What brings documentaries to life? For an increasing number of them, it’s colorful characters — literally. Animation is making docs more accessible to a wider audience, allowing filmmakers to dramatize scenes that can’t be shown with footage and bringing them into once-unimagined awards categories.
No film has demonstrated this more clearly than Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s refugee saga “Flee.” The Neon/Participant release made Oscar shortlists for both documentary feature and international feature film, won a Gotham Award for documentary and Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. But it also scored a Golden Globe nom and Boston, Chicago and Detroit critics group award wins for animated feature, paving the way for an Academy Award nomination in that category as well.
The critical success of this Danish/French/Swedish/Norwegian co-production is igniting interest in other animated docs at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, but this hybrid genre is far from new. It’s long been used for shorts including the Oscar-shortlisted “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker,” yet the cost and manpower involved have made animation rare in this low-budget arena.
One of the earliest, Winsor McCay’s 1918 short about a WWI ship bombing, “The Sinking of the Lusitania,” required 25,000 drawings that had to be photographed one at a time. Walt Disney enlisted four directors for the 70-minute WWII aerial bomber doc “Victory Through Air Power,” released through United Artists in 1943.
Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s 2002 Robert Evans doc “The Kid Stays in the Picture” popularized programs such as Adobe After Effects that “animate” photos with layering and motion, and Morgen’s political tale “Chicago 10” used animation in select scenes when courtroom footage wasn’t available.
But it wasn’t until Ari Folman’s 2008 Lebanon war saga “Waltz With Bashir” became the first animated doc to land a foreign-language film Oscar nom that feature-length animated docs made their first big splash — the $2 million film earned more than $11 million in worldwide B.O. Since then, only a few notable features have followed, including Keith Maitland’s mix of archival footage and rotoscopic animation (tracing over live-action film) in the 2016 assassin chronicle “Tower.”
“There aren’t many that have reached the prominence” that “Bashir” did, says DOC NYC artistic director and Toronto Intl. Film Festival programmer Thom Powers. “It’s a very demanding and expensive form, so for most documentaries that need to be budget-conscious, you’re almost always going to opt to put a subject on camera. That was not an option for ‘Flee.’”
Rasmussen developed “Flee” in Denmark’s Anidox program, which connects doc filmmakers with animators to collaborate on projects. He’d long been fascinated by the story of Amin Nawabi, his gay refugee friend from high school.
“What you see and hear in the film is the very first time he shared his story,” Rasmussen says. “The fact that he could be anonymous and wouldn’t have to face people in the street who’d know his trauma and innermost secrets helped him to say, ‘OK, but this is the way [I want] to do it.’ His family also wanted to be anonymous, even though legally they’re in a good place. When you experience something like they did in Afghanistan, when the laws and system falls apart around your eyes, you don’t really trust [things].”
Cinema Eye founding director A.J. Schnack, who helmed two films that used animation (the music docs “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” and “Gigantic”), notes that since the Cinema Eye Honors for nonfiction filmmaking began in 2008, it has given awards for doc graphics and animation.
“One of the reasons we wanted to include it is because we were interested in expanding the idea of what people thought a nonfiction film was,” Schnack says.
In “Flee,” it provided a more evocative way to show Amin’s history than reenactments or archival photos, Rasmussen says.
“We realized that because most of the story takes place in the past, animation could help us make Afghanistan in the ’80s and Moscow in the ’90s feel alive, and then place him there. The animation director Kenneth Ladekjær and the team would look at real footage, then take details and facial expressions and put them in so it felt authentic, but everything is animated from scratch.”
Fleshing out those details enables “Flee” to play more like a narrative film.
“It’s a story about memory and trauma so in animation we could be lot more expressive than we could be with a camera — to [show him] mourning, or the emotion of being afraid or sad or angry,” Rasmussen says. “But not too intense, as harrowing footage from cable news or docs can often be.
“We’re exposed to so many tough stories. For me and a lot of people, it becomes overwhelming. You feel the need to do something about everything and you can’t, so you start to block things out. But because you have animation, it’s not as hard. Because you don’t have to relate to another human face, you start listen to what’s being said instead, and then you take it in. That was my experience when I saw ‘Waltz With Bashir,’ because it wasn’t [coming from] real human beings.”
Sundance Film Festival senior programmer Basil Tsiokos points out how animation “demonstrates that documentary filmmaking is a form of storytelling. It underscores that it’s a subjective process, and some films use it to their advantage to demonstrate that what you’re seeing isn’t necessarily ‘truth,’ to pass doubt on how something might have gone down, or circle back and show you that one person’s viewpoint is not the same as somebody else’s.”
One example is Penny Lane’s 2016 Sundance entry about a crackpot doctor, “Nuts!” “He was a fraud, so the animation helps because it sucks you in with this unreliable narrator’s point of view. It’s quite brilliant in playing with form to convey what is going on in the story itself.”
Some films are a natural fit for illustration, including 2016’s “Life, Animated,” which centers on an autistic boy helped by Disney films, or 2020’s “Feels Good Man” about comic character-turned-hate symbol Pepe the Frog. As co-president of doc powerhouse Submarine Entertainment, Josh Braun repped sales for both projects, and his new Sundance entry, Abigail E. Disney and Kathleen Hughes’ “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” paints over photos in animated segments to show income inequality in Disney theme parks.
“It’s only natural and fitting that a doc focusing on Disney would include animation,” Braun says.
“If the film is a creative home run and animation really adds to that, it gives another angle for people to promote,” he says. “It has to be something [like ‘Flee’] that isn’t so stylized that you’re distracted by how it’s done. If it’s a serious film, but the animation looks like [’70s-’80s kids show] ‘Super Friends,’ then it’s not going to work. When it’s deemed a bold, creative choice, it adds a lot.”
In recent years, popular series including “BoJack Horseman,” “Archer” and “The Boondocks” have made animation more palatable for adults, something “Flee” is counting on to attract audiences. The appeal “might also have something to do with the fact that we got used to animation as kids,” Rasmussen adds. “It’s really enjoyable, so you’re open to what’s going on.”
Tsiokos says another upcoming Sundance bow, Jono McLeod’s “My Old School” uses animation similar to the 1990s MTV series “Daria” to re-create memories of students describing that era.
It took Rasmussen five years to raise the $3.4 million budget for “Flee,” and while he estimates it might have cost a fifth as much if it hadn’t been animated, it’s a reasonable price for a film that plays as a narrative feature — and some animation costs have dropped since his film was made.
“Because of the technology, now you can actually create startling animation with quite low budgets,” he says.
That’s confirmed by Bryn Mooser, CEO of the nonfiction studio XTR and global streaming platform Documentary Plus. He’s an exec producer of “Feels Good Man” and the upcoming Sundance entry “We Met in Virtual Reality,” which plays like an animated film as it uses VR avatars to tell the stories of their offline counterparts.
“Documentary and animation thrived during the pandemic, because documentary filmmakers and animators could keep working,” he says.
“Technology has enabled people to bring the cost of animation down, even a cost savings to shooting reenactments. And the fact that people can be working from anywhere in the world, whether it’s India or Africa, opens things up to new artists.”
Audiences can expect to see more of these hybrid docs soon. Jordy Sank’s “I Am Here,” due out this spring, uses animated sequences to show the history of a Holocaust survivor.
“Some of the films we have this coming year use animation to push their stories forward,” XTR’s Mooser says. “They show parts of the narrative that the archives are lacking, and bring something to life that might otherwise feel a little flat.”
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