Imagination is often seen as a metaphorical source for real-life confrontations. We write novels and paint pictures that represent what we are feeling. The material form it takes is irrelevant. Who’s to say that Play-Doh is not as viable a medium as watercolors or as marble or as the written word.

Mark Hogancamp is master of a slightly unconventional art form. He builds a World War II-era town to one-sixth scale, equipped with intricately accurate subtleties in the settings and characters. Hogancamp uses the people in his life – his family, friends and co-workers – as inspiration for the dolls that inhabit his fictional world he calls “Marwencol,” which is also the name of the new film by documentarian Jeff Malmberg.

“He’s really committed to staying inside Marwencol,” says Malmberg about Hogancamp’s dedication to his art. “He shoots every day practically. I think he wants to keep it for him. He appreciates people saying that they admire his story, but that’s never been what it’s about for him. He’s just kind of trudging on with the story.”

Hogancamp initially turned to Marwencol as a coping mechanism, one that allowed him to confront the violent and traumatic episode that left him permanently altered. Hogancamp was severely beaten outside of a local bar in Kingston, N.Y., by five alcohol-infused men who left him in a coma for nine days. His brain was so badly damaged that he was forced to relearn everything from the beginning. Creating his life-like scenes using the small buildings and dolls enables Hogancamp to recover some of his hand-eye coordination and relieve his mind from the mental wounds left by the attack.

Malmberg first saw Hogancamp’s pictures in a magazine that was featuring the photographs he took of his work. Intrigued and looking to make a short film over the course of a weekend, the director was immediately drawn to “what a kind and cool guy he was. He is instantly a likeable person. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was captivated with him from the beginning.”

As the documentary details, Marwencol is not just a grownup’s Barbie Playhouse; the fictional land and its citizens have become Hogancamp’s real-life best friends. Whereas before the attack, he was consumed with alcoholism that destroyed his marriage and serious relationships, his investment in Marwencol allows him to create the relationships and, ultimately, the entire story of his life. Malmberg admits to a growing fondness and understanding of Marwencol’s appeal.

“There’s real beauty if you bother to look close enough,” explains Malmberg. “People that you might immediately dismiss because you think you understand them, you can put them easily in a box, but there might be something deeper there. Looking makes life richer.”

Eventually, a prestigious art gallery in New York City discovered Hogancamp’s photographs and set up an exhibition for his work. Thrust into the spotlight, Hogancamp experiences his small, private world in a wholly public and exposing light. However, he is not so interested in spreading Marwencol as he is in bringing it to life, which he and Malmberg do in a short stop-motion sequence in the documentary.

“He had never done stop-motion before,” professes Malmberg. “That was the first time he had done it. I was behind the camera telling him when he had a clear frame so that I could cut it together. He did all the doll movements. I just explained it to him right before we did that shot how stop-motion works, what he needed to do, that there’s only 30 frames per second and all that stuff. He did it right then and there, that’s how good he is. That was one of his first things he said to me, ‘You’re a filmmaker. Help me. I want to bring the town to life.’”

In doing so, Malmberg invested four long years to documenting Hogancamp’s story, which garnered him a prestigious spot as a certified citizen of Marwencol.

“About two years into shooting, he was like, ‘Is there really a movie?’ We were buddies, but he was anxious to see this film. So about two years into it, he introduced this building he had built called the Malmberg Film Studios. He showed it to me and said, ‘This is where your character is going to finish the movie now.’”

Marwencol releases in select theaters Nov. 12.