Documentary Animation As Social Medium

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Hidden is an animated documentary about a 12-year-old boy, who describes in an interview how it is to live in hiding. Giancarlo fled from his homeland Peru, where he lived on the streets on his own for one year, and is not permitted to stay in Sweden. In constant fear of deportation, Giancarlo has difficulties to fit in at school. ( The directors David Aronowitsch, Hanna Heilborn and Designer Mats Johansson influenced with this revolutionary documentary many films worldwide. (

Interviews are an important part of documentaries and animation is becoming a popular way of visualizing those interviews. (75+76) New opportunities arise for filmmakers by using animated drawings in documentaries. The usage of specific styles and aesthetics, new possibilities in relation to anonymity of interviewees and visual extension to the content of the spoken words, are a few of the possibilities which come along with animation, which I want to discuss further in this essay. However, I also want to examine if there are downsides to this technique. For example, if it is still possible for viewers to have the same emotional connection to the story and the character as in live action documentaries.

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The identity of interviewees in documentaries often needs to be protected, because of sensitive topics or because those persons would not otherwise be willing to give an interview. While silhouetting the body in live action documentaries, animation provides much more creative possibilities for the filmmakers. Animation not only offers various possibilities to achieve anonymity, but also ways of interpreting the words of the interviewed persons and therefore adding to the story. (79)

When Giancarlo was interviewed, the family had concerns for the young refugee’s safety. As illegal immigrants in Sweden, they live with constant threat of deportation, and so their identity had to be concealed. Hidden uses animation as a tool to preserve the boy’s anonymity as well as visualizing the film’s main themes of isolation, loneliness and desperation. The refugee’s absence in the documentary mirrors his lack of physical presence in Sweden, as he and his family are in constant fear of deportation. (89) His absent body can be read as a metaphor for Giancarlo’s invisibility in the Swedish society. Furthermore, it can portray his lack of power or control over his life. (90)

Sometimes the anonymity of interviewees is necessary for their own safety, but it can also increase the chances of a person agreeing to an interview. The family in Hidden would have never accepted to take part in an interview where they would have been filmed. The animators weren’t even provided with footage or pictures of the interviewees, on which to base the animated characters. The physical absence of the family was therefore not a choice of Hidden’s directors. (94)

To sum up, the anonymity of interviewees in documentaries, wether live-action or animation, plays an important role in various scenarios. A lot of times, these people are concerned about their safety when giving their statement openly to the public. Another dominant reason why filmmakers are offering to keep the identity of interviewees in secret, is because these people would otherwise not be willing to give an interview. The film probably gets seen and discussed by many people around the world and I wouldn’t deny that there is risk involved for the interviewees. Concerns about getting a lot of criticism or even hate via social media for example, are by no means very plausible for me. However, to achieve such anonymity, live-action is offering not many creative possibilities. Animation conversely, provides the filmmakers with endless innovative implementations, which not only ensure the persons anonymity, but also can add more depth to the story. The absent physical bodies can be read as metaphors or as reference to the main themes of the film.

It is difficult to imagine that animated bodies, such as Micky Maus for example, are able to evoke the same emotional connection and response to their viewers just as live-action bodies can. Capino (95) is convinced that emotional responses with the audience are doubtless possible without having a physical body in the film. She is suggesting that viewers have „a willingness to project upon them similar values that we assign real bodies (ie bodies like our own)“.

In Hidden, Giancarlo is portrayed with flat colors and bold black strokes which define his facial expressions. Overall, he has a very minimalistic and stylized look. However, the sadness of the boy is conveyed to the audience the same way as it would be in a physical body of a live-action movie (95). According to Capino, seeing Giancarlo’s frightened appearance and shy body language can trigger the same response in viewers, whether seeing the „real“ character in a live-action movie, or as drawn figure in an animated film. (95) I personally established a strong emotional connection to the boy and his story and was move to tears by the end of the film.

The animation style in Hidden goes beyond trying to reconstruct the physical bodies of the interviewees. Animation has the power and the expressive capabilities to add more to the words we hear from the audio track. It can imply ideas and themes and can convey emotional states and attitudes trough its artistic possibilities. Additional meaning can be evoked in the audience trough the style and technical possibilities of animated filmmaking.

Moreover, by not having physical bodies in a film, a layer of metaphorical content can be added to the story. This absence allows to deliver a strong, yet complex socio-political message regarding the roles we ascribe the interviewed person. The use of animation in visualizing in interviews can both respond to and exceed the recorded to voice and bodies of the interviewees. (96)

However, with some animations, I have difficulties establishing an emotional connection with the characters in the film. Most of time, these animations use a technique called „rotoscoping“, where the animator is tracing over live action footage. This can create an irritating viewing experience for me, of being aware at the same of both realness and non-realness, of the film (82). This phenomenon is well known and get’s a great deal of discussion by using the term „uncanny“. Uncanny images in films seem to carry their ghost of their original footage. The visual outcome is often either too real, or not real enough. This creates a „dissonance between viewing expectations and viewing experience.“ (82) Furthermore, hyper-real figures on the one hand, and imaginative stories on the other, can evoke conflicting emotional responses in the audience. (84) Photorealistic CGI animations are also often described as uncanny, because of it’s characters either looking too human or not human enough. (83)

According to Sigmund Freud, the „uncanny“ effect occurs when something is both frightening, yet familiar. He illustrates his point with the German words „unheimlich“ and its opposite, „heimlich“. „Unheimlich“, has many definitions and goes to a point where it means its opposite, by staying the exact same word. Therefore, „unheimlich“ means both „familiar“ and „unfamiliar“ and can be translated into „uncanny“. (

Having problems with building an emotional connection to rotoscoped images, I can very much relate to the fact, that we might be able to identify with highly stylized characters more then with photorealistic looking drawings or CGI images of humans. This is mostly because we tend to focus on the human-looking features of stylized characters and with highly photorealistic figures, we get triggered by aspects, which are at odds. Somewhat paradoxically, I can establish a deeper emotional connection to Giancarlo in Hidden, who is portrayed with flat shapes and limited colors, then to photorealistic computer-generated humans or rotoscoped images of real human beings. (83) That being sad, I can draw the conclusion, that I can develop the same emotional response for „real“ characters in live-action films as for stylized characters in animations.


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