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