Metaphorizing: Animation as Documentary

Still from “Last Day of Freedom” by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman

For many years animated films were mostly labeled as being for children, with education and entertainment as the primary goals. Humor was seen as the path to enjoyment and enlightenment. But now there is a new genre designed to promote a cause, examine serious issues, advocate and reveal.

The animated documentary has gathered steam since the turn of the millennium with powerful films such as the autobiographical Persepolis (2007), Chicago 10 (2007), and Waltz with Bashir (2008) – all of which helped open the door to thinking about animation as and for documentary. Today this melding of two screen genres is being embraced by more filmmakers.

DCIFF has screened excellent short-form animated documentaries so here is what two directors have to say about why animation works for the stories they had to tell. A Life with Aspergers (USA/2013/4mins) by Jaime Ekkens explores the challenges of growing up and living with Asperger’s Syndrome and she says:

“Animated documentaries are the perfect merger of powerful true human stories and the fantastic worlds animators can create. Using animation to illustrate the inner life of a subject and add a layer of metaphor to communicate the unsayable. With regard to my own films, my documentaries break hearts and then heal them at the end.”

Last Day of Freedom (USA/2015/31:50mins), directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, is an animated account of Bill Babbitt’s decision to support and help his brother in the face of war, crime and capital execution. It was nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category in 2016. Dee Hibbert-Jones tells us:

“Nomi Talisman and I have been working together on art and film projects since 2004. We jointly collaborate on all aspects of our work from design and fabrication, filming, editing, direction, production and animation design. For our documentary short Last Day of Freedom we chose animation initially as a pragmatic answer to offer anonymity to the subjects of the film.

Directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman

As we continued to draw we realized animation can offer much more: from metaphoric representation to innovative ways to replace and enhance representations of memory and reenactment. Our animation style is anchored in reality: characters and locations feel realistic, movements are natural, shot from intimate close up to birds eye view. We combine animated interviews talking directly to the camera with archival animated footage of real events, legal transcripts and witness testimonies.

The feel of our work is cinematic, animations bring characters into extreme close up, each line and wrinkle evident, offering a very human element to the drawings. Locations feel at once true to life, textured, organic and also symbolic, stripped away to bare essentials, or heightened at moments of crisis or alarm. Animation allows us to reveal the metaphors within the story.

Dee Hibbert-Jones animating Last Day of Freedom

Images range from isolated, stark scenes to textured, nostalgic stories of childhood and vivid, saturated scenes that reflect charged emotional states, moving beyond representation into psychological states. Visual metaphors reach across narratives: men fight, walk, stumble, fall, then perspectives shift as Manny becomes tiny, powerless in vast landscapes, stark, isolated backgrounds. Our metaphors are anchored in reality: compressed visually rapid scenes and empty sequences, for example, describe Bill’s relationship to time as it often feels sometimes attenuated, then too fast and endless. As the story unfolds, images become sparer, more abstract, leaving space for contemplation, response and questions. Bill is an exceptional storyteller and we wanted our animations to deepen and enrich his story.

Animation literally opens up new ways to see and hear intense emotional experiences, bringing new ways to witness Bill and Manny’s complex, tragic story, and we hope accessing new and younger audiences.”

The techniques of animation, the intelligent, creative ways in which filmmakers are using them and the ways in which audiences are embracing animated films are ushering in a cornucopia of animated documentaries. We are being given another way to think about reality.

– From the laptop of Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, Executive Director at DCIFF