Nea Ehrlich – Animated Documentaries as Masking

When Exposure and Disguise Converge

Since the 1990s there has been a rise in the use of documentary materials in film and visual arts, most commonly referred to as “The Documentary Turn” (Nash, 2004). The complexity of what defines realities and the questioning of epistemological limits is part of the contemporary fascination with the documentary. M. Doel and D. Clarke spotlight some of the central issues of this discourse when they claim that “today we must face…the ineradicable fragility of our ontological distinctions between the imaginary and the real” (1999, p. 265). Past distinctions between fact and fiction now require reconsideration and, as this paper will show, the changing uses of animation in contemporary visual culture emphasise these increasingly blurred boundaries. The emerging field of animated documentaries highlights many of the challenges that abound in current explorations of the nature and documentation of realities and the truth value required of an image to be accepted as a representation of the real.

Animation’s Truth Value in Documentation
Although the concepts of reality and truth are not transparent and have been historically questioned in many ways, culminating in the more recent discourses of poststructuralism and postmodernism, a persistent expectation towards objective knowledge and truth in the field of the documentary endures (Peleg, 2010, p. 6). These conflicting expectations from documentaries reflect a culture in which the surplus of constant information has created a pressure for exposure and a demand for knowledge along with a persistent sense of uncertainty and distrust. Hito Steyerl claims that “the only thing we can say for sure about the documentary mode in our times is that we always already doubt if it is true” (2007, p. 2). This multifaceted and shifting perception of documentation provides the context for understanding the many questions that arise in the research of animated documentaries.
Although the documentary as “a creative treatment of actuality” dates back to John Grierson in the 1930s (Sørenssen 2001, p. 12), the use of animation in this context evokes an assumed conflict in that documentation involves notions of authenticity and authority to provide reliable evidence. However, animation’s formal language emphasizes its own constructedness by depicting events in a stylized manner that makes the animator not as “invisible” an influencer as the live-action documentary director.
Animation’s constructedness and break with naturalistic representation and visual “realism”, which since the mid-19th century has been applied to art that aims to reproduce nature and humanity without any ideal, theological determinations or preconceived notions, is what makes animation seem suspect and un-objective as a documentary language. A search for truth explains why most writing about animated documentaries attempts to legitimize the genre, the formal characteristics of which raise questions about its basic relation to realities. This complexity stems from the fact that the animated image attempts to capture aspects of reality in an obviously constructed way that lacks clear visual referencing. According to Okwui Enwezor “deviating from the simple rule of the documentary as embodying in its inscription a direct correlation to its physical referent shatters the vessel of both believability and trust which is part of its public fait accompli.” (2010, p. 10).
It is important to comprehend, however, that an image’s relation to its referent, its indexicality, does not rely solely on visual likeness. In theoretical discourses Rosalind Krauss refers to the index’s physical relationship to its referent (1985, p. 198) whereas Martin Lefebvre distinguishes between direct and indirect indexical relations. In direct indexicality the objects act as the efficient cause of the sign such as fingerprints and photographs whereas in indirect indexical relations the sign is only indirectly affected by the object, such as in paintings (Elkins 2007, p. 231). Animation’s physically un-indexical nature of representation is seen by many as a second degree distanced image from the “real” whereas physically indexical images would presumably be first degree likenesses. Although the possibility of an “objective” visual rendering of reality has been questioned continually, photography is thus still more readily acknowledged as direct recordings because of animation’s tendency to unabashedly break with visual realism and naturalistic form.
Maureen Furniss has argued that “all animation can be situated within a continuum between mimesis and abstraction” (1998, p. 5). The discourse about indexicality and the doubting of animated documentaries’ truth value indicates that what is naturalistic in form is still more widely accepted as trustworthy or factual in content. According to this view, and if fact and fiction are regarded as opposing terms, then what is abstract and/or non-naturalistic in form is also fictitious in content. In other words, Furniss’ formal continuum ranging from mimesis to abstraction reflects a parallel content-oriented continuum, creating a mimesis-factual and abstract-fictional connection between the two. A comparable assertion is made by Paul Ward (2008) who explores the indexical link between the physical world and its representation in animated documentaries. Ward compares naturalistic formal representation with the humorous style of cartoons and analyzes how viewers recognize an image’s mimetic qualities and consequently attribute reality to the image, relating to it as they would to the reality it is there to represent (2008 p. 2,6,8). In this sense, formal representation and the truth value of the image are thus seen as closely linked. If animation was visually indexical, the recurring question about its legitimacy as a documenting device or its supposed internal conflict would not be questioned. However, the irony is that whereas the problematic of animation seems to be its physical un-indexicality or obvious constructedness and visual “artificiality”, most images these days are manipulated in some way or another.
One of my goals is to destabilize the view that naturalistic imagery necessarily connotes direct and objective documentation whereas stylized imagery, as seen in animation, can be disregarded as necessarily interpretive and subjective, consequently reducing its truth value. The following examples raise questions about visual presentation of factual information and about the acceptance of animation as a documentary device.
Marius Watz’s digital artwork Stockpace (2009) is a generative software that creates dynamic animations of abstract colourful shapes that visualize real-time movements of the stock market. Although the images are described as corresponding to stock market movements, no explanatory information is included in the work. It is therefore impossible to interpret the information the colours, shapes and movements reflect. In other words, this work is accurate in content yet visually abstract and as such lacks an anchor that would make it decipherable.
The film Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), as another example, is not abstract but is formally non-naturalistic. The film depicts Israeli soldiers’ experiences of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and includes animated recollections of hallucinations and memories of battle. Despite its stylized imagery, the film clearly signifies recognizable references that could not be documented otherwise. By referring to personal views of reality and memories, the non-mimetic imagery does not diminish the truth value of the film’s documentation because it refers to aspects of reality that cannot be directly indexed as they do not physically exist. As Paul Wells asserts, “animation “penetrates” into areas which cannot be conceptualized and illustrated in other forms” (2002, p. 59). Interestingly, in discussions of this issue with Israeli ex-soldiers I have been told that it was in fact the animation that made these depictions so accurate and realistic as there was really no way to present the bizarre and unreal sensations of the experiences of war. Consequently, although these animated images may not be visually realistic and/or physically indexical, they are undoubtedly informative and possess a truth value that legitimises them and should prevent viewers from automatically disregarding them as fictional.
The BBC film Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) renders hyperrealist imagery of dinosaurs. The scientifically precise visual renditions can be seen as indexical in their reference to reality, which elevates their acceptance as factual. However, in terms of content they are, of course, fictional because the dinosaurs are depicted as living creatures.
In other words, these three examples demonstrate that a superficial correlation between stylized formal imagery and truth value, or demanding that documentation involve direct physical indexical representation, must be rethought. As Lev Manovitch asserts, in the past it was the technical inability to manipulate an image that gave cinema its truth value whereas in the age of digital culture, live action footage is just one way of depicting the world, one of many (2002, p. 405, 413). The increasing production of animated documentary works emphasizes the varied and multiple ways realities can be depicted. The developing and shifting nature of contemporary documentation has consequently been claimed to “organize complexities” rather than record new and unstable discourses (Biemann 2003, p. 83).
Furthermore, the technological developments that enable the creation of hyperrealist animation mean that the differentiation between live-action footage and animation is no longer a stable demarcation. Representational technologies such as these complicate the indexicality discourse and, as Dan North claims, will lead to the creation of characters that are so life-like it will be impossible to tell them apart from their flesh and blood co-actors (2008, p. 148-152). Due to the prevalence of manipulated imagery, animation can be increasingly seen as equally realistic as live action footage because neither are necessarily indexical or, therefore, “objective” and “authentic”. Just as abstract art and expressionist visual styles began developing after the invention and improvement of the camera, recent technological developments that make hyperrealist animated imagery possible invoke a comparable development of un-indexical formal styles to engage with the real and produce new explorations and forms of knowledge. These circumstances thus place the question of mimesis, realism and indexicality as a referent of what is real and un-manipulated in the past and open the way for new forms of visualization and representation. No longer is it helpful to base the discourse and legitimization of animation largely on its relation to visual realism.
The growing inability to distinguish between manipulated imagery and live-action footage encourages an exploration of new forms of expression and ideas that can be accessed through animated techniques. The idea that “there is no deeper reality or truth to strive for because the distinctions between fact and fiction, reality and simulations of it, objectivity and manipulation have disintegrated” (Farrell 1994, p. 246) strengthens the sense that Steyerl describes as accompanying contemporary documentary spectatorship (2007, p. 2). The lack of clear knowledge emphasizes that a sense of indirect information is not solely characteristic of animated documentaries. Therefore, what animation can contribute to an understanding of realities should be explored rather than its distance or inauthentic representation of that “real”.
It is for this reason that I have decided to focus the following discussion on animation techniques that deliberately visually differentiate themselves from live-action footage. Michael Renov claims that the documentary functions are to record, reveal, or preserve; to persuade or promote; to analyze or interrogate; to express (1993, p. 21). Animation as documentation shows that, although new, stylized and perhaps unorthodox, it too can fulfill these documentary purposes by revealing what cannot otherwise be seen and, through new formal representation, interrogate and express varied meanings of contemporary realities. By using the idea of masking to analyze the contemporary merger of documentary content with non-naturalistic imagery, new documentation practices can be understood and, I will demonstrate, an important way to disclose otherwise un-representable information is made possible.

The growth and interest in masks, masking and performance theories in recent decades have been a welcome development. My own discussion of masking will be restricted to those aspects most relevant to the scope of this paper. The idea of masking contributes to an understanding of the emerging field of animated documentaries because masks, like animation in this context, facilitate a convergence of exposure and concealment.
In an era defined not only by the “excess” of visually transcribed information but also by rights for privacy and anonymity in an age of virtual identities and ubiquitous surveillance, disguise and exposure are recurring themes. The countless international headlines and varied responses to the activity of Wikileaks, an organization devoted to the exposure of information otherwise hidden, reflect this dilemma about the boundaries between concealment and transparency. I will examine how the dual capacity of animation to conceal and expose enables a new categorization and understanding of the uses and effects of animation in the field of documentary and how this sheds light on contemporary directions of documentation and knowledge production.
As objects, masks have multiple roles and have been used widely in different cultures and historical periods. I advance the notion that masks possess a function of concealment accompanied by a simultaneous and less obvious function of exposure. Masks can cover the wearer’s face but can also “give face”, exposing the wearer’s beliefs, wishes and cultural associations. When masks provide a visual representation they can act as protectors of memory, such as death masks or as illustrations of the abstract, such as representations of deities. Masks facilitate a transformation and empower change because they break with everyday life, status and conduct and permit a replacement of one identity with another.
Similarly, animation can replace live-action footage and thus choose to conceal through stylized representation what would otherwise be seen directly. The choice and style of the animated imagery may likewise expose or conceal information about the creator or context of creation. Like masks that “give face” or illustrate the abstract, animation is similar to verbal language and differs from photography by its freedom of representation that is not limited by physicality.
These depictions may seem inauthentic or as a disguise but can also be used to illustrate what would otherwise remain invisible, such as the personal perspectives and memories depicted in Waltz with Bashir. Animation as a physically un-indexical formal representation thus creates a “face” for realities that are not photographable, exposing elements of realities that are not otherwise included. By expanding the scope of what can be explored in visual documentary practices, a broadening of the concept of “reality” can take place.
Although different images can also portray the abstract and immaterial, animation brings the content “to life” through moving depiction, which likens it to live-action footage of the physical world. Furthermore, in the same way that masks create a break with familiar reality, animation can create entire worlds that differ from those that can be represented in live-action footage. As such, animation can represent the multiplicity and complexity of contemporary realities while engaging with them differently, exploring and representing them in original ways that aim to expose new angles. Animated depictions of realities can also create a sense of distancing and defamiliarisation that can change a viewer’s perspective, similarly to masks that break with the quotidian and can influence a change of behavior.
As a precursor of postmodern thought, Nietzsche was already critical of the idea of final truth and claimed it was an illusion whose illusory qualities had become invisible so that it was accepted as truth (Clark 1990, p. 83). By documenting in a formal style that provides a new visual depiction, animated documentaries as a form of masking demand thought of what lies beneath the mask, if anything. As Wells explains in his categorization of the genre of animated documentary modes, animation’s exposed constructedness can lead to a questioning of grand narratives as animation comments indirectly upon the constructedness of reality itself (1997, p. 41-44). This is central to the argument about masking because, similarly, an inherent and established “reality” behind the animated documentary is also destabilized.
The underlying “face” beneath the mask, or the “real” beneath the animated documentation may not be stable or final. However, the attempt to understand the complex relationship between animation and the concept of “reality” that it refers to requires an exploration that denies an acceptance of things portrayed “as they are”. As Ward asserts, what is presented as factual and straightforward information rather than as an argument, is in fact covert and not overt because viewers are encouraged to take what is presented as truth (2008, p. 19). Animation enables viewing the familiar world in a different light and, as a result, invokes contemplation that rejects acceptance of information as a statement of fact.
The power of the animated documentary as a form of masking emphasizes its visual “artificiality”, which raises many questions about the layering of what is considered the “real” and its many concealed or invisible aspects. By approaching current events aesthetically the information depicted cannot be detached from the system of representation used to engage with them. The visual image thus becomes central in the creation and distribution of information about current realities. This echoes a more general tendency in postmodernism where the apparatus of cultural production, the surface, is seen as taking the place of the noumenal world as constituting reality (Ward, 2008, p. 14). Similarly, Sherry Turkle compares reality to a computer screen, emphasizing that if there is no underlying meaning to reality (as postmodernism claims) then knowledge can only be reached through an exploration of reality’s representations and surfaces (1995). Animation as a mask of and for the real thus exposes the constructedness of reality itself and questions what, if anything, lies beneath these cultural constructions, showing that perhaps the mask is all there is. Seeing realities as equally constructed as their representation makes the use of animation as a documentary language begin to seem less problematic and more revealing of a much wider direction of thought in regard to contemporary realities themselves. There is therefore a need to promote research and analyze animation in order to try and understand the meaning of one of the most original, developing and bizarre new surface appearances of reality. This direction of thought will, I believe, lead to an acceptance of animation as a form of masking, as a surface appearance of reality, that although not physically indexical can in many ways act as a useful point of departure for explorations about the connection between representation and reality.
Avi Mograbi’s 2008 film Z32, is a documentary work that combines animation with live-action footage, and in which the issue of masking is central both literally and metaphorically. I will use Z32 as an example to analyze the different uses of animation styles and how a constructed and unabashedly un-indexical and disguising visual element actually exposes more than it hides. Through an analysis of the film, the idea that animation creates additional layers of meaning by raising questions and attendant notions of doubt becomes clear.

Avi Mograbi’s Z32
Avi Mograbi’s film Z32 (2008) is an Israeli-French production combining live-action footage, animation and musical elements about the testimonies of former elite-unit soldiers who participated in retaliation acts against Palestinian policemen. The Israeli soldiers, years later, view these events differently, as crimes of war, and as a result take renewed responsibility for their actions and seek to be absolved by their loved ones as part of the process of returning to civilian life and values. It is an interesting example of the use of animation to present what would otherwise be impossible to show whilst simultaneously reflecting upon the employment of the medium.
The use of animation in this film literally acts as a form of masking because it presents the interviewees whilst maintaining their anonymity. Nonetheless, the animation itself is also a major part of the film’s significance because throughout the scenes the visual masks continually change. As a result, instead of emphasizing the content and simply hiding the protagonists’ identities, the masking stresses the act of concealment. Different forms of disguise and their meanings therefore become a central element of the film as it exposes underlying messages about the people presented, the moral questions at hand, Israeli society at large and the filmmaker’s role. Mograbi inserts himself in the narrative like a Greek chorus, explaining his self-doubt as an artist and political activist, underlining his ambivalence toward his subject. Mograbi leads his viewers through a maze of national duty, admissions of guilt, desire for forgiveness and a soldier’s reality that is rarely discussed. These themes are integrated alongside Mograbi’s own personal dilemma about disguising the protagonists, which he essentially sees as giving shelter to murderers, collaborating in the described events and their larger political context of the Israeli occupation.
The film begins with a young man, an ex-soldier, and his girlfriend talking about his part in the killings while she tries to comprehend how her lover was capable of these actions. Their faces are blurred completely. From news imagery viewers may be accustomed to similar computer manipulation but what it means visually is that the person’s identity, their face, is erased. This is no one but also everyone. In the case of a moral dilemma the idea that anyone and everyone could have acted in this way in specific circumstances is one of the central questions raised in the film.

Fig. 1 – © Avi Mograbi 2008

As the digital masks begin to change in each scene, different views of the ex-soldiers are presented. At first the face remains blurred but an eye or a mouth is exposed. As Mograbi puts it in one of his Brechtian cabaret-like musical pauses: “mask his face so we can talk to him, leave a hole for his nose and two eyes so we can sense his smile”. The soldier slowly becomes a (more multi-dimensional) person, which makes him more than just (the initially represented) murderer.

Fig. 2 – © Avi Mograbi 2008

In a scene where the couple is shown sitting at home in their pyjamas, their faces appear as simple white masks. These specific masks make the protagonists seem like actors in a play. The bizarreness of the situation in which people are placed in circumstances where they act in uncharacteristic ways, masked beyond recognition, where they can be turned into other, unrecognizable individuals is what is in fact shown. In this case it is the reality in which the discussed political events take place that is actually alluded to: war, hatred, fear, ongoing conflict, death. As the film continues the masks become less conspicuous, facial expressions and emotions are partly exposed but most of the face remains static. This creates an almost robot-like appearance which evokes uncanny emotions and complicates viewer identification. The chosen representation of animated masking is thus a technique that serves and exposes Mograbi’s intention, preventing viewer identification which may enhance a wish to absolve the protagonists through the film. The film’s visual form is thus directly connected to the filmmaker’s undisguised political stance and message.

Fig. 3 – © Avi Mograbi 2008

Towards the end of the film an ex-soldier faces the camera and speaks, his face seems to be exposed. This disclosure is unusual because of the content of the interview, the fear of prosecution and revenge and the fact that this has long been a taboo subject in Israel, which has only very recently become a topic of discussion. Only when the ex-soldier reaches for a cigarette does the viewer realize that his “face” is actually a three dimensional hyperrealist computer-animated mask. This image, unlike the previous disguises, does not blur his identity but actually replaces it. The replacement of identity formed by past actions is what would happen if such actions and one’s responsibility for them, as aspects that shape an individual, were to remain un-discussed, forgiven and/or put aside.

Fig. 4 – © Avi Mograbi 2008

The realization that what seemed to be live-action footage is in fact constructed is related to what T.J. Demos explains about the use of video art in similar cases: “breaking the spell of the viewer’s contemplative passivity, these jolting passages bring about an experiential displacement from the complacency of perceptual habit and visual pleasure that might otherwise transform zones of conflict into objects of aesthetic enjoyment” (2009, p. 9). This animation-induced startling moment in Z32 renders a sense of deception and is a reminder that in fact, as Doel and Clarke claim, it is no longer possible to tell “reality” and “fiction” apart (1999, p. 265). This in itself is an unsettling statement about documentation and the inability to reach definite knowledge. These unclear boundaries reveal the instability of what we may deem “reality”, which can be interpreted as relating to different realities and their contradictions. In this case it is the contradictions between a soldier’s adrenaline-driven experience of real combat, moral duty and a civilian’s need for forgiveness; the exposure of one requires the disguise of the other.

Aspects of Masking in Animated Documentaries
By creating visual masking, animated documentaries enable discussion of issues that would otherwise be difficult to portray. In order to use the theme of masking to categorize the applications of animation in documentary contexts, one must differentiate between the masking effects of animation as a formal language and the masking uses of animation in a documentary context.
The effects of animation as a masked visual language, as a form of representation, can be understood thus: First of all, animation as a unique visual representation of narratives permits to eliminate or add elements that help make a point and/or create a simplified and focused message. A form of representation that facilitates the presentation and inclusion of only what is necessary for the creator’s message can be understood as a mask that excludes aspects deemed unnecessary whilst accentuating others. This characteristic explains the extensive use of animation in the fields of education and propaganda. Secondly, animation is a medium that is intrinsically full of novelty and spectacle. In an era defined by a surplus of visually transcribed information, animation’s visual variety and ability to create unusual and iconic imagery attracts attention and contributes to its popularity and marketing potential. In other words, animation’s ability to provide a new visual “face”, a mask, contributes to its visibility and circulation. Thirdly, although animation is used in myriad fields of culture ranging from science and education to military training, sports, politics, music, role-playing games, film and art, it is still widely associated with childhood pastimes and entertainment because of Disney’s central role in the animation industry. By using animation, a visual “childish” mask can thus be created for a variety of adult-oriented content. This form of masking is culturally and historically situated but means that a juxtaposition is created between form and content. This juxtaposition produces a sophisticated and unique representational mechanism that potentially has special and powerful spectatorial effects. Fourthly, animating personal stories facilitates transcending the individual by creating a kind of “generic” protagonist or human mask rather than focusing on a specific individual. This masked representation can lead to further identification on account of the viewers and result in perception of the content not as a personal but as a more general “truth”. Finally, the freedom of representation in animation allows masking the familiar in a way that transcends the cocoon of the quotidian, producing an elusive creative space where everything is possible. Animation can thus offer a sense of defamiliarisation that portrays alternatives or easily introduces new ideas and possibilities that otherwise may remain invisible. These characteristics of animation as masking explain why it is a useful tool for documentation, which can be concerned with explorations of realities, new forms of information production and their distribution.
In the case of animated documentaries, the masking characteristics of exposure and disguise come across in the genre’s different uses.
Animated Documentaries as Disguise:
Animation can be seen as a disguise when it provides concealment, an “alternative face”, for physical aspects of life that can potentially have a direct indexical reference. This is the case when animation is used, as appears in many contemporary animated documentaries and also in the film Z32, to maintain the anonymity of the protagonists. A thought-provoking example would be the 2008 Swedish film Slaves by David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn about child slavery in Sudan. This film contains several of the masking effects and uses of animation in documentary practices: Slaves protects the under-aged interviewees’ identities but also simultaneously shields spectators from live-action imagery of the horrific content exposed, somewhat similarly to a form of censorship. This visual masking can arguably contribute to animation’s role as a documentary practice by stimulating awareness of social realities and political struggles worldwide. Such an effect is accomplished because the harsh juxtaposition between the supposedly friendly and childhood-associated medium of animation and the depiction of actual violence can evoke a potentially raw emotional reaction and impact that is otherwise rare. A shock factor in a desensitized viewing culture creates a marketable and memorable image that can raise awareness and perhaps even encourage political activeness to the issue at hand. The disguise, the creation of a new and iconic “face”, can therefore be an important aspect of animated documentaries.

Animated Documentaries as Exposure
Animated documentaries as a form of exposure is manifest when engaging with information of which live-action footage is, for various reasons, unobtainable. As elaborated below, animation can thus become useful documentation of highly censored topics or when visual data is inaccessible such as in the case of un-filmed historical events or scientific information that technology is inadequate to portray otherwise like explorations of space or nanotechnology. Animated documentaries can also be seen as a form of disclosure when portraying non-physical aspects of realities that are inherently unrepresentable in conventional/photographable apparatuses and which would remain unseen if not provided with a visual form, as in the case of personal aspects of the real, memories or online virtual activities.
By “providing a face”, animation can be used as exposure that reconstructs past events that were not visually documented at the time. In fact, in documentation and journalism, the access to visual material can determine what is investigated and even other fields such as science and politics rely on visualization to be accepted, either by promoting credibility or understanding (Cramerotti, 2009, p. 23, 42). Animated documentation thus becomes visual presentation of lost evidence, or a form of preservation similar to death masks, which can determine the exploration and circulation of information that would otherwise remain unattended. This was the case of one of the first animated documentaries in 1918 when Winsor McCay created The Sinking of the Lusitania, depicting the sinking of a ship torpedoed by a German submarine in World War I. Similarly, the 2007 documentary film Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace, about the “Chicago 8” social-political activists of the 1960s, used animation to depict the court scenes which could not be filmed.
Alternatively, animation can visualize possible futures in the same way that masks give visual representation to what would otherwise remain abstract, like the representation of magical creatures. Although many formal styles are capable of this, as documentation animation can create entire “worlds” that reflect and engage with present political and social circumstances. A useful example is the 1986 UK animated film When the Wind Blows, based on the novel by Raymond Briggs, about an elderly British couple who survive a nuclear explosion in the Third World War between the US and the Soviets. Although perhaps not exactly a documentary, this film clearly reflects fears and political attitudes that originated from the discourse about nuclear attacks during the Cold War. The fact that these “visions” of alternative worlds/scenarios are brought to life through animated movement means that they can be seen as other or alternative “realities”, similar to familiar realities and equally “alive” although visually alien.
Animated documentaries expose what would otherwise remain un-representable when engaging with immaterial aspects of life, such as subjective accounts of events. Recently, animated documentaries have been used to focus on different views of the world as seen by people with disabilities such as autism and Down’s syndrome in Bob Sabiston’s Snack and Drink, Tim Webb’s A for Autism or Shira Avni’s Tying Your Own Shoes. Animation is used to break down barriers and prejudices and exposes the myriad ways in which “reality” can be seen, documenting its plurality. Animation is a perfect way to expose in both form and content the numerous angles in which the “real” can be perceived. Like masks that can be removed and replaced, this characteristic of animated documentaries enables viewing realities from very different and unlimited perspectives, indicating their diverseness.
Animation as exposure of immaterial realities becomes clear when examining it as an important development of documentary practice that enables engagement with virtual features of contemporary life. Online spaces and virtual experiences may still be seen by some as fictional, but are quickly becoming prevalent aspects of present-day culture. Since multiple online games and applications, for example, are “brought to life” visually through animation, animation is their mask, giving them a visual appearance. As such, animated documentaries of said virtual environments “capture” them directly, similarly to live action footage of physical entities. This newly emerging characteristic of animated documentaries thus challenges the issue of indexicality so readily attached to the theorization of animation (Ehrlich, forthcoming). Animation can also be an indexical documentary practice that captures the original appearance of the documented virtual content and is therefore no longer solely an interpretive and un-indexical documentary visual language.

Animation is a powerful maze of a medium where discoveries continually unfold. Animated documentaries both hide and expose and it is the visual concealment that enables discussion of these issues which would otherwise be difficult to portray. Animation also raises many questions about what is the “real” and questions past assumptions about concepts of “realities”. By exposing a multiplicity of realities that includes the non-physical and by creating images that can be interpreted differently, animation embodies postmodern views of certainty and final truths. By including varied aspects of realities that cannot be visualized otherwise, the use of animation as a new form of documentation demands rethinking of the automatic legitimacy accorded to direct, physically indexical representation. The notion that live-action realistic formal qualities are a cursor for direct and objective recordings of the real can no longer be the case if, as animation also emphasizes and is seen at the end of Z32, what may look realistic can be fictional and highly manipulated imagery. Accordingly, a valorisation is developing in contemporary visual culture regarding the blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, which can both be used to expose information and create knowledge.
Essential topics should be addressed in future research of animated documentaries and not only its indexicality or the lack thereof: Firstly, what dominant or emerging cultural tendencies do animated engagements with the “real” expose? And secondly, what additional meanings do intentionally un-naturalistic and/or physically un-indexical imagery add to the message of the documentary as a knowledge producing practice?
Animated documentaries demonstrate that “reality” can be constructed and fictional whereas the virtual and/or fictional can become accepted as “real”. A poststructuralist interpretation would claim that it is impossible to know the system completely, doubting an attempt to “capture” the “real” in constructed languages that are themselves imaginary. The constructed nature of animation and the fact that it exposes this constructedness shows that animation as a documentary language is actually no more imaginary than other constructed languages that aim to “capture” a sense of reality.
Animation’s masking characteristics explains how relevant a formal language it is in contemporary culture for it actually reflects themes that are widespread in myriad fields of life. Political lies such as in the case of the American war against Iraq, the fore mentioned work of Wikileaks or attempts to regain control over personal information in an increasingly growing surveillance culture where the extent of online exposure and scrutiny remain unclear all emphasize the centrality of themes of disclosure vs. privacy in contemporary culture.
Animation, via simultaneous exposure and disguise, creates a sense of uncertainty and continuous questioning that forces the spectator to remain sensitive and alert in order to make sense of the images they are viewing. Creating an attentive, questioning and critical viewer is no small by-product. The language of animated documentaries embodies some of the central contemporary characteristics of an age of economic-political-environmental-institutional uncertainty. Animated documentaries expose information to promote a sense of understanding, knowledge and stability. Similarly, active spectatorship contributes to the viewer’s sense of involvement, control and empowerment through meaning construction. The genre can, alternatively, also provide relief to anxiety through a sense of escapism into what is still widely associated with a childhood-alluded animated world that can be regarded as fantasy.
On the other hand, animation embodies the uncertainty of our age and is effective because contradictory and inconclusive discourses are exposed and the result can be different articulations of what constitutes “reality”. Animation can thus expose the multiplicity of perspectives and options in which viewing the world is possible, representing “truth” as multiple and fragmented. This characteristic makes it possible for the animated documentary to illustrate a complex view of the constructed reality in which we exist, making it a highly relevant portrayal.
By presenting “masked” information, further exploration and thought are required. Creating a separate space, a distant vantage point that is neither fiction nor conventional documentation allows new consideration of the portrayed content. Presenting “reality” not as viewers are accustomed to seeing it, shaped by internal and external facets of reality that encourage contemplation, challenges viewers to reach new insights. In order to rethink the familiar and consider it in new ways, an original form of representation is required. “We get closer to the real not because we use a set of binoculars that do not distort the picture, but because we become aware that we are viewing the world through a set of distorting binoculars” (Cramerotti, 2009, p. 33). The ability of animation to raise so many questions about the reality we think we know – That is the power of the animated documentary.

Nea Ehrlich is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh in the History of Art department. Her PhD thesis interrogates the relation between the innovative form of animated documentation and the continually varying theorisations of the self (as filtered through representation). She has taught widely within the field of Visual Culture and her primary research interests include animation theory, the animated documentary, contemporary art and new media, developing documentary modes and multicultural curatorial issues.
This paper was presented at Animation Evolution, the 22nd Annual Society for Animaiton Studies Conference, held at Edinburgh College of Art, 9-11 July 2010.

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All images reproduced with permission of the director.

© Nea Ehrlich

Edited by Nichola Dobson

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6 Responses to Nea Ehrlich – Animated Documentaries as Masking

  1. Pingback: Who said that? The dispensability of original sound in animated documentary | animationstudies 2.0

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  5. Daniel Hanoch says:

    Thank you very much for this interesting article.

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