Charlie Brooker’s 2011 dystopian futuristic Black Mirror episode, “Fifteen Million Merit,” features alienated subjects who are physically shut up in cells made of screens. In this world, people participate as animated avatars in what remains of public spaces. Although Black Mirror is “about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy,” the 2020 COVID pandemic has made its extreme prophecies more relevant than even its creators could have foreseen (Brooker 2011). Originating in art and documentary theory this article examines animation as a central informational aesthetic that has flourished as the virtual complements and at times overshadows the physical. As technology shapes culture, contemporary mixed realities – where the physical converges with ubiquitous screens and online platforms – require new visualization methods. While virtual interactive realms proliferate, the use of animation grows too, as digital animation is a dynamic visual language based on movement that can react to user input in real time. Animation is thus a vital visual language of the 21st century, a central aesthetic in mixed realities that represents, records but also reflects wider current cultural changes and characteristics of the information age.
During the global lockdown, many people felt the centrality of in-screen existence as screens became vital portals for different experiences when physical space and actions were restricted. In May 2020, for example, as physical attendance at a graduation ceremony became impossible, UC Berkeley students built the virtual Blockeley University in the popular Minecraft video game, wherein more than 100 campus buildings were meticulously recreated. In this animated online version of their university, hundreds of graduates held a virtual ceremony that included a speech by the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor, together with conferral of degrees followed by a two-day Blockeley music festival, all livestreamed on Twitch, a streaming platform for gamers (Kell 2020). The captured Twitch footage acts as a document of the event, combining live-action with animation.
Similarly, although the popularity of Zoom skyrocketed during the lockdowns, its limited options made professional, personal, and entertainment meetings all unbearably similar. Thus, gaming environments and virtual reality (VR) became strong alternatives for sharing the same space. Such examples help explain the growing use and visibility of animated platforms and game worlds for the creation of wide-ranging activities experienced in the physical world in the past; today, these are being transformed into mixed reality experiences, visualized in varied animated styles.
As more people spend more of their ‘real’ lives in virtual worlds, the virtual defines who they are, thus supplementing, reflecting, and shaping the physical so that the virtual and non-virtual converge. The imagery used to portray these mixed realms introduces animation as a proliferating informational aesthetic that is used to depict the physical world, simulations of physical events and locations online, virtual spaces and actions, as well as the capture and documentation of all of the above. The study of animated documentary and non-fiction to date has emphasized the exploration of non-physical realities that could not be photographed, with a focus on personal perspectives and memories, or the use of animation as an interpretive representation of events (see Honess Roe 2013). However, animation’s ability to portray immaterial realities is becoming an increasingly important component of visualization and documentary practice since it enables engagement with the virtual features of contemporary life – significant aspects of visual culture that cannot be depicted by photography. As animation is being used in new and varied ways, it is important to highlight the blurred boundaries that exist today in informational and non-fiction fields such as documentary, journalism, forensics, education and information (See Balsom and Peleg 2016). This article thus examines the following questions: How is animation used to engage with mixed realities? Can animation act as a credible document of the physical and/or virtual realities it depicts? What is animation’s potential power as a self-reflexive documentary aesthetic that captures mixed realities but also reflects the informational media environment of the times?
Lev Manovich (2001) describes art history as “the history of new [encoded] information interfaces developed by artists, and the new information behaviors developed by users [to extract the information].” Experimental documentaries have been the focus of the ‘documentary turn’ in art history and visual culture for several decades. However, as technological developments change the production and uses of animation in mainstream visual culture and documentary, new theorizations are necessary. Interestingly, although the topic of experimental documentary has received scholarly attention in the fields of contemporary art and journalism, the related topics of animation, digital gaming, and virtual culture are often overlooked.
The animated documentary, Another Planet (Amir Yatziv, 2017), serves as my case study. It portrays virtual interactive re-enactments of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in a new form of cultural heritage that has migrated into virtual realms. The film records encounters in virtual worlds that aim to accurately and authentically simulate the camp and revive something of the historical event by offering new insights and experiences for viewers. It follows the creators of six different simulations: a German prosecution officer intended for forensic purposes in the trial of a 94-year-old defendant; an Israeli historian and German architect who have been surveying the camp for 15 years in their attempt to create an accurate reconstruction for museum and education purposes; a flight simulation scenario created by Israeli high-school students in order to virtually re-enact the 2003 Israeli Air Force flight over the camp; an Israeli software developer whose belief in reincarnation has inspired him to recreate his past life experiences as a Sonderkommando during the holocaust; and a Polish graphic designer who created a VR experience of the camp for ‘maximum realism.’ I will return to the film below; what I want to emphasize here is that although this film appears to be about the holocaust, it is actually about representation.
The multiple, complex roles of animation in Another Planet illuminate animation’s role in an era of mixed realities and show how, in the context of non-fiction, it requires further examination and theorization. I contend that to maintain the relevance of visual documentation in this era, new documentary imagery that transcends photography – which is rooted in the physical – is necessary. Using this case study, I demonstrate three new central roles and uses of animation today: a) as virtual aesthetics; b) as a document of the virtual; c) as self-reflexive documentary and informational aesthetics.
Animation as Virtual Aesthetics
The current virtualized computer culture requires pictorial representation of user input and thus uses various forms of animated imagery to render abstract data and processes visible. Many aspects of digital-virtual culture appear only on-screen through interfaces based on code, rather than material actions. The consequent dematerialization requires representation that transcends the photographic and enables real-time dynamic visualization of user activities. New visual representations are needed to construct and transmit information in these digital virtual worlds. This not only explains animation’s proliferation, but also impacts the reception of similar imagery in non-fiction contexts, as I will demonstrate.
Animation is a growing and dynamic area of theoretical and technical knowledge and an on-going discussion of the definition of animation is an integral characteristic of the field. There are many ways to approach the definition of animation: in terms of techniques, styles, key studios, directors or animators, approaches to movement or visual transformation, aesthetics and spectatorship, to name but a few (Husbands and Ruddell 2019, p. 5-16). Brian Wells (2011, p. 22-24) differentiates between the animated world and the world of the viewer, and questions whether both can exist in the same time and space, or whether animation is relegated to another dimension. This gap plays an important role in differentiating animated imagery from the viewer’s physical world, and must be addressed in any discussion of animation’s validity as a documentary language. Suzanne Buchan (2006, p. vii) defines animated “worlds” as those “realms of cinematic experience that are accessible to the spectator only through the techniques available in animation filmmaking.” Because animation looks different from the physical world and is often theorized as generated rather than captured imagery, animation is assumed to be separate from the physical world and therefore ‘not real’ or ‘less real’ when used in documentaries. To conclude, the divide between animated worlds and the physical space of the viewer is based on the idea that animation does not exist in physical reality and breaks stylistically with physical appearance so it “cannot objectively represent reality or depart from [its] innate facticity” (Raessens 2006, p. 220). However, as I will demonstrate, as animation technologies change and as reality becomes mixed, the differentiation between on-screen and off-screen worlds transforms and declines, contextualizing the growing uses of animation to portray both physical and virtual worlds and their convergence. The movement of a user’s cursor, as a real-time translation of physical actions seen on-screen, is a basic example of animated imagery that indicates the fusion of on and off-screen realms.
Let us briefly consider screens: I refer to animated imagery as ‘movement only visible on-screen.’ The relation between viewer and screen, or more specifically, the relation between the off-screen world inhabited by viewers and the visual on-screen world, are persistent themes in the study of moving-image culture (Carroll 1996, p. 62). The study of screens includes the physical-technological characteristics of, and alterations to, the screen as object, and investigates a wide range of related elements. Contemporary computerized culture establishes screens as a fundamental characteristic of our time. However, rapid changes in contemporary screens influence the relationship between screen and viewer, the reception of the information displayed on them, as well as their definitions. The cultural implications of such changes are wide-ranging. Erkki Huhtamo questions how often users of mobile screens ‘think about the curious shifts of perception between nothing less than ontological realms that take place when they move their gaze from the screen to other humans, to the surrounding landscape, to another screen, and back again, in rapid succession?’ (Huhtamo 2012, p.144–145) If what transpires ‘in there’ on-screen is seen as related and continuous to what takes place ‘out here’ in the viewer’s physical space, the perception of a divide between on- and off-screen worlds changes. A sense of continuity rather than innate separateness emerges, facilitating the use of one to represent the other, as in animated non-fiction.
We return now to animation. When used in digitally virtual worlds, such as virtual simulations or online game environments, animation is the direct visualization of code: it is the visual interface of the virtual world that all users see and the façade through which they experience the platform, or graphic user interface (GUI). Thus, animation is part of a phenomenon whereby “contemporary media is increasingly constituted by mediations of media itself. Or, in other words, there is an increasing preponderance of media that translates digital information into a humanly perceptible form” (McKim 2017, p. 294). Animation’s new role needs clarifying in any discussion of pictorial worlds that use real-time animation to reflect interactive user input, such as interactive historical simulations or online games that are fully animated realms of virtual activity. Animation used to visualize virtual worlds is initially designed, of course, but it is not stylized according to content; rather, in digital worlds it portrays unplanned activity based on user input. To explain: in the historical simulations seen in Another Planet, the animation depicting Auschwitz is obviously interpretive and based on stylistic choices. However, as users become active participants within the re-enactment, the visuals used are a response to their actions and choices, differentiating between animation in cinematic versus interactive domains.
Animation as a Document of the Virtual
Animation features widely in digital culture. Unlike animated depictions of physical events or states of mind in cinematic works, recorded animated fragments of interactive digital occurrences are more like a photographic document than interpretative documentary imagery because they capture the only visual appearance of these online activities, the GUI of the technology used. In these cases, animation functions differently than previously theorized – no longer as a visual interpretation of states of mind (as in Ari Folman’s 2008 Waltz with Bashir), or as events that could have been but were not photographed (as in Winsor McCay’s 1918 The Sinking of the Lusitania), but rather as a direct capture of virtual worlds as they appear to users. Unlike the use of animation to depict the personal or physical in animated documentaries, in the portrayal of digital worlds animation is not an interpretative visual language. Instead, it is a direct representation rather than an experimental, expressive interpretation of what could have been photographed.
Interestingly, animation in Another Planet is, therefore, both the visual language used in each simulation (as part of the inherent appearance of the referent), and the cinematic representational choice (this is an animated documentary about these simulations). Thus, the way animation is used here is multi-layered. In such cases, animation can be equated with photography, but capturing the virtual rather than the physical. The film credits state that it was ‘filmed’ in particular virtual locations, emphasizing the blurred boundaries between animation and photography and what can be photographed. This also provides new insight into animation’s role as document.
According to Philip Rosen, the noun document has two chief derivations from its Latin and Old French roots: one concerning teaching and/or warning, and the other as evidence or proof (Rosen 1993, p. 65-66). Thus, a document is intended to inform and record, and this is exactly what it does in Another Planet, albeit in a complex and dualistic manner. Animation in a documentary that directly captures the simulation it depicts can be seen as evidence, like photographic capture; whereas animation used to convey a historical event is a form of teaching. Based on this view, animation can be seen as a new form of document: proof of a virtual re-enactment and the events that occurred within it online, and a wider conveyor of information about physical locations and historical events. In Another Planet, the virtual simulations teach and indicate whereas the film captures the virtual events and acts as evidence of them. An illustrative example is how the status of historical museums and sites is changing as interactive media and animated representations of non-fiction become increasingly prevalent. This also raises new questions about historical narratives, cultural heritage and memory construction in the digital age. Another Planet embodies a portrayal of today’s mixed realities in which Internet users are comfortable with the replacement of physical space with virtual space. This reflects a generational paradigm shift whereby the impact of a physical place and object changes as more people become accustomed to visual and online representations. The merging of physical and virtual realities leads to an augmented view and experience of reality, which exceed the merely physical and therefore require additional documentary aesthetics beyond photography, such as animation. Using animation as an informational aesthetic and in documentary thus enables a fuller depiction of today’s mixed realities, portraying the physical as well as virtual platforms, and representing and/or recording both.
Animation as Self-Reflexive Documentary and Informational Aesthetics
In today’s era of information with its highly visual culture defined by omnipresent screens, it is no surprise that animation in documentaries has become pervasive. Animated documentaries are not new but they have become much more prominent since Waltz with Bashir garnered wide critical acclaim. Since 2009, animated documentaries have proliferated; a search for the keywords ‘animated documentary’ on YouTube in September 2020 led to 24,300,000 results across a broad range of non-fiction, including journalism, forensics, serious games, education, and information. Animation literally means ‘bringing to life’; it expands the aesthetics of documentary by giving life to sounds and images that could not be recorded, such as memories, subjective perspectives, nano-particles, scientific visualizations, censored events, and non-physical online realities. Animation’s endless visual styles enable it to oscillate between myriad styles in a single film, creating greater visual interest – which is vital in a world of endless images and information.
However, the rise in animated documentaries means that in many cases animation functions merely as eye candy, visualizing the soundtrack instead of maximizing the potential of animated depictions. Another Planet emphasizes and questions the gaps between the audio and the visual, forcing viewers to question the limits of what can be shown, what is shown vs. what can actually be seen, and what kind of knowledge and/or truth claims can be made. The main themes tackled by the film are notions of visual versus other forms of realism, the cultural reception of evolving media as credible or ‘acceptable’ documentary forms, and the way animation is used to question representation itself in multilayered ways.
From the start, Another Planet is characterized by contradictions. “I remind you to record video, not stills,” is the first sentence spoken in the film. Ironically, in this scene viewers are presented with an animated depiction of an Israeli military aircraft. The supposedly conflicting allusion to photography as a medium that ensures ostensibly authentic evidence of an event juxtaposed with obviously constructed animated imagery creates immediate uncertainty. Thus the film’s focus is on the best way to capture and commemorate an event, which raises questions about the authenticity of representation and changing assumptions about realism.
Each simulation was created for different reasons and uses diverse representational choices. The film’s promotional literature explains that “gradually, a deeper layer of the film is revealed: the obsession with reconstructing the ‘Other Planet’ – or the insatiable urge to document and enrich the historical and cultural memory of the Holocaust.” The film’s montage moves between the different simulations of the camp whilst interviewing the creators – who often appear as avatars – about their reasons for virtually reconstructing the camp. They all discuss their goal of realism, attempting to provide an experience that is as close as possible to the ‘real thing.’ The vagueness and impossibility of this goal is a major part of the film’s statement. It is worth emphasizing here that realism is a vast, contested field, ranging from mimetic visual depictions to political activism, and is often only describable in relative terms. Realism can refer to the capturing of “a close approximation of […] the world exterior to the representation;” or it can be judged against what “has already gained the status of the ‘realistic’ (a particular form of cinematography, for example)” (Ward 2002, p. 125). In other words, realism can be understood in terms of its relation to direct vision, technology, or ideology; thus, realistic representation must always be in flux (Ellis 1982, p. 8).
The Bavarian investigator interviewed in the forensic model claims that it is “even more precise than Google Earth.” By comparison, the architectural digital model is described by its creators as “not approximate. It’s exact […] we are covered in terms of historical precision.” The creator of the game Sonderkommando Revolt explains that the sign at the camp entrance is “based on an original image. Same font, same sign,” whereas the VR model is labeled by its creator as “one of the most accurate reconstructions,” though he somewhat confusingly points to a spelling mistake in the sign’s text. Full of paradoxes, these examples show that despite the different objectives and representational choices, all the virtual simulations depicted in the film convey a search for realism, accuracy, and authenticity related to the actual and physical. Simultaneously, the film actually focuses on the endless gaps, inaccuracies, and inability to represent the tangible ‘realness’ that is ostensibly being shown. The film’s message about the impossibility of achieving transparency or directness through representation is foregrounded.
Figure 1: First person shooter game Sonderkommando Revolt, created by Maxim Genis, which was censored and never released. Israel 2010. Image used with kind permission.
Figure 2: Forensic simulation, Bavarian Police. Germany, 2014.
Figure 3: Architectural digital model, created by Peter Siebers and Gideon Greif. Germany 2000-2015.
Figure 4: Virtual reality experience (for sale) created by Sebastian Sosnowski and Studio Odessy. Poland 2014.
In the context of depicting the holocaust, the realism of visual representations may stem less from accuracy of resemblance to the physical location (as in photorealism) and more from the ability to convey a sense of something different, or surreal. Thus, it makes perfect sense to use animation, a visual language that breaks with visual realism and can be stylized as surreal and strange. In order to depict such exceptional events new forms of representation must be used. The idea of Auschwitz as ‘another planet’ clarifies this perfectly. In their interviews with me, Israeli soldiers said that similar animated representations of war in Waltz with Bashir actually seemed to them more rather than less realistic in comparison to live footage. They explained that such incomparably horrific events, which can only be understood by those who have experienced them personally, can only be depicted by an exceptional, unconventional form of representation that can approximate the extraordinary and bizarre sensations involved. In this sense, Another Planet’s realism inheres in its success in enabling viewers to grasp some aspect or dimension of ‘reality’ that would otherwise be inaccessible. Thus the validity of animation as visualization of such re-enactments is strengthened and the potential power of mixed reality representations, playing with the ‘borders of the real’ and viewer expectations, is illuminated.
Another major theme in the film focuses on what is deemed an acceptable form of historical, informational and documentary visualization, which also involves realism as the believable articulation of reality. However, believability and cultural acceptability have evolved and been reincarnated regularly. Film theorist Paul Rotha advocates a viewer-oriented approach to documentaries, claiming that “[d]ocumentary defines not subject or style, but approach […] It justifies the use of every known technical artifice to gain its effect on the spectator” (Ellis 1989, p. 7). Joost Raessens (2006, p. 220) also suggests documentary theory has moved towards emphasis on the viewer’s role in the reception of the work since documentaries are only received as such if they succeed in indicating that a “documentarizing lecture” (rather than one which is fictive) should be practiced to influence the viewer’s mode of reception. Dai Vaughan (1999, p. 84-5) claims, “[w]hat makes a film a ‘documentary’ is the way we look at it; and the history of documentary has been the succession of strategies by which filmmakers have tried to make viewers look at films this way.” Accordingly, Another Planet indirectly reflects on the changing cultural roles and degrees of acceptance of evolving historical and documentary representations. For example, the architect and the historian who created the black and white architectural model of the camp for education and museum purposes explain their decision to use black and white imagery: “Auschwitz was not black and white […] but the museum was concerned it would be like some comic book.” This sheds light on more traditional views of what acceptable or serious representation is in tandem with changing media and content. The apparent seriousness of black and white representation may be seen as an attempt to create visual similarities between the animation and historical photographs of the events, thus strengthening the authenticity of the representation. (Parenthetically, black and white simulation can be interpreted as desensitized or sanitized, so many contemporary creators try to infuse historical documents such as black and white photographs with color to make them more vivid and thus generate more interest and identification among audiences.) Moreover, the allusion to events looking comic might now seem strange to many, since comics, graphic novels, and the academic research they generate have gained widespread acclaim as serious cultural forms, even specifically addressing the holocaust, as for example in Art Spigelman’s Maus (1991).
Clearly animation has also similarly evolved and is no longer limited to past associations with childhood fantasy. Today it encompasses endless content and is increasingly used for documentary and non-fiction purposes. Nonetheless, in spite of this growing trend, elements of photography’s status as the prized aesthetic of non-fiction (to which animation has often been compared in documentary) still endure. Animation is both an increasingly used and insistently questioned visual language, and now exists somewhere between fact and fiction, or alludes to both.
Keith Maitland created the award-winning animated documentary Tower (2016) about America’s first mass school shooting in 1966 at the University of Texas. Animation’s indeterminate status becomes clear when Maitland describes his hesitation about reaching out to survivors with “Hey, you don’t know me, but I want to make a movie about the worst thing that ever happened to you 50 years ago, and it’s going to be a cartoon. Let’s talk!” (Ebiri 2017). His unease about people’s reactions reveals animation’s assumed link to fiction, childhood, and light-heartedness.
Another Planet engages with these issues by questioning what is deemed an ‘acceptable’ form of digital memory construction, and why? Is a forensic model built by the German police so different from a game exploring actual historical events? The pixelated computer game Sonderkommando Revolt, reminiscent of early first-person shooter games, depicts a revolt by camp prisoners that is intentionally gory and disturbing. Unlike the sanitized and empty architectural model, the game portrays aspects of the camp that remind players of the actual events that occurred there; it includes ferocious-looking guard dogs, gas chambers emitting ominous clouds, barbed wire fences, and barred indoor spaces where menacing swastikas abound. The game raises questions about the changing cultural role of media, such as online games which were once seen as entertainment for children and adolescents; the gaming industry now encompasses all age groups, content, and academic research and is the largest medium today. Nevertheless, the only re-enactment of the concentration camp to be attacked by the Anti-Defamation League was the game, raising questions as to whether the criteria for appropriateness is the source of the representation, its visual style, the violence depicted, or traditional views of media that view games as entertainment and therefore disrespectful – notwithstanding the major transformation of the serious game industry and the topics it tackles.
“Procedural rhetoric,” coined by Ian Bogost (2007, p. ix), describes games’ ability as rule-based representations and interactions to use processes persuasively, reconstructing certain circumstances to enable players to gain a special type of understanding through experience that would be impossible in linear narrative, spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures. Who decides what is an acceptable representation, and what are the criteria? As technologies change and new modes of representation develop, these are important questions to explore.
Finally, the film raises other important issues about representation, specifically the gap between what is seen and what is heard, and what one thinks they saw vs. what is actually shown; issues of evidence; the credibility of images, and the viewer’s role as critical interpreter in an era of post-truth, widespread manipulation of images, and distortion of information. Whereas Another Planet is ostensibly about the holocaust, the goal of the film’s creator, Yatziv, seems different, questioning representation itself. He uses the pre-existing virtual simulations of the camp as ready-made sets for his interviews with the creators who are often pre-designed avatars. This format conforms with traditional documentary conventions and animated documentaries’ reliance on recorded interviews. However, the interviews also emphasize how what we see breaks with what the simulation creators may have intended. An extra layer of meaning is thus added so that beyond the simulations what is actually emphasized are the discrepancies between what we see and what we hear, creating a general sense of unease about the representations.
In the seemingly most serious of the camp’s simulations, for example, created by the German police and used in the legal system, Yatziv, the film’s creator, begins with a scene that could easily have been cut, but instead accentuates the discrepancy between what is seen and what is heard. In the interview between the film’s creator and the Bavarian investigator who explains the forensic re-enactment, we see an animated cameraman (emphasizing animation as replacement for photography) interviewing an avatar representing the police officer. Although the two avatars are placed within the simulation, next to the building walls, what we hear is a description of the interview taking place elsewhere. Although no room or door is visible, the unedited soundtrack begins with “can we close the door?” This discrepancy uses the audio to reflect upon the visual, intentionally destabilizing any sense of authority and keeping viewers on their toes, making them aware and turning them into potentially questioning spectators. This highlights the gap in animated documentaries between being shown something that appears reasonable but for which there is no proof. Perhaps it is precisely because this specific simulation includes the most authoritative source that the film’s creator decided to incorporate these tactics here, undermining notions about truth claims in society and the legal system more widely. This in itself is an unsettling statement about informational aesthetics and the inability to attain definitive knowledge, and an indicator that animation, through its unique characteristics, draws attention back to these central issues.
Figure 5: Forensic simulation, Bavarian Police. Germany, 2014.
Similarly, in the same simulation the police investigator describes the forensic model’s use in court to jolt the memory of aging camp detainees. The information created can then be defined as ‘fact’ since it contributes to legal decisions, transforming a clearly constructed method of analysis into a legal truth statement. The prosecutor describes the trial of a 94-year-old suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. The defendant worked in the kitchen and claims that he knew nothing of what occurred in the camp. The simulation was used to check angles and reach a conclusion about what he could have seen from the kitchen. The German prosecutor explains this to the viewers, while the animated film depicts a recreation of this use of the simulation. However, whereas the police investigator describes investigating what could be seen from within the kitchen, the viewers see an old man outside of the kitchen looking in. Thus, we ask, what are we being shown? What are we being told versus what can we actually see? Is the image of a man looking in rather than out a metaphor for the viewers (and the entire legal system) trying to gain insight into something to which they have no access, and thus a reminder of the limited ability to really see or know?
Figure 6: Forensic simulation, Bavarian Police. Germany, 2014.
By emphasizing such inconsistencies, the film re-presents the historical simulations in a way that questions representation, the construction of memory, and truth claims more widely. This particular simulation is meant to be as accurate as possible for use in court and is a literal example of how representation, though clearly constructed as the crude graphics show, can transform into legally binding truth claims. Fiction literally becomes fact through forensic animation. By creating a deliberate misrepresentation, the film questions the role of visual evidence, the viewer’s ability to even notice such discrepancies, and his or her responsibility and desire to contemplate them further.
Animation as used in Another Planet thus introduces ontological issues about the realities in which we exist and how best to represent them but is also an important device for critical viewing, raising epistemological questions about what we see and what we believe, and why. Although it seems to be showing viewers how the simulation may be used in court, the film is actually displaying a gross misrepresentation; thus it remains unclear how the forensic imagery is actually used, and it leaves us wondering whether simulations are used less critically than we’d like to think in such contexts. Since the other simulations can also be used in education, research, memory construction or historical narratives, the way such information is portrayed through mixed realities carries potentially high stakes.
“Whatever, do what you want”
Animation in documentaries self-reflexively engages with many of today’s crises in representation and mistrust in the field of information consumption. While documentaries are more powerful than ever, they are also less trusted in a contemporary culture increasingly characterized by suspicion of the visual (See Lind and Steyerl 2008, p. 10-27). This uncertainty vis-à-vis non-fictional representations generates the need for new forms of representation as well as those that directly acknowledge this present state of affairs. My definition of animated documentaries as a form of masking highlights this precisely, whereby animation has the dual capacity of exposing information whilst also disguising information simultaneously. Several theorists have claimed animation is a more honest approach to documentary due to blatantly constructed representation. Particularly when depicting physical events that could have been photographed, the stylistic forms of animation emphasize the fact that the content is an interpretation that could have been represented differently. However, when dealing with virtual aesthetics, animation is more ambiguous since it is not as obviously an interpretation but can also act as capture, which requires additional accentuation of animation’s representational properties.
Another Planet’s closing scene depicts the interview with the architect and historian as they discuss their own portrayal – and indirectly their re-enactment – in the film. This scene foregrounds the many representational strategies used and the layering of knowledge construction, each enabling potential inaccuracies. Here viewers watch several things going on at once: the architectural simulation; the simulation’s creator depicted as an avatar created by Yatziv; a surveillance camera, which alludes to photography and thus incidentally highlights animation’s culturally perceived authenticity in comparison to photography; and the simulation’s creator watching himself on a screen within the animated screen world of the film. The film ends with the avatar of the one of the simulation’s creators gazing at himself saying “this looks nothing like me,” followed by “do whatever you want.” This leaves the viewer uncertain about what exactly is being shown by the filmmaker, how, and why, yet again highlighting the expectation of visual realism but also underscoring (and emphasizing to the viewer) that nothing may be as it seems in the film. Ending with resolve (or perhaps frustration) with the film’s creator getting permission to “do what you want,” the viewer is left with unanswered and disturbing questions: How much freedom does the film’s creator have? What has he chosen to do with it? What can I conclude as the film draws to an end? The film itself and everything we have watched up to this point, any conclusions to be drawn and lessons learned, are all subject to question. Trust and belief in what the film has portrayed are left in doubt and one might conclude that it would be wiser to suspend belief altogether. After all, perhaps belief is being alluded to rather than constituting the final word. This in itself is characteristic of the post-truth era in which “what matter[s] [is] not veracity, but impact…. the triumph of the visceral over the rational, the deceptively simple over the honestly complex” (D’Ancona 2017, p. 20). Using animation in varied ways meant to raise questions and highlight uncertainty regarding informational aesthetics is therefore essential.
Figure 7: Architectural digital model, created by Peter Siebers and Gideon Greif. Germany 2000-2015.
Another Planet is not the first documentary to raise as many questions as it answers. It does, however, shed interesting light on animation’s changing visibility and role as a major visual language in digital realms, and how animation may be seen as a virtual document, directly capturing online events originally portrayed in animated form. As a result, animation raises ontological questions about the nature of mixed realities and how best to represent and examine them as well as epistemological questions. The growing cultural uses of animation changes its role as credible visualization as well; this is evident in the rising number of documentaries and non-fiction works that choose animation as their main visual aesthetic. The rising visibility of animation may ease its acceptance as an informational aesthetic. In order to avoid the unchallenged use of animation as a summary of information that depicts events and topics as non-nuanced and supposedly straightforward, however, reassessing the development of new virtual aesthetics, visual representation of mixed realities and complex processes surrounding knowledge production is vital.
The merging of physical and virtual realities leads to an augmented view and experience of reality, which exceed the merely physical. Enhanced reality is enabled by technology and has become ubiquitous due to personal portable screens and wifi. These new experiences of contemporary reality must be translated into new and suitable documentary aesthetics. The impact of advanced technology on daily life is such that transcending the limitations of photography in documentary is an inevitable necessity. It is vital for the documentary to remain a relevant and ‘realistic’ depiction of contemporary realities for two reasons: firstly, the need for documentary aesthetics which can capture realities that are non-physical; and secondly, the need for aesthetics that can visually represent the augmented experience of the physical that has emerged from contemporary omnipresent technology. Portable smart technology has become an extension of the self and a portal to other realms, enabling users to ‘be’ in the physical and virtual worlds simultaneously. Excluding animation from contemporary documentaries would result in their failure to represent these mixed realities. Furthermore, through the case studies of Another Planet, virtual simulations are increasingly used to represent and even explore physical spaces, reflecting the changing the relationship between the two realms. Another planet does an excellent job at demonstrating how and why animation proliferates in virtual culture, how its evidentiary status may be theorized as valid documents but also the ways and necessity to critically examine new representational trends in critical ways.
This is an important aspect of animation today: as the quantity of animated non-fiction grows exponentially in myriad fields, it can easily be used as a visual aesthetic that misinforms and conceals without the viewer being any the wiser. Whereas many works use animation to visualize what is otherwise difficult or impossible to convey in moving imagery, often trying to portray what is heard in the soundtrack in attention-grabbing aesthetics, in the case discussed here animation is used in a more complex manner: highlighting what viewers cannot see or do not know, and testing whether they even pause to consider this. Are viewers now so accustomed to experimental documentary and varied visualizations as well as to animation’s mainstream visibility that they no longer notice or question what is being shown, how it is shown, and why? Are viewers prone to believe nothing or everything as the criteria for an image’s truth value becomes increasingly ambiguous in an era of digital culture, doctored images, and deep-fake videos? Finally, what is the viewer’s ethical responsibility, or that of filmmakers and artists who engage with the representations that make and question visual truth claims?
In our post-truth era, information culture and mediascape preoccupied with the misrepresentation of facts, the kind of documentaries that force viewers to continually question evolving forms of representation, it is essential to interrogate their changing qualities, uses, and reception. As we have seen in the example of Another Planet, the viewer is constantly reminded of the mediated nature of the information and of the need to actively consider the problematics of transparency and analysis presented as ‘truth’ through informational aesthetics and fields of non-fiction. That is the power of this art form as an experimental way of mediating messages and questioning representation in an era of mixed realities where uses of imagery change and in order to maintain self-reflexive and critical viewing.
Dr. Nea Ehrlich is a lecturer in the Department of Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. She completed her PhD in the Department of Art History at the University of Edinburgh and was a Polonsky postdoctoral fellow at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. She is the author of articles on realism, serious games, animation and documentary, and is co-editor of Drawn from Life, the 2018 anthology about animated documentaries published by Edinburgh University Press. Her work lies at the intersection of Art History, Film Studies, Animation, Digital Media Theory, Gaming and Epistemology. Her next book, Animating Truth, on animated documentary and the virtualization of culture in the 21st century, is forthcoming in 2021 from Edinburgh University Press. She is currently working on a project on art and robotics, focusing on AI and machine vision.
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 The Sonderkommando were work units made up of often Jewish prisoners who were forced to aid with the disposal of victims’ bodies in the Nazi camps.
 My work focuses on intentionally non-photorealistic animation and although animated documentaries have proliferated since 2008, animation’s reception is still rooted somewhere between fiction and fact. See my forthcoming 2021 book Animating Truth by Edinburgh University press.
 In theorizing documentary games, Joost Raessens addresses the ‘problems’, some of which are shared by animated documentaries due to their constructed nature and visual form.
 See Ehrlich, Animating Truth, forthcoming in 2021 by Edinburgh University Press.
 For more on these topics see Simons 2009; Musser 1984; Huhtamo 2004; McQuire, Martin, and Niederer 2009; Acland 2012; Manovich 1995; Friedberg 2010; Cubitt 2011.
 The cultural implications of such changes in an interdisciplinary research domain links Film Studies, Art, Media Studies, Phenomenology and Post-Phenomenology, Sound and Video Game Studies, to name but a few.
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 Joost Raessens uses Roger Odin’s term to explain the way spectators view works through a documentary or fictionalizing perspective. See Roger Odin, “A Semio-pragmatic Approach to the Documentary Film,” in The film Spectator: From Sign to Mind, ed. W. Buckland (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995), 227–235.
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12 March 1943 | 14-year old Polish girl Czesława Kwoka (camp no. 26947) was murdered in #Auschwitz with a phenol injection into the heart. She was deported by Germans from Zamość region as part of their plan of creating „living space” in the east. [Thread 1/5] pic.twitter.com/8bjla55Xdm
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 For more on the persistence of photography, see Ritchin, After Photography, p. 180.
 For more on the animated interview see Honess Roe, Animated Documentary, pp. 74–105.
 See Ehrlich, “Animated documentaries as masking.”
 See Formenti, “The sincerest form of docudrama”; Honess Roe, Animated Documentary, p. 171; Ward, “Animated realities’” p. 19.
 I do not mean augmented reality in the sense of specific AR technologies but more of a general enhancement of what reality is, which expands beyond the physical, due to what is made possible through contemporary personal technologies.
© Nea Ehrlich
Edited by Amy Ratelle