This month I have been programming a short film event for Cork Film Festival. The title of the event is The Internet & Me and it looks at the wonder and horror of the ubiquitous Internet and its impact on us personally and collectively. In addition to a panel discussion with psychologists and filmmakers, the event includes six short films which explore themes of cyber-psychology. Five of these six could be classed as animated documentaries.
I did not originally intend to skew the programme towards animated documentary in this way, but found that much of the most interesting work on the theme takes this form. There has been a fair amount written on the suitability of certain subject matter for animated documentary. For example, it has been shown to be well suited to portraying historical and scientific subjects for which footage does not exist; or psychological and emotional subject matter which can be effectively and honestly communicated using animation with its expressiveness and its spatial and temporal fluidity (Honess Roe, 2013).
I believe that the theme of our online lives is another area that is well suited to animated documentary treatment.
On a superficial level animation is the obvious choice for stories of the online world. The visual arena of the Internet is one of graphical interfaces mediating our experiences and communications. The literal representation of online living is one that invites animation.
But our real lives online are invisible – browser windows, social media graphics and emoticons bear little relation to the daily psychological and emotional experience of being online. Neither do live action representations of digital interactions. The experience of a person chatting via social media is not expressed by the image of a person typing on a laptop. It is also a world away from chatting face to face. So how do we capture this very modern experience? Perhaps this is where the evocative qualities of animation can come into effect. Animation can illustrate internal worlds with vivid honesty at times when live action falls short - and the illustration of the Internet experience in some of the short films that I have programmed for The Internet & Me are great examples of this.
The films in this programme are vastly different from one other. They have little in common, aside from the fact that they all deal with aspects of human-technology interaction, and that the loose link of the ‘animated doc’ label could be attributed to most of them.
Bradley Manning Had Secrets, directed by Adam Butcher, is an illustration of real transcripts of the chatroom conversations of US army whistleblower Bradley Manning shortly before his arrest. Manning confides in an online friend, sharing intimate details of his cross-dressing and secret gender identity as well as his dealings with Wikileaks. His words are illustrated in primitive 8-bit style graphics, in blocky primary colours. The sparse and stark visual style distances the viewer, giving us only the broadest impression of what we are looking at – no detail, no specificity. It creates a cold space between the subject and audience. Used in combination with the intimacy of the information Manning is sharing, this creates pathos – by being kept at a remove from the character we are drawn into his loneliness and isolation. Manning is betrayed by his online confidante at the end of the film, transforming the story into a strange, frozen tragedy.
Emma Calder’s Everyone Is Waiting for Something to Happen is, by contrast, a warm and very immediate piece of work. The film describes Calder’s experience of witnessing artist Richard Wright’s journey through cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery through the window of his Facebook page. Wright was a social media contact of Calder’s, an acquaintance more than a friend; her only knowledge of his life came through what he posted on social media. As well as an interesting portrait of one man’s projected online identity and a cheerful story of human resilience, the film is a reminder that the information we share online can travel further than we expect it to, and that in speaking to our immediate circle we are often overheard by many others.
Avatar Days, made in 2009, uses a combination of CGI and live action to paint vivid portraits of online gamers. As we hear them talk in voiceover about their in-game characters we see these characters – trolls, warriors and monsters - walk the drab city streets. This compositing of CGI into live action was relatively uncommon in a short film at the time it was made and the film still stands as technically excellent. The idea for the film is simple and utterly effective, perfectly communicating the value that the players place on their online identities, and implying that these are not simply avatars used online – they are part of the fabric of the human who uses them. In Avatar Days we see online identities and internal worlds merge into the everyday urban experience, in much the same way as thoughts and fantasies weave through and colour our day to day lives.
A Date With an Enfield, by Adam Butcher, is a chilly but touching meditation on memory and nostalgia in the digital age. Part letter to a lost love, part exploration of the fallibility of memory and the impossibility of revisiting the past, this film meanders through ruminations on a failed relationship, visual recollections of a journey through London and historical information gathered from Internet searches. The winding nature of the narrative captures the whimsy of time spent online, clicking from link to link and exploring partially-related information in a journey with no destination. Rotoscoping over Google Streetview journeys and Wikipedia entries, Butcher synthesizes the fragile individual experience with the familiarity of mass-information.
Ian W. Gouldstone’s BAFTA-winning guy101, made in 2006, still stands as one of the more distinctive and unsettling shorts about the online world. In the film an unemotional narrator recounts a second-hand story, which he professes to have been told in a gay chatroom. The story is one of illicit sex, violence and brutality and is made all the more alarming by a blackly comic punch line.
Admittedly, it is tenuous to call this film an animated documentary; it is neither presented nor received as a documentary. Perhaps ‘based on real events’ would be a more accurate label, as Gouldstone’s script was based on a man called Keith who he actually met in a chatroom in 2000. Gouldstone describes his research process as interviewing Keith extensively about his story, while also working out what pieces of the jigsaw could be completed through Googling details of Keith’s life (such as what his home town and car look like). This voyeuristic side of the Internet was a key part of the film for Gouldstone: “There’s a huge part of this film which, for me at least, deals with how much information you can find out about the surface of a person with the help of modern technology” (Gouldstone, 2012). By juxtaposing a deluge of factual information with an absence of verification or resolution in Keith’s story, Gouldstone creates an unsettling effect that captures the essence of some online experiences. Gouldstone’s interest is not in whether Keith’s story is true or not, but more in the ideas and responses that the story raises. Just as story within the film flitters elusively between a seemingly reliable and clearly unreliable narrative, so the film itself exists on a blurred boundary between truth and fiction. Perhaps this distorted, house-of-mirrors version of the truth, in which gaps in the story are filled by our imaginations, is how we perceive many of our online interactions.
The ambiguity of guy101 is heightened by the opaque tone of the narrator – monotone, with a sardonic edge - and the brilliantly creepy graphics, which use visuals from pre-Facebook Internet networks, creating a tapestry of clues and half-formed ideas which obscure more than they reveal. We are left unsure what to make of the story, its protagonist or the narrator, and certain only of the strangeness of the world both on and offline. As with Butcher’s films, guy101 creates an eerie distance between film and viewer, a hollow space in which our questions rattle around and roll back to us only partially answered. This is a space that feeds on desire but leaves it unfulfilled, a cold place in which communication is far from connection.
The animated documentary form has been criticised for creating too much distance between the film and the audience, putting the documentary subject at arm’s length and in this way reducing the audience’s ability to empathise and become immersed in their story (Honess Roe, 2015). Yet perhaps it is this distancing, this slight chill, which makes the animated documentary such an effective form for telling stories about our online lives. Here is an arena in which we function as representations of ourselves, with elements of our identity processed and rearranged for digital use. Our activities online may be very real in practical and emotional terms but they can feel slippery and somehow intangible – distraction, miscommunication and paranoia are rife.
Whether you see social media as essential for modern communication or as a deceptive, narcissistic echo chamber, there is no doubt that it contains both a seductive pull and frustration. Animation has always been used to give form to fantasy - and what is the Internet if not an imaginary space, a universe of half-embodied data representing our knowledge, information, ideas, feelings, memories and dreams? What better tool than animation to take the lead in creating a visual language to represent this intangible space?
Honess Roe, A. (2013). Animated documentary. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gouldstone, I. (2012). Ian Gouldstone on guy101. In: Pilling, J. ed. Animating the Unconscious: Desire, Sexuality and Animation. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press, pp. 173-176.