Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Return of stop-motion

With the eagerly anticipated international release of two major stop-frame animation features (both with rave reviews), the world’s oldest and most magical form of filmmaking is set to make a comeback.

So what is stop-motion? In a nutshell, it is a process whereby images of a model, usually made from clay, plasticine, wire, or even Lego, are played back at such a speed that the human brain interprets the series of static images as one continuous stream of action. When Spielberg decided to use computer animation instead of traditional stop-motion for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, it could have been the beginning of the end for commercial stop-motion. However, the release of two important animation pieces that same year demonstrated the charming and magical niche that is stop-motion. The Nightmare Before Christmas was a musical feast for the eyes with a wonderful story and design from Tim Burton, while the second Wallace and Gromit piece, The Wrong Trousers, won an Oscar and made their creator Nick Park a household name in the UK and created a buzz of activity at Aardman animation studios  that has continued ever since. 

Now, 12 years later, and a few more projects under their belts, the two creators return with new offerings for big screens across the world that are sure to bring with them a renewed surge of interest in the medium.

From the wonderfully quirky mind of Tim Burton comes The Corpse Bride, which, judging from box office figures as well as critic reviews, promises to deliver on all levels. Wonderful characters that look like Burton’s sketches in 3D are set in his typically dark world, and voiced by his muses Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Fittingly, the film is due for local release October 28th – just round the time of Halloween.

Fans of Wallace and Gromit or Chicken Run will also be happy to hear of the imminent release of the next Aardman feature, Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The story seems to promise the usual adventurous fare for the cheese-loving inventor, Wallace and his ever-faithful (and often more clever) dog Gromit. With only days to go before the Giant Vegetable competition, business is booming for Wallace and Gromit’s Anti-Pesto pest-control unit. However, as their own home overflows with rabbits, the duo must also deal with a mysterious veg-ravaging beast and the snobbish suitor of the competition hostess. This is Wallace and Gromit’s first full-length feature film after 3 shorts (resulting in one nomination and two Oscar wins) and opened at the number one spot at the US box Office, proving that the plasticine due are not just limited to critical acclaim, but are commercially viable too.


But the success and interest in stop-motion is only highlighted with these two major motion pictures. There have been more and more examples of stop-motion hitting the mainstream audience over the last few years. An Australian stop-motion short called Harvey Krumpet won the Oscar for best short animation in 2004. Stop-motion from Henry Selick, the director of Nightmare Before Christmas was featured in Bill Murray’s last film, Life Aquatic. Another stop-motion feature The Legend of Santa Claus is also in the works from a Utah-based company called Lumenas. The story depicts the life of the well-known Christmas figure from his childhood, before he became so famous. They seem to be approaching the animation in an inventive way, by combining stop-motion with computer in-betweens to blur the movement and reduce the jerkiness. 

Computers entered the realm of traditional 2D along time ago, speeding up the process immensely, so perhaps they can be used to overcome this single drawback of stop-motion – the time involved. Computers do already play a big part in stop-motion – painting out props, or animating against a blue screen allows characters to jump and fly and extra special effects can always be added to elaborate on an affect. Computer animatics are often used to stage out a complicated scene or try different camera angles, but this was used a lot in Chicken Run and in the end it almost looked so perfect that some say it might as well have been done in CG.

The wonder of stop-motion is often in those small imperfections that might not even be visible to the eye – who, besides an animator would notice a single frame out of hundreds with a mistake? It is these ‘faults’, these human fingerprints (sometimes literally) that give stop-motion the quality that cannot be obtained with a computer. Stop-motion is more hands on and the feat created with a finished piece is more apparent to the audience who is subconsciously aware of the fact that each frame of movement was physically carried out by a person….and at 25 frames per second, that’s a lot of miniscule movements to create one feature-length animation. 

I can personally testify to this, as I was fortunate enough to work on another stop-motion film, 

which has been in production in Berlin for the last 5 years and should be ready for release next year. Entitled Memory Hotel, the project is still largely unknown, but when it is completed, will undoubtedly make waves in the animation world due to the unique vision of its director Heinrich Sabl who has shocked festival audiences before with his confrontational and cinematic style of animation. The story is set in a Russian-occupied Hotel in post-war Germany and clearly the main goal of the movie is not to entertain children, which demonstrates another recent trend to include an adult audience who also appreciate the art form of animation. 

Less arty, but on the more adult (or arguably juvenile) level of MTV’s popular Celebrity Death Match has come a new series called Robot Chicken aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Creators actor/producer Seth Green and Matthew Senreich spare no one and run through many toys as they bring slightly mean-spirited pop-culture parodies to life in the 15-minute weekly series. They use legions of action figures to spoof everything from Quentin Tarantino’s blood-spattered epics to MTV’s The Real World, in which a cast of superheroes takes the place of drunken 20-somethings. Green and a number of other celebrities provide voices, including Scarlett Johannson, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Macauley Culkin. 

The recent string of feature-length animated hits have proven that animation did not die with Disney’s classics but has entered a new era of inventiveness both in visual style and technique. After Disney’s one feature a year, we are almost spoilt for choice now. There are enough releases to warrant a “best animation feature” category at the Academy Awards with 3 major companies vying for the accolade each year. Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks, and now Blue Sky, all create 3D CG features, Nickelodean aims at younger audiences with 2D spin- offs from TV series, and there are a number of smaller independent studios who can also deliver brilliant product as demonstrated with Spirited Away in 2003 and Bellville Rendezvous in 2004. Although CG has dominated at the awards until now, perhaps this year will be stop-motion’s turn. It might very well end up being a head-on competition between The Corpse Bride or Wallace and Gromit. Any bets? 

The South African Stop-Motion Scene

Locally, stop-frame is still relatively active, and animation in general does appear to be used more in commercials after a bit of a lull. 

Triggerfish’s claymation advert for SABAT batteries still airs on Super Sport 2, and shows an array of sports cars morphing from one to the next. Their delightful inserts using wire chameleons, and dancing plastic chickens can still be seen on Takalane Sesame and a recent piece for the New York branch of Sesame was accepted into competition at Annecy Animation Festival. More recently, Triggerfish has completed a title sequence for the television show Mantswe a bonono using a graphic visual approach, combining stop-motion with digital.

Sabat commercial

Another stop-motion title sequence delving into the digital is for the series, Helping Nature Help You, animated by Bernie Roux of Lovebomb who’s brilliant stop-motion ad for Childline won a Vuka and a Silver Lion. With limited time, and budget, the team, including Paul Hanrahan and Carlos Carvahos, decided to move away from characters and rather use colours, textures and real-life objects that would allude to each episode. Using digital technology to capture the images helped speed up and streamline the process. 

Director Jacquie Trowell, who is now working independently, completed an advert for Film South Africa in which animated curios come to life through the lens of a tourist’s camera. The advert is one of 5 which was given the go-ahead after a “director’s challenge” in an initiative to promote filming in SA and was showcased at Cannes this year. 

Souvenir commercial

XYZoo’s most recent claymation short The Velveteen Rabbit won 2 major international awards. Within two months, it won the 2005 Cine Special Jury award for best children’s film in the broadcast category and was awarded the Booklist ‘Top of the List’ editor’s choice for best DVD of 2004. Booklist is a review magazine that goes out to public libraries, bookshops and DVD outlets across the USA. XYZoo is currently completing a claymation commercial for Dubai.

This year also saw the release of Africa’s first full-length animation feature and the world’s first “Junkmation” movie The Legend of the Sky Kingdom. It told the story of three orphans who escaped the Underground City and would stop at nothing to reach the Sky Kingdom. Formerly based in Zimbabwe, Sunrise productions have moved to Cape Town, where they continue to produce both CG and stop-motion. 

By Anthony Silverston

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