The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation: History of Stop-Motion Feature Films: Part 3
In production at the same time as Edison and Leo was another stop-motion feature with a very adult sensibility, an Israeli/Australian production called $9.99 (Figure 1.39), directed by Tatia Rosenthal. Rosenthal was born in Israel and is now based in New York, where she studied animation at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts. (The influence of her studies definitely made its way into $9.99; she based the design of one of her puppet characters after the Tisch School’s head of animation, Oscar-winning animator/historian John Canemaker.) Prior to her feature, Rosenthal had made two stop-motion shorts—Crazy Glue and A Buck’s Worth—in collaboration with Israeli writer Etgar Keret. The latter film consisted of a tense dialogue scene between a businessman and a homeless man, which served as the basis for what would become $9.99.
Armed with a low budget, 5 months of pre-production began in Australia in August 2006. Production began in 2007, shooting with digital still cameras and a small crew of animators for 40 weeks, and post-production was completed afterward in Israel. Using naturalistic puppets of humans made from silicone, the feature consists of several interweaving stories surrounding several tenants in a Sydney apartment complex. The thematic elements of the various characters’ encounters are tied through the common thread of 28-year-old David Peck, who is reading through a book claiming to explain “the meaning of life, yours for only $9.99.” The existential script walks a fine line between fantasy and reality, and although it has the feeling of a live-action film, it is presented in a fashion that has much more resonance through being animated.
Rosenthal referred to the style dictated by Keret’s stories as “magical realism,” which lent itself well to the stop-motion medium. Certain elements of the film, like a young boy dreaming up intricate shadow puppets on his bedroom wall and another character portrayed as a winged angel, would have stuck out as effects gimmicks in a live-action film, but through an entirely stop-motion universe, they fit much better, with a style all their own. The puppet characters are realistic in their movements, but stylized enough to present themselves as more impressionistic and symbolic to the philosophical musings of the screenplay. Overall, the film is very unique, bringing a fresh, mature approach to stop-motion among the more caricatured mainstream offerings geared more toward kids. Several noted Australian actors, like Geoffrey Rush, also lent their voice talents to the film. $9.99 premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, and the following year began to find its way into theaters and festivals, picking up positive reviews and awards along the way.
Australia was not only home to the production of $9.99, but also Adam Elliot’s feature Mary and Max (Figure 1.40). Elliot was already established as a successful figure in the independent animation scene, with several short films and an Oscar to his credit. While studying animation at the Victoria College of the Arts in 1996, he made a strange 6-minute biographical clay animation short called Uncle, which was a surprise hit at several festivals. Elliot’s signature style brought forth in his film consisted of very limited animation of clay characters, who often stared blankly at the camera, and shooting in black and white. A low, deadpan narration told the story behind the tragic lives of these plasticine characters in a matter that is unsettling yet very touching. The power of Elliot’s films lies in the brilliant writing, combined with funny character design and a blend of humor and melancholy. Uncle was followed by a series of short films executed in the same style of dark, dry wit: one called Cousin, another called Brother, and finally the 22-minute epic Harvie Krumpet, which would take home the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2003.