Animated Documentaries

Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)
Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)

This is an extrapolation of the second chapter (Recording Reality: Documentary Film and Television) of ’Representation’, a 2013 book by Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon, as seen from an animation student’s perspective.

Initially the word Animated Documentary sounds like an oxymoron, how can animation which by definition is a doctored form of image-making, be used to create non-fictional texts (Bonner, 2013, p. 62). Further reading into the chapter gives us John Grierson’s definition as a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Hardy, 1979, p. 11), this clearly focuses on the creator’s hand in the process of documentary filmmaking. This is further explained as a three-step process – the first step is the event in the real world, then the record of it on film, and finally the incorporation of this film into a documentary (Bonner, 2013, p. 62-63). For animation the way the event is recorded becomes important to maintaining a truth claim in the film, this makes the sound and visualization crucial as it can function as a record for the event.

Let’s look at Nina Sabnani’s shorts ‘Mukund and Riaz’ and ‘Tanko Bole Chhe’ that I have discussed in an earlier post, because they maintain some level of truth claim to them. The first provides an account of the experience of the partition of South Asia retelling the experience of Nina’s Father Mukund Sabnani. The title of the film itself gives away the relation to real people. The soundtrack in the film uses a ‘voice-of-God’ narration, similar to what is discussed in Nichols’s definition of Expository Documentaries. Tanko Bole Chhe also has a narrated track but this seemingly comes from one of the people who experienced the event, while the visualization follows animated characters created from the craft community’s work.

Both films are enriched by the use of animation in their visuals, in the case of Mukund and Riaz the event is a painful one to recall for many South Asians with heated opinions in every direction, the use of animation provides distance to the viewer that a graphic photographic depiction would not have done. The use of found cloth and materials helps add another dimension to the materiality of the film while adding to its truth claim. In the case of Tanko Bole Chhe the use of textiles directly from the narrators of the story not only helps fill gaps in places where footage would have been impossible to obtain, it adds value to the artisan community’s craft. In both cases they avoid the problem Bonner puts forth about reenactments (Bonner, 2013, p. 77-78) because viewers clearly knows they don’t represent photographic reality.

Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)
Still from Animated Documentary Ryan (2004)

An arguably better known animated documentary is the 2004 NFB film ‘Ryan’ which tries to relay the characters mental state through literal scars and distortions on their face and body. The film jumps to flashbacks of still images as they are narrated trying initially to relate to the humor tropes of ‘cartoony animation’, when the true nature of the interviewee who was once a successful animator is revealed in a violent outburst it feels all the more real. This film displays a thorough understanding and use of ‘style’ as explained by Bill Nicholas with each of the five points being employed to put forth the filmmaker’s view point. (Nicholas, 2013, p. 102)

Each of these examples use animation not only as a superfluous addition but to add depth to the story.

  • Hall, S., Evans J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. London: Sage Publications, pp 60-119.

Animals in Animation

I came across a video by one of my favorite YouTube channels run by Animal Wonders, an educational outreach organization. The video talks about myths created by cartoons when bringing its animal characters to life.

The video goes on to talk about the harmful consequences of these actions, such as people assuming rabbits eat mostly carrots resulting in many getting sick due to improper diets. This simple video made me rethink the importance of being careful about the design and story decisions we, as animators, make even seemingly harmless ones.

Growing up as a child with a particular fascination for the weird and wonderful  creatures we share our world with. Birds of Paradise, Hoatzin, Boto and Przewalski horses, I was interested in animals that don’t often show up in common discourse as a child. I would enthusiastically explain what Lemurs were before movies like Madagascar (2005) popularized them. While movements like ‘Save the Tiger’ garnered huge interest in India while countless other species go extinct without so much of a notice. The unhealthy obsession with only a handful of animals leads to problems in perspective. For example the video below talks about how our consumption of primarily four fish is causing devastating effects on marine wildlife.

The discourse around representation of non-human animals in animation is nothing new. Adams argues Disney’s juvenile, anthropomorphized, animated NHAs blur the boundaries between fiction and reality and can easily be adjusted to convey desired meanings. The representation of NHAs is further problematized by racial, gender, and speciesist stereotypes which reflect a hegemonic white, hierarchical, anthropocentric patriarchy and organize the world according to a “sex-species system” (Adams, 2007, p. 203). Sebastian’s ‘Under the Sea’ in The Little Mermaid (1989) and its potent stereotypes of Jamaicans has been talked about in many a discourse.

I would also add to the conversation about the subtler effects the representation of NHAs in films also shapes stereotypes about species themselves, such as The Lion King (1994) propounding that Hyenas are conniving or that Meercats are solitary. Then there are more direct consequences, the Harry Potter franchise for example popularized the notion that Owls are intelligent, resulting in a boom in the owl trade industry. (Alexandra, 2017)

Animation comes with certain liberties like any other art form, but because it is a pervasive form of media and as such influences people’s perspectives of the world more and more. We need to be careful about the choices we as animators and storytellers make.

Leventi-PerezOana. (2011). "Disney's Portrayal of Nonhuman Animals in Animated Films Between 2000 and 2010" Thesis. Georgia State University, [online] Pg.64 Available at: [Accessed 15 Jan. 2018].

Nina Sabnani: Linking Craft and Storytelling

It would be fair to say that Nina Sabnani is considered one of the stalwarts of animation in India. With a career spanning four decade, Nina has functioned as an animator, filmmaker, writer, artist, researcher and teacher.

She graduated in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara. From 1980 to 1982 she studied Animation under I. S. Mathur,  R. L. Mistry and Claire Weeks (read more about him in my previous post) at the first such program at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She then went on to teach at NID for two decades.

Animation Training Program 1980-82
Animation Training Program 1980-82 faculty and students. Left to Right: Narendra Patel, Mahendra Patel, Claire Weeks, Akhil Saxena, I.S. Mathur, S.C. Sharma, R.L. Mistry, Benita Desai, Chitra Sarathy and Nina Sabnani.
Nina Sabnani and Claire Weeks using the Oxberry animation camera at NID.
Nina Sabnani and Claire Weeks using the Oxberry animation camera at NID.

In her early films she experimented with 2D and stop-motion animation.

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A Summer Story (1987). Retelling of the old story of the thirsty crow based on K G Subramanyan’s illustrated book by the same name. (click to play)

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All About Nothing (1989-90). A speculative story on how the zero was invented in India. (click to play)

In 2005, Nina made a film about her father. It talks about two friends that are separated by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and how they help each other to safety. The characters and environment are built out of textiles and found material.

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Mukand and Riaz (2005). (click to play)

Talking about colonial rule in the sub-continent and the resulting division that caused the largest mass-migration in human history is still a very difficult thing to talk about for people of the countries that were created.

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Shashi Tharoor speaking at Oxford making the case for how Indians view colonial rule(click to play)

This is where Nina’s use of animation may have been the most apt medium to approach the subject. This allowed for some amount of distance from the subject matter also told a heart warming story of how people help each other in a crisis.

“I have grown up listening to my grandparents’ stories about ‘the other side’ of the border. But, as a child, this other side didn’t quite register as Pakistan, or not-India, but rather as some mythic land devoid of geographic borders, ethnicity and nationality.”

– Aanchal Malhotra (Remnants of a Separation, 2017)

In 2009, Nina used her knowledge of working with textiles to make Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak). An animated documentary narrated through conversations by Kutch artisans on how they dealt with events in their history. The film traces their history using their appliqué work and embroideries. There has been a concerted effort to revive and adapt arts and crafts in India and Nina Sabnani’s film reflects that.

‘‘To write about Indian handicrafts is almost like writing about the country itself. So vast, complex and colourful, and yet with a simplicity and charm, di cult to attain under comparable conditions’’

– Upadhyay, M.N.
(Design Intervention & Craft Revival, 2014)

At this point I should also mention the distinction between Kathartic and Rasa Theories to storytelling. The Kathartic structure was defined by Aristotle in his work on ‘poetics’ and forms the basis for more most western storytelling we have today.

Greek amphitheater
The Greek amphitheater defines Aristotle’s storytelling structure with the stage on one side and the audience watching in a semi circular pattern.

‘‘Katharsis is the process by which, through emotional identifcation with the tragic sufferer, the spectator rises above himself and becomes an integral part of universal law and divine plan. The resulting emotional excitations resolve themselves into a pleasurable calm and become part of the new order of things.’’

(Bro. Sebastian Vilangiyil, Ph.D., 1983)

The Rasa theory comes from India and was defined by Bharata Muni somewhere between 2 Cen. BCE to 2 Cen. CE in the Nātyashāstra. This structure proposes creating a system of moods and is still early in being adapted to the format of film. You can see elements of this structure in Nina’s work.

The Natak or traditional Indian play structure has the stage in the center with the audience sitting in all directions. This means the utilization of space on the stage is far more three dimensional.
The Natak or traditional Indian play structure has the stage in the center with the audience sitting in all directions. This means the utilization of space on the stage is far more three dimensional and the structure far less dramatic.

‘‘The rasa theory, in brief, states that for a viewing experience to be complete and satisfying, a play must evoke in the viewer a variety of rasas or avors or sentiments (from the following 8: erotic, comic, pathetic, furious, heroic, terrifying, odious, marvelous). Of these 8, a play may have one ‘dominant’ sentiment, with several others present in smaller, varying quantities.’’

(Slug the Lines, 2014)

Nina’s doctoral research at the IDC focused on Rajasthan’s Kaavad tradition. The Kaavad is a storytelling box that is read out and interpreted by the Kaavadiya in multiple different ways. Nina compiled the numerous stories she collected into various publications, she also produced two films that are a mixture of live action and animation. These are able to capture the relationship between the storyteller and the audiences in a unique way.

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This year she received the Rajat Kamal National Film Award for her film ‘Hum Chitra Banate Hai’ to add to he long list of accolades.

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Sabnani, N. About. [online] Nina Sabnani: The story is in the telling. Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Oppenheim, M. (2017). ‘Winston Churchill is no better than Adolf Hitler,’ says Indian politician Dr Shashi Tharoor. [online] Independent News. Available at: colonialist-author-a7641681.html [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Biswas, S. (2010). How Churchill ‘starved’ India. [online] BBC. Available at: churchill_starved_india.html [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Aanchal M. (2017). Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory. New Delhi, India: HarperCollins.
Kapur H. and Mittar S. (2014) Design Intervention & Craft Revival. International Journal of Scienti c and Research Publications, [online] Volume 4(10), p. 1. Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Vilangiyil S. (1983) Katharsis and Rasa. ABAC Journal, [online] Volume 3(4), p. 44-51. Available at: ABAC-Journal/v3-n1-4.pdf [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
The Rasa Approach to Structure. (2014). [Blog] Slug the Lines. Available at: html [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
50 Years Of The National Institute Of Design: 1961-2011. (2013). Ahmedabad, India: National Institute Of Design. Experimental Animation [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
50 Years Of The National Institute Of Design: 1961-2011. (2013). Ahmedabad, India: National Institute Of Design.
 Survey of India. (1865). Map of India Illustrative of the Pendulum Operations. [online]. Available at: http://surveyo [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Vandivert W. (1943). Calcutta And Bengal Famine - Hosted by Google. [online]. Life Archive. Available at: life/435927b5cc97da6f.html,, html [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Bourke-White M. (1947). Mass Migration, India - Hosted by Google. [online]. Life Archive. Available at: life/417e9c7229a8da51.html,, html [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Pepler J. (2016). Gods & Demons – Heritage Arts and Crafts of West Bengal. [online]. House of Gharats. Available at: portfolio/gods-demons-heritage-arts-and-crafts-of-west-bengal/ [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
Kalaripayattu Presented by Ranjan Mularatt. (2002). Kalaripayattu. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].
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Flowers A. (2013). I see the promised land. Ontario, Canada: Groundwood.
Shyam B. (2014). The London Jungle Book. Chennai, India: Tara Books.

Beginnings of Animation in India

India, like most of the older parts of the world, has a long standing history of storytelling traditions. While most western story structure is based on Aristotle’s seminal work ‘Poetics’, The key Indian storytelling structure is proposed in the ‘Natya Sastra’. Bharata Muni’s (possibly fictional person) texts originate sometime between the 2nd Cen. BCE to 2nd Cen. CE. Bharata proposes creating moods or Rasas, focusing on one of the 8 discussed, throughout a story.

Elephanta Caves Nataraja
Image of 6th Cen. CE Nataraja from the Elephanta Caves

Fast forward to the late 19th Century and we have the likes of Mahadev Gopal and Mahadev Patvardhan experimenting with and screening their work using the Magic Lantern. In 1896 the Lumiere Brothers introduced the film camera to India. The 1915 stop-motion experiment by Dadasaheb Phalke using match sticks called Aagkadyanchi Mouj or The Game of Match Sticks officially marks the beginning of Animation in country. This continued with various other attempts at shorts into the 30s and 40s, most of these films have sadly been lost to time.

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Animation history in India as explained by the Films Division of India (click to play)

After independence the Films Division of India was set up and in 1956 Clair Weeks, a Disney Animator who had worked on films such as Snow White, Bambi and Peter Pan, was invited back to India where he was born. In his eighteen month long visit he helped setup the country’s first formal animation studio and trained various animators who together produced a short called The Banyan Deer, a film based on an old Buddhist Jataka Tale. The model sheets from Bambi that Weeks had brought along were used to create the characters.

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A short silent film about Clair Weeks’ 1956 visit to India (click to play)

The Banyan Deer Storyboard
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 1
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 2
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 2
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 3
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 3
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 4
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 4
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 5
The Banyan Deer Storyboard 5
The Banyan Deer News Articles
The Banyan Deer News Articles
The Banyan Deer News Articles
The Banyan Deer News Articles
The Banyan Deer News Articles
The Banyan Deer News Articles

For me it has been humbling to find a rich animation history in the country of my birth to draw from.

Sen, J. (1999). India's Growing Might. [online] Animation World Network. Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2017].
Tetali, P. and Agarwal S. The Story of Indian Animation. [online] D’source. Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2017].