The Animated Psyche – Part 1: Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

The content of this post was first presented as ‘The Animated Psyche: Representing neurodiversity and psychology through animated documentary’. This took place on 30th December in Zagreb at ANI DOK 2019, organised by ASIFA Croatia. Cover photo by Nina đurđević. 

Part 1 – Ethical Dilemmas Associated with Evocative Animated Documentary Production

In order to identify the main functions of animated documentary, Annabelle Honess Roe (2011) investigated what animation was doing that couldn’t be achieved through the conventional live-action approach. The third function she identified, ‘evocation’, described animation that visualized the subjective perception of a documentary participant or filmmaker. The following article focuses on ethical considerations relating to the creation of evocative animated documentaries that intend to represent the psyche of someone other than the filmmaker.

The conventional approach to creating evocative animated documentaries about psychology is typified by Andy Glynn’s Animated Minds series. Glynn, a  trained clinical psychologist, recorded interviews with people whose experience exemplified specific mental illnesses. Each interview was edited to form a first person account. Working from these narrative structures the animated minds team interpreted the diagnosis into a visual form. Fish on a Hook (2009) addresses Mike’s experience of anxiety. 

The following list shows the stages one would go through when creating an evocative animated documentary about a hypothetical psychological or neurological form of difference (X). 

  1. I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability  X and want to make a documentary about it.
  2. An animated documentary is a good way to represent X because camera footage of people who live with X, wouldn’t show how they think or feel differently.  
  3. I haven’t experienced X myself so…
  4. I will find someone who suffers from X to be a participant in my film.
  5. In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other. 
  6. I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X, 
  7. Based on their words I will visualise (evoke) X through animation 
  8. Before starting the production I must ask my participant if they want their identity hidden or not
    1. My participant wants to be anonymous so I will use animation to mask their recognisable facial features, helping them to avoid the stigma of having X
    2. [or] my participant is happy to be identifiable but there’s no point in making the animation look realistic; I could have just filmed them. I will use artistic licence as I design their character. 

Step by step, I’d like to explore some of the ethical considerations that I feel should be addressed by animated documentary directors attempting to represent neurodivergence or psychology. 

  1. I’m interested in the mental illness / disorder / disability  X and want to make a documentary about it

Before you make a film about X it’s worth researching related debates or controversy?  Does everyone agree X is an illness, a disorder or a disability? Do the people you think of as living with X consider themselves possessing something that needs curing?  Is it possible society has been structured without the flexibility to accommodate people who live with X. If this were true perhaps we should think of people who live with X as a minority community who are in a disadvantaged position as a result of how  society is organised. So disadvantaged that the rest of us find it easier to think of them as ill, disordered or disabled? Thinking of X through the lens of identity politics and organising for social change reflects the ethos of the neurodiversity movement. 

I’m not suggesting a moral superiority to any one perspective but I do advocate questioning “common sense” ideas relating to mental illness, disorders and disability. Antonio Gramsci argued that common sense ways of thinking are often indicative of hegemonic ideology internalised by the wider population (Schmidt 2018).

Consider “mental illness”. The dominant model for understanding and treating psychological distress in medicine is based on a philosophical  approach called logical positivism i.e. the only meaningful philosophical problems are those which can be solved by logical analysis (Fuchs, 2010, 269). The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, relies on standardized checklists of symptoms to help doctors reach diagnoses. Previously psychiatrist subjectively interpreted symptoms to form treatment plans based on theory and experience, while often conferring with peers. The standardized checklist reorganized psychiatry by  improving the reliability and objectivity of measuring personal distress. This helped improved the consistency with which diagnoses were given and restrained the unconscious bias that could affect a doctors value judgements when assessing a patient. 

However, checklists cannot measure many aspects of a patients rich and diverse experience of suffering, nor do they factor the history and social context in which such suffering develops. Without accounting for these dimensions in the theory of how to treat mental suffering the medical establishment is left with a very narrow perspective. For this reason clinical depression, which is considered to be an illness that can be treated with medication, is loosely defined in the UK as feeling sad, lacking interest in fun activities and lacking energy (MHFA England, 2016, 50). If you feel like this for more than two weeks, irrespective of the circumstances, you have an “illness”. 

The tradition of scrutinizing psychiatry first flourished in the 1960’s.  A diverse range of intellectuals and practising psychiatrist started a counterculture movement refereed to as Anti-psychiatry. They broadly argued that psychiatry in it’s contemporary form did more harm than good to individuals and society as a whole. 

R.D. Lang questioned how much madder his psychotic patients were than those who fit into what he considered to be a mad world: 

‘A little girl of seventeen in a mental hospital told me she was terrified because the Atom Bomb was inside her. That is a delusion. The statesmen of the world who boast and threaten that they have Doomsday weapons are far more dangerous, and far more estranged from ‘reality’ than many of the people on whom the label ‘psychotic’ is affixed…. Thus I would wish to emphasise that our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities.’ (1960:12)

The idea of mental illness was an innovation from the late 19th Century. It transformed how we thought about “lunatics”. If these phenomena were considered illnesses we could separate the symptoms from the identity of the people suffering. However, Thomas Szasz in his book The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), argued that mental illness was really a metaphor that came to be taken literally. These were not like other illnesses. At the time there was no physiological evidence of their existence. Szasz believed that, more often than not, doctors were observing distressing behaviours that were responses to social, political and interpersonal issues.  Psychiatrists were misreading this real suffering as illness. Treating the symptoms of these patients  simply pacified them and perpetuated the causal problems in their lives. 

It has been more than fifty years since the publication of these two books, and while their rhetoric sounds extreme, many of the arguments of anti-psychiatry have been quietly adopted by the medical mainstream, particularly in regards to patients rights. Simultaneously, modern psychiatric medications have advanced so much that it is difficult to argue that they have no value.  However, psychiatry is far from uncontroversial and anti-psychiatry lives on in new forms [see the Critical Psychiatry Network for example.]

  1. An animated documentary is a good way to represent X because camera footage of X people wouldn’t show how they’re feeling or thinking differently.  

Are you sure? Here are some pros and cons of animated documentary compared with the live action alternative. 

pros: 

  • You are unlimited in your creative capacity to represent a concept
  • You can create images that were never recorded or have never existed
  • You can mask the identity of your documentary subjects
  • You can evoke affect and the sensation of thought through stylization 
  • There is no such thing as objective filmmaking so why not use animation to be honest about the constructedness of documentary

Cons: 

  • Live action filmmaking is much quicker
  • Live action filming is normally cheaper
  • Truth claims about the relationship between what happened in the world and what is presented in the film are still complicated, but less distracting compared to animated documentary.
  • Without the mechanical indifference of a camera you are utterly responsible for the representation of your participant’s image. It’s a lot of responsibility.  
  • Animated documentaries often rely heavily on interviews to support their truth claims, are you sure a radio documentary wouldn’t be just as or more effective? 
  1. I haven’t experienced X myself so…

The fact that you have no prior experience of X does not mean your position is neutral.  Perceived neutrality suggests an allegiance with neurotypical hegemony. The concept of the Other can help explain this dynamic.

The “Other” is a phenomenological term that describes one’s conception of another living being. Simone De Beauvoir, in The Second Sex (1949), argued that the institutionalized oppression of women could be understood as a manifestation of women’s “Otherness” from the perspective of men. The practice of “Othering” is when a group or individual are treated like outsiders because they do not fit the norms of a more dominant social group. Singling someone out because you perceive them to be representative of an illness, disorder, or disability is a subtle form of Othering. This could be harmless but it is something to consider. 

Laura Mulvey introduced the idea of the “male gaze” to feminist theory (Autumn 1975). It is the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. As a director you must be critically aware of your own gaze. To start thinking about this ask yourself what your relationship is to the topic:

  1. If you have no connection to X and you think of people living with X as exotic or mysterious you are already on the way to Othering your participant.  You possess a neurotypical gaze and need to work hard to become familiar with people who live with X.
  2. If you suffer from X you will probably be looking through an auto-ethnographic lens. This gives you a big advantage over others, but ask yourself how you will address difficult, embarrassing or troubling aspects of X. Are you willing to share these with your audience? If not perhaps your work will feel less authentic. 
  3. Do you have some academic or clinical experience of X? If you adopt a medical gaze perhaps you will focus on selecting participants who help  clarify your existing understanding of the diagnostic category X, rather than allowing your participants to redefine X for you and your audience. 
  4. Have you cared for or share a close personal connection with someone who lives with X? Did that person cause you suffering or feel like a burden at times? What kind of ambivalence are you holding onto? Will this film help you process your guilt, resentment or even hostility? 

4.a.  I will find someone who suffers from X and…

How we position someone in relation to the concept of X is important. Labels matter and people disagree about them. Does someone suffer from X or are they an X type of person? 

The neurodiversity movement is in part based on the premise that there is no separating a person from their autism, dyslexia, ADHD etc. For example, asking an autistic person if they would like their autism to be cured, is like asking them to commit a hypothetical ego suicide and reform as a different human? From this perspective we could conclude it is respectful to describe someone as autistic and not a person with autism.  If we think of these labels as describing minority groups, the people in these groups are therefore different instead of disordered. It then becomes easier to place emphasis on unleashing their potential value in society because of, not in-spite of, their neurological difference. 

Conversely, most people prefer to conceptualize their mental suffering as an illness, keeping it separate from their identity. Someone with clinical depression might prefer to be thought of as suffering from depression, rather than being a depressive. These topics continue to be debated, so a simple rule of thumb would be to ask your participant what they prefer. 

4.b. I will find someone who suffers from X and…

In Zagreb I asked the group to take part in an exercise:

  1. Close your eyes and picture a tree
  2. Open your eyes and draw that tree
  3. Consider the difference between the tree you imagined and the tree you drew.
  4. Consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour drew.
  5. Finally, consider the difference between the tree you drew and the tree your neighbour imagined.

Step five demonstrates the scale of the task ahead of an animator attempting to represent how someone else perceives the world.

Phenomenology is a set of philosophical tools that help us consider the difference between our perceptions of reality and reality itself. Each of you have an image of a tree stored in your memory. This shares some relation to what are commonly considered to be trees, living organisms that exist in the world, but as a human, you don’t have direct access to the essence of a tree.  You must instead use your senses and corroborate that information with shared knowledge from your community.  From this you’ve created your own interpretation of what the concept of a tree is. Do the small differences between your version of a tree and that of your neighbour matter? It depends how important you think it is to represent X accurately . Samantha Moore’s PhD Thesis (2015) describes the collaborative feedback cycle she invented to help improve the authenticity of evocative animated documentary. An example of how to close the perceptual difference gap through participant feedback.

When we try to represent neurodivergent experiences, we are trying to describe the way someone perceives and makes sense of their unique phenomena. These include the feeling and information gathered through basic senses: light, sound, touch, taste etc.; as well as the conceptualisation of the world such as space and time. We must also consider someone’s experience of their body, their thoughts and the presence of others as phenomena.  Each of these phenomena could be radically different from your own (Bogdashina, 2016). We might never know If someone living with X perceives a tree differently from us. They may struggle to articulate the unique insights they have about the tree, either because that’s just how trees are to them or, possibly, because languages invented under nuerotipical hegemony are not well equipped to describe these unique readings. In some cases their attempt to turn the information they gather from a tree in to a symbol could be beyond your comprehension. See Amanda Baggs’ 2007 film, In My Language, for an example of a autho-ethnographic film about a private language that developed in the context of perceptual and sensory difference.

  1. In order for them to trust me we must get to know each other

In her book Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary (2013) Agnieszka Piotrowska argues that the relationship between the documentary maker and their primary participant is like that of the therapist and client. Piotrowska’s theoretical stance is largely based on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, specifically his conception of “transference”. For Lacan transference is an intimacy that is built in the context of a power imbalance. Building on Freud’s observations, Lacan noticed the transferencial dynamic both in psychoanalysis and other professions, such as teaching. While not necessarily erotic in nature, this affection can build in both the annalist and analysand. In psychoanalysis this is a safe phenomena if managed carefully, however, in the context of documentary, transference typically culminates in a form of betrayal at the end of production. The interviews end, the edit is locked and the intimate dialogue between the filmmaker and participant is exposed to an audience of strangers. Moreover the final outcome is typically reflective of the fantasies, desires and ambitions of the director rather than the participant. We should be aware of the intimacy of documentary as a joint endeavour and consider how that bond will be managed throughout the life of the film.

  1. I will record an interview with my participant where we discuss what it’s like to live with X
diagram 1

Double Hermeneutics is a way of describing intersubjectivity, i.e. how two people interact with each other.  With diagram 1 in mind, lets position person A as the filmmaker and person B is the participant. B is the only one with direct access to their experiences. These are then processed as thoughts and contextualised among previous experiences. B must then translate these thoughts into spoken language in-order for A to be able to  perceive the concept. A must then convert B’s language into thoughts and contextualise these ideas among their existing knowledge. However, there are not enough words in existence for B to accurately represent their internal phenomena. What ever is transmitted through speech has inevitably been simplified and changed. The cyclical nature of this process makes it even more complicated. The presence of A and the things they communicate have an effect on B, changing  what and how they communicate. The perpetuation of this feedback cycle describes all dialogues. 

Observational documentary is modeled on the idea that a documentary crew can function like a “fly on the wall”, observing and recording events without disrupting how they happen. This is a fantasy. It takes an enormous amount of work during filming and editing to hide the disruptive influence a film crew has on the people and events they are filming. “Act natural” is an impossible request for a participant. A more honest version would be to say “pretend I’m not here”. At least the pretense has been acknowledged. 

Many animated documentaries, including my film Escapology (2017), make use of the masked interview. A interviews B, but A edits out everything A says.  The masked interview positions B as a first person narrator, hiding the influence A had on B’s half of the dialogue.

  1. Based on their words I will visualize (evoke) X as animation 
Diagram 2

If B is the narrator it is quite understandable that audiences assume the animated scenes are representative of B’s perspective on X. However, if A has no direct experience of X, when A creates an evocative animated documentary built around a masked interview with B, the animation represents A’s graphic interpretation of B’s interpretation of X. This type of animated documentary could be described as an unmediated representation of the director’s othering gaze masquerading as the gaze of the other. A’s gaze is unmediated due to the total absence of representation through photographic indexicality. Without an analogue or digital camera rendering an image of B, A must rely on their artistic impulses to organise the construction of images of B. What’s more, these images are supposed to be simultaneously representative of X. Perhaps when A thinks they are drawing X, by way of B, they are more likely to be drawing their own gaze.

8.b. My participant wants to be anonymous so I will use animation to mask their recognisable facial features, helping them to avoid the stigma of having X

To mask your participants identity you must first strip away their distinguishing features from a character design. However, this can be problematic if X has a visible component. Lets say A is making a film about X where X is immigration status and B is a different race to A.

The Southern Ladies Animation Group avoid the representation of nationality or race by depicting each participant, stranded asylum seekers, as caged birds in It’s Like That (2005).

However, avoiding the topic of race or nationality can strip the participant of their group identity and a historic context which might be inseparable  from the dilemmas addressed in a documentary.

Andy Glynne directed another series about asylum seekers called Seeking Refuge (2012). The character designs in Julianne’s Story allow her race to be visible but facial features are generalized to fit a stereotypical cartoon child i.e.  big eyes and head, and small body, nose and ears. This is common to many animated representations of children. The approach is problematic when representing black children because a stereotypical cartoon black child bares a strong resemblance to stereotypical racist colonial imagery. (Widdowson, 2017)

I believe a better approach was adopted by David Aronowitsch and Hanna Heilborn the directors of Slaves: an Animated Documentary (2003)

Here the children’s characters seem to be stylized in inventive ways that masks their identity while leaving an impression of individuality.  They’re characters reflect more than a collision of generic symbols of ethnicity, age and gender.

8.2 My participant is happy to be identifiable but there’s no point in making the animation look realistic; I could have just filmed them. I will use my artistic licence when I design their character. 

Portraiture is the practice of rendering an artistic likeness of a human. Caricature falls within this domain but with additional emphasis. It is defined as ‘…a depiction of a person in which distinguishing characteristics are exaggerated for comic or grotesque effect’ (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2012). Grotesque or comedic aesthetic distortions of celebrities or politicians are typically mocking, antagonistic and disrespectful. I would argue that animated documentary directors, working with vulnerable participants, must consider if their stylized character designs are manifestations of a hostile, prejudicial or othering gaze. (Widdowson, 2017)

One of the most well known evocative animated documentaries, Ryan (2004, Chris Landreth) operates within the realm of grotesque caricature. Ryan Larkin was a once celebrated animator, whose career was destroyed by addiction. At the time he was begging for money on the streets of Montreal. Landreth uses, what he called “psycho-realism” to manifest vulnerabilities as bodily distortions, in the case of Larkin, depicting him as structurally unstable and contorted (Singer, 2004).

Ryan Larkin in Ryan (2004) Dir. Chris Landreth. National Film Board of Canada.

The making-of documentary (Alter Egos, 2004, Lawrence Green) shows the moment when Landreth screens the finished animation to Larkin, having not involved him in the film process since recording their interview. Larkin states his shock and discomfort, confronting Landreth about the grotesque nature of the portrait.

Ryan Larkin (left) and Chris Landreth (right) in Alter Egos (2004) Dir. Lawrence Green. National Film Board of Canada .

The structure of the film demonstrates that Landreth became aware of the hostility he was expressing towards Larkin during the interview. Landreth’s misplaced resentment for his alcoholic mother and personal fear of creative failure are proposed as the underlying causes of his ambivalence towards Larkin. This reflexive gesture positions Landreth in the film as someone owning up to their mistakes. However, after Landreth came to this realisation, instead of seeking atonement, he decided to commit further to his othering, prejudicial and hostile perspective of Larkin. He spent months transforming this unethical attitude into grotesque bodily distortions, then showed the finished film to his participant when it was too late to change or pullout. Chris Landreth’s reflexivity serves to justify and perpetuate the public humiliation of Ryan Larkin, a vulnerable adult.

Ryan is an accomplished and complex short film that can be much better understood in the context of it’s feature length making-of documentary. This film exaggerates how character designs function as a manifestation of how we feel about our participants. It was both honest and reckless for Landreth to make a film about his unethical behaviour. A clear lesson we can learn from this project is that consulting with our participant throughout the film-making process will illuminate for us what it feels like to be subject to our gaze. The earlier this process starts, the more time we have to identify and improve upon our unethical assumptions, impulses and practices.

Bibliography

American Psychiatric Association (2013) Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth Edition.

Simone De Beauvoire (1949) The Second Sex.

Olga Bogdashina (2016) Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome; Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds. 2nd revised edition. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary, revised 10th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p.212

Thomas Fuchs, (2010) ‘Subjectivity and intersubjectivity in psychiatric diagnosis’ in Psychopathology. Volume 43, Issue 4, 268-274

Annabella Honess Roe (2011). ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary’. Animation: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 6(3), 215-230.

R.D. Laing, (1960) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Tavistock Books: London.

MHFA England (2016) Adult MHFA Manule.  Mental Health First Aid England Community Interest Company: London.

Samantha Moore, (2015) Out of sight: using animation to document perceptual brain states [PhD Thesis] Loughborough University.

Laura Mulvey (Autumn 1975). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Screen. 16 (3): 6–18.

Agnieszka Piotrowska (2013) Psychoanalysis and Ethics in Documentary. Film Routledge: London

Brian Schmidt https://doc-research.org/2018/08/hegemony-conceptual-theoretical-analysis/

Gregory Singer, ‘Landreth on ‘Ryan’’, VFXWorld Magazine (Los Angeles: Animation World Network,
2004) <http://www.awn.com/vfxworld/landreth-ryan&gt; [accessed 6 April 2017].

Thomas Szasz (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct. Harper & Row: New York

Alex Widdowson (2017) Identifying Caricatures Among the Character Designs of Animated Documentaries which Feature Both Anonymous and Identifiable Interview Subjects. [Masters dissertation] Royal Collage of Art: London.

 

The Fallacy of Objectivity and Ethics of Representation

The Fallacy of Objectivity:

Animated documentary has existed as a mode since 1918. Winsor McCay was commissioned by the US government to create an animated reconstruction of the sinking of the Lusitania, a commercial ship carrying American citizens that was sunk by a German U-Boat during the First World War. The film was used to help sway popular opinion regarding America joining the European conflict.

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) d. Windsor McCay (Start watching at 0:08:28)

In the absence of footage Animation seemed like the only appropriate medium to represent the horrific events. Crucially, the persuasive nature of the medium was understood by its commissioners. What McCay made was essentially propaganda.

Documentary as a discipline would not be popularised for another 4 years when Robert J. Flaherty created the first feature documentary, Nanook of the North (1922). It captured the imaginations of the cinema going public and forged a genre.

Nanook of the North (1922) d. Robert J. Flaherty (Start watching at 0:31:21)

The common language of narrative cinema is evident in this film. There is a continuity of storytelling which, to Flaherty, is more important than the accurate recording of events. Many of the scenes were artfully edited or even staged to create a clear story. Years after this film was released it was revealed that the star of the documentary was not called Nanook, nor was that his family portrayed in the film. Nonetheless a genre and a new set of ethical considerations were born.

Mark Cousins characterised the genre of documentary film making as a practice in which one must ‘co-direct with reality’ (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, 2011, Channel 4, Ep. 2 The Hollywood Dream). This shared control is crucial for understanding the paradoxical position of documentary director. They are both afforded the role of ‘agent of truth’ and ‘master manipulator’ attracting similar criticisms as journalists. They are accused of twisting words or taking them out of context, while simultaneously audiences offer little thought about the trust they place in the medium as a record of immutable facts.

Sheila Sofian wrote an extraordinarily concise article on this topic in relation to animated documentary: The Camera and “Structuring Reality” (2013). Forgive me for quoting almost the entire piece, but who am I to paraphrase such eloquence:

…Michael Cieply, [while] discussing documentary filmmaking as compared to traditional journalism… made the following statement: “The camera is a tool to structure reality, not report a reality.”

I remember giving a lecture in which a student in the audience claimed that live action photography presented a “real” depiction of events, and animation could not replicate reality in a convincing manner. I agree that animation cannot replicate the effect of live action photography. What bothers me is this misconception of live action presenting a “truth”, or… a “window to reality.” (Annabelle Honess Roe)

…[D]ocumentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and carefully select the few minutes they choose to include in their film. All documentary filmmakers understand that you can manipulate footage, editing, relationships of picture to audio, and a myriad of other cinematic techniques to match the point of view you hope to present. And yet, audiences often forget how manipulated they are when absorbing the information presented to them in a seamless fashion. There is still a pervasive idea that live action documentary is “real” and therefore animation cannot be an accurate depiction of reality. My argument has always been that live action cinema can be manipulative and often misconstrues what it claims is “reality”, whereas in animation it is actually more clear in that what is presented on the screen is constructed by the filmmaker… Live action documentary can create a false construction of events that the audience assumes is true.

I met the producers of “Spellbound”… The film follows several contestants preparing for a spelling bee competition… I found it interesting that they admitted they did not originally shoot any footage of the spelling bee winner preparing for the competition, so they went back and shot additional material, which ultimately appeared to portray the contestant training for the spelling bee.

This is only one example of how live action documentary can misdirect the audience. Of course, both live action [and] animated documentaries can be misleading. In my Documentary Animation Production class at USC I stress how important it is to present the content in the manner in which the subject intended. We discuss the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how easy it is to manipulate material. It is ultimately up to the integrity of the filmmaker when it comes to honouring the subjects’ intent.

Erik Gandini, director of The Swedish Theory of Love (2015) and Videocracy (2009), said in a lecture that any director who believes they can make an objective documentary is deluded. Every film is subjective so you may as well embrace it. After all, mocumentaries have demonstrated that the fly-on-the-wall, observational mode of documentary making is just another aesthetic.

The Ethics of Representation:

Sheila Sofian’s notion that a director has a responsibility to honour their subject’s intentions is worth considering with regards to the Oscar winning animated documentary Ryan (2004). The short illustrates an interview that took place between the film’s director, Chris Landreth, and Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. Landreth adopts an aesthetic methodology which he calls ‘psycho-realism’, a mode of pictorially expressing the psychological state of those represented.

Ryan (2004) d. Chris Landreth

I found Ryan inspiring as an undergraduate. It essentially introduced me to animated documentary as a practice. Moreover I was drawn to the idea of psycho-realism. Since my teenage years I’d been expressing my own mixed feelings through illustrations, which contorted the male nude. I was struck with how Landreth was able to find such a convincing  practical use for this type of imagery. Personally I doubted that my psycho-realistic work was self-indulgent.

art-is-therapy

However, I-did-this-to-myself. Images, such as the one above, were all self-portraits, self-mutilations. Yes they were self-indulgent, but I was contorting my own image and not the face of someone I’d met, certainly not a vulnerable adult.

In contrast to the animated documentary, Ryan, the live action representation of Ryan Larkin and Chris Landreth in Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004) offers a more equal footing for the pair. Larkin is given a chance to respond to the animated film in this ‘making-of’ documentary.

Alter Ego (2004) d. Laurence Green (Start watching at 0:45:21)

Larking states:

  • “I’m not very fond of my skeleton image”
  • “It’s always easy to represent grotesque versions of reality”
  • “I wish I could change that script”
  • “I’m very nervous about being scrutinised so tightly. I just want out of this picture”

Landreth’s vision, no matter how honourable, failed to produce something that Larkin was comfortable with upon completion.  However, Alter Ego only shows the moments immediately after Larkin first saw the film. I’m not aware if Ryan grew to love the film or if Chris grew to hate it. It’s been 12 years so both outcomes are possible.

What Chris Landreth calls “psycho-realism” is also a useful term to describe Francis Bacon’s search for a raw truth in his portraiture practice. The key difference between Bacon and Landreth is that the painter acknowledges, to a degree, the inherent violence in the process of disfiguring his subject.

Francis Bacon – Fragments of a Portrait (1966) d. Michael Gill (Start watching at 0:02:29)

Participatory Film making:

A significant issue with Ryan, made evident in Alter Egos, is that Landreth and Larkin seem to barely know each other. We get a sense that they’d only met a handful of times. If Ryan Larkin was offered more involvement in the film’s creation would he have felt more comfortable with how he was represented? Would Chris Landreth’s vision for the film been compromised or augmented by allowing Ryan to influence the way he was depicted?

Christoph Steger has an incredible track record for forming trusting and collaborative relationships with the subjects of his animated documentaries. In Jeffery and the Dinosaurs, the negotiation is clear, Jeffery Marzi is offering Steger access for his low budget documentary in order to gain exposure for his screen plays.

Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007) d. Christoph Steger

Marzi shares his story in a relaxed and candid manner, occasionally punctuated by Steger’s modest questioning. We are given the impression of a relationship built on sensitivity and mutual respect.

Marzi’s spoken biography reveals a universal story of concern for the future, however the strange inversion of the conventional narrative of frustration and aspiration is revealing. While most of us might dream of Hollywood success, Marzi engages with that goal as part of the daily grind. Meanwhile his limitations led him to covert the reliable blue-collar role of mechanic and postal worker.

I was interested in Steger’s choice to include a scene where Marzi expresses a clear misconception; the idea that J. K. Rowling’s literary success lifted her out of homelessness. Steger did not correct Jeffrey or omit the moment from the film. A director has a moral obligation to represent this subject without turning the documentary into a freak show or social pornography. Although the fear of homelessness is the driving force behind Marzi’s work, and therefore crucial to the narrative, he might have had other footage that captured this anxiety without exposing Marzi’s naïveté.

It is possible that Steger saw the moment as crucial to the film. It feels like an honest expression of anxiety and an important moment to help audiences understand Marzi’s perspective and vulnerability. Steger may have felt it dishonest to shy away from moments like this. Would it have been patronising to omit the scene for fear of embarrassing him?

When Steger discusses the project you get a strong sense of the collaborative relationship: “I like life, and animation is almost the opposite, it’s all about fantasy. So I felt a relief to be able to have Jeffery take care of all that. He does all the imaginary work of the visuals and it’s down to me to bring them to life…. The real film for me and the artistic challenge is in the structure of the poetry, and trying to bring out those poetic moments of a story like Jeffery’s.”

Collaborative Documentary Animation:

Samantha Moore’s PhD research focused on the use of animation to record and communicate neurological phenomena such as phantom limb syndrome or, in the case of Eye Full of Sound (2008), audio-visual synesthesia. She developed a methodology for film that involved close consultation with the subjects of the film. Each participant listened to a audio score, designed by Adam Goddard, and then described in detail the visual sensations it induced. Crucially, Moore provided a process of review after each animation test. The subsequent process of small adjustments improved the accuracy and authority of the film as a representation of extreme experiences of subjectivity.

Eye full of Sound (2008) d. Samantha Moore

Experimental Documentary forms:

There is a strong thematic connection between Eye Full of Sound and Jonathan Hodgson’s incredible experimental documentary Feeling My Way (1997). Hodgson superimposes the conscious activity of his mind’s-eye over point-of-view video footage of his walk to work.

Feeling My Way (1997) d. Jonathan Hodgson

As with an Eye Full of Sound, Feeling My Way is a record of a extreme form of subjectivity. This film demonstrates the value of animation as a tool to express and understand ones own perspective of the world. The audience is struck by both the similarities and differences in the way our brains work compared to Hodgson’s.

The first animated documentary films I made were explicitly about my own traumatic experiences struggling with mental illness. This process was invaluable for me to understand how it felt to be represented and exposed on screen. This week I returned from the Au Contraire Mental Health Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. While there I met Katie Frances Orr, a talented film maker and choreographer, who was screening what she referred to as an ‘experimental documentary’. Her film demonstrates perfectly just how open the borders are in the shifting discourse of documentary.

Coward (2015) Katie Frances Orr

Animation is too time consuming, labor intensive and expensive to justify making a film that could be just as effective using live action. Animation needs to be essential for it to exist. Animated documentary has persisted as a method to fill the gaps in mainstream documentary practice:

  • maintaining a subjects anonymity
  • substituting missing footage
  • creating images which don’t exist outside of the subject’s consciousness

However this is only the starting point. Animation is truly a limitless medium, capable of extraordinary feats of innovation, insightful expression and precise visual communication. A documentary director cannot merely trust that the camera will provide truth, this must be crafted. The authenticity of an animated documentary must come from the integrity and sensitivity of the artist. The increased agency afforded to a documentary animator means they are simultaneously more transparent about how they manipulate an audience and more accountable for their chosen methods of representation. Co-directing animation with reality is a nuanced but rewarding process.

Notes:

This post was developed for a lecture that will be given at the University of Western England in Bristol on the 2nd November 2016.

Links:

Sheila Sofian (2013) The Camera and “Structuring Reality”, Animation Studies 2.0, weblog URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=159

Christoph Steger discussing Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007), Animate Projects, URL website and video link: http://www.animateprojects.org/films/by_date/films_2008/jeff_dino

 

Representing the the Voice in Documentary Animation

The recorded voice is often thought of as a pillar of authenticity in animated documentary. First hand testimony is relied upon to counter the artificiality of drawn images on screen. Expository narration in the documentary form is equally important for instilling a sense of authority and structure in story telling. However, in relation to recorded testimony, there is an ethical responsibility to the subject regarding how their words interact with animation. A director has the task of recording, editing and interpreting testimony. They should attempt to understand the wider context but ultimately construct a subjective and creative treatment of the material.

Rather than starting with Winsor McCay’s Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), widely considered as the first documentary animation, I would like to draw attention to London in the 1990’s. At this point the UK animation scene was dominated by one person, Clare Kitson, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Animation from 1989-1999. She bankrolled a generation of independent animators and fostered a unique editorial and financial freedom which led Channel 4 to gaining a reputation as ‘…the most adventurous and innovative animation broadcaster, not just in Britain but internationally.’ (Brooke). Along side two Oscar winning productions; Creature Comforts (d. Nick Park, 1989) and Bob’s Birthday (d. Alison Snowden/David Fine, 1993), Kitson commissioned at least two films which were directed by current RCA Animation tutors; A is for Autism (d. Tim Webb, 1992) and Silence (co-d. Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998).

In 1995 Kitson commission Abductees, directed by Paul Vester.

The audience hears several interviewer voices; first hand accounts of alien abduction, each story rendered in one or more animation style. It’s fair to presume that most audiences would at least doubt the objective truth of these testimonies, this may be true for the director too. However, it was argued that this film seems to be less of a documentary about aliens, and more of a study of the people who believe they have been abducted. That said, it is important to note that neither the context of these abductions, nor the back-stories of the individual abductees are explored in any depth. Each interviewee is cut together along side the choice moments of their fellow speakers. This montage approach to dialog and animation creates a patchwork quilt type narrative. Each testimony seemingly verifying the other through it’s similarity. Perhaps Vester was interested in conjuring the sensation the of belief in his audience.

There are a few instances where our doubts are appeased slightly. One hypnosis subject questions her experiences: “How am I supposed to know what is coming out in hypnosis, were they dreams or was it real?” Similarly, another speaker states in an academic tone:

“The screen memory in the classical psychological sense means that the person sees a traumatically frightening event and then softens it by then inventing some other story…”

This sentence functions like an access point for skeptical audiences. However this counter point is immediately undermined with a point that seemingly supports the validity of the alien abductions:

“…but this is not that (screen memory). This is not something that the person makes up… This seems to be an image that is externally imposed in that person’s memory by the aliens themselves.”

I feel these fleeting moments of balance help present the narrative to the audience as documentary material, even though they seem gestural. That said, it wasn’t Vester’s mission to present a balanced exploration of weather or not abductions really take place. I can personally empathize with his interest in presenting stories without too much concern for their “truth”.

In 2010, well before I knew how to animate, I became fascinated by story tellers who utterly believed the fantastical tales they shared. I took audio from David Icke’s 1999 interview with Credo Mutwa, a South African shaman.

It is difficult to pick apart Paul Vester’s ethical rigor with regards to Abductees.  Is it exploitative to select interview footage of subject for it’s spectacular properties; at one point a participant was clearly distressed? At another point a participant talks about the aliens moving in a coordinated manor.  Vester cuts to stock footage or a musical act singing and dancing.

abductees1

abductees2

With regards to my film, Credo Mutwa, it’s hard to know if my crudely animated film mocked it’s subject. I certainly intended to represent the story in a dry manor to avoid such accusations. I remember feeling an enormous affection for Mutwa while creating the film. After it’s publication on Youtube I was contacted online by people who had similar experiences. I think it is fair to say my professional ethics were undeveloped 2010; I did not ask David Icke for permission to use his interview, however I think a second year fine art undergraduate can afforded one or two indiscretions.

I Consdier Ryan (d. Chris Landreth, 2004) as an example of what-not-to-do in terms the ethics of representation. Besides the grotesque 3D animation and jarring mixture of muddy and psychedelic colour pallets, I would argue Chris Landreth’s presence in the film is problematic. Landreth was attempting to use what he called ‘psycho-realism’ to represent Ryan Larkin, a fallen star of the National Film Board of Canada. However, Chris places himself center-stage, firstly by explaining the premise of his film and secondly by taking a very active role while conducting the interview.

Chris Landreth doesn’t seem to appreciate just how much power he has over Ryan. Landreth is essentially a representative of the N.F.B., the institution that symbolizes Larkin’s fall from grace. In an early scene Ryan is dazzled when Chris presents a frame from the N.F.B. archive that Ryan had drawn 30 years earlier. Later Chris slips into the role of social worker by bluntly suggesting Ryan starts animating again and pushes him to talk on tape his addiction problems. It feels like these men really don’t know each other.

I personally feel uncomfortable that Landreth demonstrates awareness of the unethical aspects of his interview without correcting it. Instead of omitting such moments he focuses on them. For instance, the intervention with Ryan about his alcoholism is positioned as the climax of the film. Landreth appeals to the viewer by adding self deprecating details to indicate that he knew his words were patronizing and intrusive. As Chris strides towards the confrontation, a florescent bulb in the shape of a halo, assembles above his head, to indicate that the director is aware of his own self-righteousness.

After Ryan explodes in rage, Chris reflects “what ever possessed me to ask such a question”. This doesn’t come across as a convincing contemplation of ethics. Instead I believe he is looking for an opportunity to discuss his own feelings. Following Ryan’s outburst the viewer slides into an abstract tunnel which represents Landreth’s self reflection. Here we see his unresolved feelings towards his mother’s alcoholism mentioned briefly. The film is also dedicated to her memory.

Ryan is a film about Chris Landreth. Alter Ego (d. Laurence Green, 2004), the live-action making-of Ryan, while also created in the bosom of the N.F.B., offers better incite into the ambiguous ethics of Chris Landreth’s Oscar winning animated documentary.

Christoph Stiger’s pencil on paper documentary about funeral directors, Mother (2006), was a graduation film from the RCA animation MA.

This film indicates an intimacy in the relationship between filmmaker and subject. Towards the end of the film the ‘Mother’ character addresses Christoph by name. She was trying to emphasise a specific point, but still the tone of this demonstrated a bond between them. The way in which the cadavers are prepared is sensual and clearly indicates a careful process of observation. One gets a sense that Christoph had spend a long time in that funeral home trying to get a feel for their profession. I would argue that this film as an example of best practice.

Silence (co-d. Sylvie Bringas & Orly Yadin, 1998) is an 11 minute Channel 4 animation commission was based on a spoken word performance by Tana Ross, a Jewish exile displaced during the Second World War. (This film cannot be embedded so please click here to watch the film).

silence-07

The tone of this film differs greatly from the previously mentioned animated documentaries. The voice-over is overtly scripted, however it becomes clear that it is Tana Ross narrating a version of her own script, that was based on personal experiences. There is something authenticating about the presence of Ross’ voice.

While the interview based films, to an extent, focus on the recorded moments of exchange between film maker and subject, Silence, is very much set in the past. The audiences experience are grounded in the narrator’s recollection.

‘[A]nimated documentaries such as… Silence (d. Bringas & Yadin, 1998)… show us how animation can function as an alternative way to recall the past. In fact, I think that animation is a representational strategy that is particularly suited to documentaries that explore fragmented pasts of forgotten, perplexing, yet often formative memories. The use of animation can emphasise that history and, importantly, memory, are ephemeral and can be a means to counter official and written histories.’ (Honess Roe, 2013)

Credits:

Many of the ideas and opinions in this article were originally shared or developed in a seminar, hosted by Sylvie Bringas, at the Royal College of Art on the 29th September 2016.

Bibliography:

Brooke, M., How Britain’s fourth channel became an animation powerhouse, (no date), from: British Film Institute: Screen Oline, Online soruces: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/1282041/

Honess Roe, B. (2013) Animated Memories, Animation Studies 2.0, Weblog, URL: https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=145

Icke, D., (1999) The Reptilian Agenda, Credo Mutwa interviewed by David Icke, Bridge of Love Productions, online video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsPaxFvrD8c

 

Alex Widdowson: Documentary Animation MA Y1. New Student Presentation

Alex Widdowson

Contact:

  • alexander.widdowson@network.rca.ac.uk

Social Media: Facebook,  TwitterVimeo & Tumblr

Bio and animation practice:

In 2008 I dropped out of a Fine Art BA at Goldsmith’s College. Soon afterwards my mental health deteriorated and I was sectioned for drug induced psychosis brought on by cannabis abuse.

This was profoundly traumatic because I was experiencing delusions and hallucinations, while being confined for a month in a psychiatric ward whose staff practiced forceful restraint and sedation when necessary.

From 2009 to 2012 I made many animated documentaries about this during my BA in Fine Art at Loughborough University . Here is a short clip from a montage I made called Animated Attempts at Depicting Mental Illness (2015).

In the 8 years since this happened I have abstained from illicit drugs and developed strong insights into my mental health. I am personally committed to talking openly about my experiences. If you have any questions or ever need a sympathetic ear please feel free to approach me.

My artistic practice has developed as a form of self administered therapy. Below is an example of an illustration I created last year while experiencing difficult relationship problems. My contorted figurative style was influenced by what Chris Landreth referrers to as ‘psycho-realism’, a term he developed to describe his methodology in his animated documentary Ryan (2004)

art-is-therapy

I have been a contributing writer for the blog AnimatedDocumentary.com since 2013; publishing over 40 articles, attending animation festivals and working closely with my co-authors and copy editors Alys Scott-Hawkins, Ellie Land, Carla MacKinnon and Linnéa Haviland.

My practice was further developed at the Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, where I attended the AniDox:Lab. This is an Animated Documentary professional development course where I learnt how to develop and pitch a project. While my film, PIGS, did not get funded the process of developing and animating the pitch trailer was invaluable.

In March 2016 I teamed up with Nick Mercer a psychotherapist and drugs addiction counsellor from the Philadelphia Association to make a film about addiction.

(Please email me if you would like to view or screen this film)

I’d like to close with a rather somber documentary I created after returning from a trip to Africa; Hours and Hours of Footage of Two Giraffes… (2014)