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.  


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.


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.  


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 <; [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.

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.


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.


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


Sheila Sofian (2013) The Camera and “Structuring Reality”, Animation Studies 2.0, weblog URL:

Christoph Steger discussing Jeffery and the Dinosaurs (2007), Animate Projects, URL website and video link: