I’m currently pondering the idea of animated ‘interjections’ in otherwise live action documentaries. I first started thinking about animated interjections a long time ago, probably when I was doing my PhD research around 2008, but definitely when I was working on my book on animated documentaries. At that time, animated interjections were just a footnote because, unlike the types of films I focus on in my book, these animated segments, and the films they appear in, aren’t animated documentaries per se. The animated segments can be viewed on their own (as the clips in this post demonstrate), but they only really make sense when viewed as part of the whole, live-action, documentary. These animated interjections are short. They are often unexpected. They are also surprisingly common. Perhaps the best-known example is in Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine (2002) where an anarchic South Park style animated segment illustrates the history of America through the interrelation of guns and race.
But there are dozens of other examples, from Jonathan Hodgson’s acerbic animation in the climate change documentary The Age of Stupid (2009, by Franny Armstrong), to the blink-and-you’d-miss-them animated moments in the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man (2012, by Malik Bendjelloul).
So now, finally, I have an excuse to think a bit more deeply about these animated interjections, as I’m writing an article on this topic. My opening question is ‘what’s the point?’ Arguably, the live action documentaries could exist, and make sense, perfectly happily without them. So what is the point of adding in these animated moments? Initially I thought they worked as a kind of animated jolt to the viewer: a way of making us sit up, pay attention and think about the subject matter of the documentary from a different perspective. The animation in Bowling for Columbine most certainly works in this way, as it does in The Age of Stupid. The animation also, in these examples, condenses the films’ arguments in a pithy way that complements the live action material. Great, I thought, that’s the argument of the article sorted: animation is disruptive, and in a way critical and even political in these documentaries that use animated interjections. But, I quickly realised that’s too simplistic, because for every documentary that uses animated interjections like this, there’s another that uses them in a far more benign way. In Searching for Sugar Man, for example, the style of animation blends more seamlessly with the film’s overall aesthetic.
The film’s director suggests that the animation forestalls the moment when the audience first sees the subject of the film, ‘lost’ musician Rodriguez, by representing scenes of his life before he is re-discovered. But of course there’s more to it than that because why choose animation when there are so many other options available to overcome the narrative challenges of the film? One reason, I think, is that animation is increasingly becoming a ‘go-to’ tool for documentary makers: just another part of the arsenal along with interviews, archive material and observational footage. Perhaps then, the animated interjection is the ultimate sign of documentary’s acceptance of animation as a representational strategy?
Bella Honess Roe’s article on animated interjections is forthcoming in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. Her book, Animated Documentary, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013 and was the recipient of the 2015 MacLaren-Lambart Award for Best Book by the Society for Animation Studies. She is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Director for Film Studies at the University of Surrey.