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