Producing animation for a live action documentary involves many practical and logistical challenges. Put plainly, live action documentary filmmakers don’t always understand how animation works, and vice versa, and the production methods are vastly different. In this post I will illustrate some of the existing challenges by talking of He Named Me Malala (2015, by Davis Guggenheim), a documentary feature with animation, which I produced.

Working with director Davis Guggenheim and animation supervisor Jason Carpenter, my role was to plan, budget and control costs for what turned out to be eleven animated sequences. Jason and I came on board at a formative stage in the movie’s production, with a rough cut of the live in progress, without knowing what the animation was going to be or what it would look like. Davis knew he wanted a lot of animation but not exactly how much, what the exact content would be, nor the style. He often asked how late in the schedule we could still create new animation, because in making a documentary one often has to allow for the unexpected. It was the opposite of the way animation is usually produced, scrupulously planned out ahead of time for maximum efficiency. Instead what emerged was an experimental, improvisatory process, which answered the director’s creative needs.

The animation team was culturally diverse, included many women, and almost all were graduates of Experimental Animation at Cal Arts. Hand-picked, they were informed and adaptable artists able to work in non-traditional styles. Visually the animation needed to work with the parts in live action, and took the form of discrete sequences rather than superimposed decoration, consisting mostly of reconstructions of episodes from Malala’s childhood and her family history, narrated by her or her father, Zia. Both are compelling storytellers, which had first inspired Davis’s decision to use animation, which he wanted styled like a storybook. Another motivation was to lighten a dark story, and widen the film’s audience through animation’s association with children.

Arriving at the final look of the animation was very much a team effort and took several months, the result being a painterly, dreamlike effect reflecting the mediating effect of memory and nostalgia. The team had to be sensitive to the aesthetic and cultural nuances of representing Malala, her family, and their homeland of Swat Valley, a place none of us had been, and never before represented in animation. We worked from descriptions in her autobiography I Am Malala, photographic and documentary reference, and family albums, everything researched in great detail. The animation is an integral part of a temporally complex narrative structure. The film’s central event we already knew; after campaigning for girls’ rights to education, at age 15 Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban, but miraculously survived. The narrative shifts back and forth between interviews, documentary footage of Pakistan, Malala’s continuing campaigns around the world, her present family life in exile in the UK, and the animation.

Given its narrative complexity, the film was continuously cut and re-cut; Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of the schedule necessitating further last minute changes. Despite the animation timings being established at animatic and pencil test stages, editors working against the clock still sometimes treated finished animation as raw footage.

In this kind of project one has not only to allow for but also make use of the unexpected. Three animated sequences were made in the final three of a fifteen-month schedule, and are among my favorites because of their spontaneity. In one, Zia’s longing for his lost life as a schoolteacher in Swat conjures an impressionistic mirage of schoolgirls sweetly dancing; the memory evaporates as we return to the reality of exile in Birmingham. It was a last minute addition because a problem arose that footage showing real Pakistani schoolchildren might place their lives in danger. It is an example of the creative congruity that can be achieved producing animation for documentary if we understand how to work together.


Irene Kotlarz is an animation historian, curator, and producer. She developed the animation history program at what is now the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. She has directed animation festivals in Cambridge, Bristol, and Cardiff, and has founded the Platform International Animation Festival. She has produced films including Abductees, an animated documentary directed by Paul Vester for Channel 4, and most recently the animated sequences of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary feature He Named Me Malala. She has also intermittently continued teaching animation at various institutions, including the Royal College of Art, the National Film and Television School, and most recently Cal Arts.