The evolution of stop-motion animation
As much as I enjoy Shia LaBeouf’s delightful and unfathomable appearances outside of the silver screen (the “Just Do It” video comes to mind), there’s one performance in his career that I think really takes the cake. And it is found in the ill-fated fourth installment of Indiana Jones: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
In one breath-taking scene, we pan to him swinging on vines with what is obviously fake CGI monkeys. Pitted against a severe looking, black-haired Cate Blanchett. The unreality of this scene hits home in the same way that Tommy Wiseau’s lines in The Room do. Barely believable to the point that it is enjoyable.
Now you might be wondering how Shia LaBeouf is anyway related to stop-motion, let alone the “death” of stop motion animation.
You might be inclined to think that Shia LaBeouf is just one of the many actors who star in CGI films, and that ultimately CGI films are the main culprit in causing the death of stop motion animation. Whether it be a fully animated CGI film like the recent Grinch, or used as a part of the overall film for example Avengers: Infinity War, CGI is the animation of choice when it comes to the blockbusters of our age.
And that assessment is partially true.
It’s easy for us to criticise the oversaturation of CGI in mainstream films, but there’s an undeniable draw to it that trumps stop-motion every time. It consistently brings in bigger crowds than stop-motion animation. Even the numbers of the biggest stop motion film of the decade, Chicken Run dwarfs in comparison to the Minions film; 225 million and 1.15 billion USD respectively.
Used for the aesthetic look of the film and appreciated only by those who already have an appreciation for it, stop-motion is often seen as a dying art.
But is it really the case?
If we look to stop motions supposed peak before CGI, we would find that the reality is not so simple.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, stop-motion was used to catapult audiences to the far flung vistas of the beyond, animating the fantastic and the bombastic. Though we associate stop-motion animation with more niche and smaller narratives nowadays, in its heyday, stop-motion became a gateway to another world. Feature films like King Kong (1933) and The Lost World (1925) (the spiritual precursor to Jurassic Park), brought audiences to alternate universes where the impossible was possible. At times, these re-animated beasts would take centre stage but stop motion was never meant to be the main draw. Stop motion served wherever the story needed it to be, and what the story needed to be was an escape from the melancholic reality of the outside world.
To see stop-motion as a solely insular artform is not only wrong but reductive. The malleability of stop-motion animation is one of its strongest strengths. This can be seen in march of AT-AT walkers against the rebel base of Hoth in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Initially the plan featured a robot that would articulate the movement required for the scene. But this idea wasn’t very cost-effective and it would have complicated the process.
Under the helm of Dennis Muren and Phil Tippett, a different route was found. Having backgrounds in stop-motion animation, the pair made the AT-AT walkers in this style. The AT-AT walkers were built large enough for animators to grapple and manipulate specific parts in isolation, and with subtlety. The background was then painted to appear photo-realistic and the ground was dusted with baking powder. The end result speaks for itself.
A more niche example exists in Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom. Though it features very little stop-motion, the technique was used in animating parts of the mine-cart chase sequence. Stop motion here was first and foremost a tool for the narrative.
As for fully animated stop-motion films i.e. ones without live-action actors, their status as these film gems is nothing new. They have always existed as a niche in the film community, much like art house films. Stop-motion never claimed to be big blockbuster successes like Shrek was in the 2000s, but that doesn’t mean that they are restrained by that standard. Chicken Run being an example.
Now, it is true that CGI however has taken over the mainstream medium of animation, but the very core of stop-motion is the same as CGI. To carry the story. And just as films of the past used stop-motion as a tool, so too can CGI be used as a tool in stop-motion animation.
To pit one medium against another is not only a futile exercise, but an error. In this case CGI may perhaps be one of the most powerful tools that a stop-motion film can employ. This is glimpsed at in Laika’s creation, Kubo and Two Strings, where CGI was used to form landscapes and backgrounds, and special effects that can’t always be achieved by using stop-motion animation. CGI extends their reach.
But this isn’t a one way street. The possibilities of CGI drawing from stop-motion animation can be seen in the wonderful Lego Movie. Although mostly CGI, backgrounds were made in real life, and the directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord drew their inspiration from Brick Films. In essence, short stop-motion videos using Lego figures as their subjects. Animators painstakingly analysed how these Lego figures moved, and added details like oil marks, breaks in the brick and dandruff to give these Legos a well worn, well loved look. By mimicking stop-motion, it made the film feel fresh and new.
Alongside other methods, technology such as 3-D printing is advancing stop-motion. In the animation company Laika, boxes of faces are printed and catalogued by the hundreds, allowing a freedom of expression and time devoted to these films. Microwaving CDs for textures and the use of real human hair combed with silicone to create moveable hair is also on par with Laika’s standards in order to achieve something visually arresting. Laika as a studio are carving a new path with stop-motion animation.
So is stop motion a dying art?