'The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation': History of Stop-Motion Feature Films: Part 2

In the second excerpt from chapter one of The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation, Ken A. Priebe extends his history of stop-motion features to international releases.

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Elsewhere in the world, stop-motion features continued to make appearances and impacts on the medium. The first full-length puppet feature to come out of Israel was Joseph the Dreamer (Figure 1.12) in 1961, based on the biblical story from Genesis about Joseph and his brothers. The film was directed by Yoram Gross, who began making experimental films based on Joseph’s dream sequences, and the results inspired him to make a feature version. He issued a press release announcing his intentions for the project, which drew the attention of puppet-maker John Byle and illustrator John Burningham. They agreed to collaborate and fashioned stylized puppets out of rubber with wire armatures. Actors from Israel’s Habima National Theatre provided the voices, and the film was primarily photographed and animated by Gross and his wife Alina, working mostly during the cooler nighttime hours over a period of 2 years. Joseph the Dreamer was scored by Eddie Halperin and the Kol Radio Orchestra, and its premiere was opened by Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. It went on to screen at Cannes and won several international film prizes. Today, Yoram Gross still produces animated entertainment and has released Joseph the Dreamer on DVD for new generations to enjoy (http://www.yoramgrossfilms.com.au).

[Figure 1.12] Production still from Joseph the Dreamer. (© 1961, Yoram Gross Films.)

The Magic Roundabout was a French TV series by Serge Danot that gained great popularity in the late ’60s, even more so in the U.K. In 1970 a feature based on the series was released in France called Pollux et le Chat Bleu (with the English version, Dougal and the Blue Cat, released in the U.K. in 1972). Written and directed by Eric Johnson, the film tells about an evil blue cat named Buxton, who enters the ruins of an old treacle factory, crowns himself king, and unleashes an epidemic of blueness upon the land. It becomes up to Dougal and his friends from the Magic Garden to defeat Buxton’s plans and restore color to their world. The Magic Roundabout and its subsequent feature version had long since gained a reputation for its rumored underlying subtexts related to political, societal, and drug-related references. The epidemic of blueness was read as a metaphor for conservatism by some, and many people have mulled over the meaning behind scenes involving magic mushrooms and other hallucinatory images. Whether or not this was all intentional, Dougal and the Blue Cat is certainly a product of its time and is still enjoyable for its strangeness, surrealism, quirky animation, and appealing designs.

[Figure 1.13] Ivo Caprino (center) and crew on the set of Flaklypa Grand Prix. (© 1975, Caprino Studios.)

[Figure 1.13] Ivo Caprino (center) and crew on the set of Flaklypa Grand Prix. (© 1975, Caprino Studios.)

The 1970s also brought a very significant original stop-motion feature to Norway called Flaklypa Grand Prix (known as Pinchcliffe Grand Prix in its U.K. release version), which has become a national treasure with a huge cult following. Director Ivo Caprino had begun making short films and commercials with both live-action and stop-motion puppets in 1948. He had much support from his artistic parents; his mother would end up helping him build puppets and sets. Caprino continued making films into the ’50s and ’60s that captured elements of European folk tales and short stories with delightful puppet characters. His first feature film produced in 1959, Ugler i Mosen (Owls in the Marsh), was mostly live action, with some stop-motion sequences. His second feature project, about the Norwegian writer Peter Christen Asbjornsen, was never realized because of a lack of funds. Instead, it was adapted into a series of short films through the 1960s. Caprino began working on a half-hour television special in 1970 that was based on the books of cartoonist Kjell Aukrust. The special was ultimately abandoned because of difficulties in adapting the material into a short format, but many of the sets and puppets were used for what became a full-length feature. The feature took more than 3 years to make and had a very small crew of set builders and cameramen, with Caprino directing and animating (Figures 1.13 and 1.14).

[Figure 1.14] Ivo Caprino and crew on the exterior set of Flaklypa Grand Prix. (© 1975, Caprino Studios.)

Flaklypa Grand Prix tells the story of an inventor named Reodor Felgen (U.K. version: Theodore Rimspoke), who lives quietly on a hilltop with his assistants: a bird named Solan Gundersen (U.K. version: Sonny Duckworth) and a hedgehog named Ludvig (U.K. version: Lambert). The trio (Figure 1.15) teams up with an Arab sheik to build an amazing race car named “Il Tempo Gigante” to compete in a Grand Prix race against their rival, the villainous Rudolf Blodstrupmoen. Highlights of the film include the complex Rube Goldberg–type contraptions in Felgen’s house, a delightful ragtime band number at the race’s opening ceremony, and the Grand Prix race itself. The race is incredibly exciting and beautifully edited, as the camera speeds along behind the cars through the elaborate miniature sets of the winding countryside race track (Figure 1.16). On many levels, the film is fun to watch and works brilliantly in terms of the set design and characterizations of the puppets.

[Figure 1.15] Reodor Felgen, Solan Gundersen, and Ludvig of Flaklypa Grand Prix. (© 1975, Caprino Studios.)

Flaklypa Grand Prix was released on August 28, 1975, and became the most successful Norwegian film ever made, selling more than 5.5 million tickets in a country with a population of only 4.5 million. It has enjoyed similar success in Denmark, Russia, Japan, the U.K., and elsewhere. It has been translated into 14 languages and traditionally runs on Norwegian television every Christmas Eve. The feature continues to inspire a devoted fan base, and after Ivo Caprino’s death in 2001, a PC video game based on the film was produced by Caprino’s son Remo and grandson Mario. The family maintains a website for Caprino Studios (http://www.caprino.no) and has released these wonderful puppet films on DVD.

[Figure 1.16] Shooting the race scenes from Flaklypa Grand Prix. (© 1975, Caprino Studios.)

The late ’70s was a tumultuous time for the animation industry in general—many of the old studios had shut down, and most of the work being done was cheap Saturday morning fare for television. The most significant film to come out during this time was unquestionably Star Wars in 1977, which inspired a new revolution in using stop-motion for special effects into the next decade. Amidst the science-fiction spectacle of the time, cartoony puppet features did not have much chance to stand out and were faced with limited commercial success. As a precursor to a trend that became very popular throughout the 1980s, in some cases TV series were adapted into big-screen feature versions. A popular European stop-motion TV star from the late ’60s and early ’70s who appeared on the big screen was Colargol, a little bear who wants to sing and travel around the world. The Adventures of Colargol was a Polish/French series animated by Tadeusz Wilkosz at the Se-Ma-For Studio; it became known as Barnaby in the U.K. and Jeremy the Bear in Canada. Unlike Dougal and the Blue Cat, which was an original feature based on a series, the Colargol features were simply episodes from the TV series strung together as one story. Three of these adapted features were released in Poland: Colargol na Dzikim Zachodzie (Colargol in the Wild West, 1976), Colargol Zdobywcą Kosmosu (Colargol, Conqueror of Space, 1978; Figure 1.17) and Colargol i Cudowna Walizka (Colargol and the Magic Suitcase, 1979).

[Figure 1.17] Polish movie poster for Colargol,

Conqueror of Space, Se-Ma-For Studio, 1978.

In 1979, there was also a very limited theatrical run of another extremely bizarre puppet feature from Japan. Takeo Nakamura, an animator on Rankin/Bass’ TV special Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) afterward partnered with the Sanrio Studio (creators of Hello Kitty) in 1975. He spent the next 4 years directing a feature called Nutcracker Fantasy, which was loosely based on the famous Peter Tchaikovsky ballet and a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The influence from working with Rankin/Bass was certainly not lost on Nakamura; the puppet designs were similar enough to make many people mistake it for a Rankin/Bass production, although it certainly was not. The film opens with a terrifying sequence telling the bedside story of the “Ragman,” who creeps into children’s beds at night and turns them into mice. This leads into the story of a young girl named Clara (voiced by Melissa Gilbert in the English dub), who is given a nutcracker doll by her strange Uncle Drosselmeyer (voiced by Christopher Lee). She then slips into a fever-induced dream state where she goes into battle against the evil Queen Morphia, a giant two-headed mouse, and the queen’s entire mouse army. The various plot twists involving a king, a spooky fortune teller, and a heroic warrior named Franz are mixed with live-action ballet scenes, more incredibly disturbing mice sequences, and an extremely trippy “land of happy times” sequence that defies all description. After its very brief run in theaters, Nutcracker Fantasy was released to video and a few cable television airings, which was enough to traumatize plenty of children throughout the early ’80s. The opening “Ragman” sequence surfaced on YouTube and prompted a few nostalgic viewer comments about how it had scarred them for life.

The puppets in all of these early feature films were typically crafted out of foam latex, plastic, wood, fabric, or other rubber materials. The use of modeling clay as a material for creating puppets and sets began in several experimental stop-motion films in the 1910s and 1920s, then faded into obscurity for several decades. It would not be explored again until Art Clokey brought his iconic Gumby character to television in the 1950s, and it was further brought into popularity by Aardman Animations and Will Vinton in the 1970s. Nobody had attempted to use clay animation in a feature-length format until a company named Stowmar Enterprises embarked on an animated version of Walt Kelly’s popular comic strip Pogo. The production rights for Pogo were arranged in partnership with Walt Kelly’s widow Selby by executive producer Kerry Stowell and screenwriter/director Marc Paul Chinoy. Armed with a $2 million budget, they went into production on a clay-animation feature called I Go Pogo from 1979 to 1980. Also involved in the early stages of the company were Charlie and Stephen Chiodo, a team of brothers from New York who had grown up making their own animated films. I Go Pogo was produced in Arlington Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C., and production was set up in an office space in the Crystal City’s Crystal Underground shopping mall. At one point, they had a storefront area where the character-fabrication department was situated; although the windows were covered in paper for the sake of privacy, one face-sized hole was cut into the door. Crew members called this storefront area “the fish tank,” and mall shoppers would discover on their own that an animated feature was secretly being made inside.

[Figure 1.18] Animator Kent Burton working on a scene from I Go Pogo. (© Possum Productions/Walt Kelly Estate.)

The Pogo production was a starting point for many animators still working in the industry today, including Steve Oakes, who would become head of Curious Pictures in New York, and Justin Kohn, Kim Blanchette, and Kent Burton (Figure 1.18), who all worked most recently on Coraline. Blanchette was a university student at the time, and the rest of the crew was largely made up of other local artists, students, and amateur animators. Stephen Chiodo served as director of animation, designed the clay puppets, and supervised the many aspects of production. All of the scenery was made of Polyform Sculpey, and the puppets were a sophisticated combination of malleable plasticine clay for flexibility and painted ridged Sculpey parts for non-moving accessories. Press molds were made for creating the basic shape of the clay character, which would then be finessed with smoothing tools and texture stamps. Albert the Alligator, for instance, had a stomach plate pressed from a rubber mold that maintained the fine detail while the clay body was flexed. A genuine attempt was made to keep the surfaces of the characters smooth and hide the lumpy texture and fingerprints made by the animator; the sets were kept severely air conditioned to help keep the clay from softening too much. An attempt was made to market the film’s technique as “Flexiform,” but it was actually nothing more than clay combined with other standard sculpting materials. For the sets, trees were made of plaster casts from rubber molds, foliage from plastic craft-store arrangements, and reeds made of sheet copper. The sky backdrops were made of giant milked Plexiglas sheets covered with blue gels that were illuminated from behind and had shapes cut out of them for clouds. The characters’ plain white eyeballs were cast in resin and steel wool, and the pupils were separate pieces of rubber strip magnets. These magnetized pupils would stick to the steel wool in the eyes just forcefully enough that they could be lightly pushed around the surface of the eyes for movement. Another innovative technique used on the film was wax replacement cycles built for walking sequences, some of which were shot as silhouettes against the back-lit sky backgrounds.

[Figure 1.19] Deacon Mushrat in a cut scene from I Go Pogo. (© Possum Productions/Walt Kelly Estate.)

The film’s story consisted of the comic strip’s regular cast of characters preparing for the Okefenokee Swamp’s election and conspiring to nominate the reluctant Pogo Possum as a presidential candidate. The voice cast was an impressive line-up of popular comedic talent, including Jonathan Winters, Ruth Buzzi, Vincent Price, and Stan Freberg. The film itself was very heavy on dialogue, but the animation team tried to enliven the screenplay with some visual gags. Stephen Chiodo recalls:

In an opening sequence featuring Mr. Mole and the Deacon chatting in a cave, I animated a great scene of the Deacon leaping off a table onto a stalactite (Figure 1.19), which then crashed down onto the table. I also did a 20-second shot of Albert the Alligator (Figure 1.20), who gets his finger stuck in a knothole, and then his entire head, with his head squishing and popping through. But the director, Marc Chinoy, cut out those visual gags and left in all the heavy dialogue scenes.

[Figure 1.20] A production still of puppets from I Go Pogo. (© Possum Productions/Walt Kelly Estate.)

After Pogo wrapped in 1980, the Chiodo brothers packed up and moved to California, eventually working on Tim Burton’s early films and starting their own studio. The rest of the crew scattered as well to further make their mark on the filmmaking world.

[Figure 1.21] Promotional material for the Fotomat video release of I Go Pogo. (© Possum Productions/Walt Kelly Estate.)

Despite a modest marketing campaign in the papers and on television, I Go Pogo did not get the proper theatrical release that was intended through 21st Century Distribution. It was instead quietly released directly to VHS and Betamax videotape as an exclusive title for Fotomat (Figure 1.21), and the tapes were sold through their photo pick-up shacks in parking lots. It was picked up for another video release as Pogo for President by Walt Disney Home Video in the early ’80s and aired a few times on HBO. (A few edits were made to different video and television releases—for example, Chiodo’s knothole sequence added back into the Disney version.) Despite these brief appearances, the film has since faded into obscurity. Although it was well animated and had some very funny sequences, many fans of the original Pogo strip feel that the film did not capture the essence of the characters or the political satire to its full potential, and that it was largely bogged down by too much dialogue. The Stowmar producers did not continue into other animation ventures, but their Pogo feature did at least provide a launching pad for many in the creative department and provided an interesting footnote in the canon of Kelly’s beloved creations.

[Figure 1.22] A scene from The Adventures of Mark Twain. (© Will Vinton Productions.)

Clay animation finally made its way to movie screens a few years later, in 1985, when Oscar-winning animator (and founder of the term “Claymation”) Will Vinton created his first Claymation feature film, The Adventures of Mark Twain (entitled Comet Quest in the U.K.). Vinton’s studio in Portland, Oregon, had already made a big name for itself producing award-winning short films that pushed clay animation to a level of filmmaking. The Vinton style was that everything on screen was made of clay, from puppets to props and sets. Animator Barry Bruce had refined Vinton’s signature style for fluid lip sync and clay morphing, and techniques for clay painting on glass were developed by Joan Gratz. These animated methods were all brought to fruition and further development in their first feature, which told the story of Mark Twain himself (Figure 1.22) traveling in a magical zeppelin to meet his destiny with the arrival of Halley’s Comet in 1910. Tagging along with him on his journey were his own characters Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher, who explore the many secret passages of his flying machine and encounter many surreal adventures. Most surreal of these is a terrifying sequence based on Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, where Satan appears to the children in a morphing Noh theater mask. As Twain recounts some of his other works like “The Diaries of Adam & Eve” and “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the film switches gears to illustrate these particular tales with more inspired Claymation. Many of the techniques used on previous short films needed to be streamlined for to be more efficient because of the feature-length format. Multiple copies of characters were cast out of molds, stronger armatures were developed, and replacement systems were developed for lip sync, including the mustache of Twain himself. The Adventures of Mark Twain was praised by many animation enthusiasts for its inventive visuals and was an important step toward bringing the clay medium from its familiar short formats into a more epic scope for the big screen.

Elsewhere in the world, other stop-motion features were released to small audiences and festivals for limited releases throughout the 1980s. Rennyo and His Mother was the first feature-length film by Kihachiro Kawamoto in Japan, released in October 1981. It captured in puppet animation an ancient legend of the figure of Rennyo, who restored Shin Buddhism to Japan as a promise to his mother, who had disappeared when he was a child. In 1982, Otto Fotky in Hungary produced a stop-motion feature called The Adventures of Sam the Squirrel, and the same year saw a Czech puppet feature of Robinson Crusoe and a stop-motion mixed media feature from France called Chronopolis, a surreal science-fiction epic.

In the U.K., Cosgrove Hall Studios was making a strong name for itself in creating animated content, mostly for television. Amidst the many shows the studio produced, it scored one of its biggest hits with the stop-motion feature adaptation of The Wind in the Willows in 1983, based on Kenneth Grahame’s classic book. The film followed the book’s adventures of the characters Mole, Rat, and Badger in their attempts to rein in the wild antics of Mr. Toad. A highlight of the feature was the incredible amount of detail that was crafted into the miniature sets and puppets. Patterns for kitchen crockery and magazines were created in miniscule scale to create the atmosphere described in the original book. Each puppet was constructed in latex over delicately constructed ball-and-socket armatures, including mechanisms for very subtle facial expressions. Part of the team behind The Wind in the Willows would be the first collaboration between Peter Saunders and Ian MacKinnon, who teamed up to eventually form the world’s premier puppet-fabrication studio for countless other productions. Also part of the small animation team was Barry Purves (Figure 1.23), who would later go on to be an award-winning key player in British animation himself. The Wind in the Willows was a huge critical success and went on to win a BAFTA, an Emmy, and many other awards. A stop-motion TV series based on the film continued from 1984 to 1987, as well as a spin-off series and TV feature centered more on the adventures of Mr. Toad.

[Figure 1.23] Animator Barry Purves on set of The Wind in the Willows series. (© Cosgrove Hall Films.)

Although the original Willows film was the only feature production meant for theaters, Cosgrove Hall also created a stop-motion movie for television called The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship in 1990. This exquisite film won another Emmy and many other awards for the studio. Another stop-motion production from the same time period was Truckers, which originated as an episodic TV serial, but was later re-edited and packaged as a feature version. Truckers was based on a popular novel by fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, about a race of tiny people called Nomes and their journey of survival through stowing away on humans’ trucks. One of the lead animators for the series was Paul Berry, who later directed the short film The Sandman and would go on to work on The Nightmare Before Christmas.

In the former East Germany, a couple of stop-motion features (and many more shorts) were produced in the 1980s by a studio named DEFA, with direction by Gunter Ratz. A feature called Die Fliegende Windmühle (The Flying Windmill), based on a book by Guenther Feustel, was released in 1982. This colorful film is about a little girl named Olli who receives a bad grade in school and runs away from home, ending up going on an adventure in a flying windmill with a dog, a horse, and a mad scientist. The film was interpreted by some as socialist propaganda disguised as a children’s film. Whether this is valid or not, the film has a cult following among those who remembered it from childhood. Ratz directed another feature to East German theaters called Die Spur Führt Zum Silbersee (The Trace Leads to the Silver Lake). It was essentially in the style of an American western and based on a book by Karl May, who was famous for western stories written in the 1890s. This animated version was closer to the original book than a live-action version that had been produced in the 1960s. Like typical Hollywood western films, the historical elements of the stop-motion Silbersee feature were not completely accurate, given that May had never visited the U.S., and East Germany did not receive exposure to these westerns for several decades. Following a limited East German theatrical run in 1989, the film was aired on public television to all of Germany following the Berlin Wall collapse in 1990. It was first aired as five episodes over the Christmas season, and would be shown a year later in one piece. The poor box office for its initial release scrapped Ratz’s plans for another feature called The Ghost of Llano Estacado.

Czechoslovakia brought one of its most notorious feature films to the screen in 1988, directed by another one of the country’s most famous directors, Jan Svankmajer. It was a stop-motion/live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, simply titled Alice. While still based on the classic Lewis Carroll story, it is decidedly more surreal even than Lou Bunin’s version and the polar opposite of Disney’s. Svankmajer’s vision was to adapt the tale with nightmarish imagery, including puppets made of socks, living animal skulls, taxidermy specimens, and animated meat. One of the most disturbing and iconic images from the film is the introduction of the White Rabbit, made from a real stuffed rabbit, who pulls his pocketwatch out of his chest cavity and leaks sawdust. Alice became a cult classic and inspired a whole genre of surrealist stop-motion with dark themes and found object animation.

[Figure 1.24] Clair de Lune, a main character from Bino Fabule. (© CineGroupe.)

Also in 1988, there was a bizarre stop-motion/live-action science-fiction feature that came out of Montreal. It was called Bino Fabule, named after the title character (played by Italian actor Pietro Pizzuti), who was the only live actor within a cast of stop-motion puppets. Bino is a scientist from the planet Karmagor who lives with his astrophysicist turtle sidekick, Torticoli. He dreams of being able to fly and discovers a magical crescent-shaped character named Claire de Lune (Figure 1.24) who flies in a crystal spaceship. Claire de Lune escapes from Bino when he tries to steal her flying powers, and she crash lands on another planet inhabited by a cast of living pots, pans, and weird alien creatures (Figures 1.25 and 1.26). One of the alien leaders, Potassium, becomes jealous of Claire de Lune’s powers and attempts to destroy her. Meanwhile, Bino and Torticoli follow the activities on the planet with their video radar system, and through a series of other adventures ultimately end up saving Claire de Lune and the alien planet from destruction.

[Figure 1.25] One of the large stop-motion sets for Bino Fabule. (© CineGroupe.)

Bino Fabule was originally conceived as a possible television series by director Rejeanne Tailon, but the project eventually landed enough funding to develop it into a feature film. It took nearly 2 years of persuasion by producer Jacque Pettigrew to finance the project, which was finally made through the CineGroupe production house in Montreal, with co-production by studios in Belgium and France. The live-action sequences were all shot in Belgium, along with a live-action Torticoli puppet that came from the French studio. The crude live-action puppet was used in the background or edges of the frame whenever he shared the screen with Bino, but when Torticoli was on screen by himself, he was a stop-motion puppet. Line producer Andre A. Belanger (now head of Spectra Animation Studios) organized the flow of studio production in Montreal, where all of the stop-motion sequences were shot. Bill Maylone was in charge of making lead wire armatures and molding the puppets, which were made of silicone rubber with replacement eyes and mouths. Most of the fabricators and animators had very little experience with stop-motion, but a unique feature of the production was the camera they used to shoot it. Technician Andre de Tonnancour created a custom-made movie camera out of a Nikon 35mm still camera with a film magazine attachment that could hold 100 feet of film. This camera was small enough to be placed on a large boom dolly for sweeping camera moves through the miniature sets, very much like today’s frequent use of digital SLR cameras to achieve the same effect. Ironically, with this technical innovation, the production of this futuristic science-fiction film provided a glimpse into the future of using small still cameras for stop-motion. Unfortunately, it did not do much for the film itself, which did not perform well in its theatrical release. The film was later broadcast on television in its full length and also broken up into three episodic half-hours, but it has since faded into obscurity. It is definitely a strange film in the vein of many other science-fiction cult movies of the ’80s era, and the designs and effects have a very interesting quality to them.

[Figure 1.26] A cast of characters from Bino Fabule. (© CineGroupe.)

Up to this point, original full-length puppet features were a mixed bag of limited commercial successes, failures, and experiments that did not make much impact outside of a few enthusiasts and were otherwise virtually unknown or unreleased outside their countries of origin. But the 1980s to early 1990s was an interesting time for stop-motion, where many elements were coming together to set the stage for a major breakthrough in the puppet feature. The generation who grew up as kids in the 1950s and 1960s, being hooked on Rudolph, Gumby, re-issues of King Kong, and the Harryhausen film releases, began making their mark well into the 1970s and 1980s. Of the stop-motion enthusiasts who blazed trails in the 1980s, Phil Tippett would revolutionize the art of stop-motion creature effects, particularly through perfecting techniques for motion blur on The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Dragonslayer (1981).

It was during this same time period that Tim Burton and Henry Selick were both working at Disney, clearly disillusioned about the idea of “drawing cute foxes” for the 1981 feature The Fox and the Hound. The atmosphere at the studio was one of trying to move forward into new territories, but lacking the chemistry and confidence to push them far enough. After Selick left to pursue stop-motion films in the San Francisco Bay Area, Burton managed to make his stop-motion short Vincent (1982) at Disney and created concept art for a story titled The Nightmare Before Christmas, which remained owned by the studio and tucked away in its archives. As ground-breaking as Vincent was, circumstances caused Burton to leave the studio and go forth to change the face of filmmaking elsewhere (through Batman and other early features).

Meanwhile, Will Vinton’s Claymation specials and commercials helped create a boom of popularity in stop-motion clay animation in the late ’80s, and many clay animators honed their talent on the Saturday-morning show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. These popular shows helped set the stage for the original clay superstar Gumby to make his comeback in a new TV series. Art Clokey brought together a unique cross section of talent for his new show, and for many it was their first big break in the stop-motion world. The team of animators who came together on this show included Mike Belzer, Stephen Buckley, Angie Glocka, Tim Hittle, Eric Leighton, Lionel I. Orozco, Anthony Scott, Trey Thomas, and Richard Zimmerman.

This band of new talent would ultimately join forces with others on The Nightmare Before Christmas (Figure 1.27), which was given the green light by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures in 1990. Tim Burton chose his former Disney comrade Henry Selick to direct the film, based on his experience in stop-motion and brilliant attention to detail. It was a deeply personal project for Burton—a culmination of his love for the stop-motion specials he loved as a child and his story about Jack Skellington (Figure 1.28), the king of Halloween Town who decides to replace Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. At the heart of all the creepiness and nostalgic vibe to the film was a poignant love story between Jack and his admirer, Sally.

[Figure 1.27] Concept sketch of characters from The

Nightmare Before Christmas. (Courtesy of the Animazing
Gallery/Touchstone Pictures.)

Nightmare was produced in 40,000 square feet of warehouse space in the San Francisco Bay Area over a span of 3 years. This was the first time a stop-motion feature was produced with a high level of budget and wide range of experienced talent in the medium. Disney was back on top, animation was cool again, and stop-motion had been riding the wave of its first major golden age in all of its facets: clay, puppets, and creature effects. Nightmare combined nearly every puppet and filmmaking technique that had ever been used for stop-motion, including front/rear projection, double exposure effects, casting in foam latex, ball-and-socket armatures, replacement animation, and strong character performance. The production design was incredibly strong, and another unique feature was the extensive use of modern motion control to make the camera a moving part of the story. Topping it all off perfectly was an unforgettable score and songs by Danny Elfman, a regular collaborator on Tim Burton’s films.

At the same time as production was occurring on Nightmare, the film Jurassic Park was being produced with the intention of including the highest level of stop-motion dinosaur effects ever used. Tests in new breakthrough computer animation technology would ultimately nullify the use of stop-motion for the film and put the nail in the coffin for the creature-effects technique when released in the summer of 1993. However, The Nightmare Before Christmas, released later that year, proved that the idea of moving puppets frame by frame could finally work for a feature, and that it would still have a bright future ahead of it. Director of photography Pete Kozachik (see full interview with Pete in Chapter 5: Interview with Pete Kozachik, ASC) describes the significance of the film:

Nightmare came along at just the right time, and it was the show that managed to keep stop-motion from completely going away. There was a popular wisdom among the stop-motion effects geek community that we all wanted to do a full stop-motion feature, but nobody would take out a loan to finance it. The interest would mount up too much in this slow-moving process, whereas you can just do it much faster in live action and not go broke paying back the loan. But in this case, Disney put out enough money to produce what was initially supposed to be a low-budget stop-motion feature. A bunch of us got together and threw everything we had at it, figuring it would never happen again, so let’s make it something special. We spent 6 weeks just on the first shot (which was of Jack skiing down the snowy hills and onto a train in Christmas Town) and didn’t know how we were going to produce hundreds more shots to finish it, but we got there.

[Figure 1.28] Concept sketch of Jack Skellington

from The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Courtesy
of the Animazing Gallery/Touchstone Pictures.)

The success of Nightmare was strong in its initial release and only continued to grow in the coming years on DVD and beyond. It was unique for the time it was made and remains unique by today’s standards. Based on the unique vision and great pool of talent that were displayed in the film, Disney had instilled confidence in Henry Selick to direct a follow-up feature in stop-motion, James and the Giant Peach, based on the famous book by Roald Dahl. Many of the same crew members from Nightmare re-grouped to work on the new feature, including British animator Paul Berry as animation supervisor. Tim Burton was also involved as a producer, but James was a film that brought the design and personal style of Selick more to the forefront. Much like Selick’s earlier work for MTV, James combined elements of puppet animation with cut-outs, computer animation, and live action. From the outset, it seemed intended to be an experimental mix of mediums; the original idea was to combine a live actor as James throughout the whole film. This led to consideration of a completely stop-motion film, and it ended up being stop-motion framed by opening and closing live-action segments.

James and the Giant Peach is a delightful film with some outstanding visuals and inspired animation (including a cameo appearance by Jack Skellington), although it did not match the same level of success as Nightmare. Also, by the time of its release in 1996, audiences were still reeling from the new CG innovations by Pixar’s Toy Story and the wave of films inspired by Jurassic Park’s ground-breaking effects. Even Disney’s other traditional features of the time, Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), were coming off as formulaic to most, and audiences were beginning to drift into new areas of interest. The relationship between Disney’s company Miramax and Henry Selick also became strained, as plans for another feature called Toots and the Upside Down House were abandoned. Selick moved forward on a new stop-motion project based on a graphic novel called Dark Town, which was eventually re-named Monkeybone. Although that film contained some amazing stop-motion character sequences, the end result released in 2001 became more of a strange live-action film that did not fare well at the box office.

Amid this renaissance of computer-generated visuals and new ways to make movies, the stop-motion puppet feature continued its mixed bag of popular hits and other limited release obscurities. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb was a 1993 release from the U.K. directed by Dave Borthwick of bolexbrothers, which mixed puppet animation with pixilation of live actors. Tom Thumb himself is a sickly little puppet figure who escapes from an experimental science lab and embarks on a journey to return to his parents. The style of the film is gritty, surreal, and reminiscent of Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, and the darkest Czech films.

Ken A. Priebe has a BFA from University of Michigan and a classical animation certificate from Vancouver Institute of Media Arts (VanArts). He teaches stop-motion animation courses at VanArts and the Academy of Art University Cybercampus and has worked as a 2D animator on several games and short films for Thunderbean Animation, Bigfott Studios, and his own independent projects. Ken has participated as a speaker and volunteer for the Vancouver ACM SIGGRAPH Chapter and is founder of the Breath of Life Animation Festival, an annual outreach event of animation workshops for children and their families. He is also a filmmaker, writer, puppeteer, animation historian, and author of the book The Art of Stop-Motion Animation. Ken lives near Vancouver, BC, with his graphic-artist wife Janet and their two children, Ariel and Xander.

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