The Fantoche Animation Festival (August 31 to September 5) asked these questions, and more.
The links between animation and documentary, and animation’s potential for documentary production, were two themes explored during this year’s Fantoche International Animation Festival, which is held every two years in Baden, Switzerland. In a programme entitled “Revision of Reality” the Fantoche directorial collective presented a group of recent animated films, each of which, in its own way, displayed affinities with documentary. In addition, the festival organized a panel discussion on the topic, bringing documentary and animation filmmakers together to debate the issues. As a documentary enthusiast, I was asked to moderate the discussion – and although I didn’t lose my passion for documentary, I did come out of the debate a born-again animation fan.
Can an animated film be a documentary? A provocative question, likely to cause confusion at first. Traditionally, animation has been considered the most fantasy-driven form of filmmaking, in which filmmakers’ imaginations could be completely unleashed, in total defiance of the laws of space, time and causality. How could this kind of filmmaking have anything to do with the commitment to represent reality, which supposedly unites documentary-makers?
Upon closer reflection, however, the question begins to seem less absurd and actually quite logical. We remember the pedagogical cartoons we saw at school, learning about staunchly non-fictional subjects like history, science, or (ulp!) sex education through drawings and diagrams. In many cases, we took these films more seriously than photo-realistic films on the same subjects, which often would have had to use barely believable staging and effects to make the same points. Although photo-realistic film is generally considered more “authentic” than drawings or paintings, this method of depicting reality clearly has its limitations. It would seem that the more abstract means available to animators can sometimes offer better, more believable results – precisely because there is no attempt to create the illusion of photographic realism. In fact, when depicting subjective states of mind, the complete freedom offered by animation can be a most valuable asset.
Every Film a Trickfilm?
In German, the word for animated film is “trickfilm,” which has interesting implications for the medium as a whole. Isn’t every film a series of “tricks”? “If you really think about it, every film is an animated film,” says Rolf Bächler, a dedicated animator and teacher of animation who has worked with such renowned figures as the late Keith Haring. Like many animators before him, Bächler points out that animated film and photorealistic film actually result from the same technical process. Recording at 24 frames per second, the camera photographically reproduces whatever is in front of the lens – whether it be drawings, clay figures, actors, non-actors or real-life phenomena. Seen from this perspective, every film animates a series of still images: some films just look realer that others, because the still images they contain look like photographs rather than drawings. Following this line of argument, one could even conclude that animated films are more honest than non-animated films, because they never try to hide the fact that they are based on principles of illusion. As Frank Braun of the Fantoche collective put it in a catalogue text, “Animation produces the illusion of life, but also, in a subtle opposition, continually undermines it. Animation claims an exclusively filmic reality, but without reproducing it in real time.”
But Constantin Wulff, co-director of the annual Austrian film festival Diagonale, and Jonas Raeber, an independent animation filmmaker based in Lucerne, made an important point in distinguishing between animation, documentary and other forms, not on the basis of their truth claims or aesthetic styles, but in the labels the film industry reserves for different categories of films. Will TV commissioning editors use money from their documentary budgets to fund animation projects? asked Raeber. And Wulff wanted to know: are the directors of documentary festivals prepared to program animated films? All films may be, essentially, “trickfilms,” but not all films enjoy the same status out there in the world where films are produced and consumed.
A Choice of Devices – and Prices
Fantoche panelist and filmmaker Anka Schmid has used animated sequences in several of her films, including an animated Matterhorn mountain in “Magic Matterhorn” (CH 1995), her documentary about the quest for national identity. “The animated sequences allowed me to express things I didn’t want to put into words,” she explains. “Instead of a spoken commentary, I used animated images to express my subjective viewpoint, my criticisms.”
In the documentary field, we have long had to admit that a documentary is in many ways as highly constructed as a fiction film. Choice of subject, framing, editing, sound and other devices serve to shape the raw material to the filmmaker’s message. But what are the limits, when the techniques of animation are added to the list? Or, looking at the question the other way, what happens when elements of documentary style are borrowed by other forms, like animation? In the films screened at Fantoche, we found many elements shared with documentary, including: documentary-style photos and video recordings; maps; historical facts and dates; eye-witness testimony; true stories; found footage; and cultural artifacts. We could hardly claim that any film using any of these elements is “a documentary”. But where do we draw the line?
As an example, several of the films screened in the Fantoche programme, including “The Silence” (which has indeed been screened in at least one doc festival, IDFA 1998), combined a documentary soundtrack with animated images. What is the difference between these films and those which take the opposite approach, such as adding a fictional narrator to a series of documentary images (as, for instance, Chris Marker has done so skilfully)? “Feeling My Way”, also screened at Fantoche, is based on a cinéma-vérité video of the filmmaker, Jonathan Hodgson, walking the London streets; the images were then processed using conventional and computer animation and a layered soundtrack. Is “Feeling My Way” the authentic representation of the subjective reality of a walk through the city? Or is it a fictional world created using vérité as a style?
Sometimes, of course, these choices are determined by budgetary questions. It was undoubtedly easier for Hodgson to use video images of real-life London as a starting point, than to painstakingly re-create the city streets frame by frame using virtual reality techniques. Conversely, Quebecois animator Pierre Hébert, who trained under animation pioneer Norman McLaren at the National Film Board of Canada, found an ideal outlet for his social and political engagement in the technique of scratch animation. What could be easier and more to the point than simply scratching “No more war!” directly onto the film stock, like a kind of cinematic graffiti? This technique led to highly accomplished and committed films such as “Memories of War” (1982) and “La Plante humaine” (1996), featured at Fantoche in a well-deserved retrospective.
In the End
“In the end,” pointed out panelist Christian Iseli, a documentarist currently working in experimental video and computer animation (and former editor of DOX), “there is nothing in the film itself which can prove that what it’s telling me is true. I have to ask myself: can I trust this filmmaker? We have to be careful about the faith we put in pictures.” In the end, animation as a technique can be put at the service of any filmic impulse, whether it is the creation of an imaginary universe, the depiction of historical reality, or a representation of the inner realities which take place within our heads.