The Truth in Pictures
My own definition of documentary animation is any animated film that deals with non-fiction material. It can utilize documentary audio interviews, or it can be an interpretation or re-creation of factual events. This encompasses a broad range of styles. Some films will use documentary interviews, and then take them out of context to create new meaning. Other examples of documentary animations are portraits of people, narrated by one person describing their own experiences. Still others are reenactments of events, historical or personal, illustrated with animation. As in all forms of filmmaking, the process is subjective.
Perhaps the very first animation consisting of non-fiction material was Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania, created in 1915. This visually stunning film illustrates a German submarine's sinking of a British luxury cruise ship with over 2,000 passengers. This event led to the United States' entry into World War I. The animation depicts the dramatic attack made upon the cruise ship. Because it was a silent era film, text was used to dramatize the event further. McCay animated ordinary people running for their lives, and a mother trying to save her child. This had a powerful, emotional impact. By showing the cruise ship sinking on an extremely personal level, the audience was much more emotionally affected than if they had seen the event illustrated in photographs and interviews. Winsor McCay had no actual footage of the Lusitania. He was able to use animation to recreate an incident, and tell the story in a dramatic way. Audiences were affected emotionally by the powerful animation.
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You'll find it and many other articles in the March 2005 issue of fps, available as a free download.