The Fantasy of Animated Documentary?

When I attended the BFI launch of the book edited by the estimable conveners of this blog, Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant’s Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, I was that annoying person in the audience to ask the first, really obvious, question. Admittedly one that betrayed the fact that I hadn’t yet read their book (something now, ahem, rectified) and also my own research interests and agenda. Isn’t all animation, due to its constructed nature, in some way fantasy? And if so, if animation implies fantasy and fantasy implies animation, I queried, where does that leave animated documentary? And that, dear reader, is how you find yourself press-ganged into writing a blog post…

Fig. 1 - Animation helps evoke the experience of depression in  That Light Bulb Thing  ( Animated Minds , dir. Andy Glynne, 2003).

Fig. 1 - Animation helps evoke the experience of depression in That Light Bulb Thing (Animated Minds, dir. Andy Glynne, 2003).

Since then I’ve been pondering how animated documentary fits into a wider discourse on the relationship between fantasy and animation. The Fantasy/Animation anthology, notably, does not include any engagement with non-fiction. Does this mean that the desire to put ‘animation’ and ‘fantasy’ in productive dialogue with one another only applies to fiction film and media? Someone seeking to defend the validity of animation as a representational strategy in non-fiction media might be inclined to answer ‘yes’ to this question. Because if animation implies fantasy then that suggests that animation has no business representing reality. In my book, Animated Documentary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), I devote quite a lot of space to arguing quite the opposite. I suggest that precisely thanks to the fact that animation is free of the ‘indexical bind’ of photographic media, it has the potential to increase the depth and range of what we can make documentaries about, about the types of reality we can represent audiovisually. In particular, animation can represent things that are beyond the realms of live action – for example because they are practically unfilmable (dinosaurs… Mars…) or because they are primarily subjective experiences (feelings… mental health issues…). Animation can bring dinosaurs to life and, just as effectively, it can evoke psychological and personal experiences in a more meaningful and relatable way than, say, watching a live action recording of an interviewee talking about that experience. In Samantha Moore’s An Eyeful of Sound (2010), abstract animation works in conjunction with a musical score and a soundtrack of snippets of recorded interview to evoke the experience of synaesthesia that offers so much more than hearing (or reading) someone describe it to us. The different animation styles used in the short films that make up the two Animated Minds series (2003 & 2009) help viewers understand what it is like to live with the mental health conditions each film covers (see, for example, The Light Bulb Thing) (Fig. 1).

Many animated documentaries make a particular effort to establish the validity of animation as a means of representing reality. In Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008), the use of uniform animation style to represent the film’s three registers – present day interviews, flashbacks and fantasy - works to reinforce the idea it is impossible to unpick memory from reality, and vice versa. It was important to the filmmakers that the present-day interviews weren’t presented in some way as ‘more real’ than the memories or fantasy sequences. This film subtextually tells us that animation is a valid means of representing fantasy, memory and reality and that, from a psychological perspective, these three things are equally as meaningful, or valid, when it comes to understanding filmmaker Ari Folman’s experience of the 1985 Lebanon War.

Fig. 2 - The reality of the fantasy of alien abduction in Paul Vester’s  Abductees  (1995).

Fig. 2 - The reality of the fantasy of alien abduction in Paul Vester’s Abductees (1995).

Interestingly, however, the freedom from the constraints of live action that enables animation to be so useful a tool for documentary is also one of the things that marries animation and fantasy. As noted in the introduction to Fantasy/Animation, Neil Coombs has observed that animation “allows the film-maker to create effects that cannot happen in live action filming” (2008: 38). This quote struck a chord with me, because I have said almost exactly the same thing about animation in the context of animated documentary. So maybe animation and fantasy and animated documentary aren’t so far apart after all. Certainly, animation allows us to make documentaries about things that aren’t physically filmable, much as it allows us to make fiction films set in the realms of fantasy. There are even examples of animated documentary that seem to venture into the realms of the fantastic – Paul Vester’s Abductees (1995) comes immediately to mind, a film that uses animation (along with archival footage and other media) to make a documentary about people who claim they have experienced alien abduction (Fig. 2).

In both the fictional and non-fictional realms, animation points to live action’s shortcomings. Live action is neither able to do justice to the fullness of fantastic imagination in fiction film nor to the depth and breadth of lived experience in documentary. However, animated documentary also resists any simple equation of animation with fantasy or assumption of animation’s intrinsically ‘fantastic’ qualities. Animation is expansive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it always expands away from reality into the worlds of fantasy and make-believe. Animated documentary shows us that animation, freed from the indexical and iconic limitations of the photographic, is a tool that enables us to imagine reality as lived by those whose experiences are different to our own.


Coombs, Neil. Studying Surrealist and Fantasy Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

Holliday, Christopher, and Alexander Sergeant. Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (London & New York: Routledge, 2018).


Bella Honess Roe is Senior Lecturer and Programme Director for Film Studies at the University of Surrey, UK. She is the author of Animated Documentary (2013), which was the recipient of the 2015 Society for Animation Studies McLaren-Lambart award for best book; the co-editor of Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary (Bloomsbury, 2018) and The Animation Studies Reader (Bloomsbury, 2018); and the editor of the forthcoming Aardman Animations: Craft, Technology and Identity Beyond Stop-Motion. She spearheaded the ‘Breaking the Glass Frame’ research network on women in animation and her own research in this area focuses on women in British animation. She is also working on a research project on the visual cultural of the invisible.