Cover Story

The final touches are being completed on my book, including the cover – which I’m really pleased with.

Book cover














The image is from Jonathan Hodgson‘s Feeling My Way – the first animated documentary I ever saw, as an MA student in Michael Renov’s documentary seminar at the University of Southern California. The film, which lays animation over live action POV footage of Hodgson’s walk through London to a morning meeting, had a real effect on me – homesick as I was in Los Angeles for London. The animation gives insight into Hodgson’s train of thought on that morning walk and it’s like being inside someone else’s head as he makes his way through parts of London I know well. That first got me thinking about how animation can function in documentary, as I put it in the book, to evoke the ‘world in here’ of subjective experience.

More info on the book on Palgrave Macmillan’s website

Coming at You…

Last week I attended the 3D Creative Summit at the BFI on London’s Southbank. It’s an event that’s mostly geared at practitioners and industry professionals, but they had a kind of mini-conference strand of a few papers that I participated in – talking about the use of 3D in art house documentary. One of the highlights was spying David Attenborough across the other side of the green room (actually, I heard him before I saw him – as a colleague said ‘the voice!’), the downside was that Attenborough and my panel were scheduled in the same slot – tough competition.

I enjoyed attending a couple of presentations that were geared more towards documentary. While such things at these events are often of the ‘show and tell’ variety, it’s still interesting to hear how things get made and get some insight into the production process. One presentation was on the Sky 3D (drama-)documentary Inside the Mind of Leonardo. (Watch the trailer here) I think like the majority of the country, we don’t have Sky (let alone Sky 3D), on our TV, so I missed its broadcast. But the clips they showed in the presentation were pretty impressive (and I’m someone who, ironically considering my academic interest in the use of 3D in documentary and animation, remains somewhat nonplussed by a lot of the 3D stuff out there). The premise was to use 3D to bring da Vinci’s notebooks ‘to life’, with the actor Peter Capaldi acting as a kind of vessel. This also involves, of course, the use of animation and one scene we viewed that I thought worked really well animated da Vinci’s drawings of war machines, with various missiles flying ‘out of the screen’.

Leonardo's Mind

3D is, let’s face it, often used as a gimmick (filmmakers in this and other presentations admitted as much), but I left the Inside the Mind of Leonardo talk thinking ‘why not?’ It’s fun and visually engaging and might even help the audience (those who are actually able to see it in 3D) engage with history and the work of Da Vinci. Is it the way forward? I think that depends on whether the availability and affordability of in-home 3D technology catches up quickly enough before the enthusiasm of commissioning editors and studio execs for 3D wanes. I did think it significant, however, that the filmmakers (director Julian Jones and producer Helen Conlan) pointed out that for some international territories and broadcasters they had to make a more ‘traditional’ version of the programme (using a narrator, something they eschewed in the Sky version). It seems that visual and narrative ‘innovation’ in documentary is still a tough sell in some parts of the world.

Animated Memories

A link to my post for the Animation Studies 2.0 blog on animated documentary and memory. This is something that I talk about in my book, which is edging closer to a ‘release date’. Final copy editing touches are being completed now, and I’m anticipating it coming out by the summer.

Animated Mockumentary?

Parody, pastiche and fakery is surely an indication of a genre’s ‘arrival’? We have to be aware of characteristic traits of, for example, observational documentary and docusoaps, for something like The Office to chime a chord. If that’s the case, then does the upcoming release of the film version of the not-so-truthful (auto)biography of dead Monty Python member Graham Chapman, A Liar’s Autobiography (first published as a book in 1980), help place animated documentary squarely on the documentary map? Perhaps. Although, while the film’s subject matter would clearly be nigh-on impossible to represent in live-action (bar resorting to undoubtedly lame reconstructions), I’m not sure it adopts many of the representational strategies seen in autobiographical animated docs such as Waltz with Bashir.

I didn’t love the film, which is a shame as I really wanted to. It lags in too many places and the humour is hit-and-miss. Yet, it does successfully inhabit the irreverent, anarchic-surrealist tone of the Monty Python ‘ouvre’ with plenty of bizarre digressions and a refusal to give the audience a linear narrative of Chapman’s life (the film is ‘narrated’ by Chapman, using an audio recording of him reading his ‘autobiography’ shortly prior to his death, so that might partly explain the gaps and emphases in the film). I’m also undecided how I feel about the schizophrenic animation style. The filmmakers recruited 14 different independent animation companies, which is a good thing for the UK animation industry, but not so great for the film’s cohesion. Still, there’s some great stuff in there including the two parts animated by London-based Sherbert: the Cameron Diaz-voiced Freud section using stop-motionFreud_Sherbet

and the cel animation representation of Chapman’s Cambridge daysSherbet_Cambridge_1

The film is out (in 3D) in the UK at the beginning of February and you can watch the trailer here

Animating the Impossible

Animated documentary, as I argue in my book (all but finished and wending its way to the publishers in a day or two – woo hoo!), is in part a response to the limitation of the photographic. Animation can do stuff live-action can’t – it can bring prehistoric creatures to life, it can evoke subjective experiences, it can recapture absent memories. A film that demonstrates this and is really funny to boot is Laurie Hill‘s 2008 Photograph of Jesus. It’s about the stupid requests received by the Hulton Archive in London for photographs that couldn’t possibly exist (hence the film’s title). While it says quite a lot about common sense (or the lack thereof), it also points to our desire for images that go beyond the bounds of what photography can show. I love the archivist’s incredulity and exasperation at the requests.

Writing, editing and re-visiting

The process of writing my book (nearly done now!) has been, as most writing experiences are, both pleasurable and painful. Finding better, clearer and more articulate ways to talk about films I first wrote about in my PhD nearly four years ago is at times a struggle. But, one of the fun things has been having an excuse to re-watch films and to remind myself why I first found this topic fascinating. After all, it’s the richness, creativity and diversity in the films that will (hopefully) make the book interesting and relevant.

Re-viewing Samantha’s Moore‘s wonderful An Eyeful of Sound for my chapter on animated docs that evoke subjective, conscious experiences, and attempting to articulate how and why this film does such a good job of evoking audiovisual synaesthesia has made me realise all over again how truly brilliant Sam’s film is. She avoids many of the cliches of this type of animated doc and doesn’t resort to directly visualising the experiences described by interviewees on the soundtrack or to easy visual metaphors. Instead, the film really manages to give a sense of what audiovisual perception is like for those who have this unique neurological condition. And it’s a great advert for why animation is so much more suitable than live-action for making documentaries about subjective experience, especially subjective experiences that are unusual to the majority of viewers. Have a look below

Award nomination!

I just found out that my article, ‘Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a framework for the study of animated documentary‘ (published in Animation: an interdisciplinary journal‘s Nov 2011 edition) has been shortlisted for the essay award from the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS). How exciting! The competition is pretty fierce, though… Results announced 20th September.

Animated Awareness

Last week I went to the launch of Centrefold, at the Wellcome Trust in London.  The film, directed by Ellie Land (one half of the team behind this great animated docs blog), is about female genital cosmetic surgery and aims to provide a non-judgemental look at labia surgery and ‘encourage informed discussion’ on the topic.  It certainly provoked debate at the Q&A session after the screening last week, with a panel made up of Dr Phil Hammond, the director, consultant gynaecologist Sarah Creighton, consultant clinical psychologist Lih-Mei Liao, artist Jamie McCartney and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach.  In particular, things got heated around whether the film was balanced and the reasons that motivate women to have this surgery.

I was interested in the points made by Jamie about using animation, and art in general, to tackle tricky subjects and Ellie’s comments that animation helps you get closer to participants (because their privacy can be protected) and generates an emotive response from viewers through the power of imagination – something I’ve always believed about animated documentary.  But, I also found it fascinating that the filmmakers made a second documentary to go along with Centrefold.  This other film is a conventional documentary featuring talking-heads interviews with Creighton and Liao, who were co-partners on the film project.  I understand the need for providing as much information as possible on this topic, but it did make me wonder whether this second film undermines the potential of the animated documentary.  The audience last week, however, seemed in consensus that the film worked equally well on its own as in tandem with the conventional doc.

Happily, the film gives me another great example to use in my book on animated documentary, which I’m beavering away to finish by the end of the summer.  In that, I talk about how animation is increasingly used to raise awareness for issues, especially to do with health and social consciousness.

You can watch Centrefold online for free from 20th July here, meanwhile you can view the trailer below

Animated Docs in the Indian Press

I’ve been quoted in an article about animated documentary, published in the Indian Daily News and Analysis (along with Sheila Sofian)!  Well, the article is supposedly about animated documentary, but it spends quite a lot of time talking about Chico and Rita.  But, good to see animated docs getting some profile in what I presume is a relatively mainstream online publication in India…

Animating the Inside

While I was at SCMS in Boston in March I picked up a new collection edited by Jayne Pilling – Animating the Unconscious: Desire, Sexuality and Animation.  It’s an interesting combination of scholarly essays, interviews with animators as well as pieces that visually explore the creative process.  It’s great timing, as I’m including a discussion of Ruth Lingford‘s 2010 film Little Deaths in my book (which I’m currently working away at to my September deadline).  The film, which is about orgasms, was finished after I completed my PhD.  While I included a chapter on animating emotions and deeply subjective experiences, such as mental health issues, in my dissertation, I didn’t get to explore the issue of desire.

In her chapter on memory, desire and animating the sexual event in Pilling’s book (see info section for full details), Karen Beckman asks how animated films document real experiences of sex and desire and, also, what understanding of sex and desire we are left with as viewers (see p. 188).  Lingford’s film is mostly monochrome (white on black background) and at times abstract.  Over these evocative images we hear the comments of anonymous interviewees, describing their experience of orgasm.  Lingford herself has described the film as quite sad.  I agree, and I don’t think this comes just from the words we hear the interviewees describe (themes of connection and loneliness run through what they say).  I’m still thinking through where this impression of melancholy comes from, visually.  But I think it’s partly to do with the way the animated images seem to float against the inky-black background, seemingly unanchored in space in a way that accentuates the individuation of the experiences being described.