Move over Pixar, computers aren’t everything.
Animated movies have a long history of being considered both childish, and fiendishly marketable. It probably didn’t help that Disney dug their claws in way back when, and never really let go. But while straight-up hand-drawn and now, computer-generated 3D animation have mostly been dragged off into the realms of big-money movie-making, with at least a handful (or more) popping into cinemas every single year, there’s another little mini sub-genre of animation that’s hid itself away, focussing on the craft. It may rarely command the same box office returns as its more polished brothers and sisters, but stop-motion is far from dead. Its significantly more textured (and to some, slightly too real) look and feel might not necessarily always be one for the kids, but the dedicated pool of filmmakers very much keeping it alive as an art-form are certainly worth keeping an eye on.
You can spot a work of stop-motion from a mile-off. Instead of putting a totally immense amount of detail into a totally immense amount of flat drawings, or very carefully twiddling expensive computer software for hours on end to make things move, stop-motion is all about models, puppets and all that real-world, three-dimensional malarkey. It started with clay, and the concept is simple: you take a model, you move its arm the tiniest fraction, and you take a picture, or a “frame”. Then you keep doing it until when you look back at all of the frames lined up, one after the other, the model’s arm moves seamlessly. But while the very concept seems straight-forward enough, the artistry and patience required to make it not only work, but work well, is on a very different scale.
With the average film playing at 24 frames per second, the animator has to make thousands of those tiny adjustments, just to make up even a mere minute of screen-time. And that’s just for making one figure move; what if the scene has a whole crowd, all moving independently, flailing multiple body-parts around in the air and screaming their lungs off? What if they’re all on a giant, meticulously detailed boat, being tossed about in a super choppy ocean? How the hell do you break down every single movement in your film, from the tiniest of eye-twitches, to a swirling rain storm, into sections that are just one twenty-fourth of a second long?
I mean, there’s no denying that animation full-stop is hard, and stop-motion animation is certainly up there with the most time consuming, even if a lot are starting to use computer effects like green screens to make their jobs easier. But you can’t always praise something just because it’s difficult to do. Transformers no doubt took longer to make than 12 Angry Men, but does it mean it deserves more praise? Hell no. The important thing to focus on here is the artistry.
The best stop-motion movies are the ones that simply could not have been told in any other medium. Being topical, both Wes Anderson’s 2009 re-telling of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and his freshly-released Isle of Dogs, are prime examples of films that pretty much had to be animated (unless you just dress a bunch of people in fox/dog suits, but that’s bound to be creepy). Anderson is a filmmaker who revels in the details; he leans on the tiniest of textures in order to tell his stories. And without truly knowing that the objects and characters we’re seeing on screen are made of real, three-dimensional materials, with their own independent touch and feel (something that just can’t be replicated in a computer), the aesthetic he’s been building across a career spanning nearly twenty-years, would just totally crumble.
Another prime example is the work of visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen. Considered an all-time Hollywood great, he’s the master behind countless legendary special effects, embedded into the fantasy and adventure films of the 1950s and 60s (Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and the much-loved Sinbad series to name just a few). Through his work with stop-motion, Harryhausen crafted dinosaurs, sea-monsters and even Medusa herself, and placed them all directly in the heart of live-action sequences, without even so much as a hint of hokiness. They may look a little dated now, but everything from their movements to their colouring, to (yes) their textures, mirrored the real-world so well, audiences across the world were totally fooled.
There’s an imperfection to stop-motion that’s not only charming, but almost essential in the suspension-of-disbelief. Things like the thumb-prints on the plasticine used to make Wallace & Gromit remind us that we’re watching something totally physical and tangible and very much homemade. Filmmakers like Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) and Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa, Synedoche, New York) lose themselves in such dense and far-out worlds, that having that connection to something real, and knowing how it sits within a very physical space, keeps us grounded. Laika (the company behind the likes of Coraline, ParaNorman and most recently, the mind-meltingly brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings) are arguably the best and most consistent with this kind of storytelling too, dedicating their entire ethos to telling far-out mystical stories that look like they’ve fallen straight out of the pages of a pop-out story book. Kubo’s a great example of a film that’s totally embedded in the culture of its story-world from even the very first frame. The whole production’s designed to mimic the artistry of the origami and ancient Japanese aesthetics the film’s actually about and set within; a seriously defined, papery world that simply could not exist outside of stop-motion.
These detailed, textured worlds are becoming more and more of a rarity as computer software and visual effects get better and better; Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and Illumination are simply just too good at their jobs. And while there’s still life left in stop-motion, and its wacky, wild-eyed and sadly waining form of storytelling, it very much deserves to be celebrated.
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