Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stop-Motion Animation: A Brief History Part 2

By the second half of the 20th century, stop-motion animated films had become well established in the minds of movie enthusiasts and television audiences. This is primarily due to several talented individuals: Peter Lord and Nick Park of Aardman Animation, Tim Burton, and Henry Selick. Even current filmmakers continue to utilize stop-motion as an alternate to traditional animation and CGI, be they at the recently established studio, Laika, or independent filmmakers at home or abroad.

Aardman Popularizes the Medium

If you haven't heard of them, you have been living under a rock for twenty years.

Aardman is one of the oldest and most prolific stop-motion studios around today. Established in 1972 by Peter Lord and Nick Park, the company first attracted attention when it produced animated segments for the childern's programs Take Hart (1977-1983) and the Hartbeat (1984-1993). These segments featured a small Plasticine figure called Morph who would interact other inanimate objects and human actors on screen. Nick Park's "Creature Comforts" (1989) became the first Aardman production to win an oscar. The short was humorous take on the interviewing process, involving various animals complaining about their living conditions at a zoo. "Creature Comforts" later spawned a 27 episode series which ran on ITV from 2003 to 2006. "Stage Fright" (1997), a darker short about the relationship between the stage performer, Tiny, and Arnold, a arrogant, unpleasant movie actor, likewise met acclaim despite its more serious subject matter.

Aardman, however, is by far the most famous for creating its Wallace and Gromit series. Beginning in 1989 with "A Grand Day Out", the cheese loving inventor and his silent, stoic dog have gone on to appear in a total of four shorts (as of 2008) and starred in the feature film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Shaun the Sheep, who first appeared in the short, "A Close Shave" (1995), got his own TV series beginning in 2007 and is also scheduled to get his own movie in 2015.

Although Aardman has recently produced two computer animated films, Flushed Away (2006, with Dreamworks Animation) and Arthur Christmas (2011, with Sony Pictures), the studio continues to use Plasticine as their main medium. Chicken Run (2000), an action comedy flick about a group of chickens attempting to escape a farm with the help of an American rooster, was the first of Aardman's stop-motion films. More recently, Peter Lord directed The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) which was a modest success at the box office. Two other stop-motion films are currently in development, The Cat Burglars (director: Steve Box) and an untitled Nick Park project.

It's a POW flick starring chickens!

Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Laika

Tim Burton making weird faces behind two characters you may recognize.

Even if his more recent films have not met as much critical praise as some of his earlier work, there is no denying the popularity of Tim Burton's uniquely gothic and often quirky productions. Burton began his career while working as an animator at Disney. The company was impressed with his work, particularly the stop-motion short, "Vincent" (1982), even though Tim Burton's style was in stark contrast to that of Disney. Thus, Burton was given more freedom to create larger projects. The result was the half hour live action Frankenweenie (1984), a black and white adaptation of the famous horror novel featuring a dog as the Frankenstein 'monster.' Unfortunately, Disney found the film too unorthodox for its standards and fired Tim Burton, fearing that the film would scare small childern. (This is extremely ironic since Disney would later commission Burton to remake Frankenweenie as a stop-motion film in 2012, after Burton had become quite famous.)

Burton's live action film, Beetlejuice (1989) utilized stop-motion special effects, although his more recent productions opted for CGI. Of course, Tim Burton remains famous for writing and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Burton did not direct the film due to being preoccupied with Batman Returns (1992). Instead, the cult classic was directed by Tim Burton's long time friend and collaborator, Henry Selick. (Nightmare was also originally released under Touchstone Pictures because Disney was still fearful about offending sensitive parents.)  Selick also directed the live action stop-motion combo, James and the Giant Peach (1996), while at Disney. Although the film was not a runaway hit, it has received more recognition in recent years.

In 2005, the Oregon based stop-motion production company, Laika, was established. Its first major production was Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005), which met moderate success and was the studio's first Oscar nominated production. Henry Selick's Coraline (2009), which was based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, managed to rank third at the box office during its opening week. Coraline boasted a mastery of stop-motion special effects and CGI unseen in any animated film before. The movie spent over three years in production and was made with over 450 animators, 250 technical designers, and nearly 150 different sets.

Laika's most recent production, Paranorman (2012), was also shot in 3D and utilized 3D printers to speed up the animation process. Paranorman is a comedy horror film about a misfit boy. Norman's ability to talk with the dead allows him to save his town from the curse of a witch and some rampaging (but likewise misunderstood) zombies. Laika is currently working on The Boxtrolls, which is due to release next year on September 26th. Meanwhile, Henry Selick has returned to Disney and is set to direct an adaptation of The Graveyard Book and, possibly, an original project entitled The Shadow King. (Outside of Burton, Selick, and Laika, other recent American stop-motion productions include Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009] and... the upcoming CGI and pop reference filled The Lego Movie [2014].)

If you haven't already, watch this movie!

 Stop-motion Overseas

Be it at at home or abroad, stop-motion animation doesn't show signs of disappearing anytime soon.

As with hand drawn animation, stop-motion is still commonly used by foreign and freelance animators, despite that major Hollywood players prefer to exclusively use CGI. Winter Days (2003) is perhaps the most ambitious and overlooked production made in the past ten years. The film was a collaboration between 35 animators living in several countries including Japan, Russia, Belgium, Canada, and the Netherlands. Winter Days utilized several animation techniques alongside stop-motion and featured various shorts based upon different Japanese poems. Another Japanese film, The Book of the Dead (2005) was set in during the Nara period, when Buddhism was being introduced from China to Japan. It follows the life of Iratsume, a noblewoman, and her relationship with the religion.

Several productions have also been made throughout Europe and in other countries in recent years. The Legend of the Sky Kingdom (2003) was Zimbabwe's (and Africa's) first animated feature. Although having a somewhat cliche plot, the animation itself was fairly unique. Each puppet was made from trash that the creators happened to find lying around their facility. Peter and the Wolf (2006) was produced by a British-Polish-Norwegian team and, despite having a run time of only 33 minutes, has caught the attention of several movie festivals. Peter and the Wolf is a true classic, not only because it manages to adapt a timeless tale for modern audiences successfully, but also because it manages to convey so much emotion without using any dialogue. Also of note is $9.99 (2008) an Australian / Israeli collaboration about an unemployed man searching for the meaning of life. In 2009 alone, three foreign stop-motion were released. Toys in the Attic was a Czech attempt at recapturing the spirit of earlier Eastern European animation, whereas A Town Called Panic (Belgium / Luxemburg) was a more slapstick, carefree film about small plastic toys. Mary and Max's (Australia) subject matter, involving a shy man with Aspergers and his young pen-pal, shows just how diverse the animated medium can be.

This short film won an Academy Award (and, in my humble opinion, is superior to the Disney version).