Final Year · Major Project · Semester Two

The Animated Documentary: Intentions, Theories and Reservations

It was in late December of 2016 that the thought of the four of us (later increasing to five) joining together to produce an animated documentary occurred. The conversation originated after a period of discussion regarding the events of the semester, as Katie and I expressed disappointment in being unable to complete tasks that gained our interests.

Ryan had written his dissertation thesis on the role of an animated documentary and was well-versed in the nature of the industry. For the rest of the team, the concept was fairly abstract; it seemed interesting to combine a documentary format with the production process of a three-dimensional animation. I found myself enticed by the challenge.

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Figure 1.1 – Shown above, the case of Stephen Avery, the subject of focus in the Netflix original series, ‘Making a Murderer’ (2015).

Admittedly, I would not be the most versed fan of documentary series; often, I find myself overwhelmed with the on-slot of information that is suddenly cast upon me. The exception of that would have to be those related to true crime series, such as the show listed in figure 1.1. ‘Making a Murderer’ is a ten episode documentary series that discusses the circumstances surrounding the death of Teresa Halbach in a quiet town in a Northern town in Wisconsin. The series had a particularly interesting format; combining a range of police and news clips, intersected by real-time footage capturing the family as they function from day to day – adapting their lives to revolve around the circumstances of Avery’s prison sentence. The pacing of the piece is good, if a little excessive, covering the events of the case from the origins of suspicion to current day situation.

Figure 1.2 – Shown above, still images from the HBO series, ‘The Ricky Gervais Show’ (2010). 

In contrast to the conscious-heavy nature of the true crime genre, the example that is shown in figure 1.2 – ‘The Ricky Gervais Show’, would be more suited to my personal tastes and appeal. I have been an avid fan of talk radio stations from around the age of ten; captivated by the stories and experiences that are shared between the hosts and the audience. That passion is something that has increased within adulthood, as I now tune in to listen to US talk radio shows on a daily basis. The premise of the ‘Ricky Gervais Show’ integrates the listenability and appeal of the podcast format, and enriched that with a simple yet effective visual style of animation that compliments the new level of maturity and storytelling.

Personally, I believe that the reason I find the concept of an animated documentary so appealing is, as an introvert, my ability to talk about my own life experience is hindered by confidence issues. I have always been fascinated by listening – and watching – people as they share their stories, and discover a new-found sense of empathy in the face of their trials and tribulations. The key aspect that should remain in primary focus is how our concept of an animated documentary can be used to open the lines of communication, and thoughtfulness.

“Documentaries, like journalism, have an elevated need to tell the truth if they are to maintain their integrity; but, far more than journalism, they are also vehicles for personal self-expression” (Winston, 2000).

The challenge of creating an animated documentary is the consideration of the human quality and the exploitation of that person in the search for the story. In ‘Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries’ (2000), Winston discusses the constant balance between freedom of speech and documentarist ethics. He describes it as, “facing the same conflict between expression and perhaps contradictory constraining ethical requirements.”

The media within the United Kingdom is self-regulated; an ethical code that was created within the industry,  with the support of companies and unions, to ensure that those creating and publishing material with real-life context adhere to, in a bid to prevent the capitalization of success and recognition as a result of someone’s misfortune or expense. Winston considers this to be a ‘social responsibility’ – originating from the methodologies and standards set by journalism and the press.

However, it must be noted that the platforms between a documentary and journalism, although baring similarities in other regards, are entirely different stages of distribution for the story. Journalism is suitable for the daily world, as information is constantly evolving; the medium has moulded itself to reflect that pace. Documentaries, by contrast, are a creative piece of explorative configuration, nonconformed by restrictions such as word count, quotas and realtor space to share the information.

The primary focus of animated documentary is self-expression that afflicts the audience and encourages thoughtfulness, with the desire to evoke an empathetic emotional response in return. The delicacy of the story will prevail in the handling of the ethical implications; do we demand a fully accounted tale with personal information, or would it be better to guide the interviewee with open questions, and allow them to decide how much they would be willing to share?

Whichever way the team intend to conduct the interview, one thing is for certain; the craftsmanship and dedication is a form of art. Personally, I view the approach of integrating three-dimensional animation within the confines of the narrative flow of an interview to be Avant Garde. The genre of an animated documentary is less-explored, and even lesser known; the medium of choice often related to the hand-drawn, two-dimensional approach.

“‘Avant Garde’ has become a ubiquitous label, eclectically applied to any type of art that is anti-traditional in form. At its simplest, the term is sometimes taken to describe what is new at any given time; the leading edge of artistic experiment” (Innes, 1993).

Whilst I am not stating that the team is by far creating a new-found form of storytelling that has never previously been explored, I feel that we are challenging ourselves to create something nonconformance in comparison to project predecessors. The concept we intend to address is entirely experimental – providing a unique set of challenges that the team will have to address as we proceed into the pre-production and production stages.

There is excitement within the task of creating a piece that is contained within such an unexplored area of animated production. Within university and the outreach of the generalised industry, the lack of formalities and attention provides the team with an open invitation to set our own ground rules, and explore the best way to communicate the concept. Implementing conversation within visual stimulation will enquire us to consider the balance between giving the audience the answers, or providing sufficient information that enables them to formulate their own thoughts on the matter; success will be measured in the achievement of the latter.

The next few months will prove to be very interesting, but I am thrilled to be engaging with a piece that contains more than the technical challenge. The level of ambition is high; communication, psychology, empathy and reflection are potent elements to implement within a piece of work with a duration of fewer than five minutes. The level of maturity in our intentions has evolved from impressing ourselves with our abilities and achievements, to making a creative documentary piece that eludes to a larger concept than what is merely depicted on screen. It will be fascinating to see how that can be accomplished.


Bibliography: 

Innes, C. (1993). Avante Garde Theatre 1892-1992. 1st ed. 11 New Fetter Lane, London, EC4P 4EE: Routledge, p.1.

Making a Murderer, (2015). [TV programme] Subscription Service: Netflix Original Series.

The Ricky Gervais Show, (2010). [TV programme] Channel 4: HBO.

Winston, B. (2000). Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries. 1st ed. 21 Stephen Street, London, WIP 2LN: British Film Institute, p.129.

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