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Comics Journalism and Animated Documentary: Understanding the Balance Between Fact and Fiction

By Wibke Weber and Hans-Martin Rall


Comics journalism and animated documentary are two genres that have experienced exponential growth in the last 20 years—in practice and academic discourse. Both are hybrid genres that conflate aspects of hard news and entertainment, factual reporting and fictional storytelling, accuracy and exaggeration, credibility and creativity. They also share a major commonality by employing sequential visual storytelling and non-capturing-based imagery: panel by panel and frame by frame. But there are also significant differences, such as the elements of movement and sound—only available to a filmic medium. In this paper, we describe and evaluate similarities and differences between comics journalism and animated documentary in terms of how they manage to balance factual information and artistic modes of delivery. How do artistic techniques serve the concept of authenticating facts? How can the element of artistic subjectivity even add new layers of truth that are not possible in any other medium? On this basis, we will discuss two pivotal terms related to these genres: hybridization and authenticity. Our contribution will be framed within the context of current trends in journalism.

1. Hybridization and Journalism

Comics journalism and animated documentary are closely related genres in different media. Both media can be categorized under sequential visual storytelling; that is, images that tell a story when arranged in continuous narrative order. We argue that both achieve their purposes of meaning-making through hybridization. The term hybridization originates from biology and means the process of interbreeding between individuals of different species to create something new: a hybrid. Because of its “problematic connotations of purity and pollution” (22), Elisabeth El Refaie prefers the term “heterosemiosis” to hybridity; she developed the concept of heterosemiosis to describe the “overt juxtaposition of different sign systems in graphic narrative texts” (El Refaie 21). However, since the term hybridity (and hybridization) is commonly used in literary criticism and media studies, we adhere to this term. Mikhail Bakhtin transfers the term to cultural studies. By hybridization, he understands:

a mixture of two social languages within the limits of a single utterance, an encounter, within the arena of an utterance, between two different linguistic consciousnesses, separated from one another by an epoch, by social differentiation or by some other factor. (Bakhtin 358)

Bakhtin distinguishes between intentional and unintentional hybridization. According to him, unintentional or unconscious hybridization is “one of the most important modes in the historical life and evolution of all languages (ibid)”. Bakhtin, however, was particularly interested in intentional hybridization; “[s]uch mixing of two languages within the boundaries of a single utterance is, in the novel, an artistic device (or more accurately, a system of devices) that is deliberate” (ibid). This intentional hybridization is the focus of our article.

Fundamental to Bakthin’s concept of hybridity is the double-voicedness:

[T]here are not only (and not even so much) two individual consciousnesses, two voices, two accents, as there are two socio-linguistic consciousnesses, two epochs, that, true, are not here unconsciously mixed (as in an organic hybrid), but that come together and consciously fight it out on the territory of the utterance. (Bakthin 360)

This double-voiced and intentional hybridity holds the potential of subversiveness and destabilization: one voice contests the other dialogically and thus destabilizes the seemingly dominant. So we can say that hybridity in genres is a strategy to mirror the multi-voiced discourse.

Bakhtin’s concept of hybridization as an artistic process and a subversive strategy serves as a theoretical basis for the analysis of comics journalism and animated documentary. Both genres can be described as intentional hybrids because they are subject to artistic processes. Looking at the name of the two genres, the double-voicedness already becomes obvious: roughly speaking, there is the voice of fiction and imagination (comics/animation) on the one hand and the voice of reality and facts (journalism/documentary) on the other. Both voices are intricately interwoven and yet in a tense relationship.

So, how can these two voices be reconciled in such a way that they work together to convey messages in a reliable and authentic way? Reliability and authenticity belong to the ethical standards in journalism and, in recent years, both genres have found their way into journalism: for instance, Inside Death Row, an example of comics journalism by Patrick Chappatte for the New York Times, or We wait, an animated documentary in virtual reality released by the BBC. Both genres pursue the goal of informing seriously, uncovering social evils and injustices, accusing political machinations, reporting on the aftermaths of natural catastrophes, and giving a voice to those who live on the margins of society. Outside of institutionalized journalism, comics journalists have published books, e.g., Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq by Sarah Glidden, which are not the focus of this article.

The research questions that will guide us through this article are:

  1. How do hybrid genres such as comics journalism and animated documentary manage to balance fact-based information and the panel-by-panel respective frame-by-frame “artistic in(ter)vention” (Ward 294)? This research question addresses the level of content.
  2. How is the content presented to the audience? This research question addresses the level of communicative purposes.
  3. How are visual, verbal, and technical stylistic devices combined to represent truth and reality, and, thus, to facilitate authenticity in comics journalism and animated documentary? This research question addresses the level of composition.

The contemporary background for these research questions is the current crisis of and changes in journalism (Gutiérrez 45-46) as well as the new technologies that open a space for new hybrid forms and genres. We observe a decline of newspapers while digital consumption is accelerating. We observe how social media is taking over the media landscape and traditional media are losing ground, especially among the younger target group, the so-called “digital natives.” We observe an increasing impact of disruptive technologies in journalism such as data mining, artificial intelligence, machine learning, as well as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). And we observe how digital technologies are changing traditional genres and new terms arise such as data journalism, sensor journalism, algorithmic journalism, or VR journalism. While most news outlets are still struggling to adapt to the pace of the shifting landscape in journalism, a few organizations have started to experiment with new technologies and forms.

Taking these changes into account, we can state that journalism has become multimodal and extremely hybrid by mixing different genre characteristics, semiotic modes, or technologies. More than ever, these new hybrid artifacts cross the boundaries of images, texts, and numbers, of distance and immersion, of established genres and disciplines, and of facts and fiction. In the following sections, we take a closer look at the main aspects of hybridization in comics journalism and animated documentary. But first of all, we will explain the key term “authenticity.”

2. Hybridization and Authenticity

Authenticity is a multifaceted term. It can be linked to trustworthiness, truthfulness, genuineness, originality, or spontaneity; as such authenticity can be treated as the opposite of fiction, fake, or the unreal (Renner 57–60). Furthermore, the definition of authenticity depends on whether authenticity refers to an artifact, a person, or an act of communication; of course, all these aspects can overlap, so they are not isolated categories (Krämer and Lobinger 2-5). In media, authenticity is a paradoxical phenomenon as it is always mediated, which means: the conveyed reality is only a representation of reality and thus constructed, manipulated, or even faked (Enli 1). Manipulation ranges from minor adjustments such as selecting a specific photo out of many to digitally editing such as cropping images, or adding sound effects to other post-production effects. Therefore, Gunn Enli refers to the concept of “authenticity illusions.” It refers to the fact “that mediated communication is representations [sic] of reality and thus bases its communication on illusions of authenticity” (14). This concept of authenticity illusions exists in both factual and fictional genres, but “the claim to represent reality, and thus also closeness to empirical realism, is higher in factual genres” (Enli 16). In genres such as news reports or journalistic articles(comma) authenticity is closely linked to accuracy, credibility, trustworthiness, and truthfulness. According to Rosalind Coward, journalism brings an “aura of authenticity”: “[J]ournalists are meant to be truthful and operate within a profession which values veracity more highly than almost anything else” (214). Typical elements for claiming authenticity in news genres are, for instance, interviews with experts, eyewitnesses, transparency of sources, or on-the-scene reports.

Usually, the audience understands and interprets the authenticity illusions correctly since it is familiar with the conventions of journalism and its particular sub-genres. According to Enli (16-8) and Nina Mickwitz (32-5), genre conventions play a key role in helping the audience understand and interpret the authenticity illusions correctly. Genre conventions concern aspects of content, interpersonal relationships between the producers and the audiences, and compositional properties. They affect all levels of semiotic modes: visual, verbal, and auditory modes, as well as gestures and designs. Although genres are never fixed and develop over time, the key features and semantic patterns that constitute the respective genre (e.g., themes, a plurality of characters, dramatic structure, style) are stable—otherwise it would not be possible to recognize a certain genre. In his book Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings John Swales defines genre as:

a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set of communicative purposes. These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the parent discourse community and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre. This rationale shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content and style (Swales 58).

Producers make use of the genres patterns to shape the message of the artifact and convey it in a certain way to the audience. The audience decodes this message according to its genre expectations by allocating the artifact to a certain genre and evaluating its context; that is, the medium, the name of the news outlet, the commentaries on social media etc. This tacit agreement between producers and the audiences is defined as the “authenticity contract” (Enli 2).

Thus, authenticity can be seen as a quality that “is constituted by sets of conventions” (Mickwitz 34). New genres, such as comics journalism, emerge as a result of “dated and over-used conventions, combined with a need for an adjustment to the existing genre system, even when this causes tension among the stakeholders” (Enli 17). These tensions exist, particularly in hybrid genres, when genre conventions have not yet been established and producers and audiences first have to negotiate these genre conventions. This is the case with the double-voicedness in comics journalism and animated documentary: one voice that claims to stick to the facts and reality (the journalistic mode), the other voice that points to imagination and fiction (the artistic mode). Both pursue different strategies to support the effect or illusions of authenticity. To better understand these strategies, we will take a closer look at both genres and their hybrid properties in the following section.

3. Hybridization in Nonfictional Genres

Comics journalism and animated documentary show hybridization processes at three levels:

Level of content: Real events, real characters, news, and facts are merged with an artistic vision to achieve what can arguably be seen as a deliberately personalized version of “truth” that can offer richer meanings than a mere representation of facts.

Level of communicative purposes: The communicative purpose of both genres is, first of all, to inform by narrating, describing, explaining, arguing, and documenting. The way in which the content is presented, shapes the relationship between the producer(s) and the target group and triggers different expectations.

Level of composition: Modes (here: verbal, visual, auditory, gestural) as well as stylistic devices are combined to create meaning that goes beyond the mere sum of its parts and is clearly distinguishable from an isolated use of either mode. By mode, we understand a connected system of semiotic resources for meaning-making, e.g., text, image, sound, music, gesture, or layout. Image, for instance, has resources such as pictorial detail, size, color, and shape; speech uses resources of intonation, loudness, or pitch. (Bezemer and Kress 480)

The focus of our analysis will be particularly on the level of composition: the semiotic modes, resources, and stylistic devices.

3.1 Comics Journalism

The conventions of comics and the conventions of journalism are totally different. Wibke Weber and Hans-Martin Rall define comics journalism “as nonfictional sequential art that uses a combination of visual and verbal signs—images and texts—in order to cover fact-based news, whether print or online, respectively, digital” (379). This hybrid genre combines a journalistic approach with comics to produce news stories.

The first tension is on the level of content: The audience’s expectations regarding the comic style may be drama, exaggeration, funny pictures, and nonfictional stories, and thus entertainment. However, the topics that are and have been covered by comics journalists belong to the category of so-called “hard news,” for instance, addressing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the European refugee crisis, domestic violence, human trafficking, socially marginalized groups (e.g., immigrants, drug addicts), or catastrophes such as the outbreak of Ebola (fig. 1). Joe Sacco (e.g., 1996, 1993) is considered one of the pioneers of comics journalism, followed by other journalists and artists like Dan Archer, Matt Bors, Ted Rall, Josh Neufeld, Sarah Glidden, Patrick Chappatte, and Kate Evans – to mention but a few. Like radio and TV reporters, comics journalists go out to witness events, to carry out research on the ground, to interview people, as well as to collect information and documents. They report on current events and tell newsworthy fact-based stories using comics as a medium to convey their message. The stories or parts of the stories are published by newspapers, (digital) news magazines, and by book-publishing houses.

When it comes to the level of communicative purposes, the main purpose of comics journalism is not to entertain but to inform seriously, to foster the understanding of a news story by choosing a medium that is catchy and intuitive, to explain visually, to make a topic more salient than it would be in a purely textual mode, to emotionalize, and to surprise. While visually educated readers have come to increasingly embrace comics as a medium for serious information, visually less educated readers may be surprised by the use of comics in a journalistic context. Because of this surprising element, comics journalism can encourage people to start reading. It can subtly direct readers towards engaging with a current event or problem that shows up in an unexpected context. As Sarah Glidden says, “It can make people stop and take notice” (qtd. in H.G.). Thus, comics journalism has the power to reach a wider and younger audience or even to attract new target groups for journalism.

In terms of the level of composition, we see a tension between the emotional, dramatic, and subjective style of the hand-drawn pictures, and the objective and unemotional tone of news reporting that characterizes the text. However, “even if the text used in a journalistic comic might be recognized as an authentic citation from an authentic source, the combined perception of images and words might call this into question” (Weber and Rall 378). In contrast to traditional journalism where photographs often serve as occasional addition or illustrative element, the combination of words and images is a permanently present concept. Color, tone, light, shade, mark making, hand-written or computer lettering, the size, the shape of the panels, and the page layout are visual devices that constantly remind the reader of the ontological subjectivity of the journalistic comic—that comics journalism is made. Therefore, drawings are by their very nature subjective—obviously subjective—which collides with the ethical norms and standards in journalism like accuracy in reporting, truthfulness, credibility, public accountability, fairness, impartiality, and objectivity.

Figure 1: Example of comics journalism. Excerpt of a news story on Ebola in Sierra Leone by Felix Schaad. The three-page-long story was published in the Swiss national daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger (2015, Mar 24)
See also: -aus-der-todeszone/story/26968683.

3.2 Animated Documentary

Like a journalistic comic, a filmic documentary can be defined as a non-fictional work that employs elements of journalistic ethos as its modus operandi. Sheila C. Bernard, author of Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, stresses that there are some basic ethical guidelines for documentary filmmaking: “Audiences trust documentaries, and that trust is key to the form’s power and relevance. Betray that trust by implying that important events happened in a way that they did not, selecting only those facts that support your argument, or bending the facts in service of a more ‘dramatic’ story, and you’ve undermined the form and your film.” (6)

In his First Principles of Documentary (1932-1934), John Grierson describes documentary film as a way to “photograph the living scene and the living story” (21). He further advocates the combination of factual recording with artistic vision as a particular strength and even identifying characteristic for documentary films: “My separate claim for documentary is simply that in its use of the living article, there is also an opportunity to perform creative work.” (ibid) The keyword “creative work” gains particular relevance for animated documentaries: Live action footage might be drawn or painted over, rotoscoped (traced from live action) in a specific style, or even completely replaced or substituted by animation in various techniques.

Animated documentaries may also use hybrid techniques that combine live action material with animated elements in a layered approach. Such visible interventions of the artist’s hand constitute the equivalent to the personalized visuals employed by the creators in comics journalism. The similarities are particularly obvious when the animation is drawn: In this case, a still image from an animated documentary might even closely resemble a comic, albeit without the speech balloons. This proximity suggests a similar approach to investigate how animated documentaries achieve (or possibly neglect) authenticity. Yet, there are also significant differences between comics and animation, mostly concerning the modes and stylistic devices.

The possibly most obvious distinction lies with animation’s property as a time-based medium (fig. 2). While a reader can choose to look as long as he or she wants at a single comic panel, the viewer of an animation will see a shot only for a pre-determined amount of time. This difference has huge implications for storytelling strategies. In a comic, a detailed diagram of a location could easily be used to provide extremely comprehensive information for the reader. The readers can examine in close detail, look wherever they want in a time frame of their own choosing. In an animated film, however, showing a static image for an extended amount of time might appear awkward and does not match the capabilities of the medium. It is the director’s/editor’s decision to predetermine the adequate timing for each shot to facilitate the flow of information to the viewer. Instead of autonomous reader choices between panels (comics), the spectator will be tied to the onscreen delivery in terms of timing and format (film). Film operates with a fixed screen format, also known as aspect ratio, e.g., the 16:9 format—most widely used for TV today. Shot sizes can be varied, but the overall formatting cannot be changed from horizontal to vertical to accommodate the information content or highlight specific details. Panel sizes in comics, on the other hand, can be varied freely and adjusted to the amount of information that the author wants to convey. A detailed drawing of a location might be given any space it requires: from a huge panel within a multi-page grid to a splash page (one-panel page) or even a double-page spread. For the depiction of events taking place in a skyscraper, for example, an appropriate vertical format can be chosen that not only allows the addition of details in dedicated spaces, but also conveys a sense of height through its layout. A similar approach is not possible in film because it is usually fixed to the common screen formats (aspect ratios) of e.g., 16:9, or Cinemascope etc. But film uses other techniques that are not available in comics: editing, camera moves and zooms, rack focus, and blurring portion of the shots.

Figure 2: Differences between comics and film (Rall 10-11).

These techniques literally allow the director to focus on specific elements in the frame that are crucial to communicating certain information. A close up of an object or person will not only enable an investigation of detail, but also suggest the importance of meaning in a narrative context. A so-called establishing shot can approximate the function of a splash page in comics to provide a sense of location and related detail(s). Yet, to focus on information that is only provided through smaller details, it would certainly be necessary to zoom in or add another layer of images to achieve a similarly comprehensive level of visual information as in the comics’ counterpart (fig. 3).

Figure 3: This image could either be used as a splash page or, more precisely, a double-page spread in comics or as an establishing shot in film, if adjusted to the precise aspect ratio (e.g., 16:9). Copyright Hans-Martin Rall.

However, film, and thus animation, also have a huge advantage in terms of information depth: they are audio-visual media. For one, this allows a simultaneous flow of information through two different sensory channels. Reading text in comics will at least affect the visual perception of the image temporarily, as the reader needs to focus on the text. While this will still enable the reader to see portions of the panel, it is next to impossible to explore it to the fullest extent while reading the text.

In addition, and this is crucial, audio offers an additional layer of information that text in comics can only approximate, for example, through the use of sound words also known as onomatopoeia. An off-screen action or event can be solely narrated through audio. Interviews will gain a whole new dimension, as not only is the transcript given, but the spectator can experience pacing, intonation, and volume of the respective speakers. Such information can be directly related to the truthfulness of an account given, or betray a possible insincerity of the interviewee: Does the voice tremble? Are answers hesitant? Is the speaker shouting?

Similarly, animation can create the illusion of movement while comics can only suggest it; for example, through speed lines or sequential staggering of drawn poses. Again, the importance for the suggestion of truthfulness applies: Movement can be an at least equally rich source of information as sound. It is directly influenced not only by the physical capabilities but also the internal state of mind. A sad person will walk much differently from a happy character. An overly confident stride might betray an underlying insecurity in a certain context.

In summary, the preceding section suggests that there are fundamental differences between comics journalism and animated documentary regarding the level of composition, that is, modes and stylistic devices that must not be neglected when examining either in terms of authentication strategies. The filmic genre of animated documentary distinguishes itself as an audio-visual and time-based medium. Restrictions in formatting are compensated with a rich arsenal of filmic techniques (e.g., editing, camera moves). Animation is film, but it goes beyond: It also contains certain distinct properties that transcend the conventional live action approaches.

4. Authentication Strategies

In order to ensure that the audience perceives the story told in the medium of animated documentary or comics journalism as serious and reliable information, journalists and/or artists use various strategies to represent “truth” and “reality.” Since the semiotic resources and the stylistic techniques of the genres are different, the authentication strategies employed in animated documentary also differ from those in comics journalism. In their article Authenticity in comics journalism. Visual strategies for reporting facts, Weber and Rall have described various authentication strategies in comics journalism in detail and presented corresponding examples. Therefore, we only give a short summary here. Instead, we focus more on the under-researched field of authentication strategies for animated documentaries.

4.1 Comics Journalism

(1) Authentication through the journalist’s presence

Showing the comics journalist or artist at work as an eyewitness and as an interviewer is one possible strategy. He or she becomes a character of the story visible as a talking head or a narrator. As such, the journalist or artist tells the story from the first-person point of view. Sometimes the comics journalist is present in a more discreet way as an observer drawing the interviewee and taking notes. To ensure that readers recognize the artist’s character, a photograph of them is added to the comic, for instance, in the panel or the closing credits.

(2) Authentication through physical resemblance

This strategy extends the first one: providing photographs in order to show that the drawings are not fiction, but resembles reality; namely, the actual real-life people, events, and location (El Refaie). Before the protagonists of a comic (e.g., eyewitnesses, experts, people concerned) appear as hand-drawn characters, they are introduced in a photograph. By providing photographs, readers can understand what visual information from the photograph the comics artist has selected, what was emphasized, highlighted, reduced, or omitted. A pioneer work of the photojournalistic comic style is the award-winning story The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders (Guibert and Lefèvre).

(3) Authentication through style

This strategy refers to the visual aesthetic that differentiates comics journalism from fictional comics. Color, tones, light, shade, mark making, speech balloons, hand-written or computer lettering, the size and shape of the panels, and the page layout are visual devices used by journalists and artists to create comics journalism. Cartooning techniques such as motion lines, symbols, sound words, or scream and thought bubbles are rare in comics journalism. Comics journalists and artists tend to avoid the cartoony style that readers know from funnies in newspapers. Instead, their visual style employs photographic reference; the verbal style, particularly in the captions, is rather sober. Archer explains, “As a journalist, my goal is to keep my drawings as accurate as possible, which is why I either draw directly from observation or use extensive picture reference.” (Archer on BBC News)

(4) Authentication through documentary evidence

Providing fact boxes or links to original documents or other sources that give more insights into the topic is another strategy to corroborate the authenticity of a work. In addition, statistical data in the form of graphs and tables, timelines, and information graphics can be embedded in the panels. Sometimes experts or scientists who were interviewed about the topic in question are listed in the closing credits.

(5) Authentication through the meta-story

The meta-story is understood as the story that discloses data used, the research methods, the sources, interviewees, or the background of the journalist or artist. The meta-story makes the production process transparent by explaining how the journalist or artist learned something and why he or she believes it, so that the audience is aware of any bias in the comic. Transparency in comics journalism can be achieved in different ways, for instance, as a making-of video, an interview given to a media outlet, or notes on the subject added at the end of the comic. A short biography of the comics journalist and/or the artist as well as credits at the end of the comics show who was involved in the production.

4.2 Animated Documentary

For an overview of authentication strategies in animated documentaries, it is necessary to trace them back to the roots of the genre: They can be identified from as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, very much along with the ascent of animated film itself. Noel Murray, author of 10 Great Animated Documentaries, names one of the earliest examples of non-fictional animation:

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 (Murray).

This presents an interesting similarity with the almost simultaneously created live action reconstructions by the British Director H. Bruce Woolfe, mentioned earlier, a type of documentary that bases an interpretation of history on factual news material: Even in documentary, recreation can replace the original recording of events if it is not available. This offers a niche for animation within the realm of documentary film. It can act as a tool to visualize historical events through reconstruction. In this type of animated documentary, the animation will stay as close as possible to the facts. The authentication strategy here is mainly built on staying true to all relevant factual documentation available. The goal is to achieve a recreation that is as authentic as possible. A modern example of this authentication strategy is Tower by Keith Maitland. This is a recreation of a 1966 sniper assault at the University of Texas. The director uses animation to create a factually accurate visualization of previously (partially) undocumented events. Murray states:

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 smooths over the differences between the various source materials, creating a gripping—and ultimately moving—‘you are there’ effect. (Murray)

This realistic recreation through the means of animation was such a groundbreaking success that Murray concludes, “So was ‘Tower’ one of 2016’s best docs, or one of the best cartoons? Or was it something entirely new?” (Murray)

Returning to the brief historical overview, examples of various other narrative strategies for non-fictional animation can be identified: Disney’s 1943 feature film Victory Through Air Power was clearly an instrument of propaganda in order to support the idea of air-warfare as the main strategy against Germany and Japan during the Second World War. What it shares with the previously mentioned examples is the use of animation as a tool to visualize complex facts that otherwise would be hard to understand or even show due to a lack of authentically recorded footage. John and Faith Hubley’s Of Stars and Men (1964) introduces a new idea for non-fictional animation: Harlow Shapley’s book about the size of the universe serves only as a departure point. They move beyond literal illustrations into territories that are best served by the distinct qualities of the medium: Free association and inventive visualization of philosophical concepts. Paul Fierlinger’s film Drawn from Memory (1995) introduces another variation for approaching the genre: It is, in essence, an animated autobiography that negotiates the historic event of the Czech spring and its end caused by Soviet intervention. The personalized view is deliberate and is served by using the properties of animation for stylization and exaggeration.

Roughly since the turn of the century, the genre has undergone a sudden and massive increase regarding the number of productions. Among other reasons, this is primarily connected to the digital revolution. Shooting live action footage as a basis has quickly become available for filmmakers at almost no cost, serving merely as a basis for later animated reinterpretation. It has become even less demanding in terms of production values: there is no need for perfect lighting and scene dressing as animation will provide all of this. Another production that marked a massive turning point for the genre and that also exemplifies the aforementioned tidal shift is Waltz with Bashir, an animated memoir about the director’s experiences in the Lebanon war in 1982. To this day, it has remained one of the most lauded and academically debated animated documentaries. The film even received a nomination for an Academy Award, which gives an idea of its cultural impact at the time. Waltz with Bashir uses rotoscoping as its main artistic technique. Rotoscoped animation is a deeply hybridized artistic medium, which means that information traced from live action footage is merged with the artistic design of the animator. By referencing the captured images, the animation becomes rooted in reality. In this case, the hybrid quality of the medium supports its claim for authenticity. Waltz with Bashir is at its strongest though whenever it departs from using animation to recreate realistic scenarios: The wildly inventive dream sequences distinguish the film strongly from live action strategies, as they present nightmarish impressions in surreal surroundings. As such, they narrate a different kind of truth by demonstrating the impact the events had on the psyche of the protagonist. Much like an expressionist painter, the director is seeking to depict the truth behind the superficial ‘reality’ by laying bare emotional states. Rotoscoping is still used but only to add a sense of believability to an otherwise entirely imaginary scenario.

It is exactly when such liberties are taken that the very idea of animated documentary comes under severe critical scrutiny: Scholarly discussions often primarily deal with the question whether “animated documentary” can be seen as a legitimate approach in the first place or not. Or in other words: “If Truth Be Told, can ‘Toons Tell it?” (DelGaudio 189-199). Tara Knight, author of the article Dialoguing on the Refusal of the Indexical, adds:

To many ‘animated documentary’ sounds like an oxymoron: the genre inherently refuses indexical understandings of ‘the real’ as purported, and highly debated, within photographic documentary practices. Similarly, it is accepted that historical, archival, or found footage imagery may stand in for ‘the real’, and yet animation as a form resists readings of veracity given the highly constructed, orchestrated re-framings of these materials. (Knight)

Paul Wells notes that “animation is, after all, a distinctive film-form which offers to the adaptation process a unique vocabulary of expression unavailable to the live action film-maker” (199). This vocabulary includes artistic techniques like metamorphosis, exaggeration, stylization, and the invention of movement. But how do these specific properties precisely relate to a claim of authenticity and how does it compare to its live action counterpart? Which combination of textual, visual, and aural elements support such authentication strategies? From a technical point of view, the concept of a drawn or otherwise animated re-imagination, or even interpretation of events (comma) causes concern. The notion that photography and live action recordings provide more authenticity than drawings remains prevalent to this day. Yet, the question remains whether such allegations can be held up when examining the concept of “objectivity” in live action documentaries. Bernard flat out denies any such notions:

Like any [emphasis in original] form of communication, whether spoken, written, painted, or photographed, documentary filmmaking involves the communicator in making choices. It’s therefore unavoidably subjective, no matter how balanced or neutral the presentation seeks to be. (Bernard 4)

One might even argue that stylized (non-photorealistic) animation invites manipulation of the audience to a lesser degree: It reveals its artificiality instantly, instead of suggesting a real “image” that could also be entirely manufactured in this digital day and age. The spectator is alerted to a constructed reality with fictional elements that might very well be based on correct facts, yet does not force a suspension of disbelief on them. Suspension of disbelief is a term that describes the willingness of an audience to surrender critical questioning of information for the sake of enjoyment in fictional media. To achieve this state of perception, fictional animation employs artistic techniques that strive towards realism. In the context of animated documentaries, this could lead to the effect that entirely fictional information is wrongly perceived as fact. On the contrary, the idea of imagined realities and artificial recreation might also be deliberately employed to reveal a bigger truth that acknowledges the fragmented nature of some information. Knight addresses exactly this issue:

A new direction emerging in animated documentary is that of using animation design to directly question the truth claims or perception of the subject matter portrayed in the film. Nuts! is an example of this kind of inquiry. Each section of the protagonist’s life is rendered through a particular and unique animated style, and as each new, fractured section of the ‘biography’ is revealed, we realize the story we have been following is as constructed, shifting, and unsteady as the visuals we have been watching. (Knight)

A very similar approach is taken by Cabra: Fragmented Memories of a Massacre by David Adler (work in progress). It describes events around the massacre in Cabra, Kosovo, in 1999 from a variety of points of view. Truth might be relative, depending very much on who tells the story. Animation can be used to reveal different versions by applying different stylistic approaches that add an additional layer of artistic interpretation to signal subjectivity inherent to individual accounts.

4.3 Case Study

For animated documentaries, hybridization is used in a wide variation of convergent artistic techniques that combine non-fictional and fictional narratives, live action and animation (rotoscoping), realism and stylization, accurate facts and artistic interpretation. This is often achieved through layering of visual information: Very obviously by integrating onscreen information graphics or combining live action with animation, or very subtly by including a “hidden layer” of live action footage when it comes to rotoscoping. An example from the ongoing production Shaking a Singapore Spear (working title) will demonstrate this in further detail. “Shaking a Singapore Spear” is an animated documentary about the contemporary relevance of Shakespeare in Singapore directed by Hans-Martin Rall, and with Wibke Weber serving as a consultant for journalistic research. The film combines animation and real film interviews in various forms to tell its story. In September 2017, interviews with ten Singaporeans aged 21 to 27 were filmed in front of a green-screen backdrop at the NTU/ADM-VFX studio in Singapore. The aim of these interviews was to gain qualitative insights into the knowledge and attitudes towards Shakespeare and his work. These, in turn, were to serve as a starting point for a creative interpretation in the mode of an animated documentary film (fig. 4).

In terms of authentication, the voice recordings of the interviews are supposed to provide a truthful record that is entirely contributed through sound—a sensory component that is not available in comics journalism. In fact, the combination of the sound of the voice in combination with the captured live action image of the interviewee offers a crucial source of information: If the combination appears convincing, it might greatly contribute towards an overall authentic impression. The film begins with the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, where an interview was conducted with its director Michael Dobson. The analysis of a scene from the film will serve to demonstrate an authentication strategy that employs visual layering (combining live action and animation). The film shows Dobson in front of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and is captured by a live action camera (fig. 5). This element displays the classic approach of live action documentaries that use on-location footage to suggest authenticity. Animation is used in this context to provide even more factual information. We see the historical visitors Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain, and Laurence Olivier visualized on the basis of photographic reference. But the look of the characters reveals them as caricatured drawings—a humorous commentary that goes beyond the mode of purely objective implementation. Nevertheless, this approach remains true to Shakespeare in another way, because it mirrors some of his own creative strategies. The animated interpretation resonates with the inherently disrespectful and playful character of the Bard’s work.

Figure 4: Live action recording of interviewee combined with animation. Film still taken from Hans-Martin Rall’s animated documentary about Shakespeare in Singapore (work in progress).
Figure 5: Prof. Michael Dobson in front of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. The film still is taken from Hans-Martin Rall’s animated documentary about Shakespeare in Singapore (work in progress).

In summary, we have identified major authentication strategies for animated documentary. The following list does not make a claim towards completeness, yet it proposes first steps towards a comprehensive taxonomy on the basis of a more robust survey of case studies and historical examples.

(1) Rotoscoping: Tracing off live action as the basis for animation. The connection to authenticity here lies within the fact that captured (live action) footage is the source for the movements, which might or might not be altered in the animated version. Therefore, there certainly will be a more naturalistic feel to the animation that can be carried out in a style of choice: painterly, highly stylized, monochromatic and so on. This allows the animator to combine a sense of realism with a heightened level of artistic expression.

(2) Motion capture, the digital equivalent of rotoscoping: Transferring digitally captured movement of physical beings to digital models. This technique can prove particularly useful for documentaries that aim to create re-enactments of historical events based on authentic facts. Digital actors can be used to stand in for their historic counterparts whose actions were not or could not be recorded when events actually took place. It can also be used to externalize internal states of mind through means of character transposition: The motions of a traumatized child could be transferred to a digital dragon to express its yearning to regain power and control.

(3) Animated interjections: Purely animated segments that are interspersed with the live action elements of a documentary. This form is useful when specific content requires a particular stylistic approach. In a documentary about dinosaurs, live action footage of scientists might be interspersed with fully animated sequences that show the animals in their pre-historical environments.

(4) Retiming and other manipulations of live action material or found footage. This might, for example, include the technique of pixilation, a form of stop motion that works with film frames originally captured as live action footage. Similar to motion capture, this reference to on location recorded live action material can be employed to further enhance the credibility of the information.

(5) Visual layering strategies including interaction/integration between animation characters/environments and live action actors/environments. As we have demonstrated in our detailed study on Shaking a Singapore Spear, animated layers over live action footage can perform a multitude of functions. They can add additional factual information as well as visual illustration. Moreover, they can respond to the live action footage through a meta-approach and comment satirically on the captured images.

5. Conclusion

In this paper, we argue that due to the tension that arises from the inherent double-voicedness in comics journalism and animated documentary, both genres re-imagine reality in an unconventional way, re-draw the world in a subjective style, and thus may have the effect of appearing more authentic and honest than the sober news genres with their photorealistic images. By crossing genre boundaries, they bring a fresh and surprising tone into journalism. They can, therefore, have the potential to involve the audience more intensively, to activate readers’ interest and commitment and thus shape public discourse. Understanding the mechanisms and effects of hybridization in both art forms is crucial to understanding the interplay and balance of fact and action. We have demonstrated which authentication strategies are employed in comics journalism, and particularly in animated documentary, with a focus on semiotic modes, resources and stylistic devices. Such authentication strategies are becoming increasingly important, as the hybridization of artistic techniques increases with the development of new technologies. Media and genres develop rapidly and new hybrids emerge from already strongly hybridized media such as motion comics, or documentaries using VR. As media transform, we hope that the proposed taxonomy of ten authentication strategies—five for each genre—remains fundamentally valid: It explains the underlying hybridization and layering strategies in both comics journalism and animated documentary, and, therefore, is also well suited to examine continued convergence and assimilation between both genres.


The case study Shaking a Singapore Spear was created within the research project “From Print to Digital: Re-defining Narrativity for Interactive Digital Media” funded by the Ministry of Education Singapore (as part of an AcRF Tier 2 grant).

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