Let’s write a real article at least once this week, what do you say?
In the previous installment of this series, which I had to go back to remember because it’s been far too long since I’ve done one, we talked about puppets. I said I would talk about stop-motion next time and surprisingly I remembered! Like before I’m not going to go into the history of stop-motion, nor will there be a huge focus on stop-motion as a special effect, like early Star Wars movies or the works of the late great Ray Harryhausen. I’m more interested in fully stop-motion animated production, though the reason the former died out completely and the latter seemingly on the decline are pretty similar. And yet stop-motion refuses to really go away. Stop-motion productions can be found on YouTube rather easily, from shorts to short films thanks to modern toy articulation or just not having another option available.
So where does stop-motion shine? Is there really a type of story that stop-motion could work for like no other?
Of course when one thinks of stop-motion stories the first thought is often (I can’t read your mind so maybe not you) the first thought goes to something like the Rankin/Bass holiday specials, especially their Christmas ones. If you see a stop-motion Christmas special using stop-motion it’s a safe bet they’re trying to emulate those specials, though the studio did make a few 2D specials as well. It was kind of what they were known for to the point I’d wager someone out there doesn’t know they also made ThunderCats, which explains why in their version of The Life & Times Of Santa Claus so many of those voice actors pop up. I’ve heard a group of people are put off by those because of one of the reasons they aren’t really used. Usually I start these things off on the positive nature of a format but in this case let’s look at the problems of this form of animation.
Stop-motion in the past used puppets with special armateurs. They could be made of clay like Gumby or other materials like Rankin/Bass. (Sorry if the slash doesn’t go there, it’s just how I saw the name in the logo throughout my childhood and my brain refuses to not use it.) Each movement is very time consuming, moving the articulated parts as little as possible because the less pictures you have the less frames you have, resulting in some very jerkish movements. If you sneeze or something else goes wrong there’s a whole day lost just to open a door or sit down. Sitting down also means having to cope with gravity, since gravity won’t stop for you to take a picture and move the arm a bit further. You have to come up with ways to keep a figure in a falling position without it actually falling down so the final result looks like an actual person is about to calmly sit in a chair or fall flat on their behind while ice skating. It’s not a task for the impatient, which is why I never even tried it.
Look at what this one scene from Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (if it’s still up there) has to pull off. In addition to character movement you have the fire in the fireplace, the ice bag having to fall off his head and not just disappear between positions, characters jumping and doing ballet steps in mid-air, and that’s not even getting into the facial movements having to match up with the dialog and singing. To make the Burgermeister Meisterburger and his top man look like moving people they had to come up with ways to have things move with the puppets and hang in mid-air even when they weren’t jumping, all without seeing wires (and one wire wouldn’t be enough because Meisterburger would be spinning around all right, but not in a ballet move) or stands or anything else. And they had to get this done by Christmas…along with every other shot not involving a dream sequence or moving book picture that only went 2D for artistic reasons, with more than one character on stage and moving independent of each other without knocking anything down. Good luck with that.
I dare say Claymation, which is the same thing but with clay figures, may be even harder. Clokey or Will Vinton are kind of legends in this field for that reason. While you could use armateurs the clay itself needs to be hard enough that the puppeteer doesn’t have to worry as much about leaving a fingerprint in Gumby’s leg but soft enough that the California Raisins can dance. This is not even close to easy, but then you have all the other stop-motion issues on top of that. Watch A Claymation Christmas Celebration if you can sometime. The skits vary in quality but some of them are visually amazing. The animation for “Joy To The World”…I mean, look at this!
Honestly I don’t know how much of that is clay despite the name of the special but the more that was used the more amazing this sequence is. It’s beautiful either way, I know that.
In movies having people fight skeletons that looked like skeletons instead of people in costume could only be done by stop-motion superimposed onto a scene of actors swinging at nothing. Nowaday you can do the same thing with computer imagery, and that’s getting more advanced all the time. As for stop-motion, you don’t see it as much. Tim Burton loves using it because it can be kind of creepy if done a certain way, perhaps even on accident and a number of people (not me mind you) can’t connect to it. Otherwise it’s usually just used to capture the feel of those Rankin/Bass specials, usually for parody more than proper nostalgia. Otherwise you may see it used in a commercial but how often do you see it used just on it’s own?
I know, you just finally got that song out of your head. That’s from 2007 and actually my introduction to this song. I just thought seeing Patlabors form a boy band while Optimus, Megatron, and Unicron fought over the Matrix was cute. A year later we get something like this.
Now one of my favorite creators uses stop-motion to show off the articulation and features of the toys he’s reviewing plus doing skits.
(For the record I’m a “toy first” design fan instead of a “show first” because in most cases the toy came first.)
And I’ve seen short films done with the modern toys. Transformer’s Official YouTube channel does cute shorts with figures that have less articulation. I’ve shown some of those as daily quick posts or Saturday Night Showcase over the years so you can probably find them if you poke around. I think there’s enough videos for this article. Let’s answer the question: what can this do storywise that you can’t with other styles?
I mean unless your trying to do the creepy thing like Burton or homage/parody the old Christmas specials and movie effects you’re not really getting anything that you couldn’t do with modern computer animation. There’s a reason the last two King Kong movies didn’t follow the trend of the first two. At the time there was no other way to do something like that visually. (Look at King Kong Lives, a Kong ape suit I don’t think Godzilla man-in-suit defenders like myself can defend.) I’m not really here to go over special effects, I’m interested in telling a story. And special effects are really the only thing stop-motion puppetry has. Sure, toy reviewers can show off the articulation and transformation bits, the sets are easier to build if you don’t know how to use computers, and stop-motion techniques have seriously advanced. You can still do some great stuff with stop-motion with minimum money and maximum time, but outside of atmosphere and homage there really isn’t anything stop-motion does special from other methods of storytelling.
Don’t get me wrong. I like stop-motion visually. Patrick Boivin and The Lazy Eyebrow up there are YouTube channels I subscribe to. It is however the most time consuming and is more visual than story. I don’t want to see the format ever go away, but as an honest examination that’s all stop-motion is when it comes to the art of storytelling…a neat visual aesthetic.