Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stop Motion

Stop motion is an area in animation which doesn't get criticized often enough for its biggest flaws. It's clear that there's very little thematic variety when productions get very large, to the point of a feature film. Odds are that a film will be: A, a heartwarming tale of old fashioned moral values with great respect to __ tradition, B, a wondrous out of this world fantasy journey which explores the wondrous nature of human life, C, a humorous look at this clearly screwed up world which dares to show it for what it really is, D A horrifying, likely surreal tale of the place of humankind in a screwed up world that nobody can make sense of.

But wait. You're a hip, original creator whose film doesn't fall under one of those categories. That's because you're E, a mixed blend of many attributes of all four.

So how many stop motion feature films are there that manage to duck these ugly, even silly stereotypes? So far, I've only found 2, Piotr Kamler's Chronopolis, and Kawamoto's Book of the Dead.

And goodness, has anybody else noticed how much of an aversion there is towards the area of serious science fiction? Stop motion seems to have a sort of odd fantasy version of the subject, whether it's the mice in Clangers who are visited by an astronaut or Wallace and Gromit going to the moon. They seem to enjoy some of the mechanical aspects alright, like fancy machines, but they have a strange hesitance to commit to it wholly.

I've seen one short film which I recall had an anthropmorphic alligator or crocodile in a spaceship. Clangers, the British television series has mice on a strange planet but avoids the topic for down home fantasy. Wallace and Gromit's first short has them going all the way to the moon, but ultimately it uses science fiction elements in more of a children's book sort of way. Then there's Trnka's short film Cybernetic Grandma. The brown faced inexpressive doll characters and the slow pace kept me from finishing it. Edison and Leo goes surprisingly far with a real inventor, but again, from what clips I've seen, stops short of real science fiction. It harks back to pre-50's science fiction/horror and monster movies the most from what I've seen.

So why has this subject matter so largely been avoided? You know the annoying tendency of animation filmmakers to retreat towards their roots and science fiction didn't gain popularity until the 50's, but that doesn't explain it entirely. Burton and Selick, big names from the U.S. are exploiting German expressionism for all it's worth. The medium has long drawn its roots from it's relationship with live action special effects, and there's no recent sci fi live action films I know of offhand which have used much in the way of stop motion effects. Maybe the efforts in that direction have failed.

So what is it that skews stop animators towards farmhouse villages, forests, old monster movies, child's toys incarnate, surreal experimental works, and fairy tale fantasies? Looking at the sort of themes they seem to skew towards, I get the impression that the puppets are playing with the animators. I sincerely hope that stop motion animators manage to expand on their set of typical themes and start letting their themes dictate what stop motion allows rather than the other way around. I'm aware of stop motion's spatial, material and economic limitations, but I have issues with it that go further.

I've realized that the most interesting stop motion isn't the most popular one of puppets, or even claymation, but replacement figurines. I've become obsessed with many of George Pal's Puppetoons, particularly his Philips Showcase. I wish that this sort of technique were applied to the environment surrounding the character and taken to extremes, with characters moving in unison with proportion changing landscapes. The technique is often compared to hand drawn animation, but I'm not sure how far this comparison should be taken. Sure, the models are renewed frame by frame, but a still figurine gives a very different, and it seems, much stronger impression than a still drawing. There are moments when Pal lets the puppets lapse into still modes and curved heads, but this really counters much of the momentum of the technique. That seems to be the biggest flaw of the medium, compared to puppet animation, figurines seem to fare worse while not in motion.

The comparison starts falling apart when you think of the possibilities of limited animation with drawings to limited animation with replacement puppets. You can look at puppets from different points of view, which means that you can look at different aspects of the puppet when it's not moving, unlike a still drawing(exception made for 3D computer drawings made with SANDDE). So in this sense, replacement figure animation is not so much a 3D equivalent of hand drawn animation as much of a form which becomes analogous to it if the filmmaker uses it similarly, and full animation essentially makes this more difficult. But even with full animation, you can repeat actions, showing them from different angles. There's an argument to be made for transparent puppets too, since you can see more of the puppet.

Sometimes I look at certain forms of animation with glaringly limited capabilities and think about how a filmmaker manages to create a beautiful work within their limitations. I swear that animators are like dancers sometimes, knowing how to make an interesting story in a limited setting. It's the cutout medium where this know how seems to be most useful. Anybody who can make a dynamic character with a couple pieces of paper moved on a screen and time shots so that the blatant faults of the medium don't handicap the events on screen deserves some major respect. Especially if there's very little in the way of replacement cutouts, using mostly hinged puppets.

One thing that I think that would help stop motion animators is to stop thinking in terms of reality as captured by the camera and start thinking in reality created using the superficial look of real objects arranged specifically for the camera. Stop motion animators aren't fools, and they've heard of forced perspective, but it seems to me that there needs to be a shift in perspective here. What if you made a house in stop motion that was deliberately covered in different materials at different points in time in order to express how it looks at the particular moment? So why not start rocking the boat? For example, a dark room as seen from an outside window is represented by a black piece of cutout paper. Then when you change the view, you see something inside the piece of cutout black paper which represents the darkness of the room to see an object that's actually inside the room. Keep playing back and forth between visual tricks and you make the viewer indifferent to what's real and what's not.

But I've done too much complaining. I haven't talked about some of my favorite experiments in stop motion. Too many people seem to take stop motion at face value. Here are some stop motion films which consider it more of an area of animation than a medium. It's interesting how stop motion comes off as a medium in its own right to some people and a general area to others. With claymation, there's the people who use it more transparently and those who revel in it like Misseri Studio often does, particularly in Red and Blue. Same with the whole idea of object animation. In hand drawn animation, there's the enormous divide between rubber hose and artistic characters and characters like Snow White. In computer animation, it's largely between those who embrace the computer aesthetic and those who treat it as though it were transparent. There's no shortage of media for stop motion at the moment, but the form doesn't have very many interesting complex characters who are as expressive as those in hand drawn animation. I don't think I've ever seen one genuinely attractive female character in stop motion for instance.

To finish off the post, here are three stop motion animated films which are more material oriented. One's a man made out of wire, the other two paper cutouts, one origami the other not. Back on topic in the next post, with two reviews of independent computer animated features and more thoughts about the area of computer animation in general.

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