In the last two decades, cinema scholars have noted the proliferation of documentary animation – a film genre that blends factual content with a fictional form and frequently aims to show ‘unrepresentable’ human experiences (Formenti 1; Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 22-26). I would like to acknowledge that this definition is quite broad, and it does not encompass the entirety of the animated documentary works. Generally, the animated documentary field is described as incredibly heterogeneous: it is affected by the ever-changing scholarly definitions of animation and documentary, animated documentary’s distribution and exhibition circuits, available production setups, and diverse thematic concerns (MacKinnon, Contexts 48). Animated documentaries also vary in form. However, in recent years, a significant trend in independent animated documentary productions that I will further call independent material-based animated documentary has emerged.
Often, animators of material-based animated documentaries (material-based anidocs) describe themselves as independent creators working outside of film industry frameworks (Honess Roe, “The Evolution” 181, 186; Koizumi). Not being limited by the structures of big animation studios, these documentary animators sometimes favor time-consuming, labor-intensive manual techniques, such as puppet, clay, and physical cutout animation. This trend goes against mainstream animation production methods influenced by the developments of digital technology. Describing this phenomenon of the analog’s revival, Birgitta Hosea, for example, assigns its emergence to a stronger desire of animators to have “tactile, physical experience in an era of digital synthesis and artificial intelligence” (“Made by Hand” 17). Yet, while the themes and contents of these animated documentaries are widely discussed by the experts in the field, tendencies in material-based animated documentary production often stay overshadowed. Thus, my essay aims to address this gap in film studies literature. I intend to examine the theoretical implications of the production practices of this kind of contemporary documentary animation and ask the question: how do material-based animation techniques affect the interpretation of the topics that the films address? To answer this question, I will provide an overview of the state of animation and animated documentary scholarship and conduct a close analysis of two short films: Childhood Memories by Mary Martins and Model Childhood by Tim Mercier.[i]
In her book Animated Documentary, Annabelle Honess Roe writes that “any attempt to over-emphasise the ontological similarities of animation and live action would only limit our understanding of animated documentary” (37). Her reasoning behind this statement is that focusing on live-action documentary’s inherent realistic qualities and attempting to assign them to animation prevents us from noticing animation’s unique representational capabilities. In her thought, it is not necessarily the presence of the real in animated documentaries that allows one to label them as such – or at least, not the indexical trace[ii] of its presence. For Honess Roe – as well as other researchers interested in animated non-fiction – it is specifically animation’s affinity with metaphors and imagination as tropes that evoke reality and reconstruct its absent or “not readily visible” aspects (Ward, “Animating with Facts” 295).
While it is true for many animated documentaries that “[t]here is no physical causal link between animated image and the reality it might depict” (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 37), some animated non-fiction works paradoxically re-establish this very connection through the physical means of their production. By using puppets, clay figurines, textile, and paper cutouts, independent documentary animators achieve something more than just a depiction of events that could not be recorded directly. In a way, they challenge a common perception of animation as having an immaterial, magical, and self-producing nature.
Most scholars of animated non-fiction emphasize animation’s representational freedom from the constraints of the material world which leads to its ability to show anything that exists beneath and beyond the surface of physical reality (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 107; Ward, “Animation and Documentary” 86; Moore 266). In the words of Honess Roe, “in animated documentary we have a visual dialectic of absence and excess” (Animated Documentary 39). Here “absence” describes the lack of recorded footage, while “excess” points out animation’s ability to compensate for the former by employing the tropes of metaphor, metamorphosis, and photorealism (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 39). My argument, however, is that scholars’ accounts of animation’s metaphoricity are oftentimes insufficient without acknowledging the physicality of used props and artistic materials in animated documentaries that employ material-based techniques. While I agree that it is helpful to define representational strategies of animated documentaries through the category of excess, I propose to view materiality of object-based animated non-fiction as an origin of its unique representational surplus. Since the majority of animated documentaries tend to address topics and issues unavailable for conventional documentary depiction (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 22-26), my assumption is that it is these animations’ production processes (e.g., paper cutouts, puppets, clay models, and so on) that compensate for this lack of representability. To put it differently, animated documentaries that rely on physical objects or means in their production in a way ground their chosen themes in material reality.
Animation and/in the Real World
Ontology vs Materiality
My discussion of animation’s materiality is, however, at odds with the broader ontological trend in animated documentary scholarship. Animation studies are generally notorious for their attempt to discover the ontology of animation. To start, animation is often viewed as a medium completely removed from reality. Simply based on its narratives and stylistic qualities, it is frequently perceived as antithetical to the world that we live in. Indeed, drawn funny characters inhabiting popular animated cartoons seem to exist in their own fantastical universe – “Tooniverse” (Crafton, Shadow of the Mouse 22) – that does not intersect with the one of humans. It would certainly be difficult to argue that the worlds of Popeye, Mickey Mouse, or Donald Duck have many commonalities with our everyday reality. For example, in his discussion on the film camera’s ability to reveal the real world’s materiality, Siegfried Kracauer famously remarks that “[w]hat holds true of photographic film does of course not apply to animation” (89) – for him, animation should always be described in the fantastic terms as it is “called upon to picture the unreal” (89).
Discussions around fantastical worlds presented in animated cartoons also become supported by claims about animation’s non-indexical nature, meaning that it is usually denied the connection between its images and the environment creating it (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 14; Ehrlich 249; Rosenkrantz; Formenti 34-36). When addressing these concerns about animation’s inherent lack of indexicality within the discourse of animated documentaries, Honess Roe, for instance, writes, “What we see in an animated image did not exist in front of the camera in that form. Cels, static puppets, paint and brushes, grains of sand, could not be mistaken for the animated films that they create” (Animated Documentary 37). In other words, she suggests it is not necessarily the materials used to produce non-fiction animation that establish its connection to reality because we should not equate animated representation with things it is made of. I find this eagerness to disconnect animation from the process of its production interesting because it reveals a desire to preserve the ideal of animation as a merely representational form. Hence, even if Honess Roe acknowledges that “it is almost impossible to talk of ‘animation’ in any cohesive way” (Animated Documentary 38) due to a large range of existing techniques, practices, and definitions surrounding it, this quote still shows her determination to figure out at least in what terms animation should not be discussed, or, simply, what animation is not. In her case, it is not its raw, physical, disassembled form.
It is safe to say that debates around the question of what animation is have been haunting the medium since the emergence of its discipline (Buchan, “Introduction” 3-7). Yet, none of these efforts seem to be potent enough to produce a “one-size-fits-all” definition which causes frustration in some scholars and creates difficulties in teaching about the field (Husbands and Ruddell). Philip Kelly Denslow describes this intricacy as follows: “[N]o matter what definition you chose, it faces challenges from new developments in the technology used to produce and distribute animation” (1). He notes that for this reason, the International Animated Film Association (ASIFA) has chosen to simply state that animation is not live action (2)[iii]. Nevertheless, even this broad claim can also be objected to if, for example, we look at the ambiguous position of such techniques as rotoscoping, motion capture, clay, and puppet animation within the larger field of cinema[iv]. Some scholars go as far as arguing that all film (and even media) should be described in terms of animation (Cholodenko 22; Manovich 295). While statements like these may seem ground-breaking for their time – specifically for the cinema scholarship of the 1990s and 2000s –, they are also symptomatic of them highlighting the contemporaneous suspicions and uncertainty surrounding discussions of cinema’s future. Moreover, their presumptive radicality is very much rooted in their conservative assumptions about animation and live-action’s unique and definable identities.
When used in conversations around animated documentaries, this ontological quest complicates discussions about animation’s ability to represent reality. Statements about animation’s inherent, or ontological, lack of indexicality or a strive to define animation through a specific set of techniques and narratives limit our understanding of what animation can do and challenge the very existence of the form of animated documentary. They pose the question of how historical events can even be represented in a form that is so disconnected from the real world. While this question is the one that becomes addressed quite frequently in the writings of scholars of animated non-fiction, it only adds to the “defensive discourse” (Rosenkrantz) surrounding the field instead of actually solving the issue of ontological differences between the animated and the documented.
Hence, I suggest stepping away from the search for animation’s ontology altogether as, I believe, it only restricts the analysis of animation’s representational abilities. Instead, I propose to use the notion of materiality to discuss animated films and animated documentaries in particular. To my mind, shifting the scholarly focus from the question of what animation is to what animation is made of provides an alternative to a common trend of comparing animated documentaries to their live-action counterparts – it allows one to avoid measuring the level of realism and indexicality of animated documentary images. While here I focus specifically on the body of material-based animated documentaries, I believe that this case study can open other lines of inquiry in the broader field of contemporary documentary animation.
Materialist Theories of Animation
In this essay, I employ a definition of animation as an “epistemic practice” (3) introduced by Andrew R. Johnston in his book Pulses of Abstraction: Episodes from a History of Animation. Following Johnston’s claim that materiality of animation raises awareness of its production and cultural contexts (8), I assert that examining the physical properties of material-based animated documentaries can allow us to develop a deeper appreciation of the relationship between animated props and the real events that they portray. In other words, I argue that it is not the creation of animation or documentary’s definitions that help to gain an insight into how animated non-fiction depicts the real world, but it is the investigation of the existing modes of animated documentary production that can enrich our interpretations of animation and cinema at large. At the same time, looking closely at animated films can foster a better understanding of the functions of media these works utilize, as well as the meanings arising due to their implementation.
Johnston defines “materiality” as any piece of technology participating in the cinematic production, exhibition, and reception “including new computational media, layers of celluloid in filmstrips, mechanisms of color projection, and the interval between frames of film” (8). This definition is helpful because it draws attention to animation’s inherent reliance on various physical media, devices, and actors in the process of its making. Moreover, the material aspects of animation’s production, according to Johnston, affect the representational qualities and overall aesthetics of the final animated films (11).
Johnston’s conceptualization of animation also echoes Hannah Frank’s compelling argument that animation as a medium always preserves signs of labor that made it come to life. Frank’s research of the production processes of American studio cartoons points out that the animated cels composing them are primarily physical objects, and they hold traces left by anonymous workers participating in the films’ production (80). In other words, Franks’ study emphasizes something very important about animation as a whole – it uncovers the form’s intimate connection to the real.
Contesting Kracauer’s distinction between live-action and animated films, Frank argues that technologically both cinematic modes are more similar than we are used to think. She describes cel animation primarily as a “photographic cinema” as historically its creation has heavily relied on photographic technology (44-45). What this means is that it is precisely photography that makes visible the fantastic worlds of animated characters (46). Thus, disavowing the photographic nature of cel and other material-based animation would simply be inaccurate: it is specifically thanks to the photographic camera that thousands of drawings constituting studio cartoons (and in the case of material-based animated documentaries, physical props supporting the films’ narratives) have been preserved and made available for projection (45). In that, re-discovering the shared history of animation and photography dispels the illusion of the former’s cameraless self-producing nature. This in turn helps to break the pattern of equating animation with its content (fantastical or else) – instead, it shows that animation, and not just “photographic film” in Kracauer’s terms, can reveal material reality.
In this essay, I apply both Johnston and Frank’s approaches to studying animation from the materialist standpoint and examine the expressive function of materiality and the effects material aspects of object-based documentary animation have on their depictions of real-life events. While I do not argue that animated documentaries implementing physical props and similar artistic media in their production are documentaries about these props and media, I still believe that the aesthetic qualities of these objects and materials affect the representations they create. In a way, anidocs of this kind complicate the symbiotic relationship between photographic icons and indices because they portray real-life events with real-life things. To reiterate, the processes of creating stop-motion that these animated non-fiction films implement are conditioned by the camera’s ability to record and preserve the materiality of the media used. While in the case of animated documentaries that I discuss here materials do not always have a direct connection to the original events they depict, the evocation of the latter is still intimately tied to the ontological qualities of the photographic capture. In short, in material-based animated documentaries, photography indexes that fabrics, puppets, and clay have been there, placed in front of the camera, in time and space; in turn, the fabrics, puppets, and clay point out the existence of the historical world[v] where the event occurred.
In what follows, I will expand on the effects of materiality on the depictions of real events created in material-based animated documentaries. I will offer a more in-depth analysis of non-fiction object animation and consider two short films that fall into this category: the 2018 short Childhood Memories and the 2019 work Model Childhood. Both animations are hybrid in form – they employ mixed media techniques including stop-motion and altered live-action footage[vi]. I chose these examples specifically to showcase how the physical properties of animated materials can guide viewers’ attention and contribute to the potential interpretations of the films. I believe that discussing this type of physical animation can serve as a productive example of what the examination of material aspects of photography-based animation can do for the larger field of animated documentary.
Documentary Animation and “the Stuff of Reality”
Non-fiction Object Animation
Stop-motion is a technique that creates an illusion of movement by manipulating objects in front of the camera and photographing them frame by frame. Originally films made with the use of a single-frame exposure technique (which lies in the core of the stop-motion) would commonly be referred to as “trick pictures” (Crafton, “The Veiled Genealogy” 103). Over time, however, due to developments in the discourse around animation production, the early animated pictures would start to be singled out and described through their utilized materials – as “animated dolls, objets animés, and dessins animés” (Crafton, “The Veiled Genealogy” 103; emphasis in the original). By pointing out that particular physical things would be set in motion on screen, early animated films aimed to astonish the audience with the impossible spectacle – with puppets, furniture, and paper cutouts moving on their own. Yet the pleasure of watching objects move was not just in observing them magically teleport from point A to point B – but in seeing them in motion while at the same time recognizing them as inanimate real, material things. In that, object animation since its early days has been persistently emphasizing materiality of its props.
This connection between object animation and reality is what interests me the most in conversations around this form. By highlighting the physicality of the props it uses, object animation seems to naturally achieve something of a documentary quality – it retains a trace of intimate interaction between a filmmaker and the world by preserving and displaying fingerprints on clay, wrinkles on cutouts, and stitches on puppets. In a way, the use of these and other materials reveals, as Paul Wells describes it, “their conditions of existence” and their “essential concreteness” (Understanding Animation 91; emphasis in the original). To put it differently, prior to evoking any metaphorical meaning, the objects of object animation emphasize the same idea as photographed cels described by Frank. They state: “This object existed, this object was made by human hands” (Frank 2; emphasis in the original). Therefore, recorded with stop-motion, tangible models and figurines serve a documentary function. Yet, if the mere materiality of objects presented on screen suggests connections to the historical world, what happens when the animated matter becomes supported by a real-life story?
Presumably in 1899, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper made and exhibited an advertisement called Matches Appeal – a work that some consider to be the first stop-motion picture in the history of animation (De Vries and Mul 67-68). This short 75-foot film lasting a little more than a minute shows a set of matchsticks moving around and using a blackboard to write a call for donations. While it would obviously be incorrect to label Melbourne-Cooper’s short as an animated documentary (considering that by then, a concept of a documentary film had not even emerged yet), it takes a curious twist of endowing a very specific prop – a match – with agency to make a statement about its own significance. The message written by the animated matchstick in the ad reads as follows: “For one guinea Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient [sic] to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion with the name of the sender inside. N.B. Our soldiers need them.” Therefore, the film supports its call for action by literally presenting what it asks for. To put it differently, in Matches Appeal, the matches tell a matches’ story.
Paul Wells suggests that by stressing the tactility and substantiality of used props, animators prompt their viewers to recall their own experiences of interacting with shown objects or others similar to them (“Chairy Tales” 7). When seeing recognizable materials and things, the audience is reminded of their “primal and unique significance” (Wells, “Chairy Tales” 7). Moreover, the value of depicted artifacts derives from their functions outside of the diegetic space which they inhabit. As Wells points out, due to its aesthetic and affective qualities, object animation cannot but prove the existence of a material reality beyond its narratives (“Chairy Tales” 7).
When applied to the analysis of photography-based animated documentaries, this claim allows us to focus on the non-apparent nuances of said films. It creates an opportunity to move away from perceiving objects used in animated non-fiction as mere metaphors and symbols. It offers us a chance to closely look at the results of manual labor that went into producing them. In what follows, I will provide close readings of two hybrid animated documentary films which can serve as good examples of emphasizing their own material properties. Such works as Mary Martins’ Childhood Memories and Tim Mercier’s Model Childhood employ textile and clay animation to represent experiences of searching for one’s identity and reconciling with the consequences of child sexual abuse.
Childhood Memories is a short autobiographical animated documentary based on, as the name suggests, the childhood memories of its animator. In the film, Martins presents a silicone avatar of her child self wandering around the streets of Lagos during her family visit to Nigeria in 1988. In that, the film provides a reflection on the mysterious nature of processes of remembering, as well as on narratives about one’s heritage. It combines the archival 16mm footage of Lagos with stop-motion and hand-drawn 2D animation, and with that connects Martins’ recollections to the cultural environments of Lagos in the second half of the 20th century.
One of the materials that Martins uses in her film is the textile that alludes to the traditional attire of Nigerian women. In my personal interview with the artist, she explained that she specifically looked for the authentic Ankara fabric at a Nigerian market in London. Then she animated it on glass, and her collaborator created a dress for the puppet. Dancing square patches of textile appear right when Martins’ child character becomes introduced to the viewers. These pieces reveal a point of view of the puppet and illustrate the “colorful sounds” of urban Lagos which Martins refers to in her voice-over (Childhood Memories 0:43). This noise consists of sounds of the market that she recalls visiting, but it also rhymes with the general ambience of the live-action footage that depicts Lagos citizens. Moving textile shapes draw attention to the figurine’s dress that matches vibrant gowns of local women captured in archival shots. The fabric brings texture to the animated frames and invites an alternative mode of perception to a pure intellectual one.
Martins’ play with the Nigerian fabrics seems to work with what Laura Marks terms the haptic visuality (162). In her book The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Marks describes the concept of the haptic – a quality of cinematic frames that invites a visceral mode of spectatorship. Haptic images focus viewers’ attention on the surface of the screen and call to appreciate their abstract and material properties. In Marks’s own words, “Haptic cinema … encourages a bodily relationship between the viewer and the image” (163). To put it differently, the haptic creates the kind of spectatorial experience in which the audience is discouraged from fully grasping the things shown on screen but which compels the viewer’s eye to touch presented objects (172-173).
I argue that Martins’ flickering fabrics align with the concept of haptic visuality as they draw attention to the spectacle of their material transformations rather than directly aiding the narrative. These animated textiles highlight their facture which, in turn, brings cultural specificity into the frames. The animated patches invite recognition of their texture and traditional combination of colors and patterns used in Nigerian garments. At the same time, their animation also flattens the cinematic space. Appearing on the surface of the screen and obscuring parts of the archival footage, they emphasize the borders of the film’s frames and with that – the limitations of any cinematic representation. The superficial positioning of the fabric pieces marks both their two-dimensionality, as well as the flatness of the screen itself. What happens in this animated documentary then is something that can be described as the tension between the material and the image (Smith 92). The weaving and ornamental patterns of Childhood Memories’ textiles become mediated and translated into visible images by the photographic capturing process. Moreover, by revealing their own materiality, these patches point out the existence of the historical world that produced them. In other words, animated fabrics of Childhood Memories not only allow the artist to work with culturally specific aesthetics but also preserve the connection with the real world by translating their tactile qualities and reinforcing the mode of the haptic reception.
All this helps Childhood Memories to establish two spatial dimensions: the animated space of memory and the live-action space of history. Yet the film seems to subvert the two modalities and endows the animated environment with more realism. To elaborate, the animation of Childhood Memories is precisely the space where the unique personality features of Martins’ family members including herself become realized. In contrast, live-action footage creates an illustrative almost blurred background for the animated figures to stand out from. Paradoxically, people shown in live-action excerpts almost become a part of the landscape, while those represented through animation acquire distinctive visual qualities and agency (I will further discuss the notion of agency in more detail). This queers the common use of animation in the animated documentary that tends to condense and abstract the meaning and serve more as generalized visual metaphors as opposed to bringing out specific features of portrayed characters (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 111).
Overall, Martins’ animated documentary creates a physical space for experiences that are impossible to witness directly. The film brings the artist’s memories to life and allows the viewers to interact with the re-created subjective perspective on a different level. Her animated fabrics and silicone figurine create a physical space in which her memory becomes materialized, but at the same time, they cannot help but point out the constructedness and representational limits of any animated recollections. Finally, by showing off the literal material it is made of, Martins’ animation points back to the historical world that produced it.
Tim Mercier’s Model Childhood is another animated documentary short that utilizes object animation. Narratively different from Childhood Memories, Mercier’s work discusses a personal experience of sexual abuse that the artist was put through as a child (further child sexual abuse will be abbreviated to CSA). In that, the documentary serves as Mercier’s attempt to reconcile with this event and take control over the past that has been haunting him.
The short starts with a live-action sequence in a form of a diary entry. Mercier shows his studio and process of working with the materials that will later turn into stop-motion sets and characters. He cuts and molds a block of orange plasticine and rips some pieces of fabric to make a polo shirt reminiscent of his childhood clothes. While these materials will further compose Mercier’s animation, at the beginning of his film, he puts them on his own body. He attaches the clay to the sides of his tennis shoes and dresses himself in the shirt made of scraps. With that, Mercier establishes a corporeal, visceral connection between himself, his future stop-motion avatar, and the story he is about to tell.
Open interaction between the animator and his materials becomes a defining feature of Model Childhood. Mercier freely shows his animation process from choosing the artistic media to constructing the sets to executing the final shoot. While the artist himself says that he is not sure what exactly he is doing with animation (pointing to his inexperience with stop-motion), he fully embraces the tactile qualities of the medium. With object animation always pointing out the existence of its props in a three-dimensional space (Ward, “Animating with Facts” 294), Model Childhood emphasizes the connection between its character and set designs and the real objects and participants of the event it portrays. Mercier includes live-action footage of himself revisiting real places and searching for real things connected to his story. For example, he comes to the park, where he first saw his abuser, and he then finds a model of the car that his assaulter drove. At the end of the film, he even returns to the forest glade where the assault happened. With that, he emphasizes the unavoidable connection between the emotional impact of the CSA and the physical triggers that this experience leaves behind. Following his trips to the places of his assault and encountering an Austin Cambridge similar to the one driven by his abuser, the artist chooses to meticulously recreate these spaces and objects as animated models. His process incorporates a painstaking restoration of minor details linked to the artist’s experience, which include textures and colors of vehicle’s seats, the clothes of his younger self, as well as mossy patches surrounding pathways in the woods where the assault happened. In my personal interview with the artist, Mercier explained his choice to animate these objects through their connection to his own childhood experience of building models and toy sets. He mentioned feeling great pleasure from the very process of putting together a model car, from creating a mess by working with glue and paint, and from recalling the childhood joy of constructing toys from scratch (Mercier, Personal Interview). Thus I argue that the artist’s attention to these set elements (sometimes considered secondary), along with the very process of building them by hand, has ultimately achieved two goals. First, it has formed a bond between the real and the animated worlds to the point of blurring the boundary between the two. Second, it has allowed Mercier to take back control over the traumatic events that occurred decades ago.
The success of Mercier’s animation is rooted in the film’s hybridity. The combination of live action and stop-motion allows the artist to translate the inexplicable trauma caused by the CSA into a more accessible visual form; it also allows him to draw attention to the event’s physical consequences. By bringing elements of the real world – leather covers, child’s clothes, bits of moss, and grass – into his animated space, Mercier turns the haunting memories of his abuse into more visible, tangible, and concrete objects. In other words, he grounds the over-encompassing feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and shame caused by CSA in the confined and highly curated animated mise-en-scene.
Discussing Model Childhood in her chapter on autobiographical stop-motion, Carla MacKinnon notes that live-action shots comprising Mercier’s work have initially served a function of therapeutic treatment (“Autobiography and Authenticity” 111). These recordings can be viewed as an example of exposure therapy – a widely accepted approach to working with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Cukor et al. 82). In the process of treatment, patients suffering from the symptoms of PTSD may undergo different forms of exposure to triggers of their trauma (Cukor et al. 83). In Mercier’s case, this exposure takes the form of visiting the places connected to the event and verbalizing his memories in a form of a script.
What I would like to emphasize, however, is that both processes of experiencing trauma, as well as going through a PTSD treatment tend to cause bodily responses in individuals subjected to them. Mercier, for instance, acknowledges the difficulty of staying physically present and engaged with his surroundings when embarking on the journey across places related to his past[vii]. Furthermore, in the animated reenactment of the abuse, Mercier’s puppet becomes wildly disfigured by his assaulter. In the unsettling scene that concludes the short, the man splits the boy’s head into halves, rips apart its insides, and then puts it back together leaving a rough seam across the point of rupture. In that, the material qualities of animated props not only elicit vivid memories through the recognition of their textures, colors, and shapes, but also emphasize the physical consequences of CSA. At the same time, despite the visceral horror conveyed by the scene of abuse, Mercier still shows that animation holds a potential for recovery. In the scene that accompanies the film’s closing credits, the artist takes his puppet out of the model car and fixes it by evening out its plasticine figure. Here, the physical touch that was previously attached to the terrifying experience of assault, turns into a soothing restorative act.
Overall, in the film, the space of the real world comes across as unsafe – as an environment that cannot be controlled or altered. The material properties and organization of this space turn into triggers and cause physical discomfort. On the opposite side, the space of animation that presents a recreation of the actual event offers a space of emotional refuge while still maintaining the physical connection between the event portrayed and the images crafted.
Stop-motion as Performance of Agency
MacKinnon asserts that animating in stop-motion is a performative process “where the animator is physically and psychologically invested into every frame” (“Autobiography and Authenticity” 109). In other words, the physical manipulation of the materials always leaves its trace in the objects animated in this manner. Similarly, when emphasizing the role tactility plays in the production of stop-motion, Corrie Francis Parks states that direct interactions with paint, powders, or clay makes animation produced with them look more intimate (94). She writes: “The very fact that these inert materials are moving indicates [that] the hand of the artist is at work” (61). This echoes Birgitta Hosea’s theorization of hand-crafted animation which she also describes in terms of the performance (“Drawing Animation” 354). Building off Vivian Sobchack’s conceptualization of the animated line, she suggests that linear marks constituting, for example, drawings imply a “glimpse of human agency, of [an artist’s] subjectivity” (355). Hence, a line – or in the case of Childhood Memories and Model Childhood, a curve on a clay or silicone puppet, a fingerprint or a flake left on it – signals an animator’s decision to manipulate the medium in a very distinct way. They point to the intentionality behind the choice of animation’s form and assume that a physical motion of sliding a hand over a physical surface took place. In this way, any animated film produced by hand always holds traces of its animator’s presence.
While Sobchack and Hosea relate manifestations of the subjective in animation to the animator’s performance, animated documentaries discussed in this essay go even further. As I pointed out before, in Childhood Memories, we follow Martins’ puppet’s point of view which is marked by flickering fabrics. Yet it is not the only indicator of its perspective – in the film, the puppet also physically acknowledges her own animatedness. While interacting with the live-action space established by the archival footage, Martins’ avatar recognizes the difference in scale between herself and the people captured on film. Often presented in long shots against live-action backgrounds, she moves between the legs of the market’s visitors. At the same time, close-ups of different parts of the figurine’s body reveal the rough texture of the silicone and the excess material left after its molding.
As Martins recalled in my interview with her, the material that the puppet was made of posed the most challenges for her on set. The artist opted for silicone because of its texture – it allowed to create a fleshier look compared to plasticine (Martins). However, the silicone puppet could not be easily altered after completely hardening overnight. Describing her experience of making the puppet, Martins laughed and said that after taking it out of the mold, it was simply “not right” (Martins). She recounted having “many issues with it, like the leg wouldn’t work, for example” (Martins). In addition, the size of the puppet ended up being too big (approximately 25cm tall) to smoothly manipulate in the limited studio setting in which the film was produced[viii]. Mercier similarly described his experience of working with plasticine. He recalled the challenges that the material itself posed for him during the production process: as an example, he mentioned clay’s malleability and its changing the texture with temperature fluctuations (Mercier, Personal Interview). The artist suggested that the material guided his creative process: the choices about the size of the puppets, their rough exterior, and their facial expressions were made to accommodate the physical properties of plasticine (Mercier, Personal Interview).
Thus the inalterability of silicone, the smoothness of plasticine, the size of the puppets, along with occasional jerky movements of the animated characters, create a material surplus that in turn establishes the puppet’s subjectivity. As Sianne Ngai writes about the rebellious liveliness of animated bodies (i.e., clay, and in the case of Martins’ film, silicone puppets), they often possess some material excess exceeding their original design (117). This excess for Ngai brings out the characters’ “unsuspected autonomy” (117) – the ability to set out a performance that goes beyond a scripted one. This performance is conditioned by the very materiality of these animated characters and includes unintentional transformations of the materials themselves.
Similar to Childhood Memories, Model Childhood blurs the boundaries between the space of animation and the space of reality. Yet, in Mercier’s film, the puppets do not simply acknowledge their own constructedness by revealing the artificiality of their world; instead, they resist the very narrative they are supposed to enact. In a scene of young Mercier getting in the car of his abuser, his clay puppet demands to stop the shoot and addresses its animator directly: “Why does he [referring to Mercier] believe him? I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t get in the car” (Childhood Memories 9:45–10:01). This scene then shows that animation can take over the real space and create an alternative physical environment that allows for hesitation and a potentially different ending to the story told. Thus, the obvious roughness and flaky texture of silicone limbs in Childhood Memories along with the animated character’s disobedience in Model Childhood blur the line between dimensions of live-action and animation further affirming the belonging of these films’ characters to the real, historical world.
To sum up, Childhood Memories and Model Childhood hold a lot of similarities: they highlight the artisanal nature of animation production, materialize the space of memory, give agency to their animated characters, and draw attention to the textures and dimensions of animated figures. Thus, through the implementation of certain objects in their production, these animated documentaries create a peculiar mode of interacting with personal histories. By reconnecting testimonies and subjective narratives to specific physical things, these films not only preserve memories about original events but also remind their audiences that objects hold a lot of meaning – they in a way create archives of personal experiences where props tell stories instead of words.
Conclusion: Why Animated Documentaries?
The animated documentary is sometimes described as an odd form that marries two different ways of seeing the world (Honess Roe, Animated Documentary 1). With a popular perception of documentaries having kinship with discourses of sobriety (Nichols, Representing Reality 3) and animation belonging to the realm of imagination, animated non-fiction occupies a strange contradictory position. However, despite this prevailing assumption, animation as a form often preserves and enforces its relationship to the historical world by exploring and celebrating our reality’s physical properties. What I was hoping to make clear in this essay is that by including physical objects and other artistic media in its productions, animation reveals its intimate connection to the world. While this holds true for all material-based animated films no matter what topics – fictional or else – they address, conversations around animation’s materiality mainly occur in the field of animated fiction. However, I believe that the animated documentary can also benefit from this discussion[ix].
Often approached from the position of lacking, animated non-fiction works are viewed as inherently incapable of depicting material reality with the same level of accuracy[x] as live-action documentaries. Instead, documentary animations are celebrated for tackling unattainable, unrepresentable topics – unavailable for conventional representation – with their most valuable qualities lying in the dimension of metaphors and symbols. The animation part of animated documentaries is treated as innately non-indexical since it tends to provide an altered image of reality. In addition, with narratives of animated films traditionally viewed as rooted in fantasy, animation’s connections to the historical world are often disregarded. This prominent suspicion about animation’s ability to show real things and represent real people then leads scholars of animated documentary to take a defensive position and justify the very existence of the form of animated non-fiction. To put it differently, the firm belief in concrete ontological differences between animation and live action tends to undermine the animated documentary project at large and prevent scholars from trusting the very material with which they engage.
With these tendencies in mind, I propose to employ a different strategy to study animated documentaries, and in particular the ones produced via photographic methods. I suggest approaching them from the side of animation as opposed to comparing them to live-action non-fiction films (an exercise whose results often seem to not be in favor of animated works). I believe animation’s formal properties and its production contexts can offer a new understanding of what animated non-fiction can do, as well as simply remind us that animation is a product of our material reality.
Recordings of clay and silicone models’ performances, as well as manipulation of fabric and other artistic materials could all be viewed as blurring the line between live-action and animation filmmaking (Buchan, “Memoria Rerum” 23). However, opposed to Honess Roe, who sees animated props as exclusively serving a metaphorical function, I view the materiality of material-based non-fiction animation as a precise reason for its documentary quality. I argue that watching fabrics, silicone, or clay move on screen in a non-fiction context is never merely about interpreting them as symbols. Instead, it is also about literally watching them move, reflecting on the physicality of these objects. To me, the thingness of materials and devices that viewers witness in action when watching material-based animated documentaries, enriches their understanding of topics that these films address. In other words, objects and substances used to produce animated non-fiction tell their own stories that add to the broader narratives of the final films. To rephrase Jay Leyda’s comment on the importance of approaching any cultural document as “the crystal of the total event,”[xi] I argue that ignoring the traces and manifestations of the real world means ignoring the world itself (qtd. in Frank 31-32). Therefore, looking closely at what animated documentaries are made of can not only help discern their representational powers but also provide an insight into the environments and contexts of their making.
Anastasiia Gushchina is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary. Her Ph.D. project tentatively entitled “The Stuff of Reality”: Towards a Materialist Theory of Animated Documentary examines techniques and production processes of independent animated documentaries of the 1990s-2010s. She presented at multiple international conferences and published her work in Sense of Cinema and Fantasy/Animation. Her research interests include film and animation theory, film philosophy, and documentary practices in visual arts.
ASIFA. Association Internationale du Film d’Animation/International Animated Film Association, www.asifa.net.
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[[i]] This paper pursues a theoretical line of inquiry and a speculative materialist approach as introduced by Hannah Frank in Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetic of Animated Cartoons. This study omits discussions of specific industry practices in favor of critical theoretical interpretations of the introduced films. For more information on the industry frameworks and production processes surrounding contemporary animated documentary productions, see, for example, Contexts of Short Animated Documentary Production in the United Kingdom by Carla MacKinnon.
[[ii]] Here, I refer to index “as a sign that functions through an actual existential connection to its referent ‘by being really and in its individual existence connected with the individual object’” (Gunning 30). To put it differently, the index is a marker that attests to the existence of some phenomenon in the physical world.
[[iv]] For other accounts on how different animation techniques fit or do not fit into conventional definitions of animation and live action see Paul Ward’s “Rotoshop in Context: Computer Rotoscoping and Animation Aesthetics” and “Animating with Facts: The Performative Process of Documentary Animation in the ten mark (2010),” as well as Honess Roe’s Animated Documentary – Chapter 1.
[[v]] In this paper, I use the concept of the historical world as a synonym for “the world” and “reality.” The term “historical world” appears in the documentary scholarship by Bill Nichols, and specifically in his definitions of documentary as a form: “Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves within a framework. This frame conveys a plausible perspective on the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the filmmaker shapes the film into a way of understanding the historical world directly rather than through a fictional allegory” (emphasis mine, Introduction to Documentary 10).
[[vi]] While some scholars offer to quantify the amount of animation a film must have to count as an animated documentary (Strøm), I follow Annabelle Honess Roe’s (Animated Documentary 4; 18-22), Cristina Formenti’s (1-2), and Carla MacKinnon’s (Contexts 59-61) definitions of the film genre and include hybrid and mixed media animated non-fiction films into this category.
[[vii]] Specifically, after spotting a car similar to the one owned by his assaulter and while trying to calm down his heavy breathing developed as a reaction to this encounter, he utters: “I am absolutely shaken, my heart is racing” (Childhood Memories 3:10–3:38). Similarly, in a later scene when he arrives to the Cristchurch Meadows – a park area where he met the abuser a day prior to the assault – he notes that he is “concentrating on the filming and not on being [in the park]” (Childhood Memories 4:17–4:23)
[[viii]] Childhood Memories was produced by Martins as a part of BFI/BBC Four talent programme in 2018. The turnaround for the film was very quick, and the artist had to finish the film over the course of one summer. She worked in a small studio at the University of East London (Martins).
[[ix]] While material-based animated documentaries constitute a minority of all animated documentary productions, the persistence of their appearance (e.g., in 2022, the Factual Animation Film Festival presented 9 out of 26 films that employed material-based animation techniques) points to a growing curiosity about photography-based documentary animation. As I mentioned in the introduction to this essay, this trend seems at odds with the proliferation of digital animation practices. While this question is beyond the scope of this essay, it might be interesting to ask how this trend fits in the contemporary context of anidocs production, and what the implications of the materialist study of prop-based animated documentary are for animated non-fiction. For the broader discussions of material aspects of digital animation see Ne Ehrlich’s book Animating Truth: Documentary and Visual Culture in the 21st Century.
[[x]] It is worth noting that discussion of the accuracy or level of veracity of documentary depictions is usually taken with a grain of salt. Most scholars of documentary cinema along with researchers of animated documentaries point out that documentary’s objectivity is an outdated modernist ideal (Renov 130). This is also the point that becomes repeatedly emphasized by scholars of animated non-fiction who eagerly argue for the impossibility to achieve an unbiased position when describing reality (see writings on this topic by Honess Roe, Pascal Lefèvre, Paul Wells, Paul Ward, and Nea Ehrlich). However, even with that, documentary cinema is still believed to have a different relationship and privileged access to the world compared to animation.
[[xi]] Discussing Leyda’s biographical study of Emily Dickinson, Frank mentions his peculiar research method that consists of investigating historical documents of different origins (“from Dickinson’s letters … to a doctor’s prescription to diary entries to reports from local newspapers”) (30). This approach, Frank states, allows Leyda to make Dickinson “decidedly human, a product of her distinct time and place” (30). The passage that I am referring to in my essay goes as follows: “To ignore [these documents and historical contingencies] … is to divorce Emily Dickinson from her real, tangible surroundings” (31). See more in Leyda’s The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson and Frank’s Frame by Frame – Chapter 1.