A view of Ecstatic Truth 2017

The 2017 Ecstatic Truth Symposium took place on May 27 and explored the field of animated documentary. Presentations by scholars and practitioners from around the world covered topics including memory, trauma, visual and verbal language, industry structure and new technologies.

The day kicked off with a keynote by Bella Honess Roe, who expanded on the idea of ‘absence and excess’ that she put forward in her monograph Animated Documentary. Using the examples of two short films – Abuelas and Irinka and Sandrinka – Honess Roe demonstrated that animation can be used both as metaphorical wish fulfilment and as an exploration of memory, both memories of events directly experienced and memories passed down through families and cultures. Honess Roe spoke about how animation studies academics strive to pin down animation in theoretical terms, but find that definitive conclusions are elusive. She suggested that this is due to the vastness of animation as a discipline: “Very few animated documentaries look alike”. Perhaps this resistance to reductive conclusions is one of animation’s strengths.

In her presentation “Traversing the terrain of space, time and form”, Rose Bond gave an insight into her research and production process when making large scale architectural animations. Her work interprets the histories of buildings into narratives and symbolic motifs that are then projected back onto the windows of the building itself. Her storyboarding process was particularly interesting to see, as she boarded the different narratives that played out across the different windows – a more lateral process than traditional storyboarding. She referred to this “multiscreen” boarding as “a different kind of editing, composing”. The process of storyboarding was the moment of ‘parataxis’, the juxtaposing of individual visual and narrative elements together to create new meaning for those elements. Bond explained that in her work it is important that the audience do not see all the material when they watch – they are required to chose which images to focus on throughout, so the experience is different with each viewing.

Broadsided! (Exeter, UK) from Rose Bond on Vimeo.

Next up I presented a paper about animated documentary and virtual reality, proposing that the absence and excess (Honess Roe, 2013) of animated documentary is complemented by the dual qualities of immersion and alienation present in VR. I supported my argument with the analysis of two recent animated VR documentaries – Nonny de la Peña’s Out of Exile and Michelle and Uri Kranot’s Nothing Happens.

Vincenzo Maselli’s presentation on “Deeper strata of meanings in stop-motion animation: the meta-diegetic performance of matter” explored ideas of performance and materiality of stop-motion, referencing the work of Marks, Sobchack and Barker in an analysis of the relationship between the human body and the texture of filmed material.

Sally Pearce’s paper entitled “Can I draw my own memory?” focused on her work tracking memory, and the problems presented by this. She showed a piece of work in which an animated horse wanders through bleak live action landscapes that represent her fractured memories from a time of serious illness. This record of illness is, she explains, “straight from the horse’s mouth”. She discussed her process of trying to capture and visualise memory, and the frustrations that come with this: “I try to use my pencil as a scalpel to extract a memory whole, but the memory will not be drawn out like a lump of tissue, instead it changes as soon as the pencil touches it. As my memory changes under the pencil, I am changed, I redraw myself.” Pearce particularly noted that her drawings can feel trapped in the language we commonly use about memory and illness and bound up in accepted metaphor, frustrated that “my drawing mind remains locked into the forms of the spoken and written word”.

Barnaby Dicker’s paper “A Quivering Terminus: Walerian Borowczyk’s Games of Angels, animated documentary and the social fantastic” analyses how Borowczyk uses ‘fantastic topography’ to play with tropes of both documentary and fiction, in order to a explore disturbing historical subject. Dicker’s analysis of Borowczyk’s disturbing and powerful short looked at how both imagery and structure worked to create meaning for the audience.

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He commented on the clues the filmmaker’s uses to guide the audience, such as the inclusion of a title card providing assurance that characters and events portrayed in the film are not intended to resemble characters living and dead. Dicker noted that the film is highly abstract and would not in any way invite an assumption that it was portraying real characters – so in fact the title card may be working inversely, to suggest to an audience that what they are watching does, in fact, reflect reality.

The afternoon sessions included a talk from Chinese artist Lei Lei who offered a lively tour of the process behind his compelling and visually stunning artwork. LeiLei uses found materials and processes of enhancing and degrading images to interrogate history, memory and culture.

Recycled from RAY on Vimeo.

Guli Silberstein’s presentation of his work “The Schizophrenic State Project“, gave an insight into the personal context which led him to appropriate and adapt media footage of violence to specifically explore conflict in Israel, Palestine and the region. The presentation offered an intimate view of an artist striving to find a voice to communicate his complex relationship with a disturbing subject matter which is both deeply personal and boldly political. In processing and re-presenting footage of war and protest Silberstein recontextualises it, challenging a viewer to watch and consider it in a new way.

Becky James’ paper “Expanding the Index in Animated Documentary” considered the subgenre of animation about mental states through a close reading of Betina Kuntzsch’s Spirit Away. James also offered insights into the culture around animated documentary production in comparison to the fine art industry where she previously worked, suggesting that there is an absence of critique and serious professional support for emerging filmmakers through canonical institutions in the field of experimental animation.

Susan Young’s presentation “Bearing Witness: Autoethnographic Animation and the Metabolism of Trauma” showcased her PhD research on psychological trauma, in which she reflects on her own experience. Young showed her visceral short film The Betrayal and discussed her process, sharing the ways in which she managed the risks associated with conducting any research on trauma.

The Betrayal (Trailer) from Susan Young on Vimeo.

The 2016 Ecstatic Truth symposium had concluded with a sense of agreement that the arguments around the legitimacy of animation as a documentary form which have dominated much of animated documentary scholarship have reached the limits of their usefulness, and that we can progress better if we start from a working assumption that animated documentary can exist as a valid form. The 2017 event followed on from this, taking a broad perspective on animated documentary that allowed for an open, discursive atmosphere in which diverse ideas could be raised, considered and challenged. There were no definitive answers but, as Honess Roe suggested at the beginning of the day, maybe animation’s ability to elude the finality of concrete definition is at the heart of its charm.

ANIDOX:LAB 2016

I recently returned from the second module of The Animation Workshop’s ANIDOX:LAB in Denmark. This development lab, supported by Creative Europe, brings together animators, documentarians, artists and producers from across Europe, all united by a common interest in exploring the form of animated documentary. Each participant enters the lab with a documentary idea which is then developed across three modules. At the end of the lab, the participant is expected to have a strong pitch package supported by a two-minute promo for their project. The team behind the programme then continue to support a selection of these projects, bringing them to European film markets where finance may be secured to take the project further.

Anidox is put together by filmmakers Uri and Michelle Kranot, and has emerged from their own practice and research in the field of animated documentary. The Kranots were originally animators, drawn to non-fiction through “a desire to make films politically”. Their work has gained international acclaim and continues to compel audiences with its combination of fluid, poetic imagery and strong political meaning.

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Still from ‘Black Tape’ by Uri and Michelle Kranot

Communities of Practice

ANIDOX launched in 2013, with the original aim of bringing documentarians and animators together to find out what differences there are in their practice, and what challenges this brings to the production of the animated documentary. Over time common challenges which have been identified include:

  • Communication issues stemming from differences in use of language and terminology between the animation and the documentary community;
  • A lack of understanding in the documentary community of the production processes, timelines and budgets necessary to produce animation;
  • A mutual lack of understanding of the very different editing and post-production processes in documentary and animation production; and
  • Other difficulties with effective communication between animators and documentary directors and producers.

In response to these and other challenges, ANIDOX aims to foster dialogue between documentarians and animators, while providing business opportunities and a rich environment for creative development, helping filmmakers to develop the essence of their project and visual approach.

As well as being an excellent opportunity for project development, ANIDOX offers a diverse programme of talks from and about filmmakers, commissioners and other players working across animation and factual film production.


Module 1

In the first Module of the programme, Uri and Michelle Kranot were joined by filmmaker Paul Bush to lead several days of workshops. Kicking off with an overview of animated documentary, Uri Kranot and Paul Bush discussed the history and current state of the field in broad terms. Bush voiced his opinion that while drama has always been influenced by documentary, animation is only now catching up as part of a “coming-of-age for the animation form”. Bush acknowledged that the ‘contract’ with an audience is different in an animated documentary from a live action one, since with animation the audience is clearly aware that what they are watching is not an indexical record of real events, but he claimed that this is a strength of the form. In his opinion the British documentary industry has given up on ethically trying to present any kind of objective reality, although audiences will still automatically believe live action documentary and assume it is ‘real’. In this way, he claimed, animated documentary is less ethically problematic than its live action sister – through it’s transparently constructed nature it is more honest in its complex truth claim.

While documentary often uses animation as a way to limit the damage of missing or poor quality live action footage, there are also many other approaches and opportunities for the form. Bush specifically mentioned the power of animation to show alternative viewpoints, stories told from perspectives other than the point-of-view of the traditionally empowered. This ability of animated non-fiction to challenge hegemonic power structures has been discussed by various scholars and the potential of the form to weave alternative histories to those recorded and presented by the mainstream is widely considered one of its key creative strengths.

In a presentation about the history of animated documentary, Uri Kranot showed a range of films spanning a century and discussed the merits of each, in the context of their time. Kranot believes that we are seeing a coming-of-age not just for animation but also for documentary – an age of creative docs which can question as well as represent reality.

This pit-stop tour of animated documentary took us from Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), through WW2 propaganda films to the more personal work of John and Faith Hubley and Aardman Animation, whose pre-Creature Comforts short films Conversation Pieces (1983) used the conventions of documentary alongside stop-motion to reenact mundane and amusing scenes and situations. Kranot showed how over time the animated documentary moved from telling big political stories to smaller personal stories, such as Chris Landreth’s Ryan (2004) and Jornal Adele’s Never Like the First Time (2007). With this came a plethora of ethical and creative considerations that continue to challenge contemporary filmmakers. The animated documentary form has shown itself to be a powerful medium for exploring these ideas, with films such as Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy  (2013) deconstructing itself even as it tells its story, raising questions of transparency and authorial voice.

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Still from ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?’

Kranot also touched on the importance of technological novelty in animation trends, showing how many of the most successful short animated documentaries have found their success in part through the innovative use of new creative technologies.

Presentations on the first ANIDOX module also included talks by alumni filmmakers including Martina Scarpelli, who presented her recently commissioned work-in-progress short EGG, a poetic documentary about an anorexic woman’s complex relationship with food.


Module 2

The second module of ANIDOX took place in Copenhagen with guest tutors including: Swedish-Italian documentary director Erik Gandini; animated documentary producer Andy Glynne (Mosaic Films); Katrine Kiilgaard, Head of Industry at CPH:DOX; Ane Mandrup, Head of Documentary and Shorts at the Danish Film Institute (DFI) and Cecilia Lidin, Documentary Film Consultant at DFI.

Gandini, who works predominantly with live action, screened his feature film The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and talked about his relationship to documentary. After growing up in Italy, saturated as it was with flashy, misogynistic, Berlusconi-controlled media, Gandini then moved to Sweden where he had the life changing-experience of stumbling upon Claude Lanzmann’s 9+ hour long Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985) on television. He describes this encounter with documentary as a “reconquering of reality”. Gandini went on to study film and make many documentaries including Videocracy (2009), an indictment of the Italian media and its social context.

At film school Gandini leant the rules of documentary storytelling, which at the time favoured a journalistic approach: an invisible filmmaker interfering as little as possible in the action, no music and closeness to character identified as the most important element. Gandini believes that this approach is “gone now, thank god”, destroyed in part by the rise of reality TV.

Gandini’s own work moved towards an essay-film approach, focusing not on recording objective fact but rather building personal arguments: “Taking command of storytelling… not showing reality as it is, rather showing reality as I feel it”. His work uses manipulation of sound, image and situation to construct a representation of the filmmaker’s subjective perspective on a subject, and he believes that the concept of authenticity in film should include being true to your own thoughts and feelings as well as your objective observations. Despite this, he strongly identifies as a documentary filmmaker, believing that documentary contains an unpredictability which isn’t present in fiction or animation and that documentary storytelling should be open to including representations of fantasy and internal life as well as hard fact – an area in which animation can be a useful representational tool. It is this co-habitation with unpredictability that makes documentary magical for Gandini, and his challenge to animated documentary filmmakers is “to what level can we keep unpredictability a friend even when using animation?”

Producer Andy Glynne brought some good practical advice to his talks. At Mosaic Films approximately 30% of the documentary output is animated docs, usually with subject matter that deals with the internal and psychological world as well as subjects and situations that are inaccessible for various reasons, or that demand anonymity. Glynne spoke about Mosaic’s process for engaging contributors, through which they have placed safeguards to ensure the story they tell remains authentic and respectful to the contributor despite the mediation process of editing and animation. He also offered some valuable insights gleaned as a result of the development of Nothing to Envy, a feature length animated documentary about North Korea, currently in very early production. Originally conceived as a foreign language documentary, the film’s development process has seen it take on more fiction qualities as well as becoming an English language production – changes that were made partly in response to the requirements of the feature film industry.

Both Glynne and the representatives from DFI spoke at length on the issues that can arise when pitching animated documentary. A recurring challenge is the expectation in the documentary industry of having a promo to show of the film being pitched – relatively straightforward for a character based live action documentary but more complex for an animated documentary, where each second of footage incurs significant expense and visual development.

Representing the fast-growing documentary festival CPH:DOX, Katrine Kiilgaard spoke of the festival’s focus on hybrid and interdisciplinary work. With larger audiences than DOK Leipzig and Sheffield Docfest (though smaller than IDFA and Hotdocs) CPH:DOX is a force to be reckoned with on the documentary festival circuit. It is significant that it demonstrates a progressive attitude to form, with a programme that includes industry forums for art-documentary projects, some of which are intended for gallery exhibition rather than theatrical or broadcast. Despite this embrace of alternative forms, Kiilgaard noted that only a small percentage of work screened at the festival is animated – estimated at less than 5%. When asked why this was she responded that the animated documentaries they receive are often at odds with the larger programming direction of the festival. Hans Frederik Jacobsen, a programmer for CPH:DOX also present on the module added that animated documentaries “often don’t fit our understanding of what a film should do”, although he indicated that this was changing, partially due to the work of programmes such an ANIDOX, which help to develop innovative productions that exploit the potentials of both the documentary and animation form.

Through these and other talks, the ANIDOX programme offered its participants a rich insight into thought and industry process related to the animated documentary field. It also provided a fantastic forum for project development, in which ideas could be presented and worked on in a supportive environment with the help of tutors and participants with a great diversity of experience. Ultimately, as with most training programmes, it is this rich peer network which offers the strongest and most lasting benefit. Through this network, participants are able to draw on each other’s knowledge and experience across the spectrum of the industry, in order to develop and strengthen their own creative voices and professional acumen as filmmakers pushing the boundaries of the animated documentary.


More information about ANIDOX:LAB and other residencies the initiative offers can be found at anidox.com.