'Waltz,' 'Chicago 10' re-create reality with cartoons

A significant drop in documentary box office receipts in recent years has forced filmmakers to rethink their approach. Talking heads and voiceovers are increasingly being replaced with not only re-enactment sequences but also animation.

This year, “Chicago 10″ director Brett Morgen used motion capture to depict the trials following the 1968 Democratic National Convention, while fellow doc helmer Ari Folman recounted his time fighting as an Israeli solider in the 1982 war with Lebanon using a combination of Flash and classic animation as well as 3-D in “Waltz With Bashir.”

“In a traditional documentary, when you don’t have footage for an event, you usually end up relying on interviews that tell you what happened in the past tense,” Morgen says. “I wanted the narrative to unfold in the present tense so that it wasn’t about audiences looking back but instead experiencing the moment as it unfolds.”

Morgen also was reaching out to a particular age group.

“By using animation in a style that resonated with videogames and graphic novels, I was hoping to create a language that would be (acceptable) to the youth audience.”

For Folman, the choice was either to animate “Waltz” or “don’t do it at all.”

“A middle-aged man being interviewed against a black background telling stories that happened 25 years ago without any archival footage to support them would have been so boring,” Folman says.

But convincing investors to fund an animated doc proved to be a difficult task for the director.

“For every 20 minutes of the film, I had to travel around the world to try to get money for the next 20 minutes. I ended up having to mortgage my house and take out crazy loans,” he says.

Investors may have been skeptical, but critics embraced “Waltz” at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Last month, the Intl. Documentary Assn. nominated “Waltz” for its feature prize.

In Morgen’s case, incorporating animation into “Chicago 10″ attracted investors like Participant Prods. and River Road Entertainment.

“At the time, no one knew of any other documentaries that were employing animation, so it was looked at as a way to

really elevate the film and make it an event, something special that is worth paying $10 to go see,” Morgen says.

Sundance organizers found “Chicago 10″ special enough to open the 2007 fest, only the second doc to do so in the event’s 25-year history, though the film has grossed just over $175,000 since its February release. Morgen speculates the low turnout might be explained because the film was seen as competing not with fellow docs but “with Pixar and Disney for eyeballs.”

Despite the frustrating numbers, Morgen doesn’t regret using animation.

“It’s a new media that allows filmmakers to find new ways of telling stories,” Morgen says. “I think you will see it used more as technology becomes more accessible to people with documentary budgets.”

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