My local fish and chip shop has a sign in its window that says, in a large font:
“CAT FISH – 75p”
Just below, in a smaller font, it says
“Fish for your cat”
This sign always makes me laugh, mainly because it reminds me of the crazy world we live in, where someone who runs a chippy has to qualify a sign just in case a customer complains that the fish scraps they have been given aren’t actually a delicious, hand-battered portion of Ictalurus furcatus, served with deep-fried slices of Solanum tuberosum and a pea puree.
But it also makes me think of how important precision is – and how important names are for classifying things. (With those very precise Latin names I just used being part of such a taxonomic way of thinking.)
A case in point is the term “animated documentary”.
Within the term “animated documentary” we can see tendencies and nuances: a sense that it potentially covers a huge and slippery area where anything perceived to be “animated” meets anything that might be perceived to be “documentary”. Thus: documentaries that are completely animated; live action documentary films that contain animated scenes; animated films that have some sort of documentary tone or intention, but may be addressing related (and complex) areas such as memory, trauma, personal identity . . . all could fall under this elastic term – though we might then more properly come up with different but related terms such as “documentary animation” or “documentary with animation”, or even neologisms such as “documation” or “animdocs”. Neologisms and new ways of thinking can cause disquiet, however.
Quite a number of years ago (apologies to people reading this who have heard this story many times now), I submitted a draft of an article to a journal. The subject was animated documentary. The peer reviews were scathing – in some ways deservedly so, as the draft was in many respects pretty poor. But one remark stuck in my mind from one of the reviews:
“The author then discusses ‘animated documentary’ – as if there is such a thing …”
I profoundly disagreed with the stance suggested by this comment – and I still do. Apart from anything else, it suggested to me some crusty old fuddy-duddy, under a blanket in a bath chair, railing against the youth of today, ruining things with their dyed hair, their nose rings, their skateboards and (shudder) their “animated documentary”.
Central to this reviewer’s disquiet, it seems to me, was what happens when any seemingly opposed things meet, clash, meld, hybridise. John Grierson once famously opined that “documentary is a clumsy description – but let it stand”. I’ve always admired his turn of phrase here: a forthright recognition that what we’re dealing with is not perfectly defined but – hey! – we have to start somewhere, and then progress from there. And one of the things that has helped to make the term “documentary” arguably less “clumsy” (whilst undoubtedly and not-at-all-paradoxically increasing the complexity of discussions around it) is successive groups of people who have interrogated it as a term and qualified what it means, as well as recognising that it is, like any label for cultural artefacts, mutable and culturally and historically contingent.
Bill Nichols and Paul Wells have offered very influential taxonomies of documentary (in Nichols’ case, documentary-in-general; in Wells’ case, animated documentary in particular). I won’t rehearse all of their points and categories here, but will point you to an interesting critical discussion of what they (and others, including myself) have said, in Jonathan Rosenkrantz’s article Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary. At one point, Rosenkrantz states:
“The real issue is the existential difference between the photograph and the drawing, where the former requires and gives evidence of its referent while the latter doesn’t. This doesn’t mean that the potential of animated documentary should be denied. It merely means that drawings document differently.”
Now that it is a truth increasingly – if not universally – acknowledged that there is such a thing as “animated documentary”, I think this is the challenge: to move towards a clearer sense of the many different ways in which it documents differently.
Paul Ward is Professor of Animation Studies at the Arts University Bournemouth, UK. He is Course Leader for MA Animation Production, teaches on the BA (Hons) Animation Production course and supervises PhD students. His research interests are in the fields of animation and documentary film and television. Published work includes articles for the journals animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Animation Journal, and the Historical Journal for Film, Radio and Television, as well as numerous anthology essays. He is the author of Documentary: The Margins of Reality (Wallflower Press, 2005) and TV Genres: Animation (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming; co-authored with Nichola Dobson). He has presented invited papers and keynotes in London, Edinburgh, Basel, Utrecht, and Copenhagen, and his work has been translated into Czech and Japanese. He serves on the Editorial Boards of animation: an interdisciplinary journal and Animation Studies and is a member of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College with special interest in animation and documentary research proposals. Professor Ward is the current President of the Society for Animation Studies.