Last night I attended a panel discussion on “Infotainment” in which New York Times Hollywood correspondent Michael Cieply discussed documentary filmmaking as compared to traditional journalism. He made the following statement: “The camera is a tool to structure reality, not report a reality.” This is an idea that I would like to further meditate on.

I remember giving a lecture in which a student in the audience claimed that live action photography presented a “real” depiction of events, and animation could not replicate reality in a convincing manner. I agree that animation cannot replicate the effect of live action photography. What bothers me is this misconception of live action presenting a “truth”, or as I heard Annabelle Honess Roe put it during the Animated Realities conference, a “window to reality.”

I once discussed this idea with two colleagues of mine at USC who are documentary filmmakers, Jed Dannenbaum and Doe Mayer. They made the point that documentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of footage and carefully select the few minutes they choose to include in their film. All documentary filmmakers understand that you can manipulate footage, editing, relationships of picture to audio, and a myriad of other cinematic techniques to match the point of view you hope to present. And yet, audiences often forget how manipulated they are when absorbing the information presented to them in a seamless fashion. There is still a pervasive idea that live action documentary is “real” and therefore animation cannot be an accurate depiction of reality. My argument has always been that live action cinema can be manipulative and often misconstrues what it claims is “reality”, whereas in animation it is actually more clear in that what is presented on the screen is constructed by the filmmaker. The construction is more visible and, I would argue, more honest. I have read this same point argued by Orly Yadin in her paper “But is it Documentary?”

Live action documentary can create a false construction of events that the audience assumes is true. I met the producers of “Spellbound”, a documentary about spelling bees, at a documentary film festival. The film follows several contestants preparing for a spelling bee competition and ultimately shows the final competition. I found it interesting that they admitted they did not originally shoot any footage of the spelling bee winner preparing for the competition, so they went back and shot additional material, which ultimately appeared to portray the contestant training for the spelling bee. This is only one example of how live action documentary can misdirect the audience. Of course, both live action or animated documentaries can be misleading. In my Documentary Animation Production class at USC I stress how important it is to me to present the content in the manner in which the subject intended. We discuss the ethics of documentary filmmaking and how easy it is to manipulate material. It is ultimately up to the integrity of the filmmaker to when it comes to honoring the subjects’ intent.


Sheila M. Sofian creates films that investigate social issues utilizing a unique hybrid of animation and documentary. She has produced, directed, and animated six independent animated films. Sofian has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship, and the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, among others. Her award-winning films have been exhibited internationally and are distributed educationally as well as in home video markets. She is currently in production on a one-hour live action/animated documentary on wrongful conviction, “Truth Has Falen.”

Ms. Sofian is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, where she teaches animation production courses. In addition, she has designed and teaches Documentary Animation Production and Story Art Development courses. She holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.