Indexes, icons, and symbols. According to Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic theory (1974), we can identify three basic types of signs: indexes, icons, and symbols. Indexes, such as photos, videos, and films, have a factual connection with their objects since they are the result of a mechanical or digital impression of light. Icons, such as drawings or animation, bare a physical resemblance to their object. Finally, symbols, such as words or metaphors, achieve representation through cultural conventions.
The first impression of animated nonfiction films could be that they represent reality iconically (because they resemble reality); but, in practice, we can often identify indexical and symbolic elements in these films. Symbols are present in metaphors, allegories, text (written and spoken) and other visual elements, such as the animation style and the choice of colors. On the other hand, indexes can be visual and audiovisual (photos and live-action fragments, normally intertwined with the animation) or they can be conveyed through sound, such as in recordings of an interview, found footage or actual recordings of the events. As Paul Wells (2016, 11) put it: “The role, function and status of the interview is at the heart of much debate about animated documentary since it often operates as the key indexical link to “reality,” especially when it is the voice of a specific witness, a known expert or critic, an authoritative participant or relevant observer.”
An Eyeful of Sound (2009), by British filmmaker Samantha Moore, portrays how people with audiovisual synesthesia experience sound. In this short, sound is indexical in two ways. Firstly, because some of the words of the interviewees with synesthesia are played; secondly, because of the way the film was recorded: Moore would play the soundtrack to the subjects and they would describe what they saw when they heard it. Sound is the object, together with the subjects’ representation, and so it becomes the indexical element that sustains the whole film. A similar thing happens in Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949), a direct animation film based on the music by Canadian jazz musician Oscar Peterson, where music is the object represented.
More often, indexical sound in nonfiction animation is taken from interviews in which subjects narrate the portrayed events. Thus, it could be argued that in these cases the sound is not so much indexical (though up to some extent it is) as symbolic. Examples are the animated interviews created by StoryCorps, a project that started producing radio documentaries in 2003 and launched their first animated radio docs in 2010; A Is for Autism (1992), in which Tim Webb interviews autistic kids and adults and uses their voices as narration (Hann 2012, 13); His Mother’s Voice (1997), by Dennis Tupicoff, animated over a radio interview of a woman who describes the moment when she finds out that her son was killed; McLaren’s Negatives (2006), by Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre, in which the voices of journalists interviewing animator Norman McLaren and his replies are animated “in a piece that flows in the screen while it goes through his history audiovisually” (Gionco 2012); I Met the Walrus (2007), by Josh Larkin, who made this short film over the recording of an interview of Jerry Levitan with John Lennon in 1969; and Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013), a film by French filmmaker Michel Gondry on a series of conversations with linguist, philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky. Finally, we have to mention Oscar-winning short film Ryan (2004), animated by Chris Landreth on a conversation with animator Ryan Larkin. The visual “evidence” of the audio being a ‘real conversation’ is shown in the film, since we can see the two animated men talking next to a set of microphones.
Sound as a formal marker of genre. How can we tell if a film is fiction or nonfiction? Theorists agree that fiction or nonfiction category is achieved by indexing, a process that usually involves formal characteristics, but also can be absolutely extrinsic, when it relies on how the animator, the director, the producer or the distributors “tag” that film. But of course, there are formal conventions: the whole ‘documentary’ look… and sound.
In some nonfiction animated films, sound is constructed to seem indexical, unlike animation, which can tend to the pure icon (the more abstract it is) or to the index (the more hyper-realistic it is), but is never meant to be confused with a live-action capture. In these cases, which are comparable with live-action reenactments, the sound maintains the formal characteristics of the interview or the actual record. It is the case of the documentary Tower (2016), in which interviews with survivors of the University of Texas tower shooting of 1966 are recreated by actors (which could have been done to avoid the dissonance between that voice age of the subjects at the time of the shooting and at the time of the interview). It is also the case of Samantha Moore’s short documentary The Beloved Ones (2007), for which actors reenacted the narrations of HIV-positive Ugandan women. According to the filmmaker, the short film was well-received as a documentary, thanks to the fact that “[t]he indexical trace lies in the words being said and in the style of presentation, not the person saying them, just as in the indexical image it is not the similarity to the referent itself that confers indexicality but the fact that the image is the trace (‘proof’) that the referent existed” (Moore 2015, 46). In Chicago 10 (2007), live-action footage is combined with animated sequences rotoscoped over reenactments of the real court transcripts of the trial against anti-war activists in Chicago in the late 1960s. This film does not intend to portray a ‘fake indexicality’ by doing so, but it combines a variety of audiovisual resources to create verisimilitude (Honess Roe 2013). In other words, the use of realist sound reinforces the formal aspects of indexing.
In conclusion, animated nonfiction does not necessarily require indexical elements to exist or to portray reality, but sound is often an important indexical element on which animation can get support to narrate reality or to reinforce its nonfiction category.
Gionco, P. (2012). “La animación en el cine documental”, El Ángel Exterminador: Revista digital de cine, http://www.elangelexterminador.com.ar/articulosnro.19/animadoc.html (Accessed September 12, 2019).
Honess Roe, A. (2013). Animated documentary, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Moore, S. (2015). “Out of Sight. Using Animation to Document Perceptual Brain States”, Doctoral thesis, Loughborough University.
Peirce, C. S. (1974). La ciencia de la semiótica, Buenos Aires: Ediciones Nueva Visión.
Wells, P. (2016). “Writing Animated Documentary: A Theory of Practice”, International Journal of Film and Media Arts 1 (1), pp. 6-18.
Sofía Poggi is an art historian (Universidad Nacional de La Plata) and journalist (Universidad de San Andrés/Columbia University). Her undergraduate dissertation was on history and technological evolution of stop motion animation in Argentina and her master’s thesis is on animated nonfiction’s semiotics, history, functionalities, and indexation. She worked for three years for Argentinian animation magazine Moushon! and she wrote animated-related articles for other publications, such as “La danza de los átomos de Maxim Zhestkov” for art blog Hijas del Arte, in 2018, and “Onión”, an interview with Juan Pablo Zaramella, for Spanish magazine Puppets and Clay in 2015.