Film & TV Muse

The intricate world of stop-motion animation

Malu Rocha discusses how this niche form of animation survives in a world of ever-expanding CGI technology

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Image Credit: Walt Disney Home Video

Aesthetica Short Film Festival drew to a close this last Sunday (10th). My goal this year? Watch all the animation screenings. Needless to say, life got in the way and I failed. But I did manage to watch 159 short films from their 400+ official selection, so I’d call it a success. Year after year of attending film festivals, I finally allowed myself to admit that I’ve noticed a trend in my annual favourites; they always include at least a handful of stop-motion shorts. So, like any reasonable person with (not) too much time on their hands, I decided to investigate this peculiar phenomenon and understand exactly what it is about stop-motion animation that I find so appealing.

For context, stop-motion films are constructed by capturing one frame at a time through single photographs. Between every photo, the filmmaker ever so slightly moves the subject so that when it’s played back in sequence, the illusion of movement is created. Think of early Disney 2D hand-drawn animations, but with real-life objects.

This filmmaking practice dates back to the late 1800’s when the first stop motion short (Humpty Dumpty Circus, 1897) was registered in America. However, it wasn’t until King Kong came along in 1933 and featured the famous sequence of the gorilla on top of the Empire State Building that it became a widely recognised form of animation.

Since then, films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs have redefined the genre. There are entire studios (Aardman Animations and Laika) that specifically commission these types of films (both features and short) and expand on their boundaries. In fact, the stop-motion form has always been present among short films, especially in the film festival circuit. Watch Negative Space (Ru Kuwahata & Max Porter), you’ll thank me later.

In such a notoriously money-led industry, it’s nothing short of incredible that such a niche and particular form has withstood the test of time. But what exactly is it about seeing inanimate objects move on screen that makes audiences keep coming back for more?

For starters, stop-motion films have a particular aesthetic and fantastical tone that can hardly be achieved through other mediums. They portray recognisable natural movements and imaginative renditions of the real world that are entirely fabricated. For example, many stop-motion films use cotton balls to imitate clouds which consequently makes them stand out, whereas if they were to simply be animated into a CGI film, they would probably blend in with the background and pass unnoticed. In a stop-motion set everything is physically built, and the audience is very much aware of that. But instead of that becoming an obstacle in the viewing experience, it instead adds incredible personality to the world of the story

This makes stop-motion films all the more human. And in a world where everything seems to be taken over by automation and technology, maybe we’ve reached a standpoint where we long for more human connections; and stop-motion films provide that comfort for us. It’s quite rewarding to know that an artist physically handcrafted the puppet you’re seeing on screen. And even though that puppet probably won’t be perfect, it will most definitely feel real and organic because it took hours and hours to be produced. In fact, Dan Pascall, Laika’s marketing production manager, revealed that most of their feature films have a 92-week production shoot. If you’re not a film geek, trust me when I say that’s a big number.

Perhaps we’re at a surge in our culture where millennials are appreciating the little things that take a lot of work instead of opting for instant gratification. Or perhaps it’s just me being old-fashioned. But seeing how much passion an artist has put into their work is, and always will be, quite appealing.

Because of the sheer craftsmanship and dedication that visibly go into making stop-motion films, they have an ability to connect with audiences in such a level that other mediums only ever hope to achieve.

Even though other forms of animation are cheaper, easier, quicker, and more realistic to produce, there is something very artistic and tangible about this filmmaking form. While some may say that clinging on to the stop-motion form is like wanting to write out your emails in quill, I’d argue that they often have more soul than most blockbusters these days. If anything, this should serve as a gentle reminder that we don’t need a Pixar budget or a Disney team of animators to create wonderful films and tell wonderful stories.

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