The look and feel of documentary filmmaking is changing. This type of film is not only for the classroom or for fans of independent releases such as “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Now, in addition to growing budgets and well-publicized premieres, reality is becoming animated.
Originating in Britain in the 1930s as an alternative to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, animated documentary has recently re-emerged as an intriguing separation from the full-blown fantasy animation of films such as “Toy Story” and “Shrek.” It is nonfiction filmmaking that takes real-life, and often serious, subject matter and gives it a kick of creativity, allowing the director to experiment with symbolism, themes, emotion and characterization with thought-provoking subtlety.
Last year, the True/False Film Festival, a local celebration of nonfiction moviemaking, featured a program of animated documentaries called “What’s up, Docs?” Such films as “A Conversation with Harris,” in which an 11-year-old Bosnian boy recounts his war experiences, and “Repetition Compulsion,” a film about homeless women, gave audiences the opportunity to view this unconventional approach to filmmaking.
As a follow-up to the success of “What’s up, Docs?” the festival’s co-creator, Paul Sturtz, decided to take animated documentary to a hands-on level by merging the idea with the festival’s educational-outreach program. The True/False Film Festival’s Animated Documentary Workshop, which began in late September, invited residents to experiment with the form.
Among the adults were a few who had animation experience along with musicians, a graphic designer, a painter and the producers of a local children’s television show. The city’s Career Awareness Related Experience Program helped recruit most of the children, some of whom were involved with the program’s gallery, a group of 12 young artists.
Workshop participants had the opportunity to first view an Oscar-winning animated documentary, director Nick Park’s “Creature Comforts,” an often humorous journey into the thoughts of an animal in captivity. Then, using the film as a jumping-off point, they conceptualized a film idea, recorded voices from interviews they conducted, added sound effects, built characters and finally produced and directed their own 90-second animated documentaries. A private screening for the participants, their friends and family was held Nov. 14.
The films tackled subjects including the No Child Left Behind Act and feelings of isolation in school. The participants interviewed people about personal topics, which can be dicey once the characters are animated; they often end up appearing less than serious. The workshop’s early stages were a learning process for the participants, many of whom had little or no experience with filmmaking, let alone animated documentary.
“We spent some time discussing what it is to mesh reality and fiction … what it is to use different mediums,” said Christy LeMaster, workshop coordinator.
Animated documentary, LeMaster said, is a “new, blossoming world.” The workshop participants had a hands-on experience with a type of filmmaking that isn’t represented in mainstream media, she said, and her hope was for the participants to gain a better understanding of how fantasy and reality can be intertwined to spawn new ideas.
Besides the lessons learned, one of the perks during the six-week workshop was the chance to work with animators such as Wendy Jackson and her husband, Porter Hall, of Seattle. They conduct animation seminars and workshops and hold camps across the country and internationally.
Jackson fell in love with animation in high school. After studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jackson started working with animation while freelancing for magazines such as Variety and Wired. For three years, however, she had focused on teaching animation and producing her own projects. Jackson, who usually works in the realm of fantasy, was excited about the True/False program because it was the first time she focused solely on nonfiction animation.
Jackson guided the participants through what she calls old-school animation, which involves starting off with materials such as clay or fabric. Jackson said that all animation is based on “persistence of vision.” In other words, animation can be seen when the brain connects one image to the next. Jackson illustrated the concept by having the participants make a small flip book that showed a face they had drawn blink its eyes. These activities of persistence of vision show how animation is a series of photographs, each changing a little from the one taken before.
The photographs were taken by a digital camera, and the resulting images were imported into a machine called Video Lunchbox, which grabs frames and plays them at 30 frames per second. Video Lunchbox allows the frames to be altered, paused and looped, a feature that can create the illusion of a character walking, running or spinning in place.
As an example, Jackson took pictures of figures from two of the participants’ projects and used Video Lunchbox to make one figure walk toward the other. Then, to create an animation cycle, she took pictures of the two characters spinning and looped it to make them spin repeatedly.
Some participants took a humorous approach to their projects. Grant Portell, 14, and Javier Kelty, 15, created characters based on Bill Cosby (complete with sweater and Jell-O) and a jailbird Martha Stewart. But Jackson said she had no intention of making the films into comedies if they weren’t intended to be. Because people sometimes connect animation with humor, a serious subject or interview response might look ridiculous when brought to life with animation.
“Maybe they aren’t as flexible as they could be if it were fantasy in terms of how the film could change … and trying to make sure stuff that’s not supposed to be funny isn’t funny,” she said. “So, that’ll be the tricky part.”
One project, the brainchild of Cody Finley, 17, and Danny Giles, 16, was a somber take on isolation, although some of their interviews were conducted with people who had animated personalities. Another challenge was creating clay characters that could stand on their own and would be sturdy enough to be animated. For durability, the figures were built with copper wire frames, and magnets were attached so they would adhere more easily to the metal surface of the animation stage.
Jackson knew before she arrived that the hardest obstacle would be getting the students to downsize their goals and to complete an animated film in the two weeks she had with them.
Cody Finley, a junior in high school and the oldest member of the children’s group, was encouraged to sign up for the workshop by his film studies teacher, who requires students to produce their own films by the end of the year.
A completed film was one of the goals of the True/False program. During the conceptualization process, LeMaster stressed the importance of precise and strategic editing by having the participants ask her the questions they planned to pose in interviews. She timed the answers, which in most cases added up to 20 minutes of comment that had to be cut to 90 seconds.
By the end of the program, the participants had learned the general process of animation, how to operate sound equipment and how to use an editing program called Cool Edit Pro. But LeMaster thought there was also a bigger picture.
“Being able to discern what really interests them and how that may or may not interest their audience, I think, is a great skill to start thinking about,” she said.