Tower (2016)

It’s not often that a film challenges my preconceptions of the medium or genre. Certainly, an animated documentary about the first mass school shooting in the United States is not the subject matter I would have expected from such an endeavor (the Academy Award winning Ryan is perhaps more in line with what I expect from an animated documentary). That’s not to say that there can’t be films that retell historical events, but films like Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis, or the more recent The Wind Rises fall much more in line with what is expected of a docudrama.

Tower, on the other hand, is very much a documentary. Featuring talking head interviews with the victims and first responders who lived through the 1966 University of Texas shootings, and recreations based on their testimonials, the film relays the information to us in a manner that is in line with a news documentary that is edited to provide dramatic structure rather than a film created with a dramatic narrative in mind.

Of course the big question that looms over the film is why does this story need to be animated? Why can’t you tell the story with the people involved in the story instead? In fact, in the middle of the documentary, the filmmakers pull back the veil and show us the original interviews that they used as the basis for their animations:

Claire Wilson, depicted as a student back in 1966.
Claire Wilson in the present.

But as I watched the film, this question simply vanished from my mind as I became engrossed by the harrowing tale of people like Claire, who could only lie on the ground helplessly after being shot by the sniper and watch as her boyfriend slowly bled out in front of her. When the film begins to introduce live action footage — first the archival news footage shot during the incident itself and then the interviews shot specifically for this film — I realized that I had forgotten all about the fact that I was, in essence, watching a cartoon.

There’s something ironic about finding animation to be more immediate than live action footage, since by definition animated images create a layer of mediation between the audience and the subject matter. You know that someone had to draw these characters and animate them, whether by hand or by computer algorithm. Yet the animated nature of the film also makes the events of the film feel more visceral and real. Certainly being able to be with Claire as she’s lying on the ground, or with the police officers who decided to storm the tower and take down the sniper, brought me into story more than I thought possible.

The recreations were filmed in live action and used for the rotoscoping process

Intellectually, I know that I’m watching the equivalent of Band of Brothers (or any number of documentaries about the Second World War), where I’m engaging with a recreation of a historical event framed by interviews with the actual participants of those events. But when you see the documentary subjects appear as if they came straight from the shooting to sit for a news interview, it lends an air of authenticity to the entire project. When Claire tells the interviewer about the fact that she lost her child after being shot, it had such an impact on me because it felt like something that just happened rather than something that happened nearly 50 years ago. It’s not that seeing the real Claire Wilson describe her experiences took me out of the moment, but seeing the animated Claire Wilson describe her experience in an interview cut with footage of the same animated Claire Wilson slowly bleeding out on the campus grounds of the University of Texas brings the feeling of immediacy that live action footage would never be able to create.

Perhaps there’s also a bit of the Scott McCloud magic operating here as well, as the animated nature of the recreations lets you forget about the little inconsistencies that, at least on a subconscious level, change how you much you can engage with a dramatic recreation of a historical event. I know when I watched When We Rise, the television miniseries about the LGBT movement in the United States which used the same dramatic and formal structure as Tower — they used actors in both the talking head interview segments and in the dramatic recreations — there were times when I was taken out of the experience of watching the docudrama. Many times it was as simple as the distraction of watching a well-known actor show up on screen, or how the filmmakers chose to shoot around Harvey Milk rather than have him appear in their series, but this shot was probably the one that distracted me the most:

Inserting an actor (on the right) into archival footage

I couldn’t help but think about Forrest Gump when I watched this scene, despite the fact that this moment is meant to symbolize a key turning point for Queer rights in American history.

This feeling of distraction wasn’t a problem at all with Tower. The archival footage helped create a feeling of authenticity or legitimacy to the project as a whole and the animated recreations helped bring the story to life and make us feel as if we were living in the moment with Claire and the others involved in the shooting.

Gravity was a film that challenged my preconceptions of CG and 3D as nothing more than elaborate technological distractions that existed only to dazzle audiences with pointless effects and explosions. After I watched Cuarón’s masterpiece, I came to understand how CG allows film directors to bring techniques found in animated films into the realm of live action, creating shots that would simply be impossible with real world cameras.

Tower is a film that challenges my preconceptions in the other direction. The idea that drawing and animating a historical event is somehow less authentic than showing actual film footage or photographs of the same event was a notion that I simply took to be axiomatic. Why would a cartoon be more “real” than actual footage? I’m so glad to have been proven so wrong with this film, and I’m now convinced that there are times when animation can be more authentic than live action footage.

Note: more information about the process of filming and animating Tower can be found at this link.