There came a point in The Beloved Ones, the film I made in 2007 for the UK Film Council, when it became clear that the indexical sound recorded in the field, in Uganda, was not going to be able to be used in the final sound edit. The film is about how two women, one mother and one daughter, deal with the repercussions of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on their families. Although they are not related their stories are interwoven in the film to talk about the same situation from different perspectives. The original sound footage was recorded using the built in microphone on a video camera in windy external locations and the poor quality of the sound meant that, watching the rough cut, it was very hard to hear what they were saying. The film rests on their testimony and the audience’s acceptance of it as a truthful document of the women’s experience. Near the end of the production process a decision had to be made whether or not to cut and replace the edited original field-recorded sound with a re-reading of the words by actors.
Jonathan Rozenkrantz talks about sound in animated documentary “fill[ing] the gap that the non-indexical image has left” since he perceives this ‘void’ as a major omission in the genre. He argues that it is not the content of the sound track that is the primary point of using it but its authenticity as an indexical document relating to what the image iconically represents (2011). However, framing the issues within the term ‘indexical’ in this way is not helpful here. As Tom Gunning argues in his essay ‘Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the impression of reality’, Charles Sanders Pierce’s original idea of the index as part of an interconnected triad of signs (index, symbol and icon) has been abstracted from its richer signifying context and been simplified to become a “diminished concept”, used to describe and solve several arguments about the way that cinema works (2007:30).
The producer of The Beloved Ones, Joshka Wessels, and I discussed my fear that the documentary status of the film would be compromised by this jettisoning of original sound. The words are the document, she said, and the document is what they are saying, not the sound of their speech. This broader reading of what constitutes indexical fits in more responsively with Gunning’s reading of Pierce’s definition the word; he says that Pierce “by no means restricts the index to the impression or trace”. Nea Ehrlich talks about animated documentary’s ability to facilitate “a convergence of exposure and concealment” (in her discussion about masking, 2011), and that intersection is the place I find so fascinating to work in. I fundamentally disagree with those who say that animated documentary’s claim to documentary status rests entirely on its link to a truncated version of the indexical through sound. The choice between using original but partially inaudible sound or authentic but re-voiced sound is not aided by an argument about which is more genuine – they both carry the indexical trace of the words – it is aided by a discussion about which will connect an audience to the material better.
Samantha Moore www.samanthamoore.co.uk
Joshka Wessels, Sapiens Productions http://www.sapiensproductions.com
Ehrlich, N. 2011 ‘Animated Documentaries as Masking’ Animation Studies, vol. 6 accessed 10th March 2013 <http://journal.animationstudies.org/nea-ehrlich-animated-documentaries-as-masking/>
Gunning, T., 2007 ‘Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the Impression of Reality’. Differences, vol. 18, issue 1, pp 29-52
Rozenkrantz, J. 2011 ‘Colourful Claims: towards a theory of animated documentary’ Film International online journal accessed 6th March 2013 <http://filmint.nu/?p=1809>
Samantha Moore is an award winning animated documentary maker and researcher. She is passionate about the ability of animation to convey reality in a new and surprising way. Sam is completing a PhD by practice about animated documentary and the way it represents interior brain states.
Her animated docs include; Success with Sweet Peas (2003), doubled up (2004) for Channel 4 television and Arts Council England and The Beloved Ones for the UK Film Council and Screen WM, all of which have screened and won awards internationally. In 2010 she made An Eyeful of Sound, for the Wellcome Trust, about synaesthesia. Amongst its awards was one “for Scientific Merit” from the journal Nature at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York. In 2013 she finished Shadow Stories for Shrewsbury Art Gallery and Museum, a short film commissioned for their pre-historic gallery.
Samantha teaches animation at the University of Wolverhampton and is studying for her PhD at the University of Loughborough. She has published several articles on her research and has given lectures on her work including to the Royal Institute of Australia and a keynote talk at the American Synesthesia Association conference. Her current practice is about prosopagnosia (face-blindness) and phantom limb syndrome.
I appreciate that you challenge the troubling idea that for an animation to have documentary status requires indexical sound. I would like to suggest that putting the whole weight of an animated nonfiction work’s truth value onto words heard on the soundtrack misses opportunities to develop ways that communicate real, lived experiences visually, and allow us to breach language barriers as so many fine works of animated fiction have done.
Yes Ruth, I completely agree, you make the point very elegantly. I think that is why I have a problem with animated documentaries that rely too heavily on the authenticity that an indexical sound track brings without expanding the visuals into anything other than either a copy of live action (i.e. animated talking heads) or a straight illustration of the words being spoken.
Hi sam . I think the actors bring the words alive through a nuanced, engaging and emotive performance in your film which, it is possible to imagine, an untrained voice would not necessarily do. Perhaps, however, much like what amateur actors brought to Neo-realism, the understated performance of a ‘real’ person brings authenticity to a film text which translates into a documentary convention, creating a defining principle of its genre. We do, however, live in a ‘genre-busting’ age, apparently, so -anything goes!!!
Well honestly, despite the beautiful voicing that the actors did for the film, I would rather have had the real people talking as there was something special about the rhythm & cadence of their speech. However, my point here is that it *doesn’t* necessarily “bust” the genre to have the words re-voiced – it still stands as a document(ary), so therefore it isn’t a defining principle any more than I think that indexical image is.
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