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Where is the border between fiction and documentary? Filmmakers have always been exploring these boundaries and mixing genres. In this article we will get to know how and when to mix two extremes – animation and documentary.

An animated documentary is basically any animated film where the story is based on non-fictional material. Very often this material consists of audio interviews, interpretations or recreations of factual events, or portraits of people. This way the filmmaker can use an historical, emotional and/or personal soundtrack to animate to.

The very first animated documentary was actually made already in 1918.  This was Windsor McKay's 12-minute-long film The Sinking of the Lusitania. There was no recorded film footage of this historical event, where the RMS Lusitania sank after being struck by two torpedoes fired from a German U-boat in 1915. As a result of the lack of footage, and the urge to tell the story, animation was used as a tool of communication.

An example of an animated documentary based on interviews is Abductees (1995) by Paul Vester. This film consists of interviews of people believing they have been abducted by aliens. There are several people being interviewed, which is reflected in the visuals by using many animators, showing a range of styles and techniques. Even the abductees' own drawings are sometimes used, which makes it even more personal.

In a way you can say that animated documentary is the latest expression of a tradition that dates back to the early days of animated film.

Why make an animated documentary
If there does not exist filmed material about something, the way to go might be animation. Some viewers tend to think that seeing animation instead of the real people keeps them from prejudging, and some even admit that it keeps them from judging the characters speaking based on their appearances. This way it ironically makes the story more real.

Well known documentary filmmakers such as Errol Morris and Robert Evans sometimes use animated visual effects to create dreamlike, surreal moods in their films. It is an interesting alternative to the more plain, and sometimes even a bit boring, talking heads.

The term "animated documentary" may still upset a truth-seeker, but in the last few years our understanding of what a documentary is has expanded and become more inclusive. A wider definition of the genre is now gaining support.

A new trend?

Filmmakers constantly challenge themselves to make something new, and one tendency today is the use of animation in new ways. There has been Sin City, A Scanner Darkly and Persepolis, - all grown-up feature animations. Then the trend was developed even further with Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, an animated feature documentary, which was even marketed as the first animated documentary.

The story is about the Israeli director Ari Folman´s struggle in dealing with distant memories from witnessing the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982.

Folman filmed interviews with several soldiers. Then he got a team of animators to draw the interviews. This way he could include both re-enacted events and dream sequences. Animation was, as he saw it, the only way to combine all the elements that were important to him in the film. It also gave the film a much more universal appeal, and a wider audience, than what a traditional documentary with the same theme would have.

As Errol Morris and Robert Evans explore animation as an effect in their documentaries, Folman does the opposite when he uses real footage as an effect in his film. Folman includes the real footage in order to highlight that the events in the film did actually take place. This footage benefits from the animations, as it seems even more powerful mixed with the animation, and reminds the viewer about the reality of the story.

Animated documentary is a new and creative way of thinking when making documentaries (and animations). Filmmaking is a developing art form and in order to develop genres we merge different ones, or take bits and pieces from genres and put them together into a new genre. This is the beauty with art. It never stops developing or challenging either the audience or the artist.

Related content:

Animating reality - the director

The Sinking of the Lusitania on YouTube

Abductees by Paul Vester

Errol Morris on Wikipedia

Robert Evans on Wikipedia

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