Review of Nea Ehrlich, Animating Truth: Documentary and Visual Culture in the 21st Century, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021.
For those of us who are interested in nonfictional animation, Nea Ehrlich’s new book is, to tell the truth, a proper feast. Animating Truth: Documentary and Visual Culture in the 21st Century was published in March 2021 by Edinburgh University Press, as part of a series in film and intermediality (luckily for us, this is the only open-access volume in the series).
This 283-page-long text thoroughly covers some of the most urgent and interesting aspects of animated nonfiction. From the very first pages, the author offers a noteworthy contextualization of the semiotic, technical, and historical relevance of contemporary nonfictional animation. Nowadays, more than a century after the crisis of representation that came with the invention of photography (and, later on, film and the parallel invention of animation in the early 20th century), we are facing a new crisis rooted in the photorealistic capabilities of digital animation. Now that it looks real, now that we can fabricate the real, how do we represent the real? Ehrlich makes a point in emphasizing the importance of this semiotic and technological breakpoint and its inherent paradox.
This broad contextualization in the history of visual culture is extremely important to understand why this discussion is relevant not only within the small circle of us researchers who love animated documentaries or even within the limits of the reach of animation scholars in general. Current cultural uses of animation are vast and complex. This is why, as the author states, this topic must be studied “in proximity to other disciplines” (Ehrlich 2021, 7) This discussion is essential to talk about contemporary art, cinema, visual and audiovisual communications, journalism, science, and more. Also, Ehrlich does something that in my opinion is essential: she stresses the fact that “although the topic of the experimental documentary has received scholarly attention in the fields of contemporary art and journalism, the related topics of animation, digital gaming and virtual culture are often overlooked” (Ehrlich 2021, 7). Yet, this is key to understanding the implications of the current visual and semiotic status of animated visualizations, which are more present in our culture than ever before. Indeed, this “newly proliferating form of imagery” not only depicts but also shapes our reality.
However, Animating Truth goes beyond the study of the representation of our reality through animation (i.e., animated documentaries). It looks at the representation of realities within fiction as well. It discusses how animation works as a dispositif to mark and differentiate layers of existence, in movies such as Kill Bill (2003), where animation is in a flashback to tell the story of a character; or Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), where different styles of animation are used to represent different layers of reality of the film’s world. Furthermore, the corpus of this text goes not only beyond animated films but beyond the limits of the cinematographic. Animating Truth covers art, public displays, videos, personal websites, news sites, political satires, and other areas of nonfictional animation in non-cinematographic visualizations, such as the animations in “GPS systems (…) forensics, online gaming, data and scientific visualisations and more” (Ehrlich 2021, 11).
The way the book covers the different key areas of contact between animation and nonfiction (i.e., the evidentiary status of animation as documentary imagery, the relationship between animation and technoculture, and the aesthetics of ‘the real’) is clear and absorbing. Ehrlich has the ability to describe the complex semiotic and philosophical aspects of animated nonfiction in concise and clear ways. And just as the author goes beyond classical animated documentaries and even to non-cinematographic visualizations, in her research she goes beyond scholarly sources (papers, academic books, etc.), complementing them with more contemporary relevant data, such as Google and Youtube keyword research, Wikipedia lists, IMDB data, Facebook Groups, etc. This provides us with a fresh input of reality.
Without a doubt, Animating Truth adds to the list of essential texts on animated nonfiction, such as Annabelle Honess Roe’s 2013 Animating Documentary or the numerous papers dedicated to animated documentary published in the first volume of International Journal of Film and Media Arts guest edited by Paulo Viveiros and Manuel José Damásio (2016), and in several volumes of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal. If Honess Roe’s book and the subsequent articles that have been published on the topic have allowed us to construct a historical perspective on animated nonfiction and a basic understanding of its semiotic and technical mechanisms, now, with Animated Truth, we get to see the political, aesthetic, cultural and narrative aspects fully into our contemporary technoculture.
Honess Roe, A. (2013), Animated Documentary, Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Viveiros, P. and Damásio, M. J. (eds.) (2016), “Animation Documentary”, International Journal of Film and Media Arts, 1 (1). Available at: https://revistas.ulusofona.pt/index.php/ijfma/issue/view/662
Sofía Poggi holds a BA in Art History (Universidad Nacional de La Plata) and a MA summa cum laude in Journalism (Universidad de San Andrés), which she obtained writing a dissertation on animated nonfiction. She was also awarded a scholarship to attend courses at Columbia University (United States). Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies at the Universidad de San Andrés and she is the director of editorial agency Palabra, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.