Life, Animated

Collaborative life writing in Life, Animated

14 minutes to read
Mijke Akkermans

The year 2016 enjoyed the release of Life, Animated, a multi-layered documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams. This personal feature depicts the story of Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, author of the memoir Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism (2014).

Life, Animated

Regardable as a continuation of this book, the documentary reconstructs the story of Owen’s withdrawal from the world at the age of three, his consequent diagnosis of regressive autism, and his recovery journey of learning to speak and to access the world and people around him emotionally through 2D animated Disney movies.

Following the now 23-year-old as he is about to graduate and attempts living on his own, Williams consults both Owen and his family in envisioning how they relate emotionally using Disney narratives as a bridge, and how Owen’s childhood fantasies constructed his self- and world-image.

       Life, Animated Trailer (Williams, 2016)

Life, Animated comprises various narrative layers and perspectives in illustrating Owen’s story, including talking heads, original Disney footage and custom animations that reconstruct and visualize key moments from Owen’s autobiography Land of the Lost Sidekicks.

Investigating the affordances of such elements in collaborative life writing, this paper primarily draws upon Reading autobiography (2010) by Smith & Watson. It aims to answer this question: How do the narrative elements and perspectives in Life, Animated function in constructing a piece of realistic collaborative life writing?

Collaborative life writing

Though not an autobiography, “an account of a person's life written by that person’’ (‘Oxford diaries’, n.d.), as Life, Animated was not written by the subject himself, it relates to Smith & Watson’s analysis of autobiographies. They discuss the self-referential practice of life writing, “writing that takes a life, one’s own or another’s, as its subject’’ (2010, P4). This writing encompasses both memoir and autobiography and focusses on the various ways a life can be reconstructed, necessarily drawing on, and blurring, fact and fiction to generate effects of reality and truth (Green, 2008). The narrator or storyteller is dependent on elements of personal memory, experience, identity, space, embodiment and agency in establishing their subjectivity and to resemble the ‘real’ experienced past in the context of the present act of narrating.

Furthermore, the subject predominantly writes from two lives. First, an externalized point of view occurs through the publicly visible person with ‘real’ attributes who is social, historical, personal and holds achievements. The second person is the self-experienced and –felt within the writer’s internal consciousness, who has a history and can never be ‘exited’ (Smith & Watson, 2010).

A more complex form joining varied engagements of life writing occurs as the ‘genre’ of collaborative life writing. Collaborative acts involve the production of an autobiographic work by more than one person, through the as-told-to narrative in which the writer is one person and the narrator and subject is another, or through ghost-writing (Couser, 2001). The influence of Others, the individuals directly involved in story production besides the narrator, is manifested in components of autobiographical acts including coaxers, sites, autobiographical “I”s, Others of autobiographical “I”s, voice, media and audiences (Smith & Watson, 2010).

Providing their versions of shared events, Others’ distinctive life stories need to mesh within their community of life stories as this supports the designation of identity, a fluid condition which is expressed through thoughts and feelings and is defined by interaction with similarly changing identities (Bruner, 2004; Beattie, 2004).

The collaborative involvement is further mediated by the investigator and editor, who collect and create the multiplicity of narrative elements, often resulting in asymmetrical relations with the narrator as the editor controls the arrangement of the teller’s narrative material. However, as a multilingual and transcultural process, collaborative life writing strives for preservation of the voice, experience, and cultural life of the narrator (Smith & Watson, 2010).

Considering the involvement of an autistic narrator, usually seen as different in ability and personhood-defining bounds, Orlando (2017) claims that collaborative life writing offers a voice, agency and authority. This perspective offers an alternative, supplemental and challenging narrative that asserts the story is genuine, unique and as valuable as any other. Further, it offers a space for stories of autistic and non-autistic narrators to interact in a multi-voiced manner, where the contribution of the Other ensures the credibility and legitimacy of the autistic narrator.

Smith & Watson further note that self-presentation can be enacted not only in written form but in many media, combinable into a hybrid which they call “an ensemble of life narrative’’ (2010, P96). Plummer adds that storytellers “complexly can perform their stories— not just in words and scripts but as emotionally charged bodies in action” (2002, P19). When combined with the capability of documentary modes, such as performative and observational, to overlap and blend, new modes of expression using innovative features of storytelling emerge. This ‘new’ documentary form works with the raw materials of actuality and draws on past and present experience to truthfully represent the observable world and real lives, persuading the viewer that the evidence is a fair representation of issues whilst not necessarily presenting the truth (Beattie, 2004).

I, Owen

Life, Animated can be regarded a conjunction between collaborative life writing and film, as  Owen is promptly presented by the filmmaker as the self-referential subject, “my name is Owen Suskind, I’ll be graduating in a month’’ (Williams, 2016). What follows is my analysis of the documentary’s multitude of narrative perspectives and elements, ushered by Wilson & Smith’s emphasis on narrator role and involvement.

Opting for an as-told-to narrative, the narrating ‘I’ is Owen. He occurs in his parent’s childhood-depicting home videos and photos, in interviews, as a character in custom animations, but primarily in observational vérité footage. Mainly, Owen’s role involves providing first-hand authentic insight into the acts, behaviour, language use, interactions and whereabouts of someone like him, someone with autism. As this remains limited to an externalized point of view, expressions of thoughts and feelings are merely attempted to be narrated by the subject, using his affinity with Disney as scripting, employing it like a code-breaker both in remembering his past and in living the present. His appearance is further justified by the audience’s expectation that particular stories are told by those who have direct and personal knowledge of that specific experience (Smith & Watson, 2010).

Owen’s tone reflects and shapes the documentary’s storytelling aura, regarding his life as a series of episodes, as he has ‘’got a lot more chapters to write’’ (Williams, 2016) and refers to the past as a previous phase, ‘’when I was in the glob I started to think my best years were behind me, I wasn’t into any animated films that time’’ (Strawson, 2004; Williams, 2016). This theme evolves through reoccurrences of the film Peter Pan (1953) and Owen’s references to it in a real-life context: “Walter doesn’t want to grow up like Peter Pan” (Williams, 2016). This interpretation of his own life then affects and coaxes the narratives of Others, such as when his brother Walter reflects on their mutual future chapter of being parentless.

The credibility and authenticity of Owen’s being is mostly expressed in observational footage, as he ignores the crew recording mundane moments, like walking the dog, but also during intimate occasions between him and his girlfriend Emily. He does, however, break the fourth wall with ‘’Excuse me, coming through’’ as the crew are blocking his path (Williams, 2016).

Owen's family

Crucial in shaping Owen’s narrative is the Other of autobiographical 'I', primarily appearing as a mini-culture of family members. Their relationality foregrounds the interdependent relationship between disabled and non-disabled people and the ways text are reflective of those relationships in the collaborative life writing context (Smith & Watson, 2010; Orlando, 2017). The presentation of their meshing narratives colour the reconstruction of major past events through memory, providing unique perspectives of Owen’s story, which “is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told’’ (Waites, 2015; Bruner, 2004, P19). Identified with monikers, such as ‘Owen’s dad’ or ‘Owen’s older brother’, which are vital in further tracing the main character, they first and mostly appear as talking heads, offering a personalized knowledge basis and representing an authoritative point of view (Beattie, 2004).

This knowledge provides specific ‘non-autism-biased’ insight into Owen’s childhood including the autism diagnosis and recovery-journey, contributing to the subject-audience bridge as Others are experts who experienced these events through a personal and emotional relationship. Their appearance in vérité footage provides insight into their day-to-day interaction with the subject and the ways in which they deal with his special needs.

Whereas father Ron places himself within personal past memories through a first-person present tense voice, mother Cornelia and brother Walter discuss events in the past tense. This idea of being present in the past is further stimulated by the opening scene, an original home-made video recoded by Cornelia, in which Ron is play fighting with 2-year-old Owen, as they pretend to be Peter Pan and Captain Hook. As authors and narrators of this footage the parents provide an exclusive piece of evidence. Referring it back to Owen the clip is arranged with the re-enacted scene from Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) and Owen acting out the Disney scene in the interview setting.

Ron’s present tense approach further ties in with his recalling of a crucial breakthrough moment, involving Owen and a Iago puppet from Aladdin (1992). Using an animated voice, exaggerated facial expressions and the pose he used when operating the puppet two decades ago, he re-enacts the narrative and interaction he had with his son. Adding depth and dramatization, this interview footage is alternated with the narrative layer of custom animation visualising the same memory. A second layer, Owen sitting in his bedroom reciting the exact same dialogue, partially originating from Disney’s Aladdin (1992), then forms a dialogue with his father supporting the animation. A complex narrative construction such as this reveals the subject’s interaction with and dependence on the Other in telling a truthful life story truthfully.

Also, Others depend on the subject as without Owen’s narrative, speculations occur more frequently. Such as Ron assigning Owen’s comfort within Disney as lying within exaggerated characteristics of animation, and Cornelia saying it provides comfort because it never changes, unlike the world around them. Furthermore, their observed interactions at times seem scripted, with Others asking the subject probing questions like “What do you think about Walter turning 26?’’, proceeding this topic of conversation and again referring to the reoccurring theme of chapters. Further, Owen often repeats his parent’s words, even outside the fixed Disney dialogue, making the Other’s narrative more dominant than the subject’s, reducing his expressive value.

The narrators and the Filmmaker

The collaboration between the narrators and the filmmaker is complex, as the latter is considered the writer, but is dependent on the footage and contribution of the subject and Others. The filmmaker fulfils the roles of director, interviewer, editor and interpreter, with a crucial role in shaping the raw footage to produce a story with meaning, constructing an observational slice of life, and translating between storyteller and audience.

Even though Williams remains physically invisible, posing a position outside the family’s meaning-making culture, his presence is noticeable in the interview settings as the talking heads address a person next to the camera and as he communicates with Owen through an interrotron (Baron, 2016).

The Disney clips become an unnecessary element providing no more than a set of subtitles, taking away attention from the subject’s personal expressive narration.

In general, the presence of the camera and other equipment has direct and indirect effects on the filmed world, such as rearranging furniture or altering behaviour of subjects, encouraging them to act naturally. This is further affected by the filmmaker's reduction of the crew as not to upset Owen and his pre-established comfort with his ex-colleague Ron (Boerman, 2017).

Furthermore, the footage is filmed according to specific codes and is then manipulated during the editing process, creating the montage of narrative layers (Beattie, 2004). Elements such as the distortion of the home video’s audio, an interpretation of the subject’s sensation of overstimulation, reveal how Williams interprets and manipulates the footage to his own desire, dictating the structure and timeline (Orlando, 2017).

Disney animations as narrative

The final vital collaborative component is animation, a fictional element supporting the narrative. Its first form presents pencil sketches which feel like a storyboard turning Owen’s childhood journey into the films he loves, reconstructing meaningful key moments from his life which appear to not have original footage, such as the previously mentioned ‘Iago moment’. Adding moving image to an oral narrative discussing specific ‘real’ memories, such as Owen ‘vanishing’ or ‘walking the dark halls away from bullies’ are visualised to express what the narrator cannot.

It also allows the bridging of time as upon Ron saying “four years have passed’’ this form of animation shows Owen sitting in front of a TV watching Disney whilst growing taller in 4 phases. These re-enacted imaginations, which are biased by the creator’s personal interpretation, give more weight to the chronological retelling of Owen’s childhood, but mainly replace talking heads.

Sketched animation depicting the memory of Owen communicating with Iago, impersonated by Ron (Wiliams, 2016)

Secondly, original Disney animations occur, juxtaposed with scenes from the subject’s life. Even though on the level of content fictional narratives involve the use of invented people, places, and events, even when depicted as belonging to the real world (Springer, 2005), and as Disney stories are based on fairy tales, the pastiche of Disney footage is inextricably connected to the subject’s narrative as Owen communicates through the voices of Disney characters. As Ron notes, the family communicates through ‘Disney dialogue’.

Owen’s identification with and empathy for Disney characters like Iago and Sebastian offer him a way to understand his feelings and interpret reality. These animated clips are then his representation of the real world, a direct expression of personal truth and imagination of life, providing plausible visualisations. For example, the first night Owen spends alone in his new apartment, he is quietly settled in bed, watching Disney’s Bambi (1942). This vérité moment is then replaced by Disney’s scene in which Bambi loses its mother. And when struggling with a break-up, a clip from the The Little Mermaid (1989) is inserted in which main character Ariel and her sidekicks Sebastian and Flounder are crying. The observed stressful moments showing Owen confused and upset are diffused through Disney, implying his personal value of the animations.

Other occurrences of Disney clips trigger narratives, such as Owen discussing being bullied at school upon being shown The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) being tormented. Initiated by the filmmaker, these clips are not identified as being chosen by Owen himself, but create a relation  as they create associations and the filmmaker interprets Owen’s emotions (Baron, 2016). Even though recontextualized, the references to this item of familiar popular culture produces manipulative sentimentality with the audience, which affects connotations and credibility. The Disney clips then become an unnecessary element providing no more than a set of subtitles, taking away attention from the subject’s personal expressive narration.

Land of the Lost Sidekicks

The final type of animation is the multi-coloured custom visualization of Owen’s  autobiographical chapter Land of the Lost Sidekicks, created by Parisian studio Mac Guff. Depicting various Disney sidekicks and a 3-year-old Owen protecting them from an evil spirit, he used “the narrative of his own life to create [this story], the sidekicks were there to support him, and help him find his way’’ (Williams, 2016).

This narrative within the personal life story positions Owen as a fictional character, reflecting the narrating self by adopting a persona through which he ‘performs’ his identity (Beattie, 2004). The narrating voice, Owen reading an introductory part of the chapter, voices calling out his name and his animated self are direct indications of his involvement.

Embracing real emotions this sequence functions similarly to the Disney clips, but holds higher value as it is a direct interaction with the subject and a dramatic re-enactment attempting to show the real without being affected by the Disney bias, proving that fiction and animation can be used effectively to reveal a form of reality.

Scene from Land of the Lost Sidekicks animation (Williams, 2016)

The filmmaker divided the 8-minute piece into four parts scattered between vérité footage, deflating its value as the broken up sequence is lost between real human beings who, besides mentioning its existence, do not interact with the animation. However, it does interact with the audience, offering a direct way into Owen’s mind, attempting an understanding of Owen’s personal identification with the outsider, as the protector of sidekicks acting “as the younger sibling to the Hero’’ (Harrington, 2015).

Life, animated as collaborative life writing

As a piece of collaborative life writing, constituted of multiple interacting narratives constructing the subject’s past and current life, Life, Animated’s emphasis lies on storytelling. Each of the narrators provides their perspective on shared events, influenced by their relation with the subject and their perception and reconstruction of the past. The inclusion of the subject adds an authentic and genuine perspective, especially considering his personal scripting through Disney, while the Other’s perspective adds an element of non-autism-biased legitimacy. Even though memories are often altered, the layering of these narratives increases their trustworthiness, simultaneously making them more real. The specific element of talking heads directly recalling events creates the effect of a diary of actual memories being read out loud to the viewer. The addition of observational vérité footage further links up with the genre of documentary, further addressing borders between fact and fiction.

A significant contributer to the storytelling is the filmmaker, who shapes and constructs the narrative. The narratives and materials provided by the storytellers are manipulated as they are interpreted by the filmmaker, who assumes the subject’s internal sense and prioritizes visual pleasure. These translations occur at different stages throughout the filmmaking process but are especially diffused in observational footage that contains the narrator’s most spontaneous expressions and behaviour. The use of fictional animation, specifically the form generated from Owen’s personal direct expression, adds an extra dimension to the subject as it visualizes his interpretation of reality. This increases the audience’s understanding of the mind of an autistic person, which has the potential to benefit the greater good.


About the film – Life Animated. (2016)

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