Is Stop Motion A Dying Art?

Point of View

Is Stop Motion A Dying Art?

The long history of animation’s most humane artform

In a way it was inevitable that Wes Anderson would eventually turn to stop motion animation. After all, the acclaimed director, who up to that point had spent his career orchestrating every minute element of the frame, producing impossibly textured work in the process, was a natural fit for an art form in which control is the name of the game.

Anderson’s first stop motion animation classic, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, was the realest expression of his vision so far: the most Wes Anderson that Wes Anderson had ever been. Using Roald Dahl’s loose, enjoyably simple story as its starting point, the film became a complex and rich exploration of family, love, and the strange kind of ephemera that the American director had become known for – the storied rules of a backyard baseball game, the clicks and whistles of its titular hero.

What stop motion animation gave Anderson that live action hadn’t was a sense of total mastery. He didn’t have to source his props or his locales in the real world. He could build everything from scratch, hand-crafting entire universes out of nothing. 

And those hands are important. Rather than other forms of animation, stop motion has the advantage of looking intensely crafted. A series of puppets or inanimate objects photographed, manipulated, then run together, giving the illusion of movement, stop motion relies on an extraordinary level of detail and precision. You don’t just set a camera going. You compose and adjust every single one of the 24 frames that blink by in a second.

By contrast, CGI is smooth and clean, with the human hand always de-emphasized. Companies like Pixar have spent the last decade trying to make their work appear as real-to-life as possible, developing complex new ways to replicate light and shadow, colour and texture. Stop motion does not have the same goal.

There is an innate jerkiness to the style that reminds you, always, of the people who have fashioned those puppets, of the painstaking time and care they have put into every single pan, every single sweep of a character’s hand.

Image: King Kong (1933) via Warner Bros. Ent.

In its early days, stop motion was born out of necessity. Around the advent of the moving image, filmmakers discovered that stop motion allowed them to insert fantastical objects into their frame during an era where effects had to be practical. Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón was one of the first to master stop motion storytelling, releasing a series of eerie, black-and-white silent shorts in the ’30s.

The most famous, Le théâtre de Bob, helped develop a style that would dominate blockbuster filmmaking for years – the seamless melding of stop motion and live action, as a circus full of haunted puppets interact with a real-life, wide-eyed boy.

A mere three years later, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack took Chomón’s innovation to the next level, deploying some of the most complex stop motion work in the history of the medium for King Kong. The rumours are untrue: its titular beastie, the mournful ape who falls for a woman who can never love him back, was not a man in a costume, but a puppet, painstakingly animated.

Early sequences in the film, in which Kong does battle with a range of horrendous monsters who slither out of the jungle in which he lives, took weeks to animate.

Trickier still were the sequences of a chained Kong, displayed to an astonished audience in the film’s final act. Cooper and Schoedsack were forced to use a complex sequence of coloured lights in conjunction with state-of-the-art chemicals to process the film stock, thereby dividing the frame in two, so the footage of the animated puppet and the real-life screaming punters could sit side by side.

Image: Jason and the Argonauts via Columbia Pictures

The unquestionable master of the form, however, was Ray Harryhausen. Described by Nick Park, the creator of stop motion classic Wallace and Gromit, as a “one-man genre”, Harryhausen became known for his astonishingly complex animated sequences.

The most famous of them all is a scene in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, in which the hero does battle with an army of rickety skeletons. As the camera sweeps around the real-life actor playing Jason, the hordes of bony villains swirl in jerky movements, their every swipe of a blade carefully choreographed.

But there was, sadly, a time-limit on blockbuster directors’ infatuation with stop motion. With the rise of early CGI technology, stop motion was no longer required to pull off big-budget spectacles – computers took the place of Harryhausen and his ilk. We lost artistry, in the name of realism.

As a result, stop motion has, for the most part, moved out of the adult multiplex. Now, major stop motion animation films are largely aimed at children. Laika, the company behind twisted fable Coraline, and throwback comedy horror ParaNorman, are continuing to explore the high-budget possibilities of the style, and auteurs like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson remain dedicated to pushing its technical boundaries. 

Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s jaw-droppingly rich story of alienation and canine friendship, featured a staggering 1,105 puppets, many of them manipulated in strange and innovative ways in the film’s long sequences of grit and decay. But even Nick Park’s Aardman, famous for the highest grossing stop motion animation film of all time, Chicken Run, have begun dabbling with CGI.

Which is not to say that stop motion is a dying art form — far from it. Trends rarely, after all, tell the whole story. Even as the industry has arced towards photorealism, there are experimenters who understand that stop motion has its own possibilities, strange horizons that more than make up for the time that it takes to move all those puppets, and build that whole world. 

Image: Anomalisa via Paramount Pictures

For instance, just six years ago, Charlie Kaufman, the outsized mind behind Being John Malkovich, made the most astonishing film of his career in Anomalisa, a decidedly adult drama about sex and fear and horror told entirely through puppets.

Kaufman realised that stop motion’s eerie, lived-in style was the perfect format for his story of a depressed man who begins a relationship with a young, similarly heartbroken loner – that he could breathe melancholic life into a series of animatronics.

Then there is stop motion’s decidedly childlike quality, one used to stunning effect by commercials director Dougal Wilson in his film for Big Yellow, ‘Tide’. Over the course of a mere thirty seconds, Wilson brings everyday objects to roaring colour, twisting the known world into new shapes, precisely as a child does.

Image: Tide via Blink Productions

And then there’s Australian director Adam Elliot’s heartbreaking Mary and Max, which uses the animation style to rub disparate tones together — the worn-out pain of Max, and the fizzy joy of Mary, his young penpal.

That, after all, is the beauty of stop motion. It unlocks what is key to the very essence of filmmaking. Every film starts with a pitch — a moment where we start at the beginning of our tale, and make something out of nothing; construct a universe from scratch. That’s what stop motion animation does.

It is nothing less than a point of genesis, from which everything is possible. In a filmmaking culture moving towards realism, stop motion reminds us that we should never let the rules of the actual world stop us from spinning our stories.