Samantha Moore’s Doctoral Thesis ‘Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states’

Samantha Moore’s PhD thesis, Out of Sight: Using animation to document perceptual brain states (2015), presents a methodology for improving the authenticity of animated renderings of invisible mental phenomena experienced by two sets of participants; those with prosopagnosia (face blindness) and those with phantom limb syndrome. Her method involved interviewing participants (referred to as collaborative consultants), she then creates animated representations of the brain state phenomena, before returning to the collaborative consultant for verification or suggested improvements. This collaborative cycle of consultation and revision persists until the collaborative consultant confirms the animated representation feels as close to their reality as possible.

Moore developed this collaborative feedback method before her PhD on a Wellcome Trust project in which artist are pared with scientists. Moore worked with Dr. Jamie Ward, the head of the Synaesthesia research group at UCL, on a project that would develop into the short film An Eyeful of Sound (2010), a film that attempts to represent visual synesthetic hallucinations that were prompted by audio stimuli.

Defensive discourse

Moore draws upon Jonathan Rozenkrantz’s identification of a tendency within animated documentary scholarship to adopt a defensive position. This is a concerted effort among animation academics to position animated documentary as a legitimate form of documentary practice primarily broadening the definition of the documentary genre (2015: 31). However, Rozenkrantz is not convinced by this discourse:

‘If the potency of a documentary’s truth claim is relative to the documents that constitute it, the animated documentary is significantly weakened by its lack of the fundamental evidential ingredient that is traditionally associated with documentary film: the photographic raw material. This is a problem that the ‘defensive’ discourse of animated documentary fails to acknowledge, arguing instead that every documentary is a construct and that, consequently, animated documentaries are just as ‘real’ as live-action ones.’ (2011)

Indexical deficit

Moore responds to Rozenkrantz’s conservative critique of animated documentary in several ways. Before even reaching Rozenkrantz in her thesis, she had already pointed out that indexical recordings exist in most animated documentaries, in the form of audio interview testimony.  However, Moore is suspicious of the consequences of depending so heavily on such material.  

‘This reliance on sound in the ‘animated interview’ film to provide the indexical link means that the visual is relegated to a supporting role for the soundtrack, simultaneously isolating and privileging the spoken testimony as ‘the document’. The visuals therefore become symbolic repositories for the words, inextricably linked to a language based coda’ (2015: 25).

Despite the constrictive impact audio testimony can have on the animated documentary form, the recorded material clearly functions as what Rozenkrantz would call ‘documents’.

An Intriguing Mistakes

Moore’s second response to Rozenkrantz involves a reflection on an instance in her own practice where she was forced to abandon indexicality because her audio interviews were poor quality. As a result, she chose to hire actors to dub over the testimony provided by documentary participants. ‘The Beloved Ones was no less received as an animated documentary than the previous and subsequent films of the author, using indexical sound made in the same genre’ (Moore:2015: 46). Moore “gets away” with a total lack of conventional indexicality in this film. This project raises interesting ethical dilemmas with regard to truth claims. Although there is nothing to suggest the messages contained in the words spoken by a voice actor are distorted, I suspect most audiences who saw this film did not realise the overdubbing took place. When Moore explained to me in person that the actors also put on accents to match the participants, I felt differently about the film’s authenticity but could not give a clear reason why this was wrong. In part my response was connected to breaching the documentary conventions that Rozenkrantz attempts to conserve.

However, I was also thrown off by Moore re-dubbing testimony for utilitarian reasons when it is typically reserved as a morally justifiable compromise. If a director masks a participant’s voice to protect their identity the director is essentially rebalancing a duty to the audience with a duty to protect their participants. However, rebalancing the authenticity of the documents against the director’s desire to make a film seems like a less justifiable sacrifice.

Regardless of my uneasiness around these issues, the project was successful, and the animation was received as a documentary. For Moore, this happy mistake opened a path to truth claims away from the restrictive commitment to indexical signs as the only guarantee of truth.

A World vs. the world vs. my world

Moore’s third response to Rozenkrantz is that in the right circumstance an animated image may be a more reliable representational tool than live action footage, i.e. when representing perceptual brain states. Moore refers to Bill Nichols distinction between documentary and fiction as the distinction between the historic world and a world of the filmmaker’s invention (1991:109). However this system only works ‘if we all agree on what the world looks like.’ (Moore, 2015: 56).

 ‘In certain situations animation can bridge the gap between ‘the world ‘ and ‘my world’ in a rounded and fulfilling way by creating a document of a perceptual brain state, an animated document evidencing the unphotographable ‘world in here’’ (Ibid: 24).

Moore draws upon the neuropsychology concept of the first-person-plural presumption, which is a form of cognitive bias that describes a person assuming the way the world appears to them is fundamentally the same as how it appears to everyone.  ‘You and I may agree that a flower is red but how do we know what it is exactly that we each mean by ‘red’?’ (Moore, 2015:61). This misconception provides the justification for both expanding Nichols’ restrictive definition of documentary, whilst also opening the possibility of animated documentary to exceed the capabilities of its live action counterpart.  

Evocation

Anabella Honess Roe (2011:225) argues that the ‘evocation’ of subjective brain states is one of the three main functions that animated documentary serves, distinguishing it as a practice from live action documentary. While it is clear evocation in animated documentary serves a useful role in communicating scientifically recognisable phenomena, the dilemma remains that the images themselves are symbolic and iconic and lack the evidentiary properties of indexical images. Moore tasks herself with developing a method to raise the reliability of evocative animated documents to the level of indexical record.

The collaborative cycle

Moore’s collaborative feedback cycle involves a cyclical consultation with participants (collaborative consultants) regarding the veracity of the animated representations she creates. To do this, Moore adapted Luke Eric Lassiter’s ‘collaborative ethnography’ methodology (2005) which is summarised as follows:

‘1. Ethical and moral responsibility to consultants, 2. Honesty about the field work process, 3. Accessible and dialogic writing, and 4. Collaborative reading, writing and co interpretation of ethnographic texts with consultants’ (2005: 77).

Despite Moore’s primary focus being verifying authenticity in an animated document, Lassiter’s collaborative ethnographic methodology is more directly concerned with ethics. Responsivity, honesty, accessibility and collaboration, are all moral principles that accommodate the needs of the other.

Jay Ruby identifies three key ethical considerations for documentary makers:

‘(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience’ (2005 [1979]: 211).

While Lassiter’s ethics seem to emphasise the ethnographer’s moral duty to their collaborative consultants, Moore redirects these commitments to a moral obligation to the potential audience. In other words, Moore focuses her efforts towards the social contract between documentary filmmaker and audience that the documents in the film tangibly reflects actuality. This is not to say Moore has abandoned her responsibility to her participants. Her method empowers these collaborative consultants in the production process. 

‘By using a collaborative methodology the person being represented has the opportunity to comment, re-frame and change the work, occupying an engaged role in the process and transforming from the passive (‘subject’, ‘interviewee’) to the actively involved (‘collaborative consultant’)’ (Moore 2015:105).

However, Moore abandons the task of achieving an effective balance between her ethical commitment towards her audience and participants, and herself as an artist. ‘This shift in power balance has an equivalent effect on the role of the ‘facilitator’; previously film maker or director, whose authorial voice is devolved… and who is absolved of creative responsibility for the duration of the documenting process’ (2015: 105). The role of director is purposefully relegated to that of facilitator the filmic products of this study producing ‘documents’ rather than ‘documentaries’ (2015:24). Whatever happens to the animated documents afterwards (they may, for example, be made into a film as with An Eyeful of Sound), whilst engaged in the collaborative cycle the facilitator privileges the data from the collaborative consultants over every personal creative impulse.

It is perhaps unfair to diminish Moore’s research for not achieving goals that she explicitly put aside. However, from the perspective of documentary ethics, it could be argued that if I were to adhere strictly to the parameters she has set out by the collaborative feedback cycle would the role of the director be so  greatly diminished that the a key responsibility have been neglected, that of the creative intention?

Kneading the icon into an index

Moore argues that the collaborative feedback cycle fundamentally changes the relationship between referent and representation so much so that it is no longer reasonable to restrict the classification of the images of perceptual brain states as iconic. 

‘The subject of the film can become integrated and then re-integrated into the materiality of the film. The animated document is itself an indexical record of the conversation that has taken place and remains a representation of our very subjectivity’ (2015: 99).

Moore is suggesting that there is an indexical chain that links the perceptual brain states of the collaborative consultants to their speech, which has directly shaped and verified the animated representations to the extend that the chain is never broken.

However, I would argue Moore is overstretching her argument by suggesting her renderings of brain states are indexical. Indexicality suggested a direct trace of contact. However, Moore’s process, requires a large degree of translation, a fundamentally mimetic process involving symbolic and iconic semiotic codes, which simultaneously break the indexical link.  

If, however, the artist was representing their own subjective brain state, such as in the case of expressionist painting, there would be an indexical link between the marks they made and the mind that prompted them. I would argue autoethnographic evocative animated documentary possesses an indexical potency that cannot be matched by interpretive evocation, which is fundamentally mimetic, no matter how many times the image is tweaked according to feedback.

This is not to suggest Moore’s work is in authentic, clearly she has developed an innovative method for crafting verified representations of invisible phenomena. However, by arguing that these images are indexical, rather than iconic, Moore is contributing to the idea that indexicality is the only legitimate root representing actuality, when clearly she has developed a method that navigates around that issue.

Shadow Stories

Moore made one film that uses both the collaborative feedback cycle, while not also relying on audio testimony. Working with Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, the local council archaeologists became the collaborative consultants, providing feedback on animated scenes of how items from their collection would have been used in a prehistoric context. (2015: 173)

This film does not provide the feeling of a documentary, in fact Moore refers to it as a ‘short interpretive film’ (Ibid.). It is entirely based on re-enactment, with only best guess interpretations informing the content. This suggests to me that it is very difficult to produce the documentary feeling without indexical evidence. What is not clear to me is whether this is because the arbitrary conventions of the documentary genre have trained me to expect this or because there is some essential quality of indexicality that is inseparable form documentary practice.

Conclusion

The unavoidable draw back to the collaborative feedback cycle is that it extends an already time consuming and costly process. This is not an insignificant point; it may mean the difference between being able to produce/fund a film or not.  My second concern is that Moore’s method does not sufficiently account for her own role as a creative. Moore reflects upon her role as a facilitator or translator, but this radically reduces the responsibility’s laid at the hands of a documentary director to their own creative intentions. However, if we were to look at An Eyeful of Sound (2010) made before starting her PhD, or Loop (2015) make after, both of which use the collaborative cycle, it is self-evident that Moore would have had to make creative decisions when piecing together the documents that inform the documentary.

From my perspective as an animated documentary practitioner and researcher interested in ethics, the most valuable aspect of Moore’s research is building into the method a participant’s agency and influence. Moore’s collaborative consultants are the arbiters of when an animated document is ready to be included in a film. This method almost guarantees that the participant will be happy with the final film, which is not always the case (there are many examples of participants attempting to sue documentary filmmakers after the film’s release).

I believe Moore misses an opportunity to integrate her method into the content of An Eye Full of Sound (2010). I know how respectful and conscientious her approach to collaboration is from reading her thesis and seeing her speak at conferences, however, someone viewing the films without that knowledge does not see how reliable these animated simulations of synaesthesia are.

Moore moves closer to textual reflexivity in Loop (2015) by working on a project where many of the scientists involve disagree on the visual appearance of the biological phenomena they are attempting to study.

These disagreements leave room for multiple conflicting representations calling into question the reliability of the others. Similarly, there is some commentary from the collaborative consultants regarding the process of drawing: “This is going to be the most boring drawing in the entire world” (Loop: 2015: 1min 45sec).  These reflexive devices give a greater sense of Moore’s method, extending further her ethical commitment to the audience in terms of transparency. However, the conflicting perspectives are between the various collaborative consultants, rather than between the participants and the filmmaker. Moore remains, as she does in all her films, a hidden figure whose activity and influence is largely masked.

Drawing influence from Moore I intend to adapt the collaborative cycle by drawing closer focused on positional and textual reflexivity. I want my audiences to get a glimpse into the processes involved in shaping films that the participants are happy with, while also showing my presence as a fallible artist, occasionally projecting my own fantasies and misrepresenting the intentions of my participant. By including the flawed early interpretations into the finished film my goal is to redress the power balance between director and audience, which I feel is not effectively tackled in Moore’s work.  

Bibliography

Honess Roe, A., (2011) ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary’ in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Sage: London. 6(3) 215–230.

Lassiter, L.E., (2005) The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moore, S. (2015) Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states. Loughborough University.

Rozenkrantz, J., (2011) Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary Film

International online journal [online] Available at <http://filmint.nu/?p=1809&gt; [Accessed 23th

November 2020]

Ruby, J. [1979] ‘The Ethics of Image making; or, “They’re going to Put me in the Movies, They’re Going to Make a Big Star Out of Me…’ in New challenges for Documentary. (2005) ed. A. Rosenthal, J. Corner. Manchester University Press.

Author: Alex Widdowson

Animated Documentary Director and Researcher

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