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The animated documentary

– a performing tradition

Gunnar Strøm er førsteamanuensis ved Avdeling for mediefag, Høgskulen i Volda

The term 'animated documentary' may seem like a contradiction. While documentary films endeavour to depict 'real life' and 'the truth', animation is associated with humour, exaggerations and visual fantasy. But despite their apparent differences, animation and documentary have often appeared side by side throughout film history. Many directors have made both documentaries and animation. Many documentaries have contained animated sequences, and many animated films can in my opinion best be classified as animated documentaries.

The short film Silence by Sylvie Bringas and Orly Yadin (Sweden–UK 1998) tells the story of a little Jewish girl who escaped from the concentration camps during the second world war, and grew up with her relatives in Sweden after the war. Her new family concealed her background, her childhood was full of conflict, and only now, more than 50 years later, is she able to tell her story. She reads the voice-over herself, and her touching story is illustrated by animated cartoon sequences, drawings and live action stock shots.

In Abductees (UK 1995) Paul Vester has interviewed several people who seriously believe that they have been abducted into flying saucers by creatures from outer space. Many of the interviews are done under hypnosis and they are documented through live action scenes in the films. The amazing experiences the interviewees speak about are illustrated with animated cartoons based on drawings they have made to explain what has happened to them. The soundtrack is edited from the actual interviews and the film gives a decisive impression that the participants in the film really believe that they have experienced what they relate in the film.

Such animated films based on actual interviews and real soundtracks have been quite common in in recent years. The British animation company Aardman Animations is famous for their clay animations based on such soundtracks in the series Animated Conversations (1978), Conversation Pieces (1983) and Lip Sync (1989). The Danish director Karsten Killerich used a similar approach in his Når livet går sin vej (When Life Departs, Denmark 1996) where he interviewed Danish pre-school children about cancer and death. Killerich has in his most touching film, used the children's drawings as the basis for the design of his own animations together with what the children relate on the soundtrack.

In Norway, similar animated films have also been produced in the past few years. Torill Kove's Oscar-nominated cartoon Min bestemor strøk kongens skjorter (My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts, Norway–Canada 1999) is loosely based on the story of her real grandmother. Kajsa Næss uses interviews with her friends and family combined with her own drawings, animations, still photographs and her own voice on the soundtrack in her self-portrait Filmen om meg (The Film About Me, 2000). And Anne Kjersti Bjørn has used cut-out animation combined with drawings, photographs and live-action stock shots in her portrait of the female surrealist painters of Paris in the 1920s and 1930s in the film Ung, vakker og begavet (Young, Beautiful and Gifted, 2001). All of these animation films are based on real stories. The animations are often supplemented by photographs and live-action shots of the actual events that they cover. The people portrayed make the soundtracks and the voice-overs. The term I have come up with to best describe these films is animated documentaries.


The term 'animated documentary' may seem like a contradiction. While documentary films endeavour to depict 'real life' and 'the truth', animation is associated with humour, exaggerations and visual fantasy. But despite their apparent differences, animation and documentary have often appeared side by side throughout film history. Many directors have made both documentaries and animation. Many documentaries have contained animated sequences, and many animated films can in my opinion best be classified as animated documentaries.

In this artide I shall try to explain what an animated documentary is and why this seemingly contradictory term makes sense. I shall also argue that the modem examples of such animated documentaries like the films mentioned above, are not a new kind of filmmaking. The films are good examples of modern documentaries, corresponding with what Bill Nichols calls performing documentaries, a new kind of documentary filmmaking that Nichols dates to the late 1980s and 1990s (Nichols 1994). However, similar animated documentaries were made decades ago. There was a close connection between documentary and animation filmmaking in Germany, the Soviet Union and Great Britain in the 1920s and 30s. In my opinion there has been an uninterrupted tradition of such collaborations ever since. But these collaborations have not been recognised as part of documentary film history. My argument is that this omission is not because the animated documentaries themselves have changed, but is rather due to a change in our opinion over the years, concerning what comprises a documentary proper.

Very little attention has been devoted to the animated documentary in literature about the documentary as genre in the course of the past 20 years. Animation has hardly been mentioned at all, not even in Bill Nichols' Blurred Boundaries where Nichols “explores decisive moments when the traditional boundaries of fiction/non-fiction and truth/falsehood blur“ (Nichols 1994: 190). In Claiming the Real. The Documentary Film Revisited Brian Winston discusses most aspects of Griersonian documentarism, but he does not even mention that Grierson through his work in both Britain and Canada has been the main mentor for collaborations between documentarists and animators. He refers briefly to Norman McLaren, but only as the photographer on a documentary from the Spanish Civil War (Winston 1995: 94). Similarly, despite Carl R. Plantinga's very broad approach to documentaries in Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film, he pays little attention to animation as relevant to the documentary film. Plantinga's thoughts about documentary filmmaking do however provide an opening to begin to discuss animated documentary, and I will accordingly refer to him extensively in my argument.1


A simple and pragmatic definition of the term animated documentary could be a documentary film where an extensive part, say at least 50 %, of the film is animated.2 Both animation and particularly documentary however are terms that are difficult to define properly. I have defined animation as film techniques where the filmmaker is creating an illusion of movement through manipulations of the object in single frame techniques (Strøm 1995: 362). Maureen Furniss discusses different definitions of the term and ends up with Norman McLaren's framing of the essence of what animation is about:

Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn; What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame; Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between frames.3

As many scholars have shown, it is much harder to come up with a definition of the term documentary that adequately captures the essence of what a documentary film is, while at the same time drawing clear boundaries between fiction film and joumalistic news reporting. Carl Plantinga claims that it is probably impossible to define documentary film properly. He makes comparisons with the problems of defining art and he finds documentary film to be a similar 'open concept'. He suggests using George Lakoff's 'prototype theory' to encompass what a documentary is: “Many categories have fuzzy boundaries, and are best thought of in relation to prototypes with a spreading wave of less central examples. The prototypical example of a category possesses all of the properties thought central to the category, whereas a more peripheral member (and here the status of 'membership' may be unclear) might contain only one or some of those characteristics“(Plantinga 1997: 15). Essential to our understanding of a film as either fiction or non-fiction, as drama or documentary, is related to how the film is presented by the producers, writers, directors, distributors and exhibitors of the film, or indexed as Plantinga calls it using Noël Carroll's terminology. And the audience takes a different stance towards the state of affairs that is presented in fiction and non-fiction films. “In the non-fiction film…. the typical stance taken is assertive; the states of affairs represented are asserted to occur in the actual world as portrayed. “ There are very few examples of animated films dealing with real happenings and persons being indexed as documentaries today. Both Norman McLaren's Neighbours (1952) and Saul Bass' Why Man Creates (1968) won Oscars as best short documentaries.

John Grierson's classic definition of documentary film as 'creative treatment of actuality' is still regarded as the basic definition of the genre. Grierson's definition leaves more space for individual interpretation than our present, more limited concept of what a documentary is. He permits a broader approach in both presentation and content as long as the film deals with 'actuality'. According to Bjørn Sørenssen, Grierson's definition is both too broad and too narrow (Sørenssen 2001: 12). Read literally, almost any film that deals with real events can fit into the definition. Grierson's definition has also been too closely connocted to the films of the British documentary movement in the 1930s. Animation was an integrated part of the filmmaking of Grierson and his colleagues at EMB and GPO in the 1930s. And it is possible to include an animated film like Len Lye's Trade Tattoo (1936) under Grierson's definition.

Bjørn Sørenssen claims that the most common mistake in defining documentaries lies in the striking similarities terms like document and documentation have to the documentary film. The confusions in this field are partly the cause of the documentary filmmakers themselves, especially those who belonged to the direct cinema and cinéma vérité directions of the early 1960s. They claimed that the documentary film could function as documentation with true and objective renderings of reality. But this illusion did not live long; future generations of documentary filmmakers have been much more concemed about documentary as a personal artistic expression where the film mirrors not only the world, but also the person holding up the mirror (Sørenssen 2001: 14).

However, the above misunderstanding continues to be widespread. The conflation of documentary filmmaking with television journalism has strengthened it. The title of the Norwegian actuality programme Dokument 2 illustrates this. This misunderstanding and the live action films' superior ability to render 'photographic reality', makes us automatically question the extent to which an animated film can mirror real life. But we do not impose the same strict requirements on a documentary book, despite the fact that the written word is equally suitable for the rendition of fiction and non-fiction alike.


The indexical quality of the documentary live-action shot has a special place in building the feeling of authenticity in a documentary film. This indexical relation, that the subject has been physically in front of the camera when the shot was taken, serves as a kind of guarantee that what is shown is true. This is what made the amateur video of police brutality in the Rodney King case such a powerful document. And this is why we get so upset when news and documentary photography and film are not actual shots but rather illustrations of the happenings that are dealt with. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to accept that an animated film can be a documentary. We all know however that both film and photography depend on numerous choices that influence our reading of the content in the film or photo. Documentary filmmaking is also manipulation. Only under very special circumstances are photographs accepted as juridical evidence (Plantinga 1997: 61). Still, we get upset when we learn that film and photo are 'lying'. This strong indexical quality and the technical development of the documentary film around 1960 changed our understandings of what a proper documentary film should be. We do not require the same authentidty of a documentary book, nor of a radio documentary. The range of films accepted as documentaries in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s was also much wider than what has been the case in the last few decades.

If the story of the Jewish woman in the film Silence had been presented just as a soundtrack, it would easily have passed as a radio documentary. But when we add animated scenes as illustrations to this story, it becomes much harder to define the film as a documentary. In Abductees the animated scenes are based on the drawings the participants in the film have made to illustrate their extraterrestrial experiences. But we have greater problems with these animated scenes than with the bad quality live-action amateur video shots illustrating the hypnosis process in the same film.

Nobody filmed the catastrophe when the ship Lusitania was torpedoed in 1914. In the animated cartoon The Sinking of Lusitania, Winsor McCay tried to give a realistic presentation of what happened which was as close to the actual events as possible. When we see the film today, we are struck by the authentic feeling of the drawings. However, it is much harder to accept the highly propagandistic content in the written text panels which provide extra information about the accident. In this film the animated scenes stand out as more authentic than the written text.

The problem of authentidty has been even more complicated in recent years because of the development of digital image making. In the BBC nature documentary series Walking with Dinosaurs (1999), 3D computer animation is mixed with model shots and live-action shots of nature and scenery. Thanks to modem technology it is now possible to make a 'realistic' documentary about life on earth in the time of the dinosaurs. The amazing animated CGI-shots of the dinosaurs are hardly weakening the credibility of the films. Plantinga argues against the notion that digital manipulations of film and photography kill their credibility. He sees digital manipulation rather as opening possibilities in terms of expanding the scope for manipulation that already exists, and is used all the time, and claims that digitalisation can free photography from the confines of indexical representation. What matters is not the indexical quality of the image, but what meaning the picture predicts from the context it presents (Plantinga 1997: 64ff).

The Swedish scholar Pelle Snickars has studied reliability in historical documentary television series based on archival footage. One of his conclusions is that the voice-over is very often controlled and quality secured by professional historians, while the archival footage is used in a much less strict fashion: “this trustworthiness which relies on the documentaries' verbal historical correctness contradicts the way the archival footage is treated“ (Snickars 2000: 14). To

me, such a use of stock shots to illustrate an historical documentary film story is not necessarily more authentic than the use of animations in films like The Sinking of Lusitania and Silence.

In the closing chapter of the new book Virkelighetsbilder (Reality Images) Sara Brinch argues that the new digital technology and the change in indexical representation has moved the question of authentidty from belief to trust ('tro til tillit'). The belief in photography as a guarantee of truth is no longer possible. But this does not mean that we cannot trust photography. Brinch (2001) quotes Arild Fetveit who describes this change as a movement from technological to institutional trust (Fetveit 1999). It provides a parallel to what Thomas Elsaesser calls a development “from 'truth' to 'trust'“ (Elsaesser 1998). When we accept Walking with Dinosaurs as a documentary, we believe what it shows us, even though we know that the images are not depicting reality.


Generally we use documentary and animation as terms for two separate film genres or categories. This is how filmmakers themselves label their films, it's the way both film festivals and film literature use them. But a closer look at the meaning of the words reveals some major differences. While animation is a technical term – a special way to use film technology, documentary is a term defined by its content and its ability to render reality.

The problem arises when animation content is defined as fantasy and exaggerated humour. But animation can of course be used to present content different from what have otherwise been the major themes of commercial American cartoons. Animation is used for a wide range of topics from scientific illustrations to anarchic entertainment and fine art. The Sinking of Lusitania is a striking example of how the animated cartoon is used to describe and visualise a historic episode better than any other available medium at the time.

There is hardly any documentary definition that clearly excludes the use of animation film. Explaining cartoon illustrations, time-lapse photography of slow movements or computer-generated images plays no or a very small part in the traditional observational direct cinema documentary. But it does play a part in the classic expository documentaries of Britain in the 1930s, in the educational documentaries we saw at school and in the modem impressive nature documentaries of BBC Bristol. In fact there has been a close connection between animation and documentary, between animators and documentarists, through film history at least since the 1920s.


Probably this co-existence goes back to the very beginning of film history. In the 'cinema of attractions', as Tom Gunning has called this very early period of film history, the mixture of live-action and animation and other trick photography techniques was used to excite and amuse the audience with unbelievable episodes from all over the world. The first animated cartoons very often showed a real cartoonist making drawings that 'mysteriously' came alive. The very first cartoon films made in Norway were caricature drawings by Sverre Halvorsen from 1913, featuring famous Norwegians such as the polar explorer Roald Amundsen and the speed skater Oscar Mathisen.

Both in Germany and the Soviet Union animation was an integral part of the documentaries of the 1920s. Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter worked both as documentarists and animators. Richter's Inflation (1927/28) is a combination of manipulated live-action shots with animation and is a fascinating comment on the German economy of the 1920s. Dziga Vertov used animation in his Kino Pravda films. An animation segment from a film about the Russian revolution, with Norwegian text panels, is either from the very early Vertov documentary Godovshtchina Revolutsii (Anniversary of the Revolution, 1919) or a segment from a contemporary newsreel on the Russian revolution.4

In Britain during the golden documentary years of the 1930s, Grierson's group of documentarists included the experimental animators Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Both of them also worked on traditional documentaries. Some of their experimental animations could be labelled as animated documentaries. Perhaps the best example is Lye's Trade Tattoo (1937). Through a combination of documentary stock shots from other GPO classics which he manipulates under the camera, and abstract animation, he depicts the rhythms of the daily lives of the British working-class. When Grierson moved to Canada and The National Film Board in 1939, he soon invited McLaren to join him. And animation and documentary have often been combined throughout the course of the entire history of NFBC films.

The history of animation is rich with examples of films with a documentary approach. To list just a few: John and Faith Hubley's Moonbird (1959) and Cockaboody (1972) are based on real soundtracks by their children, the animated feature Everybody Rides the Carousel (1976) is a presentation of the life and thoughts of the Swedish psychologist Erik H. Erikson; Pica Don, Made in Japan and Japanese by Renzo and Sayoko Kinoshita are portraits of Japan, its history and people; the comic documentary Great (1975) by Bob Godfrey is a wonderful portrait of the British engineer Isombard Kingdom Brunel, while Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit (1961) is an hilarious educational cartoon showing how to make animation. The Russians Valery Ugarov and Andrej Hrjanovsky's have made two portrait films about the Estonian painter Ulo Sooster where Sooster's art is animated and set into a new perspective. Especially in Landscape with Juniper (1987) they have succeeded in integrating their animations in a traditional documentary setting. The Canadian Joyce Berenstein has made a similar portrait of her artist-father in The Colours of My Father (1995). And Aardman Animations in Bristol has made several well-known clay animations based on documentary soundtracks since the late 1970s. 5


Since World War II the National Film Board of Canada has been the leading producer of animated documentaries in the world. The major thought behind the founding of NFBC was to build a national film culture and try to make Canadian films competitive with the massive intake of Hollywood products that dominated the Canadian cinemas. By building up alternative distribution systems and by promoting the documentary and the artistic animation film, NFBC was able to build a national film industry that soon became a world leader both in animation and documentary. As a result of Hollywood's world dominance as a producer of funny animated cartoons and Disney's monopoly on animated feature films, NFBC made films in virtually all possible forms of animation, except for the traditional cel-animated cartoon. And with McLaren in charge, it was natural that a special focus would be put on the experimental and highly artistic animated film:

In 1950 the production was divided into 4 units with quite wide but separate responsibilities. Unit B was to be concemed with making sponsored, scientific, cultural and animated films. From the time of the early 50's until the Unit system closed down in 1964, Unit B would make some groundbreaking short documentaries where quality would be given precedence, and where cinematic form would be given just as much attention as the content. The leading persons in Unit B were Colin Low, Roman Kroitor, Wolf Koenig and the producer Tom Daly. Also Norman McLaren and his animators were members of Unit B. Colin Low had joined NFBC as an animator in 1945, Wolf Koenig in 1948. Also Roman Kroitor had worked at NFBC with animation and Tom Daly produced both documentaries and animated films. David Barker Jones argues that a major reason why the Unit B documentarists were so focused on aesthetic issues was their background as animators (Jones 1976: 135). To them, animation was an obvious possibility in their documentary work. To them, the distinction between live-action and animation was not important.6 The first film they all worked on was The Romance of Transportation in Canada in 1953. It was the first traditional cel-animation made at the NFBC, and it is an animated cartoon documentary that told the story about the development of transportation in Northern America. It was meant both as an educational film for school and library distribution, and as a short to be screened in the cinemas. It won the Golden Palm in Cannes for best animated film. The film can be seen as the prototype for the high quality, funny animated educational films of which NFBC would come to be the leading producer.

The live-action films Paul Tomkowicz, Street Railway Switchman (Roman Kroitor, 1954) and Corral (Colin Low, 1954) were short elegant documentaries that revealed new aesthetic levels. Corral was the first NFBC documentary without a voice over. At NFBC it represented another prototype for documentary film making.

With City of Gold Unit B went back to the animation camera and made the first NFBC documentary based on still photographs. It tells the story of the gold rush to Dawson City by the Yukon River in the summer of 1897. With the help of the animation rostrum camera, single frame shooting and a pantograph, Koenig and Low make the summer of 1897 come alive through the old photographs shot with fluid camera movements and excellent framing. A personal voice-over from Pierre Berton, an author who grew up in Dawson City, helps to make the film an intimate animated portrait of an historical event. City of Gold won as best documentary in Cannes in 1957, and is the prototype of all still picture documentaries made frame by frame on a rostrum camera.

Unit B's most prestigious project was Universe (1960) a film that took 3 years to make and used advanced animation techniques to present a journey into outer space. The goal was to make a scientifically correct visual impression of how the universe looks, and the film is one of the most successful in the history of the documentary film. It has won 23 international awards and NASA bought at least 300 copies of it. In the late 1980's NASA was still using it in their training programs. And the film was a major influence for Stanley Kubrik when he made “2001: A Space Odyssey“. Except for its live action beginning and end, Universe is totally made with animation.


It is a paradox that these filmmakers today are best remembered as pioneers of direct cinema/cinema verité. The reason is a new film series they developed at Unit B. Candid Eye was a series of half-hour documentaries made for television. The series began in 1958 and ran for about 3 years, ending with Lonely Boy, a portrait of young Canadian singer Paul Anka. The TV format opened for the use of cheaper and lighter equipment. The films were shot without scripts, and they are early examples of the new observational and interactive documentaries that were introduced around 1960. Koenig and Kroitor were the leading filmmakers behind the 'Candid Eye' films and they were joined by newcomer Terence Macartney-Filgate and French-Canadians like Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx who made the first cinema verité-film at the NFBC with his Les raquetteurs from 1958. NFBC made verité-films before both the Americans and the French. When Leacock/Pennebaker needed a particularly flexible cameraman to shoot the Kennedy sequences for Primary (1960), they imported Filgate, and Rouch/Morin brought Brault to France when they were to make Chronique d'un été (1961).

These films were made possible by a major development within film technology. Light 16mm cameras and sound equipment brought the documentary out on the streets. Now it was possible to record actual events where they took place. Interviews could be done on the spot. This development represents a fundamental change in documentary history. Before 1960, interviews and observational scenes with synchronised sound shot outside the studio settings were rare and difficult to achieve. Most documentaries made after 1960 are dominated by such scenes.

The direct cinema filmmakers were encouraged by the new technological possibilities to try to make films as close to reality as possible. They actually believed they could record reality. The editor Patricia Jaffe wrote: “Direct cinema… is based on recording life as it exists at a particular moment before the camera. The role of the filmmaker… is simply to record what is there as he sees it. “ Richard Leacock described his mission as a direct cinema filmmaker “… to find out some important aspect of our society by watching our society, by watching how things really hoppen as opposed to the social image people hold about the way things are supposed to happen“ (Allen and Gomery 1985: 218). This naive belief in the ability of the documentaries to render reality has been moderated. However, the developments around 1960 totally changed the understanding of what a proper documentary should look like. This is a major reason why it is hard to accept an animated film as a documentary today. This is a major reason why we cannot understand that Neighbours qualified for its documentary Oscar in 1953.

In most of the artides written about Unit B, the films I have mentioned are all referred to, with the exception of Romance of Transportation in Canada. This film is left out, probably because it definitely did not fit into the authors' project of trying to show the early Unit B films as precursors of the coming Candid Eye films. This attitude is very clear in two artides from the periodical Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly (Harcourt 1964, Junker 1964). The new documentary approach in the early 60s, combined with the success of Lonely Boy and the fact that Unit B actually pioneered cinema verité filmmaking, is probably a major reason for this angle in the artides. Harcourt praises the early Unit B films in his artide, but in his conclusions he focuses on cinema verité and Lonely Boy. He develops his arguments further in his book Movies and Mythologies, Towards a National Cinema where he prodaims that the Unit B filmmakers were “committed primarily to making candid-eye documentaries“ (Harcourt 1977: 135). This reduces the whole production of the Unit B to the last 3–4 years of their heyday.

However, the impression of Unit B as candid-eye documentarists still lives. In Peter Steven's Brink of Reality; New Canadian Documentary Film and Video there is no reference to the early Unit B films, neither to Colin Low nor Wolf Koenig nor, of course, to animation (Steven 1993). Except for David Barker Jones' solid dissertation on the documentaries of NFBC, the only reference to validate the early Unit B films for their personal and poetic qualities is Thomas Waugh when he writes that “between the war's end and the development of the 'candid eye' approach in the late 50's, the personalised model would be the dominant one at the NFB. It could even be argued that the legendary films of the early '50s, the Paul Tomkowicz, Street Railway Switchman and Corral are examples of this tendency, rather than prophecies of direct cinema and verité as is commonly thought“ (Waugh 1986: 51).


In recent years a broader understanding of what a documentary can be has developed. Avant-garde documentaries are discussed as documentaries. Carl R. Plantinga's wide documentary approach opens up the genre to films that have not been considered proper documentaries since the 1950s. Most of these films are told in what Plantinga calls a “poetic voice“ (Plantinga 1997: 171ff). In his essay Performing Documentary Bill Nichols introduces a new mode of representation in addition to his now four classical modes.7 He dates the performing mode to the late 1980s and 1990s. As criteria for the performing documentary he writes that it “stresses subjective aspects of a classically objective discourse“ (Nichols 1994: 95). He says that what performing documentaries “have in common is a deflection of documentary from what has been its most commonsensical purpose – the development of strategies for persuasive argumentation about the historical world“. Referring to Roman Jacobson's six aspects of communication, he argues that the performing documentary marks “a shift in emphasis from the referential as the dominant feature. This window-like quality of addressing the historical world around us yields to a variable mix of the expressive, poetic, and rhetorical aspects as new dominants“ (Nichols 1994: 94).

This shift is clearly visible in modem animated documentaries such as Abductees and Silence. However, similar aspects are dominant in much earlier animated examples like Richter's Inflation and Len Lye's Trade Tattoo, as well as in live-action documentaries like Walter Ruttman's Berlin, Die Symphonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927). The performing mode has been present in documentary filmmaking since the beginning.

As with most documentaries, also the early Unit B films contain aspects of several modes of representation. Both Romance of Transportation, City of Gold and Universe are clearly expositorial. But I believe that the high aesthetic quality the Unit B filmmakers aimed for, their willingness to experiment with new forms resulting in several new prototypes of documentary filmmaking and the performing character of the poetic films they made, should make them more performative than anything else. As David Barker Jones clearly stresses in his dissertation, these films also represent a retum to the early Griersonian aesthetic before the didactic and the propaganda aspect became too prominent (Jones 1975: 115). The early Unit B films strike me as films in a tradition going back to the best work of the British documentarists in the 1930's. In this way, NFBC also kept the tradition of performing documentary alive through the difficult period of change around 1960. Also after the 1960s the filmmakers at NFB have continuously explored the possibilities for including animation in their documentary filmmaking. Caroline Leaf's Interview (1979) and the work of Don McWilliams are outstanding examples. Together with international colleagues like John Hubley, Bob Godfrey and Renzo Kinoshita, they have used animation to make their comments and arguments about our society. They have resisted calling their animated films documentaries. But urilike the mainstream documentary that changed so radically in an indexical direction around 1960, the animators working in the blurred boundaries towards documentary filmmaking, have kept the tradition of the Creative documentaries of the 1930s alive.

In the wide spectre of modem documentaries of today, performative films like the film essays of Chris Marker and Trinh T. Minh-Ha have opened up for a wider and more comprehensive definition of what a documentary film can be. The new theoretical problems brought about by digital image technology and its relation to the indexical aspect of the documentary image, have moved the question of authenticity from belief to trust, and again animated films are finding their way into documentary festivals and discussions about what documentary filmmaking is all about.

My conclusion is that this close connection between animation and documentary has existed since at least the 1920s. I have argued that this connection has been explored continuously since then, mainly by animators, many of them working at the National Film Board of Canada. The term animated documentaries is however still causing problems and is seldom used in the film vocabulary. This is mainly because of the changes that occurred in documentary filmmaking around 1960. The new, narrow definition of what a proper documentary should be denied those filmmakers using animation in their documentary filmmaking the status of proper documentarists. That has now begun to change.


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Snickars, Pelle (2000) “To Cite and Sight History. On the Use of Nonfiction Footage“. Aura4/2000. Stockholm University.

Steven, Peter (1993) Brink of Reality; New Canadian Documentary Film and Videoven.

Strøm, Gunnar (1995) “Animasjonsfilm“, in Store Norske Leksikon.Oslo: Aschehoug og Gylendal.

Strøm, Gunnar (1998) “Animated Documentary Film“, in the festival catalogue of the Oslo Animation Festival 1998.

Sørenssen, Bjørn (2001) Å fange virkeligheten. Dokumentarfilmens århundre.Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Waugh, Thomas (1986) “Jorin Ivens and the National Film Board“, in Walz, Gene (ed.) Flashback: People and Institutions in Canadian Film History.Montreal: Mediatexte Publ. Inc.

Winston, Brian (1995) Claiming the Real. The Documentary Film Revisited.London: British Film Institute.

1I've searched through the indexes of the following documentary books: Barnouw 1983, Barsam 1992, Birkvad and Diesen 1994, Corner 1986, Kilbom and Izod 1997, Nichols 1991, Nichols 1994, Plantinga 1997, Rabiger 1987, Renov 1993, Rosenthal 1971, Rosenthal 1980, Rosenthal 1988 and Winston 1995. Only the oldest book, Rosentahl's New Documentary in Action (1971) refers to animation; it ends with a 13 page interview with Norman McLaren.
2In animation festivals it is common to require that more than 50 % of the film footage must be animated to accept the film as an animated film.
3It is unclear when McLaren first came up with this definition, but it was probably sometime in the 1950s. It has later been quoted in several publications. I have taken it from Furniss (1998: 5.).
4A 4 minute segment with Norwegian intertitles was found at the archive of Nasjonalbiblioteket in Mo i Rana in 1999. The films is definitely not of Norwegian origin. It's stored under the title Petrograd i revolutionens tegn (Petrograd in the Sign of the Revolution), after the first intertitle. The original film stock is from 1917.
5For a wider presentation of the history of the animated documentary, see my article 'Animated Documentary Film' in the festival catalogue of the Oslo Animation Festival 1998 (Strøm 1998: 86–94). The festival also presented three retrospective programs of animated documentaries.
6Interview by Gunnar Strøm with Roman Kroitor in his office in Montreal, November 1996.
7The others are: Expository documentary (1930s): directly address the real – overly didactic. Observational documentary (1960s): eschew commentary, observe things as they happen – lack of history, context. Interactive documentary (1960s–'70s): interview, retrieve history – excessive faith in witnesses, naive history. Reflexive documentary (1980s-formal and political): question documentary form, defamiliarise the other modes – too abstract, loses sight of actual issues. Performative documentary (1980s– '90s): stress subjective aspects of a classically objective discourse – possible limitations: loss of referential emphasis may relegate such films to the avant-garde; “excessive“ use of style. Quoted after Nichols (1994: 95).

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