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Stop Motion: The Handmade 3D Animation

by on November 19, 2009

Prior to the holidays, I was at the movie theater to see an animated feature, of
course, and one of the trailers before it started was for “The
Fantastic Mr. Fox,” an animated feature based on a Roald Dahl book.

And as I sat watching the trailer, this momentary thought crossed my
brain. “Hey, that’s pretty stiff CG. Nice texture work, though.”

Of course, I eventually realized that “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” is in
fact not a very stiff CG film with nice texture work, but instead a
stop-motion animated film, a film animated by painstakingly posing
puppets and moving them for each frame. But I’m willing to forgive
myself a little because, although stop motion films such as “The
Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Coraline” still get made, this is the age of
the CG animated film.

Stop motion films were never as common as traditional two-dimensional
animated films, but before they were the only outlet for a filmmaker
who wanted to create a more solid dimensional animation. Now that
filmmakers with that desire can make dimensional-looking cartoons
purely with the computer without painstakingly posing clay or puppet
figures, well, most of them do. Laika hired someone to knit tiny
sweaters for the puppet characters in “Coraline.” You don’t have to
knit tiny sweaters for CGI characters.

But, fortunately, there are still moviemakers keeping this unique
animated artform alive, and there’s also a rich history of films from
the past. What follows is a list, humbly offered with no pretensions of
special expertise other than being an animation fan, for those that
want to experience something with a little more literal “substance” to
it than your average CG film. I’ve tried to give an overview of some of
the more influential creators and companies involved in stop-motion
film over the years, as well as recommending one particular film from
each creator.

George Pal’s Puppetoons

Ray Harryhausen is well-known for his work on fantasy films that
feature stop-motion special effects sequences. I still remember being
impressed with his “Jason and the Argonauts” as a kid; the skeleton
battle and the creatures were more fantastic than any man in a suit
could ever be. He’s incredibly important to film history, but since he
focused his efforts on live-action movies with stop-motion special
effects sequences, he really doesn’t fit on our list.

The man who gave Harryhausen one of his earliest jobs, however, does.
George Pal, born in Hungary in 1908, is famous as the director of the
1960 adaptation of H.G. Well’s “The Time Machine” and for his work on
numerous other fantasy and science fiction films, including a personal
favorite “7 Faces of Dr. Lao.”

Pal’s films feature lots of well-done stop-motion special effects,
something he was an expert at because before he became a live-action
director and producer, he made dozens of animated stop-motion shorts
under names like Madcap Models and Puppetoons. Harryhausen worked as an
animator on some of these shorts.

Pal’s films appear more fluid than a lot of the later stop-motion work
you might see, because Pal’s animation process was more than simply
posing marionettes. Pal would instead switch out dozens upon dozens of
hand-carved wooden puppets or puppet parts to animate a scene, each
pose might be a separate puppet and a single film could use thousands
of puppets. The effect is gorgeous and lush in some of his better films
like the last Puppetoon, 1947’s “Tubby the Tuba,” his puppets display
complex facial expressions and can even squash and stretch. The story
of Tubby, a little Tuba who wants to play melodies in his orchestra, is
much more touching for the emotion Tubby is able to show.

Pal’s stop-motion work isn’t as well known or widely remembered as the
two-dimensional animation from the period. The best way to check it out
might be to obtain The Puppetoon Movie, a 1987 collection including
some of the best Puppetoons like “Tubby the Tuba” and “John Henry and
The Inky Poo” that’s now available on DVD. Take note that these shorts
are a product of their time and some do include some racial
stereotyping. “The Puppetoon Movie” is actually hosted by Art Clokey’s
Gumby and Pokey, who we’re moving on to now, actually.

Art Clokey and Gumby

Clokey’s clay-animation creations have been cultural icons since the
1950s, so well-recognized that Eddie Murphy could play Gumby as a
bitter old Hollywood pro and people would get it. Clokey also created
“Davey and Goliath,” a show that featured religious lessons that was
recently parodied in Adult Swim’s “Moral Orel.”

Clokey got his start using clay and stop-motion making commercials for
clients like Budweiser. After working with clay he decided to use the
medium to create a stop-motion animated short featuring surreal shapes
using it, which he set to jazz and called “Gumbasia” as a reference to
Disney’s “Fantasia.”

Gumbasia got noticed by Sam Engel of 20th Century Fox, who asked Clokey
to develop a television show featuring clay figures and Gumby, a sweet
little green guy with a funny looking head, was born.

Gumby isn’t the most exciting or complex thing out there, but there’s a
definite charm to the shorts and shows. Being made out of Clay means
anything can happen, and the Gumby characters keep that ability to
change form and shape that was present in the original “Gumbasia” short.

Numerous Gumby DVDs are available. There’s also a “Gumby: The Movie,” from 1995, based on a 1980s version of the show.

The Films of Rankin/Bass

Building on the work of Pal and others, Rankin/Bass produced several
television specials using its Animagic stop-motion process. The process
involves poseable puppets, not creating thousands of separate puppets
as Pal did, and looks a little stiffer than the Puppetoon process. The
animation itself was done by animators in Japan. I can’t help but think
of the Animagic process as the puppet version of the two-dimensional
“limited animation” that became popular in the 1960s for television as
compared to Pal’s puppet version of the “full animation” that was used
during the golden era of Disney and Warner Bros. shorts.

It’s not hard to find examples of Rankin/Bass work, especially around
Christmas time, since their “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been a
holiday staple since it was created in 1964. It’s still one of my
childhood favorites; I remember not getting along with the other kids
in school and being really touched by the “Misfit” song as Hermey the
elf and Rudolph sang about not fitting in. “Rudolph” is a cultural
touchstone, often referenced and parodied, and it’s probably what most
people over a certain age think of when someone mentions stop-motion

The success of Rudolph opened the floodgates, and you can probably find
a Rankin/Bass stop-motion special for any holiday you’d like. If you’re
looking for a full-length feature, consider “Mad Monster Party,” a 1967
Halloween-themed film featuring the voice and likeness of famed horror
actor Boris Karloff, easily available on DVD. Or you could just rewatch
Rudolph. After more than 40 years, people still haven’t gotten tired of

Will Vinton and Claymation

Art Clokey may have been an early pioneer in bringing clay animation
into American living rooms through television, but thanks to Will
Vinton and his Claymation process, for a while in the 1980s it seemed
like you couldn’t get away from it. Vinton’s studio created a number of
popular and widely aired commercials for major clients, his California
Raisins commercials for the California Raisin Advisory Board and the
Avoid the Noid Commercials for Domino’s Pizza. In contrast to the
simpler shapes of Gumby or Davey and Goliath, Vinton’s detailed
caricatured style was able to make even something as boring as raisins
appealing to the American consumer.

But there’s a lot more to Vinton than commercials. He had been honing
and developing his style since the early 1970s when he and fellow
animator Bob Gardiner began the work that would eventually lead to
“Closed Mondays,” a clay-animated short that won an Academy Award for
Best Animated Short film in 1975. The drunk that stumbles through a
living art museum in this film may not be as cute or as smoothly
animated as the dancing raisins. But the film definitely exhibits the
wild flexibility and anything-can-happen imagination possible in the
clay medium, with a memorable sequence in which a computer transforms
into the Earth with a face, Albert Einstein, a TV complete with a
little newscaster inside and many other shapes.

Vinton would continue to create works that stretched the stop-motion
medium through numerous shorts, commercials and sequences for
television shows. In 1985 he tried his hand at a feature length movie,
“The Adventures of Mark Twain”. This is one I vividly remember watching
in my youth and, honestly, it was weird. Especially a sequence based on
Mark Twain’s “Mysterious Stranger” story that features Satan, although
the idea of Mark Twain chasing Haley’s Comet in an airship isn’t itself
run-of-the-mill either. Vinton also moved beyond the clay medium, creating
mostly foam stop motion characters for the television series “The PJs”
and was an early CG advertising pioneer with his M&M’s commercials.
Vinton left the company after it was bought out by Nike founder Phil
Knight in 2002 and the name was later changed to Laika, which continued
the commercial work and produced its first feature film, “Coraline,” in
2009. Vinton formed another studio and continued to work on animation

If I had to chose one Vinton DVD to check out to get a good taste of
his work, I’d still recommend “The Adventures of Mark Twain” even if it
did weird me out as a kid. You could also try the “Will Vinton’s
Claymation Christmas” DVD, which also includes Halloween and Easter

Nick Park and Aardman Animations

Aardman was founded as an animation studio in 1972 in the UK, but most
of the works that have received wide-spread recognition have involved
Nick Park, who joined the studio in 1985. Park’s loveable cheese-aficionado English inventor and his super-smart dog, Wallace and Gromit, actually
predated his involvement with the studio; he had begun working on their
first film, 1989’s “A Grand Day Out,” in 1982 as a student project. A
“Grand Day Out” was nominated for an academy award for best animated
short, but lost to another Park project, “Creature Comforts,” which
featured stop-motion animated zoo animals speaking about their lives in
the zoo. The actual dialogue was provided by man-on-the-street
interviews with residents of a British housing project.

Park continued to explore the world of Wallace and Gromit, sending the
characters up against a dastardly penguin and some out of control
trousers in 1993’s “The Wrong Trousers” and involving them in a tale that
includes love for Wallace, sheep rustling and a jailbreak in 1995s “A
Close Shave.” I remember catching “The Wrong Trousers” on PBS sometime
in the late 1990s and marveling at the quirky affability of its cast.

He also co-directed his first feature film with Peter Lord, 2000s
“Chicken Run.” A tale about a group of chickens who have to escape a
cruel farm before they are turned into pies, it’s darker than the usual
kids movie but was well-received. Park returned to Wallace and Gromit
with 2005’s “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” a
critically-acclaimed “vegetarian horror”romp that won an Academy Award
for Best Animated Feature.

Even though Aardman’s studios burned in 2005 and most of their models
were lost in the fire, they soldiered on and have continued making
Wallace and Gromit and other films. Aardman has also developed
“Creature Comforts” as a franchise including an American version,
although I personally have to say the newer efforts aren’t as charming
to me as the original. He also moved into CG with 2006’s “Flushed Away.”

As for the DVD recommendation, I’d have to say you can’t really go wrong with “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

The Films of Henry Selick

A lot of the general public might think that Tim Burton sat down and
posed the puppets for “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” considering how
closely his name is associated with it. But that’s because the media
would rather focus on Burton than Henry Selick, the director whose
unusual vision animated the story.

Selick became interested in stop-motion animation as a young boy
watching the films Harry Hausen directed. He worked in all different
types of animation, working on traditional 2D animation for Disney and
doing commercials and stop-motion bumpers for MTV. My first exposure to
Selick’s work was probably “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions,” a short
that mixes stop-motion, live action and other techniques for an effect
that makes “The Nightmare Before Christmas” look a bit conventional.

But, of course, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is the work that
kicked off Selick’s career making animated feature films. It’s a
beautifully animated movie, filled with bizarre settings and strange
characters. It’s refreshingly not afraid to be scary, instead of toning
itself down to soften things for its intended audience.

Selick followed with “James and the Giant Peach,” and adaptation of the
Roald Dahl story. Another beautifully weird and adventurous movie, it
still didn’t catch on with audiences. He then made “Monkeybone,” a
live-action/stop motion disaster that was critically panned.

But he seems to be coming back to form with 2009’s well-received
“Coraline.” It’s such a smoothly animated and technically competent
movie that one could be forgiven for mistaking it all for really good
CG at first, but maybe they’ll notice something a little extra
realistic about Coraline’s sweaters. Coraline even uses Pal’s
Puppetoon’s technique of crafting hundreds of individual heads for
puppets so the characters can have more expressive faces, although
Selick has access to rapid prototyping technology that presumably makes
things a bit quicker than carving each head by hand from wood.

To see more some of Selick’s work, I would recommend “The Nightmare
Before Christmas” or “Coraline” if you haven’t seen them, but if you have
give “James and the Giant Peach” a try.

In an interview with The Onion’s AV Club, Selick explained the survival
of stop-motion in the CG age as part of the public’s fascination with
the handmade, the way it feels more real than even the most competent
CG movie–because it is.

Hopefully studios will never abandon this
technique completely, and we’ll get to keep that handmade feel and moments of surprise at those especially realistic looking textures.

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