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Documentary filmmakers are using animation in novel ways to tell their stories

Documentary filmmakers are using animation in novel ways to tell their stories
A scene from the animated documentary "Liyana." (Abramorama)

Directors Aaron and Amanda Kopp started their documentary “Liyana” wanting to tell a hopeful tale of orphaned children in Swaziland.

“There is a lack of beautiful images coming from Africa and a shortage of stories showing Africa and Africans in a positive way,” says Aaron Kopp, who is from Swaziland.

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But the married filmmakers didn't know how they were going to tell their story. To protect the children, they decided not to have them directly address their traumas. They found a storyteller who helped kids express themselves writing a fictional story. “That became a safe place for their memories and their hopes,” Amanda Kopp says.

Eventually, though, the directors realized that animation could best bring the fictional saga to life and “meet the kids in their imaginary world,” Amanda Kopp says.

“Westworld” star Thandie Newton came aboard as an executive producer, hoping to help connect American audiences to these children. “Liyana” opened earlier this month to glowing reviews, particularly for the striking animation.

Newton believed that artist Shofela Coker's vibrant and lush 3-D animation “gave the kids the sense that their dreams could be tangible and alive.”

“The animation was not painting over the kids but creating another member of their family to go out and persevere where perhaps they weren't able to,” Newton added. “She is the literal illustration of the healing taken place in that group.”

The Kopps join a growing list of documentary directors who find that animation helps tell their story. Animation often provides visuals when there's no B-roll, but “Liyana” also highlights the increasingly varied ways it can bring films to life in movies like Ari Folman's “Waltz With Bashir,” Malik Bendjelloul's “Searching for Sugar Man,” Samuel D. Pollard's “Two Trains Runnin',” Penny Lane’s “Nuts!” and James Solomon's “The Witness.”

An Image from the movie "Waltz With Bashir" directed by Ari Folman.
An Image from the movie "Waltz With Bashir" directed by Ari Folman. (Sony Pictures Classics)

Critics once might have considered the idea of blending animation with documentary footage taboo, a violation of journalistic norms. “It used to be you'd hear the word 'documentary' and you'd think it means a news program with talking heads and some storytelling,” says Bryan Fogel, who won an Oscar for “Icarus,” his expose of doping in Russian sports. “Not anymore.” (Fogel used animation to illustrate someone's mental state after a suicide attempt and to go inside a Russian doping lab — neither of which he could ever film.)

“If you can find a new way to communicate your themes and ideas, and if you can spark my imagination and bring me closer to the subject, then it works,” adds Keith Maitland, who animated Charles Whitman's University of Texas shooting rampage in his acclaimed 2016 documentary “Tower.”

The turning point was 2002, when two critical and audience darlings — Michael Moore's “Bowling for Columbine” and Brett Morgen's “The Kid Stays in the Picture” — both used animation. “That signaled that documentaries were heading more into an entertainment space,” says Morgen. “Animation enhanced directors' ability to bring the past into the present and to reach new creative heights.”

In “Kid,” Morgen had limited footage of producer Robert Evans' life; wanting the audience to experience Evans as a young dynamo, not an old raconteur, Morgen animated old photographs. “It's a subjective, personal journey and the distorted photographs were also visually seductive and a reflection on his style and showmanship,” notes Morgen, who used very different animation styles in subsequent documentaries “Chicago 10” and “Cobain: Montage of Heck.”

An animation of Kurt Cobain recording in a scene from "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck."
An animation of Kurt Cobain recording in a scene from "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck." (Hisko Hulsing / HBO Documentary Films)

Morgen says this forerunners were such underground filmmakers of the 1960s and '70s as John and Faith Hubley and Chris Marker. In this century, changing technology has made animation more affordable, bringing it into the mainstream.

Morgen says producers and financiers are increasingly embracing it: “They are looking for creative angles and a more pop sensibility.”

Directors are also buying into that viewpoint. “Just remember, nobody has to watch your documentary,” says Alison Klayman, who directed “Take Your Pills” about Adderall for Netflix. “Our films are at the intersection of entertainment and information, and we want to keep viewers watching. Animation broadens the horizons of where a story can go visually.”

More important, Morgen says, animation changes how documentaries are perceived, undermining the conventional but misleading perspective that they are authoritative and objective. The artifice of animation keeps it real, reminding viewers that they are seeing a subjective narration.

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“Animation inherently calls into question the objective nature of documentaries,” Morgen says. “It's one of the most honest approaches we can take.”

Maitland believes that animation means something different to each filmmaker, “which is why it has been successful. Each director thinks about animation style the same way they decide what camera or lens to shoot through.”

With each new approach, he adds, the director must come up with “the rules of the universe and then teach the audience as you go, so they understand the grammar of the film.”

Blair Jackson as Houston McCoy in a scene from the animated movie "Tower." Credit: Kino Lorber
Blair Jackson as Houston McCoy in a scene from the animated movie "Tower." Credit: Kino Lorber (Kino Lorber)

Maitland used rotoscope animation in “The Eyes of Me” about blind teens, and in “Tower.” “This animation has a dreamlike quality, and the same part of the brain that processes dreams processes visual perception so it fit `Eyes,” he says. “In `Tower,’ people are recalling 50-year-old memories, which are fallible, and this style acknowledges that.”

Fogel incorporated different styles within “Icarus,” from an old Russian cartoon style to motion graphics and CGI. “The story was in constant evolution so we felt that different styles were reflective of where we were as we were making it in that moment.”

“Liyana's” animation is more subtle, a style its creators call a “breathing painting.” Coker's illustrations occasionally have a hint of motion — lights going off, the movement of dust — or sometimes the camera moves across the image to create that illusion.

“Our first instinct was to animate the boys' drawings, which are beautiful, but we loved the idea of being really ambitious with the animation,” Amanda Kopp says.

They toyed with the idea of traditional animation but developed this aesthetic because, Aaron Kopp says, “the kids are so animated themselves that we wanted to balance the energy between the two worlds and not create a redundancy with motion.”

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“Liyana's” animation is more subtle, a style its creators call a “breathing painting.”
“Liyana's” animation is more subtle, a style its creators call a “breathing painting.” (Abramorama)

The Kopps were rigorous in their planning since producing the artwork remains relatively expensive and time-consuming. Aaron Kopp says, “Part of the artistic process is knowing what your tools are and when to use them. It can't be, 'I have a hammer so I'm going to hammer things.'”

Indeed, Some directors now turn to animation as a crutch, Maitland believes. “Since `Tower’ at least a dozen filmmakers have called to ask about the process of animation. Half were thematically appropriate, but the other half wanted it as a band-aid to cover up a weakness in the movie.”

Still, when done right, animation adds an “experiential” element, Maitland says-- viewers have cited scenes to him from “Tower” they thought was footage but was really animation and vice versa. “That plays into the idea of the way memory works,” he says.

For Fogel, creating a reenactment inside the lab with actors “would look cheesy, like `America's Most Wanted,’” but graphics and CGI gave those scenes a heist movie vibe. “I wanted it to feel like Ocean's Eleven,” says Fogel, who plans to use animation in at least two upcoming projects.

Aaron Kopp says he'd use animation again only in the right circumstances, but in `Liyana’ it created a genuine intimacy. “There's often resistance to a suspension of disbelief, but animation leapfrogs right over that and allows people to have this unfettered emotional experience with the story.”

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