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Book Review: 'Basics Animation: Stop-Motion'

An acclaimed director gains even more insight from a master, Barry Purves.

Barry Purves reveals how stop-motion is a vital form for telling certain kinds of stories. Image courtesy of AVA Books.

Barry Purves reveals how stop-motion is a vital form for telling certain kinds of stories. Image courtesy of AVA Books.

Basics: Animation: Stop-motion Animation (the latest in AVA Academia's Basics: Animation series). What a cool book to get in the mail! All about the art of stop-motion filmmaking (my most favorite form of animation in the whole wide world). And how cool to see that this wasn't just any old book about stop-motion, this was written and compiled by none other than stop-motion legend Barry Purves! How amazing is that? If you don't know his name, you certainly know his work, and if you haven't seen his films, you absolutely should. Of all the stop-motion filmmakers that could sit down and write such a book on the craft, I think it is safe to assume from watching his very delicate and intricate films that Mr. Purves could potentially be the most thorough, knowledgeable and entertaining one of all to write on the subject. Well, in cracking it open, I was happy to find that I wasn't mistaken one bit.

Being the self-centered bastard that I am, I started by thumbing through the entire book, looking for images from my short films, hoping that I had made the grade. I looked through twice (no index), but I couldn't find any mention of me! I was very depressed. Either this book sucks, which couldn't possibly be true coming from Mr. Barry Purves, or the great Mr. Barry Purves hates my films! But then I remembered that I had been in touch with him a while back when he was putting this book together, and he said he was interested in MORE, but I never actually got a chance to submit any stills to him for possible inclusion. Well, now I deeply regret it.

What is extraordinary about this book is that it isn't a "how-to" book full of technical illustrations on armature construction and whatnot (there are many of those already); instead, it is an amazingly in-depth and thorough dissection of the philosophical challenges and choices that one must make when going about making a film, whether it is utilizing stop-motion animation, or otherwise. I wish I had a book like this when I was starting out, because what Mr. Purves writes about is not only a fine introduction to the craft, but also a compilation of the kind of wisdom and insight that one can usually only gain over a very long period of time making films. And Mr. Purves' ability to boil things down to a few essential sentences on such matters as: Point of View, The Illusion of Movement and Making It 'Read,' is why this book is an interesting read as well enlightening.

To say this book is a perfect companion for anyone interested in stop-motion at any level is a tremendous understatement. Even by taking just a cursory glance through the pages, you will find that the wide range of photographic examples alone make this book a must have. There are images from films I loved that inspired me (Balance), and many I had forgotten about (Quest) or never seen before that look amazingly intriguing (Gargoyle). The examples cited in the book offer not only give historical context but they showcasing obscure examples of the art to help make the case for every point Purves makes.

What is quite astonishing is that Mr. Purves clearly takes the same methodical approach and delicate care to the pages of this book as he does with his films. An iconic and prolific filmmaker, Purves could write several volumes just about his own amazing body of work. For him to generously include dozens and dozens of other filmmakers and films shows his true passion for the medium.

As a filmmaker that has made my own films in stop-motion, it is a pleasure to read about a fellow filmmaker's approach as well as his personal experiences in the craft. I find there is always more to learn, and I couldn't argue with anything Purves sets forward. As someone who has previously been a teacher in the medium, I am very excited to find a book that would make for a perfect textbook should I ever teach again. And as a filmmaker that has tried off and on for the last decade to raise money for a stop-motion feature, this book is a real shot in the arm. You see, every studio exec in Hollywood either sees the medium as dead, dying or only useful to service an extremely severe niche with its aesthetic suited only for creepy films. It is refreshing to be reminded so profoundly that this is so untrue, with so many vastly different examples of how stop-motion has been utilized throughout the years, and how vital it is for telling certain stories. Purvis' section about Texture and Lighting was especially interesting to read, reminding me how much I missed the real world feeling that is present and created for you "for free" when you build everything. CG works so hard to emulate the physical reality of the world we are all so used to, and no matter how far the technology gets us, it will never truly compete. To celebrate this and clearly define why this is so, is one of the reasons I love this book.

What is also very interesting is that Mr. Purves treats the medium with such respect that he rightly takes the time to detail not only the specifics of stop-motion, but also the specifics of what makes an animated film "animated." I even dare say that vast sections of the book will also be useful to anyone attempting to tell any kind of story on film, in any medium. Purvis gives such well rounded advice as:

"...if there is a wild and frantic piece of animation to be choreographed it helps to counterbalance this with a gentile, more controlled piece of animation elsewhere in the frame. This is no different to playing the piano. The right hand usually does the more animated parts, while the left hand plods along, lending a solid grounding to the piece. Take away the beat, or through line, of the left hand and the right hands seems less focused."

Simple and true. I have never heard this example before, but it makes perfect sense and I'm gonna start using it.

And in addition to giving a comprehensive overview of what kind of thinking must go into your production, Mr. Purves poses very important questions throughout to inspire original thought, such as:

"Has the main character got an interesting way of revealing his inner thoughts quite naturally, rather than just saying what he feels?" Purves goes on to use Balance (a seminal film for me) as an example of a "film that uses a succinct visual metaphor for a very human dilemma." Not a word is spoken in that film, but the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters are perfectly conveyed, and those puppets never even change their expressions!  "Show don't tell" is something that every animated filmmaker strives for, and it is through examples like this that I believe this book is a must read. It not only feels like a real peek behind the curtain of what is typically more of a relatively private practice, but it also lays out a whole bunch of good common sense about a very time consuming process that absolutely must be efficient or you will end up driving yourself quite mad. It is always best to think things through, and with this book you certainly will have cause to think through all aspects of your project, no matter what stage you are at.

In my experience, I have found that collaboration is one of the greatest creative processes and it is the true reason why filmmaking is such a rewarding experience and animation filmmaking even more so. I always get a tremendous amount from others around me, whether they are peers, subordinates or others higher up the chain of command. But there is nothing better than gaining real wisdom from someone who has been in the same boat you want to command. To have that someone be one of the finest and most dedicated commanders, is certainly a real treat. Thank you, Mr. Purves!

Mark Osborne co-directed DreamWorks Animation's Oscar-nominated Kung Fu Panda with John Stevenson. His acclaimed short, More, examined mid-life crisis, reawakening the "fire in the belly" and the perils of seeking success, garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short. Osborne earned his BFA in experimental animation from CalArts, where he later returned as an instructor for advanced stop-motion filmmaking. He currently has various personal projects in the works, and was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to assist in the production of his latest stop-motion short.