Li Guo – Toward a New Media Ecology: Aesthetic Experiments in Post-Socialist Chinese Animated Documentaries

“This is firmly a documentary, but it’s stretching the boundaries of what documentaries can do….The frame that is used around Amin’s story is so fascinating: In a way, yes, it takes us to his memories and imaginations, but it’s also so honest because the filmmaking process itself is in the film” (see Kohn 2022).


In a recent interview, Riz Ahmed, one of the executive producers of the award-winning Flee (Flugt 2021), comments on their animated documentary’s inherent self-reflexivity. Relying on non-mimetic substitution and reconfiguration of narrative fiction, the animation protects the interviewee Amin’s anonymity as he recounts his experiences of escaping Afghanistan as a refugee in the 1990s. The rise of animated documentaries on the global scene since the 1990s has evoked rich queries about this artistic form and its creative articulations of actualities, although English-language studies on Chinese animated documentaries remain rather scant. This essay fills in the gap of the current studies by exploring animated documentaries in post-socialist China and their aesthetic experiments in three aspects: 1. digital rotoscoping; 2. animation collage and viral mashups; 3. deictic indexicality. Engaging independent and state-sponsored animated documentaries, I consider how media centralization and institutionalization mechanisms impact animation production, the animation industry, and animation fans’ grassroots parasocial practices. I analyze three stylistically diverse animated documentaries, namely A Global Cooperation: Silent Within Noise (Chanzao lin yujing zhi guojihua, 2014), and Animation Education: Silent Within Noise (Chanzao lin yujing zhi donghua jiaoyu, 2015) by director Yanping Xue, and Dusky Wolves: The Last Battle at the Wild Fox Summit (Canglang zhi juezhan Yehu ling, Dir. Meng Jiyuan and Fei Xiang, 2012). As these works display, animated documentaries activate myriad interactions, border-crossing, and hybridization between human subjects and animated images, between aesthetic abstraction and concrete cultural views and motifs. Intersectional boundaries of aesthetic forms and practices (cel animation, digital rotoscoping, collage, and virtual mashups) express cultural anxiety about the trying task of truth-claiming. Such awareness about the construction of actualities is often shared by the cultured audience of animated documentaries, of which dissonant audio-visual presentations of myths and realities are outspoken and provocative.


Reconnoitering Animated Documentary in the Chinese Context

A study of China’s animated documentary in the milieu of post-socialist Chinese media ecology can be productive in the following aspects. First, despite the development of unofficial screen culture and independent filmmaking since the late 1990s, a division exists between works that are permitted for distribution through official channels and independent products distributed by unofficial venues (Edwards 6). Animated documentaries are instrumental in raising contesting voices against the party-state’s hegemonic influence in the public arena, besides reflecting on the “documentary guarantee” and addressing anxieties about a politically precarious world (Takahashi 231-232). Independent documentaries can “rearticulate the experience of China in transition,” or “elevate the particular and the partial over the universal and the collective” (Robinson 37, 41). Second, a study of post-socialist animated documentaries contextualizes animation studies in China’s complex and ever-changing media system. Regarding the coalition of traditional and nascent media forms, Julia Keblinska observes that the early post-socialist era (1978-1989), which engages issues about piracy, the mobile screen, and digital activism, provides fresh perspectives to China’s media structure and ecologies (see Keblinska 2019). Animated documentaries in post-socialist China contribute to the explorations of animation as a media form, its relation to wide-ranging digital mediascapes, its myriad forms, and its possibilities of social impacts on the social environment. Third, animated documentaries offer a fresh perspective on Chinese film history, by revisiting the intermixing artistic modes of animation and documentary, as well as contesting the connections between film genres and Chinese cinema. Chris Berry suggests that Chinese cinema can be considered as based on a “performative model of collective agency” rather than on the model of “the modern, unified nation-state” (Chris Berry 1998, 149). Resonating with this proposition, post-socialist animated documentaries manifest collective production, grassroots practices, and transnational media activism characterized by para-sociality and infra-individual intra-action.

The plethora of aesthetic choices in contemporary Chinese animated documentaries calls attention to the question of indexicality in animation and how animated documentaries’ artistic and technological varieties contribute to the dynamics of media ecology. Mary Ann Doane reminds us, “The index only purports to point, to connect, to touch, to make language and representation adhere to the world as tangent—to reference a real without realism” (Doane 4). Nea Ehrlich argues that “the index has a dual definition as both trace and deixis. The index functions as a trace or imprint of its object when objects act as the cause of the sign.” However, “deixis denotes the cognitive reasoning processes of showing, pointing, specifying, but also proving. The deixis can demonstrate, illustrate and indicate but it does not embody a trace to the referent…and, unlike the icon, does not have to be based on resemblance” (Ehrlich 64). Animation’s dual indexicality allows creative interpretations of social, political and historical actualities, when the origins of which could no longer be retrievable. Simultaneously, animation in historical documentaries meets the viewers’ demands “to know and to see the past” (Ward 2007, 139). When visualizing the past through photography, archival footage, and real-life interviews is impossible in animated documentaries on historical subjects, such as in Dusky Wolves, the viewers are made aware of the fabricated nature of the animated documentary, including the images they see as well as the voices and sound they hear.

Engaging studies of animation and animated documentaries with Chinese and Sinophone film studies, this essay considers three forms of aesthetic practices in contemporary Chinese animated documentaries: digital rotoscoping; animation collage and viral mashups; and deictic indexicality. The essay first explores digital rotoscoping and animated collage in two documentary shorts, A Global Cooperation: Silent within Noise (2014), and Animation Education: Silent within Noise (2015), directed by Xue Yanping. Featuring leading animators and animation producers as interviewees on screen, both animation shorts deploy animation as what Roe calls “non-mimetic substitution.” These shorts explain, demonstrate, and elucidate the content of the interviews, often appropriating and reconfiguring the iconic animation images that these animators create themselves. Xue’s animation shorts prompt the viewers’ awareness of the filmmaking process, examining how audio-visual footage could be fused and transformed, and how animators’ contesting viewpoints challenge preconceptions of animation education and production. A Global Cooperation utilizes digital rotoscoping and double-screened presentations of the animators and their animated reincarnations to create mixed registers of materiality and corporeal presences. Such hybrid audio-visual exposition enacts what Paul Ward calls “animated interactions” between animators/interviewees and their animated personae on the contrasting screen. In Xue’s other short, Animation Education, creative use of collage, mad viral mashups, and self-mocking interventions deconstructs cinematic auteurism and vigorously engages parasociality, which is built upon interactions between animators, animation teachers, students, art and sound designers, and animation viewers.

Probing into the representation of deictic indexicality in animated documentaries, the following part of the essay considers Dusky Wolves: The Last Battle at the Wild Fox Summit, a hand-drawn documentary directed by Meng Jiyuan. The documentary recounts the rise of Temüjin, or Genghis Khan, and his Mongolian empire, the grand wars between the Mongolian empire and the Jurchen Jin dynasty, and the subsequent fall of Jin. Here the animators create diverse “real effects” by simulating camera movements, utilizing traditional and modern illustration techniques, adding artificial traces of aged film effects, and synchronizing sound, voice, and music through editing. Dusky Wolves validates how non-photorealistic animation can achieve a form of deictic credibility through animation techniques. Animated documentary embodies a dual indexicality, that is, indexicality as trace, and indexicality as deixis. As Dusky Wolves illustrates, animation’s deictic indexicality allows the representation and illustration of a subject, rather than a direct embodiment of the historical referent. The animated historical documentary showcases that film production through centralized venues in the post-socialist era depersonalizes and deindividualizes artists’ creative practices, which is reminiscent of animators’ challenges in Maoist state-run film studios. Yet, like their predecessors who found new means of artistic expression in a highly oppressive environment, animators of Dusky Wolves explore ways to dance with the institution’s ideological constraints while examining possibilities for creative expression. The animation conceals its disapproval, or even scorn, for Sinicization and Sinocentrism through maneuvers of plot development, aesthetic experimentation, and representations of heterogeneous historical temporalities beyond a homogenous ideological discourse.

Animated documentaries as an audio-visual form, as Cristina Formenti observes, bear a long historical dimension that can be traced to filmic productions in the 1940s, which has evolved into diverse national and international cinematic traditions (Formenti 5-6). Formenti notes that although less studied, animated documentaries can still be found in many Asian nations, ranging from Flood of Memory (India, Dir. Anitha Balachandran, 2008), Megumi (Japan, Dir. Hidetoshi Ômori, 2008), as well as Preserved Voices (China, 2004, Dir. Zhou Tingting), and Ketchup (Fanqie jiang, China, Dir. Guo Chunning and Yan Baishen, 2012), as well as docu-animations from Korea (Formenti 236). Animated documentaries in Taiwan and Hong Kong have attracted international attention, including Hidden Elders (Yinbi laoren, 2008, Hong Kong) by Postgal Workshop, Hand in Hand (Qianruan de shou, Yen Lan-chuan & Juang Yi-tseng, Taiwan, 2011), Weiting Zhou’s short Almost Life (Taiwan, 2015), and Liuacow’s short The Guest Won’t Stay (Keren bu zuoke, Taiwan, 2018), among many others. This essay considers China’s animated documentary as a mode of artistic expression which yields a new perspective to China’s film history, film industry, and media productions from the past to the present.

A historical review of Chinese animated documentaries draws attention to animation films with documentary features in the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, a series of animation films directed by the Wan brothers were released, focusing on wartime realism both before and during China’s War of Resistance (1937-1945). Animated shorts made by the Wan brothers during this time carried compelling features of documentary films, utilizing animation aesthetics to address the stringent social and political realities in interwar China. Examples of such animation shorts with documentary features include Wake Up, My Patriots! (Guoren suxing!, 1932), Blood Money (Xueqian, 1932), The Year of National Goods (Guohuo nian, 1933), and A History of Pain for the Nation (Minzu tongshi, 1933). Because of their distinctive political purposes, these animation shorts manifest both the persuasive mode and the performative mode of documentary films. As Bill Nichols observes, a performative documentary “freely mixes expressive techniques that give texture and density to fiction… with oratorial techniques for addressing social issues that neither science nor reason can resolve (Nichols 2010, 206). These animations display a persuasive role of documentary film in that they openly instigate collective sentiments of patriotism through aesthetic evocation and mobilize the progressive masses into taking action against the corrupt Nationalist Party or the invading Japanese troops.

Similar animations displaying the performative and persuasive documentary modes flourished in the 1940s. Chen Bo’er (1910-1951) directed China’s first puppet animation Dream of the Throne (Huangdi meng 1947), which was released by Northeast Film Studio at the height of China’s civil war. The animation covers Chiang Kaishek, the Nationalist Party leader who exchanged the nation’s political autonomy for the military weapons provided by American envoy George Catlett Marshall, Jr. The puppet animation utilizes traditional theatrical performances to satirize the Chiang’s corruption. After the secret transaction with Marshall, Chiang, with his painted face, performs in four scenes that deride the Nationalist Party’s deception of the people in the media, their farcical organization of the so-called National Congress, and the ultimate failure of Chiang’s dream of claiming the throne amidst rising protests of the people. Another example is Go After An Easy Prey (Wengzhong zhuo bie 1947) directed by Fang Ming, an animation that provides a documentary view of China’s civil war. Early Chinese cinema harbors rich connections between animation and documentary films. Daisy Du Yan, regarding the South Manchurian Railway Company in Manchukuo, argues that the juxtaposition of animation and documentary in its films “reflects the Janus-faced nature of Manchuria, a highly politicized entity on the one side and a fantasyland on the other” (Du 2019, 77). Such a connection between animation and documentary films persisted in the 1940s at the Northeast Film Studio (Du 2019, 77). Du also examines the Manchukuo Film Association (1937-1945), and how its productions of animations, documentaries, newsreels, and live-action films manifest documentary modes of ideological persuasion.[i] During the Cultural Revolution, some films expressed an animated “documentary style.” Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland (Caoyuan yingxiong xiao jiemei, 1965), which can be considered an animated documentary based on the true story of two Mongolian sisters.[ii]

Among post-Mao, post-socialist animated documentaries, an early internationally known example is Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square directed by Shui-Bo Wang in 1998, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution and the Maoist regime, Wang presents a rich collage of artwork, archival photos, painted propaganda pamphlets, and historical artifacts, reminiscing his transformation from an idealistic socialist to a Western-ideology-inspired artist. Michael Berry discusses how Wang’s documentary offers a historical view of China’s socio-economic context preceding the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 (Michael Berry 328). An example of the function of animation as evocation is the depiction of the Tiananmen Square incident near the end of Wang’s documentary, when haunting images of a bleeding statue of liberty, a military tank, a fleeing red steed, and a life-taking ghost appear against the photographic backdrop of protesting crowds. The viewers’ experiences of the animation are synesthetically shaped by collages of archival photography, images, and sounds. These examples illustrate a hauntological dimension of animation as an aesthetic medium with an ability to affect memory and the process of remembering (Schofield 2019, 27; Hirsch 1997). If animation could re-construct narratives of the past, such functions of animation are “hauntological” appropriations because it is impossible to achieve “an authentic and indexical link to the past” (Schofield 2019, 26). Wang’s documentary demonstrates that narration in the documentary is a demarcated process subjected to the storyteller/director’s disjointed memories and affective experiences. The reanimation of the dead and forgotten evokes the spectral nature of animation as a medium that refutes ontological traces of the past.

Wang’s animated document can bespeak what Annabelle Honess Roe calls the three functions of animation in animated documentary (Roe 2013, 142-145). Animation can compensate for the missing live-action material through “mimetic substitution, non-mimetic substitution and evocation” (Roe 2013, 145). An example of an animated documentary with “non-mimetic substitution” is Migrant Worker (Mingong, Dir. Longfei Cong, Xuecheng He, 2008). This documentary recounts a migrant worker’s experience of being bullied by guards hired by construction contractors when he asks for his unpaid salary. The animation does not endeavor to recreate an illusion of the interviewee or to make the characters resemble their real-life selves. Non-mimetic substitution here bespeaks the filmmaker’s ethical engagements in concealing the identity of the interviewee and emphasizing the “nonappearance” of these marginalized subjects whose status is effaced on the very urban landscape that they constructed. In addition, Migrant Worker displays what Michael Renov has called “acoustic indexicality” by using animations to creatively explain or interpret real-life conversations and interviews (cited in Ward 2005, 107). In short, soundtracks are simulated and reenacted to achieve a form of hyperrealism. Indeed, animated documentaries are innately contradictory and hybrid because they “represent the real in an unreal way” (Ward 2005, 96). Through myriad aesthetic experiments, these works explore the documentary subject’s sensual and psychic aptitudes to understand and articulate the kinetic beyond idiosyncratic authenticity.


Digital Rotoscoping

Focusing on digital rotoscoping as a representational mode, this part of the essay examines an animation feature documentary Silent Within Noise: An Account of the Chinese Animation (Dir. Yanping Xue, 2016). The documentary contrasts interviews of animators with rotoscoped animation featuring animators as cartoon figures, according to the personality, appearance, tone, and voice of each. Xue’s film interviews with over 40 animators and artists and consists of 70% live-action scenes of interviews and 30% animation, divided into four episodes that together are 240 minutes long. Two animated documentary shorts, A Global Cooperation: Silent Within Noise and Animation Education: Silent Within Noise were released first. Rotoscoping in these two shorts emphasizes the co-presence of the human subjects and their animated images, and calls attention to the function of the animation apparatus in achieving approximation to reality and creating a sympathetic bond with spectators. In Animation Education, digitalized collage transcends image-based realism through computer animation. Digital rotoscoping of animators and interviewees produces hybrid and defamiliarized technological reincarnations of the subjects. Xue’s animation shorts can be productively considered in light of what Bill Nichols calls the “reflexive mode” of documentary. Nichols observes that a reflexive documentary focuses on inviting negotiations between the audience and the filmmaker, and instead of inviting the viewers to “see through” the documentary, “asks the viewers to see documentary for what it is: a construct or representation” (Nichols 2010, 194). Both shorts express an ambition to explore the animated documentary as a social tool, to allow marginalized animators to tell their stories, to seek social engagement, protest censorship, and to reflect on animators’ struggle under the impact of globalization. The shorts probe into real-life challenges through data and interviews related to China’s animation education and industry.

Animated images of interviewees visualize their characters, personalities, and the characters they have created. The interviewees’ animated personae, accompanied by their own voices, convey a sense of hyperrealism. Director Pi San is animated into an image similar to his impish hero Kuang Kuang in the satirical series Diary of Kuang Kuang (Kuang Kuang riji), with a black-and-white outline and a permanent nosebleed. Miss Puff, another of Pi San’s signature characters, accompanies his animated image at the interview. Lei Lei appears in an image similar to the character in his This is Love (Zhege niantou shi ai, 2010). Liu Kexin is animated as Princess Momo in Legend of the Moles: The Frozen Horro (Mo’er zhuangyuan bing shiji, 2011). The on-screen Xue Yanping appears in his signature cartoon image, a cat, based on his pet Catfood. The documentary shorts’ reconstruction of animation auteurs as interviewees recall Paul Wells’ observation that animation “always reflects on its own construction” and challenges the animator’s “seemingly omnipotent power” in artistic creation (Wells 2002, 14-16). If animation is “the ultimate auteurist cinema” (Schneider 30), animated documentaries expand such ethnographic self-reflexivity by presenting the producers, animation products, and the process of animation making.

Xue’s shorts display a “deliberate” documentary reflexivity, that is, the projects are “intentionally reflexive from their inception” (Ruby 10). Just as the on-screen cat-imaged director reminds us, reflexivity does not promise coherence but rather instructs the audience about the process through which notions of identity, objectivity, and actualities are produced. Animations in the background of the interview scenes function in a substitutive way to explain and clarify the subjects or situations discussed by the interviewees. In the dual-screen animation short A Global Cooperation which contrasts live-action interviews and animated scenes, when director Liu Kexin discusses the loss of indigenous animation brands under the impact of globalization, the animation on the right shows a scene of China’s Animation Kindergarten Graduation Ceremony in which many Pleasant Goats (Xi Yangyang, a native animation character) are posing with animators for their graduation picture. One by one, the goats disappear. Eventually, all the little goats are gone, leaving only the two animators in an empty photo. A similar use of animation as a tool for non-mimetic substitution is found at the beginning of Animation Education. The black-and-white, hand-drawn animations utilize familiar cartoon characters such as Pleasant Goat, Black Cat Detective (Heimao jingzhang), Ma Liang with the Magic Brush (Shenbi Ma Liang), and the Calabash Brothers (Hulu wa) to substitute images of animation major students as the animation visualizes the students’ challenges in a fiercely competitive job market, which is even more deteriorated by a massive expansion of animation educational programs. Animation stands in when the struggles of educators and students are impossible to be shown through live-action alternatives.

Xue’s two animation shorts invite scrutinization of the function of the rotoscope as well as digital rotoscoping. Max Fleischer observes that the function of the rotoscope is “to provide a method by which improved cartoon films may be produced, depicting the figures or other objects in a life-like manner, characteristic of the regular animated photo pictures” (quoted in Bouldin, 11). Bouldin notes that the rotoscope operates based on a form of “sympathetic magic,” by facilitating “an indexical transference of reality and materiality from an original body into its filmic copy, and then again into its animated incarnation” (Bouldin 13). Bouldin argues that such dual presence of the original natural human body and its animated incarnations are often subdued in Disney films that applied the technique of rotoscope, to maximize the effect of realism and augment sympathetic responses from the audience. In contrast, animation films by Fleischer do not hide the traces of the rotoscope, but rather include the original filmed human subjects, thus promoting the audiences’ awareness of how animation techniques are used to construct the “real.” Indeed, the technique of the rotoscope contests the politics of the real by challenging “the hegemonic constructs of the ‘natural body’ as well as blurring traditional media/generic distinctions between animation and live-action” (Langer, cited in Bouldin, 16). Xue’s deployment of the rotoscope in his documentaries, rather than concealing the traces of the rotoscope, boasts the co-presence of the human subjects (that is, the animators themselves) and their animated, technologically produced reincarnations on the double-screen. By heightening the viewers’ awareness of the animated images and their constructed nature, rotoscoping is used to achieve a subversive effect, allowing the audience to question the process of animation and its production of corporal materiality.

The exposure of the animators themselves on screen as the “kernel of corporeal truth” side by side with the animated images that they create generates a “somatic layering of bodies and various registers of materiality and reality” (Bouldin 9). In the interviews, the exposure of rotoscoped images with their creators, that is, leading animators and animation teachers, such as Lei Lei, Pi San, Wang Chuan, Lao Jiang, and Chen Liaoyu, reveals traces of the real. First, the juxtaposition of the animators and their created images that bear a lifelike likeness to their persons exposes the initial process of rotoscoping and the animator’s often autobiographical manipulation of the animated images. Second, in Xue’s reproduction of the animated images, a second layer of rotoscoping takes place as Xue manipulates the animated images further to mimic the actions, expressions, and movements of the animators at the interview. Rotoscoping breaks away from the original animators’ artistic control; animated images are overturned into mimicking and often ironic simulations of their creators. Third, the co-presence of the human body of an animator and the doubly rotoscoped animated image, by highlighting the artificiality of animation, paradoxically displays the truthfulness of animated documentaries in exposing the complexity of the rotoscoped image.

In the dual-screened A Global Cooperation, rotoscoped characters are given autonomy in interacting with the interviewees’ observations, showing an intriguing form of “animated interactions” with their creators. Juxtaposed with the interviews with director Lao Jiang and animator Lei Lei, the animation screen presents an interview with the animated Lao Jiang (a placid giraffe), Pi San (as a suited Kuang Kuang), his heroine Miss Puff holding the microphone for him, and Lei Lei (a green-faced boy with a black hat like that worn by the animator himself). When Lei Lei shares his worries about China’s animation becoming homogenized in the trend of globalization, Pi San in the virtual interview nods zealously in agreement. His companion Miss Puff has to hit his head to stop its up-and-down twirling movement. As Lao Jiang questions the necessity of maintaining an animation industry in China, Pi San, and Miss Puff on the animation screen vehemently shake their heads in protest, their faces completely blurred as their heads swirl quickly. Pi San’s head spins so fast that his whole body flies straight up from his seat like a small helicopter. Similarly, when animation teacher Chen Liaoyu comments on the nature of internationalization, the juxtaposed animation screen shows Chen as his animated image in a classroom; his students (Micky Mouse, Shrek, the minions, and Qiaohu) bawl along in agreement that the nature of internationalization is “Damn it!” Such seemingly unlikely interactions between animators and the animated images could only be achieved through the animated documentary form. In the end, when director Pi San calls for redeeming missing parts in China’s animation industry chain and finding new creativity for animation-making, the animated characters on the right screen agree, waving their arms in signature movements, and the camera retreats revealing an on-screen animated audience applauding and cheering in affirmation.

Showcasing such interactions between the interviewee (Pi San’s rotoscoped image), the other animators, and the animated audience takes a central place in the off-screen viewers’ experience of watching. At this moment, the supplementary materiality of the animated figures on the right screen has taken on such importance because of their close approximation to reality, through convincing technological visualization and the borrowing of real interviewees’ voices, that it could achieve an appeal to the audience as a credible source for sympathy. This ending scene shows that animation as a documentary aesthetic can achieve believability beyond photographic verisimilitude and that animated bodies can evoke sympathetic identification in the viewers. As Paul Ward argues, “The dialogical relationship between real and animated, between real person and their avatar or re-inscription, means we as viewers have to re-evaluate our understanding of representation of the real” (Ward 2007, 141). The above examples illustrate what Ward calls “animated interactions” built upon the multiplication of real people and the animated images that they have created. These interactions take place between the “multiple originals,” that is, “the real person, the taped interview, the animated ‘version’ of the person, and so on” (Ibid.). Such animated interactions are reminiscent of what Bill Nichols called the “interactive mode” of documentary which highlights the importance of verbal exchanges and participation of “social actors” in conversations with each other (Nichols 1991, 44). Animated documentary enables imagined encounters between the material and the sensuous, between the real person and his/her animated image, or gives animated images the power of commentary or creative interpretations.

Animation allows the union of the material and the sensuous because it “draws upon multiple originals— from models to voice actors to the animators themselves” (Bouldin 140). The opening of the short shows the filmmaker’s self-image, a giant glassed orange tabby cat denouncing a group of popular animated figures for their lack of aesthetic and refinement, alluding to the high quality of overseas animations. The screen is subsequently covered with overlapping reportage on China’s release of more box office percentage to foreign animations and the momentous opening of Disney Park in Shanghai, followed by the grave-looking cat turning its back and walking back to the camera. This opening, drawing from news reportage, situates the documentary in a challenging lifelike milieu in which China’s animation industry struggles to survive amidst the tide of globalization. Further, the beginning of the animation declares that “the voices provided are from the interviewees, each of them are creators of the appeared animated characters.” The use of real people’s voices, synchronized with the images’ movements on the animation screen, reflects the function of animation as a creative interpretation of voice as “a specific portion of actuality” (Ibid.). The divided screens of the real-life interview and the animation display the rupture between divergent realities, with voice as a device that facilitates the transference of sympathetic effect in viewing from the real to the artificial.

The deployment of the double screen could be considered a self-reflexive arrangement that highlights the fact that in an animated documentary, “the viewer is caught in a paradoxical position: simultaneously knowing that what they are seeing is a complete fabrication, while what they are hearing is a record of a real interaction” (Ibid.,137). The double screen effectively highlights the ruptures in the indexical link between the real and the imaginative. The upfront juxtaposition of the real and the artificial, the “use of actual captured conversation, in all its ethnographic detail, interpreted by imaginative visuals, gives it considerable documentary power” (Ibid., 138). Xue’s A Global Cooperation could be considered a documentary of China’s animation industry and its reflection on fear and uneasiness when faced with the encroaching pressures of globalization. The large amounts of interviews with the animators also make the film a work of the animators’ collective (self-)portrait; for them, animation mobilizes a form of realism that is imbricated in the imagined and the fantastic; simultaneously, animation is acutely forthright in highlighting the differences between conflicting worlds, experiences, and lived actualities.


Animating Collage and Viral Mashups

As illustrated in Xue’s Animation Education, the documentary simulates diverse historical temporalities through animations synchronized in styles of their respective times. Opening to traditional substitutive animation allows the documentary maker to reconstruct social circumstances and historical contexts that impacted China’s animation education. With a distinctively two-part stylistic structure, Animation Education begins with hand-drawn animations in black-and-white edited to fit traditional interviews and proceeds to motley-colored digital animations of postmodern pastiches of words, fragmented images, and heavy-beat electronic music, creating an assailing sensual experience. The function of animation in this animated documentary calls attention to the notion of “animation historiography,” i.e., “an analysis of the process by which our historical knowledge of animation is obtained and transmitted, helping in the definition of the object of inquiry” (Linsenmaier 51). The animated documentary opens up a non-normative path of narration to overcome the difficulties of recollecting past circumstances about China’s animators, animation education, and animation industry, and to transform the past into a visualized historicized form.

Fig. 1. Digitalized images of animation students march mechanically along a production line.

In the second half of Animation Education, however, digitalized animation collage evokes and magnifies senses of urgency and fear as a line of onscreen digitalized images of animation students, featureless and identical, march mechanically along a production line extending towards the viewer, and speedily and silently fall off the screen. Greg Bevan and Marc Bosward observe that animated collage could “expand the language of documentary production by deliberately undermining traditional approaches to knowledge, authority and fact” (Bevan and Bosward 444; Nichols 1991, 25). In Animation Education, animation collage (selected, extracted, and recomposed with voices and images of interviewees, animation figures, and characters, as well as computerized background music) crafted a subjective perspective of the reality of animation education and industry at the present. A collage emphasizes “concept and process over end product and is an inherently self-conscious project. Its language is that of association and synecdoche, its interpretation dependent on assumed knowledge of the signifiers it contains” (Bevan and Bosward 448). Through abstraction and distortion, animated collage challenges viewers to explore new epistemic positions by interpreting the interrelationship of incongruous elements or components. In Xue’s Animation Education, collage deconstructs the viewer’s sense of the temporality and linear narrative of the film, and through dissonant repetitions of sound, voices, and images of animation studies terms, evokes a subject-oriented experience of reality.

Fig 2. Animated collage in Xue’s short “Animation Education”.

Chaotic and riotous, the documentary splits and overturns the interviews with animators through guichu, a form of tongue-in-cheek comedy music video production that is “created by combining, repeating, and auto-tuning clips until they form song lyrics and melodies” (see Davis). Taking on the form of viral media, the documentary reprocesses animators’ own voices into captivating audio-visual memes through digital combinations of virtual mashups, news footage from China Central Television, textbook extracts, fragments from popular music videos such as What’d I Say by Ray Charles and Pink Floyd: The Wall by Alan Parker and Pink Floyd. In comparison with the dual-screen A Global Cooperation, which juxtaposes the animators, teachers, and animation investors with their rotoscoped animated images, Animation Education takes a step further by deploying the Rotoscope software. Digital rotoscoping as an animation technique is “a form of computerized rotoscoping, where live-action footage (shot using digital video cameras) is ‘drawn over’ by the animator…related to knowledge itself as embodied” (Ward 2007, 130). Whereas Xue’s rotoscoped images bear real persons’ outlines, facial features, and movements, the animation fills in their bodily outlines with collages of segmented, other forms of visual realities, including characters of animation terms, cluttered real-life advertisements, statistical reports on the animation job market, overlaid images and textbook excerpts, giddily whirling photographs of schools and students, and images of the ever-progressing production line titled “animation education.” Digital rotoscoping creates a haunting viewing experience, for the excessive “presences” of realities highlight the ontological crisis of the subjects, be they students, animators, teachers, or the animation industry as a whole. Digital rotoscoping multiplies the hybrid presence of the animated body through a mechanical inorganic incarnation, the result of which is a form of technologically produced hyperrealism.

Animated collage transforms technologically constructed and interstitial figures beyond their indexical connections with real-world subjects. Such techniques attest to animation’s power in creating “amusing or monstrous combinations and corporeal incongruities…, all made possible by this hybridizing and miscegenetic technology” (Bouldin 15). Xue’s digital rotoscoping and collages purportedly provoke a spectatorial unease. Instead of hiding traces of rotoscoping and collage, the animated documentary invites an inverted gaze from the viewers upon the very techniques that are resorted to for constructing or representing the real. Through the animator’s digital choreography, the visual and auditory dissonances between the original human bodies and their animated representations, intentionally amplified by disjointed and monotonous music beats and assailing, impersonal, visual fragments, further deconstruct the viewers’ reliance on realism. Xue’s animated short inflexibly reasserts the psychological and emotional distance from the audience through a viscerally disturbing presentation of images, sounds, and voices. By inviting a distanced response to representations of social reality, the animation short manifests a documentary tendency. As Paul Ward observes, “the documentary status of the represented world resides not in its direct, indexical link to an actual location, but rather to its symbolic and metaphorical resonance” (136). Through its postmodern pastiche and over-simulation of visual and auditory segments, Animation Education displays anxieties about the future of China’s animation education and industry in the era of mass production, replication, and rampant plagiarism. The ending sequence of animated photographs of university students with superimposed education slogans on-screen exhibits an auteur-driven effort to play against image-based realism through computer animation.

Digital collage, rotoscoping, and virtual mashups in Xue’s shorts recall the trend of tucao animation, as was observed in some fan bullet comments on Xue’s short. Tucao is “a popular term in Chinese otaku culture that was borrowed from the Japanese word tsukkomi, which means to point out or comment on something that is ridiculous, silly or nonsensical in comedy” (Li 231). In the Chinese context, tucao is “a central element in participatory fan cultures” (Ibid.). Jinying Li observes that tucao commenting allows animation fans a form of participatory sociality in a transmedia environment. Xue’s “Animation Education” takes on the power of self tucao: the animation short vigorously displays the intra-action of participatory satirical and self-reflexive commenting by animators, teachers, and animation major students on the deteriorating ecological environment of animation education under intervening social, political, and economic pressures. Xue’s short gestures towards the possibility of considering the animated documentary as a platform of transmedia storytelling with participatory contributions by a team of animators, animation teachers, students, art and sound designers, and editors.

In sum, Xue Yanping’s animation shorts display that animated documentary as a form of artistic creation challenges the hegemony of cinematic auteurism, elicits documentary responses from the viewers, and emphasizes a form of parasociality by endowing audiences with the power of audio-visual interpretation. Through animated collage, self-mocking tucao commenting, viral mashups, and guichu remix, Xue’s documentary shorts grant a form of parasociality by encouraging and making possible what Thomas Lamarre calls “Infra-individual intra-action” (Lamarre 303). Also, Xue utilizes pastiche prevalently, which, according to Frederick Jameson, is a form of “blank parody,” “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language” (Jameson 17). Xue’s animation shorts take advantage of pastiche’s potential of deconstructing canonical styles to generate recurring acoustic and visual noises. For Xue, animation documentary draws on the power of mismatching animated images and real-life animators and circumstances, and by creating extreme contrasts, generates a compelling vertigo effect. Whereas vertigo as a cinematic technique is often applied to create disorienting optical illusions, Xue’s animated shorts resort to digital rotoscoping, collage, pastiche, and virtual mashups to intensify the audiences’ uneasy viewing experience as they encounter lived actualities through animation. The anarchic texture of his animated documentary shorts constructs a paranoic narration, emphasizing the absurdity of the automatized production of animation students in a deteriorating educational environment.


Deictic Indexicality

Unlike the independent animated documentaries above, Dusky Wolves: The Last Battle at the Wild Fox Summit is produced by the mainstream channel CCTV, and was first released through CCTV-10 Science and Education.[iii] The animated documentary recounts the rise of Temüjin, or Genghis Khan, and his Mongolian empire, the grand wars between the Mongolian empire and the Jurchen Jin dynasty, and the subsequent fall of Jin. Focusing on the epic battle at the Wild Fox Summit where the Mongolian armies decisively destroyed the Jurchen government’s military force, the entirely hand-drawn animation consists of five episodes covering the histories of the Mongolian tribes, Jurchen’s triumph against the Liao kingdom and the establishment of the Jin dynasty, and the declination of the Jin under the emerging Mongolian empire. Although produced through a state-sponsored venue, the animated documentary, with its focus on the non-Han medieval rulers and its poignant satire against the political price of the Jin court’s sinicization policies, offers a complex historical narration that overturns and challenges the Sinocentric nationalist discourse. The military heirloom of Genghis Khan, which was evoked to facilitate the imaginations of a globally dominant empire, provides an ideological veneer for the documentary to survive political censorship. The animation’s generic labeling as an animation about science and education, targeted at children and youth as its audience, helps the animators gain some artistic autonomy in comparison with traditional historical documentaries. The documentary maneuvers hybrid artistic sensibilities and political visions under the constant pressure of institutional regulation, which, rather than entirely subduing creativity, prompts the animators to explore new ways of expression when they are confronted with political dilemmas.

In this animation series, the iconic Genghis Khan and his invincible cavalry warriors are positioned at the intersecting axes of narrative plot development, historical reference, and mythical imagination. The documentary space, Bill Nichols argues, allows dispositions of the body on three domains: “1) a narrative domain of motivated time and the body as causal agent, or character; 2) an indexical domain of a historical time and the body as social actor, or person, and 3) a mythical domain of ahistorical timelessness and the body as cultural exemplar, icon, fetish, or type” (Nichols 1991, 343). Dusky Wolves magnifies the “real effect” of human subjects through simulations of camera movements in live-action films, a variety of techniques such as motion blur, motionlessness, adding artificial historical footage traces, using elemental animations of non-human objects, besides meticulous sound editing using Mongolian dubbing for key subjects, Mongolian music and throat singing as registers of historical reference. Meanwhile, centralized institutional support for the animator’s team poses challenges for aesthetic choices and stylistic expressions. Based on collaborative authorship of the animators, each of whom contributed three to five hand-drawn slides, the animation director Meng Jiyuan is given the daunting task of synchronizing stylistic outlooks of individually hand-drawn images to achieve coherence in aesthetic effect. The model of production of Dusky Wolves recalls earlier animation works during the Maoist period when centralized film studios under a socialist planned economy supported animators’ ambitious experiments and allowed the production of some animation films of the finest artistic qualities. However, what could be the give and take of an institutionalized model of animation production in a post-socialist environment when independent animations flourish and interact with viewers over myriad media platforms? Could hand-drawn animation inscribe historical reality through its highly stylized form and elicit viewers’ responses in the documentary mode?

Animated documentary transforms the conventional film viewing experience by exposing the audiences to “the space opened up by the mismatch between record and signification” (Vaughan 88). By making apparent the animation’s plasmaticness, animated documentaries allow audiences’ interpretations of historical figures created beyond institutionalized norms. An ambition of Dusky Wolves is to revive the epic battle scenes and legendary heroes through animation techniques, despite the absence of the historical subjects themselves. Dusky Wolves has each frame of the animation drawn by hand. Hand-drawn animation films are “made by drawing, etching, scratching, painting or attaching items directly onto a film’s surface without the use of a camera” (Miller 2003). This pre-computer-animation technique used in telling the legend of Genghis Khan invites inquiries about the aesthetic features of traditional cel animation. Individual cel drawings have to be “depersonalized” and “de-individualized” to achieve aesthetic coherence and consistency; traditional brushstroke animations must go through a similar process (MacDonald 99).[iv] An example is the well-known attack strategy bianzhen (shifting warring models) that Genghis Khan allegedly used. The leading armies on the front were often heavy cavalry. When approaching the enemy at a close distance and breaking through the sword defense of the enemies, the two rows of heavy cavalry suddenly divide into two and head towards separate directions, leaving the room for the following three rows of light cavalry who were armed with curved knives to dash forward for close physical combat. The technical challenge and complexity of such actions make them impossible to be restaged; however, animation allows the re-visualization of such scenes that cannot be reconstructed.

As Nea Ehrlich argues, “animation’s dual indexicality as both trace and deixis sheds new light on animation as an index of physical as well as virtual realities, and expands the visual forms that an index takes while maintaining its status as an informative referent or evidentiary link— both vital as a foundation for documentary works” (Ehrlich, 65).[v] In Dusky Wolves, hand-drawn animation bespeaks the deictic mode of indexicality in visualizing historical scenes and achieving “real effect” through artistic means.[vi] Graphic images and animated sounds (dubbings of conversations in Mongolian, Jin rulers’ Mandarin dialect, simulated sounds in nature and at battle scenes, other diegetic sounds and noises, diegetic and extra-diegetic Mongolian music as commentary and evocative device) indicate the deictic mode of indexicality. Animation’s indexicality as deixis is reflected in its use of simulated camera movements and sound technology to reconstruct the sound and voices of the animated images.

The animation series constructs a circular narrative structure by beginning with the decisive battle between Genghis Khan and the Jurchen troops at the Wild Fox Summit, followed up with a retrospective narration of Genghis Khan’s early life and his process of uniting the Mongolian tribes on the northern steppe. It also provides intersecting narration of the fall of the Khitan kingdom and the founding, development, and declination of the Jin dynasty. The documentary series concludes by returning to the epic battle at the Wild Fox Summit. Notably, the Han-governed South Song Court and its military performance are cast in an unreserved sarcastic tone. The Jurchen rulers’ policies of advocating Sinicization, Confucianism, and Song delicate rituals and entertainment were considered the main reason for the fall of the Jin. Representations of the South Song court and the Han-occupied lower Yangtze River areas are relatively minor. Most of the animation focused on the vast geographical area in the North in the so-called “15-Inch [Rainfall] Isohyet,” a territory dominated by nomadic peoples of the Mongols, Khitans, Jurchen, and others. The animation’s explicit concentration on these northern and un-Sinicized lands and the rise of Mongolian empire in place of Jin and Song unsettles a Sinocentric historical perspective that is often found in mainstream, institutionalized documentary productions. In the closing sequence, when Genghis Khan achieved victory over the Jurchens at the Wild Fox Summit, the animation takes on the Khan’s perspective and turns southward across the vast North China plain and focuses on the sunlight capital city of Zhongdu (Middle Capital), which he captured in 1215. The finishing image is a low-angle distant shot of Khan in full armor on a galloping horse on a peak, with the Khan as an embodiment of the historical myth itself.

Fig. 3. Temüǰin, on the left, and his sworn brother Jamukha.

To give a life-like visual effect, Dusky Wolves resorts to a variety of animated techniques to simulate camera movements in live-action films. In episode 2, Temüǰin is attacked by his former “anda” (sworn brother) Jamukha, who turns against him because of conflicted ambitions. The conflict between the two erupts into war when Jamukha’s brother steals a horse from Temüǰin’s troops and is killed by the guards. The animation first simulates the retreating shot of the distanced scene of Jamukha’s army slaughtering the captured people of Temüǰin’s clan, followed by an enormous bloody moon, a low-angle shot of Temüǰin’s dark silhouette in the dusk, a close-up of the impatient and gaiting war horse, a close-up against the hero’s grave face, and a low and wide angle showing him leaving the scene of the war.

The voice-over accounts for the hero’s battles in the following years including his defeat of the Tartars and the powerful Найман Naiman tribe. On-screen, a majestic and slowly rotating wide high-angle shot depicts a rapidly advancing cavalry of Temüǰin and his sixteen warriors; the towering camera follows the cavalry from behind to the left and then on the front. The enormous shadow of an eagle swiftly passes through the mounted troops, reinforcing the camera’s distance from the cavalry, whose rhythmic movements cast long black shadows followed by large volumes of dust on the pasture. Whereas the wide high-angle shot emphasizes the young Temüǰin’s troops’ lesser military force in comparison with his strong opponents, the tracking shot following Temüǰin’s cavalry creates the illusion of the off-screen audience proceeding with the troops and being part of their action. This empathetic bond with the rising hero is fortified by an extra-diegetic war-themed symphony, its tempo, and rhythm synchronized with the advancement of the animated cavalry.

The huge columns of rising dust raised by the advancing troops in this scene bespeak animation’s deictic indexicality: the rising dust situates the viewers in the present and reinforces a form of virtual reality. Deictic images “show both events from the distant past and scenes of the viewer’s time need not be paradoxical. Readers easily shift back and forth between the ‘temporal present’ of the narrative, the fictional present, and the real present time at which they are reading” (Carrier 191). The deictic aspect of animation’s indexicality, in historical documentaries, is instrumental in presenting intersecting temporalities to the viewers. In Dusky Wolves, images of Temüǰin’s troops are often positioned in wide or extreme wide angle shots from a distance as massive advancing dust clouds on the battlefield, their movements so fast that the cavalry, soldiers, and horses are all unperceivable in the billows of dust. The haze of dust in such sequences creates a “real effect” by adding texture to the animated armies. The image of dust in animation studies is much discussed because of its “epistemological and ontological instability” (Frank 63). Whereas in live-action films puffs of dust are often created to emphasize a realistic effect, in cel animation, the visual effect of dust is not modeled on real-life plates but constructed by animators. Dust becomes a deictic image that strives to achieve a “real effect” in the virtual world rather than a rotoscoped trace of the real.

Dusky Wolves is an example of “non-photorealistic animated documentary” which seeks “valid visualisations” of the real and represents a new form of documentary aesthetics beyond photorealism. As Ehrlich argues, non-photorealistic animation emphasizes the idea of “reality effect,” which can “expand the potential variety of non-fiction imagery, and [is] based on the viewers’ general experiences with the aim of persuading them” (Ehrlich 45). In Dusky Wolves, such “reality effect” is achieved through artificial traces that are simulated to imitate the distressed, aged effect of historical footage. At the end of episode 1, when Temüǰin achieves unification of the Mongolian tribes and establishes the Mongol empire, a retrospective sequence intervenes, with flashbacks of his childhood experience of fishing along the Onon River, his experience passing by the river hand-in-hand with his newly wedded bride, and his return to the riverbank with all the Mongolian tribe leaders. The sequences of recollection are overlaid with onscreen film flash, white scratch stripes, and an overall grainy texture to simulate a cinematic record of the hero’s personal experience.

Fig. 4. Temüǰin and his wife Börte.

These simulated traces of the “real” over the previous animation sequences, as discussed above, add new layers of the animation’s “supplemental materiality” (Bouldin 9), creating an effect as if Temüǰin’s early life has been “recorded” in historical footages and evoking a sense of emotional contingency in the viewers. A wide high shot is followed by a closer low shot of Temüǰin’s army, and then a close-up low angle shot of the hero himself, who, now as the voice-over introduces, is titled by his followers Genghis Khan. The animation simulates a reverential long shot of the iron and steel Mongolian armies, who remain massive and motionless, while the extra-diegetic music, emphasizing an expressive sound of the Mongolian Morin khuur, buttresses together of Temüǰin’s recollections with the rise of a new empire. The episode ends with a low-angle shot of the static, full-fledged eagle in a vast and leaden sky, signaling the beginning of a new historical era. The ending sequences achieve a deictic credibility in that animation techniques resort to deixis to facilitate points of view; whereas the historical footage is absent, animation’s supplementary materiality fills in the space between the absent historical records and cinematic representation; its plasmaticness engages the viewers in the documentary mode of responding to the images as if they were filmed records of the conqueror himself.

As the above examples display, animation’s simulation of camera movements extends the viewers’ embodied experiences of spatial and palatial encounters, recalling Tom Gunning’s observation of animation’s ability to create “an impression of reality” (Gunning 45). In Dusky Wolves, a compelling example of animation’s diversified simulation of camera movements is the opening of the documentary. Situating the narrative at the historically decisive battle at the Wild Fox Summit, the film takes a point of view shot from the perspective of a hunting falcon. The camera, from a high angle, tilts up from behind the closely aggregated Mongolian cavalry to the massive and sparsely spread Jurchen troops. An eye-level shot of the motionless Jurchen armies follows; their dark and nearly identical silhouettes against the backdrop of the summit are blurred with slowly rising dust and fluttering flags. Streaks of morning sunlight break through the oppressive scene, shining through from behind the troops. A medium close-up reveals soldiers’ hardly distinguishable faces. This sequence creates a compelling visual structure, with the viewers gazing along with the Mongolians at their enormous enemy at the dawn of the vital battle. A viewer comments on the “bullet screen” (danmu) that this scene creates “a strong sense of identification” with the Mongols. Following a short medium shot of the Jurchen leader Wanyan Chengyu, a reverse-short takes on the point of view of the Jurchen’s, illustrating an apparition of the approaching Mongolian cavalry; the haunting visual effect is accentuated through a fish eye angle with an extremely wide focal range, and with visible intervals between keyframes. Each keyframe “records” a clearer, closer view of the legendary troops. Another viewer applauds the extra-diegetic music and the signature Mongolian throat singing, buttressing together the voice-over narration with the onscreen animated sequences.

Animation’s diversity and flexibility in the use of different “modes of appearing” in particular allows innovative and multi-formed ways of engaging what Michael Renov calls the conscious and unconscious contents of “documentary spectatorship” (The Subject of Documentary, 100-101). The aforementioned opening sequence about the battle at the Wild Fox Summit reveals how simulated camera movements effectively construct a documentary spectatorship. Shortly after the viewers rest their eyes on the colossal Jurchen army from behind the Mongolian troops, a pull-back dolly shot moves the audience’s eyes back to reveal a full view of the Khan’s flag, which has an image of a hunting falcon, the totem of his father’s clan the Borjigins. The flag indicates the Khan’s declaration that the war was a vengeance for the Khan’s paternal grandfather Ambaghai, who was kidnapped and crucified by the Jurchens in 1146. A dolly zoom follows to direct the viewers’ eyes to the revered Khan himself, repeating/ returning to the opening episode’s introduction of the eminent battle. The animation intensifies the viewers’ experience of engagement with an extreme close-up shot of forests of steel spearheads and stirred tassels, a brisk rotating angle shot of a crying eagle against the dazzling skylight, and a medium shot of agitated war horses. A pan shot from the perspective of Wanyan Chengyu exposes the steep landscape and arduous defense constructions on Wild Fox Summit, “his last trump card.” A follow-up sequence from the POV of the Khan, however, looks over the massive numbers of Jurchen soldiers on the Summit and beyond; the camera tilts up; a zoom shot reveals the distant North China plain, a vast and prosperous land that he craves to conquer.

The illustration of the epic battle in the last episode dramatizes its intensity and suspense through maneuvers among the motionless bodies of the human figures, and the subtly changing objects of their environment, such as the flickering light of battle fires, piercing rays of sunlight, fluttering flags in the wind, lightning and thunder, or twinkling starlight that accentuates a silhouette of Wild Fox Summit. The motionless on-screen human bodies and objects in the backdrop or the surrounding settings paradoxically highlight intense emotional experiences of fear, horror, anxiety, or moments of deliberation. Elemental animation, which brings non-human elements to life, such as fire, smoke, water, wind, rain, dust, mist, and snow brings the viewers into the imagined situations of the historical figures and often assists the formation of an affective bond between the viewers and the seemingly motionless figures by adding an affective dimension to the images. Likewise, in a scene of heavy arrow attacks, the cinematic technique of slow motion is simulated in a low-angle shot of two enormous dense clouds of arrows that gather when soaring across the sky under overpowering sunlight, then dash speedily towards opposite targets. The background of this sequence adapts the technique of xuanran (rendering to add washes of ink or color to a drawing) in brush-stroke paintings to highlight the contrast between light and darkness. The slow-motion in animation, in suspending the temporal progression of the event, surprisingly augments the ambiance of speediness and the impression of the real when the arrows shower down as the animation returns to the normal time of the warfare.

Another compelling example of elemental animation is in the opening of episode two, when twirling snowflakes flying up against the screen are created with an outspoken texture to engage the viewers as the documentary recounts a skirmish between the Jurchen leader Aguda and Emperor Tianzuo of Liao, or Yelü Yanxi at the Wild Fox Summit. The enormous and intrusive snowflakes create “enhanced engagement in representation and content” (Ehrlich 185). Two years later, Yelü Yanxi was captured by the Jurchen; following which the Liao Empire fell. In this episode on the rise of the Jurchens in Northeast China, animations of gale-force storms, dense snow mist, and large snowflakes form multiple layers of visual interface to engage readers in the menacing environments in which the Jurchen people lived. The camera pans to migrating Jurchen tribes, and their hunting and fishing activities, often with motionless or slowly substituted hand-drawn images superimposed by dense and scurried snowflakes. The lasting image of the snowflakes, as a deictic image, allows the viewers to buttress together the intermitting “historical” accounts of the Jurchen tribes, to “flesh out” the representation through imagination, and “create a connection between viewer and viewed” (Ehrlich 184). The image of snowflakes recurs when the Jin, after conquering Liao, attacks the central land of Song and quickly conquers its capital Kaifeng. In this contrasting and melancholy sequence, the fleeing snow becomes lighter, with hazy white dots entering the screen against a wide-angle shot of the abandoned snow-covered cottages of the Han families. Here the animated snow implies a narrative continuity of the Jurchen people’s rise and conquest of the South. The lighter image of the snow indicates a change of the location to warmer central China; the incessant snow evokes the viewers’ sympathy for the deserted city and its people forced into exile.

The animation displays conscious experiments on the interaction between motion and motionlessness. In wide-angle shots of deceptively placid camped military troops before a major battle, or sequences of the armies’ disguised repose while preparing a surprise attack against the opponent, viewers often are presented with motionless panoramas of the camp field. The aesthetic value of motionlessness in animation has attracted the attention of animators such as Takao Saito and Takemoto Yasuhiro. Takao Saito observes that by not moving the camera, the animator could show the feeling of the atmosphere at work, display the surroundings, and enhance the viewers’ awareness of the characters’ situations and psychological activities (Cavallaro 68). The animation applies large amounts of panning, extreme long shots, and wide-angle shots, to display majestic and intensely quiet battle scenes before the eruption of a major battle to accentuate the dramatic effect and the characters’ agitated, uneasy, or fearful states of mind. In Dusky Wolves, short visible intervals between overlapping/substitutive images create elliptical moments in the animated images’ movements. The animation screen also often takes on minimum to almost no motion to emphasize an intense or ominous atmosphere before an impending disaster or a scene of bloodshed. Such scenes of motionlessness are often illustrated with great detail and precision. In contrast, hand-to-hand combat scenes, surprise attacks at night, or massive clashes on the battlefield are rendered in blurred visual effects to emphasize the velocity of motions, the agility of the Mongolian cavalry, and the haunting psychological impact of fright for the defeated.

To conclude, animation as a “subjective medium,” as Ari Folman (director of Waltz with Bashir, 2008) puts it, could change the structure of a documentary film and introduce creative ways of storytelling, and even compensate for the deficiencies of disaffected media by introducing a degree of self-consciousness, without sacrificing the transparency and political viability of the documentary (see Adams). In Dusky Wolves, hand-drawn animation bespeaks the deictic mode of indexicality and exempts the reviewers from concerns about authenticity and realness. The deictic mode of audio and visual representation in film, according to Francesco Casetti, signifies how a film could orient itself towards its viewers by demarcating an imagined cinematic spectatorship built on the dynamic interaction between the filmmaker, the addressee/spectator, and the film viewer/ audience (Casetti, 16-45, also see Metz 2016). In animated documentaries, the concept of deixis is productive in two important ways. It highlights animation’s potential to craft “real effects” through artistic experiments, especially when it is impossible for historical events to be documented or re-staged. It accentuates the animated documentary as a mode of eliciting viewers’ responses and how animation’s versatile modes of “appearing” create myriad forms of documentary spectatorship. These advantages of the deictic mode of indexicality are compelling in a largely non-photorealistic animation film like Dusky Wolves, in which the film intensifies “real effects” through simulated camera movements, elemental animation of non-human objects, and motion-blur and motionlessness, as well as through animated sounds (dubbing of Mongolian conversations and throat singing). If the deictic mode facilitates spectatorship through myths, historical allusions, and narrative reinvention, it also allows the animators and viewers to bridge the aesthetic-political divide, challenge Sinocentric viewpoints, and explore contesting historical discourses of civilization and empire.


Coda: The Eye of a Storm

In an interview about the topic of animation documentaries, Lei Lei proposes that “netizens’ shared videos on mobile apps such as TikTok and kuaishou can be considered as documentary productions,” two media forms that facilitate parasociality and infra-individual intra-action.[vii] Animated documentaries can “intervene and overturn the conventional relation between film auteurs and the audience, granting the viewers the power of participatory contribution” (Ibid). Though often “in the eye of a storm” and deeply imbricated in socio-political discourses, animator Geng Jun observes that animated documentaries are acutely effective in fostering new models of aesthetic appraisal, abstraction, and technological experiment (Ibid). Rather than regarding animated documentaries as an embryonic film subgenre, this essay suggests that animated documentaries can be traced to earlier Chinese cinematic works from the interwar period to post-socialist, post-Mao era. Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel, in their discussion of the New Documentary Movement in China that arose since the 1989/1992 juncture was characterized by an “intersection of on-the-spot realism in its various guides and the digital age,” and an interest in crafting “a novel space of social commentary and critique” by engaging the audiences’ responses to social issues and reflecting on “the actual process of producing the documentaries” (Berry and Rofel 10). Animated documentaries from the 1990s to the present manifest much historical continuity with this early documentary movement, and likewise take to socially conscious documentary practices, contests of realism, and pursuit of alternative voices against the aggravating hegemonic influences on contemporary visual culture. In a nutshell, animated documentaries’ experiments (such as digital rotoscoping, animation collage, viral mashups, and deictic indexicality), as nascent aesthetic models, are infused with novel socio-political potentials to map out alternative publics in a transmedia environment.


Li Guo is Professor of Asian Studies at Utah State University. She has co-edited with Jinying Li a special issue “Animating Chinese Cinemas” for Journal of Chinese Cinemas (2017).


List of Chinese and Sinophone Animated Documentary Films

A Global Cooperation: Silent within Noise 蟬噪林愈靜之國際化. Directed by Yanping Xue. Catfood Animation Studio, 2014. URL: <>

Animation Education: Silent within Noise 蟬噪林愈靜之動畫教育, Directed by Yanping Xue.  Catfood Animation Studio, 2015. URL: <>

Blood Money 血錢. Directed by Wan Laiming 萬籟名, Wan Guchan 萬古蟾. Lianhua Film Company, 1932.

Dream of the Throne 皇帝夢. Directed by Chen Bo’er 陳波爾. Northeast Film Studio, 1947.

Dusky Wolves: The Last Battle at the Wild Fox Summit 蒼狼之決戰野狐嶺. Directed by Meng Jiyuan and Fei Xiang. CCTV Discovery Channel, 2012. URL: <>

Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland草原英雄小姐妹. Directed by Qian Yunda 錢運達, Tang Cheng 唐澄. Shanghai Film Studio, 1965.

Migrant Worker 民工. Directed by Longfei Cong, Xuecheng He. 2008. URL: <>

Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square 天安门上太阳升. Directed by Shui-Bo Wang. 1998. URL: <>

The Year of National Goods 國貨年. Directed by Tang Chen 湯塵. Lianhua Film Company, 1933.

Wake Up, My Patriots! 國人速醒. Directed by Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan. Lianhua Film Company, 1932.


Works Cited

Adams, Beige. “Graphic: Animation Meets Actuality.” The IDA: International Documentary Association. URL: <>. Accessed, July 10, 2022.

Berry, Chris. “If China Can Say No, Can China Make Movies? Or, Do Movies Make China? Rethinking National Cinema and National Agency,” Boundary 2 25.3 (1998): 129–50.

Berry, Chris, and Lisa Rofel. “Introduction.” The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Chris Berry, Lu Xinyu and Lisa Rofel. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010. 3-15.

Berry, Michael. A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Bevan, Greg, and Marc Bosward. “Designing a New Documentary Landscape: A Renegotiation of Documentary Voice through Animated Collage.” Scene 1.3 (2013): 443-456.

Bouldin, Joanna. “Cadaver of the Real: Animation, Rotoscoping and the Politics of the Body.” Animation Journal Vol. 12 (2004): 7-31.

Carrier, David. Principles of Art History Writing. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1991.

Casetti, Francesco. Inside the Gaze: The Fiction Film and Its Spectator. Trans. Charles O’Brien, Nell Andrew. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998

Cavallaro, Dani. Kyoto Animation: A Critical Study and Filmography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

China Independent Animation Film Forum, “Animated Documentary: A Creative Audio-Visual Form.” URL: <>. Accessed July 10, 2022.

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[i] Du, Animated Encounters, 76-79.

[ii] Du, Animated Encounters, 152-180.

[iii] The production team of the documentary consists of animators who have participated in the creation of The Journey to the West in the Great Táng (Datang Xiyou ji, 2007), a heavily hand-drawn animation.

[iv] This process of depersonalizing individual drawings recalls Lothar Ledderose’s observation of a feature of Chinese art as “modular” (Ledderose 187-213).

[v] Jihoon Kim discusses Martin Lefebvre’s distinction of “direct indexicality,” and Doane’s notion of the index as trace and “indirect indexicality” (the index as deixis). See Kim 31; Doane, 1-6; Lefebvre, 233.

[vi] An earlier film The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) by Winsor McCay, deployed hand-drawn animation to restage the ship’s tragic sinking after being torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915.

[vii] See China Independent Animation Film Forum, “Animated Documentary: A Creative Audio-Visual Form.”