In the medium of television, you don't have a story without images. CBC's investigative documentary program, the fifth estate is no stranger to that problem. But when its producers decided to present the stories of two people who escaped from North Korea, they faced a unique journalistic challenge. How do you illustrate a story for TV when you have no access to the country where it happened—and it's almost impossible to verify the details? Enter the animated documentary.
In the medium of television, you don’t have a story without images. For investigative journalists, it’s often a challenge to tell stories that come from complex sources of information—like court records, government documents, historic accounts, spreadsheets or databases—and make them come to life on TV.
CBC’s investigative documentary program, the fifth estate is no stranger to that problem. But when its producers decided to present the stories of two people who escaped from North Korea, they faced a unique journalistic challenge. How do you illustrate a story for TV when you have no access to the country where it happened—and it’s almost impossible to verify the details?
The Last Great Escape tells the stories of two desperate individuals who risked everything to flee North Korea. One is the story of a young woman who crossed the Tumen River into China to save her newborn baby’s life. The other is the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, believed to be the only person who was born in a prison camp to escape. The stories of defectors from North Korea often share some brutal similarities, but there was no way to confirm the details of these two accounts. Journalists at the fifth estate could not travel to North Korea to the places where they happened, nor could they phone relatives, friends or witnesses to double check the facts in their stories.
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Sometimes when there are no clear visuals for a story, the fifth estate and other documentary programs will use a recreation or dramatization. Those are usually based as closely as possible on known facts, from a court transcript or other accounts, to make sure they accurately represent what really happened. In making The Last Great Escape, those details were not available—there were only the memories of the two people who had escaped.
So the show decided to try an experiment—maybe animation could to create a visual impression of those memories. The fifth estate has never used animation in a documentary before.
“We didn’t want to mislead the audience,” host Gillian Findlay says. “We wanted to somehow, not just in what we would say in the script, but visually to make it clear to people that this is someone’s memory of what happened, but we can’t really verify it.”
An illustrator created drawings based on what he imagined when listening to the interviews. Then an animator used moving elements, camera angles and lighting effects to bring them to life on the screen.
The short animations depict the most disturbing parts of the survivors’ stories. In the one at the top of this page, Shin remembers how his seven-year-old classmate was beaten to death by prison guards, just for hoarding a few kernels of corn. Findlay and producer Theresa Burke had serious concerns about how to tastefully show such graphic content. Animation is often thought of as something for kids’ cartoons, and they did not want their animations to trivialize the difficult material they depicted.
There were several rounds of potential drawings before they found the style that seemed most appropriate for this story. One of the early drafts was very beautiful—the drawing had a dream-like quality, with graceful lines and flowing colours—but they decided it was too beautiful for such ugly memories. In the end, the animations are done in a neutral gray-blue or gray-brown palette, with simple drawings and few moving parts.
The Last Great Escape is an experiment in a new way of visual story-telling—we’d be interested in hearing from you about how you think it works.
Watch the fifth estate’s full documentary ‘The Last Great Escape’ on CBC-TV on Friday November 29 at 9 pm, 9:30 NT. This post was originally published on the CBC Editor’s Blog.
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