Keith Maitland’s animated documentary TOWER has left critics and awards-voting bodies alike flummoxed as to how best to categorize it. This is a visionary work, no doubt, that uses voice-actors and vintage audio to reconstruct what happened back in 1966 when a sniper shot dozens of people on the campus of University of Texas. The rotoscopic animation smoothes over the differences between the various source materials, creating a gripping—and ultimately moving—“you are there” effect. So was TOWER one of 2016’s best docs, or one of the best cartoons? Or was it something entirely new?
This past decade has seen a boom in non-fiction films that use animation to tell their stories, either as short illustrative interludes or as the main selling point of the entire picture. But while animation may be trendy in documentaries, it’s hardly a novel technique. Animation pioneer Windsor McCay spent nearly two years hand-drawing his interpretation of “The Sinking of the Lusitania,” for a 1918 short that turned out to be more vivid than any newsreel could’ve been at depicting a tragedy. Later, artists and writers working for major companies like Disney, Warner Bros, and UPA used their expertise to educate and inspire, in lively mini-movies aimed at audiences young and old.
The ten movies below push well beyond the short-form, sustaining animated (or at least mostly animated) non-fiction for an hour or more. These are the films that show how a drawn documentary can work, and why this approach is more than just a gimmick. At their best, animated docs can be even more image-driven than their live-action counterparts, using ink and paint to leave a deeper impression.
Walt Disney was so impressed by Russian-born aviator Alex De Seversky’s 1942 treatise on how the U.S. should counter Germany and Japan’s aerial prowess that he spent his own money to turn it into a movie, and then went outside his skeptical usual distribution partner RKO to get into theaters, to reach the largest possible audience of persuadable Americans. Disney was always a master propagandist, selling a vision of placid middle-class living that even now people confuse with how this country actually was in the mid-20th century. Victory Through Air Power retains all of the entertainment value of the studio’s classic films, right down to the amusing history of aviation that frames the story; but that charm quickly evolves into a cogent argument for how to beat back fear and uncertainty with technology. [Available to watch for free in the public domain.]
Groundbreaking animators John and Faith Hubley made one of their most personal films with this adaptation of astronomer Harlow Shapley’s book about the size of the universe. Taking that bit of science as their starting point, the Hubleys free-associate and philosophize, celebrating the wonders of existence while contemplating our place within it. The movie opens with mankind taking the crown from the lion as the king of the Earth. The rest of the picture ponders what that really means.
Czech animator Paul Fierlinger led a fascinating life, which involved hopping around the globe as the son of a diplomat, becoming a pioneer in his homeland’s thriving film industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then defecting after the Soviets rolled into Prague. His animated memoir covers just that first stretch of his biography, with contributions from his famous friends Milos Forman and Vaclav Havel, who provide the voices for their own characters. By the end of the film, Fierlinger proves that this may be one the best ways to see how one man’s experiences shaped his art: by fusing the two.
More on Fierlinger, behind the scenes of another film, My Dog Tulip:
When Chicago janitor Henry Darger died in 1973, he left behind piles of artwork and journals, a 5,000-page autobiography, and a 15,000-page fantasy novel about a revolution led by two sexually ambiguous preteens. Darger took images from comic strips and catalogs and rearranged them into surreal, disturbing images of war and torture, informed by his own rough childhood. Because he didn’t have many relationships, Jessica Yu’s documentary In the Realms of the Unreal largely eschews talking heads, instead relying on voice-over comments from neighbors, and animated versions of Darger’s original illustrations. Her approach unlocks the connection between the depressing life of a lonely blue-collar worker and the insanely elaborate revenge fantasy he worked on at home for decades.
Brett Morgen’s energetic take on the trial of the high-profile radicals arrested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention uses animation to bring life to old audio recordings and dramatic readings of courtroom transcripts—but also as a way of capturing the inherent cartoonishness of the legal proceedings, which quickly went from being a case about inciting a riot to a vehicle for society as a whole to judge the entire restless hippie generation. The look of Chicago 10 (which aired on Independent Lens) gives overused late 1960s imagery a necessary freshness, helping to connect the passions of the past to what angry activist youth are still up to today.
Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir reflects on his own experiences as a young Israeli soldier in 1982 during the Lebanon War. He goes searching for other people who were there back then, hoping they can fill in some of the gaps in his memory, and lead him to figure out what part he may have played in a massacre. The artwork in the film is heavy on shadows and shifting textures, helping Folman get at the slipperiness of memory and the hard sting of regret.
Adventurous, imaginative French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) turns multiple conversations with influential linguist Noam Chomsky into his squiggly-lined animated essay Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? Gondry mostly relies on pen-and-ink drawings, but also tries stop-motion and xerography… really anything that will help him understand Chomsky’s often abstract ideas through a process of literalization. The designs are colorful and funky, but they’re in support of an honest inquiry, as a curious artist owns up to what he doesn’t know while listening to a genius.
The grave and perpetual standoff between two bitter international foes gets reduced to an odd, almost whimsical stop-motion-animated history-play in Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s good-hearted The Wanted 18. Based on an incident from the ‘80s, when a Palestinian collective defied Israeli law by running an underground dairy farm, the movie functions as a kind of tongue-in-cheek caper picture, with cartoon bovines walking the audience through how they escaped the authorities. This is a strange story, rendered in an even stranger way.
The style of the animation is one of the biggest selling points of this New Zealand production, which looks back at the Battle of Gallipoli, and presents the experiences of a handful of soldiers with computer-generated images that at times look like something out of a video game. Though it’s an overly jingoistic link at a complicated moment in world history, 25 April does recount the details of an oft-forgotten conflict in a form that’s relevant to today. It makes war look surreal, yet never distant.
Director Penny Lane slyly employs animation to tell the story of early 20th-century medical huckster John R. Brinkley, a man who claimed he could cure men’s sexual problems with a goat-testicle implant. Initially framed as a gung-ho, family-friendly tribute to a forgotten Great American, Nuts! eventually assembles its illustrations of old recordings and its recreations of anecdotes from Brinkley’s life into a larger point about how a slick presentation can lead people to believe anything. Any similarities to political rhetoric—now or 100 years ago—is purely intentional.