting of cartoon villains in the late 1960s. Through the lens of one of Hollywood’s hidden queer histories, DOOZY contemplates the psycho-social relationship between villainy and hysterical male laughter; the use of voice as a signifier of ‘otherness’ and the frequently uneasy symbiosis of character and actor.
Image credit: Irene’s Ghost by Iain Cunningham, animation by Ellie Land
Irene’s Ghost is the debut documentary film from Iain Cunningham and features animated segments directed by Ellie Land. follows a son’s search to find out about the mother he never knew.
The birth of his own child inspires a journey to discover the truth about Irene, who passed away when he was a child. Piecing together fragments of the past to make sense of the present he uncovers a long held secret. Using animation mixed with filmed footage Irene’s Ghost movingly rebuilds a lost life.
Escapology: The art of addiction is a short animated documentary about addictive behaviour, which attempts to be non-judgmental while avoiding gritty drug clichés. This film was recently released on Vice Media’s online platforms and received over half a million views in the first week. As a long term contributor to AnimatedDocumentary.com I thought this was a good opportunity to write about my own work, dissecting a project from the director’s perspective.
Having attended two Alcoholics Anonymous open meetings in 2013 when supporting a friend who was struggling, I was struck by how practical the advice was. Their stories and rhetoric helped me understand my own cannabis abuse as a teenager, but also put into perspective my less pronounced addictive behaviours. Part of the focus of those meetings involved encouraging new attendees to acknowledge that their relationship with alcohol was problematic.I connected with notion of ambiguity when defining addiction; if one enjoys a substance with complete clarity it must, on the surface, seem rational to seek it out at every opportunity. However at this point the difference between wants and needs become indistinguishable. Having quit cannabis in 2008 I couldn’t help but adopt a strong anti-drugs policy. Over the years I observed the nuances of those AA meetings being played out in my friends drug use and frequently appropriated the rhetoric when dispensing unsolicited advice.
In early 2016 I was looking for a warm up exercise before enrolling in the inaugural year of the Documentary Animation masters degree at the Royal College of Art. The Philadelphia Association seemed an obvious starting point. I had been working for this psychotherapy organisation as a graphic designer and had come to know many of the therapists. Nick Mercer, before completing the PA training, had worked for decades as an addiction counselor, often in prisons. Nick had struggled with heroin addiction in his youth and entered recovery through the Narcotics Anonymous fellowship.
Nick invited me to a discussion group on addiction at the PA. His charisma and storytelling abilities were striking. It became clear that NA and AA functioned as a training ground for public speaking. Each member ceremoniously took the lectern in order to transform their fractured and painful experiences into a set of coherent and digestible narratives.
Following the meeting I set up my recording equipment in the PA’s historic library and began our interview. Once I’d whittled down the 2 hour tape to a 3 minute edit my task was to develop a visual translation of his words. There is always a danger that an interview based animated documentary becomes an illustrated podcast. I feel this risk increases the more interesting your interview material is. Thankfully a moment of inspiration split my visual and verbal narratives, helping me to avoid the drudgery of tautology. (Read ‘Show and Tell’, chapter 6 from Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud for more on the interplay between image and text).
Nick spoke eloquently about the feeling of existing in the moment for the first time when he took morphine. I pictured the excitement of a performer who comes into his own on stage, but as he repeats the process all meaning is lost until he’s just going through the motions. This image brought me back to my heady days as a drug user. I remember boasting to my uncle about my adventures. He responded calmly, explaining that “it sounds like you’re just self medicating. You’ll figure it out eventually.” This short phrase shattered the romantic notions I’d conjured about my rebellious lifestyle. I realised, as Nick says in the film, my life had condensed down to something very conservative.
The narrative arc of an addict also reminded me of Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, a documentary about the Amazing Randy, whose magic act escalated from simple tricks to incredibly dangerous feets of escapology, until finally he came close to dying live on television while trapped in an enormous milk tank. I was excited by the slightly discordant parallel between an addict and magician. There was enough substance for an audience to draw parallels regarding the excitement of the early days, along with the increasingly extreme self destructive behaviour. I also liked that the links weren’t seamless; the audience would need to do a little work to fit the two sides together.
After the film was animated I developed the audio with a long running collaborator, Vicky Freund: musician, engineer and sound designer. The rich foley, atmospheres and score helped balance the stark black and white aesthetic, transforming the project from an elaborate exercise into a finished film.
Escapology was a watershed moment for my practice. It was partly responsible for my first experience of international recognition. I was invited to participate in the Au Contraire mental health film festival in Montreal and later recruited as assistant festival programmer. On the back of this project the Philadelphia Association invited me to become artist in residence, culminating in the creation of Critical Living, a film about critical psychiatry and the PA therapeutic communities. Finally, Vice UKlicenced the film for distribution online. Today it has been viewed internationally 629,425 times.
Animate Projects invited AnimatedDocumentary.com to curate one of the four programmes of the Move It tour, which screened across the UK in 2016. Document Differently is a programme of animated documentary shorts that showcase and highlight independent Directors approaches to factual storytelling in animation.
Venues included the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, and others in Edinburgh, Dundee, Leicester, Hull and Exeter.
A new online journal, the International Journal of Film and Media Arts, launched this year with a special issue dedicated to animated documentary. The articles in Vol 1 can be viewed online, and offer some valuable insights into the field. They include Drawing the Unspeakable – Understanding ‘the other’ through narrative empathy in animated documentary, by Jan Nåls.
Nåls uses A Kosovo Fairytale (2009), an educational film project for which he acted as a supervisor, as a case study to explore how the use of combined animation and live action can encourage empathy for a documentary’s subject. The film tells the story of a family who were forced to leave their youngest child in Kosovo, seeking safety as refugees in Finland.
A Kosovo Fairytale
In the article Nåls discusses documentary within the historically ethically problematic field of ethnography, noting that “documentary representation is fundamentally informed by the challenges of inter- and multi-cultural encounters since it always entails a dialogue between a film-maker and a subject that exists in the world outside of the narrative – a person, a community or a culture.” He views animated documentary as a valuable tool within contemporary ethnography, which can be used to bring breadth and depth to representation of ‘the other’.
A Kosovo Fairytale was made by five exchange students from Africa and Europe. It combines roughly-made animation with live action footage of a Skype call. The lo-fi look of both the animated and live action sections means that the film’s aesthetic is consistent throughout. Nåls notes that although animation is traditionally an expensive and time-consuming process, it is possible to produce a film such as A Kosovo Fairytale on a very low budget and in a very limited timescale (the film was made in less that three months), and for the film to still be successful and well received in some exhibition contexts. In a tradition familiar to animated documentary and famously used by Tim Webb in his groundbreaking A is for Autism(1992), the characters in A Kosovo Fairytale are presented as figures hand-drawn by the real life subjects, and this integration of the participatory self-portrait helps to justify the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic style.
A is for Autism
Nåls believes that the combination of animation and live action footage can create a particular empathetic response in the viewer. The animation allows an audience to relate to what is being shown as a universal human story. Nåls believes that much of the specificity and complexity of the situation being portrayed is negated through the use of iconic, “naive and minimalistic” characters and backgrounds. In contrast, book-ending the film with stark live action footage reminds us that this is in fact a very specific story; it is not a fairytale, and it has no happy ending. Nåls relates this to the Brechtian concent of Verfremdung – alienation or distancing which disrupts audience immersion in a story, highlighting construction and challenging the viewer to question the action. He sees the combination of live action and animation in documentary as “a technique of alienation… also a technique of persuasion, a way of convincing the audience of the authenticity of the story.”
Nåls mentions the “unique quality of animated non-fiction as a medium to represent traumatic events”, which has also been written about in detail by scholars such as Annabelle Honess Roe. He believes that the juxtaposition of live action and animation can be particularly effective in evoking traumatic experience, a technique also used to great effect in the final scene of Waltz with Bashir.
While many of the concepts put forward in Nåls’ essay have been discussed in existing scholarship, his use of A Kosovo Fairytale as a case study provides a useful lens through which to explore the ideas in practical terms. His thoughtful exposure of the nuts and bolts of the production process behind the film adds an extra layer of meaning to the viewing of it.
Although not claiming to be an animated documentary The Last 40 Miles, ‘a short animated film about life, death and compassion’, is based on a true story. The mixed media animation refers to the real life narrative of a death row inmate whom Alex Hannaford, writer and director, came across while working as a journalist covering the Texas prison system.
Not yet completed, the filmmakers have chosen to use crowd funding to raise the rest of the capital they need to pay the production costs. Crowd funding has become an integral resource for contemporary independent filmmaking. Although not a new phenomenon, the advent of social media and specially designed sights has lead to greater numbers of productions choosing this root.
Often such campaigns offer rewards in exchange for donations, the highest levels of philanthropy resulting in a credit as executive producer. Follow the link below to see how the team have used a short video to pitch to potential donators. Indiegogo, the fundraising platform also allows us to observe their progress.