Then and Now: 100 Years of Independent Animated Documentary

Jul 20, 2018 · 8 min read

By Melissa Ferrari

July 20th, 2018 marks the 100 year anniversary of the first animated documentary, Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania in 1918. In celebration of 100 years of this genre, we take a look back at McCay’s masterpiece and celebrate some of the fantastic independent animated documentaries that have since been featured at the Slamdance Film Festival.

“The Sinking of the Lusitania” directed by animation pioneer Winsor McCay, was released in 1918 and widely regarded to be the first commercially released animated documentary.

While the question of veracity remains a point of contention for nonfiction animators even today, the genre pioneered by Winsor McCay still allows for vast creative potential. Practically, animation is a particularly invaluable tool for independent and DIY makers. While the conventional live-action documentary might turn to archival imaging or the daunting task of creating a tasteful live action re-enactment, animated documentarians can single-handedly depict any time, person, or place in the past, present, or future with just a pencil and paper. The use of animation has a variety of advantages: animations can convey what can’t be captured photographically while still providing compelling, emotional imagery. Filmmakers can depict events that aren’t physically visible to the eye, historical events that weren’t captured on film, vulnerable documentary subjects that need to maintain anonymity, events that take place in the mind (such as emotions or dreams), or even speculative futures. As an independent animated documentary, The Sinking of the Lusitania illuminates the unique process of the independent animated documentarian: the filmmaker often fills the role of director, animator, and researcher.

The Sinking of the Lusitania

While animation had been used previously in nonfiction work, The Sinking of the Lusitania is widely identified as the first commercially released animated documentary. Using elegantly rendered effects animation, subtle realist compositions, and informative text, McCay created a visualization of the tragedy surrounding the Lusitania. The Lusitania was a British passenger liner that was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915. Of the 1,959 passengers aboard the vessel, 1,198 people drowned, including 128 U.S. citizens. Although the United States did not directly respond to the attack with a declaration of war, the incident is considered a contributing factor to the United States’ entry into World War I. According to animation historian John Canemaker, McCay’s primary motivation to create the film was “patriotic zeal.”

The Sinking of the Lusitania was self-funded by McCay and created with assistance from John Fitzsimmons and Apthorop “Ap” Adams.¹ McCay used ink, crayon, and pen on celluloid, live-action sequences, and photographic images to create an account of the Lusitania sinking that mimicked the aesthetic of contemporary nonfiction media.² There was an over-saturation of war films on the market at the time McCay’s film was released, and there were several other contemporary film productions based on the events surrounding the Lusitania.³ To set itself apart from these other films, which were predominantly live-action historical dramas, The Sinking of the Lusitania branded itself as the only “record” or “documentation” of the Lusitania’s demise, which had not been captured photographically on still or moving film.⁴ As McCay claims in the film, The Sinking of the Lusitania was not only “a historical record of the crime that shocked Humanity,” but “the first record of the sinking of the Lusitania.” Although the text in the film is manipulatively emotional and sensationalized, the majority of the actual images created by McCay were not overtly melodramatic and were the closest anyone had seen to a real visualization of the event.⁵

McCay used a variety of cinematic techniques to convey realism and contextualize his film as a document of truth. The majority of the animation is composed and illustrated in a way that mimics what a camera might have captured if observing the Lusitania’s descent from a safe distance. By employing patient timing, McCay allows slow action and long pauses that feels like live action. The simplified realism of McCay’s rendering style lends itself to a feeling of truthful depictions rather than artistically manipulated emotional visualizations.

McCay is known to start his films with expository live-action scenes that emphasize (and sometimes exaggerate) the laborious animated filmmaking process, and the opening scenes of The Sinking of the Lusitania feature a variety of strategies to show the process of documentary research and animation production. The opening scene places the viewer as a witness to the vital act of the filmmaker, McCay, acquiring knowledge from an expert on the subject of his documentary, Mr. Beach. The following shot shows a large team of animators, but in reality, McCay only used two animation assistants who aren’t even shown in the scene. As Canemaker describes, these phony, dramatized re-enactments serve to “emphasize the importance and difficulty of the production.”⁶ Similarly, McCay uses the scene with Mr. Beach to provide evidence into the truth claims by placing the viewer as a witness to his research.

Despite their artifice, these opening scenes show the unique process of the independent documentary animator: McCay serves as a researcher, animator, and director. The paratextual and aesthetic strategies used to contextualize the animation as nonfiction also reveal that even in the earliest forms of animated documentary, directors were concerned with legitimizing the animation as a documentary medium. However, McCay’s desire to present his film as an objectively true documentary is unsubstantial. While The Sinking of the Lusitania is a gorgeous film that is very influential and important in animated documentary history, contemporary viewers of the film as well as viewers today recognize that The Sinking of the Lusitania is ultimately a propaganda film fueled by McCay’s political beliefs.

In recent decades, animated documentary as a medium has become an increasingly popular topic in animation and documentary discourse, with the persistent question of whether animation serves as a legitimate form of documentary. Subjectivity and the relationship between fact and truth are points of contention in all nonfiction filmmaking, particularly with the extensive postmodern discourse on the constructed nature of live-action documentary film. Animated documentarians today face the same questions of how to convey authenticity, truth, or factuality to their audience, and given that animation is a medium that is entirely constructed by the animation artist, animated documentary comes with a unique set of concerns. Ethical issues of representation and accuracy are magnified when the entire image is fabricated by the animator, and the animated documentarian must be accountable to verifying that their aesthetics are respectfully authentic to the subject. However, an increasingly complex understanding of the relationship between veracity and the absence of total objectivity in documentary filmmaking has allowed animated documentary to thrive without the burden of conveying truthiness.

While the question of truth remains relevant, a broader understanding of nonfiction animation filmmaking has allowed for modes of experimentalism, poetic documentaries, and a move towards Werner Herzog’s concept of “ecstatic truth.”With the increased focus on production of animated documentary in the past few decades, today is a particularly flourishing point in the history of nonfiction animation. The Slamdance Film Festival, as one example, has increasingly highlighted films that push the medium of animated documentary forward into exciting new territories.

Animated Documentary at Slamdance Film Festival

“The Chaperone” directed by Fraser Munden

As a particularly invaluable tool for the independent creator, animated documentary aligns well with Slamdance’s independent spirit. Films screened at the festival have shown a breadth of approaches to independent animated documentary. Handmade forms of re-enactment are a common approach in films such as Fraser Munden’s The Chaperone (2013), Gabrielle Kash’s Lorem Ipsum (2017) or Matthew Salton’s Richard Twice (2016). By using animation to visualize scenes from the documentary audio, the filmmakers can explore sensationalized imagery that emphasizes the emotional nuances of the documentary subjects. The Chaperone and Richard Twice use hand-drawn animated styles that explode with surrealist visions and psychedelic abstractions to amplify the emotional state of the film’s storytellers. The raw punk aesthetics in both films fuel a Fear and Loathing style visual storytelling that complements the 60s/70s environment.

“Richard Twice” directed by Mathew Salton

Freed from the conventional documentary concerns of photographic indexicality, animated documentarians can also employ the narrative potential of experimental techniques and privilege visual poetry over didacticism. The majority of animated docs featured at Slamdance have used hand-made animation, which allows an exaggerated level of emotion and draws the subjectivity of the animator’s hand to the foreground. Artists such as Sheila Sofian and Brian Smee embrace abstract sensibilities that evoke a sense of memory and nostalgia, for example in Sofian’s A Conversation with Haris (2002) or Smee’s Big Surf (2017).

In A Conversation with Haris (2002), Sofian uses visceral textures and visual metamorphosis to illustrate an interview with a young Bosnian immigrant, creating a complex portrait of the way a child experiences war. The ethereal nature of Sofian’s relentlessly morphing and disintegrating paint-on-glass animations leaves the viewer with a sense of fleeting instability, bringing the viewer closer to an emotional understanding of Haris’ experience.

“A Conversation with Haris” directed by Sheila Sofian

Brian Smee’s exquisite experimental animated documentary Big Surf (2017) engages with the history of the St. Francis Dam collapse, a tragic flood disaster contemporary to the events in The Sinking of the Lusitania. Smee uses soft, organic abstractions and long pulsing landscape shots to evoke a sense of loss and memory, allowing the viewer to reflect on the disturbingly relevant themes of climate change, water shortages, and human-induced environmental disasters today.

“Big Surf” directed by Brian Smee

Ainslie Henderson’s Stems (2015) poetically captures the enchanting process of stop motion puppetry, flattening time using stop motion animation to poetically discuss the wonder of puppet building. The initial live-action introduction in the film shows the tactility of the materials in stop motion puppetry, and as the pacing of the film progresses from live-action to time-lapse, the process of constructing a puppet is revealed. Gradually, the timing techniques transitions from time-lapse to fully animated frame-by-frame stop motion animation, capturing the sublime emotional experience of an animated puppets autonomy.

“Stems” directed by Ainslie Henderson

Melissa Ferrari is an animator and documentarian. Phototaxis, her animated documentary that draws parallels between Mothman, a prophetic and demonized creature in West Virginia lore, and Narcotics Anonymous, the primary treatment program in West Virginia’s addiction epidemic, screened at Slamdance in 2018.


¹ John Canemaker and Maurice Sendak, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, 151–152.

² Annabelle Honess Roe, Animated Documentary, 15.

³ Michael Inman and The New York Public Library, “The Sinking of the Lusitania: How a Wartime Tragedy Occasioned a Landmark Animated Movie.”

⁴ Stephen Hanson, Patricia King Hanson, and Frank N. Magill, Magill’s Survey of Cinema: Silent Cinema Vol. 3., 995.

⁵ Inman.

⁶ Canemaker 154.

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More than a film festival, Slamdance is a community, an experience and a statement. By Filmmakers For Filmmakers. ⚡️

Slamdance Fearless Filmmaking

A community and resource for truly independent filmmaking. By filmmakers, for filmmakers.

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