Leanne Pooley’s boundary-pushing animated documentary 25 April follows six New Zealanders’ experiences during the World War I Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. The battle was an important part of New Zealand history because of how poorly the British treated their colonial forces: underquipped, under-supported troops were deployed in Turkey for what ended up being a pointless bloodbath. Each character tells his or her story in an animated talking head interview — created using motion capture with live actors — set around 1920. The stories are then brought to life with recreated footage of the events.
When Pooley was brought onto the project, her producer had already decided to make the film using animation. After ten months of research, poring over hundreds of journals and letters from the time with her team of researchers, Pooley identified six characters with distinctive voices who could help tell the story of the events — one of whom had been at Gallipoli at the very beginning and the end of the campaign.
In their initial promotional trailer for the film to seek funding, the interviews were set in present day, because that’s how we think of war documentaries: old people recounting stories from decades past. But because this film would be animated, Pooley had a radical idea: why not set it just after the war, when the characters were still young and close to the story? It’s something that wouldn’t be possible in conventional documentary filmmaking, and it dovetailed nicely with Pooley’s goal to connect with young people in New Zealand who have been moved to commemorate this battle in recent years.
25 April had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. I sat down with Leanne Pooley to discuss the challenges of making the film, how she decided to use actual actors with motion capture for the talking head interviews, and why making an animated documentary was a good match for the material.
The Seventh Row (7R): The animation in the film is very stylized. How did that particular style come about, and what the process was to find it?
Leanne Pooley (LP): It’s a multi stage process. At the beginning, I said I wanted it to have a graphic novel feel, not like a game, which I told the animation team. Then the team comes to the table with their ideas. There’s also budgetary issues to talk about — the backgrounds are hand drawn, but the characters were computer generated. When we made the decision to go with a graphic novel aesthetic, we had Colin Wilson, who’s a really well known graphic novelist. He did all the character’s faces. He gave them a really “drawn” feel. I wanted to make them look animated, not real.
7R: What do you think a documentary film, and also animation, can do for this story that a narrative film couldn’t do?
LP: Animation is great because it can put you inside the heads of the characters in ways that would look kind of naff in live action. You can create visual metaphors you’d never be able to get away with in live action. You get the freedom to play with imagery and metaphor, and being inside the experience of the characters.
In terms of documentary versus fiction, there’s something about documentary that makes an audience feel comfortable knowing that there’s some truth in what’s happening. You look at “Braveheart,” which I think is a genius piece of filmmaking, but then there’s people talking about how it’s not historically accurate, which some people find it gets in the way of their viewing experience.
If you use the documentary word, you hope your audience has relaxed into the sense that this happened. That’s why we put the key up at the front of the film saying it’s true. We did a test audience, and one member of it said, “It’s a bit cliché that you had the Maori unit doing a haka,” but that’s what happened. Maybe it’s cliché that they did a haka, but they did a haka.. I think there’s a comfort in knowing that if you’re using the documentary word, knowing there’s fact.
7R: How did you think about structure when writing the script?
LP: I do set down a breakdown of the “beats” I want to hit. I look at them and think, “There’s an awful lot of darkness, we need some lightness.” We have a scene where there’s the armistice, and it’s pretty horrible and sad, and I go to the swimming to give the audience a breath before we go back to death and despair. I think that’s the same. I sit down and write what my scenes are and their order. I look for “This character’s disappeared for half an hour, we can’t have that,” like traditional film. I sit down and mark it out.
7R: How do you decide which animated scenes you need to create? You have an idea of what people will be talking about, but you don’t know until you’re cutting it all together…
LP: It’s a good question, because you don’t want to throw stuff away either, because it’s so expensive. We did throw some stuff away, like how some people shoot car chases and throw them away. We did an Animatic, using storyboards. Before we started any animation, we storyboarded every frame. We tried to do some editing in the storyboard stage, so we don’t waste time animating. We made about four to five minutes’ worth of animation we didn’t use, but not masses, because we’d done a very specific storyboard.
7R: I think there’s a lot of interesting ‘daily life’ details in the trenches. The buzzing of the bugs, or the sense of camaraderie, and what they were doing. I imagine a lot of that came out of research?
LP: Photographs, too. Animators would look at photographs of how the trenches looked, how the men dressed, what the food set-up looked like, lots of referencing photographs. Thankfully, there were a lot of photographs, so we could reference them. So, you know, the fact that lots of them wore singlets, and were sweaty and dirty. The images inside the hospital ship, that was taken completely referencing photographs. We even found things that were thought were interesting that we just put in the background. We could play a little bit.
7R: How did you decide to do the motion capture for the interviews as opposed to just animating?
LP: It just seemed to make sense. I needed the voices, so we might as well. It was a bit of a staged thing — I actually shot the interviews without the motion capture first, so that we could cut. I had like six hours of interview, and then I wove it like I was making a traditional documentary. I did an awful lot more interviewing than I used. So then when we redid it with motion capture, they didn’t have to do the whole interview. It had always been the way we thought they’d do it. I wanted the emotions to be coming from somebody who was experiencing what was happening, rather than just me adding stuff to an animated face. I hope people connect to the characters because of that.
7R: This is not the first time you’ve worked with actors. Actors aren’t often associated with documentary filmmaking, so have you worked with actors in other projects, or do you just learn as you do in a non-fiction environment?
LP: I’ve worked with actors quite a few times in documentary, done a lot of documentary/narrative crossover. I also go to a lot of actors studio workshops to make sure I keep that skill. I just make sure I have the best cast possible, to save me if I get it wrong. On this film, I worked with six of the best actors in New Zealand — wonderful actors who are experienced. If you can get the casting right, I then just work to have a relationship with them.
They spent quite a lot of time to just get to know the characters they were playing. It was easier than with some films, because they were real people — a lot of background stuff was provided. I love working with actors. The joy of working with actors is in documentary, when you’re working with real people, you’re just waiting for something to happen. With actors, I can just say, “This is what’s going to happen”.
7R: What made you decide this the best way to tell this story in this documentary — what conventions to keep and what to change?
LP: I decided early on that I would have talking heads. Because it was a departure to go into animation, I wanted there to be recognizable documentary elements, to give the audience an orienting point. I wanted it to be an animated documentary, not just an animated movie. I didn’t want to have dialogue in the war scenes. I wanted you to see the characters speaking, so you could connect with them as individuals. I’m not afraid of talking heads if you can ensure that what you’re seeing is something of someone’s soul, which is another reason I wanted to use motion capture. If I hadn’t used motion capture, I don’t think it would have worked.
7R: I find it interesting that you do make documentaries, but you do a lot of things that we associate with narrative film, with actors and animation. The form is very malleable…
LP: I think it should be. Documentary doesn’t have to be just pointing the camera and wait for something interesting to happen. I’ve been around a long time, so I’m looking for ways to push and scare and excite myself. It’s partly that. Also, I don’t think there’s much of a difference between good documentary and fiction filmmaking. Good documentaries should have characters people identify with, a first act turning point, a climax, changes in pace, a little bit of humour. Good documentary filmmaking should have all those things just like any film should.
7R: What do you think documentary film is? Because you do interesting things with form, that are sort of unexpected and innovative. I was wondering where you see what documentary and non-fiction are?
LP: What attracts me to projects is to play with the form. I’ve made a lot of traditional documentaries, more than I want to admit, because I’ve been around for a long time. I say I need a character to walk from A to B, and my animation director would say, “Where’s he coming from? Is he tired, is he injured?” It’s just like working with actors: you want the characters to move in a way that’s motivated and truthful. There were always endless questions about the scene, and what you’d be doing in the scene. That was a real learning curve with me. Animators think like actors. You’re looking for little moments that add to a moment, integrating the how of an action, too. That has to be really thought through from a performance perspective. It’s something I really had to think about.
7R: How does experience with having done so many other documentaries help you deal with this form crossover?
LP: Partly because I have a group of people I’ve worked with a lot, we literally dive into the trench together. Partly because I think I have a good understanding of pace, I try keep my films from being too long. I think many documentaries are too long. This film’s only 85 minutes, which is short as you can be and still be a feature film. I’m unusual in that I try to keep my films tight. That’s also experience, and watching 10,000 documentaries in my life and deciding that most of them are too long. I guess there’s a little bit of confidence that you’ve done stuff so you trust yourself. Usually I’m just terrified like everyone else. Terror is the place I start with.
25 April does not currently have North American distribution.