[Paul Fierlinger] This is what I just sent to MyToons for their upcoming newsletter:
“I refuse to read this letter”, cried the baroness, dropping an envelope into the flames… page 32.
My films are just like those old illustrated books with enticing captions, only my illustrations are set in motion. I’m old enough to have read such books when they first came out; before I would start reading I used to first intently inspect each illustration to see if everything was depicted correctly (or at least plausibly) because there is no other discipline so driven by the need to see the truth as the Arts, and art teaches us how to be observers. I have spent my entire professional life aspiring to uncover and describe the truth as best I could at the moment.
Animated documentaries differ from live camera ones because just by the nature of the media they are expected to be personal, since drawings are accepted as personal views of the world whereas the camera shutter is considered always the more objective one. A documentary film following a criminal case is going to be a more convincing depiction of the truth when told through a camera’s lens, but an animated film documenting the succession of emotions the victim of that crime might have felt at the time can go deeper and reach people’s souls through the use of illustrated metaphors or analogies.
Animated characters allow viewers to identify with them more readily because they represent merely an icon of a true person – a much broader representation of the truth than a photograph, towards which one viewer might feel drawn to and another repudiated by.
Sometimes drawings can pinpoint the truth better than photography; for instance, most guides to bird identification choose to be illustrated by drawings rather than photographs. There’s a reason for this; if a certain bird is most identifiable by the length, color and shape of its beak, a drawing can bring this out using a slight exaggeration which would look monstrous if the same was done by retouching a photograph. I create such exaggerations to make the truth more salient in all my films.
This covers the most blatant points of how animated documentaries compare to live camera ones, but there are other practical reasons to go this route, for instance to make up for missing stock footage or to tell a historic event which occurred long before the discovery of photography.
It’s useful to remember that the very first pictorial documents of the way things once were existed on caveman’s walls entire millennia before even written history came into existence—and will most likely outlive all the current media.
Q1: As it seems that we as a society like definitions, and also knowing that it's hard to speak in absolutes about any art form...Could you name some essential qualities that you feel should be present in a work that is labeled "Documentary Animation."
[P.F.] A typical documentary narrative such as of the CNN variety is not usually good enough for an animated film, unless you want it to come off as a parody. An animated documentary should always have a personal touch to it since the viewer will most likely expect that from drawings. To have a newscast type narrator shout in his professional baritone, “…and this is what happened that fateful Thursday morning, November fifteenth…” and show a drawing of a little old lady will never be accepted as the truth. But to have a non-professional voice say, “… this is what I felt that morning…” will be convincing and accepted as the truth as long as
1. It is the truth, and
2. There is as little to be thought of as typically cartoony about the drawing. Uhm… unless your point is to say she felt like a cartoon. There can be an endless string of qualifiers to everything one says on this sort of subject.
Q2: Do you feel that once a work is labeled "Documentary" that it's set up for a deeper level of public scrutiny and potential controversy than it's non-fiction counterparts?
[P.F.] Yes; even worse—hokey. I’d never want to claim that.
Q3: Do you see documentary animation playing a unique role in communication of "truth" that hasn't been tapped into by documentary film?
[P.F.] That should be the singular overlying principal. As with all animated films, there should be an evident purpose for it to be made that way. Here’s the time for live camera documentaries to come off as corny or hokey because animated films are better at documenting emotions—whether they are my emotions or the subject’s emotions. How do you document with imagery what a person speaking on camera feels deep inside? Room for more qualifiers: unless the person shows extremely well defined facial features etc., but even that can take you only so far before it becomes tiresome, or embarrassing. The viewer might even get angry with the cameraman if this goes on for too long…
Picture for yourself now a victim of Katrina recorded on tape breaking into tears or just describing in a quivering voice what it means for him to have lost everything. If shown throughout the soliloquy on camera, you (or at least I) might become unsympathetic after two minutes, but if we just hear his authentic, failing voice say, “I lost everything, everything, everything…completely everything…” and with each “everything” and each pause in between I’d morph not just lost objects into one another but entire events such as family gatherings, I’ll tell a much larger story in a very short amount of time.
Here, the importance of condition number 1. is all important, depending on my integrity; I can either make up everything, or I can choose to find out from this person what are his memories and of the lost place. Look here: http://www.video.paulfierlinger.com/idfa/ at 01-Wanderlust. The girl complains about sitting at a computer under fluorescent lights but at the same time we see the rat race going on behind her back, including the type of people she has to be with. These things she talked about at length and would have never fit into a two minute documentary, so I am showing the truth and I know by now that everyone trusts this film as the truth.
Q4: What led you to create incredibly personal auto biographical films & what drives you to continue to do so?
[P.F.] I suppose this has been answered above.
Q5: Having produced both Fiction & Non-fiction work, how does audience response differ to each genre?
[P.F.] There is no comparison; the non-fiction genre is so much more fulfilling because it resonates with audiences on such a deeper level. We get letters almost daily from viewers commenting on our documentaries, but not just commenting… actually asking to buy a DVD and asking for more films such as the one they like so much. So this turns into money, which turns our work into a vehicle for a living. We’d never get this from any of our fictitious films, but this might just be because I’m not very good at inventing fictitious stories.
Q6: As I've personally not seen documentary animation screened for the general public...I wonder if your biographical work has been seen outside of festivals and academic forums? Has the internet been a channel to distribute your non-fiction work?
[P.F.] Once more, answered above.